Of Corpse(s): Emor 2017

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Why have there been numerous popular television series and movies about “beings” such as zombies and vampires? What does this popularity say, if anything, about our attitudes about death, and more specifically, dead bodies?The Torah portion of Emor deals immediately with the idea that being near a dead body is a form of defilement, while simultaneously allowing us the opportunity to mourn for our loved ones:

The Pitch: “The Lord 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.” – Leviticus 21:1-3

Swing #1: “The distinction between soul and body is something foreign to the Hebrew mentality, and death, therefore, is not regarded as the separation of these two elements. A live man is a living ‘soul’, and a dead man is a dead ‘soul’, a dead ‘nefesh’. Death is not annihilation. … The corpse which was doomed to corruption, and the tomb which contained it, were both considered unclean, and conveyed uncleanness to those who touched them.” – Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel
Swing #2: “Why is the circle of exceptions restricted so severely to immediate blood relations? How can burial of one’s own wife be excepted from such obligation? Does the partial permission to take care of the dead not fundamentally contradict the prohibition against defilement? How is the resulting impurity of the sacrificial priest then eliminated? … Presumably, absolute prohibitions can never guarantee a practical order of things in human societies. There must be exceptions and special regulations; life itself simply demands it.” – Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary

Swing #3: “The chief aim of man should be to make himself, as far as possible, similar to God: that is to say, to make his acts similar to the acts of God, or as our Sages expressed it in explaining the verse, ‘You shall be holy’: ‘He is gracious, so be you also gracious: He is merciful, so be you also merciful.’” – Moses Maimonides, Guide For the Perplexed

Late-Inning Questions: In light of the commentaries above, do you believe we should be allowed to formally mourn more than just immediate relatives? Or, might you define “immediate relative” in a different way than the Torah does?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We look forward to honoring our Religious School students at the end of another successful year! Tonight, at our 7:30PM services, we will congratulate our sixth-grade graduates, and tomorrow, at our 9:30AM services, we will honor three high-school seniors at their Confirmation.

The Big Inning at the End: This Sunday, Major League players will don numerous pink items (bats, caps, wristbands, etc.) to promote breast-cancer research. This has become an annual Mother’s Day tradition. While some have dismissed this custom as cynical and opportunistic, I believe this in one way in which sports can be a vessel for good deeds.

Shabbat Shalom!