Return to Tradition – Summer 1992
Question: Should Humanistic Jewish mourners sit shiva?
Responsum: The mourning practices of rabbinic Judaism were built around a belief system that no longer generally prevails in the Jewish community. This system began with an all-powerful judgmental God who was the master of life and death. Death was ambiguous. It might be a sign of divine anger and divine punishment. God’s displeasure was not trivial. It needed to be countered. The deity needed to be appeased. And the spirit world of the dead, including evil and malevolent spirits, needed to be avoided and even driven away.
This ideology explains the traditional practice. Only the appearance of abject suffering and misery could persuade both God and the spirit world not to strike again. The mourners — the sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the deceased — must be as pitiable as possible. They must tear their garments. They must sit on the ground or on harsh surfaces. They must not wash or dress in fine clothing. They must abstain from good food. They must not laugh or joke or participate in happy events. They must be confined to their homes during the first seven days (shiva) of mourning. If comforters arrive, they must sit in silence until the mourners initiate conversation.
Of course, the ideological basis of traditional mourning practices is unacceptable to us as Humanistic Jews. So is the notion of enforced suffering to ensure protection. Unwashed, uncomfortable, and underfed mourners are inconsistent with our view of dignified grief.
But the traditional mourning procedure had an unintended consequence. The practice of staying home after the burial of loved ones to receive family and friends turned out to be therapeutic for mourners. In liberal circles, where most of the hardship routines were removed, being surrounded by caring friends became a wonderful source of human support.
Humanistic Judaism is very comfortable with a humanistic “shiva.” It does not have to last for seven days. It should last as long as the mourners want it. For some, one day may be enough; for others, eight days. Most Humanistic mourners choose three. A small minority find no need for any “shiva.”
Humanistic “shiva” is built around the notion that life and death are natural phenomena, with no intrusion by gods or spirits. It is based on the conviction that vulnerable mourners need as much human support as they can find. Mourners should be comfortable. Conversation should be free.
Many Humanistic Jews hold a brief commemorative celebration of the life of the deceased every evening, or one of the evenings, of the “shiva.” Family and friends sit in a circle and share stories about the life of the person who died. Prose readings and poetry selections about a humanistic response to death may be read. Inspirational songs may be sung. (Examples of these home commemoratives are available from the Society for Humanistic Judaism.)
History is filled with ironies. What started out to serve one purpose later serves another.
“Shiva” has been transformed and is now ours.