While traditional Judaism does not allow for cremation, Reform Judaism has a long history of permitting it. A Reform responsum dating back to 1891 addresses the question. The responsum can be found in American Reform Responsa, 100. “Cremation from the Jewish Standpoint,” (Vol. II, 1891, pp. 33-40). I will summarize the findings of the Reform Responsa Committee below:
The committee began by reviewing the textual evidence advanced by scholars in support of cremation. Various Biblical texts were advanced that seemed to indicate instances where cremation was used. Some of the texts involved instances where cremation was prescribed as a form of capital punishment for a crime. For example, in Genesis 38:24, Judah orders Tamar to be taken out and burned as punishment for supposed prostitution. Lev. 20:14 and 21:9 similarly prescribe burning as punishment for sexual crimes. Chapter 7 of the Book of Joshua describes the burning of Achan and his family for taking spoils in war that had been forbidden by God. In I Samuel 31:12-13, the bodies of Saul and Jonathan are burned after they had been displayed by their enemies and decomposed.
In all these instances, however, burning seems to be either a punishment or due to exigent circumstances. The norm, though, seems to be burial. Thus, Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah when Sarah dies, as a family burial site (Genesis 23:4). He himself is buried there by his sons (Genesis 25:9). Similarly, in Genesis 35, Rachel dies in childbirth and is buried in a tomb on the road to Beth El, and Isaac dies and is brought back to the Cave of Machpelah to be buried with his parents. Throughout the Biblical text, from Genesis through Kings and Chronicles, burial is the standard, not cremation. No instance of cremation is noted beyond the unusual circumstances around the death of Saul and Jonathan.
The question, then, is whether burial is a matter of custom, or commandment? The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 46b, indicates that it is a commandment, based on a number of Biblical verses brought forth in an imaginary conversation between a Persian king and one of the sages of the Talmud. In another passage, Sotah 14a, we are reminded that the Bible tells us in Deuteronomy 13:5 that we should walk in God’s ways. What does this mean, the Talmud asks. The answer is, just as God visits the sick, so should we visit the sick; just as God consoles the mourner, so should we console mourners, and just as God buries the dead, so should we bury our dead. This is seen as halakhah (Jewish law) in the law code of Maimonides, through law codes after him.
However, despite this, the final recommendation of the responsum is that rabbis should not refuse to officiate at funerals of those who have been cremated. It is not un-Jewish or irreligious to be cremated, as long as the cremains are treated with respect and the usual rites of mourning are observed.
Today, some Jews feel a special reluctance to cremate, remembering the crematoria of the Holocaust. For this reason, some rabbis may discourage cremation. However, there is nothing in Reform Jewish practice to forbid it.
First, it is important to note that Jewish tradition views the body as the repository of the soul, and thus the body is considered a holy vessel which has been entrusted to each person to lovingly preserve. God breathed into man “the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), endowing each individual with a “Tzelem Elokim”, a divine image, which should guide us in how we take care of ourselves both in life and death. Accordingly, when a Jew dies, we treat the body with the utmost respect, ritually purifying it and burying the body as soon as possible, ideally within one day, unless there are serious extenuating circumstances, such as children arriving from out of town.
Cremation is antithetical to both Jewish law and philosophy, as this is considered a great sign of disrespect for the divinely infused body. From a legal standpoint, the Torah, or Bible, explicitly states that the body must be buried in the ground (see Deuteronomy 21:23 in the context of capital punishment). [i] In addition, the Talmud explains that the verse “You are dust/earth and to dust/earth shall you return” (Genesis 3:19) indicates that we must have underground burial. In the creation story, we are told that God created man from the “dust of the earth”, so it is appropriate that we return to that same earth upon our bodies’ end. This is codified in the authoritative Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 362:1) and has been normative Jewish practice throughout the ages.
In addition to the positive commandment to bury the dead, there is a specific commandment against mistreating the body or showing disrespect to it (Babba Batra 154a), which is clearly violated by cremation, which destroys the body, a practice best kept to things of which we want to rid ourselves.
Philosophically, taking care of a loved one’s body is the last act that we perform upon the physical form of the individual. What sort of message are we sending if our final action is a destructive one, physically obliterating the body? When a scroll of Torah or other sacred writings are beyond repair, we do not burn or destroy them in any way, but rather bury them lovingly. Should we do any less to an actual person/body which was once sanctified and was an expression of the Divine manifestation in this world?
(I want to thank Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz for his summary of the topic.)
[i]1. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b), these words strongly allude to burial while the Jerusalem Talmud (Nazir 7:1) states that this verse indicates that burial is a biblical commandment.
The traditional Jewish prohibition against cremation stems for the Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law and lore edited in the 6th Century. This prohibition was written into law during the centuries following, both in individual rabbinic legal decisions (teshuvot) as well as in the major Jewish legal codes. The reason most commonly associated with this prohibition is kavod hamet, honoring the dead. Following our understanding that our bodies have been given to us as a gift from God, even in death they are to be treated, as such, with great respect. Burning the body, as occurs during cremation, was considered to exemplify the opposite of that ideal. Reducing the God-given form of the body to ashes was seen as disrespecting the body as it was created. Alternatively, burying the body in the earth, one of the essential creations of God, and then allowing it to return to the earth organically, was seen as the most respectful way to treat the body. Similarly, that is why Jews traditionally bury in wooden caskets, so that decomposition can occur in a more organic fashion – no preserving material will interfere. While, from a legal and textual tradition, there are particular reasons for this prohibition, the underlying value is respect for God’s creations and as well as respect for the dead.
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