The space between | In reclaiming rituals around death, life comes full circle

In “Open Closed Open,” poet Yehuda Amichai’s late, great masterpiece, he offers the following theology:

“Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die, everything is open again.

Open closed open. That’s all we are.”

Amichai’s final book, flooded with memory, joy and grief, offers a view of life as a continuum between states, a toggling back and forth between darkness and light, like the blinking of an eye. Amichai’s nuanced, sometimes paradoxical descriptions of life and death force us to pay attention to the blurred lines between our two most primal categories.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman is attempting a similar reframing of the relationship between life and death through an increasingly robust leadership program for those affiliated with chevra kadisha, the “holy society” that cares for and guards the body between death and burial. Called Kavod v’Nichum (honor and comfort), this organization is dedicated to offering instruction and support for those who engage in Jewish end-of-life rituals like tahara (washing and preparing the body for burial) and shmira (guarding the body between death and interment).

The founding rabbi of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, and a nationally renowned educator and expert in Jewish rituals, Kelman, 73, has in recent years focused his energy on making rituals around death and dying a more prominent part of contemporary Jewish life. Through Kavod v’Nichum, he and his colleague David Zinner have developed a curriculum called the Gamliel Institute, an online certificate program related to the work of chevra kadisha.

So far almost 100 people from 40 communities have participated. And this winter, in conjunction with Lehrhaus Judaica, the Gamliel Institute, through a planning grant from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, will offer a version of its curriculum to the public in Northern California for the first time.

“My goal is to reclaim the mitzvot of kvod ha’meit v’nichum availim, or honoring the dead and comforting the mourners,” Kelman explained. “These mitzvot have fallen into disuse, or been farmed out to other places. The community in which one lives, which cares for people from birth, should also care for people at death.”

But his interest isn’t only practical. It’s also theological. “I’ve stopped using terms like ‘end of life,’ because Judaism doesn’t believe that there is an end of life, a point where life ends,” he says. “Instead I prefer to talk about the ‘continuum of life.’ ”

Painting in the 1564 chevra kadisha building in Prague photo/wikimedia commons

Ultimately it’s the combination of the practical and spiritual that leads Kelman to articulate a more expansive definition of what the chevra kadisha can be. In his view, the work is not limited to caring for the body and explaining the rituals to mourners, but also includes visiting a person who is ailing, supporting the family during seven days of shiva and continuing support through the 11 months of mourning.

Although death is the most certain thing in the life of any community, it turns out that many of the Jewish rituals connected to the “continuum” of life are products of specific communities; custom, rather than law.

For instance, during a tahara ceremony, the body is carefully washed using nine discrete units of water. “But there is no written record of this, not in the Talmud or other books of that era,” Kelman said. For these kinds of rituals “what we often think of as halachah, or law, is to an unusual degree the product of minhag, or custom.”

It turns out that many Jewish burial practices were transmitted orally to members of each community’s chevra kadisha. Written instructions have appeared only in the last 400 years.

One exception is an extraordinary series of paintings on view in the world’s oldest stand-alone chevra kadisha building, completed in 1564 in Prague. These paintings are not only beautiful and informative, but offer what Kelman calls a “roadmap for a more expansive conception of the chevra kadisha,” which begins long before death and continues long after.

In May, several Bay Area residents returned from Kavod v’Nichum’s first international study tour, with stops in New York, Prague and locations throughout Israel. Eighteen leaders throughout North America met with their chevra kadisha counterparts, exchanging practical information and sharing stories.

On a recent Saturday Kelman was joined by two colleagues from the trip for a conversation in the Netivot Shalom library. More than 50 people listened to Edna Stewart and Dan Fendel — leaders, respectively, of the chevra kadisha at Netivot Shalom and Oakland’s Temple Sinai — discuss their experiences.

Some of the comments were humorous, as when Stewart described the chaotic, overlapping graves at a historical Prague cemetery as “a mouth full of bad teeth.” But mostly the panelists described the shared experience of chevra kadisha members throughout the world — that their intimate, silent work turned whatever room they were in into “holy ground.”

The upcoming Lehrhaus Judaica courses are designed not only to impart information, but also to foster dialogue and conversation. And there are plenty of new developments in the field to discuss.

One is the shift in burial practices, including an emphasis on “green cemeteries” in places like Northern California and mile-long burial tunnels near Jerusalem, necessary because of overcrowding above ground.

Another is the question of gender variance. Traditionally, female members of a chevra kadisha care for a female body, with the same policy in place for males. But what happens if a person’s gender is unclear, or if the person is in transition?

“This is a front-and-center issue right now in the chevra kadisha movement,” Kelman explained, with each community needing to decide for itself the best approach to honoring both the deceased person, and the integrity of the process.

Kelman is clear about his goal being “a chevra kadisha in every synagogue or community. They don’t all have to be the same, or do their work in exactly the same way. They just need to exist.”

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Dan Schifrin is a teacher and writer living in Berkeley.

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.