Of all the issues I engage with my congregants around, I find shiva–Jewish mourning practices–to be among the strangest and most challenging. The vast majority of my congregants –like the overwhelming majority of Jews in this country today–don’t understand themselves as bound within a halachic (Jewish legal) framework that obligates them to act in particular ways.
The original purpose of shiva minyans (the quorum of 10 adults, traditionally men, for prayer) after all, is to allow mourners to maintain their obligation not to leave their home (except on Shabbat, when shiva is suspended) while simultaneously providing a minyan so they can fulfill their obligation to recite kaddish (the prayer recited in honor of the dead) for their loved one: If you can’t take yourself to the minyan, we bring the minyan to you.
But most of the people I work with simply don’t think that way. They may want to stay home for a few days so close friends can stop by, and they’ll want minyanim in the evening–but usually more because this provides a focal point and activity for bringing community than for the service itself.
The truth is, the way our suburban community is organized, many of the traditional mourning rituals don’t make sense. Dual-career households mean fewer people can stop by and visit during the day. Mourners themselves may wish to take off from work for a couple of days, but sitting at home for a week on low benches feels odd and oppressive. Other observances, such as not shaving or greeting visitors, also feel arbitrary and awkward, especially when so many of the visitors–Jewish and non-Jewish–don’t come from a cultural context where these observances make sense.
Of course, many aspects of Jewish practice require education–and, more important, experience–to be fully appreciated. Shabbat is a prime example of an observance that does not “fit” with the way we tend to order our lives–precisely because it is not supposed to, because it is a step outside of and a counterweight to our usual daily activities.
Similarly, I see great beauty and dignity in many aspects of traditional Jewish mourning practices. But following the death of a loved one, when the family is looking for comfort, doesn’t feel like the right time to launch into a shiva dos-and-don’ts lecture. Better to find a way to incorporate those mourning practices that families find meaningful and comforting–lighting a shiva candle, covering mirrors, inviting guests in for scheduled services and close friends to stop by as they wish–than to fit a family’s grief into a more standard set of rituals that may or may not be meaningful, or even familiar, to the mourners. And if this includes practices not part of a traditional shiva–planting a tree, playing music special to the person who has died, looking at photographs–well, that’s OK too.
There are, of course, Jewish communities where the traditional rituals of shiva are organic and nourishing to their members, and they should appreciate and maintain them. But in places where these practices only confuse rather than comfort, make angst rather than make sense, we must allow mourners to express their sorrow and move toward healing in ways that draw on the traditional practices but also feel more natural to them.