On taharah before cremation
February 19, 2014
Longtime readers may recall that I have been blessed for many years to serve on my community's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society). We are the group of community members who, before burial, lovingly wash, dress, pray over, and care for the body of each person in our community who dies. Recently I've been pondering a question which is increasingly pressing in my corner of the Jewish community: in the case of someone who chooses cremation, may the work of the chevra kadisha still be performed?
The simplest traditional answer, of course, is "no." Most halakhists will argue that in the traditional paradigm, Judaism forbids cremation. Therefore, taharah (the washing / dressing / blessing of the body) is not performed when someone chooses cremation, because by choosing cremation that person has implicitly opted out of Jewish tradition. There are dissenting voices arguing that it is not so simple -- Rabbi Gershon Winkler, e.g., writes "It is not so absolutely black and white clear that cremation is forbidden by Jewish law" -- but by and large, most traditional sources regard cremation as forbidden, and in many communities after a cremation the mourners are denied the traditional practices of mourning such as shiva and kaddish.
However, an increasing number of Americans today choose cremation, and Jewish Americans are part of that trend. (See More Jews Opt for Cremation, The Forward.) I have complicated feelings about that choice, because I am attached to the "old ways" of Jewish burial, from the biodegradable wooden aron and linen garments (worn by rich and poor alike) to all of the tactile and embodied experiences of casket and shovel and soil. But what I am most attached to is the gentle care of the chevra kadisha. Is there an argument for retaining that gentle care even in cases of cremation?
My Reform community entered into a discernment process last year around the question of burying "cremains" in our cemetery. I shared excerpts from numerous rabbinic responsa (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) as our religious practices and cemetery committees discussed this issue. In the end, my community's decision accords with what seems to be mainstream Reform thinking -- that we strongly encourage traditional burial, but we grant our members the right to make their own informed choices even on this matter. (For two very different Reform perspectives on the issue, see Debatable: Is Cremation An Acceptable Practice for Reform Jews? Reform Judaism magazine.) In our cemetery, there is now a separate section where such remains may be interred.
At the OHALAH conference last month, my colleague Rabbi Efraim Eisen offered a précis of his teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) on the burial of cremains. (See my post Real world halakhic issues in a time of paradigm shift.) He noted that the Babylonian Talmud sees cremation as a denial of the belief in resurrection of the dead, and as such, a denial of the dignity of the body and of God Who created the body. I know that many liberal Jews today do not believe in resurrection, and I wonder: how does that change our relationship with this Talmudic teaching? For instance: for someone who resonates with Jewish teachings about reincarnation, rather than the (generally older) Jewish teachings about resurrection, does that change the sense of what cremation means?
None of this speaks directly to the question about the chevra kadisha. The mainstream perspective largely opposes offering this comfort to those who choose cremation, I suspect because rabbis have not wanted to give even tacit permission to this choice. But it is clear that many people are making this choice, whether we permit it or not. And that, in turn, suggests to me an open opportunity for offering spiritual support and care.
The official stance of the Reform movement is that Reform rabbis should not refuse to preside over the funeral of someone who was cremated. Does it then follow that Reform chevra kadisha members may, or should, be involved in taharah beforehand? This isn't a question in the Reform movement alone. Reconstructionist rabbinic student Joysa Winter writes:
[C]remation does not have to be viewed as "anti-Jewish," but simply as one more adaptation in response to a changing world. Nor do cremation practices, including the scattering of ashes or their burial in unmarked grounds, obviate other Jewish burial traditions. The cycle of mourning practices; the ritual of tahara, or purification of the body, prior to interment or cremation; the graveside service at interment or scattering; all of these can be performed.
(See Jewish Burial in an Age of Ecological Crisis [pdf] in Jewish Currents.)
