Of Fire and Ink: Discussions in the “wake” of a Jewish star’s death…

Amy Winehouse’s untimely though not unpredictable death this past week has focused many people’s attention on the eerie and tragic fact that a significant number of incredibly talented musicians have left our world at the far too young age of 27. Sure, psychological disorders and complications stemming from substance and alcohol abuse seem to be the common denominator in most, if not all of these unfortunate cases. Amy’s talent, like her predecessors, was undeniable; her struggles and inner demons well-documented; and her life cut way too short, unfairly robbing her family, friends and fans of many years of whatever Winehouse could offer: potential greatness, love, tabloid fodder, highs and lows. Even the disappointed fans in Belgrade, Amy’s last concert venue from which she was booed off the stage after forgetting her lyrics and stumbling across the stage early in her show, would surely prefer she lived longer, even in obvious pain, than meet such an early and seemingly catastrophic demise.

We were mesmerized, as is often the case, by the train wreck we were witnessing, knowing full-well of the carnage that loomed ahead.  And yet there was little we could do.  Hell, even her own mother, Janis (scary in and of itself), knew… she described it as being “like watching a car crash – this person throwing all these gifts away.” She admitted herself that her daughter’s death “was only a matter of time,” a shocking thing for a mother – Jewish or otherwise – to be able to say out loud.

And yet I am not so sure anyone could help Amy, even if they wanted to.  Her demons were too strong.  And, in fact, some people did NOT want to change her, or get her the help that inevitably would change her.

Check out this chilling snippet written by Dvora Meyers in Tablet this past April:

“Though she cloaked herself in the style and sound of girl groups from 40 years ago, Winehouse brought a thoroughly modern—and Jewish—sensibility to her lyrics and performances. She spoke not of love and romance, as her predecessors did, but of addictions, sex, and every Jewish girl’s favorite emotion: guilt. In her famously adenoidal voice, she sings about the men she will cheat on, those she will use up, and the ones she intends to spit out. Her songs and tone drip with regret, but also the inevitability of her bad behavior. Any astute listener knows that she’s not going to change. In fact, we hope she doesn’t.”

Well she didn’t, and alas, Amy is gone. Like Jimi, and Janis, Jim and Robert, Brian and Kurt and Pigpen before her, her music remains a constant and permanent reminder of an obscenely talented artist who left us far too early, in the prime of her life (at least by the numbers), leaving loved ones, fans and media to speculate on the “what ifs.”

Winehouse’s burial has garnered some serious attention as well, particularly among Jews.

You see, Amy Winehouse, the rebellious bad girl singer from Northeast London, was Jewish. And she was covered in tattoos, a seemingly mythical “no-no” in Jewish tradition. Making matters worse, Amy requested to be cremated after her death, a wish her parents granted. Cremation, too, is a Jewish taboo (yeah, yeah, I am angling to be the new Dr. Seuss, may he rest in peace).

And now scores of people are left to argue and debate whether Amy “deserved” to be buried in a Jewish cemetery (she was). Rabbis, scholars and ordinary Jews from every sect and geography are weighing in on these issues, potentially paving the way for a new generation of painted Jews to be barbequed and laid to rest among their ancestors – or conversely, forcing Bubbas and Zeydas all over the globe to add clauses to their last wills and testaments, forcing their grandchildren to think twice before getting drunk and permanently coloring their flesh with dolphins, barbed wire and kanji characters.

I have seen and heard a full gamut of questions and comments over the past few days, including whether Amy was cremated because she was covered in tats, and therefore couldn’t be buried like that in a Jewish cemetery. These questions and comments do not arise out of complete ignorance and disregard for religious laws, history and traditions. Rather, this piece will contend that the very evolution of religions precipitates a widening gap between the letter of religious laws, observances and traditions and their modern day interpretations and understandings (or lack thereof). Or, on second thought, maybe some questions and comments do emanate purely from ignorance and stupidity.

Either way, the debate is lively and healthy, and certainly not without merit.

In case you are wondering where these “rules” come from, how they came about and how they are interpreted across the Diaspora, allow me to briefly outline the basics:

I am not here to criticize the extremists, nor to lay a guilt-trip upon the atheists and lax followers of religious tenets. Far from it – who am I to judge? And though my thoughts below deal primarily with Judaism, the religion with which I am most familiar, the themes and opinions expressed in this essay apply to all religions and philosophies of faith and spirituality.

