What We Keep and What We Leave Behind

Taharah room at Yarkon Cemetery, Israel. Photo courtesy of co-author Rick Light

In March of 2020, the medical advice that Kavod v’Nichum received was unequivocal:

“Stop doing taharot in person. Now.”

For most chevrot in the US and Canada, this guidance was a comforting and guiding principle. In the early days of the pandemic, with so much unknown, a global shortage of personal protective equipment and no vaccine in sight, the act of putting three to five people in a room with a recently deceased individual seemed reckless. We might have been fulfilling the mitzvah of levayat ha-met, preparing the deceased for burial and accompanying them to the grave while foolishly disregarding the imperative of pikuach nefesh, preserving life even if it meant delaying or forgoing the performance of another mitzvah.

It was necessary to save lives. The pandemic was terrifying and spreading rapidly. As the year unfolded, different chevrot instituted different policies, approaches and decisions.

For example, recent history helped guide the decision for the Pittsburgh New Community Chevra Kadisha as to how to proceed. During the ebola epidemics of the 2010s, epidemiologists linked at least some of the spread to local generic burial practices involving close, hands-on contact with those who had recently died of ebola. Western scientists and public health experts self-righteously opined that these practices needed to stop in order to stamp out the epidemic, knowing little about how vital those rituals might have been to the people performing them.  Would we now fail to apply the same rule to ourselves when it was our “quaint” practice of washing the dead by hand that was a potential disease hazard?

The recent ebola epidemic, however, was far from the first time this dilemma had occurred in Jewish history. For example, we see decisions about funeral practices in unusual circumstances addressed twice in this week’s parasha, once with the death of Ya’akov, and then again with the death of Yosef.

In Ya’akov’s case, his burial place had been determined with the death of his grandmother Sarah. Avraham purchased the cave of Machpelah, which would serve not only to bury his beloved wife, but also him and the following two generations of his heirs. But Machpelah was in Canaan, and Ya’akov’s deathbed was in Egypt. In order to fulfill the obligation to bring their father to his rest, Ya’akov’s sons departed from what seems to have been already established practice of Israelite burial, and instead chose to have him mummified in the Egyptian fashion and placed into a casket above ground, so that his body might survive the seven-hundred-kilometer journey.

Yosef, however, is not immediately brought out of Egypt for burial. In Bereshit 50:24-25, he tells his brothers, “’I am about to die.  God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’”

The commentaries all agree that “taken notice” refers to the time of the Exodus, some 210 years (at least) into the future. One might assume that Yosef is asking, at that time, to be disinterred and reburied in Eretz Yisrael, a custom we still follow to this day for those who wish it. But the text argues against this. In 50:26, we read, “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.” Several of the commentators understand this to mean that not only was Yosef embalmed, in the same departure from tradition as Ya’akov, but also was not buried – the coffin was kept above ground so that later generations would know where to find it.

This sequence of events begs the question of why Yosef went to these lengths. Note that except for Binyamin, Yosef’s brothers were all older than his 110 years, so it is reasonable that even though he spoke to them, they were too old to tolerate the journey. But why didn’t Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, carry him up to Canaan right away? Something was clearly preventing Yosef’s family from making this trip at the time of his death.

Here the commentary is nearly silent, except for the Tur HaAroch, who says that Yosef knew his family would never be permitted to take such a politically important Egyptian out of the country for burial. By the time of the Exodus, under the rule of a Pharaoh who “knew not Yosef,” that would no longer be an issue. Or perhaps the winds of slavery were already blowing in Yosef’s time. If Yosef lived, his family members were protected, but with his death his contributions would be quickly forgotten, purged like a disfavored member of the Politburo. In this situation, too, they would not be free to travel. After all, Ya’akov had supposedly forgotten the predictions of what was about to happen to his descendants, even though God had told him, yet the brothers all seem to know what is coming (Tur HaAroch on 50:24) when Yosef references it.

Either way, it seems Yosef had no choice but to make alternate funeral arrangements. And so it was with many Chevrah Kadisha groups throughout North America in the Spring of 2020. Some chose to forge ahead despite the risks. Others shut down altogether, reasoning that the tangible process of washing and dressing the body was the essential mitzvah, and if that process could not take place then we would just have to wait patiently, like Yosef, until it could be done safely.

Very quickly, however, as weekly online discussions led by Kavod v’Nichum allowed a national conversation, a third way emerged, the practice that came to be called taharah ruchanit, a “spiritual purification” performed using online conferencing tools such as Zoom to “co-locate” the team, without being physically present with the body of the deceased. Drawing from the traditional liturgy for taharah, this new ritual enhanced certain sections of the liturgy to connect spiritually with the soul of the meit (deceased person) with intense kavanah (sacred intent), such that even though we were not physically washing the meit nor dressing them in shrouds, our intent was that they be made as pure and ready for the olam haba (World to Come) as if we had.

