I wanted to get this post in before Purim changes the mood. I went to a Zayin Adar dinner and expected to come home with lots of vignettes of how modern Orthodox Jews view death as about the living and not about a journey into the afterlife. Instead I sat next to an RCA committee member who just spoke about the Rabbah troubles and kept using in every sentence the words left, right, and center.
The one thing that did come up, which surprised the younger RCA Rabbi was that before the recent re-establishing of local Chevra Kadisha, the tahara and burial needs were taken care of by various old-time Jews of less than stellar reputation looking to make a buck. The sort of bottom feeders looking to take advantage of people’s grief. They did the traditional ritual as Jewish reverends offering people the old customs.
Rabbi Zohn, who is one of the leaders in the reclaimed Chevra Kadisha, wrote:
Prevalent in many other communities was the Chevra comprised of those people who could not make it in the business world, who found a way of making a dollar by doing a job no one else would do. They commercialized the Chevra. Their concern was not the respect for the work they were doing, and if necessitated by time or convenience, the Tahara would be done quickly, without sensitivity, without any real standard of excellence. Their purpose was served as long as it was done and they were paid, and the service was provided to the basic satisfaction of all.
I was looking more for a discussion of how modern Orthodox books said we know nothing about the afterlife when the very nature of the rituals of tahara and Chevra Kadisha are based on Hibbut Hakever and the needs of the soul as it journeys through its purification to get to heaven, as described in Maavar Yabok. How we have replaced discussion of the soul and hibbut hakever with new this-worldly understanding of avelut. Also from Rabbi Zohn:
A second accepted Jewish belief is that while the soul departs from the body upon death, it nevertheless remains nearby, fully aware of what transpires to the body and around it. This contradicts the oft-cited belief that funerals are for the living. In fact, the dead are very much “present” at their funeral.
Since most rabbis are trained to ignore the traditional 16th-18th works of the journeys of the afterlife- the actual basis of these rituals, but at the same time have little Talmudic resources on the topic, they tend to have to rely on their conflicting intuitions. I wanted some stories of how contemporary rabbis use analogous thinking to create new practices. I have older stories but I wanted some new ones.
For some of the traditional practices in English- Here is DHL dissertation from HUC by Rabbi Steve Moss that translates many passages from Maavar Yabok. It is 300 pages so be prepared before you print it.
In general, here is a great collection of sources on late 20th century issues.
I want to compare the ritualism of Tahara to our discussion of the Tu Beshevat Seder. What are the issues that mitigate against the tradition? I will probably return to these issues again, but in the mean time. (1) Our medical and hospital model of death- the tradition was hospice and then taharah by the same people. (2) our lack of ritual sense (3) Our treating the death as about the mourner (4) Our rejection of Jewish teachings on the afterlife (5) Our security at home- where Tu beshevat can celebrate our eating but death is not part of our lives (6) The general denial of death in the community. What else?
For a sense of the baroque era ritualization- from the taharah process.
As the clothes are cut away (the body is at all times partly covered to protect its modesty), one of the participants recites Zechariah 3:4-5: And He raised his voice and spoke to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the soiled garments from him” And he said to him, “Behold, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will cloth you in fine garments.”
In Zechariah, the prophet is having a dream-vision where he sees Joshua, the High Priest of his time, being tried in an angelic court. Joshua is clothed in filthy clothing, symbolic of the spiritual corruption that threatens the disintegration of the sacred community of Israel. In the midst of the trial, God graciously intervenes and declares Joshua fit, having endured the ordeal of exile, and ready to take on new, priestly duties. The angels strip him of his outer garments in a gesture signifying his spiritual purification… his soul has been cleansed, even as his material covering is cleansed – also indicating that sin, like the garments, are incidental, not integral to who he is.
By reciting these verses while stripping the body (perhaps in dead the body itself is the covering that is removed, revealing the soul beneath), the Chevra Kadisha is acting out a memesis of Zechariah’s vision. We become the angels preparing the dead for his/her elevation to a new and holy state. The deceased is Joshua, sullied and stained by transgression in life, undergoing the ordeal of death, but now he/she is readied by us to take a new form, a new role, to become a being akin to the priesthood.
What are our gaps from this way of thinking? How would someone armed only with halakhic thinking deal with it? Do we still like drama and ritual or must everything be didactic?
Here is a wonderful Reb Zalman article on the topic trying to reclaim the tradition. (plus his usual detour through the religions and psychology).
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