November 18, 2019

In Judaism, Death, as Life, is with People

This is reprinted with the author’s permission from the Arizona Jewish Post.

By Gila Silverman

My mother died a day before Shavuot, two years ago. Three months later, at Yom Kippur services, I knew that I was finally an adult (at age 49) because, for the first time ever, I stayed in the sanctuary for the Yizkor memorial service. A year ago, at Passover, after making her recipes without her, I sobbed through Yizkor, painfully aware that I was sitting in her seat at her synagogue and she should have been there.

This year, during Passover Yizkor, to my great surprise, I found myself crying again, because it hit me — yet again, but as if for the first time — that for the rest of my life, I will be staying in the room for Yizkor, that I will always now be among the mourners. In an article reflecting on her 50-year career as a bereavement researcher, my mother wrote: “It became simpler when I stopped thinking of grief as an illness that ends. In its own way, grief lasts a lifetime. There is no universal or fixed schedule for grieving…. Children tell us that their grief changes as they mature. However, the death of a parent is with them for the rest of their lives.” My mother knew this from her research; she also knew it from Jewish tradition.

Jewish mourning is guided by two principles — kavod hamet and nichum aveilim — honoring the dead and comforting the mourners. Neither of these can be done alone. Like so much of Jewish life, we need other people to respond Jewishly to death. A well-known book describing life in the shtetls is called “Life is with People.” And from a Jewish perspective, death is also with people.  Mourning is by definition a lonely experience, as we try to adjust to a life without someone who was important to us. But Judaism ensures that we are not alone throughout this process. From the moment of death, actually from the moments preceding death, through the funeral, and the shiva, through the month or year of saying kaddish, and to the ongoing rememberings of yahrzeit and Yizkor, if we mourn as Jews, we don’t do so alone. In fact, we can’t do so alone.

This week, as I mark the completion of my second year without my mother, I will light a yahrzeit candle and make my way to a minyan to say kaddish. Then, a few days later, I will go back to the synagogue and, once again, stay in the room for Yizkor. The Yizkor prayers remind us that even after someone dies, they too are still “with people” ­­— their memories are still with us and they are still part of our communities. On this day, as we celebrate receiving the Torah that made us a people, we will also remember those who have come before us, and those who are no longer with us. We will recite the names of our dead, and give them a place in the community and in our prayers, knowing that who we are, and who we will be, incorporates them too.

My mother spent her professional life studying the mourning process. She taught that grief is not a process of letting go or of moving on; rather, it is a process of accommodating to a new life, and finding a way to continue a relationship with someone who is no longer physically present. We are lucky that Judaism provides us with a clear guide for how to do that. Five times a year — on the yahrzeit, and during the Yizkor services at Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot — we officially pause to acknowledge those continuing relationships, and to bring them into our community’s sacred gathering. In our quiet moments alone at home, most of us remember, every day, those who have died. But because Jewish life is with people, we also need to remember them when we are together. Unlike mainstream America, where grief is supposed to be a private process, from which we “recover” quickly, Judaism recognizes that grief is a normal part of human life, which lasts throughout our lifetimes, and which we do not try to hide or run away from.

As we come together this week, to celebrate the Torah and to remember our ancestors, both personal and communal, may those relationships continue to enrich and guide our lives. May the souls of all those we love be bound up in the web of life, and may all of their memories be a blessing to us.

Gila Silverman, a 2017 HBI Scholar-in-Residence, is a research associate at The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University, and a visiting scholar at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.

 

 

Let Your Wife Go!

By Rachel Putterman

For those who follow the cycle of the Jewish year, we’re about to wrap up the interim period between the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt that we commemorated at the Passover seder, and the paradigmatic moment of revelation at Mount Sinai that we will soon celebrate at Shavuot.  As we metaphorically complete our wandering in the desert and prepare to accept God’s law as a free people, it is worth taking a look at modern issues of slavery particularly within the Jewish world. In so doing, it’s hard not to be struck by the resiliency of the agunah issue. Despite years of activism on behalf of agunot, the issue remains a Gordian knot in our midst. Yet a recent civil court decision from the far-flung reaches of Australia signals that the perception of get refusal as domestic abuse is becoming axiomatic. Perhaps most inspiring, the decision demonstrates how civil courts and Beit Dins (Jewish religious courts) can work together to free women from dead marriages.

Under Jewish law, a man must voluntarily give a woman a Jewish divorce, and the woman must voluntarily accept it. The woman is the passive recipient of the man’s act of divorcing her, an act that the Beit Din merely facilitates. This is in stark contrast to U.S. civil law, where either party may initiate a divorce case, and it is the court that issues the final divorce judgment. Traditionally, an agunah was a woman whose husband was unable to give her a divorce either because he had disappeared or didn’t have the requisite mental or physical capacity. In the last 50 years or so, the term agunah has shifted to refer primarily to the situation where a man refuses to give his wife a get, despite being capable of doing so. Sometimes the husband simply doesn’t want his wife to be free to remarry, and other times he uses the threat of get refusal as a means of extorting concessions on other issues connected to the divorce case such as financial support, division of property or access to the children. In either situation, men are leveraging the power differential inherent in Jewish divorce to their advantage. Moreover, as was successfully argued in the Australian case, get refusal often is a continuation of a pattern of domestic abuse that has gone on throughout the marriage.

In response to the tireless activism on behalf of agunot, there have been some recent legal developments that bode well, of which the Australian case is but the latest. Following an Agunot Summit convened in New York in the summer of 2013, Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg announced the formation of a new International Beit Din whose raison d’etre is the resolution of complicated get refusal cases. Another novel solution that has been gaining traction throughout the U.S. is the signing of the halachic prenuptial agreement, whereby the husband agrees that in the event of separation, he will pay his wife a certain amount for every day that he refuses to give her a get. In the wake of these high profile legal remedies within the U.S., the landmark decision from Australia shows that Jewish communities around the world are making strides in the struggle to free agunot.

Earlier this year, in a case involving a woman’s request for an extension of an order of protection, an Australian magistrate held that get refusal per se constitutes family violence as articulated by the applicable family law regulation. The woman seeking the order of protection had already been civilly divorced from her husband yet he was refusing to give her a get unless she paid him $200,000. The woman’s attorney argued that the order of protection should be granted at least in part due to the man’s refusal to give his wife a get. She crafted this argument in consultation with the Melbourne Beit Din to ensure the validity of any get her client would eventually receive. The Magistrate granted the extension of the order of protection, and explicitly found that the man’s “refusal to finally release her from a violent marriage [was] the ultimate exercise of dominance and control.” Acknowledging the synergy between civil and religious authorities in this case, the head rabbi on the Melbourne Beit Din welcomed the decision and stated: “[t]his precedent would allow us another method of using the civil court system to help provide a gett [sic] from a recalcitrant husband.”

Not only does this Australian case provide the first legal finding that get refusal constitutes domestic abuse, it also exemplifies the effectiveness of religious and civil courts working together to send the message that get refusal is a violation of law that will not be sanctioned. In other words, all authorities agree that women should not continue to be enslaved in marriages that they want to be free of, and hence it’s time for all recalcitrant husbands to heed the call: Let Your Wife Go!

rachel_puttermanRachel Putterman is a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

 

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