This became a new ritual born out of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, from the specific necessities of that time and aided by the specific resources of video conferencing, file-sharing, and rapid online creativity that had never been available to us before. Members would extract themselves from at-home work or school, create a sacred space at their desks or coffee tables, and join virtually, sometimes across time zones or even continents, to honor the deceased in what we felt was the best way possible at the time. Different groups added new liturgy, more extended remembrances of the deceased, and centering, meditative practices. A practice of virtual shmirah (watching over the deceased until burial) appeared as well, most notably after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where people would cease activity for an hour shift to sit and recite Tehillim (Psalms) and symbolically guard the body, albeit from a distance. And soon we also began to see on-line attendance of burials in order to limit the number of in-person attendees.

Like Zoom-based virtual religious services, online school, drive-by birthday parties, telehealth doctor visits, and so many other new practices in 2020, taharah ruchanit, virtual shmirah, and streamed burials all came from a desire to reach whatever level of “normal” activity we could under impossible circumstances.  Also, like all of those practices, these came with a price.

For many chevrot members who practiced taharah ruchanit, the ritual worked well, felt complete and sufficient, and in fact, for some was even more spiritually fulfilling than being in-person with the meit. However, some chevrah members thought that while the intent was for the ritual of taharah ruchanit to be fully sufficient for honoring the deceased in this terrible time, they felt that it had not replaced the traditional form of taharah. As the first wave of lockdowns began to ease restrictions in the summer of 2020, and the shortage of PPE began to abate, planning was already underway in some Chevrot Kadisha for returning to the taharah room. Much of it focused on meticulous detail of reducing fluid splashes, reaching maximum protection from our PPE, improving ventilation and avoiding aerosolizing any infectious particles from the meit.  In many ways, these discussions were as far from “spiritual” as one could get. Yet, like many discussions in Jewish law, God was in the details, in the form of how we could protect the lives of the living chaverim, as much from each other as from the meit, while still providing the honor we intended.

For Yosef, there was a clear end to the wait.  One dramatic night, God remembered the Israelites, just as Yosef had told his brothers. The next day, a company of millions marched out of Egypt with their heads held high and Yosef’s bones (in a casket) in hand. Forty years later he would be laid to rest in Eretz Yisrael.

For those who do the holy work of the Chevrah Kadisha in 2021, there is still no clarity; the pandemic smolders along and we continue to be faced with difficult decisions about our practice to which there seem to be no right answers. Are enough of us vaccinated to start in-person taharot again? Are the people who are vaccinated but vulnerable really safe in close quarters? Is it true that the meit really isn’t likely to be a source of contagion? Will the new virus variants put us back to square one?

On the other hand, there are questions regarding past decisions about how to honor the meitim. As we look back, did we really need to stop performing in-person rituals? Could we have gone back long before we did? Were there other mitigating measures, besides not being in-person, that could have adequately protected us and still allowed us to wash, cleanse and dress the meitim in preparation for burial?

Implied in all of these questions are some nagging uncertainties, “Was taharah ruchanit simply not enough? Was it sufficient and complete unto itself, for both the meit and the chevrah team? Did it in fact work to midwife the souls for which it was performed?”

This requires us to ask a larger question in relation to Jewish rituals in general: Are online virtual rituals sufficient in themselves? Do they stand alone, or do they become complete only when accompanied by some complementary, in-person “ending” ritual? In the case of end-of-life rituals in support of a transitioning soul, there are two parts to this inquiry, namely: Are these rituals complete in relation to their job of helping the meit, and secondly, are they complete in relation to the team performing the ritual itself?

For the second question, we see that a few months after the return to in-person taharot, just after the conclusion of Sukkot 5782, the Pittsburgh NCCK held what they hoped would be a unique ritual of completion. They gathered at the cemetery and poured out water and asked for mechilah, forgiveness, from the more than 100 meitim for whom they had performed taharah ruchanit during the time when they were not meeting in person. Nearly all those present expressed that the ritual had given them closure for something that had been missing from those virtual rituals, for the feeling that they had somehow not given the meitim the full measure of honor. Even during a traditional, hands-on taharah, we conclude the ritual by asking mechilah if something was accidentally not done according to tradition or in a respectful way; in this October ritual, they asked for a broader forgiveness for decisions taken out of concern for life, if in those decisions we diminished from the honor due to those going to life everlasting. For the NCCK team, this completion ceremony felt necessary.

