Hearing teaches lesson

Hearing teaches lesson

It’s unfortunate that the dispute between the Tobin family and Poale Zedeck Congregation deceased over the exhumation of the family’s father wound up in court.
We don’t say that because one side had to win and the other had to lose in an emotionally difficult dispute for both parties. We say that because now there is a court ruling on the books regarding the most delicate of issues — where and how we are buried.
Last Friday, you recall, Judge Lawrence O’Toole of the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, ruled that the family of Howard Tobin could exhume his remains from Poale Zedeck’s cemetery in Richland Township and re-inter them at the Star of David section of the Homewood Cemetery alongside his wife and son.
The congregation objected, stating that halacha, (Jewish law) did not permit disturbing the final resting place of the deceased, except under a few very specific circumstances.
Judge O’Toole didn’t see it that way. He said in his ruling that it was the spouse who directed where the deceased shall be buried. In this case, Tobin’s wife, Roberta, who died recently, clearly stated while still living that she wanted her husband’s remains moved to Star of David. O’Toole also noted that none of the Tobin descendants are members of Poale Zedeck.
While some legal scholars are already criticizing the judge’s ruling (read staff writer Toby Tabachnick’s story on page 1), we will refrain from taking sides in this dispute. Both parties had a persuasive argument to make.
In reality, we’re all losers here because now there is a court ruling that lends weight to government intervention in what should be a private religious matter.
What we have here doesn’t quite rise to the level of legal precedent; a trial court is not an appellate court, so the ruling is not binding on future disputes. It is, however, a persuasive argument, and if upheld at the appellate level, can be used in future cases in which someone seeks government involvement in what otherwise is a matter between people of faith and their religious institutions.
In a country where separation of religion and state is a cherished value, such an outcome ought to be avoided.
It is too early to say what the impact of this ruling will be, and we mustn’t forget that Poale Zedeck has 30 days from the date of the decision to appeal. The final word may yet to be written.
But this case does teach a lesson: In future matters like this, every effort ought to be made to resolve the dispute before it winds up before a judge. Once that happens, the results may be more than either side bargained for.