Is cremation and burial in a mausoleum Religiously Acceptable in Judaism?
Jewish tradition strongly discourages cremation and burial in an above-ground mausoleum. In order to preserve Jewish “tradition,” here used in the sense of the popular religious culture that serves as Jewish law’s protective outer armor, some Orthodox rabbis have offered an ideological Narrative, in Hebrew, Aggadah or theology, that talks to and tries to persuade the soul of the living, pulsating culture on the Orthodox street. The Chabad web site reports:
“The body, on the other hand, was taken from the ground -- "the L-rd G‑d formed man of dust from the ground" -- and must therefore return to the earth. This is expressed in the words that G‑d tells Adam, the first man, "For dust you are, and to dust you will return."
According to Jewish legal theory, Jewish law is neither “customs and ceremonies” nor is it a mysterious religion; it really is Law. This Torah law is not in heaven anymore, it tolerates no secret laws, and the legally normative sections of the Written Torah begin in Exodus, and not in Genesis. Since there are no laws given in Genesis that bind the entire Jewish people—because there was no Jewish people yet in existence at that time—the citation of this Genesis passage can be very misleading. After all, only the Bet Din ha-Gadol sitting in plenary session is authorized to generate Jewish law by interpreting Biblical texts. If latter day saintly rabbis are indeed empowered to interpret Biblical texts as if they are reading God’s mind and intent, the Torah becomes unreadable, unreasonable, and undoable.
Jewish laws are presented as Narrative, not as Law. Consider the following introduction:
“The laws I will attempt to present here are a distillation of rabbinic writings over the years. In terms of some of the deeper reflection on the human body and its role that I hope to provide -- that is distilled from deep Chabad discourses, though I can harly assert that my distillation of this lofty concept is categorically correct.”
The author concedes that he is offering a distillation and description, he relies on “deep Chabad discourses,” which are the apodictic declarations of unvetted great rabbis, which ought to carry the binding force of Jewish law for both the Chabad community and all Israel as well.
It is first claimed that not only is cremation forbidden, it is ruled that in principle the cremation ashes may not even be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This is an optional, preferred policy opinion cited but not formally mandated by R. David Hoffmann.
R. Moshe Feinstein takes an even more strident stand regarding cremation than does R. Hoffmann. He categorically forbids Jewish burial for the deceased’s remains, believing that cremation per se to be a willful rebellious act against Torah, specifically, the belief in resurrection. This doctrinal challenge to Torah requires address, protest and unambiguous condemnation.
“all the above does not apply to an individual who was cremated against his will. After the Holocaust, many conscientious Jews gathered ashes from the extermination camp crematoria and respectfully buried them in Jewish cemeteries. Recently, too, I heard of an instance where a hospital mistakenly cremated a Jewish body. With rabbinic sanction the ashes were put into a coffin and given a proper Jewish burial.”
Rabbi Hoffmann’s exquisitely nuanced responsum first outlines what Jewish law actually and objectively requires in its canonical, juridical iteration:
Biblical law requires that those executed by the court are nevertheless given the respect of same day burial, that they be buried the same day as their execution.
R. Hoffmann astutely observes that the Oral Torah rabbis, acting as Torah authorized legislators rather than as Biblical exegetes, applied this passage to require burial in the ground.
But by reducing the body remains to ash, it may be argued that no sanctity attaches to those ash remains. The ash is Carbon and, in this state is no longer an organic substance. Impurity attaches to the human body only after it is no longer alive. But when that body is reduced to ash, the remains are [a] no longer impure and by implication [b] would no longer a substance that requires burial.
On these grounds, it may be argued that cremation ash oughtnot to be buried because Jewish tradition does not require burial and disrespect was shown to that Jewish Tradition by the decedent. This protocol is, however, a matter of policy, not pure law.
R. Silberberg clearly and accurately defines the legal grounds for forbidding cremation:
“Cremating a body destroys most of the body, making burial of the flesh impossible, and thus violates the biblical command.”
More precisely, in-ground burial is a Rabbinically derived Oral Torah law, so cremation must be prohibited because
There is an obligation to dispose of Jewish human remains by interment.
Cremation improperly destroys the remains that the Oral Torah mandates be interred.
The Torah passage qavor tiqberenu, is taken to refer to burying the whole person.
Cremation also delays the burial of the ash remains.
