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.

Together, or: Eventually

                                         there
                    you are 

                              stretching upwards and sideways
                                           squirming wriggling everywhere
                                        going 
                 nowhere 

           even the walls are beyond
                            you 
                         are trapped in a narrow cup

        going nowhere
but down down down
                    and out 
                              eventually

                              but
         we do 
have a bit of time together, don't we?
stay with me for Shabbat, won't you?

I hope you won't go out like last time

black wick stuck in the stiff cold wax
suffocated by frozen white bubbles I 
was not at all ready for your absence 

Keyboard Judaism

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism at the age of eighteen, I experienced it as the meaningful vision for religious Judaism that I had never thought to imagine. Through many of the years that followed, even when I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I aspired only to Orthodoxy. I judged myself and others by the standards and positions of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Although there was deep dissonance for me between the ideals of the extended Orthodox community and the modern society I inhabited, I pushed it out of my mind. The confidence in Orthodoxy’s voice lent it credibility with me, and, like most that pass through this uncertain world, I found solace in certainty.

For me today, there lies elusive but enticing comfort in the unlikely possibility that the lives of individuals have purpose, and there also exists a second, concomitant comfort for me in the existence of my people. For complicated reasons, some indiscernible even to myself, I find great meaning in being a Jew. This lends me some sense of purpose, therefore I am invested in my nation’s continuity.

Either way, I must acknowledge to myself that I am done with Orthodoxy, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

Being done with Orthodoxy in a world of limited communal options is a fairly meaningless sentiment if the remaining alternatives are lacking for me; and communities, as far as I am concerned, are the Jewish nation’s largest building blocks. With due respect to God, to the extent that I can muster it (a failing of mine), I find Judaism without community nearly meaningless.

While my thinking has evolved from Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy, and I have developed sincere respect for people’s personal agencies and choices, as well as a deep appreciation for the historical contexts and worldviews of the non-Orthodox denominations, I retain a concern about non-Orthodoxy, which hasn’t abated over the years.

Simply put, I believe that the greatest failing of non-Orthodoxy is the relative ignorance that the great majority of its adherents have of Judaism, including ignorance of Jewish history, language, theology, literature… you name it.

One need not follow Jewish religious law (halakhah) in an Orthodox way, nor follow it at all, but I cannot wrap my mind around the notion of a meaningful Jewish identity empty of Jewish substance. There is much to laud in non-Orthodoxy, and I am happy to do so, but non-Orthodoxy around the world seems to be moving increasingly towards human universalism, away from national particularism.

At some point, universalism does cease to be Judaism, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

A serious, developing problem of mine is that I am increasingly creating my own religious experience, apart from Jewish community of any sort… and the developing of one’s own, private Judaism is distinctly a heterodox undertaking.

I recently wrote, regarding my kaddish blogging following Papa’s death:

… I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience… Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

– Me, ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, Sept. 11, 2020

Thinking on this further, I realize that I’m doing much more than ‘living off my kaddish’s fumes’. On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre. Yes, true, I attended synagogue every single day for an entire year following Papa’s death; and, true, I recited the traditional orphan’s kaddish in his memory every day… but it was my thinking and writing, which imbued my kaddish experience with real meaning.

Now, having returned to writing some two-thirds of a year after completing my kaddish odyssey, I realize how much purpose this process continues to provide me with. While I think that Judaism without community is pointless, it would seem that the essence of my own Judaism is being actualized in the chair before my keyboard.

COVID-19 lockdowns have certainly limited my access to community during this last half year and more, but… I haven’t been desperately clawing for any opportunities for communal engagement (which yet exist), nor tearing at the gates of my synagogue to return to daily communal prayer.

Instead, I’ve been writing.

And now I wonder: is my Judaism without community any more Jewishly substantive than a Judaism without Jewish substance?

Israel, the secular elephant

Would I have embraced the path of religious skepticism to this extent if I had remained in the USA instead of making my home in Israel? I’m inclined to think not, and it troubles me.

* * *

After the secular Jewish upbringing of my youth, I inadvertently discovered Orthodox Judaism as a college freshman in Cleveland, OH, seeking to make connections with any and all other Jews in the face of what felt to me a dearth of Jewish life on campus. I feared, subconsciously, becoming unmoored from my ‘Jewishness’ in the absence of fellow tribesmen.

This experience, I would come to realize years later, was emblematic of Jewish life outside of Israel:

  1. In most places on earth, maintaining one’s Jewish connection and identity necessitates deliberately affiliating with other Jewish people and communities.
  2. Modern day Jewish communities are primarily religious ones, identified by denominational affiliations.

