Taharah III: The Hope of Israel
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