American Reform Responsa
117. Mourning Customs
(Vol. XXIII, 1913, pp. 176-179)
It is perhaps not out of place to state in this connection certain principles that are to guide the Reform rabbi in matters pertaining to mourning customs in general. We are here altogether too much influenced by the legalistic view of tradition to have our own attitude toward the ancient practice clearly defined. Most people, the rabbis included, find only that we have abandoned much that was formerly observed, and consequently our attitude is too negative to lead to a proper appreciation of the Reform principle. The ancient mourning customs, such as the tearing of the garments (Keri-a), the sitting on the ground during the seven days (Shiv-a), and similar practices modified in the Mishna and the Shulchan Aruch have been simply dropped by the people as militating against the spirit of modern times, and the abrogation of the same was ratified by the members of the Breslau Conference after their validity had been discussed in scholarly articles (especially in Geiger’s Theologische Zeitschrift III and IV) some time before. Still, neither the falling into disuse nor the abrogation could satisfy the Jewish conscience, which demands a positive religious principle to go by. Consequently, we are still asked questions such as: How long does the time of mourning last? What form should the mourning take for parents, children, or relatives? That is to say, the people want to be guided by us, expecting our religious advice in matters which are of the deepest and holiest concern to them, when their innermost feelings cry for an outward expression.
Now, it cannot be denied, nor should the fact be ignored, that the Talmudic Halacha based the laws of mourning upon Biblical narratives which are contradictory to the very spirit, if not also to the letter, of the law. The Deuteronomic Law expressly says (Deut. 14:1): “Children, Ye are of the Lord your God, and therefore ye shall not cut yourselves in the flesh nor make your heads bald on account of the dead.” In other words, all the rites and ceremonies which the heathen practiced while mourning for their dead, showing thereby their terrors of a cruel fate ruling human life, should be discarded by the people of Israel, who are–even in the midst of woe and affliction–to realize that they are children of a benign Father Who sends trials to man only to test and chasten him in order to strengthen his faith in and love for Him, as well as his whole character.
Death should not cast its disheartening gloom upon a life which is forever to serve the higher purpose of the Divine Master above. Therefore, it was especially the priest in the sanctuary who was prohibited from practicing these mourning customs, in order that he might offer the people a pattern of perfect submission to the will of God on high (Lev. 21:5, 10).
Indeed, an ethnological and historical study of the mourning customs among the various tribes brings out the fact that the entire heathen world was filled with fear not merely of death, but even more so of the dead, who, while departing into the land of the shades, could ever claim anew what he had possessed here on earth (the things he wore on his body, the weapons he owned, nay, even the human beings that were his). Accordingly, all funeral rites and mourning customs of yore have the character of fear rather than of love and pious devotion. All this the prophetic spirit of Judaism was to change. “Do not cry over the dead,” says the prophet (Jer. 22:10); “Tear your hearts, not your garments,” says another (Joel 11:13).
The entire pessimistic conception of life and death should give way to that optimism which made R. Meir write down on the margin of his Bible, where it says, “And God saw all that He made, and behold, it was very good”–“even death” (Bereshit Rabba 9.5). Accordingly, a person is far more in accord with Jewish teaching if he avoids ostentatious signs of mourning, manifesting instead the true spirit of submissiveness in hours of affliction and loss. The Rabbis of the Talmud themselves must have felt that all the signs of mourning are but a concession to the people when they set down the rule that in all these matters we should follow the less rigid rule (“Ba-avelut holechim achar hamekel,” Mo-ed Katan 18a).
Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the respect and pious regard we owe to the departed, and of the true sentiment of tender love and affection that must find its proper expression at the loss of the beloved. Here the customs of each land and age prescribe certain forms to honor him whose life work is done, and also to guard the sorrowing against any intrusion that may encroach upon their feelings. And religion, above all, must step in to offer its balm of comfort to the bruised heart and to hallow the grief by special hours of devotion and prayer, by abstention from the daily pursuit of business for a certain period, and by some expression of sympathy on the part of friends and fellow-members of the congregation. Only the particulars as to time and form are better left to the individuals or to local customs.
At no time, however, should we speak in deprecating terms of the so-called “Kaddish Jews,” whom only affliction reminds of their sacred obligations and allegiance to the synagogue or to religion in general. For, after all, we are taught by our sages: “Mitoch shelo lishmah ba lishmah.” Often people act from lower motives, but are led to act from higher motives, “learning to aspire more and more to the higher ideal.” We know full well that piety cannot take the place of religion. And yet how many have, through filial piety, been awakened to become religious Jews! Professor Lazarus voices a great truth when he pleads for the revival of the beautiful custom of blessing the children and grandchildren on Sabbath eve at the family reunion as forming a source of religious regeneration from week to week (Treu und Frei, pp. 305ff), and I wish that Dr. Berkowitz, in a revised edition of his Sabbath Eve Service, would accord a place to this sweet old custom by which our domestic religion would be greatly enriched. For is not parental love the stepping-stone to the love of God?
K. Kohler and D. Neumark
S.B. Freehof, “Funeral Folklore,” Reform Responsa, pp. 174ff; “Greeting Mourners,” Current Reform Responsa, pp. 125ff.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.