Author Archives: Rabbi Abner Weiss

About Rabbi Abner Weiss

Rabbi Abner Weiss has served as a congregational rabbi in Beverly Hills, California, and London, and is a noted writer, lecturer, and halakhic authority. He has published a number of articles on Jewish bioethics.

How To Form A New Chevra Kadisha

Reprinted with permission from Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Perspective (Ktav).The author makes a few assumptions about Jewish communities from his perspective as an Orthodox rabbi (e.g. that a rabbi will be male), but his heartfelt and practical advice is applicable to Jews across the spectrum.

No Reasons Not To

Most congregations do not have a chevra kadisha of their own, thus missing out on all the advantages its existence provides. I have heard many reasons given for

not having a chevra, and I think that all of them are quite groundless. Let me give you some examples:

– “Why should I do this work? What’s in it for a young person? Death is easier for old people to handle.” WRONG. Everybody is vulnerable to death’s intrusion, young and old alike. And every­body feels enriched by the importance of this loving and holy work. Why should such feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction be withheld from the young?

– Modern, educated, Western people are squeamish and uncom­fortable around the dead. WRONG. This is only a prejudice. They merely think that they will be unable to get used to per­forming this task. After one or two sessions, the initial discomfort and squeamishness will almost always disappear.

– There is no room in a chevra kadisha for a person who genuinely will never be able to do hands-on work with the dead. WRONG. Members of a chevra kadisha have many tasks. Some will merely sit with a gentile driver of the hearse. Some will be in the same room as the deceased, without direct contact, merely “watch­ing.” Some, like kohanim [those descended from the ancient priests, who traditionally are forbidden to have contact with corpses except for immediate family members], will have no contact with the dead whatsoever. But they can phone other volunteers, arrange rides to the cemetery, organize the minyan in the house of mourning, prepare meals for the bereaved, and help the mourners in all kinds of ways. Everybody can play a useful role as a member of the chevra kadisha.

Autopsies and Jewish Law

Excerpted with permission from Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Perspective (Ktav).

This article provides an Orthodox view on autopsy. Conservative authorities follow similar reasoning, rejecting routine autopsies on the basis of Jewish law and tradition, but some entertain a more expansive definition of the permissibility of autopsies in individual situations where constructive knowledge may be gained. The Reform movement has two 20th-century responsa on this subject, both of which are far more permissive. The first (in 1925) takes the position that construing autopsy as desecration of a corpse has no basis in classical Jewish sources, and that even the chance of contributing to life-saving medical knowledge justifies performing one. The second (in 1981) argues that even gaining knowledge which may help others, near or far, in years ahead is sufficient justification.

The Jewish belief in the inviolability of the human body is reflect­ed in its attitude to postmortem examinations. The Talmud (San­hedrin 47a) asserts that the biblical imperative of speedy burial (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) is based upon the prohibition of disgrac­ing a corpse. The scope of this prohibition extends beyond delayed burial. Scripture proscribes the inflicting of any form of disgrace upon a corpse. In general, this includes the disfigurement of the body as a result of postmortem dissection (autopsy).

jewish views on autopsyApart from the general prohibition against autopsies, which derives from our abhorrence of bodily disfigurement, there is a special prohibition against failure to bury the body in its entirety. If, after autopsy, for example, part of the body is excised and not buried, [according to one source] it is as if no burial at alltook place (Jerusalem Talmud, Nazir 7:1).

The prohibition against the performance of autopsies, however, is not absolute. An exception is made if the autopsy may directly contribute to saving the life of another patient who is currently awaiting treatment. Owing to the speed of contemporary communi­cations, a sufferer elsewhere in the world may be aided almost immediately. Moreover, if the presence of a contagious disease, not diagnosed before death, is suspected, an autopsy may lead to the prevention of a plague. If new medicines were used on the patient, an autopsy can help to determine their life-saving effectiveness. It goes without saying that if a hereditary disease is the suspected cause of death, an autopsy may prevent the deaths of the patient’s children, by establishing a preventative medical strategy for them.

Confronting Death Before Death Confronts Us

“Therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19): Judaism is a life­-affirming faith. Life on earth, and its benefits, are regarded as divine blessings. Their legitimate enjoyment is not only permitted but mandated. Asceticism and otherworldliness are not in keeping with the mainstream of Jewish thought and tradition.

Our joyful affirmation of the pleasures, challenges, and responsi­bilities of our earthly existence makes the inevitability of death the more difficult to confront. Frankly, most of us are afraid of death.

In the first place, our fear stems from our terror of the unknown–and nothing is more unknown than “the valley of the shadow of death.” We cannot imagine our own death. Our mind is incapable of portraying the emptiness, the absence of existence which some of us imagine death to be-and of identifying ourselves with that nothingness. We do not know what death is, but we are intuitively certain that it will deprive us of the companionship of those we love, and of everything we cherish and enjoy. We block it out completely. We are simply unable to confront our own death.

In the second place, our fear of death relates not only to our own demise, but to the passing of those we love. Our contemplation of their passing, and of thus being deprived of those with whom our lives are inextricably bound, is frightening in itself. Our lives will have to continue in the void created by the loss of their companion­ship, their love, and the reassuring security of their physical pre­sence. Because our contemplation of their passing makes us increasingly aware of our vulnerability, we often refuse to confront the inevitable.

Our refusal to confront the fact of death is both wrong and irre­sponsible.

Five Reasons For Confronting The Reality Of Death

1. Death is inevitable and cannot simply be wished away. Sometimes it announces its coming in long illness; some­times it comes unannounced, with shattering, unexpected suddenness. But come it must, and we should be prepared to deal with the havoc it creates–calmly and reasonably.