03 Jul Parshat Hukat Part 2 – Honoring the Dead, Then and Now
Last week I posted a possible interpretation of the strange ritual of the Parah Adumah, the Red Cow, seeing it as a calculated move by the book of Numbers away from the worship of the dead. Perhaps to be clearer than I was, I am suggesting that this way of looking at the biblical text might ease – at least for some – the process of closure in the mourning process. This would in no way show a lack of love and honor for the deceased’s memory, but just another way of framing it than what was prevalent in the Ancient Near East.
Honoring the dead is a central focus in the Jewish tradition that features widely in the lives of those whose loved ones have died. But the deference one shows for the dead begins immediately upon death, regulating how the body is handled. This is not the place for a detailed examination of those laws and customs – for more information go here. However, the specific way in which a Jew has shown honor to the dead differs over the course of history and from place to place.
I have encountered one such difference in the last few years since moving from Israel, now in Palm Springs, CA and before that during my years in the Jewish Community of Stockholm, Sweden. Whereas burial in the ground has been the prevalent Jewish custom since Biblical and Rabbinic times, there is evidence that cremation, done in an honorable way, did exist in our past. In a responsum, a position paper on Jewish law and custom, from the late 1930’s, Conservative rabbi and scholar, Michael Higger, wrote extensively (in Hebrew) on this topic. After going through the biblical, talmudic and medieval rabbinic sources he concludes that there is really nothing in the early sources that would prohibit this practice. And while he states that burial in the ground is more line with the Jewish tradition, there is nothing that would prevent the cremains from being buried in a Jewish cemetery with a [Conservative] rabbi officiating at such a ceremony (Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards 1927-1970, vol.III, New York, 1997).
I understand how charged this subject is with emotion, stemming from what seems to be an ancient sense of disrespect to the dead, as well as due to how so many Jews lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis in the Shoah. At the same time, those members of my congregation, and other Jews in the Coachella Valley, who have made the decision to be cremated of their own free will, deserve to be treated with respect, as do the decisions they have made regarding how they wish to be handled after their lives.
This is issue will not go away nor should it be ignored. As of 2016, there are, according to the Cremation Association of North America just over 50% more cremations in the US than burials. In the state of California, the cremation rate is even higher at 67%. And in the Coachella Valley, according to one of the two major mortuaries in the area, the rate is closer to 73%!
Although unable to any find data, I am pretty sure that the percentage of cremations among Jews (and I imagine among Muslims and Catholics) is far lower. However, from my own experience over the last two years (which I admit is statistically unimportant) 25-30% of our congregational members or those Jewish families in the area who seek my assistance, have chosen cremation over traditional burial.
As a Conservative/Masorti rabbi, I feel obliged to meet those individuals who have chosen cremation, as well as their families, where they are. I do not (unlike the decision rendered in another responsum of the Rabbinical Assembly penned by Rabbi Morris M. Shapiro in 1986 feel that it is my role to try to dissuade them from what is now, in North American as well as in Europe, considered to be a civilized and respectful method of handling the dead.
The constant change – depending upon the geographical and historical context – in what is considered to be respectful of the dead is not a new challenge. At least here in the US the status quo of Jewish burial in the ground was at odds with the advent of mausoleums, above-ground vaults, in which the casket is placed (for more information go here). And although this was not the previous Jewish custom, many Conservative/Masorti rabbis, me included, have adapted and have long been officiating at funerals like this.
I hope to write more about this and other contemporary challenges in the upcoming months since for me this is an important test for us as rabbis. Are we truly in touch with what goes on around us? Are we meeting the people who wish to engage us, and with whom we wish to engage, where they are? For myself – and I suspect many other members of the Rabbinical Assembly – I am not here to protect and conserve (hence the label “Conservative” is not very helpful) the Jewish tradition, but to be a bridge, an access point or a facilitator between those who choose to be in contact with me and our rich and varied religious tradition.
Let me put this in another way: After almost 30 years of congregational work in Israel, Sweden and California, I have found that members of the community are not looking to me to help them decide what rituals and practices to observe, but more to help them decide how to do them.
It seems to me that the people with whom I come into contact are far more interested in me serving as a role model of what an Jewishly informed approach to life might look at, rather than as an authoritative figure who lays out a definitive path and who is forced into a state of perpetual judgment.
Shavua Tov! May it be a good week!