Cremation additionally violates the respect protocol that the Torah affords the dead, in Hebrew, nivvul ha-met.
R. Hoffmann was a world class, intellectually urbane, German modern Orthodox rabbi. Like R. Feinstein, he shares a cultural antipathy to an act that violates both the letter of holy law as well as historically conditioned Jewish values and sensibilities. But unlike R. Feinstein, R. Hoffmann clearly distinguishes between Jewish law and communal policy. R. Feinstein, who hailed from Roman Catholic Pruzhan, Poland, considers cremation to be a denial of Torah because, to his mind, it expresses a denial of the resurrection of the dead, the doctrine that promises accountability for Halakhic compliance. Catholics also disapprove of cremation for similar reasons, but only because cremation might be taken to be evidence of apostasy. However, according to Jewish Law, non-observant Jews are also eligible for Jewish burial. Jews non-compliant with the family purity rules receive Jewish burial without question, and this violation is far more grave than the act of cremation. Being a sinner, or for that matter, a questioner of religious of faith, does not disqualify someone from Jewish burial. In R. Feinstein’s Eastern European culture, time horizon, and socially conditioned sensibilities, non-attention to those who opt for cremation does make ideological sense; cremation in this “world” was an act of a spiteful sinner [le-hach’is] who by so doing renounces one’s Torah-defined identity. But R. Hoffmann was dealing with populations of compliant Orthodox Jews, dissident Reform Jews, and an assimilation driven environment. Hence R. Hoffmann’s practical policy reflects [a] the letter of the Torah law, [b] the social reality to which this Torah law is to be applied, and [c] the actual rather than imputed opinions of the people who turn to him for guidance. Both positions are legitimate because Torah law requires an assessment of the social reality variables to which the constant Torah norms are to be applied. The rabbi must make these assessments with human, rabbinic eyes.
Normative Jewish law requires same day burial in the ground out of respect for the dead with a dispensation delay being allowed only for mourners to arrive, again to show respect for the dead.
Because cremation [a] prevents observing the requirement of prompt burial and [b] if done incompletely, also delays burial in the ground of those remains.
Since Jewish Tradition mandates interment, which means “in the ground,” and above-ground “burial” does not satisfy this mandate because the Torah obligation of “in ground” burial has not taken place.
The argument that Jewish law requires interment [“to the dust you shall return”] is merely homiletical, because no Torah laws that are binding on the Jewish people are found in Genesis, the Oral law did not make this claim, and the Genesis passage’s plain sense syntax is descriptive of nature’s course and not a command that requires compliance.
All contemporary Orthodox rabbis will require interment and not participate either in cremation or mausoleum funerals. Some Orthodox rabbis will, like R. Feinstein, regard these deflections from Jewish protocol to be acts of willful Torah renunciation, and treat violators as persona non grata, while other Orthodox rabbis, like R. Hoffmann, will see such acts as highly improper, while not rejecting the people who engage in these acts.
Modern/Open Orthodox rabbis do not violate Jewish law’s legal letter, but embrace, support, and address the pastoral needs and requests of non-observant, inconsistently committed, or otherwise non-compliant Jews. Therefore, this Orthodox stream envisages circumstances whereby the discrete burial of cremation ash, which is not explicitly prohibited by Jewish law, in order to stretch a welcoming hand to Jews on the religious margin. Neither position is “fanatic” or “liberal.” They both reflect serious reflection and the instinctive intuition to issue accurate, responsible, and appropriate rulings.
It is not my place to speak in behalf of Reform Judaism as a Conservative rabbi. I look forward to what my Reform colleague who is our panelist for this question will write. However, I want to present a Conservative Jewish perspective on this question using some brief quotes from my colleague, Rabbi Carl Astor.
Some introductory thoughts first. Burial of a person’s body is an explicit requirement of Jewish law and tradition. This is because, as the book of Genesis asserts, we are dust and we return to dust, a reminder that no one is greater than anyone else before God. We are all mortal and we must have the humility to accept this. Further, the Torah makes clear that kavor tik-b’renu, we must bury someone who has died as a show of respect for the body, even the body of an executed criminal, as is the case presented by the Torah. (See Deuteronomy 21:23.)
