Thoughts at a Reform Shiva

Image: Two hands hold two other hands to comfort. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

I did not know the departed. His sister was a friend of mine at synagogue, and her husband and I had learned aleph-bet together years ago. I got an email saying that shiva would be at their house, and I went.

I gave each of them a hug, and then went to find a seat. There was a straight backed chair perched in a corner of the living room – perfect! I parked my cane and settled in to be at shiva.

People poured in the doorway carrying dishes, each greeting the mourners and then hurrying into the dining room, to add to the table of food. Cassseroles, kugels, veggie plates with dip, fruit, breads, muffins, some baked chicken breasts — there was a little of everything there. I had brought a bag of cherries, washed and ready to eat or to pop into the fridge for later.

Elders on walkers arrived, and the Women of Temple Sinai ladies, and twenty-somethings (their daughter’s friends) arrived. The rooms filled up. Periodically someone would come sit by me for a bit, we’d chat quietly, then they’d get up to go get some food. Visitors stood in the kitchen, covered the patio out back, and filled the front yard.

I knew all the faces and all but a few of the names. We’ve gone to shul together for twenty years, some of us. Some are close friends, some barely acquaintances. Some are easy to love, some harder.

But here’s the thing: when someone is bereaved, this group shows up.

This, to me, is one of the great beauties of Jewish community. It is an extended family with a covenantal bond. I show up for you, you show up for me. Is it perfect? No, but it is remarkably consistent. Show up often enough, and you’re mishpachah (family.)

The mourners, who had seemed capable and cheerful when we arrived, gradually lost their masks. They held hands and cried as they told us about the brother most of us had never met. We stood with them for kaddish, blessing them with our covenant: we show up.

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Ask the Rabbi: Jews and Tattoos

Image: Person getting a tattoo on their forearm. (Aamir Mohd Khan /Pixabay

“Rabbi, I have heard that if a person has a tattoo, they cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Is that true?”

The textual reference for this bit of misinformation is a line in Leviticus, from the Holiness Code:

You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Eternal.

Leviticus 19:28

This was originally likely a reference to outside religious practices in the ancient Near East, although the specifics have been lost to history. Many of our ritual practices, both “do’s” and “don’ts” served to distinguish the People of the God of Israel from their neighbors. Similarly, the previous verse commands:

You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.

Leviticus 19:27

Just as there are some Jews who observe the side-growth mitzvah [sacred duty] by wearing peyot [side locks] there are Jews who would never, ever get a tattoo. However, there are many Jews with non-kosher haircuts, and a number of Jews with tattoos they got for beautification or for medical reasons.

So yes, there is a traditional Jewish aversion to body art, including tattoos. This aversion has been heightened by the experience of forcible tattooing of Jews during the Holocaust.

Jewish tradition sees the body as a holy vessel in which we are embodied in the world, and through which we carry out mitzvot. We should therefore care for our bodies and treat them with respect. In the last twenty years it has become common for people to view tattoos as a form of beautification, or as an art form, and some have even used this art form to express their devotion to Judaism or Jewish values.

It is possible that somewhere in the world there is a Jewish cemetery with a “NO TATTOOS” rule. However, I am not aware of such a cemetery, and I would be surprised to find such a place. The commandment to bury a body respectfully overrides the aversion to markings, precisely because we put such a high value on caring for the body, in death as well as in life.

So let the myth be debunked: your tattoo’ed body can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. In the meantime, concern yourself with using that body to do some mitzvot!

P.S. – If you are considering getting a tattoo in Hebrew, please proceed with caution. Unless you have an observer who knows Hebrew, it is very easy for a non-Hebrew-speaking tattoo artist to get a design backwards, upside down, or misspelled. Better yet, study Hebrew yourself, then get the tattoo.

What is Rachamim?

Image: Infant in mother’s arms (samuel Lee / Pixabay)

Jews hear the word rachamim (RAH-khah-meem) at the worst moments of their lives, when they are mourning the death of a loved one. It is in the first line of the prayer for the dead:

…אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים

El, maleh rachamim…

El Male Rachamim, Prayer for the Dead

According to Alcalay, a good Hebrew-English dictionary, rachamim can mean “pity, compassion, love… mercy.” I usually prefer “compassion” as an English translation, because it seems to me to come closest to the spirit of the word. Why would I say that?

