Monday, August 23, 2010

Chevra Kadisha Seminar - The Knowledge

By Susan Esther Barnes

Below is Part Two of a two-part post about a seminar I attended. I'm posting it in two parts since each post looks at the seminar from a different perspective. The first post includes some things I learned that were incidental to the seminar. This post is about some of the things I learned that the seminar intended to teach. The first post also explains what the words “Chevra Kadisha” and “taharah” mean.

While I expected to learn the technical aspects of how to perform taharah at the Chevra Kadisha seminar I attended on Sunday, I was surprised to find it included information on Jewish beliefs about what our soul does after we die. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. The seminar was, after all, being taught by a rabbi.

I was fascinated by what the rabbi said happens when we die. Of course, there’s no way to know whether his description is accurate, but it appeals to me in many ways, so I can hope the tradition got at least some of it right.

He described how, while we’re alive, we can only think of a certain number of things at once. There are a lot of things going on all around us, but we can only focus on one thing at a time, and we usually tune out everything else. Similarly, we can’t remember every single detail about everything in our past; we can just remember certain things.

He says when we die and our soul separates from our body, we suddenly lose our previous limitations. Suddenly, we can perceive everything around us at once. We can remember every detail of our lives, including the joy of every single thing we ever did right and the shame of every single thing we ever did wrong.

The separation from our body and the sudden knowledge we gain about ourselves is a big shock. A soul in this state wants to move on, but it isn’t ready yet. It is distressed and confused. So it clings to the thing that is most familiar, its former home, its body.

The soul is fascinated by the experience of being outside its body and is concerned about what will happen to its body now that it has left. Thus, as we perform taharah we should be aware the soul is still there, hovering nearby, watching everything we say and do.

This is why, when we do taharah, we apologize to the person we’re washing, for any indignities they may suffer during the process. We’re not just talking to a dead body; we’re also talking to the soul who used to be in the body and who is in the room with us. This is one reason why, when we talk about taharah, we use the term “dead person,” not “dead body.”

The seminar also conveyed quite a bit of useful information about the technical aspects of taharah, such as the best way to turn and hold the person on his or her side so they don’t slide across the table while washing the back, how to remove a tube from them with a minimum of bleeding, what to do if we find a prosthetic limb or a cast, etc. He even showed us the best way to put on the traditional garments after the washing is done.

There are certainly a lot more details to consider than I would have thought. The seminar also helped me see how various unexpected things could come up during the process, and why it’s important to handle those issues in a calm and resourceful way. I think I could be helpful with that. If I ever get over the whole squeamishness thing.

Chevra Kadisha Seminar - The Experience

By Susan Esther Barnes

Below is Part One of a two-part post about a seminar I attended. I'm posting it in two parts since each post looks at the seminar from a different perspective. This one is about the experience and the second one is about the knowledge I gained.


On Sunday afternoon I attended a Chevra Kadisha (generally translated as “holy society”) seminar. It was an introductory lecture on taharah, the Jewish method of ritually washing dead people to prepare them for burial. It was an uncomfortable experience for me, in more ways than one.

When I arrived, I walked into a large room set up with tables and chairs. On the far side of the room were two women and a man seated at one of the tables. I walked over to them to confirm I was in the right place for the seminar. They invited me to have a seat.

More people came in, and they naturally gravitated to our table. In time, there were eleven of us gathered there, chatting amiably. That’s when the man who’d been there from the start said, “It looks like we might get enough for a minyan. If we do, we can daven.” (“Daven” means to say Jewish liturgical prayers, some of which require a “minyan” of ten Jews to say).

From my perspective, we already had a minyan, because there were at least ten Jewish people present. But by his statement this man was declaring he only counts men in a minyan. Without giving it a second thought, this man was telling me, and the other women at the table, that we don’t count. None of us said anything, but I think he picked up the change in body language from some of us, because a short time later he said some things such as he knew some of us were “liberated women.”

The point is, because of this comment, before the seminar even started, I felt uncomfortable. Since taharah is not common among Reform Jews, I started to think, “As I do this am I going to run into a lot of similar situations in which I feel like I’m being put down in some way because my customs are different?”

Aside from the cultural concerns that arose immediately before the seminar, my main source of discomfort during the seminar was caused by the talk of things like blood and mucus and oozing. My husband would probably think it serves me right, because whenever I have a cold or some other malady I want to describe it to him in great detail, and he does not want to hear a bit of it.

The fact is, I needed to hear about the blood and the mucus and the oozing. I still need to hear a lot more about it. This is because my biggest fear about trying to do taharah is there’s a very real possibility that when I see the blood or the mucus or the oozing, I might need to sit down and put my head between my knees in order to prevent myself from passing out. I say this based on past experience.

Frankly, it’s mostly the blood I’m worried about. The good news is, the woman sitting next to me said she’s been doing this for about ten years and so far she hasn’t encountered anyone who has had a violent death. So she hasn’t seen a lot of blood or similar unpleasantness.

