One of the things I love most about Judaism is how we mourn. We do keriya, a physical tearing of our clothes to materially represent our pain. We recite kaddish yatom, a prayer that requires a group of ten people to be present—mourners or not. We receive meals of condolence from the community and refrain from pleasurable activities. Gradually, the practice of mourning decreases in intensity from the funeral to the first yahrtzeit. We grieve seriously and, eventually, God willing, our lives return to a modicum of normalcy. Mourning is a spiritual practice.
Almost thirteen years ago, I started at a college with an odd tradition: painting a cannon. People would paint the cannon regularly to promote different causes and events on campus. The cannon was covered in layers of paint so numerous that you could peel through them, excavating the history of campus events for who knows how long.
My second week of classes was 9/11. On 9/12, a group of students transformed the cannon into a symbol of peace, painting doves and peace signs and messages of hope and non-violence. That paint-job went uncovered longer than any other I can remember in my four years of college. It seemed like no one would paint over it.
Eventually, another group of students turned the cannon into a nationalist symbol in full red, white, and blue glory. I felt nauseated; in the cannon, I saw an endorsement for President Bush's response and the beginnings of a war. I was revolted by what felt like the manipulation of death and tragedy for political ends. The deaths of 9/11 became harder for me to mourn when I witnessed the political response our nation was taking. I am sad to admit that my heart grew harder.
What is painful for me now--as the Jewish community mourns the loss of three teenagers found dead near Hebron--is how often the political and spiritual dimensions of mourning get in the way of each other. Mourning is not only spiritual, it is also political. The choices we make about which lives to mourn actively shape our minds and souls.
When I saw the news about the teens on Monday, I felt sick. Sick with the knowledge that three teens had been kidnapped and murdered. And even sicker when I began to think about what the responses would be--and I felt my heart, sadly, begin to harden at the thought. I suspect I am not the only one who has trouble mourning through heart-hardening differences of political objection.
In mourning lives lost to a conflict, it is easier to for us to only--or at least primarily--mourn the lives of one “side.” Sometimes that means mourning the people who look more like us or those with whom we share some ideology. Regardless of the motivations, the choice of which lives to mourn is a political act.
This choice about which lives to mourn is a practice that is ultimately a project of world-making—it creates the world we are living in. When I think about Olam ha'bah, the world to come, and what will get us there, I think about Jewish mourning practices.
These practices were designed for families and close-knit communities, but what would it look like to expand the lessons of these practices to create radical practices of liberatory mourning? What if we mourned more lives than those of people who looked like us or shared our political views? What if we comforted mourners of all families and communities? What would our hearts look like then? What kind of world would we be making?
In Olam ha'zeh, this world that we live and grieve in every day, there must be a limit to our mourning. We would never stop tearing our clothes if we tried to grieve every life. But if we believe that mourning is an act of world-making, then perhaps we can do our best to mourn our way towards Olam ha'bah, expanding our grief and our comfort to all those who suffer loss.
As we pray when in kaddish yatom, Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu, v'al kol yisrael, v'al kol yoshvei tevel, v'imru amen. May the One who makes peace in the heavens, make peace upon us, upon all Israel, and all who dwell on earth--and we say, Amen.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Alex Weissman is a community organizer, performer, and rabbinical student. In addition to his rabbinical studies, he works as a hospice chaplain and a mentor to teenagers involved in multifaith dialogue. He has worked with Jewish and queer communities over the last ten years around issues of HIV/AIDS, domestic workers' rights, substance use, partner abuse, and queer youth homelessness. He believes deeply in sacred listening as a practice for healing, building relationships, and pursuing justice. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Alex has returned after ten years away to attend the Reconstrucionist Rabbinical College.