Concern in Jewish Communities: Bodies of Corona Patients may Require Cremation
Rabbis in the Diaspora are facing a new threat, as more and more countries ban traditional burial of Corona victims. The Rabbi of Venice clarifies that if cremation is decreed – it must be obeyed: “Communities have not had to cope with such sensitive issues for many generations”
Kobi Nachshoni | March 25, 2020
World Jewry is currently facing not only the spread of the Corona virus, but also its consequences for Jewish life. One of these is a new threat – the requirement to cremate the bodies of the victims of the disease. Rabbis in the Diaspora are concerned that the rise in victims in many countries will cause authorities to ban burial, as required by Jewish religious law, to prevent the disease from spreading. Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Emissary Programs, which has sent more than 300 emissaries to serve in over 50 countries, has begun to prepare for this eventuality. Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, who heads the institute, has received queries from emissaries regarding cremation, and has provided them with the relevant halachic information. “We are working on this issue with all relevant entities that can help resolve this complex issue,” he said.
“Judaism sanctifies life yet it also respects the deceased,” Birnbaum explained. “Jewish custom for generations has been to bury the dead respectfully and not cremate them. Many countries around the world have begun a process of burning the bodies of those who died of Corona, both because of the high numbers and to prevent further contagion. I think it has been many years or many generations since rabbis and community leaders have had to contend with sensitive issues such as have come up now because of Corona. We guide the Straus-Amiel emissaries on how to cope with this situation in a halachic and sensitive manner, and of course according to the regulations in each country.”
Rabbi Daniel Touitto, rabbi of the community in Venice, Italy, and himself a graduate of the Straus-Amiel institute, is now in quarantine in Israel. In a telephone interview with Ynet he said that if there is an instruction to burn bodies, there is no question how he will act. “The bottom line is that we will act according to the letter of the law and the instructions of the Health Ministry,” he said. “That is the most important thing, and there is no doubt about it. Anyone who thinks this is an opportunity to avoid following instructions is greatly mistaken.”
Rabbi Touitto added that it is possible that the Jewish community will be allowed to bury its dead according to halachic requirements, but – “It all depends on the numbers.” He clarified, “The moment that, God forbid, there begins to be a large number of dead who need burial, we will not risk anyone’s life to provide better or stricter care for someone who has already died. It hurts to say this, but the responsibility of rabbis and Jews is first and foremost to the living. We need to save one life even if this is at the expense of not strictly following the rules we have followed carefully for so many years.”