Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Taharah III: The Hope of Israel

[Jugs dedicated to a Chevra Kadisha. Note the image of men carrying a burial litter. Found at www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/nikolsburg/w16.jpg]

The term "taharah" is used to refer to the entire ritual of preparing a corpse for burial, but it more specifically refers to the one stage of the ritual in which the body undergoes ablution. Having already physically cleansed the body, we now symbolically cleanse the spirit. This is achieved by either the body's total immersion in a body of "living water" (a moving natural body of water or a man-made ritual pool), or by continuously dousing the body in a minimum of 24 quarts of water (usually by means of buckets). This is the center-piece of the preparation, the culminating moment.

This is so because "living water," water that has flowed down from heaven, is, in effect, a heavenly substance. Jews regard bodies of water to be a kind of celestial embassy on earth, a nexus point between us and Eden. By immersing, we in effect place ourselves at the very doorstep of the World-to-Come, we are prepared to encounter divine things. Since the dead can do nothing from themselves, we perform this liminal ritual on their behalf.

While the ablution is performed, we read a lectionary of verses affirming that God is the mikveh (the purifying waters) that cleanses the spirits of all flesh in the end:

Said Rabbi Akiva, “You are fortunate, Israel. Before Whom do you purify yourselves, and Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as it is said: ‘And I will pour pure water upon you, and you shall be purified’ (Ezekiel 36:25), and it says: ‘The mikveh [ritual bath, also a word play on 'hope'] of Israel is God’ (Jeremiah 17:13). Just as a mikveh purifies the defiled, so does the Holy Blessed One purify Israel” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). A fountain for gardens, a well of living waters, flowing from Lebanon (Song of Songs 4:15) . And I will pour pure water upon you, and you shall be purified from all of your impurities; and from all of your abominations I shall purify you (Ezekiel 36:25).

This ablution, once again, is a mimetic performance. We are acting out physically what we believe to be happening spiritually. It is God, not the Chevra Kadisha, that purifies soul, but we purify the body as a ritualized assertion of faith that God will receive this deceased Jew.

Most of the verses selected are straight-forward prooftexts of this belief. The somewhat oblique verse from Song of Songs, "A fountain of gardens...," refers to the female lover of the poem, who is a understood to be a literary figure for the people Israel. The reference to her as "living waters" affirms that life is still present in death, that just as water moves from one state to another, there will be an enduring aspect of the person who has died. The deceased is now ready to enter and participate in the garden of eternity.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Taharah II: In My Flesh I See God

[Illustration by David the Artist, found on Flickr]

Continuing our discussion of the rich symbolic blending of liturgy and action that is the ceremony of taharah, of preparing a body for burial, we come now to the ritual washing. The body undergoes two cycles of cleansing. First, the body is gently washed, starting at the head and working down the limbs. Only then is the actual taharah, a whole body ablution, performed.

Like the removal of clothing, the washing is done while passages of Scripture are recited. In the case of the cleansing, it is Song of Songs 5:11-16, widely known as the Rosho ketem paz from the opening words:

His head is like the most pure gold [ketem paz].
His hair is curly – black like a raven.
His eyes are like doves by streams of water,
washed in milk, mounted like jewels.
His cheeks are like garden beds full of balsam trees yielding perfume.
His lips are like lilies dripping with drops of myrrh.
His arms are like rods of gold set with chrysolite.
His abdomen is like polished ivory inlaid with sapphires.
His legs are like pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as its cedars.
His mouth is very sweet;
he is totally desirable.
This is my beloved!
This is my companion, O maidens of Jerusalem!

The juxtaposition of text and context could hardly be greater. It is little short of mind boggling; reciting the lively, lusty, hyperbolic description of the male lover in Song of Songs while one washes the limp, grey, lifeless limbs of the corpse. It seems yet another example of exquisite, some might say tasteless, Jewish irony.

