From Dust to Dust: A Tu Bishvat Reflection
This coming week, we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat. Cited by the rabbis of the mishnah as the new year of the trees, historically, Tu Bishvat marks the day used to calculate biblical tithes connected to the agricultural cycle. Today, Tu Bishvat functions as the Jewish earth day, a day on which we focus our attention on the environment and our responsibility to the earth. This holiday reminds us of the cycles of life in nature, with the growth of new buds on the trees emerging in Israel marking the end to the fallow winter.
Meditating on the cycles of life in nature offers us an opportunity to consider our own cycles of life. “From dust you are, and to dust shall you return,” we read in Genesis. What does it mean to return to dust? In ancient times, it meant burial in caves, as in the cave of machpelah purchased by Abraham upon the death of his wife Sarah. In modern times, returning to dust has meant burial in the ground. In contemporary times, we are witnessing the emergence of new alternatives to traditional burial, namely natural organic reduction (human composting) and aquamation (water “cremation.”).
In December 2022, New York State became the 6th state to legalize the option to use modern composting methods to hasten the decomposition of the body. Are these emerging new technologies beneficial for the earth? Are they in line with Jewish custom and practice? Traditional Jewish burial is considered by most to be among the greenest options available. In Israel, bodies are returned to the earth wrapped in a simple shroud, without the casket used in most other places Jews are buried today. In the United States, burial in a plain pine casket, ideally in a grave not lined with concrete or other liner, is the most common practice found among Jews.
With the climate crisis clearly evident, should we be considering newer methods of body disposition to help fulfill our responsibility to be stewards of the earth? How do we balance that responsibility with the responsibility of kavod ha-met, or respect for the dead?
A growing number of Jewish communities and movements are exploring what these new options could mean. In a paper written for the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky explores these new technologies and concludes that while traditional Jewish burial remains the ideal, processes like natural organic reduction may not be explicitly against Jewish law, as long as the remains are not used for a specific benefit. Those who opt to hasten decomposition of the body are still encouraged to treat the remains as one would in a traditional burial – with the highest level of respect, ideally returning the remains to the earth without the expectation that the remains would be used for such purposes as fertilizing a garden from which one might harvest food to eat. Other perspectives uphold traditional Jewish burial as the only way to provide the proper degree of respect for the dead.
Tu Bishvat offers us yet another opportunity to consider how our lives can be enhanced when we give thought to how we want to be on this earth now and beyond, knowing that tomorrow is never guaranteed, and the future of the environment as we know it is in question. How we want to return to the earth is a question deserving serious consideration; what better day than Tu Bishvat to reflect on the impact we want our body to have on the earth once we are gone.