Grave of Becky Abramovitz in Bethel Cemetery from http://www.graveyards.com
Photograph by Matt Hucke
May not be reproduced without permission
The Significance of the Chevra Kaddisha
From the Old World to the the New World, the chevra kaddisha (Jewish burial society) has played a significant role in the Jewish community. Caring for the dead is one of the highest mitzvot in Judaism. Thus, membership in the chevra kaddisha has been regarded as a coveted honor and, until recent times, was honorary. It is a task reserved for the most pious, righteous Jews in the community, for the helpless dead are completely dependent upon their kindness and compassion.
A strong level of devotion has been necessary to carry out this role because members of the society not only confront one of the most faith-challenging life events; in times of persecution, the chevra kaddisha's attempts to save and bury the deceased were fraught with danger. These dangers associated with burial surely increased the power of the chevra kaddisha. In her History of a Jewish Burial Society: An Examination of Secularization, Marelyn Schneider writes, "because the chevrah kaddisha regulated the Jewish burial grounds, its authority was supreme in matters of funerals and burial; the resultant power became one weapon of exerting control over the community" (88).
Traditionally, chevra kaddishas have been primarily involved in tahara--the ritual cleansing and dressing of the body for burial. Members of the group must ritually wash their hands before dealing with the body. They gradually uncover the white cloth draped over the body, only exposing the section of the body to be washed. Even the fingernails are cleaned. Next, water is poured over the entire body. The body is then covered in a simple white shroud known as the tachrichim. The procedure is introduced and concluded by prayers for any indignity that might be committed against the body.
In addition to the ritual cleansing, some chevra kaddishas perform services for the family in mourning such as arranging funerals and burials in Israel, organizing the Shmira (guarding of the deceased until time of burial), and assisting in chapel and grave site services as well as Shiva (mourning) services at the mourners' home.
Chevra Kaddishas and Feminist Judaism
Considering the heavy significance of the society's roles and its direct associations with cleanliness, the chevra kaddisha is particularly important to our analysis. The term chevra kaddisha literally translates to "holy brotherhood," words that would seem to establish men as the primary executors of this honored role. But according to Schneider, even the Old World chevra kaddishas included pious women as well as men. However, it was usually the men who were assigned to the administrative details (Schneider 88). As in today's Orthodox community, Old World chevra kaddishas were segregated by gender so that men cared for the male bodies and women cared for the female bodies. Across all denominations of contemporary Judaism, women have an equal opportunity to participate in this honored role.
Speaking as an orthodox Jew herself, Blu Greenberg points out in On Women and Judaism that in order for women to be accepted to formally learn Torah in a traditional setting, they must be accepted as potential authorities of Torah. It might seem at first that there is no way for Orthodox women to transcend this catch-22 situation. However, they have found a potential solution in women's minyans. Here, separate from men, women take on the leadership roles, learning Torah in the process. Greenberg explains:
In Orthodox synagogues, where the mehitzah (the partition in synagogues separating men from women) tends to reinforce the inequality of the sexes rather than allow for separate but equal prayer, an intermediate and temporary step may be the formation of a women's minyan. Women thereby could develop the skills for leading prayer, understanding its organization and themes, and reading the Torah. (9)
Chevra kaddishas, like women's minyans, offer traditional Jewish women an opportunity to develop their separate prayers and rituals to equal those of their male counterparts. It seems the Jewish feminist movement has yet to latch on to the chevra kaddisha as a means for Jewish women to expand their religious roles. Little has been written on this subject, and there appears to be much room for exploration.
A further examination of Jewish burial traditions also reveals that many of the traditional gender distinctions and hierarchies of Judaism may be negated after death. Both men and women are buried in tachrichim, simple, white linen garments, which include a head covering, pants, shirt, belt and sheet. According to the Talmud, Rabban Gamliel established these simple burial garments in order to emphasize that after death there is no longer a distinction between the rich and the poor. Anita Diamant explains further,
The universal use of shrouds protected the poor from embarrassment at not being able to afford lavish burial clothes. Since shrouds have no pockets, wealth or status cannot be expressed or acknowledged in death. In every generation, these garments reaffirmed a fundamental belief in human equality. (Diamant)
Jews placing shrouded body in a coffin http://www.jhom.com/topics/color/shrouds.htm
Women too are buried in these tachrichim, which symbolically remove all the hierarchies of human society. The white shroud is also a symbol of purity (although, paradoxically, the corpse was considered so impure in ancient times that it was not to be touched by the high priests except in select circumstances). The shroud is also alluded to during Yom Kippur when Jews traditionally wear white clothing as they attempt to emulate the purity of the angels.
