My Shul, My Rules: The Power of Local Custom

A reader recently mentioned that she had attended a shiva house and been told rather forcefully that her choice to sit down next to one of the mourners was (1) inappropriate and (2) bad luck.

I have to admit that this particular custom was new to me, but that it didn’t surprise me. Communities and families have very particular customs around death because it is a frightening time: we seek predictability and tradition in an effort to make the world seem a little less terrifying. Also, the house of mourning is sometimes a place where tact is in short supply, since people are already upset. All we can do, when we stumble into a mourning custom that is old for someone else but new for us is to apologize and be kind.

Minhag Hamakom, “the custom of the place,” is a powerful force in both Jewish law and Jewish good manners. The simplest way to explain it is the maxim, “My house, my rules.” If I am visiting the home of someone who has the custom of cutting challah with a knife, I don’t complain, even though our custom at my home is to tear the challah. It is their house, so we follow their rules.

In the synagogue, this applies too. It is bad manners to visit a synagogue and then complain to the regulars that they are doing things improperly. A visiting rabbi has to tread very carefully in this respect, as does any other visitor. I can say my prayers the way I like quietly, but I don’t make a production of it.

Judaism is full of regional customs as well. The first time I visited a Reform synagogue in the Southeastern US, I was completely shocked, because the service seemed so different from the custom in my Oakland, CA home congregation. As I became better educated, I learned that there were reasons for the differences, and I grew to appreciate them. Fortunately, my mentors had taught me not to make a fuss, so at least I didn’t leave the good people of Louisville, KY, with the impression that Californian Jews are rude!

When we find a surprising Jewish custom in a new place, be it someone’s home, or a synagogue, it is traditional to conform as best we can to the local custom.  I find it is helpful to cultivate a curious mind about these things: “Oh! That is interesting! What is the reasoning behind it?” Just be aware that the answer may be “we have always done it this way” or “all PROPER Jews do it this way.” If you get those answers, you can always find an “Ask the Rabbi” online and leave the question there!

The Interfaith Family Funeral

Articles about interfaith families usually focus on the interfaith couple and their children: making decisions and choices, navigating holidays, making it work. But as most married couples can attest, when we marry we marry not only our beloved, but also all his or her relatives.  And usually it’s still a matter of making decisions and choices, navigating holidays, and making it work.

But when it comes time for a funeral, things can become painful and complicated very quickly, because death is terrifying and loss is excruciating. Even the calmest, most rational people are at their least rational in the time of bereavement. Tradition, which may not be important at any other time, suddenly looms large. And as outreach expert Kathy Kahn once taught me, “We do not get do-overs for funerals.” The emotional stakes are very high for funerals.

So everyone is in a lot of pain, and often there are no written instructions about what the departed wanted for the funeral. Jewish burial and mourning practices are very detailed and very precise, and in many ways they come into conflict with the traditions of other religions and regions. These conflicts can set us up for painful adjustments and conversations.

For instance, I recently helped a student plan his return to Alabama for a Southern Baptist funeral. (I have changed details for his privacy.) There would be a visitation at the funeral home of many hours, with the embalmed body of the departed at the focal point of the room. There would be an open casket service. Afterwards, there might be a meal for the family, and then the funeral would be over. My student said, with anguish, “We don’t look at dead bodies, rabbi! I hate that they are going to embalm my grandfather!” So we talked about ways for him to navigate the funeral without looking at the deceased (in Jewish tradition, we do not look at a dead person, out of respect and kindness.) We talked about and rehearsed what to say to people who wanted to comfort him with talk about Jesus or about the appearance of the dead. Then we talked about arranging Jewish mourning with his Jewish community when he gets home. A tough loss is going to be tougher because he is Jewish and his family is not.

In other cases, I have assisted families in planning funerals that would meet the needs of both the Jewish and Christian relatives.  Even if there is agreement about “no open casket,” the Catholic side of the family may want to say a rosary together at some point, for comfort, even if the dead person is actually Jewish. My role as officiant is often to assist in explaining why (1) the Jews don’t want to be there for the rosary, and may not want to hear much about it, either, and (2) the Catholics really need the rosary for comfort, that they intend no insult to the dead.  You can insert many other practices for “rosary.” Sometimes there is no way to accommodate both traditions, and then the challenge is to help the family make choices in such a way that the relationships of the living are preserved intact and the feelings of all are acknowledged.

The best I can tell you is that if you are anticipating a death in your interfaith family, think ahead and think lovingly not only of the person you are about to lose, but of the people with whom you are about to be left behind. Talk with clergy early. Recognize that even if the person who died is of one tradition, family members of another tradition will need support and care. Let the funeral home know early in the process that yours is an interfaith family.

