Mourning for RBG in our Pluralist Society

Image: The body of former Chief Justice Earl Warren rests on a black draped bier in the Main Hall of the Supreme Court, on July 11, 1974. (Associated Press)

The recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, z”l, has brought up some curiosity and a number of myths about Jewish funeral practices.

Jewish mourning practice and Christian morning practices are quite different, and I am interested in seeing how the two sets of expectations are balanced during the coming week. One example of the difference came up the night after she died, when the crowd that gathered spontaneously outside the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. began to sing “Amazing Grace.” Jewish observers found this jarring, because the hymn is Christian and the lyrics make explicit reference to conversion to Christianity. However, this hymn almost more than any other is associated in the American public mind with mourning (see its use in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, for example.) It was certainly intended as an expression of sorrow and respect, whatever the lyrics.

Timing of the Funeral – Sometimes you will hear that we Jews bury our dead within 24 hours of death. In real life, that may mean the next day and it may not. Funerals may be delayed by a number of factors: for instance, we allow time for family to gather, and if the local law requires an autopsy, the funeral may be delayed for as long as officials require. In summary, the body of the deceased must be laid to rest as quickly as secular and Jewish law allow, with time for family to gather if needed.

Justice Ginsberg died on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the day before Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days of the Jewish Year, and as such, we do not bury the dead that day. Most observant Jews will be in synagogue for at least one day, and many for two. Sunday is also a holy day for Jews who observe two days of Rosh Hashanah, so the earliest day on which interment could take place is Monday, Sept 21.

The New York Times outlined the plans as of Sept 19:

A ceremony inside the court is expected as early as Tuesday, according to someone familiar with the plan, followed by an outdoor viewing that would adhere to social distancing guidelines. A small funeral service is also expected to be held for Justice Ginsburg, who died on Friday at 87, as well as a burial at Arlington National Cemetery later in the week. Her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, was buried at Arlington in 2010.

New York Times, accessed 9/19/2020

“Viewing” is another practice that is differently understood by Jews and Christians. Generally speaking, Jews do not have a public viewing of the body, because we feel it violates the privacy and modesty of the deceased. Moreover, Jews absolutely do not embalm our dead unless required to do so by the state. However, Justice Ginsberg is not an ordinary citizen, and the public secular mourning in the United States almost always includes some sort of “lying in state.” I speculate that the Court and the family will make a compromise, and that her closed coffin will be present for the “outdoor viewing.”

Burial with family is a Jewish custom, indeed a Jewish value.

Mourning for Justice Ginsburg will be a process, both for her family and for the nation. Her family would normally “sit shiva” for up to seven days after interment, then observe sheloshim, a period of lighter mourning, for 30 days. Her children may choose to mourn publicly for the next eleven months by saying Kaddish. For the nation, I fear that it will not be such a calm process, because there are many political repercussions to her passing.

I hope that all who cherish her memory will do everything they can to be kind and respectful to her family. When she was alive, they shared her time and attention with the public service to which she dedicated much of her life. Now that she has died, theirs is the greatest loss.

Knowing that Justice Ginsburg was a practical woman who was well aware of the approach of her death, I imagine that she has left instructions as to her wishes.

(Which reminds me: are there things you would want family to do or not do at your passing? If you don’t leave those instructions in writing that meets the standards of your state, you are leaving things up to chance. It is always a good idea to make a written Advance Directive Form or Power of Attorney for Health Care, as well as a will and funeral instructions, and to let those close to you know your feelings and the location of those documents. Otherwise, nothing is sure. Forms for such documents are available online – but don’t stop with a form. TALK to your loved ones.)

Jewish Mourning in the Time of Pandemic

Image: Jewish cemetery/ (Michał Buksa /Pixabay)

I just taught a class on mourning in Judaism, and it was a sharp reminder of how strange times are right now. Funerals are strange right now: we cannot gather in a chapel, we cannot crowd together for comfort at graveside. Some of my colleagues have officiated at funerals with only themselves and cemetery staff present, using a smartphone camera to allow the mourners to see. Shiva tends to be virtual these days, too, and I weep for the mourners who have to sit at home, alone.

So how can we help, those of us who want to observe the mitzvot of comforting mourners?

First, we can check with our rabbis about how they are handling funerals right now. They will have directions about what is helpful and what is not. Please don’t argue with the rabbi, or tell them that you have a great idea for a better option. I promise you, they have agonized over every bit of the arrangements already.

We can help by letting others know about the shiva, or about the death itself, without adding gossipy bits.

We can help by not criticizing the family about arrangements that are not ideal. They are already aware that things aren’t normal, and they should not be bothered with things that are out of their control.

We can help by attending the virtual funeral, if that is the arrangement. If it is not set up as a virtual event, we can help by not causing a fuss if we are not one of the very few who are invited to attend in person.

We can attend virtual shivas, even if we’ve already spent six hours on Zoom that day. Mourners need to see that they are not abandoned at such a time. They need us to be present, even if the only possible presence is virtual.

We can help by checking in with mourners by phone, or by text message, or by email.

We can help by not complaining if they take a while to answer.

We can help by sending notes of condolence – you know the old fashioned kind, on paper?

We can help by sending mourners our good memories of the person who died.

We can help by sharing photos, if we have some.

