Abraham’s Children: How Muslim and Jewish Burial Practices Can Help Bring Peace

October 21, 2015

In the Biblical story of the death of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury their father. Then Isaac goes to live in peace with Ishmael. Many millennia later …

  • thousands of Jews across the United States and Canada volunteer their time and energy to perform the ancient Jewish ritual of Taharah, the washing, purification and dressing of their dead, considered the ultimate act of Tzeddakah, (charity). But they are experiencing health and other concerns that Isaac could never have imagined.
  • thousands of Muslims across the United States and Canada volunteer their time and energy to perform the ancient Muslim ritual of Taharah, the washing, purification and wrapping of their dead, considered the ultimate act of Sedakah, (charity). But they are experiencing health and other concerns Ishmael could never have imagined.

Face to Face
I first met Muhammad Yusuf Chaudry at his home in Laurel, Maryland. The Islamic Community Center of Laurel, along with all the other Islamic Centers in Maryland, had asked a Maryland senator to sponsor legislation to make it possible for Muslims to wash their dead at Islamic Centers. I had heard about the proposed legislation and called Yusuf to learn about his work. I asked him about the problems with the current situation.
“There are a number of issues”, he responded. “We want to maintain modesty. Only men should handle men, only women should handle women. We don't want the funeral director handling the deceased. It is a community and religious responsibility, and we especially don't want funeral directors of the opposite sex dressing, undressing, washing, removing tubes, etc.”  I nodded in agreement.
“We also want to wash and bury without delay. We need to have the body picked up quickly from where the person dies and we need immediate access to be able to wash and dress them.” I felt like I was listening to myself talk about Jewish traditions.
Over tea Yusuf explained the Muslim tradition of Taharah, washing and purification of the body. Judaism has a similar ritual also called Taharah, which translates from Hebrew to English as purification. The Jewish ritual of Taharah is also performed by men for men, and by women for women. It consists of prayers and washing, ritual pouring of water, and dressing in simple white garments.
My conversation with Yusuf was powerful and for me it had significant implications about religious traditions, death practices, and the funeral home and cemetery industry. Where I previously had seen only a gulf between Jews and Muslims, now I was seeing amazing commonalities.
Over the next few months, Yusuf and I talked frequently and worked together closely. We strategized on wording changes for the proposed legislation. We discussed the points to make in testimony before the legislature. We jointly presented the importance of this legislation to a very reserved Maryland Board of Morticians. We toured Jewish taharah rooms. We talked about every aspect of religious practice around death, as well as other Muslim and Jewish views, beliefs and practices. And we became friends.

How Can Jews and Muslim Talk?
Mideast peace remains elusive, the impact of 9-11 terrorism continues to hit home, and the United States is engaged in military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and probably many other countries. Muslims and Jews in the United States and Canada have never had close relations. World events make the development of any relationship between the groups much less likely. The situation is made worse by the United States government’s targeting of immigrants from Arab countries for deportation, arresting Muslim Arabs without charges and conducting secret court trials.
In North America, minority groups often feel powerless to impact world events or even local politics. With Jewish and Muslim religious mandates to make the world a better place, we are forced to ask ourselves questions: How can we change the policies of governments? How can we overcome hatred and violence? What should we do today to bring peace to the world? What steps should we take to build a pluralistic society and bring peace to our homes?

Understanding the Lessons of History
From the Spanish inquisition through Russian pogroms to Nazi extermination, Jews have learned that anti-Semitic behavior was often a precursor to genocide. It is this understanding that propels many Jews to fight discrimination, to speak out for human rights, freedom and democracy. It is this history that brought Jews to be active in the civil rights movement in the South and in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It is this history that would normally ally Jews with an underdog Muslim community.

Much in Common
There are over 1 billion Muslims in the World, comprising 20% of the world’s total population. In North America the Muslim and Jewish populations are roughly equal, about 2% of the population. As minorities in the Christian dominated U.S. and Canada, traditional Jews and Muslims each have their own way of dress, eating rules and worship patterns that place them out of the norm. Both religions stress the importance of family, education and hard work. Jews and Muslims have extensive faith-based social service networks.
Muslims as a group are more recent immigrants to the U.S. and Canada than are Jews. Muslims are seen by much of the rest of American society as “the other”, the way earlier generations of less assimilated Jews were perceived. Muslim communities need to better understand how to leverage their own resources and use their influence to defend against discrimination and to support the unfettered practice of their traditions.
Jews as a group are losing members and straying from their tradition. National Jewish organizations have been unable to provide clear direction to reverse this trend. Jews also feel helpless about what they can do to support peace in the Middle East and to fight terrorism. 
Historically in North Africa and in Europe, Muslims and Jews created golden ages of cooperation and peace. Because of these historical roots and similar practices, and despite the obstacles that are before us, Jews and Muslims are logical allies. We need each other now, more than ever.