There are Orthodox thinkers too whose writings suggest a broad perspective on the question of who should receive Jewish burial practices such as taharah. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein permits offering taharah to someone who will be buried among non-Jews, though suggests that in that case the ceremony be somewhat modified; this is not precisely the case at hand, but shows a willingness to expand the boundaries of taharah. And his student Rabbi Moshe Heinemann distinguishes between someone who chooses cremation themselves and someone whose family chooses it for them, and offers taharah for those in the latter category. Both of these open the door for a more inclusive understanding of who merits taharah. (Both of these rulings are cited in the Taharah Manual of Practices, ed. R' Moshe Epstein. Thanks to Rabbi Michael Bernstein for pointing me in this direction.)
We live in an era marked by what Rabbi Irwin Kula has called increased "mixing, blending, bending and switching" of religious practices. An increasing number of Americans feel free to pick and choose among religious practices and interpretations of those practices. It may once have been the case that choosing cremation necessarily implied rejection of Jewish tradition and rejection of the other mitzvot of Jewish burial (taharah among them), but today that isn't necessarily so. Given the value accorded to informed choice in many of today's Judaisms, what once would have been impossible juxtapositions (considering oneself wholly shomer Shabbat while spending the afternoon on Facebook chat, e.g., or a Hebrew school conversation about the appropriate bracha for bacon) are now commonplace. Taharah followed by cremation may today be one of those juxtapositions.
For me, the fundamental principle at work is kavod ha-meit (honoring the dead.) This comes into play in at least two ways: honoring the wishes of the person who has died, and treating their body with honor and care after death. (On the matter of honoring the person's wishes, there's an interesting Conservative teshuvah by Rabbi Morris Shapiro in which he cites the Magen Avraham's point that if someone should leave a will indicating the wish for cremation, that wish should be honored. That teshuvah is online here [pdf]. Also noteworthy: this Reform responsum on the question of a parent requesting cremation, which argues that in the North American Reform movement, cremation is not considered a sin.) While it was once standard Jewish opinion that cremation constituted nivul ha-meit (desecration of the body), it seems clear that many Jews no longer see it as such. Inviting the chevra kadisha to tend to a body before cremation could certainly be understood as a practice of kavod ha-meit.
In the talk by Rabbi Efraim Eisen which I cited before, he noted that there's precedent for halakha conforming to existing cultural practices: "In Brakhot 45a we learn that going out to see what the people are doing is one way to see what the halakha should be." I've had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues who are involved with chevra kadisha work where they live, and I've learned that in many communities, there is a practice of performing taharah on the bodies of those who have chosen cremation. Some suggest one modification to traditional practice, to wit, after the prayers and the washing and dressing and blessing of the meit (the body of the person who has died), the meit is swaddled in a plain white linen or cotton sheet, instead of in tachrichim (the traditional white linen shrouds) and then in such a sheet. Others retain the tachrichim, but modify the prayers and words recited during the process. And still others keep their usual practices entirely intact.
Rabbi Elana Zelony reframed the question for me in an interesting way: just because someone isn't performing one mitzvah (burial in the earth), do we want to therefore take away from them the opportunity to experience another mitzvah (taharah) -- or would we rather seek interpretations which allow us to help the people we serve to embrace as many mitzvot as possible? "My tendency," she writes, "is to encourage people to pursue any mitzvah that interests them, rather than punish them by taking away the opportunity to do a separate mitzvah."
That we are living in a new paradigm, in which old-paradigm practices may need rethinking in order to be both "backwards-compatible" and also living responses to the unique needs of our moment, is a central tenet of Jewish Renewal. It seems to me that one of the characteristics of this moment in time is the increasing porousness of the boundaries our communities maintain around who's "in" and who's "out." Once upon a time, choosing cremation automatically meant that the person was "out." By virtue of making that choice, that person declared themselves to be outside of communal bounds, and therefore it made sense that such a one would not receive the care of the chevra kadisha. But in many liberal Jewish communities today, the choice of cremation no longer carries those same connotations.
