A very personal guide to Jewish mourning

Boteach describes the trauma of his father’s death, examines that profound experience with wisdom and insight, and draws from it precepts and guidance that will undoubtedly help other mourners.

 Rabbi Shmuley Boteach lays tefillin on his father in hospital. (photo credit: SHMULEY BOTEACH)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach lays tefillin on his father in hospital.
(photo credit: SHMULEY BOTEACH)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Preparing to write this review was a new experience for me. I have never before sat at my desk, trying to read a review copy, only to find myself mopping my eyes as tears continue to well up.

The opening chapter of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book, Good Mourning: Finding Meaning in Grief and Loss, contains a heart-rending account of the death of his beloved father. It occurred in Los Angeles, in the very midst of the corona lockdown. Circumventing all the restrictions, Boteach succeeded in airlifting his father’s body to Israel, and managed to arrange for a clutch of relatives to attend the funeral service in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives cemetery. There he found himself the officiating rabbi, responsible for conducting the service and committing his father to his grave.

In words almost too painful to read, he tells us of his “out-of-body” experience as the realization struck him that this funeral service was unique, that it was his own father’s body lying before him, that he was the mourner to whom those around him were saying: “May the Almighty comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” At one point, struck by utter disbelief at the situation, he could not help repeating to himself: “It’s not supposed to be me. I’m supposed to help other people. It’s not supposed to be me.”

To turn then to the Appendix and read Boteach’s intensely moving eulogy is to understand the deep, undying love he had for his father, and indeed what an extraordinary man his father had been.

Stones placed in remembrance lie on grave tablets on the Mount of Olives Jewish cemetary as the sun sets in Jerusalem (credit: LASZLO BALOGH/ REUTERS)Stones placed in remembrance lie on grave tablets on the Mount of Olives Jewish cemetary as the sun sets in Jerusalem (credit: LASZLO BALOGH/ REUTERS)

The aspects of Jewish mourning

In subsequent chapters, Boteach explains and discusses various aspects of Jewish mourning. It is no dry-as-dust exposition he provides, as he relates his personal experiences. “Some of my attitudes and preconceived notions about death and mourning profoundly changed as I dealt with my own loss.”

He shows how the Mourners’ Kaddish, which he translates and analyses, provides a positive message that helps restore hope to those who grieve. Another of its functions, he tells us, is to force the mourner to meet with others, for the Kaddish needs to be repeated in the presence of a minyan of 10 or more. Boteach provides a further reason for his decision to say Kaddish three times a day, every day, for the full 11 months required by tradition and law: “I have been able to prolong my direct relationship with my father in the most profound way. I felt his presence with every Kaddish.”

Through thick and thin, overcoming every kind of practical problem and apparently insurmountable obstacle, over those 11 months Boteach somehow managed to assemble a minyan three times every day. “The anxiety of finding the daily minyan to say Kaddish was all-consuming.”

He describes some of his experiences in doing so. One memorable occasion was on the White House lawn when he was invited to attend the signing of the Abraham Accords. There were plenty of Jews present, and the minyan he assembled was televised around the world. On other occasions, he declined to attend public events because travel timings, or the impossibility of assembling a minyan, would have forced him to miss one or other of the three daily services.

One unforgettable episode followed a full day spent with grandchildren, when suddenly after midnight he realized the evening prayers had entirely slipped his mind. Where on earth could he find a minyan at that hour? Feeling it was impossible, he went to bed. But the thought of failing in the duty he had laid on himself never to miss a Kaddish became intolerable. He got up, dressed and drove through a cold, wet December night to Crown Heights, the headquarters of Chabad. There, in the wee small hours, he succeeded in assembling a minyan of yeshiva students, and fulfilled his obligation.

In one chapter, Boteach highlights the sort of family problems that can follow the death of a parent, and through his personal experience, helps us understand them. He describes how losing a parent pulls you away from your spouse and children. “You’re drawn to the parent who is suddenly present by being absent.”

