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


Post a Comment

<< Home