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ISRAEL: King Solomon's judgment, 2008

April 28, 2008 |  7:30 am


Parents separated and estranged, teenage daughter commits suicide. The essence of tragedy. But the story cannot be put to rest until the daughter is, and this won't happen until the parents agree on how.

The mother asked that her daughter be cremated, a very uncommon choice in Israel. The father agreed at first but changed his mind and sought traditional burial. The mother claimed that he had no authority to intervene, as he was not the girl's biological father.

By the time the DNA testing proved his fatherhood, it was too late: The body had been cremated. All a judge could do was to issue an injunction against scattering her ashes. When police arrived at the mother's house, she said it was too late for that too and the police left with the urn and remaining ashes, which the father wants buried traditionally.

Dust to dust — perhaps. But Jewish burial customs take the slow, natural route. The body is a holy matter given to man with which to worship God and the physical element in a spiritual being. The body is treated with respect during life, its neglect or mutilation forbidden. Orthodox Jews recoil at the thought of tattoos, a desecration associated with pagan and later gentile practices. A Torah scroll that has been damaged is buried in the ground, and Judaism treats the human body with the same reverence.

In Israel, Jewish burial is largely controlled by the religious Orthodox establishment, although some people choose secular burial in private cemeteries. 

The mother's choice of cremation stemmed not from a rejection of Jewish orthodoxy but from her ecological beliefs: "Nothing grows in earth covered by stone; life cannot use the soil for its needs. This is a curse; it contains very unpleasant energy," she had told reporters. The father wants a grave, a physical place for remembrance, and is supported in his campaign by members of ZAKA, a mostly ultra-Orthodox nongovernmental organization that responds to emergencies in Israel and is known to many for its painstaking collection of the scantest of remains for burial after suicide bombings.

The body was cremated at Aley Shalechet, a private funeral home that offers traditional Jewish burial services but also alternative choices such as secular burial and cremation. The place had been torched last year but has since returned to work.

Shortly after the arson, a minister from the religious party Shas announced that he would promote a bill to outlaw the company, which he said was trying to implement "a renewed final solution." Alon Nativ, the chief executive, said at the time that more than 20% of the people approaching his company were Holocaust survivors and that those who compared them to Nazis were "fools."

Either way, the sad remains of M., the 14-year-old now three weeks dead, sit in an Israeli police station, awaiting the court's final decision in early May.

—Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Art: "Judgement of Solomon," by Gustave Dore. Credit:

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