Offering a modified taharah to those who choose cremation would root them and their mourners more wholly in our traditions. This practice would also offer spiritual comfort to the mourners (who would have the consolation of knowing that their loved one's body has been lovingly washed and cared-for) -- and to the soul of the person who has died. Jewish tradition holds that the soul of the person who has died lingers with the body for a time, and that the first mourner's kaddish recited at the funeral helps that soul to let go and to move on. (See the Jewish Renewal answer in this Ask the Rabbis: What About Life After Death?) In accordance with that teaching, I believe that the loving practices of taharah help to smooth and soothe a soul's transition from this life into whatever comes next. I can't imagine why that wouldn't be so in the case of someone who was going to be cremated. Indeed: one could make a case that such a person might need this extra love and blessing, this extra help in making that transition, even more than others do.
Perhaps a new prayer should be composed to recite before taharah in cases where cremation has been chosen. That prayer could gently remind the soul that in life it made this choice, and ask for God's gentle care as the soul returns to the Mystery from which it came. Our sages teach (Mishnah Yoma 8:9) that "God is the mikveh of Israel," and that when we seek to immerse ourselves in divine presence (e.g. during Yom Kippur) God's presence purifies us. A prayer for taharah before cremation could assert that as the water we pour cleanses the body, a return to God's enfolding presence purifies the soul, and that that return takes place regardless of what becomes of the body's component molecules.
At the end of Reb Efraim's presentation, he shared something which Reb Zalman said to a chevra kadisha at Temple Adath Or in May 2001. That link will take you to Reb Zalman's whole presentation, but here's the quote which Reb Efraim cited:
I don't want to give you a big green light for cremation. Because a lot of stuff in Judaism says it's a no-no. But some years ago I published something where I said I wanted my remains to be cremated and the ashes to be taken to Auschwitz. My father was born in Oswiecen, my zaide was a shochet there, and when I was half a year old, they took me to zaide so he should bless me. This has become such a terrible place for us...
One of the reasons why they say no to cremation is because of something that it says in the Talmud. Titus, who had desecrated the Temple, wanted to have his corpse burned and his ashes strewn all over so that God wouldn't be able to call him to judgement. In other words, people who go to cremation won't be resurrected. But if God isn't going to resurrect the people who burned at Auschwitz, I don't want to be resurrected either.
I resonate both with Reb Zalman's desire to continue to promote traditional Jewish burial practices, and also with his sense that in a post-Shoah world, it may be necessary to rethink our relationship with cremation. When we affirm that our souls return to that great Mystery which we name God whether the body dissolves via the slow decomposition of earth and water, or via the fire and air which once consumed our offerings on the altar, we sanctify the memories of those who were burned... and we open up new ways of caring for those who choose counter to traditional Jewish burial.
Inviting the participation of the chevra kadisha before cremation is one way for us to tend to both the living souls of mourners, and the in-transition soul of the person who has died. This practice can coexist with encouragement toward traditional burial in the living soil of our earth. And our openness to these differing paths may open up, for those we serve, the possibility of deeper spiritual engagement with preparation for death; with the journey of death itself; and with the rhythms of mourning after a loved one is gone.
An addendum, after a conversation with Reb Zalman:
After the Shoah our relationship with cremation has changed. For those whose family and loved ones perished there, and for we who remember them, our relationship with cremation is different than it used to be.
It was out of desire to assert the holiness of those who perished in the crematoria, and desire to honor them, that Reb Zalman once wrote that he would like to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered there. Although this is no longer his intention, for familial reasons, he still feels that those who choose cremation today can sanctify their choice, and sanctify the memories of the six million, by explicitly linking them together.
When Rabbi and sofer Kevin Hale went to Auschwitz recently, Reb Zalman asked him to bring back some earth from that place. That earth has now been given to the chevra kadisha in his town, so that when someone chooses cremation, a finger's worth of that soil may be buried with their ashes. In this way, we join today's ashes with the memories of the six million.
Long ago our sages mandated plain white shrouds for everyone because some people were choosing ornate, expensive burials and were thereby shaming those who could not afford such things. Today a funeral can be prohibitively costly. For fiscal reasons, if no others, some people will continue to choose cremation.
We can't change that reality. But if we inter their ashes with soil from the camps, we can link them with, and uphold the memories of, those who perished for kiddush Hashem.