Yet taharah ruchanit has proved for other chevrot to be a lasting, enduring ritual, complete in itself, for both the meit and for the chevrah team. In a chevrah where many members are aging and find the work of rolling the meit or dressing them to be a physical challenge, with taharah ruchanit those members found themselves again to be full participants in the ritual during the period of isolation. Other members, preoccupied with the details of placing boards on the table, filling buckets and cutting rags, found themselves too immersed in the mundane, physical minutiae of the work to be mindful of the higher purpose of the ritual. For these members, taharah ruchanit marked the first time they had been able to focus on the meaning of what they were doing. Still others found their hearts filled with emotion, with words of comfort or with expressions of praise and respect, but felt unable to express them out of deference to the tradition of minimizing speech during the taharah. For these members, the new practice gave them a chance to voice these thoughts and individualize the act of honoring each specific meit.

So as we move into 2022 and begin the return to the taharah room, the ritual of taharah ruchanit returns in its many forms with us; and furthermore, we are beginning to see yet another new form gaining popularity. This form has been called “hybrid” taharah, and in many cities is slowly becoming the norm. On the one hand, new safety practices that resemble healthcare’s universal precautions put us in a position to continue our in-person work, providing safety even should there be a resurgence in this pandemic. On the other hand, members who do not feel safe yet, or who are unable to arrive at the funeral home but can join from afar, now participate as “kavanah holders”, reading the traditional liturgy with their full focus and intention, while those physically present wash, cleanse, and dress. The meitim can now be attended to by perhaps six or eight chaverim, instead of just a few, each performing a different duty, all in service of accompanying the deceased to their rest. How this will unfold is still uncertain as we all adjust to these changing times. And whether or not this hybrid approach will be considered complete and sufficient unto itself is yet to be determined.

This story of taharah ruchanit is instructive beyond the practices of any one Chevrah Kadisha, or indeed beyond the area of burial practices at all.  It speaks to a millennia-old phenomenon of new rituals which arise in Jewish practice at moments of cataclysmic change, sh’at ha’d’hak as it is called in the halakhic literature.  Some of these rituals survive and become so ingrained that it seems they were always there: the Hillel sandwich as a memory of the Pesach sacrifice, the taking of challah as a memory of the Temple, or the persistence of Yizkor books and services a thousand years after they arose as a response to the Crusades. Others fade away, a response to a specific need that serves for a particular moment, but not for all time.

Which of the practices of the last two years will we keep and carry with us like Yosef’s bones as we leave this narrow place of the pandemic, and which will be left behind like the Egyptian practices that Yosef followed when he could not do otherwise?

This is the question facing chevrot throughout North America and perhaps the world today. Community and gathering have been sustaining forces of Jewish life for millennia. The physicality of taharah and Jewish burial have been especially salient ways of ensuring that “community” is not just a nebulous concept, but an obligation in which we invest our whole selves. Having stepped away from these practices for so many months out of concern for the living, we have felt its absence and are blessed to embrace the return to these mitzvot. What we believe should remain from these last two years is not the wholly virtual world we created, but the added layer that hybrid rituals containing both physical and virtual participation brings. Engaging those who could not otherwise contribute, allowing greater kavanah both for those uttering the prayers and those “praying with their hands,” and removing the barrier of distance from the definition of community participation. No matter what balance we reach between those layers, we must always ensure that, whatever we do as a community, we do with integrity, kavod (respect and honor for tradition, the dead, and each other), and kavanah.

This post is a joint effort, co-authored with Rick Light, who is part of the staff of Kavod v’Nichum, which provides information, education, training, and technical assistance for bereavement committees and Chevrah Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities to support their organization and development, to enable them to perform Jewish funeral, burial, and mourning mitzvot, and to protect and shield bereaved families from exploitation.

Rick has been teaching spiritual development in various ways for more than 40 years and has been studying and practicing meditation for more than 50 years. He also teaches backpacking, rock climbing, and other outdoor skills. He is a leader in the community of those who prepare Jewish deceased for burial, has published four books related to death (of the seven he has published), including the award-winning 2016 publication, Jewish Rites of Death, Stories of Beauty and Transformation. For 18 years Rick was the leader of a local Chevrah Kadisha he started in 1996. He is a graduate and senior instructor of the Gamliel Institute, and has led local trainings  in many communities in the US.  He continues to teach and raise awareness about Jewish death and burial practices at the local, state, and national levels. For more on Rick and his books, visit richardalight.com,.

About the Author
Jonathan Weinkle MD, FAAP, FACP is a primary care-physician in a community health center in Pittsburgh. He is not a rabbi, though he has often been accused of being one. He is an amateur singer-songwriter, teaches at both Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of the book Healing People, Not Patients. For a complete archive of his writings, plus media, event listings, and even source sheets for further learning, visit healerswholisten.com.
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