The word for uterus or womb, רחם (REH-khem) has the same root consonants. “Compassion” in English is derived from two Latin words “com” (with) and “pati” (suffer.) It seems to me that one metaphor for the kind of closeness required for “suffering with” is the closeness of a mother and the child in her body. If you starve one, the other starves.

So when we say the prayer El Male Rachamim, we begin with the statement that God is full of compassion for us. In Exodus 39, God describes God’s nature to Moses thus, and we repeat the words back to God in the High Holy Day liturgies, when we are praying for forgiveness of our sins:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ זנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

“Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and pardons.”

– High Holy Day Liturgy

The very first attribute of God listed is rachum, compassionate.

We are commanded to be holy, like God at the very beginning of Leviticus 19:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Leviticus 19:1-2

The only way I know how to “be holy” is to imitate the attributes of God, to embody them in the world. It doesn’t matter what my theology is: whether God is a person or a concept. Torah teaches me to “be holy” because God is holy, so I will use the attributes we have been given for God as a model for myself.

The first item on the list is rachum, compassionate. When have I been compassionate? When have I experienced compassion? When have you? Those moments were holy: God was there.

So when I hear the prayer El Male Rachamim I remind myself that I must comfort this mourner, I must be the compassion of God, so that this will be a holy place.

Passover Blues?

Image: Handmade matzah. Sometimes “bread of affliction” is the right description. Photo by Yoninah.

The seder table is a roll call for some families and groups of friends. We gather every year, sit around the table together, and from Passover to Passover things change. Couples seem eternal, sitting in their accustomed spots. The kids grow up, go to college, come home again, bring their beloveds. Elders go from being a source of lore and recipes to being a frail treasured presence, and then it happens. Someone dies, and that place at the table is empty this year.

That’s one kind of Passover blues.

Then there’s the year that you’re in a strange town, all alone, and you intended to find a synagogue, but you didn’t, and you intended to find a seder, but you couldn’t, and now the calendar says it’s Passover and the matzah box stares accusingly. Nothing tastes right, and you’re lonely.

That’s another kind of Passover blues.

There’s the year that the baby is teething and the table didn’t get set on time and WHAT is wrong with the matzah balls? Where is the roasted shankbone? And what’s the burning smell? To top it off, Cousin You-Know-Who decided to tell you what she really thinks of your cooking, and all you want to do is run off and drink wine and cry.

That’s another kind of Passover blues.

Maybe you’ve had one of those years this year, or maybe you have a different sort of Passover blues. Be gentle with yourself, please.

So what can we do? How to fight back against the Passover blues?