People all over the globe and from many different religious faiths choose to cling to traditions in the face of modernization and changing times that others around them perceive as ridiculous, archaic and plain stupid. But it is what they know.  It works for them.

Many Asians still use abaci to count and perform complicated mathematical and accounting functions despite the proliferation of modern calculators and computers. People of many faiths have strict dietary laws that dictate what they are allowed to eat and how it must be harvested, killed and prepared. Observers of the Sabbath do not work, drive or use electronics (and certainly don’t roll), interpreting religious scripture and tradition to spend the day in prayer and with their families, cut off from all modern distractions. Some entire societies, like the Amish, live their entire lives this way. And some farmers and fishermen around the world choose to ignore and/or eschew modern advancements in their respective fields (by choice, tradition and by economic necessity), opting instead to eke out their livings the same way their ancestors always had before them. In fact, some native, aboriginal, tribal and bush societies around the world choose to live simplistic lives, refusing to incorporate modern advances and technology into any parts of their lives, living much if not exactly as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

In my opinion, the older religions become, the more problems and confusion will emerge interpreting laws and traditions. The longer the time gap between the founding of a religion and the modern day, the more change occurs in society. People need laws and traditions. But as members of a religion spread across the globe and integrate into societies, whether by choice or necessity, people absorb and adopt traditions of their new societal and geographical heritage and combine each new law and tradition with their original set of rituals and customs as they see fit.

Some of these traditions conflict with one another. Others become obsolete by virtue of modern advancements. And others are abandoned or amended due to religious persecution, or simply by attempts to adapt and blend in to a new society. Over time, people gravitate to an equilibrium of spirituality that works for them based on an inordinate number of factors – traditions and interpretation of religious laws are closely followed, tweaked, radically altered and abandoned based on reasons and influences ranging from the nearly imperceptible (slow changes that occur over many generations) to the profound (the Holocaust, war, plague, inquisition).

When religions begin, laws are written to be pretty cut and dry. And if they aren’t, spiritual scholars are consulted and their rulings and interpretations become the accepted norm.  This is much like the law in the United States, which flows from our constitution but also is continually interpreted, amended and reinterpreted by the judicial branch of government (our court system).

However, original laws and their corresponding traditions in many cases derive directly from the time period during which they are drafted. Health concerns and the limits of medicine, hygiene and technology at the time laws are created weigh heavily upon the logic behind each law. So do the perceived threats and fears of the time, such as the polytheistic Pagan and Barbaric cults that existed at the dawn of Judaism.

While the American Judicial system allows for and even invites reinterpretation of laws and traditions that fully reflect the changing times, religious laws and traditions do not – at least according to traditionalists or Orthodox followers.

Therefore, members of many religions have “revolted” over time, creating various sects within each religion, each sect choosing to interpret laws and traditions with less and less rigidity through the years, allowing their religious traditions to adapt to the changing times of society and the incredible advances made in modern medicine, hygiene and technology as well as the long-overdue advancements of the rights of women and minorities. In Judaism, this has led to a splintering into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Progressive (or Humanist) sects, each with their own modern interpretations of Jewish laws and traditions. In fact, there are even sects within these broader sects, and therefore some Orthodox Jews are more lenient than others (think Hassidim) in their interpretations and religious observance.

Jews more rigid in their interpretations and observance are generally the ones who object to Amy Winehouse’s choices in life and in death. Though I do not subscribe to rigid interpretation of Judaism, I do believe it is important to understand why members of my own religion feel, believe and behave the way they do.

In the great and immortal words of Robert Nesta Marley (yet another musician tragically taken from us at a much too young age – 36, or double chai):

If you know your history
Then you would know where you’re coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the ‘eck do I think I am

Sage lyrics from a true genius.  Marley died young from complications stemming from a cancerous tumor on his toe. Ironically, Marley’s doctor recommended amputating the toe upon discovery four years prior to his death, and Marley refused. Why did he refuse? Because as a devout Rastafarian, Bob Marley adhered strongly to the tenets of his religion, which include a belief that amputation is sinful. A Bible verse that Rastafarians hold as very important is Leviticus 21:5 – “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh.” Marley also cited sections of the Bible referring to the body as a holy temple.

