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Drash - Parshat Vayechi


Rabbi Harold Kravitz – Adath Jeshurun – Minneapolis, MN

[Intro to Torah Reading]: If you look at the study sheet you might be wondering about the connection between this parsha and a document from 1948 that discusses the appropriateness of putting a tallit on a dead soldier. See end of Gen 49 and Gen 50. The final chapters of Genesis concern themselves with the description of the death and burial of two of the great biblical figures- Jacob and Joseph. The rituals for these two figures could not be more different. Take a look at these sections of the readings and the study sheet and we will come back to this later.

[After Torah Reading]: Before we read from the Torah, I asked you to compare the two funerals. What did you find?

Jacob buried in the home country.

Elaborate funeral.

Buried with his ancestors.

Seven days of mourning. Precursor of Shiva.

Contrast Joseph’s burial (this maftir!). Very terse

Egyptian style burial!!! Is this a case of the children burying a parent in a way that they may not have approved of?

Use of coffin. (Did not happen again until rabbinic times)

Embalming never became acceptable. See Elliot Dorff note in Etz Chayim commentary.

Ordered not to transfer his body until they all leave Egypt (a hint of the long period of slavery that is to come).

In reading this I was struck by the difference in the way that these two funerals of our ancestors who die outside the homeland were handled even as they come in close succession.

In both cases the halacha of burial speaks volumes about who we are as a people at any given time based on where we are and the circumstances of the time.

It is in that spirit that I want to spend some time with a fascinating text that I only learned about this week and from which the study sheet is taken. It is a selection of teshuvot – rabbinic responsa on the issue of funeral practice that was used during World War II. While it was first issued over 50 years ago I think that, like this weeks Torah portion, it still has valuable lessons to teach us.

Allow me to start with an apology. Some may consider it uncomfortable to discuss such matters on Shabbat. There are a number of reasons that I am going to take my chances.

First of all because of the extraordinary leadership your family has shown in this area among others.

Marty, just recently we got together to discuss Jewish law in relation to you volunteer role on the board of the Minneapolis Jewish Cemetery.

Julie, your work as the chair of the women’s Tahara group of our Chevra Kavod HaMet has been incredible.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Chevra Kavod it is the Jewish burial society started in the mid 70’s by our congregation that has provided dignified Jewish funerals for our congregations through the caring efforts of our members. Our Chevra now led by Bruce Nemer has been an inspiration for hundreds of people around the country who have modeled themselves after us.

Julie as you know, the kinds of questions that are raised in this teshuva come up from time to time in the holy work of the Chevra Kavod.

The truth is that these are matters that we should be able to speak about from the pulpit on Shabbat even if they make us uncomfortable. They demonstrate that there is no area of life that the rabbis were afraid to speak to and that rather than being squeamish we are strengthened when we address them and face life squarely. A look at this teshuva also shows the capacity that Judaism has to deal with the severest challenges with compassion and sensitivity.

One of the most amazing things about this teshuva is the group of rabbis who are writing in response to the question under the umbrella of the Jewish Welfare Board, which is still responsible for overseeing chaplaincy in for the U.S Armed Serves. The War which was going on 50 years ago, required rabbis to answer a variety of difficult questions.

For example, how do you perform keriah (the Jewish ritual rending of a garment after a death which goes back to biblical times) when military rules forbid the intentional tearing of a soldier’s uniform? (They rule that a soldier is permitted to tear his undershirt).

The make up of the committee is quite amazing. It included rabbis of each of the major Jewish movements of the time Conservative, Orthodox and Reform. The Conservative movement was represented by outstanding figure such as Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal, Israel Goldman and Robert Gordis. Orthodoxy was represented by such lights as Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, Rabbi Leo Jung and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who went on to head Bar Ilan University in Israel. The contingent of Reform rabbis was lead by Rabbi Solomon Freehof of Pittsburgh, who was renowned for his expertise in responsa literature and who chaired this committee. It is hard to imagine such a diverse group of rabbis meeting to decide Jewish legal issues.

Working together this group of first rate rabbinic scholars, brought together at the most difficult of times, came to their decisions with respect for the tradition, with sensitivity to the diversity of the Jews for whom they were writing and the unusual circumstances, and most of all with great compassion. This is another quality that is not always found among some of those who are charged with making decisions about Jewish law.

[Review the points of the teshuva….]

The conclusion that they come to is an interesting one in which they decide that the value of showing respect for the dead outweighs the need to strictly adhere to the letter of the law when it comes to burying a servicemen in a tallit. In the process they show respect for the fact that service men come from diverse backgrounds and that what is right for those who are more traditional may not be right for those who are less traditional.

The editor of the collection at the time Rabbu Aryeh Lev wrote: Although in many aspects of Jewish life in America the achievement of unity of action has been difficult, here harmony was achieved on religious practices, the most controversial of all subjects in Jewish life.  The dictum, "Elu v'elu divrei Elochim chayim", was used not only to acknowledge respect for the view of others but also to go on from there to a common decision which would be helpful to the men under arms in each particular circumstance of war.  It is to the glory of the American rabbinate, that, without the power and approval of an established ecclesiastical hierarchy, it was able to create such a set of responsa. The final decision was always based on "halacha". But the interpretation was broad enough to permit the word of God to be truly "chayim", "living", and livable even under war conditions.

