Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Lifecycle experiences - Cremation

I have an amazing couple of weeks laid out for myself. It hits on many of the points in our lifecycle. Bat Mitzvah tutoring and rehearsal for a bar mitzvah that will take place in two weeks. I am tutoring 2 young people as well as teaching Sunday school. I am officiating at Shabbat services this week. Next week I am officiating at a baby naming. And today I conducted a short funeral for a family whose matriarch (grandmother) was about to be cremated.

This was another new experience for me on my road to defining myself as a liberal rabbi. Many years ago I wouldn’t have considered doing a ceremony for a cremation. Today I can’t imagine not doing one.

I know that there are varying opinions about cremation in Judaism with much of the traditional Jewish world holding it is not permissible. But even though there are Biblical and Talmudic precedents that favor burial over cremation, not to mention years and years of minhag, in my mind I find it difficult to reconcile withholding comfort and closure from a family because their loved one opted for cremation over burial. (see the Conservative Responsa on cremation – it’s short!)

The conclusion of the Responsa is as follows:
1. Cremation is against the Jewish tradition, and the family should be so advised by the rabbi.
2. Should the family decide not to follow the rabbi's advice, he may still choose to officiate in the funeral parlor before the body is cremated.
3. The ashes should be interred in a Jewish cemetery.
4. The interment should be private, without the presence of a rabbi.
5. In a situation where the rabbi's ruling has not been defied by the family, but he is faced with a fait accompli, the rabbi may choose to conduct services at the cemetery.

I am not comfortable with the language of “defying” the rabbi but I am fine with the rest of this conclusion. I did #2, I officiated in a funeral parlor before the cremation.

It was a very different type of experience for me. I’d never worked with a cremation before. I didn’t know the family at all – the funeral parlor called me yesterday to see if I were willing to officiate at such a funeral. I said yes without hesitation.

I met with the family in a small chapel where their deceased family member was laid out. I must admit I wasn’t totally prepared to do a ritual in front of a body laying in state, I’m not sure what I expected actually – probably a closed coffin. Though I have participated in taharot I haven’t seen that many bodies lying in state as it were.

I also purposely didn’t ask what they intended to do with the ashes, I didn’t want to know. That way I didn’t have to deal with interment vs. keeping the ashes in an urn. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered to me but I am not sure about that and didn’t want to find out then. In truth, now that I do think about it, I would prefer that the ashes are buried or scattered – from dust to dust and all – but I am not going to tell a family what to do.

The family requested a prayer or poem by a rabbi – that was it.  After spending a bit of time talking with them I discovered that the grandmother had left a note detailing 5 points that she wanted mentioned. One of the things mentioned was that she wanted Psalm 23 read, it was one of her favorites. Interestingly the family wasn’t familiar with Psalm 23 or psalms in general, just knew that they were part of the Old Testament.

Ultimately I read the Reconstructionist translation of Psalm 23 as well as a beautiful interpretive version called Path of Fullness written by Brant Rosen. It has a verse that was very poignant:

“Thus is my spirit ever renewed, for my Guide leads me down paths of fullness.” 
It ends with the words “To my Source, my destination.”

The words were very meaningful to the family, as the Grandmother had suffered from Alzheimer’s for quite a long time. The vision that she was no longer suffering, that her spirit was renewed and that she was once again herself was very powerful for the family members. As the daughter of a parent who also had suffered from Alzheimer’s for a very long time, I could emphasize fully with this family.  I ended with El Malei Rachamim and a private recitation of Kaddish as we did not have a minyan.

The family hadn’t expected or even wanted much. In the end I think I gave them more than they asked for and they seemed to have received solace from that. It’s an honor to accompany a soul as it departs and a family as they mourn. I am grateful for the opportunity.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Our Job This Pesach - to remember and to do

Tonight we get rid of our chametz – the actual leavened stuff that we plant around our house for the ritual (candle, feather, fun). We say the wonderful prayer that absolves us for any other chametz that might be around the house – that we forgot about, that we might stumble upon.  It’s a wonderful prayer – or maybe it should be called an incantation. It reminds us that we are human, that we are imperfect. That no matter how hard we try there will invariably be something that is out of our control. So we let it go (and we do NOT sing the song to Frozen in the process)!

And then we move on to the next step -  we must figure out what is in our control.

Passover is a time when we are reminded that good and evil exists. That slavery was part of our history and unfortunately is still part of our world today. But... freedom from oppression is also a part of our history and is also a part of our world today.  It’s our job to remember – actually re-experience ­ – the oppression and salvation of our ancestors. It's also our job to acknowledge that as a modern Jew who lives in freedom we must do everything we can to enable others to enjoy the same rights and privileges that we have.

Think about our past tonight as you search for the chametz, both the physical and metaphysical leaven and shmutz of our daily lives. And then just as God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against what was good and right, strengthen your heart toward what is good and right. How can you make a change in the world? How can we better others’ lives together?

Next year in Jerusalem – the physical Jerusalem that exists in Israel or the Jerusalem of Above – the Jerusalem as a concept that stands for freedom, pluralism, egalitarianism, and light – for all peoples.

Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach!  A Zissen Pesach!  Happy Passover!

Rabbah Arlene