Jewish Journal

Taharah for Gentiles?

by Susan Esther Barnes

May 1, 2013 | 8:00 am

Kavod v’Nichum, the organization that assists chevra kadisha groups, synagogues and others regarding mitzvot concerning chaplaincy, burial, mourning, and related topics, recently hosted a webinar titled, “Ritual Washing for Non-Jews After Death.” The webinar presenters were two Board members of Kavod v’Nichum: Rick Light from New Mexico and Rabbi Stuart Kelman from the San Francisco Bay Area.

One of the primary tasks of a chevra kadisha is to perform Taharah, the ritual washing and preparing for burial of a Jewish person after his/her death. As Jews have assimilated into American society, intermarriage and other interactions have increased, such that now there are many Gentiles who are active in Jewish life. They are spouses and partners of Jews, mothers and fathers of Jews, sisters and brothers of Jews.

They schlep kids to and from Hebrew school, they attend services, they host seders, and they do numerous other things that involve them in Jewish life. Many of them, when they die, want to be buried near their Jewish partners and relatives. Increasingly, we can expect they will ask whether Taharah can be performed on them after they die.

In response, Rick Light, in concert with Conservative Rabbi Stuart Kelman, is pioneering a new ritual, similar to Taharah, but different for non-Jews. He says he has not used this ritual yet, but he is in the process of finalizing a manual describing how to do it. One can imagine the first such ritual may take place in the coming year.

The webinar described the Taharah process as including the following five steps, which will remain in the new ritual, but which will be modified. They are:

  1. Opening prayers
  2. Cleansing the body physically
  3. Washing and purifying the body spiritually
  4. Dressing the body and placing it in the casket
  5. Closing prayers

The plan is to use English, rather than Hebrew, throughout the ritual, and to use what Rick Light calls “secular and generic Biblical readings” in place of the traditional prayers, as well as simple bows on the burial garments rather than the specially tied bows used in Taharah.

The new ritual has been carefully thought out. It does, however, raise the question, “Why do we need a special ritual at all?” Not to mention, “What makes a prayer ‘secular and generic’ rather than Jewish?”

First, most of the Taharah ritual is minhag, or custom. It is not required by halacha or Jewish law, and I am not aware of any law prohibiting Taharah from being performed on a person who is not Jewish. Nor did the hosts of the webinar or the participants seem to be aware of any such law. Why not just perform Taharah, and be done with it?

Upon further examination, there are a couple of places in which there are references, for a man, to his covenant with God as evidenced by his circumcision, but those passages could be removed. I frankly don’t see the need for rewriting the prayers wholesale, or changing the bows or other aspects of the ritual. I might feel differently if the prayers were changed to express gratitude to the deceased for so wholeheartedly supporting the Jewish people, but that does not appear to be the intent of any of the new, proposed prayers.

I am also uncomfortable with whether the people on whom this ritual will be performed will truly understand what they will be getting. If a Jew asks for Taharah for his or her non-Jewish loved one, will they, or the loved one before his/her death, understand that what they will actually be getting will be a new, modified ritual that differs in several ways from what a Jew would get? After all, it can be hard enough to explain Taharah to the uninitiated, let alone a new ritual like this.

I have to say, I’m not convinced I like this new ritual. In my mind, it either goes too far, or doesn’t go far enough. Either we should change as little as possible, eliminating just the phrases that refer to a circumcision, or we should create something entirely new, eliminating the pouring of the ritual water, using no special bows, and using English readings honoring the sacrifices the deceased has made in supporting the Jewish people.

What do you think?

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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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