If you are not in the part of the family in charge of planning, recognize that planning a funeral is complicated and is usually done very quickly, without time to consult with every individual in the family. Take responsibility for your needs and emotions. It is OK to say, “I don’t want to participate in X,” but it is better not to combine that with “how dare you suggest such a thing.” Figure out what you can do to meet your needs and to honor the dead.

When my father died, I did not view his body. I sat with my family at the funeral Mass, but I did not take communion. I said “Amen” to prayers that I could affirm. I had a pocket sized book of Psalms with me to read when prayers were said that I couldn’t affirm. In that book I had a copy of the Kaddish; after the graveside service was concluded, I quietly stood beside his grave and said Kaddish. I didn’t make a production of it. At the meal afterwards, when I saw that everything on the table was stuff I did not eat, I asked the kitchen what they had that might work. Fortunately, all unadorned veggies are kosher.

It is possible to navigate these difficult things, but it is easier to do it with support. I wish I had asked my friends and colleagues back home to support me in sitting shiva. I didn’t do that, and regret it now. My shiva time, such as it was, happened on an airplane with my son and it wasn’t enough. This is my own fault: I didn’t ask for what I needed from my Jewish community. I won’t make that mistake again.

The point of all this is to say that funerals are tough for those in interfaith families. Ask for the support of your clergy (of both traditions, if possible.) Tell others what you need, but try to keep in mind that it is hard for everyone, and you may not be able to get everything you want. Be kind not only to others, but also to yourself.

If you are anticipating a loss in your family, I wish you comfort in the arms of family and friends. Ask for support from your faith community in order to get what you need. Know that others have walked this road, so you are not alone.

The Jewish Path of Grief

Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief
Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Personally, in the initial stages of grief, I can’t sleep at all, I can’t eat, and I go back and forth between exhaustion and a wild desire to “get things done.” It’s awful. My web of relationships is torn, and I flail about, trying to get my bearings. Left to my own devices, I eventually go numb, a state that is interrupted for months by flashes of anger. Grief takes different forms in people, but at the bottom it’s all the same: we lose someone close to us, and we’re a mess.

Grief will not be denied. Fail to attend to it, and it will come get us later, at an even less convenient time.

This is why Jewish tradition gives us the practice of shiva. Shiva involves sitting down for a week to let the work of grief take place. It involves a certain lack of privacy, a lack that no one likes but that will ultimately speed along the work of grief. It involves letting people into my house to help, and allowing my Jewish community to organize on my behalf. It requires that I turn off my usual distractors (work, radio, TV) and feel the unbearable things I am feeling. If no feelings come, then I must sit with that absence of feeling: it’s all grief.

Shiva is something we do for one another. I take food to the home of a grieving person, knowing that she or someone like her will bring food to my home when the inevitable day comes that I must sit shiva. When I visit a shiva house, and see the mourner rushing around, trying to entertain, I say gently, “Let me take care of that” and begin greeting people at the door. A mourner is not a host, no matter how badly he wants to be anything but a mourner.

When I visit a shiva house, I arrive quietly, stay a while, speak gently to the mourner, perhaps leave some food, then move along quietly. It is not a party. I may check to see if there’s anything they need (groceries? errands? care for a pet?) but mostly I let them know that they are not abandoned by the rest of us and then I let them grieve. It is hard to let people grieve; we can’t fix it, and we mustn’t try.

Later they will need invitations to lunch, to Shabbat dinner, or to a movie. They will need distraction, after the first work of grief is done.

Eventually, we all take turns at all the roles: today’s mourner is tomorrow’s gentle helper. The person who brings food to this shiva house will be fed at some point in the future.

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Death and the Jew by Choice

How can a Jew mourn properly when his family is not Jewish? What about when the mourning traditions of the family involve things that a Jew would never do?

This is a situation that comes up eventually for most people who became Jewish as adults. Someone in the family of origin – the non-Jewish family – dies, and there’s no well-defined path for the Jew to follow. It came up for me a few years ago when my father died. My family is Catholic, and they observed Catholic and southern rituals for death: a “visitation” at the funeral home with the casket open, a funeral Mass, burial in the family plot with a priest in attendance, and a big meal featuring pork and shellfish and other treif afterwards.

In another family, there might be an expectation of cremation and scattering of ashes, or of ashes kept in an urn on the mantlepiece indefinitely. There might be a custom of no ritual at all. Other families may feel that an opulent casket and flowers are the way to show respect for the dead.