It is an impressive example of the ability of Jews to come together and deal with fundamentally important issues. Some might say this happened because it was a shaat dechak- an emergency. In truth most of the issues that were raised and the solutions that they offered continue to be relevant today.

This valuable resource was brought to my attention by a new organization called Kavod  v’Nichum, partially funded by a grant from STAR, which is now based in Minneapolis and run by Rabbi Hayim Herring.

Kavod  v’Nichum is coordinated by David Zinner out of Maryland who is doing an excellent job working with those of us across lines of movements, who are committed to maintaining the custom of Kavod HaMet respect for the dead. As we see from this week’s portion this was a central value of the Jewish people going back to early biblical times.

Kavod  v’Nichum is holding a conference on the work of the Chevra Kaddisha June 22-24, 2003. I understand that Rabbi Arnold Goodman, who is now retired and living in Israel, has been invited to be one of the keynote speakers. I urge people of Adath Jeshurun, which continues to maintain this tradition of Kavod HaMet, to attend if they can and to support this valuable effort.

Anyone who wants to know more is welcome to speak to Bruce Nemer or to Julie, but you will have to wait until the Kozbergs get back from Israel!

Study Sheet For Parshat Vayechi

Several times during the war years the Division of Religious Activities (CANRA) published various brochures dealing with special chaplaincy activities, "beyond the line of duty" brochures, which it was thought would be of interest to the Jewish community of America. This present pamphlet reflects the remarkable agreement which was effected by the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis on CANRA in reference to the practical problems of Jewish law confronting the Jewish chaplain and his GI congregation.

Our appreciation goes to Dr. Freehof, Dr. Jung and Dr. Steinberg, members of the Responsa Committee, for this task so well done. Our gratitude is expressed especially to Dr. Freehof who as chairman demonstrated qualities of erudition, understanding, and leadership which won for him the respect and the high esteem of both the members of CANRA and the chaplaincy.  It is indeed a joy to have a hand in the preparation and distribution of this pamphlet and to make it available to the individuals and organizations designated by the Division of Religious Activities to receive it.

Aryeh Lev, Director December, 1947


We received the following information from the War Department."Some time after hostilities are over, the bodies will be disinterred, the temporary coffins will be opened, the bodies will be re-examined and checked for identification and finally will be placed in a metal casket which will be sealed.  During this operation it will be possible to drape a tallith over the remains of those who were buried without one; I want you to clearly understand that no additional step in the handling of the deceased will be involved in the placing of the tallith in the casket. The operational procedure is standard and is followed to insure proper identification, proper sanitation and proper handling of the deceased so as to minimize the agony of the nearest of kin,"

The suggestion to place a tallith on the body when it is removed from the first casket to the second has no specific parallel in Jewish law, but there is sufficient material closely related to it to give us the basis for coming to a conclusion. The Talmud in b. Baba Bathra 154 a and b discusses whether it is permitted to open a coffin to examine the body, and the conclusion is that it is forbidden "lenavvelo", to treat it disrespectfully by handling.

A question closer to our discussion is the following, is it permitted to disinter a body in order to clothe it in the manner required by Jewish law and custom, i.e., shrouds, tallith, etc.? The question is discussed by many of the rabbis…

The situation as described by the War Department is not quite the same as the various situations which came up in the response literature, where the question is asked whether we should disinter in order to put on the proper burial clothes, and the answer is almost unanimously in the negative. Here, however, the bodies of the soldiers will be disinterred anyhow and will be removed from one coffin to another, and we are told that it will not require much extra handling of the body to put on the tallith.

It would seem, therefore, natural to decide that the tallith might as well be put upon the body.

However, the Committee hesitates to make a decision which is contrary to the almost unanimous decision of past authorities even though the cases with which they dealt were not identical with our present case. Even though we are told that the putting on of the tallith will not in-involve any extra handling of the body, there will manifestly be some extra handling for that purpose and this certainly is against the spirit of all who have dealt with the analogous questions. Therefore, the Committee certainly cannot inform the War Department that Jewish law requires the tallith in these circumstances.

Besides, the CANRA has decided that soldiers should be buried as they would have been buried if they had died as civilians. Some of Reform Jewish families who would be buried in civilian clothes are to be buried with their military clothes without change. As for Orthodox boys, or boys from homes of strict observance who would be buried in a tallith; the Orthodox practice should be followed.

According to the method described in the War Department proposal no distinction should be made since the original chaplains, who know the boys, would certainly not be present. Be sides it is open to question whether it is permissible to clothe a man in a tallith who never used a tallith in his lifetime (cf, Ach L tsarah page 179 #18).

Rabbi Fried (Ohel Yosef #18) makes a suggestion which might be of help to us in the case quoted above in which the man was buried in street clothes. He suggests, in the case which we discuss, that the earth be removed and the tallith placed upon the coffin. By analogy, we might suggest that when it comes to the reinterment, those families who desire it may request that the tallith be put directly upon the coffin under the flag.

If the tallith is placed in the coffin when the body is not disturbed unduly by any attempt to clothe it in the tallith, most of the difficulties mentioned above will be overcome. We, therefore, agree that the folded tallith be placed in the coffin.

Selected Excerpts from “RESPONSA IN WAR TIME” COMMISSION ON JEWISH CHAPLAINCY (Formerly known as CANRA) NATIONAL JEWISH WELFARE BOARD, December 1947 (Reprinted 1968).