Death and mourning in Judaism

Community plays an important role in the Jewish tradition of overcoming bereavement

Is death to be welcomed or feared? Is the priority the living or the dead? The Jewish tradition incorporates all these points of view. In some communities the anniversary of death is marked by fasting and in others it is celebrated with a toast 'to eternal life'.

Biblical law is scant. When Abraham comes to mourn Sara and to cry over her (Genesis 23), we are not told if he is crying for his loss or hers. Rachel's nurse, Deborah, dies and is buried under the 'Tree of Tears' in Genesis 35 but it is not until the deaths of Aaron and Moses that the community mourns for thirty days.

Sitting on the ground (or on low stools) and symbolically tearing ones clothes, removing ones shoes, all go back to biblical custom. It is the Talmud that formalizes the laws that still apply today. During the first Seven (Shiva) Days one remains at home to be visited and comforted by the community. For thirty days (Shloshim) one may not celebrate, listen to music, shave or wear new clothes. Only for a parents demise does this process last for a whole year. As does the custom of actively participating in daily service by saying the Kaddish which is not a memorial prayer so much as a celebration of life. Some suggest this is to help the soul ascend. Others say it simply compensates the community for the loss of one of its members, by reinforcing commitment.

The Shiva is the start of the mourning process. It acts as a ritualized transition from burial, shock and pain towards rehabilitation. It allows for cathartic display instead of withdrawal and suppression. It enables the community to rally round and express its solidarity and help feed and provide for the mourners during all seven days. For some it is often suffocating and an endurance but for most it is therapeutic.

In the Book of Job the mourners did not start speaking until Job invited them to. In theory that remains the case but in our world of easy words and banter the single most problematic aspect of the Shiva is the well meant but often ludicrous attempt to explain or justify the loss and give glib answers. The Talmud insists that one recognizes and accepts God in loss as in joy. In the words of Job, 'God gives and God takes.' The purpose of visiting the mourners is to express love and solidarity rather than theological certainty.

In fact, Judaism has always given priority to life, 'Only the living can praise God'. The dead have moved on to a better place. Or if according to Maimonides, they had no expectation of Life After Death, then in fact they have simply died and that is the end of it. Talk of Heaven or Hell is merely a metaphor. The dead live on in our memories and their legacy is the way we live.

Jeremy Rosen is an orthodox rabbi who in addition to his pulpits has also been a Headmaster and Professor of Comparative Religion. He now travels and concentrates on writing.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496