“The London, Ontario Hevra Kaddisha:
A Critical Reflection On The Nature Of The Experience To Those Who Perform It”
Melvin J. Glazer
Princeton, New Jersey
A THESIS PROJECT REPORT SUBMITTED TO THE FACULTY
OF PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS
FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF MINISTRY
- TABLE OF CONTENTS
Jewish attitudes to death are complex, and can appear at times as to be polarized. On the one hand, there is a profound acceptance of the fact of mortality: death as part of a natural process marks the inevitable end to life in this world and is a fate common to all God’s creatures. On the other hand, death is seen in classical Jewish tradition as punishment for sin. This theologizing of death is poignantly expressed in a beautiful midrash in the Zohar, one of Judaism’s mystical tracts, which states that Adam, the First Man, appears before each dying man. When the dying person sees this vision, he cries out, “It is because of you that I must die!” The First Man answers this angry accusation by saying, “It is true that I once sinned, a sin for which I was severely punished. But you, my son, how many sins have you committed?” A list of the dying man’s misdeeds is revealed, ending with the phrase “there is no death without sin.”
The dialectic between the recognition of death as a biological reality and a theological conception of death is symbolized in the rabbinic notion of a distinctive fate for both the body and the soul. The body after death returns to the dust, fulfilling the observation of Genesis 3:19, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return;” whereas the soul, which is often identified as the divine spark, finds its way back to the Divine Creator, as in the saying which forms part of the funeral service, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the Name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Both body and soul return to their original source. Mainstream Judaism avoided dwelling on or elaborating explicit notions of the afterlife, although such notions do exist. Belief in an afterlife or in an ultimate resurrection (at the arrival of the messiah) is not explicitly mentioned in Hebrew scripture, but these notions became normative in later rabbinic Judaism.
Orthodox Judaism still clings staunchly to such notions, but the other strands of modern Jewish thought are uncomfortable with the notion of a physical afterlife, and the issue of what happens after death is rarely addressed by rabbis in sermons and other speeches.
The Jewish orientation toward death and its meaning was developed in detailed discussions of the specific ritual context of mourning. This “ritualized theology in action” provided not only an implicit strategy for dealing with death, but also an understanding of it based on a subtle dialectic of realism, halakha (Jewish law and custom), community, and God. The Jewish approach to death as encapsulated in its rituals of mourning serve as a pragmatic and philosophical key to understanding the Jewish theology of death.
The Jewish rituals of death and mourning come not only to respond to the crisis of death but also to help define the theology of that event in the context of the human life cycle.
There are two overriding principles which govern Jewish traditions of mourning: respect for the dead (kavod ha-met) and respect for the living (kavod ha-chai). Both before and after death has taken place, these principles offer an overview as well as a theological lens through which particular details can be understood.
Once death has occurred, Jewish tradition requires that the deceased be handled with care, watched over and always treated with respect by members of the hevra kaddisha. These rites of tahara (ritual purification) are performed by the members of the hevra kaddisha at a local funeral chapel. Either a Jewish or a non-Jewish facility is acceptable as long as there is space set aside for the hevra kaddisha to work. The body is compared to an invalid Torah scroll, which, although no longer fit for ritual use, must be accorded due respect and ultimately buried.
Everything undertaken prior to the funeral is done to honor the deceased while almost everything performed after burial is done to honor the mourners. In the disorienting period between death and burial, the immediate relatives are in a deeply liminal state of mourning, known as aninut, during which time they are formally excused from all positive commandments except for the obligation to arrange for the funeral. Today this obligation is assumed by the members of the hevra kaddisha and the organized community structure (rabbi, synagogue, and the community).
Jewish tradition is firm in its respect for the dead, especially after death has occurred. The human body is God’s gift to us and must be treated with dignity at all times, even after the soul has departed. After death, the body is handled respectfully by the hevra kaddisha and is treated as the repository of the soul. Nothing may be done to the body, no procedure which disfigures the body in any way may be performed except under the most controlled of circumstances. For this reason, autopsies are for the most part, strictly prohibited by Jewish law. The only exception to this rule is when an autopsy is dictated by civil law, for a person who died in exceptional circumstances. If death was caused by a rare disease, autopsies are required by Jewish law in order to save the life of the next man or woman who, might be afflicted by the same disease. In all other cases, the desire of the doctor or even the family to be indubitably certain of the cause of death is overruled by Judaism’s stricture against mutilating the body.
For the same reason, donating one’s entire body to medical science is prohibited, as physical mutilation will most certainly take place in medical schools, even with the best of intention. However, individual organ donations such as cornea, heart or liver are looked upon with approval. The saving of a human life has the absolute highest priority in Jewish tradition, and the donation of these separate organs is admired as a great act of mercy and compassion for God’s creatures, especially those whose lives will be saved (or whose sight is restored) thanks to the organ donation.
Jewish burial practice places great emphasis on speed, simplicity, and an explicit confrontation with reality. Ideally, a person should be buried before nightfall, certainly within twenty-four hours after death. When this is possible, embalming is strictly forbidden. However, in order to ensure the attendance of family members and friends who may live some distance away, the service normally will take place within one or maximum two days after death has occurred. If the body must be transported from one city to another, then embalming is permitted for the sake of respect for the living (assuring that no one would have to be in the presence of a decaying corpse with its attendant odors). The funeral service itself is remarkably uniform for men and women, rich and poor, scholar and unlettered. As a tangible symbol that no material expression of social standing can ward off death, a simple unadorned wooden coffin is used with no metal permitted anywhere. We are all equal before God. In addition, the purpose of burial in the ground is so that the body may decompose and return to the soil. Metal retards this process, and therefore is not permitted. The timing of the decomposition is to be a natural one, determined only by God. Nothing may be done to slow down this process, and nothing may be done to speed up this process. For this reason, cremation is an unacceptable way of disposing of the body, as is above-ground burial in a mausoleum vault. Cremation has the additional emotional allusion to the death of 6,000,000 Jews in the Holocaust, and therefore is additionally prohibited for emotional reasons. Today, Reform Judaism does not insist upon these guidelines concerning traditional burial practices, but they are still very much the norm for Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
Mourning in a community context begins only after the burial service is concluded. Time before the funeral and burial services is considered to be private, a time for members of the family to begin to pull together in their shared time of grief.
Before they leave home for the funeral, the mourners cover the windows in the house with a cloth. This protects them from allowing their normal concerns about their physical appearance to interfere with the work of mourning. Jewish tradition teaches that at a time of death, fixating upon what we look like is inappropriate. The mirrors are covered to eliminate that possibility.
Traditional Jewish tradition prohibits the practice known as “viewing” for several reasons. First, to gape upon the face of a corpse without any relational reciprocity is what Martin Buber would surely characterize as an “I-it” relationship, quite inappropriate in this context. “Viewing” also entails a cosmetic treatment of the deceased with the attendant cost involved, often leading to comments such as “he or she has never looked so good, also clearly inappropriate. Finally, while death can mark the end of a prolonged battle against illness and the conclusion of a long-term relationship between two people, death should never be seen as a “pretty” experience. Death is not always an enemy, but death is always sad and sorrowful. To attempt to beautify that which intrinsically is not beautiful is considered unnatural by Jewish tradition, and thus not allowed. Death should not artificially be made beautiful because death cannot be beautified, which is why flowers are prohibited at a traditional Jewish funeral. Contributions to worthy charitable institutions in memory of the deceased are suggested as a more fitting memorial and a more fitting way to display sorrow in this situation.
The funeral service may take place either in a funeral chapel, in the synagogue or graveside at the cemetery. It begins with a ritual rending of garments on the part of the mourners. In olden days, a man would rend his tie or his jacket, while a woman would rend her blouse. Today, in most cases, a black ribbon is used which is then worn throughout the shiva period. This ritual rending (keriah) symbolizes the tear in one’s heart at the death of a relative and is a visible sign of mourning to the community, inviting them to comfort the mourners. The service itself consists of prayers in Hebrew and in English, and often a eulogy delivered either by the officiating rabbi or by a member of the mourning family, or sometimes both. The service is a brief one, usually lasting no more than half an hour. After a final prayer, the coffin is carried from the chapel to the hearse by members of the family or friends who have been chosen to be the pallbearers. At the graveside, brief memorial prayers are repeated, followed by the recitation of the Kaddish prayer by the immediate mourners (mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter or spouse). This prayer, which becomes the high point of the burial ceremony, is a hymn of praise to God, a declaration of faith and sanctification of God’s name. The language of the Kaddish is Aramaic, and therefore most do not understand the words they utter. Nevertheless, this prayer is recognized as the emotional pinnacle of the burial rite, and the mourners are often unable to complete the Kaddish due to their excessive tears and emotion.
THE MOURNERS’ KADDISH
May His (God’s) great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that he created as He willed. May he give reign to His Kingship, cause his salvation to sprout, and near His Messiah in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, swiftly and soon. And let us say:
(Congregation) Amen, may His great name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, mighty, upraised and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be he. God is exceedingly beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that can be uttered in the world. And let us say: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven and good life upon us and upon all Israel, and let us say: Amen.
May God Who makes peace in the heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel, and let us say: Amen.
Traditional Prayer Book
At the end of the graveside burial service, the mourners pass through two lines of non-mourners who comfort them with the phrase, “May you be comforted by the community of those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.” Those who are present may wish to assist in the covering up of the grave by shovelling several mounds of dirt directly onto the coffin. This is seen in Jewish tradition as the final act of reverence that can be extended to the deceased. This ritual serves as a dose of reality for the mourners in their recognition and gradual acceptance of the finality of death, as well as a community response to the death of their loved one. While they may have had no control over the death which has recently visited them, this action allows them to re-assert some control over their lives. In addition, this filing in of the grave is a sign that he or she will not be left uncovered or unattended Even at death they will be looked after with dignity.
The mourners then continue home to begin the seven day mourning period known as shiva (Hebrew for the number seven). At this time the traditional Jewish laws of mourning shift toward showing respect and support for the living. The accompanying customs lead the mourners back from the pain of losing a loved one to the renewed tasks of living without their departed. The mourners will remain in their home throughout the shiva period, allowed to leave only to attend religious services at the synagogue if they are not held at home.
When the mourners return home from the cemetery, they wash their hands at a special basin which has been set up outside the front door. They symbolically “wash their hands” of death, as they begin the journey back from death to life. They then light a memorial candle which they will place in a prominent spot m their home. This candle, which burns for the entire seven day shiva period, symbolizes the flickering of the soul. In addition, it paradoxically represents the time left to the mourning period; when it is extinguished the family may once again leave their home and resume their life. A Meal of Condolence is prepared by friends of the family, and the mourners are seated at their table and served food. They are not expected to serve themselves, nor are they expected to be host or hostess to their guests during the week; rather their needs are at this time looked after by their friends. They are treated as guests in their own home, to spare them the work of worrying about the mundane details of life. This aspect of the home ritual following the funeral is perhaps the most difficult to observe, for in most cases the prevailing custom is to welcome visitors into one’s house. Being ill at ease and not in control in one’s own home is indeed difficult. Yet the anxiety clearly reflects and symbolizes the emotional state of the newly-bereaved mourner. Just as infants are fed by others who give them nourishment when they themselves cannot, so the mourners are now given nourishment by those who care for them. This edible nourishment is meant to be a harbinger of emotional nourishment yet to come.
