(Coronavirus) 100,000 (Human Toll)


In case you’ve only seen this on a digital platform, this is what a physical copy of the front page + pages 12, 13, and 14 looks like on a digital platform.


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(Chevra Kadisha) Care for the Dead (Coronavirus

chevra kadisha

[About material religion and moral care and comfort, disruption and the loneliness of dying, about private decisions and discussions about public work, I’m posting this from a friend writing about her work at a Chevra Kadisha during the Coronavirus pandemic. She would like to remain anonymous]

Early on in this pandemic, I think it was two months ago, but it may as well have been fifty years ago, I wondered about how Covid-19 would change how we perform Taharot at our Chevre Kadisha. At the last Taharah I had done, when the pandemic was just a whisper, the funeral home offered us a new-to-us array of protective gear, including clear plastic face masks. We did the Taharah as we usually do: gloved, gowned, booted and with our hair covered with plastic bonnets but not wearing face masks.

The work that we do — washing and dressing a meta — is unlike most contemporary Jewish rituals. It is light on words and heavy on physical acts. A team of four to six of us are stationed closely around the body of someone’s mother or sister or daughter. We carefully clean the body, from the top of her head to her toes. We hand one another cloths for cleaning or we re-fill the pots of water for one another. We work as a team, two women at the body’s shoulders, two at the torso and two at the legs. Each pair stands a gurney’s width apart.

Turning the body from front to back is a team effort. The body is in every sense of the word a dead weight. We lean across the gurney to gently roll the body of our friend, or of our friend’s mother, so we can wash her back, dry her or dress her. Some of the tasks we do require us to move closely together so we can do our work with minimum discomfort to the meta.

So, when it became clear that Covid-19 had made its face known, I wrote to the leaders of our Chevre to find out how we should proceed. They had consulted with the Queens Chevre Kadisha, which provides guidance for us in issues both halachic and scientific, and they said that for the duration of the pandemic, there would be no Taharot. It was too dangerous for the Chevre members to be so close to one another for the two hours that it takes to perform a Taharah.

I am grateful not to be forced to put my life in danger. On the other hand, this is just one more indignity caused by Covid-19. Death is almost never the way it is portrayed in the movies. It is more often a long and difficult decline that unearths old complicated family dynamics. The very end of life is, frankly, often pretty terrifying to watch and seems equally terrifying for the person who is dying.

Everyone who dies, essentially dies alone. The people who are dying of Covid-19 are truly dying alone without family nearby, and often even without hospital staff nearby. Normally the work that a Chevre Kadisha does — carefully and gently washing and tending to the body of someone who was loved — offers a measure of comfort to the family. At least, despite a hard death, the mourners know that their mother, or sister, or friend, was cared for by loving hands before she was buried.

The inability to perform Taharah is just one more loss that Covid-19 has brought upon us.

I suspect actually that such decisions not to do Taharah may have taken place in the past but not openly discussed. Yes it is pikuach nefesh not to do it now but it also feels kind of shameful to not do the mitzvah.. it is harder to make those sorts of decisions in a private way these days. There are decisions made in the Taharah room that just are not spoken about to people who aren’t part of the Chevre.

There have been times in the past in our chevre where a situation was deemed beyond our skills as volunteers. I wasn’t in those rooms…but it was discussed among us.


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Care for a Corpse (Dignity) Coronavirus


“There has to be some dignity in this, otherwise I might as well be a garbage man,” is what the funeral director told the journalist. The photographs by Philip Montgomery that accompany this article here in the NYT about two brothers, Sal an Nick Farenga the directors of a funeral home in the Bronx, fifth generation in the family,  do more than document how they have been overwhelmed by the Coronavirus. With the grit removed, the beauty of the photographs evoke the intensity of this kind of a crisis alongside the solemn and tender dignity of the dead, the dignity of labor and workers, the dignity of a “calling,” and the dignity of the ethical action that is this final mercy that one can do for another. But what is the source of that action? If you had to choose one term, as a student of religion, I have this one hesitation, which is whether to put the word “human” or “holy” in front of the word “action.”