Nevertheless, it’s clear I’m not going to be able to do taharah unless I can somehow desensitize myself to some extent to my natural reaction to blood. It’s going to be a bit hard to ritually wash someone while I have my head between my knees. The best way I know to desensitize myself, as with any irrational fear, is to approach it close enough to get uncomfortable, back away, talk about it, calm down, and then repeat the process as often as necessary. This seminar was one step in this process.

So although the content of the seminar may have been things I could have read in a book, my attendance at the seminar provided me with two important experiences: The realization that I need to prepare myself for encounters with people who observe different Jewish customs than I do, and a chance to approach my fears about blood. Not a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, but certainly one that was worthwhile.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Purpose of Prayer

By Susan Esther Barnes

Ever since blogger Dov Bear posted about faith healing, I’ve been thinking about the purpose of prayer. I find it interesting that he chose to focus on the power, or lack thereof, of petitionary prayer, since asking God for things isn’t the main purpose of Jewish prayer.

I’m no linguist, but it is my understanding that words for prayer in several languages, such as Latin and English, have the same root as words for asking for things. For example, “pray,” “ask,” and “beg” in English can be used more or less interchangeably, albeit with different connotations.

According to the website Judaism 101, the Hebrew word for prayer, t’filah, comes from the same root as the word meaning “to judge oneself.” This root implies the purpose of Jewish prayer is not petitionary - to ask God for stuff - but to look at ourselves. The idea is to think about what we’re grateful for, what we wish we could change, how we’re presenting ourselves to the world around us.

As anyone who studies Judaism will discover, we Jews have a lot of prayers already written for us. This includes not only what we read in the prayer books during services, but prayers for all sorts of other occasions as well. There are specific prayers we’re supposed to say when we wake up in the morning, when we leave on a long trip, when we see a rainbow, when we see someone we haven’t seen in a long time, when we learn of a person’s death. There’s even a prayer for when we use the restroom (It’s called “Asher Yatzar” if you want to look it up).

Most of these prayers do not ask God for anything. Instead, they focus our attention on things like our gratitude, our covenant with God, and the complexities of our body.

Certainly, there are times when we do ask God for things. Every week at services I say the names of my father and my friend Mark when the time comes for the prayer for healing.

Even then, there are certain rules we follow. We are not allowed to ask God to change what already is. A common example is if a man is returning to his village and he sees smoke rising from it, he is not to pray, “Please don’t let it be my house that is on fire.” This is because whatever is causing the smoke is already on fire. It is futile to pray to God to suddenly move the fire from one house to another.

When I say the healing prayer I don’t pray for my father to not have diabetes or for my friend to not have cancer. I don’t even pray for God to cure them, since I don’t think such prayers would be realistic. Instead, I pray for the symptoms to be more bearable, for God to give them strength and comfort while they cope with their condition, for them to be given the opportunity to enjoy their lives, for them to know others love them.

Sometimes my prayers change based on what’s going on in my life. Until recently, every time we sang “Hashkivenu” and asked God to spread a shelter of peace over us, I pictured a shelter of peace spreading from me and others in the congregation to cover those among us who were in mourning or otherwise in pain or in need of support. In the days after Rose died, I changed the direction to picture the shelter of peace coming from others nearby to cover me. One could argue this makes the prayer less about asking for something than it is about assessing my state of mind.

We are now approaching the High Holy Days, the time when we are asked to look over the past year, to judge our actions, and to apologize for our sins. It is only appropriate for us to spend some time now to remind ourselves that our word for prayer is not about asking for things, but is about judging ourselves. What better time than now to pray?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fencing with the Photographer

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m sitting in services, listening to the guest cantor singing a melody with which I’m unfamiliar. There are two girls becoming bat mitzvah today. As usual on such occasions, there are photographers in the back, outside the sanctuary, peaking through the movable partition to the social hall, preserving memories of the event for the girls and their families.

When I look up to my left, I see a man with a camera on a large tripod. He is standing inside the sanctuary, right in front of the closed main doors. How did he get there? He certainly wasn’t there when I walked in and took my seat.

The rabbi is standing at the front of the congregation, while the cantor continues to sing. I go up to the rabbi to whisper in his ear, “Do you want me to move that photographer?” He replies, “That would be good.”

I walk over to the photographer, and say, “I’m sorry, we don’t allow photos to be taken in the sanctuary during services.” There is no question in my mind that he will say, “I’m sorry,” and he will move his camera outside.

Instead, he says, “She told me I could be here.” I ask, “Who?” and he looks toward another photographer, standing in the back. I say, “I talked to the rabbi, and I’m sorry, but you will have to move outside the sanctuary.” He says, “Oh,” but his body language tells me he has no intention of going anywhere.

I stand my ground and look at him. After a moment, he gestures at the woman in the back. She starts to come forward, but I walk back to her instead. I don’t want to cause a scene inside the sanctuary in the middle of the service.

Once again I say, “I’m sorry, but we don’t allow cameras in the sanctuary.” She angrily responds, “That must be new. I’ve seen cameras in here other times.”

