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.
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser