Maxine Berman approaches the ninth chapter of tractate Niddah, which deals with personal and communal mourning, as a model for how we might approach the individual and collective mourning that is happening and must happen around the pandemic. She first examines how the Rabbis mourn after the Hadrianic persecutions and, taking those methods as a guide, applies them to the question of how we mourn those lost to COVID19.
Rabbinic Judaism is a life-affirming project constructed in the weighty shadow of the destruction of the Second Temple and subsequent Roman persecutions. Its texts cannot let go of the Temple and the Jewish life lived in devotion to it. But the rabbis are also perpetually aware that their own religious project must be different than that of the Jews who lived before the Destruction, even while they impose on themselves a refusal to let go of that previous era. The rabbis must mourn and live at the same time.
And I felt this need, too. My deep instinct at the beginning of the pandemic was to read every obituary I could find and spend whatever time remained immersing myself in accounts of the suffering wreaked upon our hospitals. I reminded myself constantly that this was not conducive to being an effective student or student teacher, and that my obligations to others still existed even as the world descended into death. One option was to repress the emotional reality of the pandemic, to not engage with it beyond what was socially required. But even if I could have managed that, I worried that it would distort my moral instincts to such a degree that I might be rendered permanently unfeeling. I needed a method to mourn, but not too much.
There is Torah for that. We learn in Moed Katan that Torah is not spoken of in a house of mourning. The mourners need, in the early stages of their grief, to be fully immersed in the immediacy of loss. Torah would be distracting and could not be understood properly anyway: it would only be a cruel reminder of the joys of the outside world that the mourner cannot bear. But Rabbi Hananya ben Gamliel disregards this rule, and does teach Torah in the very depths of the shiva house. Why? How could this be responsible and kind?
I would suggest that Rabbi Hananya ben Gamliel spent time in complicated shiva houses. Some mourners are in truly unusual situations, mourning people who were difficult for them, or are simply people who cannot shut out the world and focus only on loss. The extensive protocols of the traditional shiva house may not be helpful in such cases, but the particular consideration due to mourners is needed all the same, and extra sensitivity is required from those who accompany these mourners through the shiva. They need to find their way to a set of rituals that is just as effective as the traditional practices, but which matches the unique experience of the mourners.
Rabbi Hananya ben Gamliel found a way to comfort mourners by teaching Torah to them. One can assume, though, that he did not review with them the laws of lost objects, or the orders of the sacrifices. (Unless, of course, he was comforting a mourner who might take particular solace in the distraction of detailed lists.) It seems most likely that Rabbi ben Gamliel taught a Torah of mourning, one that ranged from the blackness of destruction to the consolations of the Messianic Age.
Early in the pandemic, I attended a daily Mishnah class that worked its way through Masechet Sotah. Its last chapter describes the descent of Jewish society into amoral chaos, the joys of life flickering out as murder victims mount by the day. As rabbi after rabbi perishes, the Mishnah tells us that each death marked the cessation of some beautiful quality in the world, whether that be the glory of Torah or the fear of sin.
This section of the Mishnah is ultimately brief, some five hundred words, but it made more sense of the world for me than a hundred explanations of viral load and a thousand anecdotes from hospitals. It was the best response I had to the sirens, which taunted me every time that we would not only fail to prevent death, but would surely fail to mourn it correctly as well. We were crushed day by day under memory, people dying before the death that preceded them could even be conceptualized, let alone mourned. There were lists of names, if you could bear to look; but even as I grew up with the sacred readings of names on Yom HaShoah and the anniversary of 9/11 and Yom HaZikaron, lists felt like a gapingly empty and inadequate way to remember people just gone out of our world. A month ago, a week ago, a moment ago, I passed them on the subway, and I did not take the time to know them then; how much could their names, which would slip by me in a string of blurring consonants, make up for everything about them that I would never know or care for?
About Maxine Berman
Maxine Berman is a rabbinics educator from New York City. She holds Masters' degrees in Talmud and Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a B.A. in Jewish Studies and English Literature from The University of Chicago, and has studied at Hadar, Drisha, and in the Pardes Year and Experiential Education programs. She was previously a Junior Faculty member at Schechter Manhattan and is currently a TA at JTS. Maxine finds life's meaning and joy in Judaism's perpetual exploration of our traditions, and shares that joy with others by teaching and co-learning texts. She is excited to refine her writing with her fellow cohort members and expand her teaching to the public sphere by publishing with the Fellowship.