Even the foods which are traditionally served at this meal are symbolic. Round foods are traditional, for the circle represents the way of life: today sad, tomorrow joyous. Hard-boiled eggs are eaten for this reason. In addition, the egg becomes firmer and stronger the longer it is boiled (unlike other foods which tend to disintegrate at consistently high temperatures), reflecting the community’s hope for the mourners to be able to withstand this initial period of mourning without themselves “cracking.”
The week of shiva is normally spent at home in the company of family and friends who come to visit and console the mourners. Worship services are often held at the home morning and evening. The Kaddish prayer which was recited at the cemetery is again recited during these services. Friends converse about the deceased, sharing and repeating stories or anecdotes which will remind the mourners of the good qualities of their beloved. Tears are frequent during shiva and serve as a catalyst for the healing that hopefully begins to take place. The mood during this week is a sober one on the day of the funeral and perhaps a day or two following. Then as the week proceeds the mood progressively lightens as the normal life-affirming tendencies of the mourners begin to re-surface. At the end of the week, to conclude shiva formally, the rabbi will often lead the family on a short walk outside the house. This walk serves to end shiva, and to allow the mourners the public permission they need to resume their lives.
The week of shiva serves as a magnificent emotional and psychological bridge from death to life. A week is consecrated to remember the deceased and to begin to consider how to deal with life without him or her. Then the moment of truth arrives when the mourners must begin to walk alone.
On the subsequent Hebrew anniversaries of death, the mourners attend services at the synagogue where they once again recite the Kaddish prayer. This day is called the yahrzeit (from the German meaning “the time of year,” therefore the anniversary), and is commemorated each year with the kindling of a twenty-four hour burning candle.
From beginning to end, the Jewish approach to death is one which lends dignity and. honor to the deceased, to the mourners and to the mourning process. It is a community-supported approach, and so assists in the sustenance of the Jewish community even as it assists in the sustenance of the mourners. A major part in this system is played by members of the hevra kaddisha who by their actions translate the demands of Jewish tradition into actual work of compassion.
The hevra kaddisha is the traditional Jewish burial society which provides for the spiritual purification and reverential disposal of the dead in accordance with the dictates of Jewish law and tradition. Its classical functions include addressing the corpse by Hebrew name to ask for forgiveness for any inadvertent disrespect in the performance of the ritual; recitation of traditional Hebrew prayers; preparation of the corpse by washing; dressing the body in a white shroud (and a prayer shawl for men) and sometimes placing a bag of earth from the land of Israel underneath the pillow; placing the body in its casket and closing the casket.
The origin of the hevra kaddisha is a relatively modern one. Although the need to care for the dead in a scrupulous and dignified manner is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (circa 500 CE), nonetheless the first hevra kaddishas were organized in Spain and in Germany in the 14th century. Their activity was confined to members of their respective groups only. The first known hevra kaddisha to cater to the needs of all members of the community was in Prague by Eleazar Ashkenazi in the year 1564. Its services were available to all members of the Jewish community, even if they were not members of the hevra and made no contribution toward it.
Today, many communities have their own hevra kaddisha, and most are of a community nature. In most large cities in North America, the hevra kaddisha is sponsored and organized by a local funeral home which caters to the needs of the entire Jewish community. In some larger cities, such as London, Ontario, Canada (population 315,000), the hevra kaddisha is a community endeavor, organized by the community itself. Volunteers on the hevra come from all the community synagogues and its services are available to members of all three synagogues. Sometimes the hevra kaddisha is a function of a single synagogue, and its services are available only to members of that synagogue.
It is considered to be an honor to serve on the hevra kaddisha because, according to Jewish law, the body must be disposed of with respect and dignity, and no monetary gain is allowed to come from this procedure. Many Jewish books and articles extol the hevra kaddisha as a way to deal with death in as dignified a way as possible. However, no one has as yet systematically considered the perceptions of the members of the hevra to ascertain their personal feelings and emotions as they perform this most crucial of Jewish rites. It is this task which I hope to perform.
Some of the areas which I will seek to address will include the history of the members’ involvement in the hevra kaddisha, their feelings as they perform the rite of tahara (the actual purification procedure), and how the meaning of the ritual affects (or does not affect) their perceptions of mortality. I will seek to ascertain what, if anything, “happens” to them as they perform the ritual act of tahara.
Structure and Method
During the months of June and October, 1994, I personally interviewed all the members of the hevra kaddisha in London, Ontario, eleven men and eleven women. Each individual interview took place in the respective homes in order to preserve their privacy and anonymity. In addition, I sought to create a feeling of being at home on their part, and to put them “at ease” in order to solicit the best and most relaxed responses possible. Each interview took approximately one hour.
I first spoke to the hevra kaddisha captains (“key actors”), male and female, in order to ascertain any pertinent knowledge about interpersonal relationships, including conflicts, which might impact on the resulting responses. There being no problems of this kind, I then proceeded to interview the remaining members of the hevra kaddisha. The interviews were informal, so as not to frighten or otherwise place any emotional obstacles in the way. One woman, a survivor of the Holocaust, declined to be interviewed for what she said were “personal reasons.” Approximately one month before I contacted the hevra members individually, I mailed them the following list of questions to consider, together with a brief explanation of the D.Min. Final Project and their part in it. I did so in order to give them time to consider their participation, as well as to begin to reflect on the theological and non-theological issues involved. Most were appreciative of this opportunity, since “no one has ever asked me these things before, and I really never thought about them before this.” I attempted to create open-ended questions to elicit the greatest variety of responses. These cognitive open-ended mapping questions attempted to disclose their feelings associated with the ritual.
The following letter and questions were sent to all London, Ontario Hevra Kaddisha participants:
June 10, 1994 (to male members)
Sept. 23, 1994 (to female members)
Dear Hevra Kaddisha member:
I am presently working on my doctorate in ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, NJ. The area of my interest is the meaning and function of ritual in everyday life, with a special emphasis on the Jewish traditions of death and mourning. In particular, I am very interested in the working of the Hevra Kaddisha and the ritual of tahara.
I am writing to you to ask your permission to interview you about your work on the hevra. I am interested in whatever you have to tell me which will enlighten me about the effect that serving on the hevra kaddisha and performing the rite of tahara has on you. The enclosed are sample questions which might begin to stimulate your feelings about this important subject.
I will be in touch to set up interview times with you at your convenience. You may certainly decline my invitation if you would feel uncomfortable talking about this.
You will be hearing from me soon, and I thank you in advance for your help.
Rabbi Melvin J. Glazer
Hevra Kaddisha Questionnaire
I. PROCEDURAL QUESTIONS
How did you get started on the hevra kaddisha?
Tell me about the first tahara you performed.
What is your first thought after receiving the “call” that your services are needed?
How do you feel, what are you thinking about when you walk into the room and see the deceased lying there covered up by a sheet? Does it “get easier” the longer you do it?
What do you think about as you perform the required rituals?
Does tahara ever become simply routine? How do you prevent this from happening?
Are you emotionally drained by the time you finish?
Do you do anything special to unwind, such as go out for coffee?
Do you ever cry?
What part of this ritual is your least favorite?
Do you socialize outside of the funeral home with other members of the hevra?
Does it affect you differently when you personally knew the deceased?
What gives you the most satisfaction?
II. THEOLOGICAL QUESTIONS
Why do you stay a member of the hevra?
Are you a member of the hevra kaddisha because you feel “commanded” or because you choose freely to be?
Why do you think a hevra kaddisha has been so important to this Jewish community?
What do you think about as you perform this ritual?
How is God present when you perform tahara?
When you die, do you want to be attended to by the hevra?
Would you like your son/daughter to serve on a hevra kaddisha?
How does your immediate family feel about your serving on the hevra kaddisha?
Do you talk about being on the hevra?
How has the existence of the hevra kaddisha changed the Jewish character of the London Jewish community? Has it become “more Jewish” as a result?
Do you feel that you are a “better Jew” than you were before as a result of serving on the hevra? Are you a “better Jew” than those who do not serve?
How has serving on the hevra changed your feelings about your own death? About death in general?
As a long-time member of several hevra kaddishas, I have my own feelings connected to the performance of this ritual, which naturally give rise to my personal theological categories of meaning and evaluation. For me, serving on the hevra kaddisha...
1. Brings me directly into the sphere of the holy. Here is an act which is performed for its own sake; there is no reward for this ritual, and in most instances it is performed anonymously. In a society which has few “windows on the holy,” few opportunities for one to feel as if s\he is performing a ritual simply because God commands it, the hevra kaddisha certainly provides that opportunity.
2. Allows me to face my own mortality. When I finish preparing the body and I exit the funeral home, feelings of gratitude fill me: better I should be alive, able to prepare yet another Jew to meet his Maker, than someone else should be standing over me preparing my body. Once more I stand in the presence of Death, and once more I am privileged to walk away, still alive.
These are the two theological responses I have to my own participation on the hevra kaddisha. In my project I am testing my own hypotheses to see if these feelings are shared by other members of the group. If they are not, I will be able to document what feelings and responses are actually present for them as they perform this ritual act.
The underlying theory which supports these interviews is the cognitive theory that assumes that we can describe what people think by listening to what they say – I will ask questions and will listen to what they say and how they say it, to see if I can detect a logical, coherent and consistent pattern in their responses which will or will not support my theories.
Not every hevra kaddisha member responded to every question, and the one-on-one format of each interview often led to free-wheeling discussions. In fact, I began each meeting by inviting all interviewed simply to tell me everything they wished about their service on the hevra kaddisha. This they did with great passion, including much anecdotal information and sharing of their pride with me.
To simplify the multitude of responses I will list them by question and then subsequently analyze them. I will deal with the women’s and men’s hevras as two separate organizations for two reasons: 1) They are entirely distinct, never coming in contact one with another; and 2) The responses of the two groups showed marked differences and thus warrant separate discussions.
Finally, not every question I asked in advance in the questionnaire was responded to in the interview. One of the fascinating aspects of these interviews for me was to hear where individual emphases were put. Some concentrated on the physical “job” of preparing the body, while others responded much more to their own reasons for joining and remaining on the hevra and what they personally received from the experience.
WOMEN’S HEVRA KADDISHA
1. How did you get started on the hevra?
“I am a trained nurse, so I could do it. My parents are both members of a hevra kaddisha in South Africa, so I volunteered.”
“I am a nurse, and have served on the hevra for 30 years.
