Author Archives: Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Rabbi Harold Schulweis

About Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.

The Burial and the Image of God

Reprinted with permission from Finding Each Other in Judaism (UAHC Press).

The burial is to take place as soon as possible following death. Out of respect for the deceased, out of reverence for the image of God, it is not to be delayed.

This ritual tradition is based on a revealing interpretation of the biblical verse in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: "If a person has committed a sin worthy of death and he be put to death and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for he that is hanged is a reproach to God."

Why a reproach to God? A powerful rabbinic parable explains: "There were once twin brothers identical in their appearance. One was appointed king, while the other became a brigand and was hanged. Now when people passed by and saw the brigand hanging, they exclaimed, ‘The king is hanged’" (Midrash Tannaimon Deuteronomy 21:23). The parable views God and the human being as twins, connected souls. To denigrate a human being is to desecrate God, to deface a human being is to defame God, to shed the blood of a human being is a reproach to God.

The Israeli novelist S. Agnon suggested that the Mourner’s Kaddish, [a memorial prayer] which calls for magnifying God’s name, is recited not only to comfort the human bereaved but to console the divine Creator, for whom the loss of every human being diminishes His glory. God is a mourner at every death of God’s creations.

The inherent dignity of the individual is comparable to that of the Torah scroll. The death of an individual is like the burning of a Torah. In both instances, the witnesses to such events are required to rend their garments [as are all Jews at the funeral of a close relative].

The disqualified Torah cannot be used and the deceased have no mitzvot [commandments], but both are buried and honored. According to a rabbinic insight, the broken tablets of the law that Moses dropped were not discarded. The shattered tablets, which remind us of our failings, hold a place of honor in the ark of holiness beside the whole tablets of the law. Such too is the enduring sanctity of the divine image in life and death.

The Problem: Token Conversions for Interfaithless Marriages

While commentators on the American scene have been lamenting the decline in Jewish population for over a decade, Rabbi Schulweis claims that they regularly misidentify the culprit as intermarriage. The result, he claims, has been a misdirection of communal resources against intermarriage rather than targeting assimilation, the root cause. In this article, he sets out the problem, and in its sequel he proposes one possible solution. Reprinted with permission from the Summer, 1999, issue of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life & Thought, published by the American Jewish Congress.

While rhetorically we admit that intermarriage is a symptom not a cause, our institutional projects commit a fallacy of misplaced concreteness: De facto, we treat the symptom as a cause. That inversion misdirects our struggle against the erosion of assimilation.

The symptoms are external; the causes are internal, within. The internal problems of interfaith marriages call for a double-pronged inreach-outreach program. That approach must precede, not only chronologically but spiritually, the situation presented as interfaith marriage.

I write from the perspective of a congregational rabbi who has felt compelled to initiate and implement a pluralistic outreach-inreach program for unchurched gentiles and unsynagogued Jews who are joined by affiliated synagogue mentors, all of whom attend lectures and seminars. The mentors have pledged to open their doors and lives to the seekers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. I will shortly explain my motivation and method but I would like first to confess my frustration with the conventional ways I have followed in dealing with the phenomenon of intermarriage.

An Interfaithless Couple

Jeff’s mother calls me with a not-untypical request. Her Jeff has met Kathy who is "a lovely lady but a Catholic." Jeff’s parents are members of my congregation. They are 9-1-1 Jews, who mainly call on the synagogue in emergencies. "Would I officiate at Jeff’s wedding?"

One Solution: A Pluralistic Outreach-Inreach Program

In the first part of this perspective, Schulweis describes Jeff and Kathy, a prototypical and representative couple who have come to his office to request a token conversion for Kathy to Judaism. Whereas Judaism has some appeal for Kathy, for Jeff it is an emotional relic that embarrasses him and belongs to his parents. Both are products of a secular culture in which faith plays little part. To respond to this problem, Schulweis develops a pluralistic outreach-inreach program that he describes below–outreach to non-Jews and inreach to Jews. Reprinted with permission from the Summer, 1999, issue of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life & Thought, published by the American Jewish Congress.

