When Jewish In-Fighting Blocks True Love
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
I remember cradling his head in my hands, communicating love as best I could to the body that rested before me. To my right was an older gentleman with a damp cloth, to my left were two men, parents in my synagogue preschool and local day school, each holding the man's body in respectful silence.
I had never before been in the direct presence of a dead body. Part of me was nervous, but that mostly ended when we walked into the room to prepare this human being for burial in the ground. I had just joined my community's Chevrah Kadisha, or 'Holy Society', made up of community members dedicated to tending ritually to other members when they die. When we chanted the preparatory verses, promising to do our best to bring dignity to this now-lifeless manifestation of God's Image, I knew that I was truly part of my community. I prayed my mistakes be forgiven and held this man's head with all the tender love I hold my own children, pouring out the same love with which I pray someone holds me when I die.
When I learned that my dear friends and teachers Rabbi David Lerner and Anita Diamant, my beloved former community Temple Israel in Sharon, and many others in the wider Jewish community had become involved in creating the pluralistic Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston (http://www.hevrakadisha.org/), my heart sang. This precious mitzvah (commandment) would be shared by so many, bringing dignity and sanctity at the end of life. My soul smiled even more when I learned that my uncle, David Brezniak, embraced this communal effort, as he offered our family's multi-generational passion and skill at Brezniak Rodman Funeral Chapels to support the new Hevrah Kadisha. What a holy network had emerged!
Then I read Rabbi Naftali Horowitz's letter to Brezniak Rodman Funeral Chapels, in which he states:
"to add an additional Chevrah Kadisha, one which calls itself nondenominational in its literature, would add great confusion regarding the standards which will be administered. Therefore, it will only be possible for the [ultra-Orthodox] Chevra Kadisha of Grater Boston to operate in [Brezniak Rodman] Chapels if we are the only one using the facilities. (letter dated Nov. 1, 2013)"
Imagine we weren't talking about the Jewish ritual purification of a human being's body. Imagine, instead, a catering business were being discussed. Rabbi Horowitz's letter would then be easily identified as an attempt market-domination. This cold, calculated business approach to Jewish communal life not only leaves this rabbi's heart shivering but also appalled.
There is more than one way to be a Jew in this world, and the deepening of Jewish practice the new Hevra Kadisha represents deserves praise from every sector of the Jewish world. American Judaism is undergoing amazing transformation, and the narrow-minded and cutthroat reaction Horowitz's letter communicates is the least Jewish thing I've read in a long time. I'm embarrassed for us all that he had the chutzpah to write it in the first place.
My Orthodox and Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist colleagues deserve my respect. We earn that respect by offering it in turn. Rabbi Horowitz owes the Boston Jewish community a public apology for representing the worst we can be regarding a moment that is designed to bring out our best.
The work of a Hevra Kadisha is called, in Jewish tradition, "Chesed Shel Emet", an "act of true love." No person and no dogma should be allowed to get in the way of that holy purpose.