Saturday, March 3, 2007

Resurrecting the Dead

On February 5, 2007, Ave Shafran filed a posting in Cross Currents dealing with the issue of cremation. There really is nothing new on the subject, nor should there be. For the most part, and as he points out most Rabbis regardless of denomination do not approve of the cremation process. Halacha emphatically prohibits the practice and there isn’t much wiggle room on the subject. As everything else in halachic Judaism, those who practice, practice, those who don’t, don’t. As such, it puzzles me why Shafran is concerned that Israel has a crematorium. If I was Shafran I’d be more concerned about the imminent crematoria that is threatening all of Israel (including the believers), compliments of Iran.

At the outset let it be clearly stated that I am in agreement with the position that there really is no place for cremation within normative Jewish practice. I do, however take exception with two points underscored by Avi Shafran. The linkage of the belief in the Resurrection of the Dead with the fundamental prohibition of cremation, and his concern with the new crematorium in Israel.

In his delineation of reasons against Cremation, Shafran argues that “although the idea of resurrection of the righteous may be surprising to some, it is one of Judaism’s most important teachings….even though we are to consign our bodies to the earth after the death, there is a small bone…that is not destroyed when a body decays and from which the entire person…will be rejuvenated at some point in the future….”

For the sake of intellectual honesty I would have thought that Shafran would have presented a comprehensive picture of the concept of the resurrection of the dead in halachic literature rather than the slanted view which he personally identifies with. To be sure there is an abundance of literature that takes issue either with the idea of the resurrection, or treats it with a non literal approach. To quote rabbinic literature out of context without presenting the full discussion surrounding the issue is disingenuous, simplistic and misrepresents our rich culture.

I am in good company with the many scholars, sages and rabbis who don’t believe in the literal interpretation of the resurrection of the dead. For one thing there are many scholars of Maimonides who don’t believe that the Rambam accepted a literal interpretation of the belief in resurrection.. Many believe that when the Rambam used the term “resurrection” he really meant “the world to come”- eternal spiritual life. R.Shehshet Benveniste ( 1131-1209) buttressed this point of view when he claimed that literal understanding of resurrection was only applied “for the sake of fools”with limited understanding and intellectual grasp. Judah ben Simeon, the student of the Rambam for whom More Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) was written also interpreted Rambam’s position as a figurative one. R. Meir Abulafia agrees with this position. More recent rabbinic scholars agree with this interpretation of the Rambam. For example, R. Shem Tov Gaguine (1884-1953) Av Bet Din of the Sephardi communityof London understands “resurrection” as another buzz word for the world to come. R. Joseph Kafih, a great scholar presented a new and novel interpretation of the Rambam. According to him, “resurrection”, for the Rambam meant that God imparted a new life force to the body, separate than what the body previously possessed - a new soul for the dead. Those who have left the world are never return to it, but reincarnate as pure intellect. Returning to a physical body would be degrading.

The author of Akedat Yitzchak,R. Isaac Arama (1420-1490) also denied physical resurrection and believed that the term “resurrection” is synonymous with spiritual eternity based on the B.T. Kiddushin 39b. I mention this in particular because just as Shafran chose a Talmudic passage by which to buttress his point of view there are eminent scholars with opposing points of view citing Talmudic passages to support their positions. Truth be told, no one possesses the answer but there ought to be intellectual responsibility for presenting the full gamut of theological positions as long as they are within the purview of normative Jewish rabbinic literature. My intent here is to illustrate that the issues aren’t black and white, cut and dry. For Shafran to present the issue in such a simplistic manner does disservice to those who read him, and assumes that they are uninformed and uneducated.

The other issue which I take exception with is his criticism of Israel for allowing a crematorium to operate. Israel happens to be a modern, secular state with a view to religious values as one of many elements that contribute to the rich tapestry of Israeli life. It isn’t a religious state, and although there may be a “talibanesque” quality to some of the religious parties they certainly don’t represent the will of the majority. As far as I understand they are tolerated due to a flawed political system. Religious practice in Israel ought to be viewed as a personal preference-not something foisted on the public. While I personally find cremation abhorrent and counter to Halacha, Custom and Tradition, I honor the right for the individual to chose how he wishes to live and how he wishes his remains to be to be disposed, regardless if his presence is in Israel or the Diaspora.