About two years ago, after many such mis-encounters with Jeffs and Kathys, I decided to organize and implement a keruv [literally, bringing closer, but more broadly, outreach] program that would be different in a number of ways. With the enthusiastic cooperation of Rabbis Edward and Nina Feinstein, we created a pluralistic outreach-inreach program with some distinctive features.

I sought a faculty that would be drawn from rabbis in the community, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, who would teach subject matters ranging from rites of passage to theology from their distinctive ideological points of view. The idea was predicated on the belief that God did not create denominations and that Judaism is not a seamless univocal tradition.

At the end of some 17 sessions of lectures and meetings those unchurched seekers who sought to become Jews had the chance to choose their own rabbis, their own batei din [rabbinical courts] so that they would choose to live Jewishly in a manner compatible with their own beliefs and convictions.

Following a few announcements in the Jewish press and in the LA Times we found people of all backgrounds and faiths, lapsed Christians and lapsed Jews, flocking to our lectures. Each session was filled with between 400 and 500 Jews and non-Jews.

The Hidden Matzah

Reprinted with permission of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, May 1986.

I was five, perhaps six years old, when I found the matzah that my grandfather had placed in a linen napkin and hidden in the bedroom. I had glued my eyes on him from the moment he performed the yahatz ceremony, breaking the middle matzah into two unequal parts and replacing the smaller part in its original position. When he returned to the table, I looked forward to the search and retrieval. I knew, as did all my cousins around the seder ta­ble, that he who found the concealed larger part, the afikoman, could hold out for any prize.

That Passover night the seder ran exceptionally long and I was sleepy because of the cups of wine I had drunk and the lateness of the hour. I hid the nap­kin-covered matzah beneath the pillow of the bed and promptly fell into a deep sleep. I remember being roused by my mother who, with some urgency in her voice, insisted that I return the matzah so that the service could be completed. As I did so I sensed that this was no child’s play, that behind the hide-and-seek lay a more serious meaning. They were serious and I, who knew where the broken matzah was, held some true power in my hands. 

Through the years I sensed more and more the mystery of the yahatz act. Every other ritual ges­ture was preceded by a benediction–over the wine, the washing of the hands, the parsley, the matzot, the bitter herbs mixed with haroset. But there was no berakhah [blessing] recited over the yahatz, not even an explanation such as the one given before eating the Hillel sandwich.

Rabbinic scholars sensed as well the oddity of reciting a motzi [blessing for bread] over a broken piece of unleavened bread; they wondered why the middle matzah and not the other two were broken, and why it was broken into two uneven parts with the larger part saved for the afikoman. Their explanations are largely legal, based upon the position of the Rambam, the Rif, and other sages. For others, the “stealing” of the afikomanwas designed to keep the children awake with play. But none of the explanations satisfied me. As in the case of opening the door for Elijah, I knew that more than the amusement of children was meant.

The Ethics of Family Inclusion

Setting limits on the bar/bat mitzvah guest list, necessary in most families, has ethical overtones. The act of sending out invitations for a bar/bat mitzvah defines, if even for one day, who is in a community and who is out. Similarly, it delineates which family members belong and which are estranged. Reprinted with permission from Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage from Birth to Immortality (UAHC Press).

The bar/bat mitzvah is the featured celebrant. But the bar/bat mitzvah event is a family affair in which definitions and boundaries are drawn. 

The decision as to who will receive the invitation contains a moral agenda of its own. The invitation appears as the local equivalent to the Israeli “Law of Return,” determining who is entitled to unquestioned entry to the Promised Land of our ancestry.

The invitation to the bar/bat mitzvah indicates whom we welcome as members of the mishpacha (family) and whom we exclude. Do we, for example, invite Aunt Rose, who was married to Uncle Abe and who, since his death, has been distanced from the family? Who is to receive which honors at the ceremony, and who is to be seated with whom?

Shall we invite the teacher of the bat mitzvah? What does it mean to the teacher to be so remembered, and what does it mean to the child to remember the teacher?

