Losing to Gain: The Central Paradox of Death Rituals – The Break that Binds by Isaac Pollak


[Ed. Note: This is a reprise from 2014. — JB]

Central to religious practice, rituals may often seem intentionally obtuse, to the point of irrationality. This, in fact may be their very purpose. By devising rituals that at times seem to make little or no sense to the uninitiated, those who learn to perform the rituals – if not understand them, become part of a distinct community. The fact that rituals often don’t make practical or rational sense is exactly what makes them useful for social identification. The cognitive psychologist Christine LeGare has done a number of studies showing that rituals declare that you are a member of a particular social group. Lewis Mumford, the social philosopher, historian, and greatest urbanist of the 20th century, makes a clear case that what sets humans apart from other animals is not the use of tools, but rather our use of language and ritual, and those are what makes us “Community”. Sharing information and ideas among participants was the foundation of all societies, and “community is the most precious collective invention.”

Although there are rituals designed for every aspect of the human life cycle, the rituals surrounding “DEATH” are often the least understood, yet the most often performed. Even the irreligious may insist upon death rituals for themselves or their loved ones. Matthew Frank in his book Preparing the Ghost speaks about “our need to mythologize, ritualize, and spin tales about that which we “fear.”

The greater the lack of comprehension, the increased the amount of the rituals with DEATH, by far the most ritualized of any aspect of a society’s life cycle in every culture. The more rituals there are, the stronger the bonds of community and social identification. The life cycle events the least understood emerge in ritual earlier and are more deeply rooted.

Witness the recent tragic murder of three young Israeli teenagers which bought every dimension of Judaism – and beyond – into a unified community – from the Ultra-Hassidic to Messianics. Everyone adopted and prayed for these young men in accord with the adage ”kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l\L’zeh”, all of us are responsible for one another. Death brought us a sense of unified community as nothing else ever could.

A life broken, an individual link lost, paradoxically strengthens the group unity and identity. Rituals give us a sense of control over an area where we have none. Mundane actions are suffused with arbitrary conventions, and that makes it important to us and gives us a sense of “being in charge”. Rituals engage members of a community in the collective enterprise of building and sustaining a “PEOPLE.”

Jewish death rituals have a foundation that travels back in time 3000 years and has made us a community like none other. In fact, a new developing Jewish community has an obligation to set aside ground for a cemetery before setting aside land for a synagogue. How wise were our Rabbis.

Let us preciously value these so vitally irrational traditions and hoary rituals that bring us together to pray, to improve ourselves, and to elevate ourselves in response to mysteries we don’t comprehend.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing the German poet Rainer M. Rilke in his letters to a young Poet:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

 

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak is President and CEO of an international marketing business for almost 4 decades at this point. He holds graduate degrees in Marketing, Industrial Psychology, Art History, and Jewish Material Culture from City College, LIU, JTS, and Columbia University. He has been a student in the Gamliel Institute, and serves as a consultant to the institution. He has been the rosh/head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, for over 3 decades, and is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, having several hundred in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Born and raised in NYC, married, with 3 children and 3 grandchildren.

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Upsetting the Bipartisan Applecart


It is a troubling paradox: Israel may be protected from new pressure from Washington by the upcoming presidential election, but that protection could foreshadow long-term damage to U.S.-Israel relations.

The reason: more and more, the pro-Israel effort is getting sucked into the quicksand of bitter partisan politics.

In today’s take-no-enemies political climate, the bipartisanship that has been the goal of pro-Israel activism in Washington — a goal steadfastly pursued, if not often attained — is in dire jeopardy.

The good news for pro-Israel lobbyists is that President George W. Bush and his political team see strong, smooth U.S.-Israel relations as a political necessity. Two big reasons: Jewish money and Jewish votes.

With his poll rankings sinking, the President is counting on a record war chest to blow past the Democratic opposition next year. Increasingly, re-election strategists see Jewish money as an important piece of the funding puzzle. Bush’s support for a hawkish government in Israel, they believe, will be a strong selling point with pro-Israel donors.

Even the wildest optimist among the Republicans doesn’t expect Bush to win a majority of Jewish votes. But a jump to 30 percent — in 2000, Bush won only 19 percent — could prove critical, especially in a state the Democrats remember with trepidation: Florida.

Maintaining a cordial relationship with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is seen as a catalyst for that kind of financial and electoral bounce from Jewish donors and voters. Republican Jewish activists are already hitting hard on the Democratic challengers for being soft in their support for Israel.

Even more important, smooth relations with the Sharon government are necessary to keep Evangelical Christians in line. In recent years, the religious right has made support for Israel its top foreign policy priority. The Evangelicals say they simply feel called by God to support Israel, but apparently the Lord has a special preference for Israel’s right wing; even Ariel Sharon isn’t hawkish enough for many of today’s new breed of Christian Zionist.