“I don’t know why I’m on it. I’m a scientist, I work in a hospital, so death doesn’t bother me.
Eight years ago I thought they must need people to do this, so I volunteered.”
“Our rabbi called and said they needed volunteers. I’m a nurse, so if the community needed it, I did it.”
“I was looking for ways to be attached to the Jewish community, when a synagogue leader made an appeal for the hevra kaddisha. At the time, most of the members were old and we needed new blood, so I was moved to join. I felt that if the young don’t do it, we will lose it.”
“I came to it as grief work, after my father died eleven years ago. I did not have an open relationship with him, yet I spent much time with him at the end. I called to volunteer, though I had no idea what spirituality was. I guess I was looking for a personal relationship with God.”
“I am an RN. Twenty eight years ago, within a year of my father’s death, it was befitting to join. My great grandfather founded a hevra kaddisha in Timishou, Transylvania.”
“I am not a. medical person, and I had never seen or touched a dead body. But when my mother-in-law died almost thirteen years ago, I was looking for meaning, so I joined the hevra kaddisha.
“I am a nurse, but serving on the hevra kaddisha is a family tradition. My parents in Ottawa and my uncles and aunts all serve as I do.”
“Fourteen years ago I joined together with a friend of mine. It helped me to deal with my mother’s death.”
2. Tell me about the first tahara (purification by washing) you performed.
“The first one, I was numb, but I felt good I was there. We were responding to a Divine Commandment. I was impressed at how they respected the body. There was a sense of dignity.”
“It was a tender moment. The first one was strange, but there was no emotional connection.”
“She seemed at rest, and there was a sense of peace on her lace.
“There was a lot of “chatter” and stories about her.”
3. What is your first thought after receiving the “call” that your services arc needed?
“I think about those I know. The memories begin even as I drive downtown. I think of her husband and her family, and of the last time I saw her.”
“When I get the call? My heart sinks. Even when the time is inconvenient, I don’t like to say no.”
“I never say no to the phone call. We are the busiest of the busy people in town, but for this we make time.”
“I cancel appointments to do this.”
“It’s only an hour, it’s not a big deal and it’s not inconvenient.”
“Oh, no, not again! then a different way of thinking gets switched on, and the deceased becomes the priority.”
4. What do you think about as you perform the required rituals?
“When they are dressed and in the coffin, there is a deep spiritual feeling that permeates the group. It makes me feel good about myself.”
“Each time they remove the sheet, I get a shot of shock and anxiety. Even though I know even in my car what’s going to happen, it doesn’t help.”
“It is like handling a baby who must trust those who care for it to do so with dignity.”
“It appeals to me that I am the last one to touch this person, especially if they have no family. It keeps you from thinking. You just do it.”
“It is important for the dead to be handled by those who knew her. That makes it personal.”
“You get a sense of closure; it’s one last favor you are doing for her. It’s not just a robot thing; you want to do a last thing, and you get a sense of satisfaction when she’s dressed and placed in the coffin.”
“There is no beginning ritual, and there ought to be, especially for us extremely busy women.”
“You are gentle, you take special care. She has been living, and now she’s not. I am also thinking about me-what will I look like? Will I be disfigured? Will I have an odor? Will I be overweight? I hope I’m not giving them that trouble when my time comes.”
“It is the same as dressing a baby. Here is the miracle of life or death, helpless, dependent on you to give them dignity. It’s up to us.”
“I feel sad when we don’t know them. And when there are lots of bodily fluids, it’s the worst.”
“The hevra kaddisha is different-this is the last time, and she is totally helpless. It’s like a baby who is helpless and totally dependent on me.”
“I am very emotional, especially when I know them. Sometimes it is emotionally exhausting, especially after autopsies or when there is a lot of bleeding. Then the physical gets in the way of our caring.”
“The young ones are the worst to deal with.
“Sometimes I am affected, sometimes not. Sometimes I feel really good.”
“A feeling of quietness and awe envelop me, another world feeling. A feeling transcending time and place.
5. Does tahara ever become routine? How do you try to prevent that from happening?
“We talk about the person.”
“I am bothered by the ‘chatter’, [i] it is disrespectful and it removes you from the seriousness of the task. Seriousness is an important part of it.”
“The ‘chatter’ is not only recollections, it is part of the grieving process. The hevra kaddisha needs to deal with its own grief. It breaks the tension.
Sometimes there is no chatter because of so much distress. The chatter marks the beginning of memories, it is the connection to the World to Come.”
“The “chatter” is great, because it prevents routinization. It helps break the tension, and for new people (new hevra members) it is a good introduction to the Jewish community. Even “strangers” get “chatter.”
‘Chatter’ prevents it from becoming mechanical.”
“Some of it (‘chatter’) is a way of escaping the seriousness of the matter of tahara
“To know that it is your friends who will care for you, remember you, joke about you-it is the last thing you can do for a close friend, especially if you have not seen them recently.”
“We talk about them and “to” them: “she looks so peaceful,” “let me fix your hair.” No one ever jokes.”
“The ‘chatter’ is to relieve stress-ours.”
6. Are you “drained” by the time you finish?
“When I leave, I feel giddy.”
“There is a smell when I leave that lasts at least until morning.”
“They look at peace.
“It is the kind of feeling you get when you help someone out at work. A kind of “good exhaustion.”
“I don’t feel so much drained as I feel I need to refocus and to come back to normal.”
7. Do you do anything special to unwind? Do you “go out for coffee?”
“I used to go out with two others for “release,” but not any more. Now, I go home and get on with my life.”
“When you leave, you re-align your own priorities, especially when you prepare someone you know. We wash our hands and say good-bye to each other.”
“Afterwards, we wash our hands, as if to “wash our hands” of death. Then we catch up on each other. We need to affirm that we are still alive!
“At the end, we just go our separate ways. I unwind in the car. Afterwards, I shower and get back into my “routine.”
“I have a warm and wonderful feeling driving home. A warm glow, a warm peacefulness.”
8 – Do you socialize outside of the funeral home with other members of the hevra?
“Social relationships do not start from the hevra.”
“I bond with the other women when we are there, but not after.”
“We share an intimacy with each other, like with former boyfriends and girlfriends.”
“I am not friends with anyone after we perform the rites.”
9. Does it affect you differently when you personally knew the deceased?
“When I saw Mrs. Ginsberg (who was a family friend) it was very strange and difficult.”
“When we don’t know them, it’s a “job,” but we will still try to find a personal connection.”
“The young ones are the worst to deal with.”
“When I know them, I start to think of myself.”
“It is especially hard when I know her.”
10. What gives you the most satisfaction?
“I feel a sense of responsibility to the person, to their family and to the Jewish community –
“I feel that I am a caretaker, and I value that feeling.”
“Even if I don’t believe in it, they do, so I do it for them. For me, it is wonderful and very moving that the women of this community prepare other women of this community. It creates a strong bond.”
“I feel a connectedness to an ancient tradition. I feel needed. Without me, they can’t do it properly. It’s part of my life, it is what I do. I don’t evaluate it, I just do it.”
“I feel the reverence of taking care of the body, which is a vessel for the soul. We need to respect that and to honor that.”
“This is the ultimate “hessed” (act of loving-kindness), something you do totally free of any desire of looking for a reward. It is pure.”
“Taking care of someone is a privilege. They must be taken care of with dignity. I care enough to care for them. I am helping someone else who cannot help herself. She lies there “helpless,” I am doing the last “something special” for her.”
“To respect and to care for her, to treat her body with reverence, as if she still were a person.”
“To know that I might have of some help to the deceased or her family, and to know that I was able to do something for my community.”
1. Why do you stay a member of the hevra kaddisha?
“I feel good doing it, it is the last “good turn” you can do for someone. It is a different part of your life, very different from working at the hospital. There it is a “job,” here it is a “mitzvah” (a Divine Command and/or a Good Deed). Even if it were not a mitzvah, I would do it-it makes you feel good, and I’m pleased I do it.”
“It’s the way we say goodbye, and I’m glad to be able to do it. It doesn’t cost me a lot of time or emotion, and it is necessary. It does give men a good feeling, and
I’m doing a mitzvah. Whatever the ritual is, we do it. It gives you comfort, it’s been done forever, and it keeps the (Jewish) people together.”
“It is a sign of human-ness: even though she’s dead, this person belongs to us.”
“We are women, we create life, so we have different perceptions (from men) about life and death. It is part of my identity, so much so that I wrote about it on my application for Vice-Principal of my school! I’m here for life, and no one ever tells you that when you join! It is a very caring way to end someone’s life.
“It gives me a connection with people who are grieving (the mourning family) even though they don’t know it. I’m in it for what it gives me, also this is my way of contributing to the sacred life of my faith community. Hevra Kaddisha puts it all together for me.”
“The hevra kaddisha is important. It is a mitzvah that I do that gives me sense of being able to do things that otherwise I would not do. Even with my physical disability (major back problem, walks with a cane, cannot drive anymore), I push myself to do it, to prove to myself that I can do it. Performing taharah is life-giving to me on all kinds of levels.”
“Why do I stay? This is my contribution to the Jewish community. And, it helps me with my own relationships.”
“It is a ritual which gives mc pleasure. It is the last respect you can show someone. It is an ending. If it is also a beginning, I’ll find out.”
“I stay on it because I am needed.
2. How is God present when you perform taharah?
“It is a mitzvah and as I get older, I feel like doing more to move to a higher level of spirituality.”
“There is a spirituality present, especially with someone in no pain anymore.”
“The presence of God? I am bathed in a spiritual feeling, particularly because I had helped put her to rest.”
“This felt like the work of God, It’s like walking into sacred space. I could walk into that “space,” and I didn’t need to intellectualize it, analyze it or understand it.”
“How is God present? There is a certain heaviness of knowing that you and she (the deceased) are different. When the body is dressed, there is a tangible feeling of peacefulness, both for her and for me. This peacefulness is very different from the initial heaviness. God’s Presence is especially felt as you can see and feel the peace setting in.”
“I’m not sure I believe in God, but there is definitely the good feeling of sharing the awesomeness of the finality of life. It is a contagious feeling.”
“God is the good feeling of the good people who come and who care.”
3. Why do you think a hevra kaddisha has been so important to this Jewish community?
“As members of the two Traditional synagogues, we have to realize that ‘at the end of the day,’ everybody is Jewish.”
“When people die, they need to return to their roots, no matter how Jewish or not they lived their lives.”
“There is something special about a community that takes care of its own in a way which ensures their dignity and the sanctity of their lives. It’s great that London has a hevra kaddisha. This is part of that which lets Judaism survive from birth to death.”
“This is a community need and a community responsibility. It speaks to the richness of Jewish life. Having this enriches London’s Jewish community.”
“It is so important to this community, even though it is taken for granted. The community needs to recognize the hevra kaddisha. We should be appreciated. It would be a terrible loss if we did not have it. A small community needs this.”
