Hesped? Eulogy? What’s the difference?

Image: Rabbi interviews mourners for the hesped. (LisaYoung/shutterstock)

Jewish traditions for speaking of the dead are ancient, going all the way back into the mists before historical time.

Sarah died in Kiriyat-Arba, now Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham began to lament (lispod) and weep (v’livkotah) for her.

Genesis 23:2

The verb lispod (to lament) is a very specific word. It means “lament,” which is an ancient literary form. The most famous examples of this literature are the book of Lamentations and psalms such as Psalm 79

It is sometimes translated “to eulogize” although a lament is not exactly a eulogy. Eulogy comes from Greek words meaning “beautiful” and “words.” A conventional eulogy is a speech of “beautiful words” about the dead person, avoiding saying anything bad about them. A lament is a literary form speaking from the kishkes (gut,) expressing grief and telling the truth about a situation. It ends in a statement of hope, sometimes rather a faint one, but always hope.

Strictly speaking, the words spoken about the dead at a Jewish funeral are not a eulogy; they are a hesped, from that same verb, “to lament.”  I learned how to write a hesped from Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He taught us that there were traditionally two things that must happen for a proper hesped: we must (1) tell the truth and (2) make people cry. He acknowledged that it could be difficult to do the first one when the person in question was not a mensch. Then he reminded us that no human being is without flaws.

The truth of this came home to me early in my rabbinate, when I had the task of conducting a funeral for a man I’ll call “Abe” who definitely had two sides. This came out when I interviewed the family as I prepared the hesped. According to one of his adult children he was a wonderful person. According to another adult child, he was extremely cruel. I had met him several times and had sensed a hint of this duality. 

It was important to both children that I “tell the truth” about their dad, and it meant walking a very fine line. I wrote a hesped in which I acknowledged his many public good works, and said, “Anyone who knew Abe well, knew that he could be very determined that his way to do something was the only way, regardless of the consequences.”  All of the adult children felt that I had presented him accurately. No one wanted a scandal; they just wanted to hear the truth so that they could mourn the person they remembered.

I think about that hesped every time a public figure dies. The media has a tendency to eulogize the dead, to refer only to the things that people admired about them. This is in keeping with the Western tradition of eulogy, which we inherit from Greek and Roman culture. We “don’t speak ill of the dead.”

A counter-narrative arises (these days, on Twitter) that insists that the dead person was BAD and that everyone saying the good things is missing the point. Both the hagiographists and the critics are mistaken: human lives always are a mix of good and bad deeds, and not all deeds are experienced in the same way by the people affected.

Jewish tradition guides me in talking about the dead. I acknowledge their humanity by noting both the good and the bad. Before burial, I detail the good – for the sake of the mourners – and acknowledge their flaws. Later on, there is plenty of time to be blunt, if there is reason to do so.

Talking about the dead honestly is a difficult task. That is why Jewish tradition encourages us to leave the formal eulogy, the hesped, to a rabbi,a professional who has been trained in its complexities and pitfalls.

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A Message for My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh

Image: White votive candles arranged in the shape of a Star of David. (Photo: FreedomMaster/Shutterstock)

“My Gentile relatives do not understand why I am so upset,” a convert said to me, “They keep saying, ‘But you don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh!’ and I can’t make them understand.”

You may be puzzled by the degree to which Jewish friends feel personally threatened by the shootings in Pittsburgh, or by the length of time they feel anxious about it. This is one of the things about minority status: things hit close to home, even when the event is far away.

Many of your Jewish friends have had other experiences of anti-Semitism that were personally upsetting and this event has re-stimulated feelings from those earlier experiences. My synagogue was vandalized on Rosh Hashanah last year. My rabbinical school was vandalized before that. My friend Pamela Waechter was murdered in the 2006 shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation. Those are just a few of my personal experiences: your Jewish friends have had other experiences of things people have said to them or things done to people or institutions they loved. Pittsburgh came on top of whatever they were already carrying.

Some of your Jewish friends may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations. Intergenerational trauma has been documented in the decendants of Holocaust survivors and in the decendants of people imprisoned in POW camps during the American Civil War. Your Jewish friend may also be affected by family memories of trauma – we tend not to talk about those a lot, but you would be surprised how many of the Jews you know have family stories about fleeing death.

Judaism is like an enormous extended family. Anyone who receives a Jewish education learns Kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Rabbi Melanie Aron explains this concept by citing a story from the tradition:

“The people of Israel are similar to a ship. If there is a hole in the lower hold, one does not say, ‘Only the lower hold has a hole in it.’ Rather they must immediately recognize that the ship is liable to sink and that they must repair the hole down below.” – Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 11

As a result, when there is trouble for Jews anywhere in the world, all Jews feel it. The best analogy I can offer is the way Americans felt frightened and angry after 9/11, even if they had no personal connection to any of the victims, even if they lived far away from any of the cities involved.

