When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.


Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

Holier, or: Fragile

Your little face
Might just be proof for me of God's good grace
You utterly bewitch me
Your fancies so enrich me
I want to be

Your Abba'chka...
How can I assure you
That there's a God 
Though I s'pose you do not need it
You naturally believe it...
Holier than me

My Dear Baby
I so fear when you'll learn about "maybe"
The hurts you'll know as onwards grow
For much of life is simply show

My Dear Baby
I don't wanna say 
He ain't there for me

Every day
I watch you read and sing and learn and play
Your birth gave me such purpose
Of this I'm fully certain
That I've so changed

My love for you
It flows red hot and it is bursting through...
Wish I could protect you from painful disappointment
When He misses His appointment
But still I'll be

Your Abba'chka...
How can I assure you
That there is a God
Though I s'pose you do not need it
You naturally believe it...
Holier than me

Your childish purity
I cannot see Whom your eyes see
But whenever you need me
That's where I'll be

My lack of reverence

I used to have reverence for rabbis, but I barely remember it.

Last night I was at a wonderful rooftop get-together for a friend of mine (‘C5’) who just recently made Aliyah (repatriated to Israel as a Jew). It was lovely, particularly for me because I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter recently and needed some space. Chips, beer, and engaging conversation reenergized me.

This friend was a member of my Talmud class last year, as was another friend (‘A5’) who attended the celebration. Both of these friends plan to continue studying Talmud under the young rabbi this coming year, unlike me. They’re both very religious and religiously-oriented… and SO [damned] respectful.

My young rabbi friend (our Talmud teacher) joined us on the roof later in the evening, and suddenly my friends’ and another young woman’s tones changed.

Should I cover my shoulders? I didn’t know that you had invited a rabbi.
Is it okay that we’re drinking?
Oh no… do you think he’ll be offended that I’m wearing pants tonight? I left my skirt at home!

I was startled. Really? He’s our age – a really cool guy and a friend of ours. Don’t worry about it guys, seriously!

Then, seemingly somewhat inebriated, ‘C5’ asked the young rabbi some serious questions about sexuality vis-à-vis rabbinic sensibilities and proceeded to share a brief reflection of his regarding his appreciation for the depths of the young rabbi’s humanity, open-mindedness, and inspirational teachings. ‘A5’, who was sober, also shared some very personal thoughts and nodded in agreement to ‘C5’s words. It was sweet and unexpected.

* * *

There was a time, certainly less than ten years ago, when I would turn humbly to rabbis for direction – a time when I specifically desired to hear learned rabbinic perspectives – a time when the words of Torah scholars carried more weight than those of the laity – a time when I was apprehensive of their answers but yearned for their affirmations.

And now that is all gone. No reverence remains in me.

I barely believe in a God who cares about my actions. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that rabbis are any wiser about the nuances of human nature than other learned, experienced people. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that there is anything worth believing in that we cannot perceive in our daily, earthly lives. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe in anything.

And while there are many reasons that I’ve decided not to continue with the young rabbi’s Talmud class, one reason is that I am repelled by various faith statements that I heard in the shiur. It’s nice that other people believe, truly, but one may keep it to one’s self unless somebody engages them in a conversation about religious beliefs.

I believe that reciting the Book of Psalms does nothing at all for your mother-in-law’s health; sharing your dubious religious convictions alienates me. Further, I don’t want blessings on my behalf after we’ve eaten cookies. I don’t want traditional statements of intent on my behalf before we engage in Talmud study. It’s all sheer bunk, I maintain, and believing in it doesn’t imbue one with holiness, wisdom, righteousness, or truth; and- such nonsense only distracts me from serious Torah study.

I do respect the young rabbi greatly – as much as I would any other seriously committed and capable professional in any line of work. Also, I consider him a close friend, greatly enjoy spending time with him, and would go out of my way for him without a moment’s hesitancy. But. I don’t revere him. And. I don’t revere what he stands for.

Also, I must add that I have studied Talmud with a number of learned and amazing instructors… and no theological assertions were ever woven into any of my previous classes. They are, at minimum, not necessary.

* * *

Next year I will instead be taking a class on theology with Rabbi Daniel Landes. I rather enjoy discussions about God and the supernatural when I deliberately choose to engage in them – and when there is room for me to inject my doubts and reservations into our classroom discussions.

There, or: Here?

I.

  Some day, 
 I'll die, 
and this,

  perhaps, 
 will be 
my parting kiss
          to those alive, 
        to those not yet,
          to fulfilled hopes,
        to worn regrets;

  and you,
 I think,
will live

  because
 you've yet
so much to give
          to dearest friends,
        to family,
          to unmet dreams,
        to memories


II.

  and then,
 a day
will come -

  your time
 to part
for Where all's from
          to the Unknown
        to Where there is no time,
          no rhyme, 
          no yours and mine,
        to Where all goes, but no one knows
      about 
        'til he's arrived

There


III.
 
It's all a mess here;
There? Who knows? Where
where can be described in tastes and colors
sensations -
that's not There. Where
where can be conveyed in lines and stanzas
images -
that's not There. Where
where can be perceived by mind and senses
faculties -
that's not There. Where -

Where indeed?  