With these ideas in mind, Rabbi Astor writes the following, which is taken from his essay on the Jewish life cycle in the book, The Observant Life: The Wisdom Of Conservative Judaism For Contemporary Jews. (New York, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2012, pp. 239-304)
Judaism regards the human body as a sacred trust from God that none has the right to desecrate or destroy, and this has been the view of Judaism since ancient times. Therefore, cremation, considered the ultimate expression of disrespect to the dead, is absolutely forbidden in all instances…Normally, cremated remains are not buried in a Jewish cemetery. There are, however, certain exceptions to this rule…[Most] delicate is the situation that ensues when Jewish individuals leave specific instructions to their heirs that they wish to be cremated…The family of such individuals should be informed that they are not duty-bound to obey the wishes of their parents in this matter…Jewish tradition is completely clear that parents do not have the authority to instruct their children to violate Halakhah, (Jewish law). In this way, every effort should be made to discourage cremation. If the heirs feel, however, that they cannot go against the wishes of a… parent, such cremated remains may be buried in a Jewish cemetery…but in such a way that precludes any possibility of the Jewish community appearing to condone a decision that tradition considers abhorrent…”
Concerning mausoleum burial, Rabbi Astor further writes:
The above-ground disposition of the bodies of deceased individuals is wholly inconsonant with Jewish tradition as it is not a form of burial at all.
However, at least one detailed p’sak Halakhah, Jewish legal decision, concerning mausoleums that is lenient has been written and approved by the Conservative rabbinate. As Rabbi Astor points out in the article in another context, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement gives wide latitude to its rabbis in making all these decisions about funerary practices; each local rabbi is responsible for these decisions, consistent with his or her understanding of Jewish law and with each case of death, grief and burial that presents itself. It is always best to ask your congregational or community rabbi what his or her policies are concerning these matters.
As a Conservative congregational rabbi, I constantly work to balance respect for the ideals and obligations of Jewish law and tradition with sensitivity to the needs and pain of those faced with the loss of a loved one. In behalf of all my colleagues of all the denominations, I strongly suggest that you speak ahead of time with your rabbi about specific concerns you might have about cremation, above ground burial or any other Jewish funerary and mourning practice. It is always better not to assume that your rabbi knows what you need or that your rabbi can always accommodate your concerns. Part of our relationships with you involves understanding what you and your loved ones may want and need as well as helping you to understand better the wisdom of Jewish tradition as well as what we can or cannot do as rabbis.
You have been told the Halachic answer, and given a Conservative response.
The Reform response is a little leas absolute, but not that different.
Reform thinking has been that cremation is not desirable or in keeping with Jewish tradition, and it is strongly discouraged.
In keeping with Reform principles, however, this is not an absolute prohibition; it is a strong urging. It is still within the range of choices of the individual or the family to choose cremation. There may be ritual consequences based on that choice - this can vary between locations.
There are several issues to consider.
1. Every cemetery sets its' own rules (unless it is owned by another entity, which then makes those rules). This also )(perhaps particularly) goes for Jewish cemeteries.
Cemeteries may not permit butial of cremated remains at all, or they may permit burial of cremated remains in a standard grave, or they may have burial of cremated remains in only specific areas, such as a columbarium, or a scattering garden.
2. Every Reform rabbi makes their own determination as to what ceremonies they will officiate and under what circumstances. Some will officiate at a 'funeral' for cremated remains, others will only offer a memorial service, many may participate in some form of burial ceremony, few will participate in a scattering of the ground bone dust.
3. Congregations may have rules about ceremonies taking place in the building that include cremated remains; I am not .aware of any Reform congregations that will not permit a memorial service when a cremation has taken place, but most do not permit the cremated remains to be brought into the facility.
4. In past, the traditional preparation of the body before the funeral (Taharah) will not be done for a body that was to be cremated, particularly if the group that performs the ceremony is traditional; today in many places there are now more and more groups that consider themselves to be progressive or liberal Taharah teams, and they will perform the ceremony in those circumstances.
The use of a Mausoleum is an entirely different issue, but the considerations may be the same, It is not clear,. The anser depenindsont he part of the courntry, what the cemetery permits, what the rabbi will do, and so on. Without knowing which cemetery, this is much more difficutl to answer.
I would suggest you ask the rabbi who would be likely officiating, and let them tell you what options exist.
I hope that this is a pre-planning situation, and you have many years before you need to deal with these questions.
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