In the years following college and graduate school, I took the opportunity to explore Jewish communities of different stripes, hoping to find my home among them – not only socially but also in terms of religious values, practices, and beliefs.

* * *

It’s important to understand that I was raised with very strong ties to Israel, which profoundly shaped my concept of Jewishness as a child.

Before repatriating to Israel in the mid-70’s, my parents both lived secular lives, as was the default in the USSR. Mama and Papa didn’t become religious in their new home, but they were exposed to traditional Jewish texts and holidays, and they embraced Jewish traditions.

While I was raised in the USA, my cousins grew up in Israel; my parents and I would visit them every few years. Although I didn’t reflect much upon this as a child, my cousins’ lives were much different than my own, Jewishly speaking. In the USA, my secular parents had joined a synagogue, and I attended Hebrew school in the afternoons; my cousins, on the other hand, were not connected to any particular community, but they resided in the Jewish State.

The differences went beyond mere affiliation. Unlike our extended family in Israel,

… our concept of Pesach was grounded in tradition; our seder went beyond simply putting a seder plate on the table.

– Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #10, Oct. 14, 2018

If we had remained in Israel, instead of moving to the USA when I was but a toddler, I dare say that we would have celebrated Passover with our extended family every single year; and we would not have been able to delve into the texts of the haggadah as much as Papa loved to do.

* * *

More likely than not, had my parents and I remained in Israel I would never have developed such a fascination for Judaism as a religion. I would have grown up much like my cousins – a secular Jew in Israel. I would never have worried about losing my ‘Jewishness’, such as it might have been, and never would have felt the need to affiliate myself with a Jewish community.

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays. The symbols of government are all Jewish: the Star of David in the center of the Israeli flag, the 120 members of our Knesset, etc., etc. Also, ~¾ of Israeli citizens are registered as Jewish by the civil government so most of them end up marrying other Jews by default.

Suffice it to say that Jews living in Israel are secure in their Jewish identities, regardless of the degrees to which their personal and family lives are guided by Jewish values and traditions.

* * *

Unfortunately, this security comes with a profound down side, which is that for many secular Israeli Jews – living here in the Jewish State is the primary or even sole Jewish facet of their lives. For too many residents, speaking Hebrew, serving in the Israeli Defense Force, and raising their children in Israel has become the totality of their ‘Jewishness’.

So… what becomes of their Jewish identities when these secular Jews move abroad? Well, many of them come to discover that their children, raised in the Diaspora, feel neither particularly Israeli nor particularly Jewish.

Even for those who remain in Israel, there is a bit of a hollowness to their ‘Jewishness’. Many take the existence of the country for granted and feel no particular attachment to the Land we live on. If the State of Israel had been founded in Uganda in 1903, such Israeli Jews would not have felt much different about their attachment to the Jewish State.

Essentially, with no fear of assimilation to drive them, most Israeli Jews are complacent about their Jewish identities. Many are even apathetic.

* * *

Having grown up in the USA, I have had many an encounter with assimilated Jewish people of all ages and generations – some have been 1st generation Americans and some have lived in the States for multiple generations.

I spent more than a decade, beginning with my earliest college days, trying to find my place among the many models of Jewish community in the USA, in an attempt to buttress my Diaspora ‘Jewishness’. Ultimately, my search led me back to Israel.

And now – here I am – living in Israel, raising my family in Israel. Here I am – observing Shabbat in a more or less traditional manner. Here I am – with access to untold numbers of synagogues, Jewish resources, rabbis, etc. Here I am – within walking distance of the very heart of the ancient Israelite kingdom –

And, increasingly, I am struggling to maintain my motivation – to live a religious Jewish life.

* * *

It’s so damn’d powerful, this experience of living in the Holy Land. It’s actually intoxicating in its mundanity. Being Jewish here – in Israel – in Jerusalem – requires nary a thought, nary an effort.

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere. While attending her state-secular preschool, my daughter learns about the Torah, the Jewish holidays, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She need never attend an afternoon Hebrew school program, as I did (nor do I think there is such a thing in this country).

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.

To be honest, I feel foolish writing about this because I’ve “known” this all my life. “Everyone” knows that being Jewish in Israel is fundamentally different than anywhere else in the world, certainly anyone concerned with Jewish identity. And yet – the actual power of living immersed in Israeli Jewish society is not one that I can convey fully even to the most committed Diaspora Jew. In Israel, ‘Jewishness’ is in my every step and fills my lungs to capacity.

And I am scared. I am scared for myself and especially for my daughter.

What if we succumb to the State and become complacent Israeli Jews?