What can our friends do to support us? If you are not Jewish, but you have Jewish friends or relatives, give them a call or an email or a shout-out via Facebook and tell them they are in your thoughts. Be aware that the Pittsburgh shooting felt like both a personal loss and an existential threat to many of us. Offers of prayers and support are welcome.

As you would with any other shocking loss, keep the advice, theological statements, and political commentary to a minimum. “Where were you when you heard about it?” is a good question. “I wanted you to know that I care” is great. Letting them know that you are willing to listen to their fears without judgment or one-upmanship is wonderful.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join the ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center or donate to them. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. Ten Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways against all forms of hate is a very tangible way of letting your Jewish friend know that you understand.

What to Wear on Yom Kippur?

Image: Air Force Captain Rabbi Gary Davidson is wearing a kittel and puts on a tallit to lead Yom Kippur services for Air Force personnel stationed in South East Asia. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Central Command)

(If it’s not Yom Kippur, see my other article What to Wear to Synagogue?)

I noticed that the third most popular article on this blog on Rosh Hashanah was What to Wear to Synagogue. I suspect there may also be folks who wonder what to wear on Yom Kippur – or who get to synagogue and worry that they have worn the wrong thing.

Yom Kippur is a complicated day for clothing choices for Jews, because there is a wide variation of practice. For a visitor to an unfamiliar synagogue, you are unlikely to go far wrong with clean, tidy business attire. 

However, what you will see upon arrival at the synagogue may cover quite a range. Here are some choices you may encounter at a Yom Kippur service:

  1. Many people will wear “nice” business attire.
  2. Some may choose to wear canvas or plastic shoes, since traditionally there is a prohibition of wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur.
  3. Some may choose to wear a white garment that looks a bit like a modest lightweight bathrobe or a lab coat. It’s called a kittel, and it has multiple connotations. Bridegrooms may wear a kittel for weddings. A kittel is part of the tachrichim, the traditional burial shroud. It conveys a sense of both purity and mourning.
  4. Some may choose to observe the prohibition against “anointing” on Yom Kippur. Interpretations of this practice vary: women may refrain from wearing cosmetics, men may forgo scented products. Some individuals interpret it as including deodorant.
  5. Washing for pleasure is forbidden during Yom Kippur, but washing for hygiene is permitted. Individuals decide on precisely where to draw those lines themselves. You may see someone who appears to be having a “bad hair day” because they still have “bed head.”

Why would civilized people show up for a major religious observance with such grooming? This has to do with the five “afflictions” of Yom Kippur. Traditionally, on Yom Kippur Jews abstain from:

  1. Food and drink
  2. sex
  3. washing for pleasure
  4. anointing
  5. wearing leather shoes

In my own experience as an American Reform Jew, I’ve seen a few people groom themselves differently for Yom Kippur, and some people wear canvas shoes. A much smaller number wear a kittel. Most people wear tidy, clean clothing but nothing unusual.

The last thing that’s different about clothing for Yom Kippur is that you will see a number of people in synagogue wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the evening Kol Nidre service. At no other time does the Jew in the pew wear a tallit at night.

In most Orthodox synagogues, the tallit and kittel are seen as males-only attire. I say “most” because even in Orthodoxy, customs vary from shul to shul. Women dress as they do for any other service at that synagogue. How dressy they will be depends on the culture of that particular community. In general, women at an Orthodox shul wear skirts, not slacks.

For a visitor in any synagogue, the same rule applies as for other services: you are likely to fit right in wearing business attire. The important thing is that one be clean, tidy and modest. You want to dress in a way that will allow you and those around you to pay attention to prayer and the service, because after all, that’s the point!

Introduction to the Jewish Experience

Image: Me, lighting Shabbat candles. You’ll learn how to do this, and what it all means. (Photo by Linda Burnett.)

I teach a course called Intro to the Jewish Experience, a class that begins with Basic Judaism. It’s designed to equip students to participate in Jewish community, whether that’s the local synagogue or the local Jewish Film Festival.

For info on where and how to sign up, check out A Course in Basic Judaism!, which I posted last week. There is an online section of the class, which you may attend “live” or via recording, and a completely separate but parallel regular class that will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA.

