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Tahara: Respect for the dead and comfort for the living

Traditional Jewish ritual of preparing a body for burial is making a comeback with liberal congregations

 Hands join in to tie the garments on a volunteer at a training seession for a group learning to perform the ritual bathing and dressing of a body before a Jewish burial, called tahara. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune / May 29, 2011)
On the table lay a human form covered by a white sheet. A small group of people gathered around. Nisan Chavkin, steering committee chairman of the Progressive Chevra Kadisha, led them through the ritual.

First the body was to be washed, gently but thoroughly, with most of it kept draped for modesty.

Water was to be poured onto the body from three plastic buckets in a continuous stream: The first bucket poured over one side, moving from the head down to the feet; the second up the other side, the third down over the middle.

As they poured, the group would say, in Hebrew: “She is pure. She is pure. She is pure.”

When that was done, group members carefully pulled loose white pants and a tunic over the body and tied them with strips of cloth around the waist and ankles.

Now the body — actually a volunteer helping at a training demonstration — was ritually cleansed according to Jewish tradition. And now members of Congregation Or Chadash, the latest congregation to join the Progressive Chevra Kadisha (PCK), were ready to perform the ritual of “tahara,” considered one of the most meaningful and selfless in Judaism.

The Jewish practice of washing and dressing a body for burial, a solid presence in traditional Jewish communities, is rarely practiced by liberal Jews. But in recent years, some of those communities have been reclaiming it.

The PCK was established by four Chicago-area congregations in 2005. Anshe Emet, a Conservative congregation on the North Side, and Congregation Hakafa, in Glenview, each started a chevra kadisha, or sacred society, three years ago.

“It’s an ancient custom that is coming back in non-Orthodox Jewish life,” Chavkin said.

The cleansing ritual will be the focus of a national meeting being held Sunday through Tuesday at the Doubletree Hotel & Conference Center Chicago North Shore in Skokie.

At the ninth annual Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, more than 100 registrants from across the U.S. and Canada will attend sessions that include a tahara demonstration and talks on emotional reactions, how to work with medical examiners and tahara for transgender people.

The ritual is performed by laypeople, men washing men, women washing women. PCK members take monthly turns on call, carrying a beeper. “It’s kind of like a volunteer fire department,” Chavkin said.

Tahara allows Jewish communities to fill a gap in care, Chavkin said. Congregations reach out to people when they are sick and bury them after they die, he said, but they should also address the period between death and burial.

“It’s a way to honor a great moment of transition, a shift from one state to another,” he said.

“The basic purpose is a spiritual cleansing of the body, which in Jewish eyes has a status of sacredness because in this life, the body was the bearer of the soul,” said Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski, rabbinic chaplain with the Jewish Healing Network of Chicago.

“This is a beautiful, powerful, wonderfully democratic institution,” said Chavkin. Volunteers with the chevra can ask rabbis for advice, but any decisions the volunteers make are considered binding and correct.

“There is no way you can mess this up for them,” Chavkin assured the trainees at the recent mock tahara at Emanuel Congregation on the North Side. “There is nothing we do that will hurt (their) chances in the next life.”

Yet new participants are often nervous about their first encounter with a real body.

“I’m very anxious about the whole thing,” Rabbi Larry Edwards, Or Chadash’s rabbi, acknowledged. “I am in deep denial about my own mortality, and I am very anxious about touching a dead body.”

Even physicians — several of the founders and volunteers at PCK are doctors — find the prospect intimidating.

“It was uncomfortable for me to do this at first,” said Dr. Michael Slater, an emergency medicine physician at Mt. Sinai Hospital and board president-elect of Kavod v’Nichum, a North American organization that promotes traditional Jewish end-of-life practices. “It was a different interaction with death than I’d had. I couldn’t just put on the veneer of being a doctor.”

Discomfort is often replaced by powerful emotion. Every time he helps perform a tahara, Dr. Larry Goldberg, a family physician and PCK steering committee member, is struck by the change that seems to come over the body.

Before the ritual starts, he said, the body simply looks like a corpse, often with bandages, toe tags and IV needles from the hospital. But as it is lovingly washed and dressed, he said, “there is something holy that happens. It is transformed. It’s not just a cadaver.”

“That body contained a spark of divinity, a piece of God,” said Slater. “You’re with a group of people who are there for that same reason, to acknowledge the importance of that life. …The group that comes for the tahara creates holiness.”

The ritual is performed anonymously, so family don’t feel a sense of obligation.

“If someone asks, ‘Did you perform their tahara?’ you say, ‘The community provided the service,” said Dr. Elizabeth Feldman, a physician who is the PCK’s head of outreach.

The recipient can never give thanks. “I will get no credit for this,” Goldberg said. “This is clean; this is pure.”

The ritual ends with a prayer asking forgiveness for any inadvertent indignity. The intense focus on respect for the dead and comfort for the living, Feldman said, makes tahara “the most profoundly spiritual experience of my life.”




One thought on “Tahara: Respect for the dead and comfort for the living

  1. Although I find this deeply moving, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to participate in a ritual like this Jewish burial ritual. It would take an enormous amount of faith, and humility, I think.

    Posted by emb | June 12, 2011, 7:59 am

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