A few days before Yom Kippur, the Illinois State Supreme Court upheld the validity of the last will and testament of Dr. Max and Erla Feinberg, who sought to disinherit grandchildren who married non-Jewish partners. As reported in the article "Illinios Supreme Court upholds will that disinherits grandkids who marry non-Jews" in The Jerusalem Post, September 27, the executor, in accordance with the couple's wishes, was to distribute a significant amount of money to grandchildren who married within the Jewish faith. The one grandchild who had married a Jew received the inheritance, while the remaining four who had not, got nothing.
Each year, at the close of Yom Kippur, when the lack of sustenance has taken its toll, the sense of "We, our days, are like a fleeting shadow - while You and Your years are everlasting" is felt intensely. Yet men and women still yearn for eternity.
Although natural reproduction does provide a form of eternal existence, by means of passing on genetic material, the quest does not end there. The human spirit strives for a more meaningful existence, beyond biological functions. Beyond that, for many, eternity can be reached only within tradition.
THE FEINBERGS, married in 1934, apparently felt that way. The couple attempted to maintain an eternal tradition by employing the instrument of their last will and testament. However, the disinherited grandchildren thought otherwise. An argument presented against the validity of the so-called "beneficiary restriction clause" claimed that one cannot control another person's actions from beyond the grave. Ironically, Judaism seems to take the same position - even to the extreme.
According to Jewish tradition, there is no such concept as a "will" that instructs the dispensing of the deceased's material wealth after his death. For after death, there is no ownership of anything in this world. On the contrary, there is an established set of rules as to the disposition of property left behind. As the saying goes - you can't take it with you!
On the other hand, it is difficult to square that approach with the modern (particularly capitalist) sensibility - "It's my money; I earned it; I can do with it whatever I want!" All would agree that during one's life, one can choose to whom one gives a gift. One can dispense one's wealth, whether meager or rich, in any manner one pleases. Similarly, a premise within Jewish law states that a man is proprietor of his monies. So Jewish tradition covers that as well. Or does it?
According to Torah law, one can sell or grant one's property and pass it on to new owners - up to a limit. An "estate," meaning land-holdings, must remain within the family. The land anchors the family, binds it together and is the physical manifestation of the otherworldly sense of eternity. Offspring will work the very land that gave physical sustenance and shelter to their forebears. The Torah instructs that in the Jubilee year, "you are to hallow the year, the 50th year, proclaiming freedom throughout the land and to all its inhabitants; it shall be Homebringing for you, you are to return, each-man to his holding, each-man to his clan you are to return." (Leviticus 25:10. Translation: Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, 1995.)
The family members return to the land, and the land is returned to the family. The family reverts to its fundamental state - that of eternal bonds.
Once the Jewish people was exiled from the land, the ties to the land were severed and family bonds became tenuous. Currency, such as precious metals and jewels, replaced land-holdings and became the bulk of an individual's "estate."
The wandering Jew's wealth became portable at the same time that family connections became less grounded. Along with the rest of the modern world, Jews exited the agrarian society and traded it for a commercial social order. Nevertheless, the existential need to strengthen the family within tradition endured.
THIS NEED became apparent on July
24 in Illinois. According to the will of Max Feinberg, any descendant who married outside the Jewish faith or whose non-Jewish spouse did not convert to Judaism within one year of marriage was "deemed deceased for all purposes of this instrument." In the words of the Illinois Supreme court, Erla Feinberg wished "to reward, at the time of her death, those grandchildren whose lives most closely embraced the values she and Max cherished." Both of these statements reflect two sides of the same coin - the coin used to secure one's familial traditions.
In their lifetime, the Feinbergs constructed a postmodern manifestation of ancient mores - maintaining the estate within the family. In keeping with the ground rules the couple laid down, those who chose to bind themselves to the family preserved their foundations in the family's estate. Through these family members, the grandparents from Illinois found their eternity.
The writer is a rabbinical court advocate; coordinator of the Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis and the Jewish Agency; a doctoral candidate in Talmud at Bar-Ilan University; and author of Minee Einayich Medima on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.