In describing the deleterious effect this can have on a mourner’s closest relationships, he prepares his readers for an aspect of loss that is little discussed.

Shmuley Boteach has spent his whole working life describing Judaism rationally, both to Jews and the wider world, and yet he believes in the eventual resurrection of the dead. “The idea that I will one day be reunited with my father gives me great comfort,” he writes.

Boteach explains a little of what lies behind this belief, but is more explicit about how death forces people to face their own mortality. He describes feeling different psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and maybe even physically, and suggests several ways of coping.

He devotes a whole chapter to what he calls: “Extreme Grief and Learning to Overcome It.” Far from being angry with God at the loss of his father, Boteach – who believes there is no good time for death – did not equate it with a tragedy, which as a rabbi he deals with constantly. Rather, he regarded his father‘s natural death as terribly sad and an irretrievable loss. He found strength in the basic principles of his Jewish faith: that Judaism always emphasizes life, and constantly seeks to raise the believer above death.

Judaism, he points out, does not embody the Christian idea of salvation and a place in heaven. Jews believe in creating heaven on earth. And he observes that Judaism never sees death as the end, for Jewish ritual requires things to be done to keep the memory of a loved one alive. Boteach quotes Queen Victoria’s reaction to the early death of her husband as the reverse of the Jewish approach.

Victoria was in her early 40s when she became a widow. For the remainder of her long life she grieved and dressed in mourning black. Judaism, Boteach tells us, counsels against that kind of extreme grief, while its rituals – such as Kaddish and the shiva (seven days following an interment when you receive relatives and friends) – are aimed at restoring those who mourn to interaction with the community.

Finally, Boteach wrestles with a universal problem. The death of a loved one inevitably induces an awareness of one’s own mortality. How do you balance that with putting such thoughts out of your mind so that you can live life to its fullest? He concludes that Judaism emphasizes life, and that its mourning rituals help us process death and transform it into a blessing.

Based on his own experience of loss and grief, and drawing on his many years as a rabbi, Boteach rejects the well-known five stages of grief formulated by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, namely: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. He finds that the pattern of grief consists of three concentric circles of emotion. The first is shock, numbness and devastation; the second is the intensity of feeling about the deceased – almost a tendency to think of the departed in saintly terms; the third is realism – acceptance of life without the deceased. He believes that the principles underlying Jewish mourning rituals should be shared with the world, because they give Judaism its transformative power to help people overcome loss.

Boteach offers his readers 10 lessons about mourning taken from his experience, and based on his faith.

The first is to accept that you have experienced loss, and to take time to grieve. Failure to do that can store up future difficulties. Second, there is no good death – once a parent is gone, you realize that your generation is next. But there is no need to be morbid about it. Third, connect with your loved ones both for its own sake, and to avoid self-recrimination later. Fourth, live life to the full. Fifth, don’t keep your memories of the departed to yourself. Talk about them to others. Sixth, seek help if you need it, but also make a point of telling your nearest and dearest about your love for them, and your appreciation of who they are. Remember also the fifth commandment: Honor your parents.

Seventh, moderation in all things. Maimonides said that the good life is the moderate life, and that every extreme is evil. The same is true of grief. Eighth, find a spiritual life, which does not necessarily mean a religious one. Ninth, avoid the victimhood and conflict that can erupt following the death of a family member. Do not let a dark cloud hang over your life. Boteach’s 10th and final lesson is to take stock and choose life. Suddenly faced with your own mortality, he advises you to make the essential preparations for your own death, and then not to think about it anymore. Once your affairs are in order, you can leave death behind and embrace life.

“If there is one message I want to leave you all with,” he writes, “it is to always choose life.”

In Good Mourning, Boteach describes the personal trauma of his own father’s death, examines that profound experience with wisdom and insight, and draws from it precepts and guidance that will undoubtedly bring understanding, help and comfort to countless other mourners. ■

Good Mourning: Finding Meaning in Grief and LossRabbi Shmuley BoteachGefen Publishing House, 2022$17.95, 160 pages