And the fall of the Iron Lion from Zion provides a perfect segue to the law that makes tattoos taboo for Jews, also from Leviticus (The Book of Laws) 19:28, which states: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” (This is also why Orthodox Jews do not allow piercings, and is why Jews cut their clothing rather than their own flesh when mourning the dead.)

As an aside, it is interesting that so many Jews elect to cut themselves aesthetically (new nose, new tits, etc.) and yet rarely do we hear the angry traditionalists rail against this growing population of shallow Hals and Hallees and whether they will be able to push up the daisies beside fellow members of the Tribe. Still, Orthodox Jews do not allow cosmetic surgery.  And FYI, necessary surgeries and circumcision (which in itself is a Jewish law) do not qualify as violations of Leviticus 19:28. So as a Jew, Bob Marley may have survived his cancer.

Much of the logic behind Leviticus 19:28 and 21:5, it is argued, was also based around the second Commandment, which forbids worshipping “false idols.”  This most likely stems from the Pagans who lived around the time of the writing of the Torah, who worshipped many gods and idols, painted and cut their own flesh as part of cult-like rituals, and generally failed to treat their bodies as temples which housed their soul (which, as previously stated, was mentioned a number of times in the Torah, Bible and Koran).

Finally, there is also a much more modern logic to Jewish disapproval of tattoos:  because body art is associated by many with the Nazi practice of tattooing numbers on the wrists of prisoners as they entered concentration and labor camps during the Holocaust. Some Jews think the past is the past and it is time to move on. Others mark themselves defiantly in solidarity with those who perished during World War II. But some find body art to be an abhorrent and gruesome reminder of the horrors suffered by so many, and feel it is a giant F.U. to the memory of martyrs to willingly choose to mark their own skin when so many were forced to endure markings and would have done nearly anything to avoid such degradation.

Whatever the law was originally meant for and the reasoning behind its creation, permanent paint has become a part of modern society, for better or for worse. Choosing to change your pigment, whether through natural, sun-based methods, or unnatural permanent inks and brandings, is a matter of personal choice.  These decisions are personal in nature, much like piercings, hair color, abortion, sexual preference and even diet. In my opinion, no governing body or spiritual faith should ever have the right to mandate people’s personal choices regarding their own bodies, so long as those choices do not negatively affect or infringe upon another person’s safety, freedoms and rights.

Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet as a society. And most frightening, as fucked up as we may think things are in the United States regarding personal choices (like gay rights and drug laws, to name a few), America is actually light years more evolved as a society than the majority of the world. Never forget that all of our ancestors came here to escape persecution and to find freedom – and as bad as things may seem at times here, it could be much, much worse if we lived elsewhere.

As for cremation, most religions at their strictest core frown upon the practice. Hinduism is unique among the world’s major religions in that it actually mandates cremation, known as antim-sanskar (“last rite”) or antiesthi (“last sacrifice”), and is one of the 16 Hindu life rituals. Cremation is believed not only to dispose of the body in this life but also to usher the soul into the next world or its rebirth into the next life. Followers of Jainism and Sikhism also strongly prefer cremation, although the doctrines do not strictly require it.

Cremation was also big among the Nordics, and findings date some of the earliest cremations to what is now Finland during the Stone Age.  Vikings adopted the practice, spread it around the region, and have left vivid images of funeral pyres aboard ships sailing into the sunset. Cremation remains the most popular funeral rite in much of Scandinavia today.

Islamic tenets instruct followers to bury their dead as quickly as possible, preferably within the day of the death. (Because Islamic beliefs loathe any practice seen as desecrating a Muslim body also means that there is a shortage of cadavers for medical research in Muslim countries.)

Eastern Orthodox Church prohibits cremation because it as a departure from the belief in resurrection. Mormons, or the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), strongly support burial over cremation, although apparently the “Book of Mormon” allows cremation in cultures where it’s customary.

The importance and sacrament of the body, as well as the fact that groups that opposed the church advocated cremation, led to the Roman Catholic Church’s long-time opposition to cremation, although it wasn’t technically against church dogma. In the 1960s, canon law was relaxed and the church reiterated that cremation was allowed without penalty. Requiem Mass can be held with a body that would be cremated or, upon permission of the local bishop, with the cremated remains.

Protestant denominations have historically been more open to the idea of cremation and even advocated for burial reforms at the turn of the century.

