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


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