  1. Let reality be real. If there is a specific grief ruining your holiday this year, it may be that all you can do is accept it. Feel the emotions, don’t fight them. Be honest with anyone who asks. Stay away from people who demand cheer from you and hold close those who understand your particular pain.
  2. Count your blessings. Especially if the issue is more diffuse, notice the good things in your life. Instead of holiday cards, write thank you cards. Tell the people who have been good to you specifically why you are grateful for them. Choose to notice what’s right, instead of focusing on what’s wrong.
  3. Look outside yourself. Focus on what you can do for other people. Soup kitchens and shelters need extra volunteers on holidays, so that those who celebrate those days can do so with their families. Call around, and see who needs volunteers. (Remember, the Christians are celebrating Easter about the same time we celebrate Passover.) Say kind words to people who need kindness. If you have money, share it. If you have food, share that. Looking outside ourselves can break cycles of destructive thoughts.
  4. Take care of yourself. If you have health issues, do what you can to take care of yourself. Be sure to eat and sleep – but don’t live to eat or sleep. If you need to see a doctor, and that’s possible, then see a doctor. If you can’t afford to see a therapist, remember that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call 1-800-799-4889. It’s OK to call: You are the person they are waiting to help. And yes, if you take medications of any sort, take your meds!
  5. Take a chance. If there’s something you are sort of looking forward to and sort of not, take a chance and go. Reframe “it could be awful” as “it could be ok.” Then give yourself an out: it’s OK to leave quietly if it makes you miserable.
  6. Get some exercise. Move more than you have been moving. For some that might be a walk around the house. For others, that might be a six-mile run. Choose something do-able that will push you a bit. You will sleep better and feel better.
  7. Put on some happy music. Put on some music that YOU like. Maybe dance to it (see #6 above.)
  8. Meditate. When did you last try meditation? The website gaiam.com offers a nice primer for beginners which lists several ways to meditate. Meditation is good for body and soul; for some people, it’s like a “reset button” in their day. Even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past, what do you have to lose?
  9. Pray. One of the great resources for Jews, and for Christians as well, is the Book of Psalms. There are 150 of them, and they address every emotion of which a human being is capable, from quiet happiness to rage. Dig around in there and see if you can find words that express your feelings. Naming a feeling is powerful. Praying that feeling is even more powerful.
  10. Go to services. Unlike the High Holy Days, you don’t need a ticket for Jewish services in springtimes. See what the prayers have to say to you. Listen to the Torah portion (if it’s a daytime service) or the psalms in the evening service. Sing any songs you recognize, even if you are not a singer. Breathe with the congregation.
  11. Keep Shabbat. And keep on keeping it. Part of what happens to us with holidays is that we build up those expectations and load them onto one day, or one week a year. Then, as I pointed out above, they are doomed to fail. However, Shabbat comes to us every week with its warmth and light. Figure out what “keeping Shabbat” means to you, and practice it faithfully. Some weeks will be wonderful and others will be “meh.” Some may be a bust – but there’s another Shabbat right around the corner, there to give you rest.
  12. Seek good advice. If you have suffered a terrible loss and would like some advice on walking that path, I recommend a blog called On Grief & Recovery by Teresa Bruce. She is a wise woman who knows grief from the inside out.

I hope that you find some relief, and that you are able to receive it. May you find your way out of this particular Egypt soon, or if the journey is a long one, companions along the way.

In Mourning

I mourn Notre Dame.
I mourn the black churches of Louisiana.
I mourn the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri.
I mourn Aleppo.
I mourn the ruins of Mesopotamia
The wrecked rain forests of the Amazon.
I mourn the oil slicked beaches and their wildlife
I mourn the dead of New York and Washington.

I mourn the Temples, 1st and 2nd.
I mourn the mangled lives of enslaved persons in every age.
I mourn the lives we failed to value.
I mourn children who cannot find mama.
I mourn all of them.
Most of all I mourn that even mourning cannot seem to unite us
even for a minute.

What Can We Do after the Christchurch Murders?

Image: Landscape view of Christchurch NZ. (Shutterstock/Clem Hencher-Stevens)

My heart bleeds for the Muslim community of Christchurch, NZ and for all the people of that beautiful, peaceful city. Today two mosques in the city were assaulted during the Friday Jum’ah service, and at this writing, 49 people have perished and many more are in the hospital.

I deliberately chose the photo above for this article because I want to give the perpetrators no publicity, since notoriety appears to have been at least part of their motivation. Christchurch is a beautiful city on the South Island of New Zealand. I had the good fortune to visit there a few years ago, and was impressed with the peace and friendliness of the place. I offer readers a taste of its peace in this photo, as a reproach to any who would have us remember it otherwise.

What can we do to express our horror, our grief, and our solidarity?

  • We can attend a service at our local masjid (mosque) in solidarity and friendship.
  • We can send cards and letters of support to local mosques and Islamic Cultural Centers in our area.
  • We can reach out personally to Muslim friends and acquaintences to let them know that we stand with them at this time of fear and sorrow.
  • We can observe zero tolerance for anti-Muslim sentiment in our homes and workplaces as well as in our houses of worship.
  • We can give tzedakah in memory of those who were murdered and address the notification to our local Islamic institution.

This is a time for all religious minorities to stand together in peace and friendship.

May the day come soon when no one need fear violence in their house of prayer.

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.