by Rabbi Avivah Erlick and Richard A. Light
For centuries, Jews have prepared their dead for burial using a ritual known as taharah, which means purification. Drawn from sacred texts and Jewish theology, this rite is traditionally conducted according to time-tested procedures, by a trained team called a chevrah kadisha. Today, however, families are asking their rabbis and hospice chaplains to improvise new rituals based upon this ancient one. They may want to perform the ritual themselves, for example; to insert original elements; or to confront Jewish law and perform it for a loved one who will be cremated, or who is not Jewish. Discussion of these issues has led to the question: How much modification can be allowed? At what point is the ritual no longer a Jewish purification, and by what standard? What bare-bones elements make taharah unique, and satisfy its requirements? What can be allowed, and what is forbidden? This is the inquiry that the authors, a hospice chaplain and an experienced chevrah kadisha leader, set about to explore.