Taharah And Gender by Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs
[Ed. Note: The opinions expressed in posts reflect those of the author, and do not necessarily represent Kavod v’Nichum.]
My response to a previous essay:
Many chevre, including ours, believe in anonymity. Anonymity for ourselves…and also for the maita. 99% of the time…our chevre knows little if anything about the maita. It is my opinion – the identity of the maita is none of our business and totally unnecessary. We are caring for the body and from a traditional perspective…helping the nehsama on its final journey. To learn who this person was or what they did – might influence the degree of respect being shown.
It would not be a surprise to learn that the maitas we serve – might have had an illness or disability – but, unless there is some marked obvious issue…we wouldn’t know. Unless it affects our fulfilling our role…what difference would knowing make? Likely, nothing positive. Additionally, since we don’t talk during tahara, there is NO discussion so there is no need to curb curiosity. Thus, preparing a body for burial – a most awesome AND spiritual experience – is not the forum for discussing the maita’s personhood, or personal preferences.
In the previous essay it was mentioned that we do not deserve to know more about a trans person’s gender than about a cis person’s gender. DESERVE? What an odd choice of words. To date, the tahara group called upon IS determined by the gender of the nifta – nothing else.
The writer of the earlier essay also brought up the topic of Transgender. Assuming the maita’s body – from the waist down – has female genitalia … a women’s chevre would be called upon. To perform Tahara….what else is needed to know? Nothing. A big dilemma, conundrum, question could confuse things if the maita’s name is Joan…but, from the waist down – it is a John. The funeral director might go ONLY by the name…and have no clue…and call the women.
In another statement of that essay, the writer wrote “In light of the fact that trans and GNC people are deserving of recognition and affirmation…”. I find that faulty. “Deserving of recognition and affirmation…” are NOT part of a tahara. “DESERVING” assumes we are making a judgement call. That is not in our job description.
IF the body has male genital organs…we, the women’s chevre would not be called. IF the body has female organs, the men’s chevre would not be called. To suggest that the women’s chevre MUST accept, be comfortable with and perform a tahara on a body that appears male – is a mistaken assumption. The premise that the men’s chevre MUST be comfortable with caring for a body that appears female is also misguided. While there may be a chevre member comfortable with doing so…after polling many chevre members…the majority would not be comfortable nor would they participate if the maita did NOT resemble them!
One can hold a position that to them makes a world of sense…but realistically – you cannot legislate what makes sense to you – to be required of others.
1) Unless a community is prepared to support a 3rd &/or 4h tahara team…it is highly unlikely that anytime soon every chevre will be willing to participate in taharas where the nifta is not similar to the chevre members.
2) Assuming the call that comes to a chevre…is to care for a mait that matches the chevre members…there would be no issue. If a person was transgendered – which gender their body reflects BELOW THE WAIST, would determine which of the 2 chevre’s is called – the men’s chevre or the women’s chevre. To date-the only two choices. As per the maita, who they were, and who they loved, and how they felt, and what they wore…is of no consequence to the chevre…the role of the chevre is not to judge, but carry out the sacred work of preparing the body.
Whatever the social, personal, religious or political views of the maita were…what difference does it make during a Tahara?
The issue of “genderqueer” people was raised in that essay. While this is certainly a relatively new issue in terms of Tahara, what is not an issue is the reluctance of many to get involved in the “politics” of it and just want to do what they signed up for. WOMEN signed up to care for women. Men signed up to take care of men.
In my view, this is exactly the prevailing view: Women care for women and men for men. Given new developments…new groups may be needed……..a third choice, possibly a 4th …and the writer seems to suggest this already exists.
They wrote: “This is why the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston is so critical– it allows Jews from all walks of life to care for the dead of our own communities rather than outsourcing this holy task to folks from only one strand of Judaism”. I am a tad surprised by this statement as I am unaware of any Tahara group that would refuse to care for a fellow Jew due to their degree of observance.
The writer of the prior essay wrote, “It is important to me to be cared for in death by people who would have shared my community in life”. I fail to see the rationale for this line of thinking. If the maita was an artist…did I have to hang in an artist’ colony? If the maita was an athlete…do I have to commit to running in the marathon? The role of the chevre is merely to care for a dead body in a traditional Jewish way…not get involved in the politics or private life of the maita. The body presented in front of the chevre is the ONLY consideration. The chevre will take care of the body with sacred kavod without knowing any details, as they do for ALL .
A concern was postulated in that essay that we as chevre MUST consider how the Maita’s family accepts the maita’s sexuality. As a chevre member, I do not agree with the comment WE MUST uphold anything. Why and how would members of a chevre KNOW what the family thinks? And even if we did….why would what the family thinks – affect tahara???
The previous writer penned: “The Chevrah’s role is to reflect the meyt’s understanding of themselves with dignity, love, and complete acceptance”. I disagree; I counter that statement with: The chevres role is solely to show utmost respect to the maita throughout the process of performing the tahara. We don’t reflect anything, we don’t question family, we ONLY care for the body.
I am well aware that one can be passionate about their belief…but, I also do believe other perspectives must be considered as well. Fortunately – in the tahara room, everyone is equal-no questions asked.
Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs hails from Brooklyn, currently living in NJ. Having originally learned about Taharah as a yeshiva student, I knew I would participate as soon as the opportunity presented itself. I have participated in doing Taharah for almost 30 years. I am currently the ROSHA of our chevrah. When not doing Taharah, I taught school – up until I retired and went back to school and became a chaplain. I held the Federation position of County (Mercer) Chaplain for 15 years. My two children have blessed us with grandchildren.
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