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Jewish Journal

The Healing Power of Judaism

Mourners take comfort in the traditional, structured aspects of the Jewish faith during times of grief


by Julie G Fax

October 15, 1998 | 8:00 pm

When Merryl Weber lights Shabbat candles Friday night, she also kindles the flames on several yahrzeit candles. One to remember her mother, one for her father. And one for her son, Adam.

"I sit and meditate on the candles, and it brings the presence of the people I've loved and lost into my life," says Weber. "It gives me a chance to look at it and assess where I am in my grieving."

Adam was 20 years old when he died two years ago in a boating accident. His death came only a few years after both of Weber's parents died, so she has spent much of the last seven years mourning -- and healing.

Like an increasing number of others who have lost, Weber has found solace in the tradition. With an aging baby-boomer set facing mortality and a resurgence in spirituality, healing movements abound in the general culture. At the same time, a specifically Jewish subset has taken hold.

A shelf of new books on Jewish paths to healing is one sign of a trend that began with Rabbi Harold Kushner's best-selling "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" and includes popular works by Rabbis Maurice Lamm, Wayne Dosick and others. The latest entry in the category is "To Begin Again" by Naomi Levy, a local rabbi (see sidebar).

Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man continues to teach popular classes on the subject at the Metivta center, and Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah will teach "Finding Light in the Shadow of Death," Oct. 27-Dec. 15 at the University of Judaism's Continuing Education Department.

What many are discovering anew may be something that has been there all along -- the healing power of Judaism. "So many Jews turn to other faiths when they're going through difficult times, never realizing that their own faith has so much to teach about the process of healing," says Levy. "We have community, shiva, the idea of taking time to heal, and a God who is beside us in our suffering."

Loving Presences

Weber is well acquainted with the wisdom in Judaism's structured approach to grieving, which guides mourners from the first hours through the first year after a loss. She knows of the stability of reciting Kaddish at a daily minyan, the healing powers of standing with others to say Yizkor. She turns to the calendar of holidays, to the formality of rituals, for a structure that is soothingly normal and timeless. And she has felt the firm grounding a community can provide.

When Merryl and her husband, Stephen, found out that Adam died, they knew they would count on their extensive network of friends and family.

Weber notes that immediately following the funeral, and at least through the first week of mourning, it is a mitzvah, a positive commandment, for people to offer comfort and support.

"Loving presences are what offset pain," says Ellen Winer, director of Metivta's Jewish Healing Center. "A lot of people can't find their way to prayer and rituals when they are in pain, so what is important is knowing they are not alone, and that there are people around who can kind of hold them and witness their pain and be with them."

Prayers From the Heart

For Weber, one of the most natural and powerful support networks came from the daily minyan she attended at Adat Ari El to say Kaddish, and in the longer term, reciting Yizkor on the holidays.

"You cannot feel alone when you stand in a congregation with thousands of other people and everybody is grieving. How can you feel alone, how can you feel picked on?" she asks.

Talking to God, whether in supplication or lashing out, is an important aspect of healing. Often, prayer does not even require words.

Rabbi Maurice Lamm, author of "The Power of Hope," "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning" and a soon-to-be-published book on overcoming suffering, shares a tale about the Chassidic Bratzlaver rebbe. When the rebbe noticed a morose man standing outside a circle of dancing Chassidim, he pulled him in, and watched as his initial reluctance turned to energy and joy. "The idea that Bratzlaver brought," says Lamm, "is that you bring suffering into the circle."

For Carol Felixson, who has recently come to terms with the deaths of loved ones, being pulled into the circle has renewed her life.

"Recently on a Saturday, I had a feeling that my heart was breaking, and yet I was sitting and singing joyously to God," says Felixson, an artist who works in public relations at UCLA.

Felixson says she often finds that the weekly Torah portion seems to be directed at her.

Many who are searching often have that sense, Finley says. Traditional texts and rituals can help elicit a natural capacity for healing, he adds.

"Every time I get up to speak there is somebody in the room who is grieving a loss, somebody who is facing an illness, someone who has fallen in love," Finley says. "I try to be aware of the depth of emotion in the room, and make sure that some piece of Torah is delivered for them."

Felixson also revels in the private moments of prayer.

"When I'm going through a really hard time and need a hug, I feel that as I put on my tallit in the morning, I am being embraced by the Divine," she says.

Weber, too, takes comfort in turning inward. She and her husband have been longtime mediators and members at Metivta.

"To be involved in a community where sitting quietly with other Jews in a meditative and contemplative practice, within a Jewish context, was very healing."

Touching God Through Ritual

At the same time, the external structure of ritual has offered Weber both long-term and short-term solace.

"Rituals are vehicles that allow us to touch what is Divine and bring that into reality through mitzvot, to bring that into our daily life," Weber says.

Rituals also offer an equalizing bridge between generations, between those who have suffered and those who have not.

Though holidays without Adam are difficult, they also offer solace. "It's not just the family dinners, it's all the symbolism and sacred metaphor that comes around lighting candles and saying shehecheyanu," Weber says. "When you do that you relate to everyone else as they do it."

It is that sense of transcendence that makes Shabbat such an important part of healing.

"Shabbat is a time of peace and being rather than doing," says Ellen Winer of the Jewish Healing Center. "It is a way of surrendering yourself to something larger than your pain and feelings, where you yourself are not the center of the universe. There is something beyond that that is timeless that people have gone to for thousands of years."

Wisdom in Laws of Mourning

That sense of transcendence is especially true when it comes to the Jewish laws of mourning.

Finley says that while he often encourages congregants to adapt traditions to make them more relevant, he is often in awe of the wisdom of laws of mourning.

"The tradition really has curative powers, it really makes people undergo healing in an honest and conscious way." Finley says.

Weber enumerates the many details in the laws of mourning that now seem to her so logical.

"For example, the idea that, except for saying 'God is the true judge,' you do not mention God's name between the time someone dies until you bury them and begin saying Kaddish, is a brilliant idea, because you can not hear anything about the blessedness of divinity at a time when you are so wounded."

Visitors are not supposed to ask mourners how they are, and friends must make sure the mourner eats upon returning from the cemetery, when the mourner can focus only on grieving.

Weber also appreciates the general structure of the mourning period, which lessens in intensity from the first few days, through the first week, through the first month and then the year.

"It's all so well thought out," she says, "the fact that you are required to get back to a normal kind of life, but not required to be completely normal, not asked to participate in things that are too hard to participate in, and then asked to start affirming life."

She also found meaning in a law that until Adam died, she didn't understand -- that the Kaddish is recited for children for one month, not the 11 months prescribed for parents.

"When my parents died, after 11 months, I was ready to stop saying Kaddish," she says. "When a child dies you could not say Kaddish long enough."

Omer-Man says having that kind of structure imposed on grief is comforting for people, because it "is something larger than oneself. It isn't a matter of self-expression, it isn't a matter of what you feel like, it's just what is the right thing to do, and it is something that is sanctified by use."

Perhaps that is why so many who work in Jewish healing are wary of the growing body of motivational literature, of support groups and gurus claiming to be healers.

For Winer, the popular trend makes it seem as if Jewish healing is some sort of New Age, non-traditional movement.

But, Winer says, "Our tradition has been obscured by a lot of social and political action and intellectualism. This is the tradition we've gotten away from by not looking at the healing aspects."

Invincible Spirits

A local rabbi's book explores how

she and others faced tragedy

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