As A Secular Jew, Why Should I Care About Jewish Death Rituals?
When I was growing up in Gunnison, Colorado in the 1950’s, we were secular Jews who traveled by car driving some four hours to Denver once each year, to attend High Holiday services at Temple Emanuel, a large Reform synagogue. I was Bar Mitzvahed there – and I use the word as a verb – my Bar Mitzvah was done to me, rather than me becoming a Bar Mitzvah. To my Mom’s credit, she lit candles every Friday night and she tried very hard to give us a decent Jewish background. We were the only Jewish family in the entire county, an area whose rural population on a good year was around 6500, including some 3000 students at a local College. Being a Jew meant that we didn’t go to church, I felt awkward participating in school plays about Jesus, and we had a Passover Seder every year that lasted about 20 minutes to tell the story. It included hamotzi and borei p'ri hagafen; that was the only Hebrew, followed by a wonderful meal. I knew I was a Jew but I didn’t know what that meant. I was a secular Jew.
With this as my upbringing, you might ask why and how I could care today about Jewish death practices. A good question!
My history is not as important as the real question before us:
Why should we all care about Jewish death rituals?
My answer may surprise you.
First, let me give you the “Readers Digest” overview of just what Jewish death practices are, so we are all considering the same things. Basically our tradition includes these death-related areas of concern:
· Visiting/cheering the sick, attending the dying (bikkur cholim)
· Confessional prayer (vidui)
· Guarding the dead (shmirah)
· Preparation for burial (taharah)
· Accompanying the dead (levayah)
· Ground burial (k’vurah b’karkah), and
· Mourning rituals:
o First 7 days after burial (shiva)
o First 30 days after burial (shloshim)
o First 11-12 months after burial
o Acknowledgement of the dead at Yizkor (Memorial) services during Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, & Sukkot
o Remembrance annually after that (yahrzeit)
When someone says they want a Jewish burial, it means they want to be accompanied between death and burial (shmirah) – that is, not left alone, and comforted during that tender time by people reading to them. This is followed by preparation for burial (taharah), which is a special ceremony in which the body of the deceased is very respectfully washed physically, cleansed spiritually through pouring of water, dressed in special burial clothes that represent the clothes of the High Priest, since we are all as holy in death as the holiest of our people, and placed carefully into the waiting casket. This is all done in such a way as to honor the dignity and modesty of the deceased at all times. Then the casket is buried in the ground and family members have the opportunity to drop some earth onto the top of the coffin, an act that concretizes the reality of this loss, and marks the new status, allowing the healing process to begin for the mourners.
This is what a Jewish death is all about. It is about respect, honor, dignity, and healing.
So why should we care about respect, honor, dignity, and healing in death? The short answer is because we care about life.
Death is just one more life-cycle event. And central to Jewish life-cycles is how we live our lives. We care about living our lives with respect, honor, dignity, and healing. These values are the threads through which we weave our lives with integrity and decency. They are the means by which we come to understand ourselves and each other and how we should treat other people. They form the basis for a healthy community and the fostering of peace between and among communities. They also support our growth into wisdom and grace as we age, enabling us to teach and mentor others, thereby enriching the future and ensuring that our values live on.
Respect, honor, dignity, healing – these are the pillars of a healthy, engaged and sharing life, and a life that treats everyone equally. So it is in death. Jewish practices treat everyone equally, with respect, and with beauty and dignity, honoring their inherent holiness and specialness as a human being. Both the living and the dead are treated this way, including the soul of the deceased, the body of the deceased as a holy vessel of the soul, the family of the deceased, and all in the community who mourn this loss. And the threads of these death-related rituals form an integrated whole that supports those involved in a loving and healing manner at this most delicate of times.
And, by the way, you don’t have to be religious, speak Hebrew, or go to shul to benefit from these rituals. They are for all Jews, and work the same no matter what your background or even if you don’t care about Jewish services. That’s the point. Respect, honor, dignity, and healing transcend boundaries, transcend observance practices, and transcend cultures. All people are worthy of these blessings – yes, everyone should be treated with respect, honor, and dignity, and helped to heal.
When we are faced with the unknown, especially when it is accompanied by emotional and physical loss, such as when death occurs, we all need the comfort of knowing there are practices that have withstood the test of time. The disembodied soul trying to adjust during this transition needs our help and comfort. The mourner whose loss is overwhelming needs our support and our love. That’s when Jews turn back to our Jewish roots. That’s when these values come to our rescue. That’s why we all should care about Jewish death practices, because they support us all, they honor us all, they uplift us all, in our darkest hours.
