Monday, March 31, 2008

The Death of Shiva

Death used to make us act like grownups. Funerals required black suits, solemn expressions and somber eulogies. Even pointless traditions regarding death were carefully preserved; to this day, many English communities still use a horse drawn carriage as a hearse, in an attempt to recreate the ambience of a Dickensian era burial.

The 21st century has no patience for lugubrious traditions. It’s time to lighten up!! Now funerals need panache, theatre, and a dollop of laughter. Mourning is no longer a deep felt emotion; now, it’s a performance art!! And of course, let us not forget, the funeral is not supposed to be sad – it should be a “celebration of life”.

Forgive me my sarcasm. I appreciate why the old style funeral, more funereal than real, failed to be meaningful. Remote, wooden clergymen delivered incompetent eulogies while family members squirmed silently in their seats. Tears were banned, in order to maintain “the dignity of the service”. However, in reaction we have gone too far. Indeed, in many ways, we have perverted Judaism’s spiritual mourning practices into a fast paced pop psychology “happy meal”.

Falling by the wayside is the significant practice of observing Shiva. “Shiva” means seven, referring to the seven days that mourners refrain from any outside activities and sit on the floor and mourn. As reported in this article in the Globe and Mail (March 27th), shivas are becoming less and less common. Sadly, we are now observing the death of shiva.

Shivas are disappearing due to impatience and superficiality. Everything today must be high speed: internet, e-mails, even emotions. No one has an entire week to “disconnect” from work.

Even worse is the plague of superficiality. The mourning practices of shiva have been dangerously mixed up with psychological explanations. People think that somehow the purpose of the shiva is to bring the mourners consolation; indeed, I often hear testimonials to “how good” the shiva makes the mourners feel.

This understanding of shiva is at best half true. It is correct that there is a rabbinic commandment for friends to visit the mourners during the shiva; and yes, it is the friends’ responsibility to help console the mourners. This is why visitors come to the shiva house, but it is not the purpose of the shiva itself.

The actual purpose of shiva is for mourners to mourn, for a bereaved family to express their pain. And mourning in Judaism has a simple goal: to honor the deceased. (Indeed, when a person is buried on the intermediate days of Passover or Sukkot, the period for visitations begins immediately, while the actual mourning begins after the holiday – Shulchan Aruch Orach chaim 568:6)

At shivas, the families put their lives on hold for a week to grieve over a relative’s death and contemplate their legacy. The week of mourning publicly expresses that the family truly misses the person who has passed away. This is why the shiva is an act of honor: to be mourned, to be remembered, to be missed, is to be loved and respected.

By viewing shiva purely as a palliative for the mourners’ pain, we have transformed a sacred obligation into a vintage form of psychotherapy. Shivas are essentially grandma’s recipe for consolation, best stuffed away in a closet when the almighty Blackberry beckons. Indeed for many, all this mourning is a drag.

Tragically lost is a sense of obligation to the deceased. Often, the phrase “celebrating life” is usually just an excuse for the family to avoid mourning. Instead of honoring the deceased, we choose to honor our appointments.

The death of shiva affects us all, Jewish or not. What has really disappeared is the ethics of memory, the responsibility to remember others. In a world of high speed narcissism, the dead are tossed by the wayside while we go on “celebrating life”.


TV Digital said...
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Daniel E. Levenson said...

This is an interesting post. It seems that many Jews have forgotten and/or abandoned many aspects of Jewish ritual life, including sitting shiva. This is the kind of issue we are interested in at the New Vilan Review.

I'd like to invite you to check out the site when you get a chance: We're always looking for new contributors, so if you or someone you know might like to submit something we'd be happy to hear from you.

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Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail the following week. However, it can only be accessed by G&M subscribers. Here, you can have it for free!