There’s no danger the religious right will turn to the Democrats next year, but Bush needs a high and enthusiastic turnout from them, and winning amens from their top leaders for his support for Sharon can contribute to that cause.

Those political factors point to relatively smooth U.S.- Israel relations in the short run — not an insignificant development at a time when world opinion is overwhelmingly hostile to Israel. But the auguries for the future aren’t so reassuring.

In an increasingly polarized America, there is a growing danger that Israel will get whipsawed by a partisan balance that can change with staggering speed. For decades, pro-Israel activism has tried to steer a deliberately bipartisan course. The idea was that support for Israel should never be associated with any particular faction, providing a layer of insulation for those inevitable times when the political winds change direction.

True, politicians in both parties sometimes tried to gain an advantage by using Israel as a political club to bash their opponents. But for the most part, there was an acknowledgement that support for Israel should not be Democratic or Republican , liberal or conservative.

That could be changing.

Conservative Republicans, who now ardently support Israel, are increasingly using support not just for Israel but for the most right-wing factions there as a litmus test that they hope and expect most Democrats will fail. The religious right is one of the most polarizing forces in the nation today; Americans are either for them or bitterly against them, with middle ground hard to find. To the extent that support for Israel is now linked to this faction, the Jewish State could be dragged into the center of one of the "culture wars" that increasingly dominate American political life.

It’s revealing that some of Israel’s biggest boosters today — former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the Rev. Pat Robertson — are slashing, controversial figures who have brought the same aggressive stance to their support of the Sharon government. That association could discourage even loyal supporters of Israel on the left and add to the erosion in the bipartisan foundation built so carefully by the pro-Israel lobby.

And what will happen when the volatile Israeli electorate turns to left-leaning leaders? Will the Evangelicals still support an Israel that aggressively seeks land-for-peace agreements with the Palestinians?

This isn’t to say that support from the right should be spurned. But it should be balanced by much more energetic and sustained pro-Israel outreach to other factions, starting with the liberal Democrats who once comprised the pro-Israel base in Washington.

The Jewish community itself needs to avoid being caught up in the venomous political environment of the day. There is an important place in the Jewish community for the political right, which is enjoying its day in the sun — but also for groups on the left, which seem to be in full retreat.

Partisan leaders can afford to play zero-sum games with Israel; the Jewish community, concerned more about Israel’s future in a troubling time than about scoring political points, needs to take a different approach.

Accepting Paradox


After killing an Egyptian taskmaster for nearly beating to death an Israelite slave, Moses, who is introduced in this week’s Torah portion, flees for his life. Like so many biblical figures, he escapes to the desert. While there, he encounters something that defies nature: a bush on fire, unconsumed by the flames. As the narrative continues, Moses approaches the bush to examine it more closely. From within its midst, he hears a voice commanding him to remove his shoes, as the site on which he is standing is holy — further emphasizing the story’s importance.

Most Jewish sources see the significance of the burning bush as a manifestation of God. That it is on fire illustrates an important tension between both God’s immediacy and God’s inapproachability, as if to say, “Stand too close to the Divine and you will be consumed; too far and you will remove yourself from God’s warmth.” Another interpretation views the burning bush as a symbol of Israelite life under Egyptian rule. It offers insight into what will eventually happen. In the same way the bush is unaffected by the fire and survives, so too the people Israel will overcome its enslavement and survive.

Significantly, Moses receives his charge to lead the Jewish people as the result of his experience at the burning bush. Like everything else in the Torah, however, the image conveyed by that encounter serves a deeper purpose. It gives a clear understanding into the type of man Moses was. At the outset of his mission, he is presented with a mystifying dilemma. He sees something engulfed in flames that, at the same time, is left intact and unscathed. To his credit, he handles the discrepancy with great sophistication, displaying an uncanny ability to embrace paradox. No doubt Moses knew that to become God’s servant, he would repeatedly witness paradoxical encounters and conflicting opinions, particularly when dealing with his own people.

Like Moses, our teacher, in order for us to become God’s servant, we too must be willing to embrace paradox. Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a rare voice of reason and balance within the Jewish world, summed it up best when he wrote: “God may have had his own reasons for denying us certainty with regard to his existence and nature. One reason apparent to us is that man’s certainty with regard to anything is poison to his soul.” Moses understood that. He knew that theological uncertainty is the hallmark of a deeply religious, humble person. He knew that both convergent and competitive ideas, when incorporated into one’s life, could enrich a person’s soul.

So as we learn from Moses’ five books, let us integrate a similar approach, one that Moses himself would advocate — one that accepts paradox. After all is said, Judaism thrives when paradoxical ideas are seriously considered and embraced. For a Jew to think there is only one way in which to understand God and our great religious tradition is itself a contradiction.

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