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When delaying burial honors the deceased: RBG and Jewish law

The Torah prohibits leaving a body unburied 'unless it is being left unburied for the honor of the deceased.' What greater honor could there be for RBG?!
Former president Bill Clinton, second from right, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton pay respects as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose, under the Portico at the top of the front steps of the US Supreme Court building on September 23, 2020, in Washington. Ginsburg, 87, died of cancer on September 18. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Former president Bill Clinton, second from right, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton pay respects as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose, under the Portico at the top of the front steps of the US Supreme Court building on September 23, 2020, in Washington. Ginsburg, 87, died of cancer on September 18. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Many Jewish friends have been commenting in social media about the decision to allow Justice Ginsburg to lie in repose at the Supreme Court and in state at the Capitol Rotunda. For many Jews, regardless of personal observance in other areas of Jewish practice, the customs and laws surrounding death and burial are particularly sacrosanct. For many I have seen commenting, it appears that Justice Ginsburg (or her family) are bowing to non-Jewish custom at a visible moment in her life story, and she could have chosen the much more common Jewish practice of the quickest burial possible. Funeral and mourning choices are extremely personal and really should be made by the family with their own religious guides or clergy. I offer this as a way to teach about some of the Jewish values surrounding the rituals that we see playing out in the public sphere. 

The Torah is quite explicit about the need to bury a corpse as quickly as possible. This is found in Deuteronomy 21:23, You must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess. 

It is unclear from the text of this verse itself if the rush to bury an impaled criminal is only for those who died by execution or if that is applicable for all deaths. Rabbinic sources appear to say that if this is the honor and dignity, we must accord the corpse of the executed criminal, how much more so for all of the other members of the Jewish community. (Jewish commentaries also recognize that quick burial is a custom unique to Jewish practice and other peoples have varying customs). 

However, in many medieval legal codes, it is very clear that burial may be delayed for a series of extenuating circumstances surrounding the honor (“kavod”) of the deceased. The Shulhan Aruch (R. Joseph Caro, 16th cen.) writes:

It is forbidden to allow the body of the deceased to lay unburied — unless it is being left unburied for the honor of the deceased, such as to procure a casket, burial shrouds, or to hire professional female mourners (women who would chant dirges), or for the relatives of the deceased to arrive, or to announce the death in the various municipalities. (Yoreh Deah 357:1) 

I recognize that for Jews who are accustomed to burials of their own relatives happening as quickly as possible, this delay is jarring. There is no question that the state ceremonies that are taking place are explicitly for Justice Ginsburg’s honor. Moreover, it is interesting that the text specifically mentions the need to bring out professional female mourners. Though Justice Ginsburg was a hero, role model, and scholar for all Americans, she held a special place in the hearts of countless women who are mourning her right now. Furthermore, the Jewish tradition in many instances treats the death of one’s teacher as the death of a parent. It is not an exaggeration to say that lying in state at the Supreme Court and the Capitol will allow many of her students to come and pay appropriate respects — especially in a time when there will be limited opportunities for other gatherings due to COVID-19. So, I believe that this twoday delay, which provides opportunities for Americans to mourn Justice Ginsburg, is very consistent with Jewish values. 

It is interesting that the verse that encourages us to bury quickly is linked to the fact that human dignity is deeply connected to the Jewish philosophical idea that human beings are created in God’s image, and that each human being is stamped with the very image of God. The verse in Deuteronomy teaches that through disrespecting a corpse, we are actually disrespecting the actual image of God. 

If there was one theme that ran through all of Justice Ginsburg’s work as an attorney, legal scholar and justice, it was shaping legal precedent to protect human dignity in all areas of the law. If we want to fulfill the ideas that undergird Deuteronomy 21:23, we ought not question the family’s decision to delay her burial. A better fulfillment of this biblical verse would be studying Justice Ginsburg’s writing that protected human dignity and reflecting on how this was the modern and American method of actualizing the Jewish idea that every human being is created in God’s image.

About the Author
David M. Glickman is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park, KS, a suburb of Kansas City. He is a sought-after speaker and teacher on the intersection of timeless Jewish values and the exciting challenges of contemporary life.
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