For dust you are, and unto dust you shall return – Genesis 3:19

A friend in her mid-eighties, who still manages to be the life and soul of any party she attends, gave a speech at a function where I was present.

I don’t remember the context, but she was relating an exchange she had had with her children, who were planning to reserve a burial plot for her beside her late husband.

“Do you want to lie on the right side of Poppa, or the left?” they asked her.

“You know what,” she told them, “surprise me!”

According to news reports last week, the two sons of a haredi man who died eight years ago were firmly opposed to any surprises or uncertainties.

Visiting their father’s grave in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria cemetery – where he had expressed a wish to be buried – they “suddenly saw that alongside their father were buried people [who might have been] Sabbath observers, but were certainly not strict as regards religious commandments” (quoted from the Be’hadrei Haredim news website).

The sons requested and subsequently received permission from “several leading rabbis” to exhume their father and rebury him on the Mount of Olives, acts which were carried out on August 2.

The late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who was one of the consenting rabbis, apparently based his opinion on the laws of burial as codified in the Shulchan Aruch, which rules that a righteous man should not be buried next to an evil one, or even one of average righteousness.

“According to the family,” read the report in The Jerusalem Post, “their father, who died at a young age, was renowned for his acts of charity and modesty.”

This news item left me with a strange mixture of incredulity, laced with outrage and a wry, black amusement at the mental image it conjured up of bodies being exhumed all over the place as a consequence of their descendants’ religious snobbery.

My overarching feeling on attending a Jewish funeral, aside from the inevitable sadness, is always one of deep appreciation of the level of respect, care and even tenderness shown the deceased during the funeral – which here in Jerusalem is held under the auspices of haredi burial societies.

That respect for the dead – called kvod hamet – begins with death and continues at every level, through the laying out of the body all the way to the cemetery and the interment.

Particularly touching for me is the traditional public appeal to the deceased for forgiveness for any hurt or offense, or if any part of the funeral arrangements was inadvertently lacking.

To then dig up a body that is resting in peace for the reason that those lying alongside might, when alive, have been less pious than the deceased... however meticulous the exhumation, isn’t there an indignity here that makes a mockery of the respect, care and tenderness shown in conducting the deceased to that original – as it turns out, not final – resting place?

His family lauded the father for his modesty (definition: “the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities”). Would a modest, unassuming Jew, even if morally and ethically elevated, have considered himself “too good” for the Jewish company his earthly remains kept? As for the level of righteousness of his cemeterymates, is this something we mortals are really capable of judging? In Ethics of the Fathers (2:1), we are reminded that it is not given to us to know the scale of reward for performing any mitzva (commandment), large or small.

Those Jewish neighbors-at-rest, whatever their religious observance, may have led exemplary lives in relation to their fellow men, thereby meriting a significant heavenly recompense.

One Post reader who wrote to the paper’s Letters column expressed my feelings rather clearly.

“It is bad enough when people look down on others when they are alive,” she opined, “but to do so when the person has died is unforgivable.”

Imagine the bewilderment and hurt felt by the living families of those “less observant” dead originally interred on either side of this deceased, who saw their dear departed ones deemed unworthy of lying beside him.

Let's call a spade a spade. It seems to me that the inescapably ghoulish act of digging up dead bodies must be reserved for extreme cases.

One such case became necessary in 2005, when Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip, leaving behind what had been 21 civilian Israeli settlements, including a 48- grave cemetery.

Going on the behavior of those who then took possession of these areas, one shudders to think of the fate of any Jewish dead left in their hands, and so it was right and proper – indeed, essential – to bring up those dead and reinter them safely in Israel.

To gain a broader view of the present case, I turned to a long-standing friend who is an orthodox rabbi.

“I don’t know what the fuss is all about,” he responded bluntly. “What lies in the cemetery are the now-discarded bodily remains from which the soul has departed.

“Presumably the soul is already sharing the afterlife with all sorts of other souls who may or may not have been involved in halachic and/or moral shenanigans in their earthly careers.

“Any sinfulness is not likely to be inherent in the soul itself, but influenced by earthly temptations and considerations.”

He continued: “I know that whilst on earth people prefer to choose where to live, and this applies to some extent even after death, in cases where the body is not in kever yisrael [a Jewish resting place], including the Land of Israel – but whether there is a case for moving a body to a ‘more observant’ cemetery in Israel is debatable.”

When I asked him to comment on the fact that “several leading rabbis” had approved the reinterment, he answered tersely: “In today’s world, it’s hard to be a leading rabbi if you aren’t haredi.”

What this story chiefly says to me is that many of us pay too much attention to what our neighbors are doing, and not nearly enough to our own behavior. I guess it’s a human failing – coupled with the conviction that our way is the only right way – but it’s one we need to struggle with on a daily basis.

One of the essential aspects of living a true Jewish life is the constant tension, in our dealings with others, between doing what is tempting or expedient, and being a mensch. The challenge is constant, and it is a hard standard to live up to.

It’s difficult to avoid the impression that for some Jews, the commandments bein adam lehavero – between man and man – take second place to the mitzvot bein adam lamakom, our relationship with God as expressed by observing the stringencies of Halacha, or Jewish law.

When our scrupulousness in business dealings; our determination not to damage anyone’s good name via gossip or a rush to judgment; our consideration for our fellow Jews and our cheerful readiness to help others where needed – when these and similar efforts attain the level of zealous attention to religious ritual... then, perhaps, the Messiah will come.

It seems fitting to end with a quote from his son about another deceased father, the legendary Reb Aryeh Levin (1885-1969), known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem.”

“I asked myself,” wrote Rabbi Haim Yaakov, “what did he do to earn so much respect, such considerable esteem?... At last I plumbed the heart of the matter: My father had one basic quality which was both the foundation and crest of all his good deeds and acts. It was simply humility... my father was humble toward everyone” (from A Tzaddik in Our Time by Simcha Raz, 1972).

In exhuming and reburying their father earlier this month, were his two sons showing a misplaced respect for him and, concurrently, a lack of humility, or even disrespect, toward their Creator, who made everyone – including the non-observant – in His image?

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