When I was growing up, my family belonged to an Orthodox shul on East 20th Street in Manhattan, just across from Stuyvesant Town, where we lived. A number of our friends belonged there too. The congregation identified itself as “Modern Orthodox,” and it was called Congregation Zichron Moshe. (Today the shul is owned and operated by Chabad.) I went to elementary school just next door to the shul—PS 40—where many of my friends also attended. The Jews in the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper/Gramercy Park area generally attended one of three local congregations: Zichron Moshe, Town & Village Synagogue (Conservative), and East End Temple (Reform).
The rabbi of Zichron Moshe at the time, and for several decades in fact, Rabbi Newman (z”l), lived in our building in Stuyvesant Town with his wife and three children. We saw them all the time, and we greeted each other warmly. As it happened, Rabbi Newman was a kohen—a priest—according to the caste system of Ancient Israel, as elaborated upon in the Torah. This didn’t make much difference to me, and frankly, I was oblivious to it—until a pivotal, devastating moment in my life. When I was 13 years old, and just completing the 9th grade, my father Philip died of pancreatic cancer. And because Rabbi Newman was a kohen, he was unable to officiate at my father’s funeral.
Our Torah portion begins:
The Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself. (Leviticus 21.1-4)
At the time that I was growing up, the relationships between the rabbi and the kids in the Hebrew School were rather different from today. I didn’t particularly feel as though I had a personal relationship with Rabbi Newman, though on a certain level I did, because I saw him so often in the building, and knew his wife and children. And while my mom and Mrs. Newman engaged in conversation, in my recollection, Rabbi Newman wasn’t a big schmoozer—at least not with us. But I suppose that when you’re a kid, you’re not quite as conscious about the realities of congregational life. When my father died, I was so engulfed in grief that it never occurred to me to wonder why Rabbi Newman wasn’t at the funeral. Yes, he certainly came up to our apartment during the week to pay a shiva call, which was greatly appreciated by my mom, and all of us. But the funeral was conducted by a rabbi I had never seen before, and whom I did not know at all.
About 25 years later, during the years that I was serving a congregation in West Hempstead, I got a phone call from someone I had known quite well in Stuyvesant Town. She was a close friend of my mom’s, and I was good buddies with her younger son, who was in my class at PS 40. She and her family had always belonged to Zichron Moshe. She was calling because her husband had died, and she was asking if I would do the funeral. “You know that I’m a Reform rabbi,” I said. “Yes, but you knew (my husband), and I would feel better having you there.” “What about Rabbi Newman?” I asked. And then, suddenly I remembered. It all came back in a flash. Rabbi Newman was a kohen, and thus could not officiate at the funeral! I did suggest a Modern Orthodox rabbi I happened to know in Lower Manhattan, who was the Jewish Chaplain at the time at Beth Israel Hospital, and his wife worked in the administrative office of Hebrew Union College. And in fact, he had filled in on numerous occasions for the members of Zichron Moshe, since Rabbi Newman couldn’t officiate at the funerals. But neither he, nor virtually anyone other rabbi in Lower Manhattan, would be available for this funeral the next day. At any other time, I would have done it in an instant. But, wouldn’t you know, just that particular day I was already committed to officiating at the funeral of one of my own congregants, and the scheduled times were hopelessly in conflict. And I had no choice—I had to give priority to my congregant. Eventually another Orthodox rabbi was located. But I wished I could have helped her. I would have been honored to do that for these old friends.
Our Torah portion discusses the “pollution” that a kohen would incur from contact with a dead body. The concept of tamei is a difficult one for the modern mind to understand. First, we don’t even have a particularly helpful way of translating the word into English. Tamei is an adjective. In the noun form, tum’ah is rendered as “pollution” or “taint.” Sometimes the translation of tamei, particularly when applied to menstruating women, is “unclean.” This last application has been particularly off-putting and, in my personal opinion, potentially destructive, in its cumulative psychological effect over the centuries. For kohanim, priests, the issue was particularly critical, because they were the ones charged with performing the cultic sacrifices upon the Temple altar in Jerusalem. Any taint; any impurity, would not only render them ineligible, but render the sacrifices invalid as well. And since they functioned as intermediaries between the people and God, it was the people’s well-being that would be jeopardized.
In this light, I came across a beautiful insight by my friend Rabbi Avi Weiss in an article for JewishPress.com from April 25, 2013. Rabbi Weiss is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary for the training of those in the liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy. He also shepherded Yeshivat Maharat, for the training of Modern Orthodox women for the Rabbinate.
The truth is that there are several terms in the Torah that have no suitable English equivalent. Such terms should not be translated. Leaving them in the original Hebrew makes the reader understand that a more detailed analysis of the word is necessary. Tumah is one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and requires a deeper analysis.
Rav Ahron Soloveichik suggested that the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms “The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever” (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality or finitude, that which withers away.
A dead body is considered a primary source of tumah, for it represents decay in the highest sense not only because the corpse itself is in the process of decaying but also because the living individual who comes into contact with the corpse usually suffers emotionally and endures a form of spiritual fragmentation, a counterpart of the corpse’s physical falling away.
Very early on, the Reform Movement cast aside identification with, and adherence to, the needs and practices of the ancient Temple and its priesthood. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the sacrificial cult ceased to exist, and the priesthood ceased to function. The notion of tum’ah as it applied to the kohanim and Ancient Israel is not operative within our daily lives as modern Jews. Nevertheless, perhaps we would do well to reconsider these concepts in terms of spiritual purity and taint. The notion of preserving and protecting our own human dignity, both from physical and spiritual taint seems completely relevant, and even urgent, in the very difficult and coarse time in which we live. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman, commented in an article last May in The Jewish Week:
Even as we do have problems with priests, we dearly yearn for the priestly. We properly dismiss the idea that God works only through them, but in expelling the priesthood, we risk losing the priestly, the sense that we can access the holy altogether: bringing blessing from on high and becoming incomparably more than the mundane selves to which our everyday routine condemns us.
We might recall the exhortation that God delivers to the People of Israel just before the theophany—the Revelation of Torah—as we read in Exodus 19.5-6: Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…. For us as Reform Jews, while this does not negate the special domain of the kohanim in the ancient Temple, it does place upon all of us a responsibility for ethical behavior, particularly as it is outlined in the Torah, and as later Rabbinic and contemporary teaching elaborate upon it.
Regardless of whether we identify as Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, or what-have-you, there can be no question that the ultimate concern when we lose a loved one is according honor to the deceased. The rituals and practices regarding the treatment and burial of bodies grow out of this overriding concern in Judaism: Kevod HaMet—honor to the dead. Ultimately, however, if we try to understand what underlies this concern for Kevod HaMet, it is this: if we are so concerned with paying honor and respect to one who is gone from this life—who can no longer feel, or think, or respond— then how much the more so ought we be concerned with the respect and honor that we accord to other people while they are alive! And that goes for ourselves as well, in having to remember the inherent dignity that we possess.
While the Biblical realities of priestly purity may no longer be relevant, perhaps it is the respect for others, and respect for ourselves, that should be our central concerns, as a people charged with being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.