The class has three separate terms. Students are welcome to take them in any order. Each will also work nicely as a stand-alone course. Here are the topics covered, with the caveat that depending on the interests of class members and on opportunities for interesting visitors, there may be changes:

Fall Term: Jewish Holidays and Lifecycle Events (Oct – Dec)

  1. The Sabbath – Basic Concepts
  2. God, Covenant, & Mitzvah
  3. Spring Holiday Cycle: Purim, Passover, & Shavuot
  4. Fall Holiday Cycle: Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, & Sukkot
  5. National Holiday Cycle: Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, the Yoms, & Tisha B’Av.
  6. Death & Mourning as a Jew
  7. Bar/Bat Mitzvah & Jewish Weddings
  8. Welcoming New Jews: Bris, Brit Bat, & Conversion to Judaism

Winter Term: Israel & Texts (Jan – Mar)

  1. The Sabbath – looking at a text of Shabbat
  2. Ancient Israel – History & Archaeology
  3. Torah, Tanakh, and Midrash – Stories about Ancient Israel
  4. Rabbinic Judaism (70 CE – 800 CE) – History of the Rabbis
  5. Rabbinic Texts – What is the Talmud? – with text study
  6. Codes, Responsa and Law – How does “Jewish Law” really work?
  7. Anti-Semitism
  8. Zionism & Modern Israel

Spring Term: Traditions of Judaism (Apr – May)

We begin with the things that all Jews share, and then look at the great diversity in the Jewish world:

  1. The Sabbath: Havdalah 
  2. Synagogue, Siddur, and Service
  3. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  4. Ashkanazi Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Mizrahim: Histories & Culture
  6. North American Judaism and Movements of Judaism
  7. Jews of Color
  8. Jews & Food, Jewish Social Action

As you can see, each term begins with the Sabbath. That will tell you how central I believe the day is to understanding Judaism. In the fall, we look at it as the biggest holiday in the Jewish year. In winter, we learn how to do Jewish text study by studying the Kiddush together. In the spring, it is the first of the three things the Jewish world has in common.

If this sounds like it might be for you, you can find more information and registration links here:

Online Class:

Class meets on Sunday from 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, starting on October 22. To register, visit the course page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.

Class in the San Francisco East Bay:

Classes will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Wednesdays starting October 10 from 7:30 – 9pm. For more information and to register, visit the course’s page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
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Financial assistance is available for students who need it. Contacts are available in our online catalogue at Lehrhaus.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling Confused about the Jewish Calendar?

Image: A confused looking poodle. (Photo: R. Ruth Adar)

Here are some common questions and links to some basic answers:

  1. What’s Rosh HaShanah?
  2. When is Rosh HaShanah this year? (Sept 9-10-11, 2018)
  3. What is the Jewish New Year?
  4. What is Yom Kippur?
  5. Where can I find a Jewish Calendar?
  6. What is Elul?
  7. What is Tishri?
  8. Why is the Jewish calender so weird?

A Course in Basic Judaism!

Image: My first “Intro to the Jewish Experience” class, in 2009. Photo by Scott Wexelberg.

Right after the High Holy Days, I start my “Intro to the Jewish Experience” series over again.

Intro to the Jewish Experience is a course in Basic Judaism offered by Lehrhaus Judaica and taught by Rabbi Ruth Adar – me.
Who takes this class? People who for whatever reason never got a basic Jewish education and want one. They may be born-Jewish, they may be considering conversion, they may be marrying into a Jewish family, or maybe they’ve taken a job at a Jewish institution. This class will give a good foundation in the basics, and also some insights about how Jewish communities actually work.
My goal is to equip all my students for whatever Jewish connections they want in their lives.
Class in the San Francisco East Bay:
Classes will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Wednesdays starting October 10 from 7:30 – 9pm. For more information and to register, visit the course’s page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
Online Class:
If Wednesday evenings are not convenient, we offer the same course online on Sunday afternoons from 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, starting on October 22. To register, visit the course page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
The course takes place in three terms, which may be taken in any order:
  • In the Fall (Oct – Dec) Jewish Holidays & Lifecycle Events.
  • In Winter (Jan – March)  Israel & Texts. (History of Judaism and Jewish Texts)
  • In Spring, (April – May) we learn about the the diversity in world Judaism and the similarities that hold us together, in a class we call Traditions of Judaism.

Information about the class is available at the class website, Jewish Experience Online.

 

What is Teshuvah?

Image:  An archer takes aim with a bow and arrow. (skeeze/pixabay)

Teshuvah means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah:”

  1. We notice what we’ve done wrong,
  2. We acknowledge that it is wrong,
  3. We take responsibility for it,
  4. We apologize and make amends, and then
  5. We make a plan for not doing it again.

SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that I aimed at something and I missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person I am for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when I am next in that situation.

Very Important:  The point of the teshuvah is not to beat ourselves up, it’s to make ourselves better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  According to Maimonides, until I am in that situation again and behave differently, I cannot be certain that my teshuvah is complete.

In Judaism, the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind. It does not matter how lousy I feel about what I did, it matters that I address what I have done with the people I’ve hurt and do what I can to make sure there are no repeats.

Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  Sometimes it means getting into treatment, or joining a 12 step group. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat myself up, it’s to make the world better by making my behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. When I feel embarrassed at what I have done, that’s part of the process. Making teshuvah will help with the shame.

Each day of our lives is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.