The Very Jewish Holiness of Crying in Public

by Elliot Kukla, Faculty

A group of SVARA-niks gather in the darkness around the dim light of a fire. One person's face is illuminated by a flashlight. They look to the right towards someone speaking. The shadows of the folks sitting are cast on the wall behind them.

“Rabbi, I’m so glad you are here,” said the woman at the hospital room door, “Tell my nephews that their father is going to get better.” As I stepped into the room, I discovered two teenagers sitting on the floor in sleeping bags. Their dad lay in the hospital bed. He had been declared brain dead, but his heart was still pumping due to artificial life support. “Tell them he is going to be okay,” repeated their aunt to me. 

I sat down on the floor next to the teenagers and waited. Eventually, they began to unfurl and name what was really happening. As soon as grief was welcomed, there was more room to breathe. The family could be together, share memories, cry, connect. 

So often, well-meaning people abandon each other, by gaslighting grief. Loss that is denied leads to isolation and depression. Grief that is named is still incredibly painful, but it allows us to comfort each other and treasure lost loves.

We live in a time of profound gaslighting of grief. On September 20th, 2022, Joe Biden said in a 60 Minutes interview that “the pandemic is over.” “If you notice,” he continued, “no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.” However, that “everybody” does not include the 400-500 people who are currently dying of COVID every day in the US. That’s up from the approximately 100 deaths per day we were experiencing in the summer of 2021. Nor does it include the one in five Americans that is struggling with the devastating impacts of Long COVID or the uncountable number of high-risk sick and disabled people who still live in isolation. In fact, nearly all Americans are still dealing with ongoing pandemic losses: people, places, jobs, communities, identities, hopes, and expectations are still unraveling.

Queer, disabled, Black, Brown, and/or poor people are at the frontlines of these losses, because we are often exiled from mainstream forms of support. However, we also have hard-won skills for breaking through the fog of gaslighting. Judaism is a tradition founded by outcasts and exiles and it has ancient tools for naming the importance of human life: through lamenting out loud. Rabbi Benay Lappe teaches that Judaism as we know it began with a crash, and SVARA’s pedagogy is grounded in this idea. In the first century of the common era, the Roman Empire destroyed the Temple which was the center of ancient Israelite social and sacred life. The Rabbis lost loved ones, homes, rituals, and a sense of security.

The Talmud was created, in part, as a way to grieve this fundamental loss. The move from worshiping in a building to finding sacredness in books allowed our ancestors to connect and share memory, even though they no longer shared physical space in the diaspora. Pages and pages of Jewish holy texts are spent reminiscing about the minute details of how life used to be in the Temple and imagining a fantasy future when they would be reunited in the Promised Land. This is an ingenious way to tend to grief.

Opportunities for mourning are woven throughout Jewish laws and customs. Rosh Hashanah, which we celebrate this week, is the birthday of the world. We observe it joyfully with sweet apples, honey, and crisp white garments. However, it is also about crying in public. Tears are woven through-out the Torah and Haftarah, prophetic, readings. The shofar blast, truah, is “the length of three sobs” (Rosh Hashanah 4:9). Rosh Hashanah is about grieving the old, even as we celebrate the new.

This new year, 5783, we find ourselves in a similar moment of crash as the Rabbis of the Talmud. Over a million people have died of COVID. Despite Biden’s claim, this number continues to escalate. Each one of these souls our tradition regards as an entire world. And our actual planet is changing too. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2007, there were torrential rains every winter, followed by gentle green springs. It has been years since we had a rainy season. California is becoming a desert. I don’t know if my kid will ever be able to depend on the steady rhythmic cycle of seasons that I have always relied on. I didn’t realize the seasons were something I could lose; now I realize how precious they are.

In the face of all these layers of loss it is easy to feel hopeless. However, as the Rabbis understood, when we cry in public and allow our lament to be witnessed, grief can lead to action. George Floyd crying out for his mother led to one of the largest uprisings for racial justice in history. Gay activists mourning their dead in another pandemic changed the way the world thinks about sexuality and gender and made my own life possible.

Here at SVARA, we have recently started a new project, called the Communal Loss Adaptation Project (CLAP). The mission of this project is to provide spiritual care for communal loss, center the adaptive wisdom of frontline queer, disabled, and BIPOC communities, and honor the universal human need to be witnessed in grief. It brings together an incredible group of BIPOC, disabled, and queer grief workers, artists, scholars, and activists. We began by hosting a queer bereavement group last spring, and we are currently planning a memorial service for disabled people who have died in the pandemic.

The overarching goal of CLAP is to address the “crash” of today in a practical and pastoral way. How do we accompany each other in loss after things fall apart? How can we adapt and create radical, life-affirming, new structures out of our heart-break instead of buttressing rigid old systems? As Black body liberationist Sonya Renee Taylor said in the early months of the pandemic: “We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

Marginalized people have always understood that sharing our grief is both a political and an inherently hopeful act. When we cry in public we are asserting that the memories of those of us who have been called disposable have enduring value. After surviving years in faceless Nazi death camps, my great-grandmother Rivka moved to England after the war. Before she died, she took my father out to a small coal heap behind their new home: “Swear on this mountain,” she said to him, “that you will mourn for me.” In many ways, I am still fulfilling this oath made by my nine-year-old father long before I was born, to grieve for this woman I never met, whose face looks so much like mine.

In the Talmud we learn that after the Temple was destroyed, the Gates of Prayer were locked, however the Gates of Tears remain open (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 32b). In other words, our prayers are not directly responded to by God. We all know that bad things happen even if we pray for them to end. However, crying in public is always a path towards holy action.

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