As for the Jews, while cremation was known in the ancient world, the universal Jewish practice until the late 19th century when cremation became popular was to bury the dead in the ground or in mausoleums. In modern times, Reform Judaism has little objection to cremation, although it normally favors burial. Orthodox and, to a very large extent, Conservative Judaism frown severely on cremation. Orthodox Rabbis have been especially virulent in their opposition to the practice.

The following are the objections to cremation among Jews, and as with everything, some more convincing than others:

1. Cremation was a pagan practice in ancient times – as previously stated, many laws and practices were adopted based on threats and fears of the time, and pagan societies were a large threat and fear at the dawn of Judaism. Practices like tattoos and cremation, often became tainted by association.

2. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b), after a lengthy discussion, comes to the conclusion that it is a religious obligation to bury the dead and when cremation takes place this obligation has not been fulfilled.

3. The Talmud (Hullin 11b) also states that it is forbidden to mutilate a corpse. When a dead body is buried, decomposition takes place as a natural process, whereas in cremation the human remains are intentionally destroyed. A comparison is made with a Scroll of the Torah, a Sefer Torah. Even when this is no longer usable, because the letters have faded, it is reverentially buried in the soil rather than destroyed directly.

The analogy is far from exact since the Scroll is a sacred object. Nevertheless, the point of the analogy is that there should be reverential disposal of what was once a human being, created in God’s image, who carried out the precepts of the Torah while he was alive.

4. My personal favorite, but arguably the weakest, among the objections comes from a Talmudic legend (Gittin 56b), which centers around the emperor Titus, who ordered that his corpse be cremated and his ashes scattered in order to escape God’s judgment. It is therefore argued that anyone who wishes his body to be cremated thereby demonstrates a lack of belief in the resurrection of the dead and in God’s judgment.

This objection fails on two pretty significant levels: first, if God is omnipotent, how can it be beyond God’s power to reconstitute a body that has been cremated, just as it is in God’s power to reconstitute a body that has become decomposed in the grave.

Second, research yielded this nugget:  apparently there exists a notion or myth that there is a tiny bone in the human body which does not suffer decay in the grave and from which the resurrected body is reconstituted (making cremation forbidden because this bone is destroyed by fire). I am hoping this belief belongs more to folklore than to Jewish doctrine because the corpses of Jews who perished in the gas chambers during the Holocaust were burnt in crematoria. Surely these Jews are not denied their place in the Hereafter because they were not buried.

5. The most frequent argument against cremation seems to be on grounds of tradition, that it is wrong to depart from the custom of burial practiced by Jews for thousands of years.

6. Again, the history of Nazi cremation of Jews during the Holocaust also influences the opinion of both secular and religious Jews against cremation much in the same manner of tattoos and body art.

7. Moreover, an objection has recently emerged with little or no religious basis. Cremation has become unpopular among ecologists and the environmentally conscious concerned that the atmosphere should not be polluted.

The arguments for cremation are far fewer, at least among Jews, and not that well reasoned, in my opinion.

Some claim spatial concerns when arguing in favor of cremation, and that land is better used by the living. In places such as Japan, this argument has merit, and it is not surprising that in Japan cremation is used nearly 99% of the time. But even for traditional burial, the amount of land involved is very small, and graveyards are usually situated in the countryside. Furthermore, mausolea allow many people to be interned on very small plots of land. In any event, crematoria usually have spacious gardens attached to them which also take up space.

Another argument in favor of cremation is that of quick disposal, which the bereaved family does not witness, thus helping to spare their feelings. Even if this were true, a dubious proposition, Judaism does not encourage any refusal to acknowledge either the facts of life or the facts of death.

The best argument in favor of cremation is simply: while religious views and historical traditions have a strong influence on funerary practices, so too do societal, economic and ecological needs.

But again, like with tattoos and piercings, this should come down to personal preference. And if the deceased has no will or has not otherwise conveyed their wishes, then the decision should come from their next of kin. As long as cremation is legal in the society in which a person lives, it should remain an option.

Perhaps you shouldn’t snort another man or woman’s ashes, as Keith Richards once did with his father’s remains. But you should certainly be free to scatter them into the wind, and all over the Dude’s face and shirt as Walter Sobchak once did with Donny’s ashes in the film from which this blog’s name derives.



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