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The cremation by local authorities of Argentina’s first Jewish victim of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has stirred controversy among the country’s Jewish communities since the practice is forbidden under religious Jewish law.

Ruben Bercovich, 59, a businessman and father of three, died on March 26 in Resistencia, the capital of the northern Chaco province. Bercovich recently traveled to the United States and returned to Argentina on March 9. He was active in the Chaco Jewish community and represented Argentina in golf in the Maccabiah Games held in Israel.

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Authorities said cremating Bercovich’s body was a best way of avoid further spreading COVID-19; however, Argentine rabbis are hoping to find a compromise that will uphold Jewish law and have started dialogue with officials regarding the practice.

Rabbis and officials in Argentina have already agreed on leaving mikvahs, or Jewish ritual baths, open. Those who wish to use one must coordinate with the government and will get a code to enter the mikvah after they are considered healthy enough to do so, according to the report.

Orthodox Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the dean of the Israel’s Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions, said last week that Jewish communities should extend the utmost compassion to the families of the deceased should governments decide cremation is necessary to public health during the pandemic and should all attempts to deter such a decision prove unsuccessful. He stressed that cremation is absolutely forbidden by Jewish law, but is not considered a transgression on the part of the deceased if they did not give consent.

Rabbi Brander suggested however that while cremation under such circumstances was not considered a transgression on the part of the deceased, it could possibly be considered a mitzvah.

“Jewish law says the ultimate concern is to take care of the living, and this will guide us,” said Brander. “The highest honor that a person who isn’t alive can achieve is to help the living,” he added, and while cremation is normally considered a “desecration” in Judaism, if it helps save a life during this time it would be “a mitzvah that the deceased is doing posthumously.”

This article was amended to clarify Rabbi Brander’s stance that cremation is absolutely forbidden by Jewish law, but does not constitute a transgression on the part of the deceased if they did not give consent. 

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