“The words “hevra kaddisha” which mean a holy society, are truly befitting, especially in a small town which still does this voluntarily. Hevra kaddisha is an important part of the Jewish society in London. Without it, London would be decreased Jewishly.”
“It is an important aspect of the Jewish community, and it gives us pride.”
“In the Shoah (Holocaust), so many Jews died with no dignity. This is the opposite. This is the way we do it, and we win. We are still a people. We Jews are still here!”
4. Do you talk about being on the hevra kaddisha?
“I never talk about it. It is private. I don’t want to be admired for it.
When they turned relatively older, I talked to my kids about why I would disappear for an hour or so several times a year.”
“This is something I do quietly, in the background It is private, a secret. That is the best part of it.”
“Hevra Kaddisha goes beyond the classroom and beyond the ego. It is quiet, private and hidden.”
“I enjoy telling people what I do.”
“I have not enough words to begin to tell how much I care about them all!”
5. Do you feel that you are a “better Jew” than you were before as a result of serving on the hevra? Are you a “better Jew” than- those who do not serve?
“Am I a better Jew for doing this? Probably. Although it is a tremendous honor to serve on the hevra kaddisha, I don’t feel that my contribution is any big deal.”
“It doesn’t make me a better person.
“I’m not a better Jew, I’m a better person. Because I am Jewish, this is what I can do for others.”
“I think it is the best thing I do as a Jew. Yes. It enriches my own life, and provides me with a perspective on myself that I discovered.”
“Being a good person ~ being a good Jew. I am not a better Jew than those who do not serve on the hevra
“I like being on the hevra. I don’t feel more Jewish because I can’t feel more Jewish. I am Jewish down to my toenails!”
“I am not a better Jew, I just like to do this.”
“I am not a better Jew. It is important to the community, and I can do it. But, it’s not a big deal.”
“I am absolutely not religious, and I do not believe in God. After so much anti-Semitism, physical and cultural, and after so many Jews died with no dignity, I cannot believe. Why did six million Jews have to die, and why was there so much suffering? I do not do this for the ritual, I do it for humanity.”
6. How has serving on the hevra changed your feelings about your own death? About death in general?
“I do think of my own death I have a serious heart condition from which I may die. I prefer to be cremated, but if will bring my children the same good feelings it brings me, then let the hevra kaddisha prepare me.”
“I want to sew shrouds for me and my husband. It would have meaning for me to do that. The doing of the task reminds me of my own mortality. I want to be cremated, yet I respect others’ wishes for me to be buried.”
“I do think about my own death. Sometimes I joke about it to relieve tension. I want those who knew me to perform tahara
“I begin to think about my mother’s death, how her transition will be.”
“I wonder who will do me? I hope it will be people who know me and love me.”
“It has made me much less afraid of death. I have looked death in the face, and it isn’t so bad.”
“Each time I do it, I hope there is someone to care for me when I go.”
“It is reassuring to know that I will be well taken care of, that as I do this for others they will do for me.”
“The hevra kaddisha is a way to take death which is universal, and attempt to make it personal.”
MEN’S HEVRA KADDISHA
1. How did you get started on the hevra kaddisha?
“My father was a member. Even though we never talked about it, I knew it was important. A synagogue elder brought me in. It was right after my mother died, and I felt an obligation. Just as someone did it for her, I must do this for others.”
“A synagogue president invited me to join four years ago.”
“When I returned to Thunder Bay after teaching at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel, I was invited to join. It was hard to get people to join. The older members had left or died and the younger Jews had left Thunder Bay. When I came to London, a synagogue leader asked me to join the hevra.“
“I joined 15 years ago, at the invitation of a synagogue elder when I was 45 years old. I am now 60.”
“Twenty years ago, a synagogue elder who was the head of the hevra kaddisha asked me to volunteer because I am a doctor and “doctors could handle it.” I was always in awe of the elder members of the community who served, and none of them were doctors. I decided that if they could do it, so could I.”
“I have been a member for three years. My dad, who is a member, recruited me to volunteer.”
“My friend on the hevra got me involved ten years ago. I am a doctor, so he thought I could do this kind of task.”
2. What is your first thought after receiving “the call” that you are needed?”
I feel good that I am called, and I would feel terrible if I were not called.”
“I never gave any phony excuses when the phone call came.”
3. Does tahara ever become “routine?” How do you prevent this from happening?
“Inside the room when we talk about the deceased, it makes it personal.“
“It is a positive thing that we make comments doing these rites, that makes it personal. The person is no longer anonymous.”
“Each one requires a different physical technique, since some had an autopsy, some an IV, and some internal bleeding. We talk about the details of death as a way of getting closer to the person. In addition, I believe the soul is still there, there is still a “person” there, so I talk to the person lying on the table. This procedure is cleansing spiritually but physically degrading, so before we begin we ask him to forgive us for whatever physically degrading actions we might inadvertently commit against his body as we do our work.”
“Why do we talk? It’s like whistling in the dark.”
“The talk is our relief from anxiety.”
“Talking is the personalization, a being with the person. It is for me the intentionality of the process.”
4. Are you “drained” by the time you finish? Do you do anything special to unwind?
“Sometimes I walk out feeling that I have done the world’s greatest mitzvah (Divine Commandment).”
“I just do it and then go home.”
5. What gives you the most satisfaction?
“I was doing something that had to be done, otherwise nobody else would do it.
I am glad to go.”
“I am content in doing the job correctly.”
“I feel good, it is part of life’s process.”
“Saying goodbye, especially to someone you know. You cannot get any closer to them than this. It is the ultimate intimacy. You do this because it should be done, and sometimes you get a real payoff. The payoff is a sense of closure, of bringing a relationship to its conclusion with dignity. I am awed at being in the presence of a dead body.
“I feel good knowing that I have said a ‘Jewish goodbye.'”
“This is a job, a Jewish job that I can do.”
“It is the most pleasant Jewish thing I do!”
“I feel good about doing it. Somebody has to do it. It might as well be me. When I walk out of there, I know I did it because I should do it, because it’s not something that everyone can do or should do.”
“The act of four people from the community helping someone else is why I keep doing this. The ritual helps re-enforce my pride in the whole system.”
1 – Why do you stay a member of the hevra kaddisha?
“It is the only selfless task I do in my life. I feel proud that I can do this pure act.”
“It’s my obligation to the Jewish community and the synagogue, an easy way for me to discharge my debt. This is my way.”
“It is one of my ways of being a part of this Jewish community.”
“Similar to the first bath a baby gets, this is his last bath. I am in loco parentis for him, he depends totally on me.”
“God wants me to do it. Who is going to do it if not me [sic]? I do it out of a sense of duty: somebody’s got to do it, so I do it.”
“I feel it is my duty as a loyal Jew. It is my major contribution to my people.”
“I do this just because it is the right Jewish thing to do.”
“That (the elders) did it for the sake of cleansing the soul, but I do it for the sake of Jewish continuity. It is not important for the dead, but for the living.”
“I believe that this is a good thing that I do. Everybody has a job in this world that they are supposed to do and this is mine.”
“I enjoy it. This is a job which has to do with the ultimate respect, and the sense that you are doing a mitzvah (Divine Command).”
“Just as I do this for someone, I believe that someone will do this for me.”
“I am there to do a job, it is my duty to make sure it is done right.”
“Nobody knows what we do. This is the ultimate act of compassion. There is no ego involved. It is perfect Judaism. This is what noble Jews do. You get no money for this, no community honors, there is no rationality and no pats on the back. That’s why I love it!”
“I confront my own mortality when I perform tahara, but mostly I am concerned with doing the job right. This is a quiet and meaningful job I can do, and nobody knows about it.”
2. Why do, you think the hevra kaddisha has been so important to this Jewish community?
“It has to do with the advantage of being a small town. The physical intimacy we feel in this small town Jewish community makes possible the spiritual and emotional “grand intimacy” at the end when we perform the rites.”
“The hevra kaddisha brings our small Jewish community together. We cooperate, there is mutual respect, and it is the one unifying force in town where there are no politics. We soar over pettiness.”
“There is a feeling of comradeship, of fellowship. Here there is a lack of pettiness.”
“It increases the Jewish fabric of the community.”
“Just like people take the same positions around the table each time we meet, so each synagogue takes its own positions on the various issues. There is a safety in knowing all is well.”
“This is the only Jewish organization where it does not matter where you belong (to which synagogue).”
“We are non-denominational, and I think it’s wonderful.”
“It is not valued in the community, and it should be.”
3. How is God present when you perform tahara?
“Religion is a positive force, even if I don’t know if God exists.”
God is present when we say the Hebrew blessings. The words affirm God’s presence for me.”
“When we light the candles at the beginning, that triggers the image of God for me.”
“God is present for me in the bifurcation of what is going on here. On one hand, there is a task to be performed which happens to involve the physical cleansing of a dead body. On the other hand, the dead body itself has an emotional impact on me. God helps me deal with all this. As well, God’s Presence is real for me when we wash the deceased in water–>
“God is not involved.”
“Is God there? I’m not sure I believe in God, but maybe they did.”
“For me, there is no God, but there is a community, and that is what is present in the room.”
“There is a connection to God. It is in the feelings that I have when I perform these rites.”
“It is an honor for me to do this. There is a specialness and a holiness, a sense of carrying on God’s work without talking about it. I feel a special affinity to God in that room. Serving on the hevra kaddisha is for me a “special” thing to do.”
“There is no ostentation in this. It is a simple, pure act with no reward. The ritual is a vehicle for intimacy: between me and the body and between me and God.”
4. Do you feel that you are “a better Jew” because you serve on the hevra? “I feel good about myself and what I do. I’m doing a mitzvah (Divine Command). For me, the rituals and the details define my Judaism.”
“I don’t want points for this, it is something quiet and meaningful, something I do because it has to get done. It is for me the way to do a Jewish act, a link with my Jewish past. I am proud I do it, it is the right thing to do.”
“I feel like a better person rather than a better Jew.”
“I don’t feel more pure, but I do feel I have done a mitzvah. And I do feel I am a better Jew for doing this.”
“It’s not a big thing in my life, but I just keep doing it.”
“I was “bred to be Jewish,” it is a way of life.”
5. Additional comments (from women and men)
“Death is real, but it is not final.”
“Without death, there is no need for religion.”
“Death teaches us about life.”
“It is the details of tahara which shield us against a fixation on death. In 1947 when I was five years old, I saw pictures of corpses in Bergen Belsen, and these had a profound effect on me. These were my people who had been victimized. I, too, felt as if I had been victimized and murdered.
“I do think he’s going “somewhere,” but I don’t know where. Why else would we be so careful if there’s nothing else?”
“You cannot bury a Jew in a suit. That’s not the Jewish way.”
“Unknown to either of us, I found out that my twin sister serves on a hevra kaddisha in Mexico City.”
