Jewish Guilt

Nearly thirty days ago my mother passed away, quietly in her sleep after a protracted illness, and I wanted to share some of my feelings and experiences, as a baal teshuvah keeping the Halachos interacting with a non-observant family.

An incident occurred at my mother’s funeral that I thought would be appropriate to discuss on Beyond Teshuvah. On my way to the U.S. to attend the funeral, my wife called while I was still in the airport in Israel and offered to call my brother, who lives in a different state than my parents, and recommend he pack an old shirt, in case he wanted to tear kyriah. “Okay,” I said, “why not tell him about it? At least he’ll have the choice.”

At some point after I arrived and we took care of the burial permit and other arrangements at the cemetery, I told my father and my other brother about the Jewish custom of kryiah, and the reasons behind it. I explained that we tear a garment to show that we believe the body is only a garment for the soul. We express our pain in this tangible way, but in a way that comforts us that only the exterior garment is lost; the soul lives on forever.

“Very well, but we aren’t going to do that,” they said. The next day, my brothers and my father prepared black ribbons to wear on their coat sleeves, and put on their best dress shirts. I am not the one to be pushy about religion, especially with my family. I was relieved that at least there was going to be a Chevrah Kadisha involved in the funeral.

That was a big concession by my brothers. When my brother was informed of my mother’s death, he immediately called the mortuary located in the local cemetery where my parents bought a plot twenty years ago. They arranged to send their workers out immediately. Then he called me, in Israel, and I suggested finding a Chevrah Kadisha in L.A. (over an hour’s drive away, without traffic).

I phoned the local Chabad Rabbi, probably the only Shomer Shabbos Jew in town, who I knew from previous trips home, and he got involved. My brother agreed to phone him, but told him that my Mom wanted a Reform ceremony, not an Orthodox one. “This has nothing to do with Reform or Orthodox,” the Rabbi said (I heard later), “this involves the difference between a traditional Jewish way of doing things, with a 2000 year history, or nothing.” My brother took the number of the Chevrah Kadisha, but only reached their beeper service.

Meanwhile, the workers from the local mortuary arrived. In what is to me an amazing display of the pinteleh Yid (the Jewish spark), my brother sent them away and waited for the Chevrah Kadisha to get back to him. He was in my parent’s home where my mother passed away; she was in hospice at home. The nurse was gone, and he was alone with her body. At this point, he told me, he was only doing this for me. He didn’t know what my mother would have wanted, and he didn’t believe it made any difference. The Chevrah Kadisha came a couple of hours later and relieved him of his uncomfortable, uneasy post.

Readers of Beyond BT understand the importance of the meaningful and respectful traditions of Jewish burial—the taharah, purification in a pool of water, tachrichim, burial shrouds, shomer, who watches over the body 24/7, and burial in a plain wooden coffin in the ground. However, my family had no familiarity with these concepts at all.

Afterwards, they extolled the praises of the Chevrah Kadisha Mortuary, who acted with great sensitivity, efficiency, and respect. They really went the extra mile (or 75 miles, at 2:00 am), and made a big kiddush Hashem.

My mother was in hospice; I expected what was going to happen. But still, I was totally unprepared. No one wants to consider these things. But it would be a good idea to have a plan for kosher Jewish burial, some information, like phone numbers and the like, and if possible and appropriate, to discuss the matter beforehand with our family members.

At the funeral, the Reform Rabbi who led the ceremony at my mother’s request, called on the husband and the sons to step forward to tear kyriah, which he went on to explain. I was surprised, but before I knew what was going on, everyone recited “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” responsively after the Rabbi (I mean everyone, even my brothers’ non-Jewish coworkers and friends of the family), and we all tore our shirts.

A few days later, I asked them why they decided to tear kyriah in the end? After all, they wore expensive shirts, and they had the black ribbons anyway. They said: “Rabbi L. (the Chabad Rabbi, who also spoke at the funeral) took us aside and spoke to us about the significance of kyriah. Then he said, ‘Really, it’s a question of what’s more important in the final analysis, a $25 shirt or your mother’s soul?’”

“Yeah, you know,” added my sister-in-law, “Jewish guilt!”

They didn’t seem upset in the least, and when Rabbi L. arranged for minyanim in my father’s home, they put on the shirts with the kryiah.

I have always been apprehensive about “religious coercion,” especially with family members. But if I didn’t get Rabbi L. involved, would my mother have had the Chevrah Kadisha? Probably not. Would my family have torn kyriah or said kaddish during shivah? Definitely not.

What are your thoughts and feelings about using Jewish guilt?

Originally Published Nov 28, 2006

16 comments on “Jewish Guilt

  1. Thanks for the comments.

    I think there has a been a pretty general consensus that what lay behind my father’s and brothers’ compliance in making a kosher burial, and tearing their shirt was the deep down desire to do the right thing, and the intuitive realization that what the Rabbi was asking them to do was the right thing.

    As Steve Brizel mentioned, the Rabbinic Court used to use lashes to coerce a contrary husband to give his wife a get (divorce document) when he was obligated by Torah law to do so. However, the Rambam asks, every get must be given out of his free will, so how is this get kosher if he forced to give it? The answer is because he really wants to do the ratzon Hashem, deep down in the level of his soul, only his bodily desires interfere with his innate desire. So when he gets lashes, the body removes its objections, and it is from his innermost soul that he says, “I agree.”

    This means when we find a way to enable another Jew to do a mitzvah, we are actually enabling him to reach his true inner potential, and as such he’ll most likely appreciate it.