We don’t have to participate in performing shmirah or taharah or cooking a meal of consolation. All we need to do is know that Jewish burial exists, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Respect, honor, dignity, and healing – aren’t these the kinds of things you want in your life? Wouldn’t you want them also in your death?
Rick Light has been teaching spiritual development for more than 30 years, and started the Chevrah Kadisha in Los Alamos, NM, in 1996. In 1998 he published the first edition of Guidelines for Performing Taharah as a manual to guide the local chevrah doing its holy work (the 5th edition is now available under the title, To Midwife A Soul). In 2006, he co-founded the Chevrah Kadisha of Northern New Mexico, a community chevrah that includes members from six shuls, encompassing all branches of Judaism. In 2013 he published Final Kindness: Honoring K’rovei Yisrael, a manual for preparing non-Jews for burial who are part of the Jewish community. A new book titled Rites of Death: The Beauty and Power of Jewish Tradition was published in 2016 to excellent reviews. Rick is a Vice President of the North American educational organization, Kavod v’Nichum, Honor and Comfort, and a graduate of and instructor for the Gamliel Institute. He continues to teach and raise awareness about Chevrah Kadisha, Taharah, and Jewish death and burial practices at the local, state, and national levels.
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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE STUDENT SESSIONS AFTER THE KAVOD V’NICHUM CONFERENCE
Gamliel Institute students (past and present) are also encouraged to attend the conference and plan to remain for an additional day (through mid-day/lunch Wednesday) following the conference for a live educational program. During the conference, we will be celebrating the first group of graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and looking forward to the next cohort. Immediately following the close of the conference, we continue with learning specifically geared to Gamliel Students. We have as our instructors for this fabulous closed session series of Text study opportunities Reuven Kimmelman on Kaddish, Eddie Feld on Psalm 49, and Ruth Langer on Tziduk Hadin. This will be an in-depth, informative, and inspirational program! Mark your calendar, make your plans, and register to attend now! The class is free to Gamliel students, but donations to help us offset the cost are very welcome.
GAMLIEL STUDENT PROJECTS
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!
During the coming semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the online course. Chevrah Kadisha: Education, Organizing, & Training (EOT) [Course 3]. The prerequisite for this course is prior successful completion of Course 1, 2, 4, or 5. There are two orientation sessions scheduled: May 16th at 11-12 am EDST/8-9 am PDST/11-12 am AST/6-7 pm Israel time, and again on May 16th at 8-9:30 pm EDST/5-6:30 pm PDST/9-10:30 pm AST/3-4:30 am Israel time.
The course will run on Mondays from May 16th to August 8th, 12-1:30 pm EDST/9-10:30 am PDST/12-1:30 pm AST/7-8:30 pm Israel time, and on Tuesdays from May 17th to August 9th, 8-9:30 pm EDST/5-6:30 pm PDST/9-10:30 pm AST/3-4:30 am Israel time. There will be 12 class sessions in the course.
Past Students, please note: We are now using a new (to us) online Platform for the classes, so definitely plan on attending one of the orientation sessions if you have not beein a Gamliel student since January 2016 and intend to take this course!
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Course 3 has a full academic curriculum that teaches principles of organizing, training, education, and working within a community. Even more than that, however, the focus of this course is as a practical, hands-on course that helps students bring Jewish practices and values to fruition. It is designed as both an academic course and a practicum. Its central deliverable is the support and mentoring of students in conceiving and carrying out useful projects of their own related to the Chevrah Kadisha world, whether in their own community, congregation, or business, or on a larger scale. Thus, the course offers students a way to make a difference and have a meaningful and positive impact in the world—a “real-world” effect. The course includes material on principles of education and organizing, and projects can range from academic research and writing, to community organizing, to creative and artistic endeavors. Organizing efforts might include starting a new Bikkur Cholim/Caring committee, educating the community about the Chevrah Kadisha’s work, teaching about the running of the local Jewish mortuary or cemetery, helping the Chevrah Kadisha to expand its services, or producing materials for education or to share the beauty and meaning of this work. This course is a vehicle for those who will undertake a project, with guidance and support from the Gamliel Staff and other students, that will provide benefits and information to their own community and/or other communities. You can see examples of completed Student projects at Fall 2016:
Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016. This course has no prerequisites. The focus is on practices and all ritual and liturgy excluding Taharah & Shmirah. Please note it on your calendar, and plan to attend. You can register online, and a full description of the course is there as well.
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