Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.   
(I Corinthians 15: 42b-44)
Our discussion last week about organ donation raises my curiosity and interest about burial practices in our three Abrahamic traditions.  I can recall a time when cremation was essentially unheard of in Christian practice; pastors and priests taught that the reverent preparation of Jesus’ body for burial pointed to the only way for Christians to honor the physical body after death.  It was startling to me, then, when my own father, a deeply religious man and passionate steward of the earth, declared that he wanted to be cremated because “my spiritual, not physical, body will be raised” and “I don’t want to take up space in the good earth that could be used for growing crops to feed a hungry world.” While Christians of some denominations still require or prefer burial, most now consider this to be a matter of personal preference rather than religious mandate. What religious teachings govern your practices?

Islamic burial practices, to this day, follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon Him]. First, the absence of adornment in every stage of the process reflects a respect for the deceased. The prophet’s instructions also include details about the steps to be taken when death occurs, and dictate participation in the funeral procession and prayers as a communal obligation, or fard qifayah.[1]  Thus, it is the responsibility of all members of the community to ensure that every Muslim who dies is properly tended. The body of the deceased is washed with gentle care at least three times, usually by a family member, and then shrouded in white cloth. A communal prayer is performed at this stage, and then the shrouded body is placed without a casket in the grave, and laid on its right side facing Mecca. Based on a description in Quran of the honor given to the progeny of Adam and a Hadith stating that the treatment of a dead body should be similar to that of a living one,[2] cremation is strictly prohibited in Islam.

Given the historical context in which Jesus lived, I am not surprised that the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial followed Jewish rituals and customs. Since ancient times, Jewish tradition has dictated that once the body is washed, wrapped in shrouds and placed on a bier or in an unadorned coffin, it must be buried before nightfall.  Nowadays, burial may be delayed for mourners traveling great distances to be present.  If the body remains overnight—which modern refrigeration makes possible—it is never left unattended.  Instead, a member of the family or community is assigned to be a shomer, or guard, who sits with the body and recites Psalms.  All of the burial customs are expressions of the principle of k’vod ha-meit, respect for the dead. Embalming and applying make-up or clothing to the body are forbidden, and cremation is considered a desecration. While cremation may be gaining some acceptance among Jews in the U.S., most consider it inappropriate. Even Jews who are otherwise unconcerned about upholding the traditions are generally opposed to cremation out of respect for the many Jews who were cremated in death camps during the Holocaust.

[1] “The rights of a Muslim on the Muslims are to follow the funeral processions, to accept invitation, and to reply to the sneezer.” (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 332)
[2] “Breaking the bones of a dead body is like breaking the bones of a living one.” (Related by Ahmad, Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Thus said the Lord God to these bones: “I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again. I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the Lord!”
(Ezekiel 37:5-6)
Jewish prophecies of resurrection express the unimaginable power of God to give life to the lifeless.  In the traditional liturgy, when we praise God for gevurah, strength, we refer to God’s unique capability to make the dead rise. Because many Jews believe that the messiah’s arrival will herald the resurrection of the dead and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, they are buried in Israel to be present at the propitious moment. Some Jews argue against organ donation, because they believe it is critical that their bodies be buried intact to be resurrected.  I can’t agree with this idea, though; if God can raise me from death, can’t God endow me with a new kidney? Unlike God, humans do not have the power to resurrect the dead, but we are capable of saving lives. The rabbis considered pikuach nefesh, preserving life, to be the highest principle, and they legislated that Jews exercise this power—even when it conflicts with the observance of the Sabbath or dietary laws, and even if it means breaking one’s fast on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.  I imagine that Christianity and Islam, like Judaism, have multiple views of organ donation. Could you please share your thoughts?

It will not surprise you, Tziporah, that these words of the prophet Ezekiel are often contemplated by Christians in preparation for Easter, since Christians see this prophecy as fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus and its eternal witness to the unimaginable power of God to give life to the lifeless. Indeed, Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith.  In worship liturgies that include the Nicene Creed, Christians affirm, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The resurrected body, however, is understood to be a spiritual body, fully recognizable, but not flesh and bones as is the physical body that returns to dust. Organ donation, then, is not verboten in most Christian practice and may even be encouraged as a way of passing along the gift of life when one’s earthly body is too compromised to continue—a definite act of faith.

Tziporah, the majority of scholars in Islam agree that it is permissible to donate organs based on the general rule that “necessities permit the prohibited,”[1] and because the ultimate goal is the preservation of life. This view is supported by verses in the Quran. On the other hand, scholars who disagree with the practice state that organ donation compromises the special honor given to man’s body, whether dead or alive. From these two views, one can see that the notion of resurrection, although a fundamental Islamic belief, is not linked to the issue of organ donation.  The justification for this separation is based on several Quranic verses, which reaffirm the immeasurable and infinite power of God. One example reads, “Does man imagine that We are not capable of reassembling his decayed bones? We are able even to restore his fingers to their previous state.” (al-Qiyamah 75:3-4) I personally admire the generosity of individuals who act in utter selflessness and who, when faced with such challenging choices, give new meaning to the word “sharing.”

[1] Al-darurat tubih al-mahzurat

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  (The Gospel of Luke 23:34)

In “The Lord’s Prayer,” Christians beseech God daily to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  How difficult, for any human being, is the second part of this petition, especially when the trespass is betrayal, when hurt turns so naturally into anger and perhaps even desire for revenge.  On Good Friday of this Holy Week in Christianity, I will be compelled to gaze upon the Mystery of humility in the face of humiliation and the redemptive Grace of sacrificial love. Many Christians will speak of “Atonement” in the sacrifice of Jesus’ life for love of all humanity; I will meditate on the “at ONE ment” that I believe happens when persons of all faiths humble themselves before God in the midst of heinous crimes, horrid persecutions, and hideous curses, to pray through the heartbreaking agony that only God’s love can heal: “Father, forgive.”

Before I read your reflection, Grace, my mind wandered from the verse in Luke to events unfolding around the country.  The words, “for they know not what they do,” while spoken genuinely and recorded in this passage, can seem like an attempt to excuse the many wrongs we commit.  Claiming the consequences of our behavior to be unintended, we humans hurt each other in unforgiveable ways.  I think that one reason human beings struggle with forgiveness is that we often hurt each other wittingly and willfully.  While God’s forgiveness extends to our unintentional sins—because only God knows what true repentance lies within our hearts—our intentional trespasses against one another must be acknowledged, and we must reconcile with each other before we can find forgiveness.  In Jewish tradition, we pray for God’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we are “at one” with God.  But we are only able to atone if we are already at one with each other.

Like Christians, Muslims seek God’s forgiveness for their faults and weaknesses every day, during and after prayer, and strive to reach a complete state of purification during the month of Ramadan and the period of the Hajj. A Muslim also seeks to emulate the example of the Prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon Him], who embodied the teachings of the Quran. In the following verses, the Quran describes forgiveness as an honorable response to hurtful actions, while allowing for the uniqueness of people and recognizing that not every individual is actually capable of reaching this status:
And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend. But none is granted it except those who are patient, and none is granted it except one having a great portion [of good]. And if there comes to you from Satan an evil suggestion, then seek refuge in God. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Knowing.”(al Fussilat 41:34-36)
To me, although adopting this attitude of forgiveness can be challenging, it helps me focus on overcoming tests as a way of purifying my own heart and soul.