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Varieties of Haredi Theological Response to Coronavirus


Waiting to see primary sources, but here’s a quick review of Haredi response in Israel to the Coronovirus with multiple links. Some of it is standard reward/punish. The pandemic is caused by lax Torah study, the sexual immodesty of women, or gay pride. More unique is the answer by Rabbi Gershon Edelstein as to why Haredi communities are suffering the pandemic in disproportionate numbers to secular Jews. The article includes a link to these brief remarks. The reason is that secular Jews are like “kidnapped children” (this is a classical halakhic category) who were raised by gentiles; their sins are inadvertent and punished more lightly than the sins of Haredi Jews who know Torah, whose sins are therefore intentional, and consequently punished more strictly. Tagging this here at the blog under “suffering” and “death.”  Rav Chaim Kanievsky has since stated here (with Edelstein signing on) that the reason Haredi Jews have been driven from their synagogues is because of the sin of using cell phones at synagogue, the disrespectful violating of the sanctity of the place with worthless words. The comment reflects perhaps something about norms and the violation of norms in the religious life of the Haredi public sphere.



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Tablet Magazine Judaism = Haredi All The Time


I say this with some embarrassment because of colleague-friends in Jewish Studies who are now a part of it. Expecting their tolerant forbearance, I’ll say it nonetheless.

Tablet is incorrigible.

Whether Haredi, ex-Haredi, neo-Haredi, it is Haredi-Haredi-Haredi all the time over there, almost without exception, pushing the point that the only Judaism that really matters is Haredi Judaism, and rabbis. It’s hip there to be reactionary; you can be anti-reactionary  but only if you know the rules of the game from the inside.

It is set up to look that way, by design.

At the “Belief” section it’s the Baal-Shem this and the Satmar Rebbe that, reflections on being orthodox or even Unorthodox (it doesn’t make a difference); and Kahane; and Kabbalah.

The “History” section is also inundated; by rabbis; by rabbis, rabbis, and Israel; and Brooklyn.

At the “Community” section, read up on balcony minyonim, my crushes on rabbis, sex and the religious girl, what the Talmud can teach us about infertility during Coronavirus, and so on.

This year’s Lag Ba’Omer special was especially over the top.  “7 Reasons Why Lag B’Omer is the Jewish Burning Man Today on Jewcy: Bonfires? Weirdly esoteric? Check!,” “The Grateful and the Dead. It’s easier than ever to visit the gravesites of beloved rabbis and sages,” “Fun for a Girl and a Bow From Hunger Games to the London Olympics, archery—a Lag B’Omer tradition and great girl-power sport—is hot”

If I’m wrong, please send me a link and I’ll take a look. Was there even a word over the last several week at Tablet that some 75% of the Coronavirus victims in Israel are Haredim, that reactionary religion is maybe not such a great thing, that religion can kill you if it doesn’t kill you, that yeshiva bochers can’t do math? Was there anything over there that reflected critically on Haredi Judaism and rabbis? Or for that do you have to go here to Kikar ha’Shabbat?

Meanwhile, the section devoted to “Israel and Middle East” is given over to the likes of Liel Leibovitz, Lee Smith, and David Samuels. That Agamben showed up the other day is the exception that proves the rule, with him going on about the state of exception is only par for the course of anti-liberal animus at Tablet. Most of time, it’s things like Osama outsmarting the west, Arafat and the Ayatollahs, Bibi King of Israel.

I’m not quite sure when it started. Now it just doesn’t stop, and won’t.

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(Anthropology of Judaism) Lag Ba’Omer

lag ba'omer pic

Touching upon the history and anthropology of Jewish religion, as well as concluding methodological reflections. With many thanks to Joshua Schwartz and Shari Rabin, respectively, for the kindness of sharing their expertise and these two scholarly references re: the pilgrimage to and pilgrimage site at Mt. Meron in Israel during the Lag Ba’Omer holiday.

The first speaks to the history of the rite and the development of the site by the Ministry of Religion between the years 1948-1968. It relates to questions I posed here at the blog and on FB about the rite’s modest origins and when and how the pilgrimage turned into a mass event involving hundreds of thousands of people. The pages are from Doron Bar, Ha’mekomit ha’kedoshim ha’yehudiim b’medinat Yisrael 1948-1968 (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi), pp.127-37. I am including these photographs of the text that Joshua sent to me.