“We each tend to stand in the same place every time, and we have self-assigned roles. She (another member) is the story-teller. She is the one who, because she has been in London so long, knows the best stories. She always starts off.”
In order to achieve a better understanding of the interview findings, I will discuss their parameters based on an understanding of current anthropological and psychological theories of ritual. These discussions will be followed by an appreciation of the findings from several classical Jewish theological perspectives. In each case, the data will be utilized to supplement and to illustrate the theoretical material, and to apply that material not only to the Jewish community as a whole but particularly to the members of the hevra kaddisha. I will attempt to test the coherence of these theories on these levels to see if the theoretical holds true for the individual volunteers as well as for the community
I. An Anthropological Explanation
The scholarly investigation of the factors that motivate individual and societal behavior patterns is the central task of social scientists. Their work, generally conducted within a secular framework, has suggested paradigms that emerge from the close examination, documentation and analysis of individuals and their communities. Recent scholarship in the fields of cultural anthropology and clinical psychology has expanded their respective findings, thereby creating a new sub-field which recognizes the religious dimension of individual and social behavior. Anthropologists and psychologists who have studied the phenomenology of religion have presented a variety of new perspectives on the impact of religious observance on the believing community. Cultural anthropologists, Harvey Goldberg and Barbara Myerhoff in particular, have isolated the paradigm of performative ritual developed by Victor Turner and S. J. Tambiah and expanded it to include the use of texts within the ritual enactment establishing the link between the constituent behavioral patterns and the underlying belief system.
Goldberg observes that many of the social patterns of the Jews in medieval society were shaped by the texts they used on a regular basis [ii]. He claims that it is possible to scrutinize their texts in order to extract not only the directives for action in a specific situation, but to develop fundamental statements of belief and thereby authenticate a variety of religious experiences. He cautions, however, that a socio-historical investigation must be conducted simultaneously to account for non-Jewish cultural influences.
Both Goldberg and Myerhoff base their respective explanations on the structure of performative ritual that was originally developed by Turner and Tambiah. While their definitions of ritual vary, it is generally accepted that a ritual consists of an ordered repeated sequence of gestures and activities which are performed at a specific time and/or in a specific place using specific objects. Turner, whose work was based on extensive field observation, notes that “decisions to perform rituals were made in response to a crisis in the social life of the village,”[iii] and “that those specifically designed for the benefit of the sick were regarded as having great potency.” [iv] He differentiates between spontaneous, normative and ideologically based rituals to search out the objectives and results of the performance. The performance of the rituals of tahara (ritual purification) by members of the hevra kaddishaas it impacts on the life of many of its residents. The hevra falls under the category of “normative” rituals which have been automatically built into the fabric of the community. For the members of the hevra as well, this ritual is a normative response to death, one which happens every time and all the time. It is stabilized, and helps both the community and the members of the hevra to respond to death in a calm and calming manner. certainly offer a helpful response to the crisis of death in the Jewish community. In London Ontario, a city whose Jewish population approaches only 700 families, each death is personal, truly a “village phenomenon,”
According to Turner, the ritual itself has the potential to transform a chaotic situation into one which reflects a stabilized status quo. That is precisely what having a hevra kaddisha does for the London Jewish community and for members of the hevra themselves. The community is comforted by knowing that in a situation over which there is absolutely no control, the community by its agents on the hevra do assert a measure of control in its physical and spiritual preparation of the body for burial. The community is proud of its volunteers, even if it rarely thanks them publicly Some of the members of the hevra themselves see their service as a means of allowing the chaos of death to be a vehicle for them to prepare the body and render it “at peace,” while at the same time transporting themselves to a place of peace and serenity. Death can never be controlled, but it can serve as a vehicle to peace–for the community, for the dead, and for the members of the hevra kaddisha.
Tambiah defines ritual as “a collective or communal enactment that is purposive (devoted to the achievement of a particular objective) which embodies an awareness that it is different from an ordinary everyday event. [v]” He identifies a dual aspect in performed rituals: the formally prescribed components whose purpose is to establish particular rules of behavioral etiquette, and the variable individual modifications. [vi] While the rules and procedures of the hevra are formalized and identical for each procedure, there are of course individual differences owing to the differences in age, degree of health and length of time lived in London. Many of the comments attest to the differing responses of those on the hevra to strangers in town or particularly heavy bodies. It is difficult to prepare someone you know, but much more difficult to prepare someone not known or someone grossly ill or in poor physical condition. The hevra exists for anyone who needs it, but the degree of personal involvement in each case certainly fluctuates based on these anthropological components. While the music, rhythm, chants, and dances are constant, the actors and audience change with each performance. London does not call the same members to serve each time, but rather alternates from among the total number of volunteers. Some (women) said that they would be honored to be called for every procedure, while some said that “once in a while” was enough for them.
According to Tambiah, a ritual becomes performative if it fulfills three requirements: 1) when saying something is also doing something as a conventional act (see Chapter 10 for formula and liturgy of tahara); 2) when it is a staged performance in which participants experiencing the event are intensely involved (each member, because there are only five or six volunteers at a tahara, is intensely involved with the details of the procedures), and 3) when the inherent values are attached to and inferred by the actors during the performance (such as compassion, caring for the dead as one cares for a baby, etc.). The emerging “working definition,” includes all of the above elements. “It is constituted of patterned and ordered sequences of words and acts, often expressed in multiple media, whose content and arrangement are characterized in varying degree by conventionality, rigidity, fusion and repetition.” [vii] The actions of the hevra kaddisha give the community and the volunteers both a “safe” place to stand in the face of death, perhaps the scariest place of all to be.
Barbara Myerhoff clarifies the structural components of performative ritual presented by Turner and Tambiah and by documenting their conclusions based on her observations of rituals of an intensely personal nature. Utilizing the metaphor of theatre she capitalizes on a highly charged emotional link between the individuals and the performance. She claims that “because they are dramatic in form, rituals persuade us by our own senses, appealing to us through colour, smell, music, dance, food and rhythm. We perform rituals, and doing becomes believing.”[viii], She suggests that rituals performed at life-cycle events have the power to convince the participants that their lives are in order and they are in control. “Rituals allow people to manoeuvre, fight on their own terms, choose the times, places, conditions and shape their claims.”[ix] She cautions, however, that there may be an inherent danger in the performative aspect of a ritual in that once the ritual is incorporated into standardized usage, it runs the risk of becoming conspicuously artificial or overly theatrical to the point of becoming meaningless. That will not happen to the Jewish community or the hevra kaddisha, in part because of the “chatter” which allows the members both to alleviate their anxiety and to personalize the rites as well.
The ideological/cultural component inherent in the description of performative ritual presented by Turner and Tambiah is needed to reinforce Goldberg’s and Myerhoff’s work with respect to the role played by religion. Specifically, this role is to explain what happens as being reflective of a cosmic order, i.e., by viewing the underlying structure and pattern of life, with the assurance that everything indeed has its proper place. According to Lawrence Hoffman, “all ritual expresses the deepest human yearnings for order, meaning, and structure in what would otherwise be utter chaos.”[x] When everyday acts become recognizable rituals, their interpretation and reinterpretation can serve as a basic feature of social life.
From the anthropological and “performative ritual” standpoint, the hevra kaddisha provides a sense of order, meaning and structure both to the Jewish community as a whole and to its members in particular. Without it, death and its partners fear and anxiety would certainly prevail in the community Because of the work of the hevra, order can prevail over the fear and anxiety associated with death.
II. A Psychological Examination
Clinical psychologists have added to this investigation by examining the factors that contribute to an amelioration of anxiety in response to death. This examination is based on an assessment which recognizes that individuals continue to worship youth, productivity and achievement, thereby making their confrontation with death increasingly tormenting. As discussed above with reference to anthropological descriptions of performative ritual, some psychologists have suggested that religious rites such as the hevra kaddisha ritual are invented as a means to control the otherwise uncontrollable and to accept the inevitable in as positive and meaningful way as possible. This “controlling the uncontrollable” and “accepting the inevitable” holds true for the community and members of the hevra kaddisha. Death is indeed a mystery. The hevra kaddisha allows the community and the members to “touch the mystery” and then to go beyond it.
According to Erwin Goodenough, the invention of rituals provides a psychologically sound means of responding to mental anguish and physical pain The effect of the performance of the ritual serves to diminish “an overpowering terror which seizes an individual as never before.” [xi] Faced with this “tremendum,” a religious individual is capable, by means of a ritual observance, to find a modicum of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. Perhaps the belief in a “World to Come” has as its original function a way of providing hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. In Goodenough’s view, religion derives its power and influence over its adherents from the universal need for security. “Religion has been the psychiatry of the ages and must necessarily remain as the psychiatry of the masses.”[xii] An individual can choose to perpetuate the illusion that he or she is helpless and unable to maintain control over feelings and actions, or he or she can actively pursue a means of control by consciously participating in an exercise that allows confronting the tremendum head-on. Goodenough claims that the dynamic quality of, psychotherapy played out through repetitive ritual performances serves as a means by which an individual may deal with the control of the tremendum, and results in calming and increasing one’s individual creative power. The success of the individual’s ability to succeed in this venture, lies not in the performance of the ritual per se, but rather in one’s belief in the efficacy of the performance. Here ritual and theology intersect. Many comments of those interviewed spoke of “s/he is now at peace, and many themselves spoke of their own sense of being “at peace” at the ritual’s conclusion, thereby clearly attesting to the psychological value inherent in the ritual. In addition, the acts of the hevra kaddisha clearly put the Jewish community “at peace,” able now to proceed with the on-going details of the funeral and mourning period.
Through acts which encourage recollection of the past, reconciliation with oneself by accepting the past together with a determined commitment to change one’s present condition, an individual emerges renewed and strengthened. Reminiscence of the past is thus regarded by many as a developmental stage whereby this act itself perpetuates wellbeing. One of the major discoveries I made in this work is the existence of the “chatter” which goes on during most of the ritual. Although the traditional mode of tahara is that of silence, London’s hevra kaddisha talks about the deceased. Stories are told and personal memories are shared, all in an attempt to personalize the moment and the procedure. The “chatter” also serves to de-demonize the fear of death that is natural, and to ameliorate the normal anxiety that can be pervasive and even paralyzing. For a member of the Jewish community, a life-long devotion to religion enables one to integrate the theological conception of death as it was expressed in rabbinic Judaism; namely, the existence of a distinctive fate for the body as contrasted with the fate of the soul. Rather than viewing the onset of death as a demoralizing situation, one can view it as being an opportunity to acknowledge the value derived from religion. The effects produced by the hevra kaddisha ritual thus allay the mourner’s fear and allow that mourner to evaluate his or her own life, anticipate his or her life in the world to come, and contemplate the legacy he or she leaves behind. Members also use the opportunity to evaluate their own future, whether it be as a member of the Jewish community and all that entails, or whether it be an opportunity to wonder about the world to come and to contemplate their place in history.
