Burning Issue — The Revised Version

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At Agudath Israel of America, before taking a political or social stance, launching a new effort or offering educational material, we look to our rabbinic leadership for guidance.

Although we obviously do not bother the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (the Council of Torah Sages) with much of the day-to-day work we do in the realms of our advocacy, public service or education, when faced with new situations requiring policy decisions, we consult the Council. Similarly, while I do not submit everything I write for Am Echad Resources to the Council, when I am addressing something of unusual importance, or have any concerns about what I have written, I make sure to ask Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and the rabbinic head of Agudath Israel of America, to review it first.

Since “Burning Issue” deals with an important topic and describes a fundamental Jewish belief, I faxed an early draft of the essay to Rabbi Perlow’s study early last week. When I hadn’t heard back from him by Friday, I assumed he had found it acceptable and released the essay. Unfortunately, the fax had only come to his attention on Friday afternoon, at which point he called me with two concerns. One was my omission of the concept of “honoring the dead” – from which the halachic imperative of burial derives; the second was my statement that the revival of the dead is “not explicitly expressed in the Written Torah.” Although the statement is not inaccurate, the Talmud takes pains to stress that there are in fact indications of the concept in the actual text of the Torah. Rabbi Perlow felt that it was important to more clearly note that. (An astute and knowledgeable recipient of the essay, the renowned Professor Jacob Neusner, had earlier that day made the same point to me.)

And so, I edited the essay accordingly and resend it here. I hope it will help convey Judaism’s attitude toward cremation – and, through the history of its editing, something about commitment to Jewish integrity and Torah leadership.

— AS

A crematorium recently opened for business in Israel, for the use of citizens who want their remains reduced to ashes.

A decade ago, just over 20% of Americans who died were cremated. In 2005, the rate had risen to 32%. The Cremation Association of North America confidently forecasts that by 2025 more than half of Americans will choose to have their remains burned rather than interred. While no one knows what percentage of American cremation-choosers are Jewish, there is little doubt that, at least among Jews with limited or no Jewish education, or who became estranged from Jewish observance, cremation has become acceptable, if not a vogue. And now, the Jewish State has it own facility for burning human bodies.

Yet the fact that the establishment is the first of its kind in Israel does bespeak an essential Jewish attitude toward the services it provides.

Some Jews recoil from the idea of cremation because the Third Reich incinerated so many of its Jewish victims.

Others, and many non-Jews, disdain the burning of human remains because of infamous cases where crematory owners, after accepting families’ payments, presented them with urns of animal ashes, turning a further profit from the sale of the bodies entrusted them to brokers who then conducted brisk businesses of their own selling body parts.

Judaism’s inherent abhorrence for cremation, however, predates and supersedes both Nazi evils and ghoulish crimes. The roots of the Torah’s insistence on burial of human remains lie elsewhere.

Judaism’s opposition to cremation is sourced in the Torah’s statement that humans are created “in the image of G-d.” As a result, we are charged to show “honor for the dead” by consigning human bodies, in as undisturbed state as possible, to the earth – even, if necessary, if it means forfeiting the performance of another commandment.

And then there is the related, fundamental Jewish belief that there will come a time when the dead will live again. Although the idea of the resurrection of the righteous may be surprising to some, it is one of Judaism’s most important teachings. The concept, the Talmud teaches, is subtly evident in the Written Torah’s text; and fully prominent in the Torah’s other half, the Oral Tradition. The Mishna, the Oral Tradition’s central text, confers such weightiness to the conviction that it places deniers of the eventual resurrection of the dead first among those who “forfeit their share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin, Chapter 11, Mishna 1). As the Talmud comments thereon: “He denied the resurrection of the dead, so will he be denied a portion in the resurrection of the dead.”

That our bodies are invested with such importance should not be startling. Not only our souls but our physical selves, too, possess inherent holiness. Our bodies, after all, are the indispensable means of performing G-d’s will. It is through employing them to do good deeds and denying their gravitations to sin that we achieve our purposes in this world.

And so, Jewish tradition teaches, even though we are to consign our bodies to the earth after death, there is a small “bone” (Hebrew: “etzem”) that is not destroyed when a body decays and from which the entire person, if he or she so merits, will be rejuvenated at some point in the future.

The idea that a person might be recreated from something tiny – something, even, that can survive for millennia – should not shock anyone remotely familiar with contemporary science. Each of our cells contains a large and complex molecule, DNA, that is essentially a blueprint of our bodies; theoretically, one of those molecules from even our long-buried remains could be coaxed to reproduce each of our physical selves. (Intriguingly, the Hebrew word “etzem” can mean not only “bone” but also “essence” and “self.”)

Burning, in Judaism, is a declaration of utter abandon and nullification. Jews burn leaven and bread before Passover, when the Torah insists no vestige of such material may be in their possession. The proper means of disposing of an idol is to pulverize or burn it.

Needless to say, G-d is capable of bringing even ashes to life again (as the ashes of the Nazis’ crematoria victims will surely demonstrate one day, may it come soon). But actually choosing to have one’s body incinerated is an act that, so intended or not, expresses denial of the fact that the body is still valuable, that it retains worth, indeed potential life.