Now, I’ve only missed a handful of Saturday morning services in the last three or four years, and I can assure you, the only other time I’ve seen a photographer inside the sanctuary during services, the rabbi came up to me and asked me to ask him to move outside. Which he promptly did.

I don’t mention this to the woman in front of me now. I say, simply, “It’s not a new rule. I’m sorry, but he will have to move.”

I am wearing a badge with my name, the synagogue name and logo, and “Board of Directors” on it. I consider drawing her attention to the badge, but I don’t want to do that.

I love being at the synagogue. I adore the warm feeling of spirituality and community I get here, and I want to help others feel it, too. I wear the badge because it says, “If you have any questions – if you need to find the restroom or a kippah, or you want to know something about our customs here, you can ask me.” I don’t want it to say, “I’m the photography police. Respect my authority.”

The photographer gestures to the other one, still standing with his tripod and camera in front of the closed main doors. “Can we open the doors?” she asks, suggesting he can then just move his camera back a few feet and continue shooting through the open doorway.

“No,” I say, “We’re having a worship service here. We have to…” and that’s where I stop. She stares at me while I gaze back at her.

My mind casts around for the right words, but I can’t find them. How can I explain this is a holy ceremony taking place in a holy space? How can I get her to understand it is Shabbat, and the rabbi and the cantor are trying to create a special place in time, an island away from the distractions of work and school and the sights and sounds of the secular world? How can I tell her all we’re asking for is a short time to spend with nothing but the divine?

I can’t find the words. I’m not capable of conveying to her, in this moment, why the camera needs to move; why we won’t just swing open the doors for her convenience.

I repeat, “We’re having a service here. He needs to move.”

She says, “How can he take the camera outside if we can’t open the doors?” I don’t know whether she’s being sarcastic.

I give her the benefit of the doubt, and tell her I will hold the door open for him. She goes to talk with him, he picks up his things, and repositions himself elsewhere.

Perhaps it is over for them, but it is not over for me. I don’t often get angry, but I am angry now.

I’m not sure why I’m so angry. Maybe it’s because what should have been a painless one- or two-sentence transaction has turned into a needlessly lengthy ordeal.

Maybe it’s because she wasn’t respecting the sanctity of our sanctuary and the service, or the needs of the congregation. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t respecting me.

Most likely, it’s because I feel I have failed myself. Today, on Shabbat, a day which normally helps me to remember the kind of person I want to be in the world, I have not been that person.

Instead of being warm and welcoming, I have been argumentative authoritarian. I have insisted that someone obey my words without adequately expressing why doing so is in the best interest of others. I have created anger and frustration, and I feel powerless to heal it.

In this week’s Torah portion we read, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” or “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Some say the word "justice" is repeated to remind us to pursue justice in a just way.

I don’t think I have done anything unjust. I sincerely wish I had been able to do it in a better way.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Kabbalat Shabbat in Heaven

By Susan Esther Barnes

It’s Friday evening, almost a week since Rose died. The Mourner’s Kaddish is supposed to be said for her by her next of kin every day for eleven months, and every year on the anniversary of her death. It requires a minyan, ten people, to say, because mourners are not meant to be alone; they ought to be surrounded by their community.

Before she died, Rose gave me permission to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for her. I asked because her surviving son is not observant, so we both knew he would be unlikely to say it, other than perhaps at her funeral. Someone ought to say it for her, so I offered to take on the responsibility. Tonight, Shabbat evening, is the first time I have been in a minyan since her death.

When the rabbi asks those who are in the first seven or thirty days of mourning to rise and say the name of the person they’re saying Kaddish for, I feel hesitant. I am not related to Rose; I don’t want to appear to be fishing for sympathy I have not earned. I’m not convinced it is my place to do this thing I promised to do.

I rise, I say Rose’s name, and I stew in my doubts while the names of those recently dead and those who have died at this time in years past are recited. I wonder whether I will be able to say the words, or if the jumble of my thoughts will cause me to falter.

When the time comes, I start to speak, and something completely unexpected happens. As each word forms in my mouth, it transforms into something solid. Not something sharp, with hard edges to chafe and cut; but something soft and rounded, like a rosebud.

As each word solidifies, as its leading edge reaches my lips, it feels as if it is being snatched away and borne swiftly upward, away from me. I don’t know what is happening, but as each word is formed and flies upward, I realize it is being pulled out of my mouth by a force over which I have no control. I have no choice but to continue until the end of the prayer. It appears I was mistaken; saying Kaddish for Rose is not voluntary.

Later, I imagine the words were being pulled out of my mouth and carried upward by angels.

In my mind’s eye, God is surrounded by the dead as the angels fly in from all directions, depositing the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish in neat little piles at their feet.

Some of the words bear the mark of close family, some of friends. Some come from the lips of cantors or rabbis or other prayer leaders who speak for those who have nobody else to pray for them.

As the last word arrives, to be laid reverently on the last stack, Shabbat arrives in heaven, and it is time for God and the angels and the dead to rest.