Yet this paean to beauty thrown in the face of obvious physical desolation is precisely the point. The human, made in the divine image, is to be celebrated. Even if these limbs no longer course with life, what a miracle that they once did. The liturgy forces us to look past the dead flesh to meditate on the sublime nature of the human body. It also suggests that the most splendid aspect of this person endures in a way that may not be obvious, even with the close examination of his corpse.

But there is more. Any Jew conversant with the siddur knows that this passage from Song of Songs has long been treated as an allegorical description of God, the lover of Israel. In the Shabbat service there is Shir ha-Kavod, the Song of Glory, which uses the imagery of ketem paz to praise the God of Israel. The Midrash and Kabbalah frequently cite these words when describing God's attributes.

So reciting these words over the body implies we are looking at, and caring for, something divine. In the divine image, for sure, but something more; God is present in the flesh, even in the decaying flesh, of every person. As the body is readied for burial, the implication is this: God is present in this moment, which is obvious in its tragedy, but may also be hiding something of surpassing beautiful just below the skin.

Addendum: In many traditional chevra kadisha, ketem paz will be recited over both men and women. In more contemporary circles, the woman's washing will be performed to the description of the female lover, Song of Songs chapter 4.

Zal g'mor - to learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Taharah I: Memesis of Angels, Transformation of the Dead

One of the one of the most widely practiced yet least familiar ritual customs is that of taharah (or tahorah): Purification of a corpse. In theory, every Jewish body buried undergoes this ritual (with variations), though in fact most newly deceased Jews outside the State of Israel probably don't.

A form of body preparation, taharah is performed by a chevra kadisha, a "sacred fellowship" of community volunteers who take on this task. In past centuries, these groups were a cross between the Optimists Club and the Masonic Lodge. Membership was considered a kind of elite privilege, it functioned partly as a social club, and often had more than a air of secrecy about it (anonymity was considered a virtuous aspect of participation).

At its core is a ritual of transition not unlike what is done in most cultures; it is a mechanism to show respect for the deceased by preparing the body for its final resting place (When I worked as a registered nurse, we had our prescribed 'ritual' for washing and preparing a body for transfer to the hospital morgue). Taharah has been, over time, elevated to the status of a sacrament in some circles - there are sources which claim a dead Jew cannot take his or her place in Eden if the body has not undergone taharah. The steps in body preparation became more and more elaborate, and each ritual gesture was given more complex and metaphysical interpretations.

There are endless geographic and communal variations of how this ritual is performed, but I want to comment on examples of the liturgy performed during taharah, because I think the resulting "speech-act" of reading and doing is revealing and interesting.

In this entry I will focus on one of the early steps of the ritual, the removing of any clothing worn at the time of death. Every aspect of what is done, even something as mundane as stripping the body prior to its washing and purification, is considered integral to the ultimate meaning of the ritual, which is to help the dead make the transition from one state of being (existence in this world) to another state of being in the World-to-Come. This is captured in the very fact that there is a liturgy for the pragmatic act of removing the clothing. Moreover, the choice of reading, taken from the prophets, is both startling and beautiful. As the clothes are cut away (the body is at all times partly covered to protect its modesty), one of the participants recites Zechariah 3:4-5:

And He raised his voice and spoke to those who were standing before him, saying, "Remove the soiled garments from him" And he said to him, "Behold, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will cloth you in fine garments."

Even without comment or prior knowledge, this is a great quote for the occasion, but consider the original context. In Zechariah, the prophet is having a dream-vision where he sees Joshua, the High Priest of his time, being tried in an angelic court. Joshua is clothed in filthy clothing, symbolic of the spiritual corruption that threatens the disintegration of the sacred community of Israel. In the midst of the trial, God graciously intervenes and declares Joshua fit, having endured the ordeal of exile, and ready to take on new, priestly duties. The angels strip him of his outer garments in a gesture signifying his spiritual purification. What has happened is that his soul has been cleansed, even as his material covering is cleansed - also indicating that sin, like the garments, are incidental, not integral to who he is.