In Religion and the Unconscious, Ann and Barry Ulanov investigate the intertwining of religion and depth psychology. They suggest that, taken together, these two disciplines are the source of our knowledge of human interiority, and provide the means by which an individual can begin the process of accepting and living with the knowledge thus acquired. Serving on the hevra kaddisha certainly does have the power to change its members. All of them are affected by what they do. Coming into personal contact with death and surviving this contact, humanizes and elevates them in a way which brings them real pride. The Ulanovs claim that the religious experience affects the psyche and has the power to change the individual, so that life takes on a “before” and “after” quality. All on the hevra remember their first procedure vividly, and every one can readily talk about his or her feelings after being on the hevra for however many years they have served. Though some say that they would not miss the hevra if London did not have one, it is clear that there is a sense of quiet joy in all the volunteers. They tend to be buoyed by their service, proud and un-anxious in the face of death.
Religion safeguards human sanity and defends the individuality of the person, providing him with the power to make independent and autonomous decisions.[xiii] Through the sequence of history, we experience peak moments such as death that are essential to the development of our psyche. And a religious man or woman, who adds the language of God to these experiences and understands its revelatory message, attains “a more direct and immediate heightening of consciousness.”[xiv] By virtue of understanding symbolic language, a religious person is able to link the experiences of his or her two worlds: the unconscious motivation with a spiritual dimension.
The Ulanovs contrast Jung’s conclusion that religion is a necessary fact of life that protects and defends the individual from the danger of falling into the depths of numinous events with the Freudian conclusion that religion forces an individual to remain half-grown and childishly dependent on a surrogate parent. They advocate the Jungian conclusion that religion “seeks to help men see the connection between the sacred figures and their own psyches by indicating the equivalent images that lie dormant in the unconscious.”[xv] They find it unfortunate that Freud replaced all religious practice with rigorous psychoanalysis and blamed authoritarian religious dogma for hindering a person’s liberation from psychosis.
The Ulanovs suggest a means by which religion and psychology are connected even outside of the psychoanalytic process. They suggest that another method which allows an individual to examine his behaviour and motivations is the religious exercise of prayer. This act of prayer, performed with deliberate preparation, is reflexive and serves as a self-inspection with the objective of understanding the reality of his own interiority. By combining the religious exercise with an analysis of what emerges from the unconscious, the individual learns to internalize the powerful burst of revelatory insight and relate that information to an on-going process of self-understanding. What emerges then, from this joining of the sacred with the psyche, is a reformulation of the myths and symbols associated with religious experience. It allows the individual to reestablish his/her identity and provides him/her with a renewed sense of physical, emotional, and spiritual strength: “What we seek in our endless digestion of mystery is the assurance of our interiority, not only that it is there, but that it is good.…we want to know that we are held real and valuable in the ultimate courts of value.”[xvi] Each of the hevra kaddisha volunteers realizes that he or she is involved in a “peak experience,” one which allows one to enter the palace of death, to dwell there for a while and then to exit. They are each affected by this journey. It is for each of them a precious and special experience. They are acquainted with death in ways that most of us are not, and that experience bestows additional layers of meaning and impact upon them. They are changed by the experience of preparing a human body for the funeral and burial. Some of them believe that to the degree they confront the death of a member of the community, they are also confronting their own death. In this sense, the hevra kaddisha is preparing more than one body each time it meets. In any event, the work of the hevra kaddisha does serve for the community as a way to de-demonize the fear of death. Anxiety is ameliorated and life is able to go on, thanks to the actions of the hevra. According to Goodenough, the rites of tahara are a psychologically sound means of response to the mental anguish brought on by the death of a member of the community.
III. A Theological Examination
There are several classical contexts m which to place the work of the hevra kaddisha: Israel’s being covenanted to God and to each other; our equality in death; acts of lovingkindness performed for their own sake with no expectation of reward; following Jewish Tradition; and respect for the human body. It is these doctrines which will elucidate and interpret the work of the hevra kaddisha in its theological context.
“When Abram was ninety nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am El Shaddai. Walk in my ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous… I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages to be God to you and to your offspring to come'” [xvii]
These words spoken by God to Abram mean that the Covenant established between them holds true for our own generation as well as his. The hevra kaddisha embodies the words and the spirit of that Covenant. All Jews are related through Covenant, and therefore all Jews deserve to be prepared at death with dignity. The task of preparing them physically is not one which appeals to most of the community. In fact, the women’s group is in need of additional volunteers. The members of the hevra kaddisha serve out of a love for their fellow and sister Jews and an implied (if not actual) understanding and assent to the obligation implied by the Covenant. Many responded that they remain on the hevra out of a responsibility to the Jewish community.
In addition, I believe that the I-Thou formulation of Martin Buber is also applicable here. When we have a relationship with someone which demands our intentionality, we label it I-Thou. I-Thou means that we are “with” the other person in a reciprocal relationship, involving the deepest level of commitment to him/her. In this case, the I-Thou relationship is extended even beyond life to encompass the boundary between life and death. The “chatter” that is heard is itself a call to intentionality, a reminder to those who perform the rites that until recently this was a real person, one not to be neglected or embarrassed even in death. In this sense, the Covenant between God and Abram reaches forward to include not only the living future generations of the Jewish people, but also those who have just completed their life journey. I doubt whether Buber would have reached this interpretation in his own time, but it seems clear enough to me that Covenant is here being extended to its absolute boundary.
What is fascinating is that as strong as this sense of Covenant is for members of the hevra kaddisha, it does not translate into a feeling of personal friendship and comraderie outside of the hevra. When the work is done, everyone returns home to his or her own life. There is little socializing with the other members outside the funeral home. Many comments had to do with performing this mitzvah for the sake of the Jewish community. This is for me a sure sign of Covenant, even if it is not carried forth afterward.
2. EQUALITY IN DEATH
Our Rabbis taught: Formerly they were wont to convey victuals to the house of mourning, the rich in silver and gold baskets and the poor in baskets of peeled willow twigs, and the poor felt shamed. They therefore instituted that all should convey victuals in baskets of peeled willow twigs in deference to the poor.
Formerly they were wont to bring out the rich for burial on a dargesh (a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets) and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt shamed. They instituted therefore that all should be brought out on a plain bier, in deference to the poor.
Formerly the expense of taking the dead out to his burial was harder on his near-of-kin than even his death, so his near-of-kin abandoned him and fled, until at last Rabban Gamliel came forward and (disregarding his own dignity) came out to his burial (literally, his family brought him out) dressed in linen vestments instead of the expensive woolen vestments. Said Rav Papa: And nowadays all the world follows the practice of coming out to be buried in a simple shroud that costs but a zuz.[xviii]
The impact of this Talmudic text is clear: we are all equal in death. Death is the great leveler, erasing all differences between rich and poor, between those who are important in the community and those who are not. On a community level, this truth is the essence of the hevra kaddisha. Each man is buried the same. Each woman is buried the same. The procedure is exactly the same, there are no distinctions. For the Jewish community, this equality serves as a model after which to follow. Money and possessions matter little in life, except for the privilege of sharing with those in true need. Those who had little to do with the formal Jewish community structure are “handled” with exactly the same amount of dignity and compassion as are important Jewish community leaders. Even those who had no formal affiliation with the Jewish community or with any of its constituent organizations are welcomed by the hevra kaddisha.
This feeling of equality is important on another level as well. One of the comments heard the most in the interviews was how important it is that Jews from London’s two traditional synagogues join together to prepare the bodies. There is absolute equality among ~ members with no one synagogue becoming more or less controlling than the other. This is in stark contrast to the prevailing tendency outside of the hevra where the smaller Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth Tefilla, asserts its ritual superiority and demand for stringency over the larger Conservative synagogue, Congregation Or Shalom (where I have been the Rabbi for the past three years). There are periodic squabbles having to do with public functions and community ritual standards which often deter members of these congregations from working together. Even the London Community Hebrew Day School, which is composed of students from both these synagogues, has had periodic rifts and personnel turnovers based on the definition of what it means to be a “community” school whose ritual must be acceptable to both community rabbis, particularly the Orthodox.
Those who serve on the hevra kaddisha have none of these tensions or strains. Men and women who clearly do not share the same theology, ritual practice, or level of observance work side by side with each other. The ritual once again serves as an equalizer, joining together those who may not ever see each other on the “outside,” but who come together to perform this holy task. Sectarian and parochial concerns never surface.
The ritual used for tahara is an ancient one, handed down from generation to generation, and the feeling of solidarity from working together with members of both of London’s traditional synagogues is perceived and valued as a blessing by the community at large as well as by the members of the hevra kaddisha.
3. PURE COMPASSION
“And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him: ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a sign of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt.”‘[xix] The rabbis of the Midrash comment upon this request by saying, “If you do me a favor after my death, that is called hessed shel emet.”[xx] This phrase has taken on profound meaning in Jewish tradition. It describes actions that are pure and untarnished by any desire for personal reward. Thus, Jacob asked his son Joseph to bury him not in the land of Egypt but rather in the land of Canaan in the Cave of Machpelah. We later learn that Joseph does carry out his father’s wish[xxi] and his act of loyalty is praised in the above Midrash as the ultimate act of loyalty. Hessed shel emet is understood particularly as it applies to any act which is done for someone after his or her death. In this way, there is purity of motivation and there is no expectation of reward. Hessed means an act of compassion, and emet means truth. A hessed shel emet act is the ultimate pure and true act of compassion (or, alternatively, it could mean an act done for the sake of God, the Ultimate Source of Truth). It is this act which is performed by members of the hevra kaddisha. This aspect of hevra kaddisha is perhaps the most appealing to its members. In the lives that we lead, most everything that we do carries a motive. The notion of reciprocity is a normative part of our society. How refreshing it is to speak to these volunteers who are so passionate about being able to give of themselves to someone else simply because that is the tradition of our people. Would that the rest of our society could emulate their example.
4. FOLLOWING JEWISH TRADITION
Many of the hevra volunteers spoke of doing this rite because that is what Jews do. That is, even if they did not personally care for handling a dead body and even if some of them had no personal desire to themselves be cared for by the hevra kaddisha, they volunteered because this is what is mandated by Jewish Tradition. They were doing this not only because they were asked to do so, and they were remaining on the hevra kaddisha not only because they were performing an important service. They were on the hevra kaddisha because of their feeling that they were carrying on an ancient tradition. And though they personally may not understand all its meanings or ramifications, they were nonetheless there for the sake of an ancient tradition which they believed in and wanted to preserve. “This is how we Jews do it,” was a constant refrain. Even we Jews who may not even believe in God.
5. RESPECTFUL CARE OF THE HUMAN BODY
The human body is the holy receptacle of the soul. As such, it must be treated with reverence, during life and even after death. Many comments were made during the interviews that this was the most moving aspect of the tahara rite. Many women (but no men) compared their being able to care for the body with caring for an infant who was unable to care for him/herself. The mothering instinct was strong among all women, and for some this allowed them to overcome their fears of handling the dead.