IV. There once was a great rabbi who taught that the Place can only be described in the negative because He would otherwise be limited. In Jewish tradition, those who are mourning their loved ones are told: May the Place comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem –

Where indeed?

Because God

It is this, my blogging project, which truly makes daily shul attendance tolerable. It is the reading, the feeling, the thinking, the learning, the weaving…

Suddenly, I’ve realized: my study and reflection sustain my practice. What shall I do with myself when kaddish has ended? What shall I do with my Judaism?

‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ (#25), Jan. 12, 2019

Not long after completing my year of mourning, I joined a Talmud class taught by a friend of mine, a young rabbi.

At first, I felt reignited. Years had passed since I’d last studied Talmud, and my year-long kaddish writing project, which had been firmly grounded in Jewish learning, had whetted my yen.

Soon after, I was struggling.

After my year of self-directed reading and reflection, the group learning felt inhibiting.

I tend to pick apart the letters and roots of words, to compare them to other languages and time periods; I also delight in grammar and sentence structure. The words and their personal relationships are beautiful to me. Which of them are intimate lovers? Which are parent and child?

Beyond this, I’m not one to inherently accept the ancient sages’ interpretations of the text, and they are often wont to make their cases precisely by playing with words and language. (I still recall my disagreement with the great Rashi over his language-based interpretation of Psalm 119:113.)

It soon became apparent that our group’s goals conflicted with my learning style. The rabbi was aiming to cover particular Talmudic passages (known as sugyot) during class time, and my nitpicking was impeding us.

Now, there are those for whom the holiness they experience in the study of traditional texts is motivating. Given my close relationship with Rabbi Daniel Landes, for example, himself a teacher of Talmud for nearly half a century, I know that he experiences the (self-)revelation of and by God bursting forth from the Torah. This, he explains, is how he teaches his students.

If revelation is not bursting forth from the Torah, he asks, why bother?

Why indeed? I ask myself because the truth is that I do not experience God in Talmud study. Perhaps I do not experience God at all, and certainly not bursting forth from anywhere.

There were times in years past when I managed to convince myself that I was “experiencing” God, but those moments were very few and were primarily born of my desire to motivate myself to adhere to the strictures of a religious Jewish lifestyle. That’s really what it came down to.

Some people, at birth, are dealt external factors like religious upbringings and parental expectations, drawing them to religious observance. For others, like me, every step towards greater observance of halakha is inevitably another step away from even the most understanding of non-traditional families.

Nevertheless, I am motivated, to an extent, to observe Shabbat traditionally, to live in Israel, to engage with Jewish texts, etc. I regard world Jewry as my far-extended family; and preserving our heritage and sense of peoplehood is, therefore, of utmost importance. Given, there are many different strategies for instilling children with strong Jewish identities; but I am convinced that a family’s commitments to Shabbat observance and residing in Israel are the most effective.

The problem, of course, is that most strategies arising from such a motivation as mine are prone to falling apart because they don’t necessarily infuse religious practices with meaning. In other words, going through the motions only because they happen to belong to one’s own people rings hollow. Why, as Rabbi Landes would ask, bother?

Let’s consider Shabbat, for example. If I am only keeping the Sabbath to inculcate my daughter with the values of Jewish tradition, family time, and [invaluable] weekly respite from our daily commutes along the information superhighway, what’s to stop me from breaking the Sabbath when she isn’t looking? After all, my personal desecration of Shabbat could be subtle; it could go unnoticed, leaving my daughter’s experience of the ‘Day of Rest’ intact.

Text study is much worse.

Whereas most religious observances are performed in family or community, and a simple Jew may find or assign plausible personal meanings to such lifestyle choices in these contexts, traditional text study is only inherently appealing to the devout and the bookish.

Actually, this is untrue. Most students of Talmud sit in seas of other talmidim, awash in a self-reinforcing Torah culture, buttressed by the talmidim’s families and communities. They need not actually reflect upon what they believe in or be inclined towards study; it’s enough for most to “know” that they are playing out their heavenly assigned roles in perpetuating the culture of their ancestors.

So my quandary bears framing:

Given that neither my family, nor my community, encourage me to learn Torah, and given that I do not experience God bursting forth from the texts of my beloved heritage…

In fact, given that I don’t think God actually cares whether or not I am studying Torah, and given that I don’t think God is in any way invested in the banal details of the Jewish religious laws that I am studying under my friend’s kind and knowing guidance…

What
is
left
for
me?

I don’t wish that I believed in God’s investment in our lives for Truth’s sake (because this isn’t true), but it would certainly make my commitment to living a religious lifestyle so much easier for me. Alas.

“Because God” is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom,
but my heart rejects it,
and it’s not for lack of trying.

I’m 40 now. There are people in our learning group who are younger than I am and seem enthusiastic towards and energized by Talmud study. They remind me of myself when I was in my mid- to late twenties and early thirties… back when I was occasionally able to convince myself that I was experiencing God for a moment.

For me, the dry, technical details in the text are just that – dry and technical. All too rapidly, they dissolve upon the roof of my mouth like communion wafers. Now, that’s not to say that they have a bit of the devil in them,
but they don’t contain God either.