Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cremation and Halacha

(originally published in Moment Magazine, June 1995)

The Halachic view of cremation became a matter of controversy in the late nineteenth century. Cremation had become progressively more popular, fueled by the British physician Sir Henry Thompson, Queen Victoria's personal surgeon, who in 1878, argued in his book, Cremation:The Determination of the Body After Death, that cremation was a scientifically superior way of disposing of dead bodies . Proponents of cremation claimed that the germs of the dead body would contanimate the ground. The popularity of cremation was also a reaction to the raucous, indecorous wakes and funerals in the late 19th century. The ensuing popularity of cremation became a matter of heated polemics in the Jewish community and Orthodox Rabbis were called upon to defend the Jewish custom of underground burial. Jewish custom, from early times, has disallowed cremation. Tacitus (First century C.E.) writes about the Jews that "rather than cremate their dead, they prefer to bury them" (The Histories 5:5). To defend these long standing traditions, many responsa* were written. Presented here are the major arguments used by various rabbinic authorities to disallow cremation.

1. The Commandment of Burial

The first issue that must be discussed is the commandment to bury the dead.The Torah (Deuteronomy 21:22-3) says:

"When someone is convicted of a capital offense and is put to death, and you hang him on a tree. His body must not remain there overnight; it must be buried on the same night. For it is the curse of God for one to hang, and you should not pollute the land which God gave you."**

These verses require some explanation. At first glance it would appear that the verses contain a prohibition against allowing the body of a hanged convict to remain overnight, as well as a positive commandment to bury him. The Torah also indicates the reason for this commandment: "Ki killat Elokim taluy", that it is a curse to God for one to hang. Several commentaries explain that the reason why it is a curse to God is because the person hanged is one who cursed God; If he continues to hang for an extended period of time, it will remind others that he cursed God. Reminding observers of the deceased convict's curse is tantamount to cursing God on our own.
Rashbam gives a different explanation. He says that the word "Elokim" in this context is refering not to God, but to a Beit Din . The reason why a convict should not hang is because "it is the curse of the Beit Din", for the relatives of the deceased convict will curse the Beit Din that delivered the death sentence. According to these two Rishonim, these commandments are exclusive to those who have recieved the death penalty. The Mishnah also interprets the verse in a similar way. It says: "this means to say, why did this man hang, because he cursed God, and it will desecrate God's name." Rashi explains that people are reminded by the hanging body of the act of cursing God.

However, the Mishnah extends the prohibition and commandment to all deceased bodies, stating "that it is not only in this case (of the hanged convict), but anyone who delays burial has violated a commandment". The reason for the Mishnah's extending this prohibition to all bodies is found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b) that says that a lack of dignity for the human body, which is made in the image of God, is tantamount to a lack of dignity for God.This ruling is subsequently codified by Maimonides (Yad, Sanhedrin 15:8) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 362:1).

The commandment to bury the deceased is understood to be specifically underground. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Kilayim 9:2) quotes Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi as saying that "my coffin should be open to the ground". Rav Natronai Gaon  (quoted in Ramban, Torat HaAdam (Chavel edition; Jerusalem:1964) page 117) discusses the custom of placing dirt into the coffin with the deceased. He comments that when the Bible says that "you are earth, and you shall return to the earth"(Genesis 3:19), it indicates that underground burial is the "remedy" for one who has died.

This commandment is perhaps the major Halachic impediment to cremation. If one is cremated, his body is no longer available for burial, thereby obviating the Biblical commandment of burial. Burying the ashes after burial is insufficient, as it is clear that the entire point of in ground burial is the return of the body to the ground.

2. Mistreatment of the body: Jewish tradition warrants that the body not be mistreated after death. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 29b) concludes that it is forbidden to receive any enjoyment from a dead body and any of its shrouds. The Mishnah (Yadayim 6:4) says that the rationale for the ritual impurity when one comes in contact with a dead body is because we are concerned that people may mistreat the body. For this and other reasons the Talmud (Hullin 11b, Baba Batra 154a) prohibits the mutilation of the dead. Because of this prohibition, Rabbinic authorities have ruled that it is prohibited to perform an autopsy unless it will save human lives. Cremation would clearly violate the prohibition against mutilating dead bodies.