The second are two articles, one by Edith Turner and one by Barbara Meyerhoff as edited by Turner that appears in Renato Rosaldo, Smadar Lavie, and Kirin Narayan (eds.), Creativity/Anthropology; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. You can find the Turner here  and the Meyerhoff here. Alas, both contribution are a bit heavy on myth and symbolism. Edith Turner’s own ethnographic observation begins relatively late in the essay (p.239). She includes a charming vignette of Mr. Turner on pilgrimage at Meron. In her account, there are more Moroccan women than Hasidic men.

Turner’s focus is Shimon Bar Yochai, the “visionary man.” Regarding the emergence of the cult, Turner points briefly to the early period of the state, to 1955, with the convergence of Moroccan Jews and Hasidic Jews who survived the Holocaust as the two religious communities in Judaism most dedicated to Rashbi and the Zohar. Of interest to me here is how the event developed over time, more and more people coming every year, already in the hundreds of thousand, the organization of transportation links, the establishment of temporary markets and tent cities to accommodate the people, and so on (pp.230-2, 239). (About the role of the state, I’d prefer as more precise the discussion above by Doron Bar)

For her part, Meyerhoff in her field notes pays a lot attention to the dream aspect of religion and religious ritual while relating to her own trip to Israel in 1983 with Edith and Victor Turner, touching alas too quickly to the dreams of Moroccan Jewish women in Israel relating to Rashbi and Lag Ba’Omer. In conclusion, Meyerhoff touches upon methodological questions that should be of concern to all students of religion.

If one does religious study in a proper and religious manner, this is well done . But there will be no new information, since all that is religious is already known, eternal and immutable .

If one does a religious study with a nonreligious attitude, this is improper and will not give a valuable interpretation; there is no hope of an understanding.

If one does a nonreligious study with a religious attitude, one is a fool. There is only dogma, no new information.

If one does a nonreligious study with a nonreligious attitude, one is a bore and boring. This is mere secular trivia, for engineers , not anthropologists. (p.222)

How is one to learn, then?

Perhaps the clue is in the abacus, not a computer nor an adding machine, but an ancient and very precise instrument, never mechanical the device here for probing beneath the words into their iconic value, the gematria: the mystery that underlies the talk.

For something a little less romantic, see this story here about dozens of young Haredi men breaking into the Rashbi tomb when the site was officially closed during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic

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(Dys-Functionalist Theory of Religion) Lag Ba’Omer Coronavirus (Dying for God)

lag ba'omerSigmund_Freud,_by_Max_Halberstadt_(cropped)lag baomer

Going back to Durkheim, sociologists of religion who assume a functionalist interpretation of religion look to religion and ritual as something that brings and holds a society together, regenerates it. A dys-functionalist approach to the study of religion and ritual would look to how these push a society straight into the arms of death, while those of “us” outside its clearing look on in utter horror.

Asking people who know this better than I do about the development of this particular holiday and this particular facet of it. It can’t have always been like this. I wonder about the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer in Israel. What did people use to do in Russia or Morocco? When did the bonfires get so big? Is this a contemporary phenomenon relative to state sovereignty, something that members of a religious community can do when they feel like they are in charge?

The Lag Ba’Omer holiday is kabbalistic, and in this religious aspect, is associated with death. By way of reminder. the pilgrimage to what tradition says is his tomb at Mt. Meron in Israel is related back to the memory of Shimon bar Yochai, the key protagonist in and reputed “author” of the Zohar, the great lamp. The fires are meant to symbolize, nay manifest the light of holy revelation of the presence of the Shechinah. They re-enact the surrounding fires that illuminated the Rashbi’s final teaching at which point, according to the Zohar, his soul went up in flames (Idra Zuta, Zohar III:287b–296b).

On the death of Shimon bar Yochai, the revealer of secrets, see this discussion here by Melila Hellner-Eshed  in A River Flows from Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar (pp.55-6).

Like moths to a burning flame, what if the secret is death?

Last night in Brooklyn, there’s this thread here and more here from Mea Shearim in Jersualem about Haredi religion as a crowd phenomenon at a time of pandemic.

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