By reciting these verses while stripping the body (perhaps in death the body itself is the covering that is removed, revealing the soul beneath), the Chevra Kadisha is acting out a memesis of Zechariah's vision. We become the angels preparing the dead for his/her elevation to a new and holy state. The deceased is Joshua, sullied and stained by transgression in life, undergoing the ordeal of death, but now he/she is readied by us to take a new form, a new role, to become a being akin to the priesthood. An unstated subtext is that life itself is an exile analogous to the exile Joshua endured, and merely having endured it has prepared the spirit for future glorification and return to God, Who is the homeland (ha-Makom, "the place," as the Sages refer to Her) of the soul.
It is a brilliant use of text in a ritual setting to affirm the values of Judaism and the enduring value of the individual. It marks death not as an end, but almost as an overcoming of life and a transfer of the essential part of each person into a higher, purer, order of being. The Chevra Kadisha is, in that moment, an angelic assembly privileged to be the facilitator of that transformation.
Zal g'mor - to learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ruach P'sak'nit: Who Speaks for Israel?

It is apparent that the people Israel could sure use some help. Spiritually, there have been numerous intercessors on our behalf. Among humans, we can immediately think of Moses,

[Hopeful Angel, by Paul Klee]

whose actions on our behalf are recorded in Torah.

The Sages also call attention to numerous times where the prophets following Moses speak in defense of Israel. Some argue that no prophet is worthy of the name unless he is willing at some point to step in between God and Jewish people. As it turns out, keeping us out of trouble in more than a full time job. Abraham, Rachel, and other virtuous ancestors, we are told, are still occupied with this advocacy long after they've died (LOTJ 4:304-10).

Among angels we are told, in various sources, that Michael (Exodus Rabbah 18:5), Gabriel (Sanh. 44b), and even an eponymously named angel, Israel (Mid. Teh. 8:6; PdRE 37), is our people's guardian spirit and advocate. Least known, however, is the Ruach P'sak'nit.

The Ruach P'sak'nit ("Intervening/Intercessory Spirit") Is a celestial defender of Israel. Perhaps based on the recording angel who pleads on behalf of suffering Israel in the Book of Enoch (1 En. 89.76), he goes by three names - Piskon, Itamon, and Sigaron (B.T. Sanh. 44b). He is given permission to dispute with God over matters pertaining to the Jewish people (Tanhuma, V'zot ha-Brachah). I was not aware of him when I wrote the EJMMM and would welcome anyone who knows of additional sources or traditions about any angel of these names or titles.

Zal g'mor - consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Friday, July 10, 2009

Serafim: Fiery Angels of Presence

Seraphim, Serafim: (“Fiery Ones”). A class of angels first described in the apocalypse experienced by Isaiah in the Temple (Isa. 6). There are four seraphim, corresponding to the four winds. The appearance of the Seraf is truly awesome. It has six wings, sixteen faces, and is the height of all seven heavens combined. Serafim are born anew each day, rising from the river of light that flows from under the Throne of Glory (Sefer Hechalot). According to Enoch I, they are serpent-like. The Talmud counts Michael among the Serafim:

R. Eleazar b. Abina said furthermore: Greater is [the power] ascribed to Michael than that ascribed to Gabriel. For of Michael it is written: Then flew unto me one of the Seraphim, whereas of Gabriel it is written: The man Gabriel whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly in a flight.... [one "flap" vs. two "flaps"]. How do you know that this [word] 'one' means Michael? — R. Johanan says: By a word association; [the words] 'one', 'one'. Here it is written: Then flew unto me one of the Seraphim; and in another place it is written: But, behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me (B.T. Ber. 4b)

The Zohar contains a section on angels, probably a Hekhalot text inserted into the teachings on creation, which briefly discusses Serafim.
Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050