The bar/bat mitzvah passage often includes a rediscovery of the mishpacha. It entails decisions that bring awareness of the scope and character of our family identity.

Why the Minyan? Community and Brit Milah

Reprinted with permission from Finding Each Other in Judaism, © 2001 (UAHC Press, New York).

In the Middle Ages, a custom arose that twelve candles were lit at the brit, signifying the twelve tribes of Israel into which the infant is inducted. The child is enveloped in the embrace of community. While the brit was traditionally a celebration involving the male infant, increasingly today covenant ceremonies are created for daughters. Parents are encouraged to further personalize the covenant by writing their own dreams for their child, their commitments to provide a family environment that will nourish the child’s growth. (That statement of aspiration at the day of the [welcoming the child into the] covenant may be read thirteen years later on the day of the child’s bar/bat mitzvah.) The infant is given a name and the traditional benediction is recited: “As the child has entered the covenant, so may he/she enter the world of Torah, marriage, and the practice of good deeds.” The benediction contains the threefold goals of the human being in its spiritual journey. Whatever the chosen vocation or profession may be, a person’s spiritual career should include the quest for moral wisdom, consecrated love, and the practice of justice and mercy. 

Traditionally, the father is bound to see to it that his male child is circumcised. If there is no father present or if the child should have a father who does not see to it that he is circumcised, the obligation falls upon the beit din, the representatives of the Jewish community. If the child should be an orphan and have no father [the technical, traditional Jewish definition of an “orphan”], a moving prayer is recited: “Thou God of all flesh, father of orphans, be Thou a father unto him and he will be a son unto Thee. May his entering into the covenant be a comfort and a solace to his mother and all his family.” That compassionate prayer reminds us that the community plays a responsible role in the rites of passage. The minyan, ten Jews [traditionally, ten men] above the age of thirteen, is the minimum required for congregational worship and public Torah reading.

Baby Naming and the Covenant

Reprinted from Finding Each Other in Judaism, (c) 2001 (UAHC Press, New York).  All rights reserved. 

On the eighth day, the infant reenters this world and gains a new status through the covenant. He or she becomes a co-creator with God, a partner with God responsible to help transform the uncompleted world. We note here a significant aspect of the reality principle of Judaism: The world is created incomplete. Everything in the world calls for improvement. When asked why, if God so loved circumcision, God did not create every male child circumcised, the Sages point to the imperfection of the entire world, including people.

To be a covenanted partner with God is to help perfect it. "The mustard seed must be sweetened, the lupine must be softened, the wheat must be ground, and the human being must be perfected" (Tan­chuma, Breishit 7f, 10a).

The divine Image is no exception, for it is not born complete. It needs to be cultivated, refined, perfected. Alongside the Jewish reality principle of the imperfection of the world stands the Jewish ideality principle that assigns to the human being the task of turning the world that "is" into the world that "ought to be." The world created, while not perfect, is perfectible. We are not born holy, but we can sanctify the ways of our life.

This spiritual mandate explains why the brit, or covenant [ceremony], takes place on the eighth day even if the eighth day is the Sabbath or coincides with Yom Kippur. For after seven days, the infant has lived through the act of the creation of this world in which the child is to participate. On the eighth day, this covenanted child is more than a passive part of nature, but rather a human agent actively engaged in the development of a moral universe. The guardians of this baby are mandated to nurture this sacred life so that this potentiality may be actualized.

Passageless Rites

The author describes here what he calls "passagesless rites"–rituals and ceremonies in which the participants are going through the motions, but not accessing much (if any) meaning in their performance and celebration. Reprinted with permission from Finding Each Other in Judaism, (UAHC Press, New York).

Passageless rites convert the covenantal brit[milah–circumcision] ceremony into a surgical procedure; the bar or bat mitzvah into a birthday party; the wedding into a ceremony centered around the caterer’s menu, the florist’s display, and the photographer’s angles; the divorce into a mechanical dissolution of a contract; and the funeral into a black-bordered obituary announcing the time and place of the disposal of the body.

