Memorial customs are appropriate if they’re commemorative, but we also need compelling reasons to teach Judaism that aren’t about past losses
Rabbi Avi Finegold
Founder, The Jewish Learning Lab, Montreal
Rabbi Philip Scheim
Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, Toronto
Rabbi Scheim: The Talmud relates that following the destruction of the Second Temple, many Jews chose to deny themselves life’s pleasures as a sign of their deep mourning. Rabbi Joshua chided them by saying: “Not to mourn is impossible… but to mourn too much is also impossible.”
These words come to mind as I contemplate the heavy dose of mourning at this time of the Jewish year. Beginning with Yizkor on the last day of Pesach, continuing with the mourning traditions of sfirat haOmer, when weddings and celebrations are deferred, and including the contemporary additions of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, we find ourselves surrounded by sorrow. However, Lag b’Omer, now upon us, represents a respite from this mourning season – for some, marking its end, for others, just a one-day breach in the sea of sadness.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating the cancellation of any of these mourning traditions. But I am still troubled by Rabbi Joshua’s warning. Do we, as Jews, mourn too much?
Rabbi Finegold: There seems to be a tightrope that we are asked to walk as educators today. On the one hand, “Never Forget” is a message we are supposed to tell the next generation as they mature, reminding them that soon there will be no more survivors who are first-hand witnesses to what happened in the Holocaust. On the other hand, the very same generation tells us they don’t feel the narrative of Holocaust Judaism resonates and we need to find something more compelling to make Jewish life more attractive.
I do think we mourn too much as a community, and not because we have sfirat haOmer and Yom Hashoah and Tisha b’Av, but because we have turned those moments into reasons for being Jewish – as in, “Don’t intermarry, we lost enough people in the Holocaust.”
This is not a compelling reason, and I doubt it ever was. I think it would be fine and appropriate to keep every mourning custom we have, as long as they remain commemorations. But we should also be searching for compelling reasons to teach Judaism that have nothing to do with our past losses.
Creating a narrative of life, wisdom and love should be more than enough to overcome any sadness and loss.
Rabbi Scheim: In my congregational rabbinic work, much of my time is devoted to individualized mourning. Here, on the surface, the Jewish laws of mourning can seem intense and potentially overwhelming. But as you correctly suggest, the enduring narrative needs to be positive, centred in learning, in enjoyable religious practice and in a comforting spiritual environment.
Mourners who say Kaddish regularly find great comfort, friendship and support in the daily minyan. Even though sadness propelled them into the daily prayer ritual, over time, that sadness is transformed into a positive, optimistic, energetic involvement in Judaism that until then may have eluded the mourner, but now becomes the entrance-way to a new, revitalized, enthusiastic commitment to Jewish life and the Jewish future.
Rabbi Finegold: Imagine if the same thing happened with those who came to shul for Yizkor or for a Yom Hashoah commemoration. While not every Kaddish reciter continues to come to minyan after their year of Kaddish, many do, and we need to find out how they navigated that transition from sadness into joy and use those ideas to craft programs around Yizkor and the like.
A good place to start would be with those who have the custom to leave during Yizkor because they have living parents. The message currently being sent to them is that in times of communal mourning, you do not belong because you have nothing to be sad about. Maybe we could create a parallel program, however brief, that includes them in a different manner.
Imagine if after Yizkor we invite the next generations who have left the sanctuary to reflect on what the deceased meant to them and how they intend to do better in the world because of the example set by their grandparents and great-grandparents. This could open the eyes of the Yizkor reciters, as well as those that are silent during Yizkor, to have that new revitalized commitment to Judaism.