3. The Importance of Tradition: Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook , emphasizes the fact that even if there was no Halachic reason for underground burial, it is essential to preserve Jewish custom. While this is true about all Jewish customs (TB Beitzah 4b, TJ Baba Metzia 7:1) It is particularly important in the case of burial. Funerary rites are one of the only universal rituals; each and every society has a specific way of disposing of the body. Scholars of religion have noted that funerary rites signify a society's view of death. The clear historical evidence that it was an ancient Jewish custom to practice underground burial and not to cremate is significant, for even if there was no direct Halachic warrant for burial, it would be an important part of our folk religion and culture.

It is also the last religious act in any person's life. For this reason, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg argues that cremation is a more serious transgression than other violations of Halacha.

4. Theological reasons: There are several theological ideas represented in underground burial. Burial is considered the most respectful way to treat the body of the deceased. The Talmud compares the dead body to a Torah scroll that is no longer usable. This comparison is explained by R. Aharon of Lunel (early 14th century) who writes that "a man must treat with respect that which he has had enjoyment from....and so it is proper that we do not treat the body abominably once his soul has finished dwelling in it....and following this path, we treat with affection the body through burial and other forms of honor that are done for it, which is similar to the treatment of holy items that are hidden away (when worn out)." The analogy indicates that we treat the body with the same respect as we would treat a worn out Torah scroll. Out of respect, we bury an unusable Torah scroll, and it is forbidden to burn it. We must treat the body with similar respect.

Another idea is advanced by Rabbi Yechiel Michal Tucatzinsky. He says that burial represents the body's return to mother earth. The earth is the source of all life, the provider of food for all living beings. By returning to source of food and life, and becoming one with it, man's body can become part of the earth's life giving magic. This idea that the body's return to the earth is a return to the womb of mother earth is also found in the verse "naked I came out of the maternal
womb, and naked I shall return there."(Job 1:21). Burial is part of the cycle of life for "you are earth, and you shall return to the earth" (Genesis 3:19) Tucatzinsky notes that ashes are not easily biodegradable, and do not truly become part of the earth.

It seems clear that the overwhelming majority of halachic sources weigh against cremation. Burial is an ancient Jewish tradition, and is deeply rooted in biblical and rabbinic texts.


*There are many responsa on the topic of cremation. The most prominent collection is a group of letters solicited by Meyer Lerner, the Rabbi of Altona, Germany, and published as Chayei Olam (Berlin 1904). Other important responsa on this issue include Beit Yitzchak, Yoreh Deah no. 155, Even Yekarah Volume II no. 64, Yabiah Omer, Volume III Yoreh Deah no. 22, Melamed L'hoil Volume Yoreh Deah no. 113-114, Achiezer Volume III no. 72. See also Michael Higger Halachot V'Aggadot, (New York 1935) who, although he is opposed to cremation, rebuts some of the rhetorical excesses of Rabbis who were opposed to cremation. However, some of Higger's counter arguments are tendentious as well.

 ** The commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Rashbam interpret this verse according to its simple meaning, and limit its scope to one who is hanged for a capitol crime. For more on the interplay of the simple meaning of the verse and the Mishnah's interpretation, see the entire text of Mishnah, Sanhedrin 6:4, and Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, negative commandment 66 and positive commandment 291, and Sha'agat Aryeh, New Responsa, no.6. Whether the commandment of burial is of Biblical or Rabbinic origin, see Havot Yair no.139, and S'dei Hemed s.v. "Burial" no. 39. Note that Josephus, (Antiquities of the Jews, 4:265) follows the Mishnah's interpretation that these commandments apply to all dead bodies.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Son of Hamas

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project. You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Chaim Steinmetz - Happiness Warrior

Son of Hamas

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project. You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

This Purim, Stand Up to a Modern Haman

(Tragically, this article is now 4 years old. (It appeared in the Canadian Jewish News in 2006). Nothing's happened since; the U.S and Europe keep talking, and the time bomb keeps ticking. God help us.)

Would he, and could he?

It seems that the most important question on the world stage today is: How do we defend civilization against tasteless cartoons? And so the world is busy searching for protection from hazardous forms of animation, with the E.U.’s bureaucrats looking for new ways to revive medieval blasphemy laws.

