Jewish Journal

Fight Nicely

by Susan Esther Barnes

May 28, 2014 | 1:30 am

Photo from Wikimedia

“Fight nicely” is an admonition my sister and I received frequently as we were growing up. It always struck me as an odd thing for an adult to say to a child. Shouldn’t they have been telling us to stop fighting? Now that I’m older, it makes a lot of sense. As human beings, we’re going to disagree, and maybe even fight, about certain things. But it’s how we go about disagreeing that matters.

I was reminded of this recently by a discussion on a listserve regarding Jewish funeral practices. Every once in a while, the question arises about whether or not we should agree to perform taharah, the ritual purification and preparation of a body for burial, when we know the body will be cremated.

Jewish tradition calls for burial, and the tragedy of the Jewish bodies burned during the Shoah (Holocaust) further cemented this tradition in Jewish practice. However, cremations are often less expensive than burials, and for that reason, as well as others, the practice of cremation is increasing, even among Jewish people.

So, the question comes up, should we perform taharah, a traditional Jewish ritual, on someone who will not be buried in the traditional Jewish manner?

There are worthy arguments on both sides. Some believe performing taharah before a cremation is wrong. Reasons cited include that taharah is just one step in the series of steps involved in a Jewish funeral, and should not be done if other steps are left out. In other words, a Jewish funeral should be all or nothing. Some feel doing it would be condoning the cremation in some way, and they don’t want to have anything to do with that.

Others feel we should do whatever we can for the dead person, even if they (or their family) make some choices with which we disagree, including the choice of cremation. Some feel like we’re only responsible for the part we do, namely taharah and shmirah, and that whatever happens after the body leaves our care isn’t our business.

So there are reasonable arguments on both sides. Unfortunately, an all-too-common thing happened, when one of the participants decided to inject into the conversation a bit of defamation of those with an opposing view. She accused others of just “doing what one feels like,” while saying those in her group “hold to traditional values,” as if those of the opposing view do not.

This is a great illustration of where we so often go wrong in a disagreement. Contrast this with a discussion we had at a synagogue board meeting recently. One board member stated an opinion. When another board member prepared to state an opposing viewpoint, she started with, “You know I love you.”

The way to “fight nicely” is to listen to the other’s opinion and reasoning, then state your own opinion and reasoning. It is neither nice, nor productive, to accuse the people with different views of this, that or the other thing. I may be an expert on me, but I am certainly not an expert on you. I am qualified to say what I believe and why I believe it, but nobody is qualified to speak about the motives or beliefs of others, especially on a listserve when they are speaking about others they have never met.

In reading the comments on the taharah question from both sides, in no case do I see any evidence that anyone who commented on it is just doing what they feel like without honest thought and consideration, nor do I see evidence that any of them do not hold traditional values. Indeed, everyone seems, appropriately, concerned with the traditional value of “kavod ha’meit,” the honor of the dead person.

Fighting nicely means speaking for oneself without putting down others. It means using logic and reasoning, without calling the other person names. It means holding respect for the position of the other side and the people who espouse that position, even when you disagree with their conclusions.

It may take more time and effort to fight nicely, but the results are well worth it. When done right, it can, indeed, be better than not fighting at all.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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