The selection of the anthropological paradigms of the structural content of performative rituals and the psychologically based analysis to examine individual behavioral patterns in times of crisis, has not been random. Rather, the intent here has been to show that an ideological/religious component is needed in both of these disciplines to understand the complexity of human responses to dying and death. Recognizing that the emotional state of the members of the hevra kaddisha plays an important role in their caring process, Judaism has formulated a ritual enactment in which the response to death can serve as an incentive for the individual member to search out life’s ultimate meaning and to affirm a relationship to God. From an anthropological perspective (Victor Turner and others) it might be theorized that the hevra kaddisha as a performative ritual helps transform a chaotic situation (death) into one which can reflect a stabilized status quo. Myerhoff adds that the performance of this ritual can suggest to the mourners and to the community that their respective lives are in order, even at the approach of death. Order is established, in a situation where there is initial disorder. In addition, from a psychological perspective, the activity of the hevra contributes to an amelioration of anxiety in response to death. In short, order can come, even in the midst of personal chaos.
Using the setting of a highly charged emotional situation, we take advantage of this theme to set the activities of the hevra kaddisha in motion to administer both physical and spiritual care to the deceased, to themselves, and to the Jewish people.[xxii]
Each member of the hevra kaddisha has his/her own motivation for accepting the life-time appointment. Accepting the Covenant between God and the Jewish people, valuing the sense of equality in death, performing a pure act of compassion without any expectation of reward, following and preserving the age-old Jewish tradition of hevra kaddisha and showing respectful care of the human body even after death are those motivations which surfaced in the interviews In addition, everyone I interviewed said that serving on the hevra kaddisha was one of the most fulfilling tasks they could ever assume. It gave their life meaning when they performed it, and it made them feel good afterward when they thought about it
My perspective in this project was an emic one, that is, I shared the felt reality of those who serve on the hevra, since I have also served as a member. I was perceived not only as Rabbi, but as an “insider,” and therefore could presume the trust of those I interviewed. This perspective certainly assisted me in my interviews, as it helped defuse whatever resistance to me or the project there might have been. In fact, all the interviews were joyous experiences for me, and I believe for the members as well. Many told me they had never sat down to think about the reasons for their service on the hevra before I contacted them. In some cases, discussion of serving on the hevra led us to what I can only call therapeutic sessions. As one of the community’s rabbis, I had to be sensitive always to their personal pain whenever it arose, and in fact in at least five interviews, members broke down in tears after speaking of the death of their parents or other significant deaths in their lives. Many secrets were shared with me, not only about past hevra actions that had never been publicly discussed (for the sake of preserving the dignity of the dead), but also their own personal and/or family secrets which they felt most comfortable sharing with me. There were feelings of happiness and helpfulness in all the interviews, a sense that my involving them in this project was welcomed by them both as an opportunity to assist me in my (and the Jewish community’s) work.
I wanted to know what members of the hevra kaddisha are feeling as they perform the ritual of tahara. I had my own hunches based on my personal feelings and my own service on the hevra kaddisha, and I wanted to compare their perceptions to mine. I hoped that what would emerge from these interviews would support my own theological categories. I collected the responses I received at the interviews and compiled the results to see if my feelings were replicated.
The two dominant theological categories for me were
(a) Being in the presence of the Holy, and (b) Addressing my own mortality.
Being in the presence of the Holy.
I have always felt that whenever I was present as a member of the hevra kaddisha, I was in the presence of the Holy. To me it meant that in a way I could not even verbalize, God was present to give me whatever strength I needed to perform the procedures properly and to ensure that I did nothing to embarrass or denigrate the preciousness of the body. I was in a room with three or four other men who were gathered for what I felt was a most special honor, but an honor not without its trepidation and anxiety. When I finished the rites and left the room, I always felt that God indeed was in the room with me. This is the first feeling I attempted to find in my interviews. I felt that by my interviewing members as their rabbi or one of their community rabbis) I would be perceived by them as a representative of God, or at least a representative of the presence of God. As l interviewed them and attempted to discern their underlying feelings, I at the same time invited them to think and to respond theologically to those feelings. The theological language and response was for me an echo of God’s Presence in that it was an opportunity for me to hear non-theologians attempt to speak theologically about theological issues in their lives. They began to understand that their serving on the hevra kaddisha is a deeply theological statement that they are making. I attempted to draw them out in order to confront (some for the first time) their own Jewish theology: what does it “mean” that you are a member of this holy society? Does any of this have anything to do with God? How does serving on the hevra kaddisha affect (or not affect) your own perceptions of mortality? It was these issues I attempted to uncover.
To delve into this area is certainly fraught with anxiety. I endeavored to create a “safe space” for them to move past their feelings of anxiety. The creation of this safe environment in fact duplicates one of the important functions of the hevra kaddisha, that is, to allow its members to face death (the ultimate anxiety) and to exit from that experience whole (and presumably spiritually moved to consider their own mortality).
In my interviews, I found a starting difference between the responses of the men and women. Perhaps these differences have to do with the degree of physical parental nurturing each group did for their own children, or perhaps it is due to the fact that almost all of the men are doctors while most of the women are not connected to the medical profession. I found that most of the men (with a few exceptions) looked at serving on the hevra kaddisha not as an emotional or spiritual opportunity to be in touch with some of their deeper internal realities, but rather as a physical task that was important but not essential. Many of them said they do not believe in God, and none of them said that serving on the hevra kaddisha affected their perceptions of their own mortality or anyone else’s. They came, they did what was required of them, and they went on with their lives. For the men, this tended to be a cut-and-dried procedure. Perhaps the phrase “Jewish autopsy” would be a good way to describe how most perceived it, although one man in particular was very clear when he contrasted tahara with autopsy. Tahara was religious for him, while autopsy was simply a medical procedure. He was, however, the exception. In all cases, there was considerable pride on their part in being able to do this Jewish task, and many men responded to this as their “Jewish thing to do,” or “what they do for the Jewish community.” But if there were no hevra kaddisha in London, most of the men would not miss it.
The women were much more talkative about their experience serving as members, and also much more talkative about their theology. “A Jewish goodbye” is a phrase heard frequently, and here too there was an enormous sense of pride in performing these duties. A major difference was that most of the women thought about their own mortality as a result of serving on the hevra. Nearly every woman I interviewed spoke about either her death or the death (past or future) of a loved one. In all cases, serving on the hevra kaddisha made a difference in their perceptions of mortality. Death was not a monster or even a paralyzing enemy, but simply sad and painful. Dealing with the death of a member of the Jewish community made it considerably easier for most of the women to deal with death, theirs or a loved one1s. In some cases, it was as if the particular tahara was a preparation for a future one, perhaps their own.
The women’s responses to my question about the Presence of God were varied. Some said God is not there, but most affirmed that in some way God was indeed present in the room with them. For some, it was a feeling of being in a “special place,” for others a sense of peacefulness, for some it was feeling a sense of solidarity with other women that pointed to the Presence.
The Echo of God’s Presence
Most of the men and the women described themselves as “not religious.” This description was most intriguing to me, for Jewish tradition interprets their serving on the hevra kaddisha as the most religious act they could ever possibly perform. These comments troubled me, and I wondered why it was that they did not see what they were doing as “religious.” Part of the reason, I suspect, is the negative connotation our society puts on the description “religious,” equating it with “fanatic” or “pietistic.” In that case, I understand their hesitancy to describe themselves as “religious.” They do not lead particularly pious lives, though many of them do observe the Sabbath and dietary laws, and they seemed to be uncomfortable when I suggested that they were performing a “religious” act.
To counteract that perception, I would characterize service on the hevra kaddisha as “an echo of God’s Presence.” By this I mean that we human beings have opportunities in our lifetimes to be an imitatio dei, to imitate the works of God. As God buries the dead, so must the hevra kaddisha bury the dead. As God consoles the emotionally and spiritually troubled or feeds the hungry or clothes the naked, so must we. As God acts with justice and compassion, so must we.
Whenever we act so as to bring God closer to God’s creatures, we are Nan echo of God’s Presence. Whether we say we believe in God or not, we are doing what God wants us to do in order to repair and fulfill the world. God is thus present whether we define that Presence as God’s or we simply say that we are doing the “right thing.” For me, it is not only the “right thing” to do, it is hearing and harkening to the voice of the living God.
The Rabbis of the Midrash were most cognizant of this “theology of action.” On the verse which tells us that the Writing on the Tablets of the Commandments was in fact the Writing of God, the Rabbis teach us:
“….engraved (“harut”) on the Tablets.”
Do not read engraved (harut) but rather freedom (herut). Here is a clear classical theological connection between acceptance of the Word of God and physical/spiritual freedom. As we engage in acts of lovingkindness, we are clearly accepting the Commandments of God whether we verbalize thatacceptance or not. The Jewish act can be done out of a sense of realized and accepted obligation or it can be done purely voluntarily, but that act implies and indeed symbolizes our acceptance of God in our lives. To feel oneself “commanded” to be a member of the hevra kaddisha or to “choose” to be a member are simply points on a continuum, both leading directly to God. Even the non-theologians interviewed for this project felt a strong connection to God and to the Godly, whether they could express such a connection or not.
The hevra kaddisha indeed functions as an “echo of God’s Presence.” As God cares for us, so we care for others, even after their lives in this world have come to an end. Indeed, by doing so, we are reminding ourselves that when our own time comes, God perhaps in the form of future hevrakaddishas, will continue to care for us.
This Final Project has enriched me in many ways. First and foremost, it has allowed me the opportunity to speak with women and men who perform a vita’ service to the Jewish people. It has given me the chance to invite these volunteers to reflect theologically on what they do, some for the very first time. Their responses have themselves invited me to grow theologically as I attempt to understand and to interpret them. Ordinary people often do extraordinary things. The hevra kaddisha is a shining example.
In addition, my own understanding of mortality has been enriched. The London, Ontario hevra kaddisha is a society whose nominal purpose is to deal with death. However, my exploration of the different layers of meaning has resonated with life, for the hevra is indeed a life-giving and life-sustaining society. It gives life to the bereaved in the community assuring them that their loved ones will be prepared as Jewish tradition mandates. It gives life and hope to its own members helping them navigate the often difficult journeys they all walk in this world. Finally, the hevra kaddisha gives life to the London Jewish community which can always count on its presence. From death comes life.