Thus, in a sense, after death Jewish women might finally be returned to a purity level approaching that of men. For the first time, the woman's body is dressed in a garment tied in the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin, paralleling the holy Shin-patterned knots of the tefillin that men have ritually donned throughout their lives. An article from the March, 1997 issue of The Jewish Observer gives a first-hand account of dressing the body of a woman named Sarah.
The dressing process was very beautiful. Sarah was shrouded in an immaculate white bonnet, pants, undershirt and overshirt, secured at the knees, waist and collar with three loop bows. The loops represent the tines of the Hebrew letter Shin--the first letter of one Name of G-d. One team member saw to it that the loops lay flat and pretty, while the others offered a poignant supplication in Yiddish that Sarah the daughter of Avraham remember her status as a Yiddishe tochter. (Sommerstein) (for more on the importance of names in Judaism, click here
Interestingly, in ancient times the tachrichim were sewed by "pious women past the age of menopause," when women were no longer fertile, and thus, in the cultural context, more similar to men (Schneider 98). According to Shas's website listing texts on the Jewish laws of tahara (cleanliness), a corpse is considered to be the "Father" level of impurity (Bava Kamma 2a-b) suggesting that in death women's impurity (and purity) is finally equivalent with men's.
Jewish burial practices are not, however, completely free of the stratification of the sexes. Although both men and women are buried in simple white shrouds, traditionally men also wear their personal tallit, the prayer shawl they have worn since their wedding. In liberal traditions, as women have begun to wear prayer shawls, they too have requested to be buried in personal tallisim. Because halacha (Jewish law) exempts women in mourning from reciting the Kaddish prayers and an Orthodox woman must gather a minyan of ten men in order to say these prayers herself, women have sometimes felt rudely excluded from this reassuring ritual.
The chevra kaddisha offers a model from tradition of a Judaism where women, although separate from men, are not excluded from participation. Although some Jews consider the separating mehitzah in traditional synagogues illogical and offensive, the separate male and female sectors of the chevra kaddisha are completely logical and thus quite inoffensive. Most female bodies need especially delicate physical treatment and are thus best administered by women. Contact with the body of a dead human-being is also a very private experience. Limiting contact to members of the same sex helps reduce the awkwardness and discomfort of the people who attend the body and maintain the dignity of the deceased.
Ultimately, it seems that upon death, Jewish tradition finally considers women equal to men in holiness, purity, and the power associated with such traits. It is unclear, however, why women's status changes upon death. Perhaps the change can be traced to menopause--when women are incapable of bearing children they may be considered more similar to men. However, this does not seem to be the case because women's roles in traditional Judaism do not tend to change drastically after menopause. Certainly there is no passage in halakhah mandating such a change. More likely any change upon death in traditional gender hierarchies can be understood as a result of the end of the bodily life. The soul, now separate from the body, discards the impurity of a bodily existence. Thus, it seems the stratification of genders in Judaism is purely an issue of the body. Once the soul is separate from the body, gender stratification fades away.
For women's personal accounts of the tahara rituals, click here, and here
For a man's personal account of the day he set aside the Super Bowl to perform the tahara, click here
For a newspaper article on the spiritual elevation inspired by the tahara rituals, click here
For the history of a Washington area Chevra Kaddisha, click here
Graveyards of Chicago: A photographic collection of Chicago graveyards
Diamant, Anita. "Burying the Dead in Simple White Shrouds" Jewish Heritage Online Magazine.
Greenberg, Blu. On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1988.
Schneider, Marelyn. History of a Jewish Burial Society: An Examination of Secularization. Lewiston: E. Mellen, 1991.
Somerstein, Andrea. "The Chevra Kaddisha." Innernet Magazine.