Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column
Published in The Jewish Standard
A few years ago I divorced my wife, after a long marriage. We had grown apart and were living separate lives. Now my ex-wife is ill, and her prognosis is not good. Although we are not married, I still bear great affection for her and enduring admiration for her as the mother of my children. When she does pass away I will want to mourn for her in a visible way. At her funeral, I plan to tear my clothing in k’riah as a sign of mourning for her. What do you think?
You pose a woeful personal question, one that has possibly conflicting objective and subjective elements. Legally you are not married to this woman, and so you assume that you have no obligation or expectation to mourn your former wife. And socially it may not be acceptable in your community to adopt a standard different than what others practice. Those are the outer issues.
Your inner feelings tell you loud and clear to mourn for a woman whom you did love as a husband and continue to love in an adapted non-marital relationship as an ex.
On the merry-go-round that is our complex world, the variations on the issue you raise in this question can be dizzying. What will be the difference in the mourning practice if neither ex-spouse remarries? If one remarries? If both remarry? What will be the effect if marital infidelity triggered the divorce? In such a case, do children need to mourn a parent who was unfaithful as a spouse? What if the spouse was a convicted criminal? What about mourning for stepparents and stepchildren?
And if I may hearken back to extend on the subject of one of my previous Dear Rabbi questions (November 1, 2013), I might ask, may one mourn for a dear departed pet in some ritual way? The possible scenarios go on and on.
Know well that questions about propriety of mourning for a non-relative are not new. In a simpler age in antiquity, Rabban Gamaliel, a great sage of the time of the Mishnah, apparently sat shiva for his slave Tabi. Berakhot (2:7) reports that Gamaliel accepted condolences following Tabi’s death. When his students objected to him that someone may not mourn a slave, Gamaliel explained, “My slave Tabi was not like all the other slaves. He was kosher.” Gamaliel invoked a surprisingly imprecise and vague criterion and left it to us to presume what he meant to say. I think he was trying to say that he was as attached to Tabi as he was to any member of his family.
Bottom line, my advice for you is because mourning is primarily an emotional activity, I think it reasonable that the subjective element take great prominence in determining what you may do.
If it is your inclination, yes, I deem it proper and fitting that when sadly and inevitably she does die, you as an ex-husband ought to tear k’riah for your ex-wife at her funeral.
I am a Reform Jew. On occasion I am invited to attend a service for a bar mitzvah or aufruf before the wedding at a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue. Invariably I see people engage in a swaying movement during part of the service, especially while they are standing, reciting the silent Amidah. I generally do not move about when I pray. I wonder if I am expected to rock back and forth as well. I hope I am not committing a faux pas if I do not. And could you explain why they do that swaying?
No need to worry about embarrassment. You are not required to sway during services. Many of the greatest rabbis stood perfectly still when they recited the silent Amidah. The optional swaying activity is called “shuckling,” derived from the Yiddish word for shaking.
That swaying activity has both external and internal components. Swaying helps a person define his or her ritual prayer-space. It signals to others that the person is engaged in a prayer and that he or she must not be distracted or interrupted.
Mystics and poets see in the swaying the movement of the soul, undulating like the flame of a candle.
I see the movement as a way to help a person induce a state of consciousness that differs from the ordinary. We commonly call that kavanah. That’s a part of prayer that entails greater focus and emotional resonance.
In popular culture today, focus is a hot topic. A bestselling book called “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” by Daniel Goleman discusses how the unending distractions of our digital age present challenges to the act of focusing your attention. Goleman claims in many ways throughout the book that if you follow focus regimens, it will help you “improve habits, add new skills, and sustain greatness—excel while others do not.”
Our ancient rabbis had many thoughts and prescriptions on the matters of focus. They expressed them in a variety of ways through direct teachings, and indirectly by formulating our rituals in certain ways.
A basic assumption in what the rabbis taught is that someone can and should alter his focus in prescribed ways to recite our different prayers. That means that, without the benefit of a self-help books, and starting way back in antiquity, praying Jews engaged in mental focus exercises three times a day.
Here is a concentrated summary of the assorted types of focus that I associate with our prayers.
The scribal focus is the focused state of mind you need to achieve when you study texts, or when you write new materials, or when you add columns of numbers, or when you conduct inventories. It’s the target kavanah for the Shema, the prayer during which many Jews sit and shade their eyes so they may concentrate on reciting the designated Torah texts.
The priestly focus is the focused state of mind you need to achieve when you comport yourself for a public ritual or pageant. It’s the target kavanah for the Amidah, where the swaying you ask about is like marching in place. You do not want to get out of step as you move through the procession of praises, petitions, and thanksgivings of the multipart Amidah prayer.
The mystical focus is the focused state of mind you need to achieve to imagine yourself in another place, when your praying carries you off to the heavens in search of God or to our momentous Israelite historical episodes. It’s the target kavanah for the many passages of the prayers that invoke the heavenly angels or recount the great miracles in our past, such as the crossing of the Red Sea and the revelation at Sinai.
The performative-mindful focus is the focused state of mind you need to achieve when you perform a ritual act. It’s the target kavanah for the many mitzvot that a Jew performs throughout his or her life and for the recitation of blessings. Truly, all of these “focuses” are mindful in their own ways. But the essential mindful focus takes sharp account for the here and now, the immediate physical facts of your present circumstances, the wedding canopy, the lulav and etrog, the Chanukah menorah, the Shabbat candles, the challah…
The compassionate-mindful focus is the focused state of mind that you seek to achieve when reciting such prayers as the Tahanun, Grace after Meals, or the Kol Nidre — exercises in seeking out a bond of loving kindness with God, with yourself, and with other people.
The daily morning prayers often last no more than 30 minutes in many synagogues. It’s amazing to me that praying Jews can cycle through so many diverse types of focus exercises during our short prayer services.
That’s like a session of circuit-training for the soul. Consider as an analogy that physical circuit training is a form of body conditioning or resistance training using high-intensity exercises for strength building and muscular endurance. In an exercise circuit you complete all the prescribed exercises in the program. In most circuit training the time between exercises is short, and the trainee moves on quickly to the next exercise.
In our prayers, the spiritual circuit-training that we engage in is a form of soul-conditioning, using high-intensity exercises for focus-building and concentration endurance. In a prayer circuit you rapidly complete all the prescribed exercises in the program. In most prayer circuit-training the time between focus events is short, and the performer moves on quickly to the next focus event.
So, in my comparison, I propose that if you follow the recommended focus regimens of Jewish prayer, it too will help you, “improve habits, add new skills, and sustain greatness — excel while others do not.”
And thoughtfully, when somebody asks you why Jews are so successful, why we win so many Nobel prizes, in addition to the other commonly invoked rationales, such as the value we place on study and education, you might suggest that shuckling, and all of the other assorted traditional talmudic focus exercises rooted in our prayers, have something decisive to do with our abilities as a group to achieve and excel.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com
Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University.