I desire that Final Project contribute to the growing body of knowledge concerning the work of the hevra kaddisha. Future comparative studies are in order to ascertain possible differences in how the hevra kaddisha functions in different locations. Does a large city have the same degree of volunteers as a small city the size of London, Ontario, or are members paid to serve? What effect does the size of the Jewish community have on the community perception of the hevra? How is this Jewish tradition carried out in places without a hevra kaddisha, and what effect does that have on community and/or individual perceptions of mortality? In this project I have not interviewed the “sitters,” those who are hired to sit with the body at nights between the time of death and burial. These men and women are paid a fee to do this work, and that automatically separates them from those I have interviewed. There are communities where these “sitters” (in Hebrew, shomrim, literally guardians) serve voluntarily. Interviews with them would add knowledge and insight to the topic.
In addition, the shrouds that are worn are sewn here in London, ON. There is a group of women who meet each month to perform this task. This is unique, since most hevra kaddishas rely on national companies to provide them with the clothing needed. Interviews with these women would also be an important way of enlarging upon the research contained in this Project.
These are potential fruitful areas of further exploration.
Why is the human body sacred? What in Jewish Tradition is there to justify the respect and dignity shown the human body even after death?
There are several avenues for discussion as to why the human body is cared for with such dignity and compassion by members of the hevra kaddisha, even after death. The first has to do with the classical notion of the intrinsic holiness of the body itself. Upon arising each morning, Jews are commanded to thank God that the body still works, that even after a night of sleep (death?), our body organs still function. This is the prayer to be recited immediately after exiting the washroom each morning:
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who fashioned man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities.[xxiii] It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory (before You) that if but one of them were to be ruptured or that but one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are You Who heals all flesh and acts wondorously.
Daily Prayer Book
The first blessing recited by a traditional Jew is one of thanksgiving that the body still works, so that we will be able to worship God as we are commanded. Our bodies are holy and sacred vessels given to us by God, and they must be treated with absolute respect.[xxiv]
The second reason for the importance of the human body is made by another prayer recited immediately after:
My God, the soul You placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it, You breathed it into me, and eventually You will take it from me and restore it to me in the Time to Come. As long as the soul is within me, I gratefully thank You, 0 God and God of my ancestors, Master of all works and Lord of all souls. Blessed are You, God, who restores souls to dead bodies.
Daily Prayer Book
The human body is holy also because it is the repository of the soul. All care must be given the body (even after death) as it is the receptacle and vessel for the God-given soul. After death, the soul returns to God, even as the body begins to decay and return to the earth from whence it came.
The classical relationship between the body and soul is not without its tensions in Jewish thought as pointed out by Eilberg-Schwartz. On the one hand, humans are understood to be created in the Image of God, yet God has “no–body”-neither others with whom to interact nor a fully conceptualized body with which to do it. Similarly, while procreation is mandated as the very first commandment from God,[xxv] nonetheless semen is considered polluting, even when discharged during intercourse.[xxvi] He follows this argument with further examples from the Bible concerning human bodily functions including purity and impurity, menstruation, seminal discharges and leprosy to better present the problems involved with the human body -There is no resolution of this conflict anywhere in the Hebrew Bible or in later Rabbinic sources. Perhaps an additional function of the hevra kaddisha is to finally and quietly resolve the problem. It is as if we say: we will take care of this body since it is created in God’s Image whatever that means. And, we will care for this body even though it can no longer engage in procreation and even though its semen is no longer a polluting force. Once again, the hevra kaddisha brings a sense of peace, this time to the Jewish problem of body and soul.
The actual procedures for the tahara rites have traditionally been kept secret as has the identity of those who serve on the hevra kaddisha. What follows is the accepted hevra kaddisha procedure followed in New Haven, CN. I am grateful to Rabbi Yechezkel Schlingenbaum for sharing the details of the work of his local New Haven group. The procedure followed in London is essentially the same.
[Web site note: The Tahara guide referenced is copyrighted and is not reprinted here]
Driver, Tom. The Magic of Ritual. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Feldman, David M. Health and medicine in the Jewish Tradition. New York: Crossroad, 1986.
Feldman, Emanuel. Biblical and Post-Biblical Defilement and Mourning. New York: Yeshiva University, 1977.
Fetterman, David M. Ethnography: Step by Step. London: Sage Publications, 1989.
Goodenough, Erwin R. The Psychology of Religious Experience. New York: University Press of America, 1986.
Hoffman, Lawrence. The Art of Public Prayer. Washington, DC.: The Pastoral Press, 1988.
Huntington, Richard, and Metcalf, Peter. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. New York: Jonathan David, 1981.
Morgan, John D. and Mary Ann (eds.). Thanatology: A Liberal Arts Approach. London, Ontario: Kings College, 1988.
Myerhoff, Barbara. Number Our Days. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.
Oglesby, W. B. Jr. Biblical Themes in Pastoral Care. St. Louis: CHA, 1983.
Power, David. Liturgy and Human Passage. New York: Seabury Press, 1979
Riemer, Jack. Jewish Reflections on Death. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.
Schechter, Solomon. Studies in Judaism. 3 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1896-1924.
Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition. A Study in Folk Religion.Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1961
Turner, Victor W. The Ritual Process. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1969.
Ulanov, Ann and Barry. Religion and the Unconscious. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975.
CHAPTERS IN BOOKS:
Fulton, R. “Death, Grief and the Funeral.” M.A. Morgan (ed.) Bereavement: Helping the Survivors. London, On.: Kings College, 1987.
Myerhoff, Barbara. “We Don’t Wrap Herring in a Printed Page.” Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff, Secular Ritual, Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1977.
Abramovitch, Henry. “The Clash of Values in the Jewish Funeral: A Participant-Observer Study of a Hevra Kaddisha.” Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies, volume 2:1986.
Buxbaum, Shelley. “Translation, Notes, and Commentary to the Introduction of Sefer Hahayyim by Simon Frankfurter.” Ph. D. Dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1985.
Eekardt, A. R. “Death in the Judaic and Christian traditions.” Social Research 39:28-37.
Fulton, R. “Review of Funeral Customs the World Over” by Robert Habenstein and William Lamers. Sociological Quarterly 8 (June 1956): 34-56.
Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed. S. v. “Death.”
Goldberg, Harvey “Anthropology and the Study of Traditional Jewish Societies.” AJS Review, 15:1 (Spring 1990): 56-104.
Hartland, E. S. “Death and Disposal of the Dead.” In J. Hastings (ed.) Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. 12 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912.
Rando, T. A. “Creating therapeutic rituals in the psychotherapy of the bereaved.” Psychotherapy 22, 34-44.
Tambiah, S. J. “A Performative Approach to Ritual.” Proceedings of the British Academy, 65:5-68. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.
“The London, Ontario Hevra Kaddisha:
A Critical Reflection On The Nature Of The Experience To Those Who Perform It”
Melvin J Glazer May 1995
Princeton Theological Seminary Princeton, New Jersey
Dr. J. Randall Nichols, Director Doctor of Ministry Program
From the time of death to the time of burial, Jewish mourning tradition has prescribed a definite ritual which has had major impact on the life of the Jewish community. An important part of the Jewish way in mourning is played by members of the hevra kaddisha, men and women who prepare the body for burial in the ground. In London, Ontario Canada these men and women are volunteers, some for 25 years.
Serving on tile hevra kaddisha is considered to be an honor of the highest order. What has long intrigued me is the great devotion shown to this task by Jews who might not otherwise exhibit outward signs of devotion to other Jewish priorities. I began to wonder why these devoted volunteers would spend time performing such an unenviable task. In my three years of rabbinic service in London, Ontario, I have participated in several hevra kaddisha rites. At their conclusion, I felt 1) that I had touched mortality (the deceased’s and my own) and escaped once again; and 2) that God was somehow present in the ritual itself. This Project seeks to identify those and other emotions felt by community hevra kaddisha members.
I interviewed the members individually after sending them a questionnaire with both practical and theological questions. I have analyzed their responses using anthropological, psychological and theological data. I have found a major difference in the perceptions of men and women; a fascinating local tradition I call “chatter” which allows the rites not to become routinized; a profound feeling that God is present in their actions (“echo of God”) even if unverbalized; and an almost universal feeling that serving on the hevra kaddisha is in part a working through of a previous death and/or an attempt to deal with a future death in the family.
All agreed that the entire London Jewish community is strengthened by the existence of this group. Future research needs to focus on other hevra kaddisha groups in other communities to ascertain if these same emotions are present.
[i] According to the strictest interpretation of Jewish Law, tahara is mandated to be performed in absolute silence, as a sign of respect to the dead. One of the most fascinating traditions of the London hevra kaddisha is the absence of silence and the presence of “chatter,” the continual telling of stories about the deceased. This “chatter” assumes a major therapeutic role for the London group, and will be discussed below.
[ii] Harvey Goldberg, “Anthropology and the Study of Traditional Jewish Societies,” MS Review 15 (Spring 1990), 5-8.
[iii] Such as the death of a member of the community, tile drying up of this year’s crops or a sudden war with another village or tribe
[iv] Victor W. Turner, The Ritual Process (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1969), 10.
[v] S. J. Tambiah, “A Performative Approach to Ritual,” Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (London: Oxford University Press, 1979)116
[vi] The “chatter” in London, for example, which is truly a local phenomenon
[vii] lbid., 119.
[viii] Barbara Myerhoff, Number Our Days (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), 85. See also Myerhoff, “We Don’t Wrap Herring in a Printed Page” in Sally F. Moore and Barbara G Myerhoff, Secular Ritual (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1977), 199-204.
[ix] lbid., 107.
[x] Lawrence Hoffman, The Art of Public Prayer (Washington DC: The Pastoral Press, 1988), 107.
[xi] Erwin R. Goodenough, The Psychology of Religious Experience (New York: University Press of America, Inc., 1986), 7.
[xii] lbid., 73
[xiii] Ann and Barry Ulanov, Religion and the Unconscious (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 13-16.
[xiv] Ibid., 25.
[xv] Ibid., 46.
[xvi] Ibid., 250.
[xvii] Genesis 17:1-2,7.
[xviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Mo’ed Katan, pg. 27b.
[xix] Genesis 47:29.
[xx] Genesis Rabba 96:5.
[xxi] Exodus 13:19.
[xxii] ShelIey Buxbaum, “Translation, Notes, and Commentary to the Introduction of the Sefer Hahayyim by Simon Frankfurter” (Ph.D. diss., Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1991), 48.
[xxiii] The mouth, nostrils and other orifices are the openings that lead in and out of the body. The cavities are the inner hollows that contain such organs as the lungs, heart, stomach and brain.
[xxiv] This doctrine has extremely important ramifications in many other areas of Jewish life, especially abortion and euthanasia. If our bodies are gifts to us from God, then we do not have absolute control over them. Therefore, the decision to abort a fetus to preserve the physical or mental health of the mother (while certainly not seen by Jewish Law as murder) is not one given only to the mother to make. Similarly at the other end of life, a decision either to withhold extraordinary medical procedures or to begin such procedures is one which must take into consideration the gifted nature of our bodies.
[xxv] Genesis 1:28.
[xxvi] Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, “The Problem of the Body for the People of the Book,” in People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press), 17.