Respect for a Sacred Society

In modern-day Jewish burials, the beauty of tahara has the reverence it once had long ago

BY: Rabbi Elchonon Zohn


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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. An excellent essay on this subject was written by Aryeh Kaplan and published in a pamphlet by the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) of the Orthodox Union, entitled "Immortality and the Soul."

With this understanding, the care with which the body is treated in the washing and dressing process, the prohibition against unnecessary talk at the tahara, the need for someone to watch and stay by the body, and the beautiful tradition of asking the deceased for forgiveness if anything was lacking in the respect given them, are not simply ancient rituals, but rather the logical consequence of the Jewish perception of death and burial. Certainly, all of this transcends the issue of whether one had been a practicing Jew or not. Nor does it much matter if one was affiliated with an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform congregation, or not affiliated at all. As a Jew, one is deserving of a burial reflecting the richness and the beauty of Jewish tradition and belief.

I think the lack of respect and appreciation for the chevra during the middle decades of this century has many reasons. The underlying cause is probably an outgrowth of the way in which European Jews settled in this country. They were generally individuals seeking to better their economic or family situation in a land of opportunity, not people coming to build Jewish community. Most often they were seeking to become Americans. When Jews with a deep commitment to Orthodoxy arrived, they often felt this existing secular American-Jewish community to be a threat to their beliefs.

What therefore developed was a chevra kadisha of two kinds. On the one hand were the devout, sincerely religious Jews who, in America, perceived themselves to be in an atmosphere dangerous to the maintenance of almost every facet of their chosen way of life. They came to the Jewish funeral home to do battle with the director in a holy war where every compromise was perceived as territory lost. These chevras, representing societies or congregations, had little understanding of the practical and economic needs and problems of the funeral director, nor were they willing to learn. They were satisfied with the knowledge that when one of their own passed on, they could pressure the funeral home into doing the funeral their way.

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