The Challenge
It is easy to lose traditions just a few generations after immigrants are exposed to Western influences. Many of us have forgotten, or never learned, traditional death practices. Only through education about our heritage and attention to current issues that arise in carrying out these rituals will both communities be able to learn about themselves and each other and to preserve their cherished traditions. Understanding the other’s practices helps us better understand and appreciate our own practices.
Jews and Muslims strive to care for their own dead, and go out of their way to provide for those who cannot afford funerals and burials. Jewish and Muslim death practices are very similar to each other, and very different from the rest of society. These practices include Taharah (the ritual washing), simple dressing, ground burial and defined mourning periods and prohibit body preservation and ostentation. Both religions stress communal obligations to the deceased and the mourners. The same words, the same practices, the same meaning.
It is important to focus on action, particularly at the local level, because problem solving is concrete. Working together widens available resources, and creates a long lasting level of satisfaction – not just the ephemeral good feelings that follow intercultural dialogues. Jewish and Muslim groups can share information about specifications for Taharah facilities, including construction, ventilation and health codes.
Volunteers performing Taharah face the possibility of contracting Hepatitis B, a deadly liver disease. Yet simple precautions and a readily available vaccination will provide the protection needed. Sadly there is little health education provided for individuals who do this work of caring for the dead. OSHA says the volunteers are not paid employees and are not covered by OHSA rules. State mortuary boards usually leave the training of volunteers to the funeral directors. Funeral directors’ degree and continuing education programs spend a relatively small portion of their time on health precautions. Funeral directors themselves spend even less time teaching precautions to their employees and contractors. And it is indeed the rare Funeral Director who shows a lot of interest in training volunteers.
Joint health education program for Jews and Muslims could give lay people providing Taharot [plural of Taharah] critical information on infectious disease, precautions and vaccinations. Similar joint forums could be created to address the emotional, psychological and spiritual reactions that volunteers may experience.

Working Together
It is encouraging to see developments of think tanks and discussion groups between Jews and Muslims. Yet active cooperation, working together, is needed to develop trust and ongoing relationships between Jews and Muslims. Death and mourning practices may be our common bond, the beginning link to establishing trust.

Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort) provides education about traditional Jewish death practices. We propose a new initiative to build grass roots relationships through education and action around funeral and burial practices of Muslims and Jews. Together with a Muslim partner, we will bring together local mosque and synagogue members interested, or involved in, traditional Muslim and Jewish practices around death, including body preparation, burial, and mourning.

We will enable Muslims and Jews to provide education about their death-related practices. We will help each group identify bureaucratic, financial and organizational obstacles to development and facilitate them helping each other. We will develop a national capacity for assistance to these groups. And most important, we will utilize these local and national contacts to help foster concrete, working relationships that go well beyond meetings and discussions. We intend to sow the seeds of peace, Salaam, Shalom.

1. Common practice – Our proposal focuses on practices around death because Muslim and Jewish traditions and practices are very similar to each other, and very different from the rest of society. These practices include ritual washing, simple dressing, ground burial and defined mourning periods and exclude body preservation and ostentation. Both religions stress communal obligations and provide for the poor. The same words, the same meaning, the same practices.

2. Traditions at risk – We know how easy it is to lose traditions just a few generations after immigration. We focus on education because we have forgotten, or never learned, traditional practices, and because understanding the other’s practices helps us better understand and appreciate our own practices.

3. Action is better than talk – We focus on action at the local level, because problem solving is concrete. Working together widens available resources, and creates a long lasting level of satisfaction. For example, Jewish and Muslim groups can share information about specifications for Taharah facilities. This can include construction, water, drainage, ventilation as well as health codes, licensing, and zoning. Joint education sessions could be held on communicable disease issues and protection.

4. Local first – We focus at the grass roots level to avoid complicated organizational entanglements. We are not “the other”, a nameless unknown statistic. We live in the same communities, breathe the same air, fill up in the same gas station and drive on the same roads. We build peace one relationship at a time.

The Future
Active cooperation, working together on projects of mutual importance, is needed to develop ongoing relationships and eventual trust between the Jewish and Muslim community. We build peace one relationship and one project at a time. Death and mourning practices may be the common bond that allows real communication to start. Just as our Muslim and Jewish ancestors buried Abraham together, so we too must learn about our burial traditions and practices, and use that knowledge to foster mutual understanding. When we work together to solve practical problems, we create the trust that can be a solid foundation for peace.

Kavod v’Nichum
8112 Sea Water Path
Columbia, MD 21045

David Zinner is the Executive Director of Kavod V’Nichum (honor and comfort), and of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as instructor for the non-denominational Gamliel Institute, a nonprofit center for Chevrah Kadisha organizing, education, and training. In his role as executive director Zinner co-teaches courses on Chevrah Kadisha history, organizing, taharah and shmirah (sitting with the deceased until burial),  and building capacities in Jewish communities that enable all participants to meaningfully navigate these final life cycle events.



Winter 2016:  
During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This course will run at two times: from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST, and from January 11th to March 28th, Noon to 1:30 pm EST/9-10:30 PST (12 sessions at each time). There will be an online orientation session Monday January 4th (8-9:30 pm EST) and one on January 4th (12-1:30 pm EST). For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute section of the Kavod v’Nichum website.
This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course looks as well at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Includes spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.


NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization receive a 20% discount. There are clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


You can register for Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg.

Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700.

Donations are always needed and most welcome – online at  http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. The Gamliel Institute is a 501(c)(3) organization and donations may be tax-deductible. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting the Gamliel Institute.

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To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find to be of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

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