A leading Orthodox rabbi has ruled that Jewish communities in Europe should embrace cremation if their governments require it — and consider it a posthumous “mitzvah,” or fulfillment of a commandment, on the part of the deceased.
As some countries halt burials for coronavirus victims or move towards doing so, out of fear that it increases coronavirus transmission, Kenneth Brander, the rosh yeshiva or dean of the Israeli Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions, said that any Jewish person who is cremated in this context should be seen as posthumously fighting against the virus that killed them.
“The highest honor that a person who isn’t alive can achieve is to help the living,” said Brander. While Judaism normally deems cremation a “desecration,” in the context of saving a life it would be seen as “a mitzvah that the deceased is doing posthumously.”
Brander spoke with The Times of Israel soon after it emerged that a Jewish man, Ruben Bercovich, was cremated near Buenos Aires despite protests from his community.
Located in the West Bank city of Efrat, Ohr Torah Stone was established by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in 1983. Today a network of 27 educational institutions headed by Brander, its seminary has ordained hundreds of rabbis who serve across the world.
Brander is responsible for sending guidelines for the coronavirus crisis to the 277 members of his network’s rabbinical emissaries program, most of whom are located in Europe.
He said that his comments on the “mitzvah” of cremation apply only in cases where governments decide that cremations are necessary for public health and implement the policy across the board. This would therefore not apply in Britain or Italy, which have so far made an exemption for faith communities.
Brander said that in the case of cremation during the coronavirus crisis, normal funerary prayers should still be recited, and the deceased would still be mourned with the seven-day shiva period and the traditional mourners’ prayer, the Kaddish — within the confines of restrictions on gatherings.
Brander reported that tahara, the ritual bathing and preparation for burial, has already stopped in much of of the Jewish world for deceased who were infected with the coronavirus. The infectious virus lives on in an infected carrier’s blood and bodily fluids postmortem.
In Milan, the Jewish community’s Rabbi Alfonso Arbib halted the practice of tahara. “It’s not safe,” Arbib told JTA, “and preserving life is the most important thing right now.”
In Italy, Jewish burial is still permitted, but the community is aware that this may soon change. “So far, we’ve been able to prevent this because burials are still allowed under certain conditions, but it is a concern that this would no longer be possible if the death toll keeps climbing,” Arbib said.
Brander reported that burial societies or hevra kadishas in Europe that continue with the ritual practice of tahara are already handling all bodies with special protection, including face masks and gloves. They are working in smaller groups than normal and adding disinfectant to the water for washing bodies.
Brander said there is a chance that in some places Jewish burial societies will also stop preparing for burial the bodies of those uninfected by COVID-19 as the crisis worsens.
Brander explained that the Jewish prohibition of cremation stems from the Hebrew Bible. “The Torah, in Deuteronomy, talks about the need to bury people immediately — even people who have been hanged for an offense,” he said.
As decreed by rabbis during and after the Holocaust, cremation is not considered a transgression of Jewish law on the part of the deceased if the deceased did not give consent.
“Jewish custom for generations has been to bury the dead respectfully and not cremate, but as there are concerns about contagiousness, we’re trying to guide our rabbis on what to do. Until now our rabbis have been able to bury the dead but realize this may change due to the intensity of coronavirus deaths,” Brander said.
The end to ritual Jewish burial will be sad, said Brander, but should be embraced by Jewish communities if need be. “Taharas are important as they represent tradition, but Jewish law says the ultimate concern is to take care of the living, and this will guide us,” he said.
As Brander briefs his rabbis in Europe, America’s National Association for Hevra Kadishas released guidelines to burial societies in the US. Elchonon Zohn, the association’s founder, wrote to members that the guidelines were “very difficult for me to recommend and distribute” and that it is “appropriate to feel pained that we are abbreviating procedures.”
Instructions included washing of bodies “be expedited even if it will be more perfunctory.” Burial society members are told to minimize the time spent with a body.
Zohn stated that in many ways the new rules “contradict what I have taught for many years.” Yet, “Torah requires that we react to special times with special rules.”