Download the complete liturgy and supply list from the Reconstructionist Hevrah Kaddishah of Philadelphia.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman did not have much experience with the ritual of preparing the dead for burial. But one day, a congregant approached Rabbi Holtzman and told her he was dying of AIDS.
This was the late 1980s and Holtzman was the religious leader of Beth Ahavah, a congregation which served the Philadelphia region’s LGBT Community. The man told Holtzman it was important to him that the Taharaceremony be performed on his body after his death. And he didn’t want it done in a funeral home or by an Orthodox group.
“When I first heard this I said ‘Hope you live for many years,’” said Holtzman, recounting a recent program highlighting the more than 20-year-old Reconstructionist Hevrah Kaddishah of Philadelphia.
The Hevrah Kaddishah, or holy society, performs the Tahara: the ritual of cleansing, washing and dressing a body purifying the body—before it is placed in a coffin for burial. The central part of the process involves dousing the body with a proscribed amount of water. Traditionally, a Jewish individual is buried in plain white shrouds, or tachrichim, and the ceremony involves the recitation of a Hebrew prayer that asks for the soul to be elevated.
Most non-Orthodox Jews are unfamiliar with the pre-burial ritual, trusting funeral homes to take care of the details. But in recent years, a number of progressive groups have formed around the country, seeking to reclaim this ritual, honor the deceased and their families, and act with more flexibility than Orthodox burial societies.
Holtzman recalled that she’d nearly forgotten about the encounter until the man died several years later. Ultimately, a group of volunteers—including his non-Jewish partner—performed the ceremony in his apartment. When it was completed, they needed to mop up the water. Though she fulfilled her promise, Holtzman felt uneasy about their process.
“I was a wreck because I wasn’t sure I was doing it right. I decided we have to learn more and figure out a way to do this,” said Holtzman.
That’s just what Holtzman and others did, as they researched the diverse array of practices regarding the ritual. They also discovered a true need for a progressive alternative to the Orthodox-run Hevrah Kaddishah in Philadelphia. Some Jews, explained Holtzman, were being denied the chance to have this ritual performed because of particular funeral choices that violated Jewish law or Orthodox custom. Such choices ranged from wanting a child to be buried with a favorite stuffed animal—Jewish law stipulates that nothing is to go into a casket alongside a body—to more overt breaks with tradition, such as planning a cremation ceremony.
“It was really clear that the Orthodox Hevrah Kadishah wasn’t responding to the needs of the entire community,” Holtzman said.
The Reconstructionist Hevrah Kaddishah was formed to include those who wanted the traditional practice but didn’t necessarily want to conform to all aspects of Jewish law or traditional custom. The group generally performs one to two taharra rituals every month, usually after being contacted by a local funeral home.
The recent two-part program covered the history and liturgy of the Reconstructionist Hevrah Kaddishah of Philadelphia and contained a training session in which the holy ritual was practiced on a living volunteer. The practical training included everything from a list of needed supplies—including comb, rubber bands, towels and scissors—to instructions on how to properly tie a knot on the burial shrouds.
Around 30 people—including one from as far away as North Carolina, attended the program at Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadephia. The series was organized by Ariana Katz, RRC student and rabbinic intern at Kol Tzedek. Panelists offered context and history.
“The ways that Judaism helps us confront death and burial are transformative and meaningful,” Katz said. “Learning Tahara has been one of the most profound experiences of my life.”
Katz said the goal of the program was to educate the public and hopefully recruit a few new volunteers for the Hevrah Kaddishah. In particular, the group is seeking more male members and more members with some degree of medical training. (Sometimes it is helpful to know if doing something like removing tubing will cause bleeding or lead to a result that will dishonor the body.)
Typically, four to six people are needed to properly perform the ritual. The Reconstructionist group does the ritual in one of three local funeral homes, but will occasionally perform the mitzvah in a private home.
Holtzman co-founded the group in 1994, along with a number of others including Rabbi Alan LaPayover, acting director of Mordecai Kaplan Library, and Rabbi Sarra Lev, Ph.D, chair of RRC’s department of rabbinic civilization. Both LaPayover and Lev helped lead the program.
Rabbi LaPayover, who played the deceased person during the training sessions, explained that the Hevrah Kaddishah does not have an “anything goes” attitude. Members discuss and debate how to handle certain requests, but they don’t investigate what will happen at a funeral ceremony. “Once the casket is closed and wheeled away, we’re done.”
The panelists described participating in a taharra as a rewarding, spiritual, somber and intensely physical experience. They also demonstrated that working with a body is demanding and requires focus and attention to minute detail.
“At every point, we are asking ourselves, is what we are doing honoring the dead?” said Holtzman.
During the ritual, all casual conversation ceases and all honor is paid to the deceased. Since the physical appearance of a body at the time of death can vary widely, no two ritual experiences are the same. As Holtzman described it, a deceased body is treated as a pitcher that once held fine wine.
But what does it mean? How can a body be purified when, according to Jewish tradition, a deceased body is the very definition of impurity? What about the soul? Is the ritual designed to help the soul transition from this world to the next?
The panelists made clear that when it comes to questions about the soul and death, there are no single, definitive answers. In fact, there may be as many valid perspectives as there are understandings of the nature of God.
“I tend to be a person who does not do soul talk,” said LaPayover. Yet, she says, regarding this ritual, “I don’t deny the possibility or probability that there is something supernatural or beyond the physical going on.”
Holtzman added, “What does it mean then to be pure? It has very little to do with the physical body. It’s about a spiritual purification, about a readiness or transition from this world to the next.”
Lev said that Judaism does not give a clear cut answer on what happens metaphysically after a person dies.
“The rabbis 2,000 years ago struggled with this as much as we are now,” said Lev. “The question of what happens after we die is one of the most confusing pieces of rabbinic texts.”
“This is considered the highest mitzvah,” continued Lev. “I always ask myself ‘what responsibilities do at the moment is more important than this?’ ”