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The Jewish ritual of Tahara, the preparation of the dead for burial, is emotionally demanding and full of incongruities. The Chevra Kadisha, the "holy society" of those who take on the task, enters the room -- men to prepare a man, women for a woman -- and, addressing the body by its Hebrew name, asks its pardon for any indignity they may visit on it as they work. The work is close enough for indignity. There are smells, there is sometimes blood, the body is heavy and cold, the work reminds nearly everyone of handling a huge chicken. The body is washed twice. First the practical washing, in warm water: the fragile skin cleansed with washcloths, the ears swabbed with Q-tips, the hair combed, the toenails and fingernails cleaned. At this point the body is treated almost as if it were still alive, as if it could feel warm water, as if it could feel shame; only the part being washed is uncovered to view. Then the sheet is removed for the ritual washing. Naked, the body is sluiced with floods of cold water. It is not embalmed. It is dried and clothed in the garments of a priest of the Temple, and the hood is pulled over the face. It is put in a pegged wooden coffin; no nails are used, so that body and box may return entirely to earth. But the most disorienting feature of this profoundly disorienting ritual occurs during the warm washing, when verses are sung from the Song of Songs:

His head is fine gold; his hair is curly and black as the raven.
His eyes are as doves by waterbrooks, washed in milk, set like jewels.
His cheeks are as beds of spices, yielding scent; his lips as lilies dropping myrrh.
His hands are rods of gold set with beryl; his belly a tablet of ivory inlaid with sapphires.
His legs are pillars of marble in sockets of gold.
He is like Lebanon, fine as the cedars.
His mouth is sweetness, and he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
(5:11-16, my translation)


The ritual dates from sixteenth-century Poland. So much had not happened yet, in sixteenth-century Poland, that shapes our assumptions now: no Freud, no television, no concealment of death, no secularity anywhere. No escape from the text that encompassed one's life. No one worried, in sixteenth-century Poland, about the seemliness of men addressing another man in such words, or recoiled from the thought of singing with love to the dead. They were serious enough about the holiness of the text and the task that such qualms did not trouble them. They came from a tradition skeptical enough to say, on the holiest fast of the year, that God does not want our fasting; a tradition exuberant enough to welcome the Sabbath as a bride; a tradition whose bodiless God takes an insatiable interest in the doings of human bodies. Nothing had yet narrowed their imaginations against contradiction.


The makers of this ritual understood the power of liturgy to shape the thinking of a whole culture -- and to transmit, even across four hundred years and two continents, the humanity and care of their own sensibility. When my synagogue formed a Chevra Kadisha and studied the Tahara ritual, some members of the group found the lines from the Song of Songs striking and powerful; others were uneasy, and thought them obsolete and embarrassing. But once we had done the task, we all understood the tenderness the lines had encoded. There is a poetics of liturgy, as demanding and as complex as the greatest art. It need not spell out everything it means us to feel. It leaves something up to experience. Great art, it has been said, leaves cognitive work for the audience (Morreall and Loy 71). If the lines had not been in the ritual, we would still have felt tenderness -- one cannot handle the dead kindly without feeling tenderness -- but we would have felt it inarticulately, perhaps only prompted to murmur on the way out that the occasion felt "very spiritual." Because the lines were there -- because others had thought on that tenderness as profoundly as a profound tradition allows -- we could be fully perceiving members of the tradition at the boundary line of perception. We could be fully alive on behalf of the dead.

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