Finding the balance

In the case of crematoriums, the idea of burning a human body has always been deeply abhorrent to Jewish tradition and even to many Jews who are not religiously observant.

September 25, 2007 06:27
4 minute read.


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The recent furor about the torching of a crematorium and the subsequent discussion about whether to allow the burning of human bodies has once again brought out the constant tension that exists here between secularism and religion and between Jewish values and the freedom of the individual. Should the individual always be able to exercise complete freedom? Would the outlawing of cremation be analogous to the "ayatollah police," as one secular spokesman said? The answers to these dilemmas are not easy but are crucial to the future of Judaism in the Jewish state. In the case of crematoriums, the idea of burning a human body has always been deeply abhorrent to Jewish tradition and even to many Jews who are not religiously observant. In addition to the weight of Jewish tradition going back 3,000 years or more, the recent history of the Holocaust has added another dimension, and the haredim are not the only ones who feel it. It is not accidental that one of the seminal works of Shoah poetry is entitled "O the Chimneys." Different cultures view the body in different ways. What is considered proper in one is abhorrent in another. Our Jewish culture began with the idea that the human being is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). As such the body must be treated with respect. Perhaps in reaction to the Egyptian practices of mummifying the body, the religion of Israel determined that the body was not to be preserved but returned to the earth from which it was taken (Genesis 3:19). On the other hand, neither was it to be destroyed, for to destroy it would be to tamper with the divine image. That is the basis of the Torah's law in the holiness code forbidding tattooing or cutting and disfiguring the body (Leviticus 19:28). It is also the basis for the idea that the body must be returned to the earth as it was, so that even the body of an executed criminal must not be allowed to remain unburied overnight (Deuteronomy 21:23). The idea of the image of God is also at the foundation of the prohibition of murder, as stated in the Torah: "Whoever sheds the blood of a human being by a human being shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make the human being" (Genesis 9:6). The Midrash teaches that there is a link between the first commandment concerning the worship of God and the sixth prohibiting murder because "if one sheds human blood it is as if one had diminished the image of God" (Mekhilta Bahodesh 8). In our deeply polarized society, extreme secularists who reject belief in God and the authority of the Torah and Jewish law have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that is based on Jewish tradition. Granted that to enforce all of Jewish law would be both impossible and undesirable in a democratic society, are there not some underlying values - such as the dignity of human life and the human body - that could be seen as part of Jewish culture and Jewish civilization worthy of adoption as the norms of a Jewish society? There is no such thing in any society as total freedom for the individual to do whatever that person wishes - even with his or her own body. We do not legalize suicide or even assisted mercy killing. Even in the most liberal societies, there are certain controls and limitations on abortions. A Jewish state should be able to honor basic Jewish concepts that are not opposed to accepted norms of morality and ethics. The balance must be found between tradition and freedom. The problem is that the extreme positions of the two camps which we have come to take for granted generate extreme reactions. It matters not which came first, secularism as a reaction to extremism in religion or extremism in religion as a reaction to secular attacks. In either case the result is the same: the distortion of Judaism. Attempts to foist extreme religious views by illegal destruction of property, or abhorrent statements by leading rabbis, such as the declaration that soldiers are killed because they don't observe the commandments, result in an automatic secular rejection of all Jewish values. We saw this in the recent statement by an ex-haredi who said that driving on Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv "is not a right, it is an obligation... someone who drives on Yom Kippur should be exempt from all the civic obligations. He is like someone who has saved his country from an atomic bomb." Really? On the other hand, extreme secular actions calling for the elimination of practices that are basic to Jewish existence so that Israel would be like any other nation result in a religious backlash. Why must everything be seen in black and white? Can we not find a broader understanding of Judaism and a greater tolerance on the part of all groups for one another? If we do not, the future of Judaism is in question. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.

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