Unfortunately, the international community is asking the wrong questions. There are two questions that must be asked, and the answer to them could possibly change the course of world history:

Would he, and could he?

It is easy to dismiss the Iran’s ultra-conservative regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Their public pronouncements are at times bizarre and ridiculous. Khamenei believes that the West is trying to destroy Iran with miniskirts. When a plane crashed in Tehran last December, killing 108, Ahmadinejad said “But what is important is that they have shown the way to martyrdom which we must follow.". And the official press agency, IRNA, reported a year and a half ago that a woman in the southeastern Iranian city of Iranshahr “gave birth to a live gray frog accompanied with mud”.

Yet the Ahmadinejad regime’s bizarre beliefs are precisely why the world must ask the question: would he use nuclear weapons?

Ahmadinejad is drawn to violence. He started his political career in 1979 as one of the hostage takers at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. When the Tehran stock market plummeted after his election, Ahmadinejad told his cabinet “if we were permitted to hang two or three persons, the problems with the stock exchange would be solved forever”. And in Ahmadinejad’s world, the pinnacle of life is death. He constantly extols martyrdom, and once remarked “Is there art that is more beautiful, more divine, and more eternal than the art of martyrdom?”

Ahmadinejad follows a radical theology. He follows an extremist Shiite view that believes in “mahdaviat”, preparing the world for the 12th Mahdi, a saviour who according Shiite belief will bring the end of times. Mahdaviat is an obsession of Ahmadinejad’s. As Tehran’s mayor, he built an avenue to welcome the Mahdi, and has recently allocated $17 million dollars to build a mosque in honor of the Mahdi. When he addressed the U.N. last September, Ahmadinejad ended his speech with a prayer for the coming of the Mahdi.

These beliefs are dangerous. As Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor points out, “this presidential obsession with the Mahdaviat yields a certitude that leaves little room for compromise”. And of course preparing for the Mahdi means getting rid of what Ahmadinejad calls “the oppressor world”, namely Israel, the United States and the West.

Ahmadinejad hates Jews and Israel. He is the world’s most prominent Holocaust denier, and Holocaust denial is now a staple of Iranian media. Recently, Iranian state TV has included “news” pieces affirming the veracity of the blood libels and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Last December, he sponsored a conference on a “world without Zionism”, in which he vowed that Israel would be “wiped off the map”. In addition, he made it clear to the crowd that “this goal is attainable”.

Maclean’s magazine got it right when it called Ahmadinejad “the scariest man on earth”. There is no question that this radical, violent man who hates Israel and the West would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons to achieve his goals. Indeed, a recent report from Iran on the MEMRI website reports that a new fatwa has been issued by influential Iranian clerics stating that "shari'a does not forbid the use of nuclear weapons."

It is clear Ahmadinejad would use nuclear weapons. The only question left is:

Could he use nuclear weapons?

Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad may have a nuclear weapon sooner than you think. His government has recently resumed uranium enrichment and will no longer allow snap International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its nuclear facilities. And recently, Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iranian Supreme National Security Council, has stated that Iran is already capable of conducting a nuclear reaction. Iran is not all that far away from a nuclear weapon.

Unquestionably, time is short. Unfortunately, the attention span of most Canadians is even shorter. Much like a pre-9/11 Ossama Bin Laden, Ahmadinejad is unknown to most Canadians. It is time for us to speak up, create international awareness, and stop the scariest man on earth.

To this end, four concerned activists, Itay Gadot, Rabbi Reuven Poupko, Professor Gil Troy and myself, have formed the Coalition on Iran (CI), an ad hoc group of activists concerned about this dangerous regime. We are organizing rallies on Tuesday, March 14 in cities all across Canada. If you are interested in organizing a rally in your community, contact Itay at info@betar.ca.
March 14th commemorates the Jewish holiday of Purim, a day in which another man from Persia, the viceroy Haman, had his plans to destroy the Jews thwarted. Ahmadinejad is a modern day Haman. There’s no question he would use nuclear weapons to achieve his goals. Let’s make sure we stop him now, before it’s too late.