  2. Hi,
    Oddly enough, I too lost my mother only a little more than a month ago, October 18th. She was also at home, in hospice care, and died (although uncomfortably) in her sleep. She was just 59. She too was reform and thankfully changed her mind very last minute about being cremated (G-d forbid). She had a modern reform funeral, we tore the black ribbons, but the ceremony and the mincha at my brother’s home after and such was traditional.

    All in all, I think guilt comes from within and is not the cause of others. Perhaps we just need a mirror of ourselves to put ourselves in check.

    I’m sorry for your loss and I hope your mourning is filled with memories that would make your mother proud.

  3. Thank you for this post. I went through almost the exact same situation with my family a year and a half ago when my brother died.

  4. IMO, guilt is a definite element . After all, scar vonesh ( guilt and punishment) is built into the performance or non-compliance with any mitzvah or halacha. OTOH, it can be argued that scar vonesh take on their most importance during Elul and Yamim Noraim. I would shy away from using it as a wedge in the situation described and let the person realize bshaas maaseh that the right thing to do is compliance simply because as Rambam states in Hilcos Gerushin that all Jews have an innate desire to perform mitzvos.

  5. I agree with Fern. I think the post title is a misnomer and that this isn’t about guilt and religious coercion.

    When someone who has not had the benefit of a Jewish education is told “this involves the difference between a traditional Jewish way of doing things, with a 2000 year history and nothing” and that this is about a soul, the neshama resonates to this truth.

    We tend to underestimate the power of the truth on the neshama.

  6. it’s a very thoughtful post, and segues into the whole debate on objective versus subjective right.

    i would say that the only guilt involved here is what would have been felt by the poster, if he hadn’t made such an enormous effort for his mum.

    sometimes, i think guilt can be very healthy.

  7. It’s also my experience that a lot of Reform do know of the traditional rituals (kyriah, shoveling the dirt on, etc.) even if they don’t know why they’re so important or if it’s only “my parents and grandparents did it that way.”

  8. You know, I don’t think there was guilt at play here. I think a lot of Jews “reject” Torah observance because they don’t have a good Jewish education. They don’t understand why Jews don’t eat pork or use electricity on Shabbat or observe certain burial rituals, so all those rules seem overbearing and pointless. But when someone takes the time to explain why we do all these things, then Jewish law becomes beautiful, uplifting and comforting instead of onerous.

  9. It depends on the context. The death of a loved one is an appropriate time to discuss our duty to the deceased. However, when I was growing up, I heard a lot of:
    “Be Jewish because of the Holocaust.”
    “Israel is important because of the Holocaust.”
    “Marry Jewish because of the Holocaust.”

    I connected the traditional Judaism because I met observant Jews who embraced joy and life. There is a time for everything, but guilt and obligation should not be our primary tools for encouraging Jewish growth in ourselves and others.

  10. It’s a riff on “hate the sin love the sinner”.

    If the person dosen’t identify with the guilty action or inaction then guilt-tripping them will be effective. If they feel as though the behavior/inaction is party and parcel of their makeup then guilt-tripping them will be understoos as a personal putdown and will have counterproductive results.

  11. You said “However, my family had no familiarity with these concepts at all.” – which is the key. Think of the three sons at the seder – the one who does not even know what to ask. When the issue is lack of knowledge, and if the people involved are not made to feel stupid or ignorant, you can wind up with a positive outcome, as you did. Keep your eyes, ears, heart open – a lot of people become more observant as a result of saying Kaddish… – or rather as a result of involvement with the community as a result of saying Kaddish.

    One more thing – the whole issue of kriyah as practiced today. I’m not 100% sure of the origin, but I think it originated with rending of garments on hearing of the death – no matter how expensive the garment. What we do now is highly ritualized, and IMHO less meaningful than that act, so I don’t quite see it in the same light.

  12. To extend Mark’s point, I believe that every Jew knows deep down inside that the Torah is true, that the soul is eternal, etc. It comes down to the fact that people don’t want to be made to feel incompentent or shown to be wrong. When matters are handled sensitively, and the involved parties don’t fear any loss of face, the result is as what happened here. Not in every case, but probably 99% of the time. I don’t think it is really guilt, it is just that, for example, blaming Jewish guilt is a way of not having to admit that a person’s lifestyle is incorrect, etc.

  13. I think there was much more at play here than guilt. The Chabad Rabbi had raised the possibility in their minds that there is a soul that exists after death and that soul would benefit from their actions.

    I would bet that it was only because he had established some credibility with them, that they considered this possibility. Once this a possibility, then it is obvious that you would tear the $25 shirt, because it’s the right thing to do.

    It’s interesting to note that the non-frum world often thinks of doing the right thing in terms of guilt, yet frum hashkafa usually doesn’t use that word.

  14. While I see why you phrase it that way, respect for the deceased is a very powerful thing, beyond guilt. When my grandfather was niftar, my husband and my one frum BIL were the only ones finishing shovelling after the token scoop from each family member.

    When my grandmother followed, about 6 years later, I remembered, and took my brother aside just before the eulogies started in the chapel to explain that completely covering/filling in the grave is considered in Jewish law to be a final sign of respect and kindness towards the body that housed this person, instead of letting the cemetary workers having this honor.

    He spread the word, and instead of funny looks, my husband had close to 6 helpers. Everyone loved Grandma, and wanted to be able to show this respect – once they had context, they were more than happy to participate.

  15. I’m not such a big fan of Jewish guilt; i know when people guilt me into things, i’m not so quick to forgive or understand (although it’s never been for something so serious as burial practices), and i resent it. So i don’t want to “turn people off” by trying to guilt them into anything.

    Of course, in your situation, the guilted people had no negative reaction and everything worked out fine. I’m just worried about the opposite occuring.

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