Cremation and the Holocaust

Hi Rabbi,

In your column of Dec. 31, you explained the importance of burial versus cremation, with respect to the Jewish belief in the Revival of the Dead, the final reward when the body is reunited with the soul, something which may be lost on one who forfeits the body to cremation.

Unfortunately, there are so many of us eternally mourning all the victims of the Nazis, whose bodies were cremated en masse by no choice of their own. How does Judaism deal with those martyrs who never had a choice with respect to the final reward you discussed?

Harry S.

Dear Harry,

It was clear to me, when I penned those words, that the question of the Holocaust would arise, and thank you for presenting the question which I’m sure is bothering many.

This question applies not only to the millions of victims of the Holocaust, but also to untold numbers of Jews throughout the ages who have been torched at the burning of the Temple, burned at the stake in inquisitions, burned in homes in pogroms, and the list goes on until our time when Jews were incinerated in buses in Israel. What is the status of all of them with regard to the final reward of techias hameisim, the “revival of the dead,” as the final period of reward?

To me it’s clear as day, without question, that any Jew killed because they were a Jew will receive the highest, most profound reward possible for the ultimate sacrifice they made as part of G-d’s holy nation. This is true regardless of what was done with their physical body. 

Although we discussed the final reward as a reunion of the soul with this body, the body will be in a totally different state than the physical body we now know. It will be a largely spiritual representation of the body, like the analogy we gave of the ugly, gray caterpillar becoming a beautiful, colorful butterfly soaring across the world. Although the source was the caterpillar, it is something else completely. 

As the caterpillar disintegrates and is reworked into the butterfly, in some miraculous way the disintegrated body will be reworked by G-d into the exquisite, illuminated vessel containing the soul in the next world. For this, G-d needs nothing more than the disintegrated remnants of the body, in whatever state those remnants may be in. 

For that reason, without question G-d will have whatever He needs to revive the Jewish martyrs of the ages into the recipients of the greatest reward available. Those holy martyrs had the utmost respect for the holiness and dignity of the human body and all it represents. It’s not their fault that their tormentors did not share their sense of the holiness of the body in life and death. 

That which we mentioned, that one could forfeit their portion in that reunion of body and soul by choosing cremation, is not so much what happens to the body, which is bad enough through the lens of the Torah. It’s more because of the rejection of the holiness of the body and its part in the eternal reward of the soul. This is because the Talmud states that only one who believes in the final reward will be able to receive it. 

It is my sincere hope that since many who choose cremation today do so out of ignorance, not out of denial or rejection, since they were never educated in the Jewish view of the world to come and the importance of the body in that equation, hence, I hope and pray, they will not be held responsible for their choice any more than the martyrs of above. That judgment is not for anyone but G-d to make. 

I pray that many will take heed of this and choose, at the proper time, to join the generations of Jews back to Abraham that have chosen, unquestionably and with great sacrifice, to have a proper Jewish burial. May that time be far away for us all!

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.

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