The new Israeli crematorium’s owner, in fact, describes himself as an atheist, as do most if not all of his customers. One, a teacher in Jerusalem, gave eloquent expression to her reasons for choosing cremation, telling The Jerusalem Post: “I was not sanctified in my lifetime so my grave won’t be sanctified either… I believe that there is nothing after death…”

That is the philosophy underlying the choice of cremation.

It is the antithesis of the belief-system called Judaism.

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10 Responses

  1. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear FB,

    I assume your comment was intended for me.

    I write weekly columns for the Jewish media. Weeklies across the country publish them, occasionally, frequently or regularly (depending on the paper). They are also offered (with the permission of my rabbinical advisors) to anyone who wishes to receive them. No restrictions are placed on how or where they can appear (as long as they are not edited and they are properly credited).

    And so I don’t think the term blogger can be applied to me. I do not maintain a weblog or any sort of website.

    What is more, I am not aware of any “aguda rabbis”‘ condemnation of bloggers (although many rabbis, and others, myself included, certainly condemn irresponsible writing, whether online or on paper.

    Hope that helps.

    Best wishes,

    AS

  2. frum babe says:

    does rabbi perlow aprove your blogging? unlike the rest of us who are condemed by aguda rabbis.

  3. Yaakov Menken ( says:

    Barzilai,

    I haven’t yet had the chance to look inside, but chanita is embalming, the use of chemicals. Sereifas chanita is thus not burning of the body, which remains antithetical to Judaism, but the use of chemicals that hasten decomposition. I will update this comment this evening, bli neder, once I see the Tosfos YomTov.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “I would be afraid of asking him what he thinks of the Internet”

    – why not send him an email?

  5. dovid says:

    ‘I wonder if that is a reason to “matir” the internet or another reason to “asser” it.’

    One manifestation of human weakness is to put good things to evil use. Examples: TV, radio, video, internet, telephone, alcohol, etc. The Lubavitcher Rebbe gave drashos over the TV to reach his chasidim located throughout the world. We use wine for Kiddush (sometimes schnapps). Too much of it, becomes a vice. Same thing with the internet. Are we mature, strong, and honest individuals to use the internet only for d’varim sh’b’kedusha and for davar sheb’heter like work?

    “Too often we hear nothing but rants exclaiming how one’s ideas or beliefs are the only acceptable ones and that if you don’t agree with me you are worse than …..”

    I trust the writers of the earlier posts did not refer to Rabbi Yakov Perlow. I would be afraid of asking him what he thinks of the Internet. But I can tell you with confidence (I learned with a talmid from his Yeshiva) that (1) he does not rant, (2) he regards every question as legitimate if it is asked for the sole purpose of finding the answer, and (3) he does not call people names or labels them if he disagrees with them. He encourages discussions and is prepared to hear out views other than his own. He will not necessarily agree with them, but he will debate with you and explain his position in the most menschlich fashion.

  6. Barzilai says:

    “inherent abhorrence”
    “It is the antithesis of the belief-system called Judaism.”

    I know that when advocating a position, one ought not call attention to his weaknesses. But between me and you, the Tosfos Yomtov in Pesachim 4:9 says there’s nothing theoretically wrong with cremation. Evidently, it was not antithetical to the belief system he called Judaism.

  7. Norman Kabak says:

    I would like to express appreciation for L Oberstein’s remark.
    Too often we here nothing but rants exclaiming how ones
    ideas or beliefs are the only acceptable ones and that if you don’t agree with me you are worse than ….. Let the reader fill in the rest.

    Thanks again,

    N Kabak

  8. L Oberstein says:

    Wow! Professor Jacob Neusner , a Conservative Scholar and the Rosh Agudas Yisroel both pointing out the same thing regarding techias hameisim. The web provides one point where all views can interact. Now, I wonder if that is a reason to “matir” the internet or another reason to “asser” it. I guess it depends on whether you think there is merit in hearing views other than our own.

  9. Micha Berger says:

    From a pragmatic perspective: I can’t say this is nearly as central as a Torah prohibition, but the argument is often more effective.

    It boggles my mind that a Jew living less than 100 years after Auschwitz can hear the word “cremation” and respond with anything but shock, revulsion, and pain. That anyone with a scintilla of Jewish identity is capable of thinking of it as something to choose to do to their own remains boggles the mind.

    -mi

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The Sages say that the person who denies the Resurrection of the Dead receives the treatment of “midda k’neged midda” (measure for measure) and therefore does not receive a portion in the World to Come. In the same way it is poetic justice that the atheist who is so dead certain of the lack of enduring importance of his body will not benefit from the enduring of his soul either. Another point is that many of these people may have abused their bodies while they were alive as well. The urge to “destroy the evidence” is similar to the person who performs an abortion or causes one to be performed. I don’t like the inevitable results of my actions, so like a child who has made a mess, I clumsily try to destroy the evidence. But the All-Seeing One isn’t fooled.