Our Interfaith Taharah
As a congregational rabbi who also serves as both a hospice spiritual care counselor and a hospital chaplain, as a member of the Jewish Burial Society of Southern California, and as a student of “>Gamliel Institute, I have studied Taharah, educated families about Taharah, participated in Taharot and thought deeply about the sacredness of Taharah and why it means to me so much to me. I’ve also been interested to follow discussions about alternatives to traditional Taharah: what about family members and friends who want to participate in Taharah for their loved ones? What if they want to watch the Taharah? What to do about the liturgy if someone wants it sung or wants it in English? What about Taharah for a non-Jew? What about Taharah at home? What about a mixed-gender Taharah team? What about performing Taharah for a meit/ah that will be cremated?
As interesting and engaging as I have found these discussions, I saw many of them as theoretical; I assumed that I would always/only be involved in Taharah in a “formal” Jewish setting, following established procedures and guidelines. But the death of my husband’s younger brother brought me abruptly to a new understanding of Taharah, one that I had never considered: how participating in the ritual of Taharah as a final act of loving service can bring honor to a member of an inter-faith family and a sense of peace to non-Jewish family members.
For almost forty years, my brother-in-law and his wife lived and raised their family in a small Southern mountain town. He was, for many years, the town’s only pediatrician. He was a founding member of the lay-led synagogue community and instrumental in acquiring a Holocaust Torah for its use. His wife, a practicing Episcopalian, is the senior warden of her church (which provides the synagogue community a venue for services). Their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren are affiliated with various denominations of Christianity.
This marriage was characterized by love, laughter, music and theater, community service and devotion to their three daughters and their six small grandchildren—the three youngest born last year, the year that he retired from his medical practice and they planned for the next stage of their lives. In their long relationship, there was no question of conversion. He practiced Judaism and she practiced Christianity; they respected and appreciated one another’s faith and traditions, and supported one another in their respective practices.
His decline and death came precipitously—within eight weeks of his initial diagnosis. My husband and I were on the first flight that we could get on after learning that his brother was being moved from the local hospital to the cancer center in a major city where he had been receiving treatment. He was non-responsive when we arrived late on Friday afternoon. We joined his wife and daughters at his bedside and I led a bedside service. It was clear that he could not live long, and in an anguished hallway communication as the night wore on, our sister-in-law shared her plans for his burial. His body would be brought home for burial. Her wish was that I would consecrate and establish a Jewish cemetery— the Episcopal Church community was donating the land to the Jewish community to establish a Jewish cemetery—and that I, the “family rabbi,” would officiate at his funeral service.
On Saturday morning, it became clear that death was imminent, and as we prayed, sang, and chanted, the energy among his wife and daughters calmed and shifted to greater acceptance. Not quite 24 hours after our arrival, our sister-in-law asked for some time alone with her husband. The rest of us said our goodbyes, and minutes after we left the room, he died.
In the hours before his death, as I thought about how to serve all of the members of our family, I thought about Taharah. The body would be taken to a non-Jewish mortuary in an area where there is a tiny Jewish population and no Chevrah Kadisha. In the suddenness of decline and death, how could this loving quartet of wife and daughters be best able to feel that they had honored the man they loved so much? How could they derive comfort from the knowledge that they had done for him all that they could, and also honored Jewish tradition? With my husband’s blessing, I proposed that his brother’s wife and daughters consider Taharah. This was a new idea for them, but when I explained Taharah and explained that we could adapt the ritual to fit their circumstances, they expressed their desire to offer this loving service. And so it was that I read an abridged Taharah liturgy as they tenderly and modestly washed the body, and, as they put it, washed away the ravages of disease and restored wholeness and dignity to the body and soul of their beloved husband and father. As a conclusion to the sacredness of this final shared family experience, I offered additional prayers and blessings. When the mortuary transportation arrived, they left the room smiling through their tears, expressing satisfaction at what they had been able to do for him as well as a deep sense of how sharing the holiness of this intimate experience had bound them together in a new way.
As I reflect on this experience, I reflect again on the transformative power of Taharah. I never imagined that I would initiate, facilitate and participate in a modification of the Taharah liturgy, in a Taharah performed for a Jew by non-Jews, in a Taharah performed for a man by a team of women, or in a Taharah for my brother-in-law. And while I am well aware that some would consider our interfaith and inter-gender Taharah a shonda (a disgrace or cause for shame), I believe that my dear brother-in-law’s neshamah (soul) and those of his wife and daughters were accorded honor and comfort as, gently guided by the Holy One, we midwifed his soul and accorded him this final act of loving kindness within the reality of our interfaith family.
Rabbi Janet Madden was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-CA and earned her PhD from the National University of Ireland. She is a four-time fellowship recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a GreenFaith Fellow, a graduate of Kol Zimra Sacred Chant and a Spiritual Director. In 2013, she served as rabbi to the Progressive Jewish community in Poland while also lecturing on Jewish texts and literature at a number of Polish universities. Rabbi Madden is a student at the
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