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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Holier than thou... isn't holy

(Jerusalem Talmud, Ta'anit 4:6)

Just how far do we go with our grief and mourning? At what point is it appropriate, and when is it a form of extremism?

We have all seen people whose grief over the loss of a loved one knew no bounds, and barely diminished with time. Such people find it difficult to reclaim a full life and affirm life’s blessings. The genius of Jewish mourning rites and traditions is that they pave a path for us to move forward in stages from being sequestered at home in the depths of intense grief, to going back out into the world. The first seven days (Shiva) are spent at home. People bring food to the mourners, visit, and make a minyan for the mourners to recite Kaddish. The first thirty days (Shloshim) one returns to work, but abstains from entertainment, parties, concerts, and such. After that, one resumes activities, as it feels comfortable. In the case of the death of a parent, the mourning period extends for eleven months; during this period, mourners attend or avoid social events according to how they feel.

But what happens when the loss is not personal, but rather national, and not only that but also cataclysmic? The Destruction of the Second Temple was a catastrophe so great that the Rabbis can only convey its enormity in the most hyperbolic language. Throughout the gemara for Mishnah Ta’anit 4:5 we find claims involving unimaginable numbers and horrifying images:

·      Hadrian slaughtered 80,000 myriads in Betar.

·      More than 50,000 school children were each wrapped in the scrolls they studied and burned alive.

·      10,000 villages were obliterated.

·      80,000 apprentice priests were killed.

It is painful to read these passages. These are numbers we today associate with the Holocaust, a national cataclysm that is well within memory for us.

In this post, I focus on the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) alone. It begins by telling us, “When Av comes, rejoicing diminishes,” an ironic reversal of what we read concerning the run-up to Purim: “When Adar comes, rejoicing increases.” Our history continues to be part of our emotional experience; our national experience is also our personal experience, even centuries later. Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6 of the Yerushalmi (4:7 in the Bavli), laid out to reveal its structure:

·      When Av comes, rejoicing diminishes. In the week in which Tisha B’Av occurs, it is forbidden to get a haircut or wash one’s clothes. But on Thursday of that week, these are permitted in order to honor shabbat. On the eve of Tisha B’Av, one should not eat two dishes, nor should one eat meat or drink wine.

o   Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says: One should make some change [from the way one normally does things].

·      R. Yehudah says: one is obligated to turn over his bed —

o   but the Sages do not agree with him. (M Ta’anit 4:6)

Abstaining from haircuts, washing clothes, meat, and wine are all traditional signs of mourning. We engage in these practices during the initial period of mourning (Shiva), immediately after burial, but not subsequently (Sheloshim), and certainly not when the yahrzeit is commemorated on the anniversary of the death in ensuing years. The Mishnah elevates commemoration of the Temple’s “yahrzeit” far above the normal way of marking a yahrzeit. Tisha B’av is a national yahrzeit, yet it appears that the Rabbis encourage perpetual mourning for the Temple. For the Tanna’im (first- and second-century rabbinic scholars) who wrote this mishnah, there is no return to “normal life” because there can be no normality without the Temple. Given the centrality of the Temple and the trauma of its Destruction, this is understandable for the generations within memory.

R. Yehudah goes even farther in a direction I find disturbing. He tells us that one is obligated to turn over his bed. This was the custom when a person died. Ketubot 62b reports that when R. Yehudah b. R. Chiyya did not return home at the expected time from extended study away, his family presumed that the only thing that would have prevented his return was his untimely demise. They therefore overturned his bed.

Yehudah, the son of R. Chiyya, the son-in-law of R. Yannai, went and sat in Rav’s House of Study, but he would return home every [Friday eve at] twilight. Whenever he would come, people would see a pillar of fire [going] before him. One day his studies so captivated him that he did not come [home]. Because they did not see that sign, R. Yannai said to them: Overturn his bed, for were Yehudah alive, he would not have neglected the performance of his marital duties. It was As an error that goes forth from a ruler (Kohelet 10:5), and his [Yehudah’s] soul departed. (Ketubot 62b)

Shockingly, R. Yehudah’s dictate suggests that we go beyond mourning: on Tisha B’Av we should think of ourselves as having died.

How far is it reasonable and healthy to dive back into the sea of grief year after year after year? We are told first to mourn as if the loss were fresh. Then the suggestion is made to engage in a practice that suggests we actually died. It is therefore striking and important that the Mishnah contains within it two objections, two attempts to temper the wholesale rush into excessively intense grief each year.

The first objection comes from Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel. Rather than placing ourselves back in the “Shivah period,” he tells us to do things differently in recognition of Tisha B’Av. Perhaps this means foregoing dinner at a restaurant on Erev Tisha B’Av. Perhaps it means abstaining from activities that make it difficult to prepare for the day to come. I find it significant that Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel leaves it up to us to exhibit good judgment; he trusts us to make proper decisions based on our needs.

The second objection is to R. Yehudah’s suggestion that we overturn our beds, and thereby “throw ourselves into the grave with the deceased.” The Sages reject R. Yehudah’s opinion. This is going too far; they don’t want us to lose all proportion.

Taken together, the Mishnah presents the possibility  — and danger — of descending into the depths of extreme mourning, and gives us two lessons on moderation: (1) Use your good judgment to decide what you need to do to prepare for Tisha B’Av; and (2) don’t go too far.

These are rabbinic principles. Yet we see all around us Jews who have fallen into the pit of viewing all Jewish texts as Holy Rule Books — and infinitely expandable ones, at that. As a result they are growing increasing machmir (strict or severe about Jewish ritual matters) about everything to the point of utter absurdity: they worry about microscopic crustaceans in bottled water , fight over the legitimacy of hekhshers, bully little girls whose very modest clothing is not deemed modest enough , and insist on sex-segregated buses. And the very worst I’ve heard? It was reported in the New York Times that last Yom Kippur, the Bobov Hasidim of Borough Park, Brooklyn have encouraged and enabled hundreds of frail members of their community — people for whom fasting is medically dangerous — to receive IV fluids so they can fast, because, “It’s not considered eating if it goes through a vein.” Halakhah does not condone this: one is not supposed to risk one’s health to fast on Yom Kippur.

I mean in no way to condemn ritual observance; quite to the contrary. When we make our observance meaningful (and not a matter of racking up mitzvah points), we have brought more kedushah (holiness) into the world and built another bridge between heaven and earth. Observance for its own sake (or worse: to prove our religious superiority over others) impedes spiritual growth. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel understood that exercising our best judgment insures that our observance will connect us to family, community, humanity, Jewish ethical principles and social values — fertile ground for a blossoming neshamah (soul).

When we return to our sacred texts, and read them thoughtfully and carefully, we see that extremism and belonging to the Chumrah-of-the-Month Club is inconsistent with Judaism’s basic principles. It’s not about rules; it’s about finding a path of integrity and kindness through the thickets of life. And it’s about seeking wisdom; wisdom does not come from mindless adherence to rules.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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