"Ceremony" has entered our vocabulary as a definition of boredom and irrelevance. Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines a ceremony as "an action performed with formality but lacking deep significance, form, or effect." The opportunity for the transmission of the wisdom and poetry of Judaism and, with it, the chance to connect as a family is squandered, and in its place emerges the kind of perfunctory performance against which the prophet Isaiah in­veighed:

"Because that people has approached Me with its mouth and honored Me with the lips, but has kept their heart far from Me, and its worship of Me has become a commandment of men learned by rote, truly I shall further baffle that people with bafflement upon bafflement, and the wisdom of its wise shall fail, and the prudence of its prudent shall vanish" (Isaiah 29:13-14).

For many today, the rituals of life passage are experienced merely as prescriptions and proscriptions bereft of the grace and wisdom of rationale. The myths and poetry, ethics and philosophy of a civilization that underlie the rites of passage are buried beneath the sands of ritual routine.

The Ethics of Burial and Mourning

Excerpted with permission from Finding Each Other in Judaism (UAHC Press).

In the absence of spiritual and moral rationale, rituals are frequently performed without spirit and meaning. A folk proverb observes: "Wisdom is often hidden under a ragged cloth." Asking questions helps ritual regain meaning. 

Why are so many rites surrounding the funeral austerely simple? Why the plainness of the casket, the dress of the deceased, even the discouragement of flowers? In a profoundly moving passage found in the Talmud (Moed Katan27b),the Sages remind us of the history of ritual customs and the ethics of mourning and of the funeral. In an early era, they explain, the expense of the burial was great, and the burial fell harder on the next of kin than his own death. So, the dead man’s next of kin frequently abandoned the deceased. The kinsmen of the deceased fled, embarrassed.

Rabban Gamliel came forward and, disregarding his own dignity, ordered that he be dressed in simple linen cloth instead of woolen, expensive vestments when the time came for his funeral. Thereafter, the people followed his lead to dress their deceased in modest linen clothing. As a result of Rabban Gamliel’s example, a series of funeral reforms took place due to a desire to respect the poor. Formerly, the rich would be brought out for burial on ornamental, tall, stately beds covered with rich coverlets, while the poor were placed on a plain bier, a box. The poor felt ashamed, and mipnei kavodan shel aniyim, "out of respect for the poor," the Rabbis instead insisted that all deceased should be buried in a plain box (ibid.).

Similarly, in earlier times, the face of the rich deceased was left uncov­ered, while the face of the poor deceased was covered, because the faces of the poor who lived in years of famine turned livid. The poor felt shamed to the point of abandoning the deceased, and therefore a tradition was instituted that everybody’s face should be covered. This reform too was based on the reiterated principle "out of respect for the poor" (ibid.).

The Role of Community in Life Cycle Events

The following passage is excerpted with permission  from Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage from Birth to Immortality (UAHC Press).

A child is born, a wedding is in the offing, a death is pending. The family is gathered, and something must be done, something must be said. These are the emotionally charged moments when it is not good for us to be alone and not good enough to offer a handshake, a cigar, a card announcing name, height, and weight.

On such occasions, even those most distanced from Jewish community and tradition seek out a synagogue or rabbi, sensing the tug of an invisible cord, a tie to "obscure forces and emotions, all the more powerful the less they were to be defined in words" (The Complete Work of Sigmund Freud, 1959). In the same way, a secular Jew like the American philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen, who thoroughly repudiated supernaturalism, singled out for appreciation "the ancient cere­monies that celebrate the coming and going of life, the wedding ceremony, the birth and burial services which give an expression to the continuity of the spiritual tradition that is more eloquent than any phrase of my own creation" (A Dreamer’s Journey, 1949). We seek a community that shares the sanctity of these events, commemorating them with a meaningful choreography.


Beyond the public festivals and fasts of Judaism, it is in the private domain of rites of passage that make up the stages of our lives that we find deepened and broadened relationships. Through the rites of passage, the "I" draws closer to the "we," to the members of the family, and to the community present and past. These singular intersections present unique circumstances in which to find one other in Judaism. Laughter and tears crave community.