We can help by offering to bring food by, to drop off no-contact style, by the door.

We can help by sending food via a local restaurant or deli.

We can help by continuing to keep contact, even after the first week or month.

We can listen, and keep listening. Sometimes mourners need to tell stories again and again. One of the kindest things we can do is to say, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it” when they worry that they are talking too much about their loved one.

We can help by notifying clergy, if we get the sense that the mourner is getting depressed or otherwise suffering. Rabbis and cantors want to know when a member of the congregation is suffering, but they can’t know if no one tells them.

The day will eventually come when we can have proper funerals and shiva again. But until then, our mourners need us, the people they may only barely know in their Jewish community, to be there for them.

Pittsburgh Yahrzeit: How You Can Participate

Image: Tree of Life Memorials (White House Photo)

A year has passed since the murders of Jews in Pittsburgh. I was glad to hear that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has come up with a way for those of us who live far from Pennsylvania to participate and honor their memory.

The JFNA are calling on all Jews and allies to take a moment to pause on this coming Sunday, Oct. 27 to mark one year since the Tree of Life Congregations shooting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Eleven people were murdered there on Oct 27, 2018.

Use this link to sign up to participate.

We will remember their lives and their families in a virtual service around the world. Anyone signing up will receive a text at 5 p.m. Eastern Time (2 pm Pacific Time) with a video reading of a prayer for mourning and the names of the 11 individuals who were killed. Following the prayer, subscribers will be able to tune into a live stream of Pittsburgh’s public memorial service and submit a message of support by text.

Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent

Image: Candle flame. (Public domain)

I converted pretty late in life. My parents are long gone, and I’ve never been sure whether or not I should observe their yahrzeits. Both were gentiles. What do you think?

– A Reader

Great question! When a Jew has Jewish parents, they normally have an obligation to bury the parents, say kaddish for them, mourn them for a year, and then observe their yahrzeit in following years. Yahrzeit is the Ashkenazi word for the anniversary of a person’s death, and we observe it by lighting a candle, saying kaddish with a minyan, and giving tzedakah in their memory. The corresponding name in the Sephardic tradition is nahalah.

A Jew is not obligated to say kaddish for a non-Jewish parent. However, they may observe all Jewish mourning practices for them if they so choose. Thus the answer to your question, “Should I observe their yahrzeits?” is that you have no obligation to observe them. However, you are permitted to observe them if you wish.

In making your decision, a Jew should consider related mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:11.) Even then, there is no single answer. I have known Jews who chose to observe yahrzeits for their parents out of love and respect for the parents’ memories. I have also known Jews who did not observe yahrzeits for their parents because they believed the parents would not have wanted it, so out of respect they do not observe.

Jewish mourning practices have developed over many centuries. There is a deep wisdom in providing mourners with a fixed process through which they can mourn with support, and then emerge back into ordinary life. Some losses are profound, and for those, having periodic brief times of mourning such as yahrzeit and Yizkor can provide comfort even years after a death.

In general, I advise gerei tzedek [converts] to observe Jewish mourning practices for non-Jewish relatives unless they have strong objections to doing so. Mourning is no time to separate oneself from the community. Like every other Jew, the ger tzedek has a right to the comfort and support that Jewish mourning practice can provide.

What is a Vidui?

Image: A walkway across a dune, to the ocean. (Ulrike Mai / Pixabay)

One of the prayers we will say during the Yom Kippur ritual is called a vidui (vee-DOO-ee). Vidui means “confession,” and that is exactly what it is. It includes an acrostic list of sins.

However, the use of the vidui prayer is not limited to the Yom Kippur service. Such prayers can be very helpful in cheshbon nefesh, taking stock of our lives, as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The other principal time we say the vidui prayer is near the end of life. The sick person has the opportunity to consider their life in light of Torah values, taking responsibility for their life, for things done and undone, words spoken and unspoken. They may say the prayer alone, or with a rabbi or other support person.

The traditional vidui is a Hebrew prayer, and the English translations of it vary, depending on whether the translator is invested in maintaining the acrostic form. It is always a list of sins, which allows those saying the prayer to reflect on the ways and times they have slipped into those behaviors.

There are also a number of nontraditional vidui variations, such as:

What is a Kittel?

Image: A kittle, folded up like a shirt.

A kittel is a garment you might see during the High Holy Days or at a wedding. It is a white garment made of lightweight fabric, usually cotton or a polyester blend. It looks a bit like a very light lab coat with a cloth belt, generally in a mid-calf length, and it is worn buttoned-up.

You may also see a kittel on the chatan [bridegroom] at a wedding.

In both cases, the kittel signifies the purity of heart one tries to bring to those situations. The color white is sometimes said to take its inspiration from this verse from the prophets:

Come now, and let us reason together, says the Eternal; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.

— Isaiah 1:18

A kittel may also be worn by the meyt [body of the deceased] in the coffin for burial. Usually it is paired with long trousers of the same material. The persons who wash the body for burial dress it before putting it in the casket. You are unlikely to see a meyt in a kittel because it is not the custom to view a body after death; Jewish funerals are always closed-casket.

This gives us another reason that some people choose to wear a kittel during High Holy Day observances. There is a focus on the end of life during those days, especially Yom Kippur. Wearing the garment in which one might be buried is a sharp reminder of our mortality.

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.

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.