First of all, if you are reading this because you have suffered a recent loss, my condolences and sympathy are with you. The loss you feel may be made even worse by the awareness of this difference between your family and yourself. However, there are things to know that may help.

1. Call your rabbi for support and advice. The rabbi will want to know about your loss, and will want to support you in this time. You are not “less Jewish” because your family is non-Jewish: you are a Jew in pain, and your rabbi wants to know what’s going on with you. The fact that the person who died wasn’t Jewish is immaterial. You are a Jewish mourner, and you need the care of your rabbi and community.

2. Recognize that for the majority of your family, the customs they are used to are going to be the most comforting. “Viewings” and “visitations” are also a legitimate way to process loss and begin to grieve. It isn’t our custom to view a dead body, but for some people it is a way of showing respect. If you do not wish to participate in some aspect of the funeral process, you can simply skip that part, or participate minimally. At the funeral of a non-Jewish friend, I did not view the body, but I did visit the family at the funeral home. I simply hung back and did not go into the part of the room where the casket and body were displayed.

3. K’vod ha-met – respect for the dead – is a Jewish value.  By “going along” with funeral arrangements that aren’t in the Jewish tradition, you are honoring the wishes and traditions of the person who died. Making a fuss about the funeral because it does not conform with your present practice would not be respectful. At family meals, do not make a production of kashrut or other Jewish food practices – just take care of yourself and don’t eat anything you don’t want to eat. At the meal after my father’s funeral, I quietly asked in the kitchen if there were some fresh vegetables or fruit available.

4. Mourn as a Jew after the funeral. Jewish mourning practice really begins after the funeral (or in this case, after the customs of the non-Jewish family are observed, whatever they may be.) Call your rabbi or your synagogue and let them know that you will be sitting shiva. Sit shiva, and do it properly, especially after the death of a parent. What happens at shiva is not for the dead person. Shiva is for the mourner who needs to process the enormous change in their reality. Even if the relationship with the parent was not a happy one – especially in such a case! – mourning is necessary. Your Jewish community will show up for you, but they can’t do it unless you ask. The efficient way to ask is to call your rabbi or synagogue.

5. Ask for the help you need. If, reading this, you are thinking, “I wish I’d known that!” know that it is not too late to attend to old wounds. Make an appointment with your rabbi, or write an email, and tell him or her what feels unattended. It may be too late for shiva, but unfinished mourning is a genuine issue and the tradition has resources for that. If you see a pattern here of “ask your rabbi” and “seek out your community,” you are not mistaken. This sort of thing is one of the reasons that joining a comfortable synagogue or other Jewish community is a good idea for every Jew if it is at all possible.

6. Be gentle. If you go to a family funeral, and things do not go well either for you or with the family, know that all funerals are a difficult time. Be as gentle as you can be with yourself and with your fellow mourners. If you wind up eating something you normally would not eat, if you do something you would not ordinarily do because you don’t have the presence of mind to make a better choice, make teshuvah and leave it behind you.

Mourning is a difficult time. There is no easy way to do it. Our tradition offers tremendous resources for the mourner, if only we will make use of them.

Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

Recently I attended the Christian funeral of a man who had been an employee and friend of my congregation for many years. He was a good man and dearly loved, and I would make a rough guess that there were as many Jews in attendance at his funeral as Christians.

We were all there to remember and say goodbye to a good man, a man without whom the world is a poorer place. Two communities with very different beliefs joined together in grief and love to remember Jim. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many differences between Protestant and Jewish funerals.

The differences boiled down to two things: the handling of the body, and the beliefs about afterlife.

• THE BODY – At this Protestant Christian funeral, the body of the deceased was dressed in his best suit and embalmed for display at the service. This was a bit of a shock to Jews in attendance who are not accustomed to it. The Jewish thinking is that it is disrespectful to look at the dead, and disrespectful to disturb the body other than washing and dressing it. The Christian thinking, if I understand it correctly, is to honor the dead by making the body look as good as possible before laying it in the earth, to provide mourners with a last memory.

• BELIEF – At a Christian funeral, there is a firm belief that this person has gone on to another life with God in heaven. The service made reference to this again and again, and the minister admonished the congregation to get into a right relationship with God, so that when their time came, they too would go to heaven. At a Jewish funeral, on the other hand, there is little if any talk about afterlife. Jews have a variety of thoughts about what happens after death, but our focus is on this life. At a Jewish funeral there is more of a focus on grief and on the importance of memory.

What was the same was the human need to stop and pay respect to a loved one who had gone from this life. We may believe different things about the mysteries of life and death, but Christian and Jew, we were awed to stand on the brink of eternity to say our farewells.

 

What is Yizkor?

If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain