Rona Ramon’s death hit me hard. As I wrote Monday to a friend and then shared on social media:
I don’t know if I can look at this on the macro level, at least not tonight. 2003 was so unspeakably awful here. As every Shabbat ended, we’d turn on the news and watch the casualty count. Then Ilan went into space, and it was such a reprieve–no intifadah, no terrorism, just pride. And then, in a second, he was gone. Just vaporized. And I was eight years old again, and it was the Challenger all over again, but worse. Because this was one good thing that we Israelis had which wasn’t about the conflict or existential threat or guilt or vengeance, just ONE fucking thing that was unambiguously good. And everything was fine for two weeks and they were on their way home, and then they would never see home again. And then I felt bad, because who was I to co-opt this tragedy? Rona was the one burying her husband (not that there was anything left to bury), I was just some schmuck intruding on a personal tragedy that was so unfairly national, global. And I stopped thinking about it. I missed when their son died in the training accident. And now she’s dead too. Everyone in that picture is dead. Rona never saw 55, Ilan never saw 50, Assaf never saw 22. But we’ll name an airport after them, so it’ll be OK, right? It’ll mean something, right? It’s worth it, right?
As I headed the post: “No, I don’t know how a compassionate God takes a 4-day-old baby. Or visits this much suffering on one woman.”
And I hoped, how I hoped, that we could leave this poor woman alone in death, after all we as a nation, as a people, as a faith, had asked from her in life. Apparently not.
Because Rona chose cremation to spare her family the pain of another elaborate state funeral. And so some of the worst people IRL and online had to weigh in. Beersheba Chief Rabbi Yehuda Dery, who I am sure holds that position by his own prodigious merits and not because of who his brother is (What, do you think this is a country that would just appoint its two chief rabbis based on who among former chief rabbis’ sons wanted the position?), criticized this decision, while Haifa Chabad Rabbi Gedalya Axelrod condemned it. (See Rabbi Michael Boyden’s eloquent response.)
The halakhic objections are actually quite weak, as so much of Jewish ritual around death and dying is about custom rather than law. (Know anyone who does keffiyat ha-mita?Atifat ha-rosh? I didn’t think so.) Then there are the philosophical objections: the Nazis cremated us! I’m gonna argue that our primary issue with the Nazis is that they killed six million of us, not how they disposed of the bodies. And that killing was done in showers, so I guess showers dishonor Judaism now?
What struck me more than anything is the week this is all taking place: Parashat Vaychi. At the beginning of the last chapter of Genesis, we read:
Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him, taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days.
It’s hard to imagine a less “traditional” Hebrew mourning ritual than mummification, but this is what the Torah simply states. Then Jacob is buried in Hebron. The same is done with Joseph himself, and his mummy is carried by the Israelites for forty years of the Exodus until it is buried in Shechem (Nablus). It does not make Jacob or Joseph less important; in fact, Joseph’s shiva for Jacob is considered the template for all Jewish mourning (Jerusalem Talmud Mo’ed Katan 3:5).
All I can wish the Ramon family is that they know no more sorrow. The acronym for RIP in Hebrew is taken from Abigail’s words to King David: “May (her) soul be bound in the bond of life.” For her critics, I have a different acronym: STFU.