‘…to be deeply involved in mourning’

Are you familiar with Rabbi Michael Lerner? That’s him.

He’s a San Francisco rabbi and one of the leaders of American Judaism’s left wing. He’s the editor of Tikkun, the liberal magazine of Judaism and culture, and a tireless promoter of interfaith cooperation.

Well, his father died a few days back. Joseph H. Lerner was 94, a lawyer, a Zionist, a Democratic activist and he was believed to be a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the “founder” of Hasidic Judaism.

I mention this because someone in Rabbi Lerner’s circle sent out an email to a wide group of people about Joseph Lerner’s death. The email included some advice for those who might make a Shiva call at Rabbi Lerner’s home to pay their respects.

I want to include the two paragraphs here because they tell you a lot about Jewish rituals for mourning — in a very personal way. I don’t think anyone would mind because the email was sent to a wide group and Rabbi Lerner is so dedicated to education and what might be called cross-cultural understanding.

So here it is:

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The traditions:

Bring vegetarian food to share whenever you come. The idea is to help out so that Rabbi Lerner does not have to do house work during the mourning period. Do not bring meat or chicken or shell fish. Please clean up before leaving-don’t let the burden fall upon Rabbi Debora Kohn Lerner, Rabbi Lerner’s wife.
Do not try to cheer things up by changing the mood from mourning to humor. The idea of Shiva is to allow and encourage the mourners to be deeply involved in mourning, not to “get them over it.” The primary form of conversation should be about the deceased. Your memories of him are welcome. So are your words of appreciation for Rabbi Lerner. So are words about healing the world (tikkun olam, politics, and Torah broadly conceived).

The mourning process continues for 30 intense days, and then saying Kaddish for the next eleven months.
Please do NOT call Rabbi Lerner to offer words of solace or support. You may send cards or letters to the home address, or emails to RabbiLerner… Please do not expect acknowledgment of your cards or emails. Again, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that the task of the community is to relieve the mourner of taking care of things, including taking care of the friends and relatives and supporters-i.e. the mourner should not have to be convincing you that he has recognized and appreciated whatever you have given or whatever you have expressed toward him. Don’t let the dynamics be shifted, particularly with someone like Rabbi Lerner whose natural inclination is to take care of everyone else, and who this time needs to allow himself to be taken care of. And one major way you can help is to simply show up, be witness to the mourning, even by sitting quietly, meditating, and just being there (particularly for morning and evening services, on time).

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.