By Harriet P. Gross
When I opened the newest issue of Conservative Judaism the other day, I rushed immediately to my extensive file of “somedays,” saying “I already know about this.”
The magazine features an interview with Daniel Greyber of Durham, N.C., author of a book with the more-than-intriguing title of “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle With Grief and God.”
Memory hadn’t failed me. From my trusty “future folder,” I extracted a page torn from a Washington Jewish Week of last November, sent to me by a former Dallasite who now lives near the capital and is an avid reader of both WJW and TJP.
Greyber’s dilemma arose from the death of two young friends. The first, a boy he knew in childhood who passed away of cancer at only 24, sent him off to rabbinic school, searching for an answer to this question: Judaism prescribes exactly how to mourn the loss of our first-degree relatives: mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son, spouse. But what are we to do when we lose a dear, dear friend? If we tear our garments, if we sit shiva — are we seen as usurping the role of family members, thus somehow subtracting from their grief?
Greyber, only 25 himself at that time, did become a rabbi, but never received the answer to his question. It reared its ugly head again when someone we all knew and loved here in Dallas, Joel Shickman, died of leukemia in late 2007. This young musician, husband and father of three small sons had hopes of becoming a rabbi himself; he met, studied with and became a close friend of the rabbi at California’s Camp Ramah.
While the first loss had pushed Greyber toward the rabbinate, the second almost drove him from it. He was a few years older by then, but no wiser in terms of solving his earlier dilemma: “Surviving feels like a sin,” he wrote.
The day after Shickman’s funeral was Thanksgiving, and Greyber found himself “in grief, but trapped outside the circle of mourners,” as Washington Jewish Week put it. He, himself, wrote at the time, “I long to be commanded by the tradition. I long to be included within the circle of the Law. I should be sitting shiva with Joel’s wife and the boys, not having a festive dinner … ”
In the recent interview, Greyber speaks about a Jewish paradox: “The tradition obligates seven relatives to follow its prescribed path. The challenge of grieving for a friend is that you have sustained a loss that doesn’t fall within the circle of those seven relatives. That’s a problem for a number of reasons. One is that if you don’t fall in that circle, the default position is to practice nichum aveilim — to comfort mourners.
“There’s an implicit message here that you’re not one of those people in mourning. So your loss is unacknowledged because it’s ignored. Or, even worse, your loss is marginalized because you’re told that you are not experiencing a loss. Even if the family members understand what a loss it is for you, the tradition still implies that it isn’t.”
So: how has Greyber solved this dilemma? If he weren’t one himself, he’d advise people to “go see a rabbi.” But personally, he’s found a path through choosing to say Kaddish with a community of mourners.
“I think trying to grieve alone is a mistake,” he says, instead taking advantage of “ … a category in Jewish law of obligating yourself to do something, something you are choosing to do.” But he stresses that, “if you’re going to do it, then really obligate yourself. If you wake up two mornings later and don’t feel like going to the minyan, you need to take your obligation seriously … to push yourself beyond what you might do if this were just an ordinary choice … ”
Read all this and much, much more in Greyber’s book, out by Resource Publications and now available in paperback.