Author Archives: Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

About Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann is the Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. She teaches and lectures widely on Jewish feminism, rabbinical ethics, the relationship between religion and education, and social justice.

A Caretaker’s Prayer

Commentary on Parshat B’ha’alotkha, Numbers 8:1-12:16

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Parshat B’ha’alotkha is overflowing with complex ritual and detail: the lighting of the lamps; the purification and consecration of the Levites; the elaboration of the Passover sacrifice; the carefully choreographed journey through the wilderness; the mutiny of meat, manna, and quail precipitating a plague for those who were led by their appetites; the challenge of Moses’ siblings to his leadership; and finally, the sudden onset of his sister Miriam’s disease. Yet amidst these richly detailed stories, we find one contrasting, stark, parsimonious prayer: ”El na r’fa na lah” (“O God, pray heal her!”).Torah: A Women's Commentary

Five words — 11 Hebrew letters — are all that Moses speaks (Numbers 12:13). Except for God’s name, each word ends in a vowel, as if each word were an unending cry. It is as if each word is punctuated with an exclamation point, the brevity of the syllables giving voice to the tortured helplessness of the supplicant: “God! Please! Heal! Please! Her!”

In the midst of catastrophe, the verb of consequence — the bull’s-eye of the prayer — is the central plea: Heal! Indeed, in Hebrew the prayer is nearly a palindrome — reading the same forwards as it does backwards — homing in with laser precision on that most urgent desire: Heal!

A Plea from Someone Trying to Help

This prayer has few words but much resonance. It is a primal cry, capturing fear, powerlessness, and incomprehensibility in the face of sudden illness, accident, or injury. It is not the entreaty of the one beset by the catastrophe, but rather that of the witness, the powerless onlooker, the potential caregiver absorbing the shock, the one who is overwhelmed and stymied about how to help.

When illness, accident, or injury comes to those we love, it is up to us — those who are comparatively healthy and able — not only to beseech but also to provide hope and healing. For the caregiver, there is time only for truncated and hurried prayer, time only for stolen moments of naked cries and yearnings of hope. For the caregiver shouldering the burdens of action — making the loved one comfortable, researching treatment, running interference with physicians, reporting news, calming fears–prayer is a blessed moment of calm in an otherwise turbulent time.

The Mourner During Aninut

The period from the moment one learns about the death of a loved one until burial is called aninut. One is not yet a mourner, but most of the traditions related to mourning are observed during this period of time. In addition, one is exempt from most mitzvot [commandments] so as to be free to arrange for the funeral and burial.

As Rabbi Maurice Lamm has observed: “The onen [mourner during aninut] is a person in deep distress, a person yanked out of normal life and abruptly catapulted into the midst of inexpressible grief. He is disoriented, his attitudes are disarrayed, his emotions [are] out of gear. The shock of death paralyzes his consciousness and blocks out all regular patterns of orderly thinking” (The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p. 21).

Indeed, we are discouraged from trying to comfort the mourner prior to the burial. Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] teaches, “Do not console a person whose deceased relative lies before him” (4:23). Therefore, the common Western customs of viewing the body and visitation are contrary to traditional Jewish practice.

Who Is a Mourner?

According to Jewish tradition, one is obligated to observe mourning rituals for the following relatives: father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, and spouse. One may choose to observe some or all of the rituals for other relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

Traditionally, one does not observe mourning customs for an infant under 30 days old. “An infant who does not live for 30 days is called a nefel, and is not considered viable in terms of Jewish tradition. The laws of aninut and mourning do not apply to the family at all” (Lamm, p. 247). However, tohora, ritual purification, is performed and the body is buried, but without the usual service and prayers. These practices were developed at a time when infant mortality was very high in order not to place a burden upon the parents.

In modern times, many Jews feeling a need to mourn for a stillbirth or for a child who dies before reaching one month, as they might for any other death, choose to observe the traditional mourning customs.

Jewish law forbids one to observe the mourning customs for an apostate who renounces Judaism and adopts another religion and for one who commits suicide. In traditional cemeteries the bodies of such individuals are usually buried in a special section, often near the border. However, most rabbis are lenient in the interpretation of Jewish law relating to suicide, considering one who commits such an act as mentally disturbed or insane. The act is there­fore not technically a suicide, the body need not be buried in a special area, and family members may observe mourning rituals.

Reprinted with permission from Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Insights and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).


New Jewish Lifecycle Rituals

Excerpted with permission from Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Insights and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).

Recent years have seen an explosion of new Jewish rituals. From mimeographed rituals to Xeroxed rituals to desktop-published rituals to rituals that have been performed but not recorded, the willingness to capture the large and small moments of our lives through ritual has become part of the landscape of Jewish life….

Rituals Mark Moments and Invest Them With Meaning

Why are so many Jews creating new rituals? Rabbi Laura Geller, one of the first women rabbis, tells about her epiphany at Hebrew Union College when one of her teachers said, “There are no important moments in a Jew’s life for which there is not a blessing,” and, daydreaming, Laura started cataloguing all the moments in her life which had gone unmarked.

Rabbi Margaret Holub shares a story [about a ritual devised to help a two-year-old transition from crib to “big boy bed.” Reading] this description of a ritual moment, this acknowledgment of a moment of transition, touched [Holub] deeply. “How different my childhood, indeed my adulthood would be, if people around me valued and marked the things that I think are important,” she has written (“Ritual: The Next Phase,” unpublished).

Rituals of the kitchen and bedroom variety and rituals of the religious variety are an integral part of human experience. For those who live in Jewish rhythms, the desire to mark those occasions of importance, of transition, with rituals that affirm both our individual and our communal life, has prompted us to invention.

Ritual and liturgy are analogous to sign language. One who is deaf has as much desire to communicate as one who hears, but often needs sign language to do so. Similarly, ritual and liturgy become tools for communicating meaning. For the language of ritual to serve the purpose of communication, there must be those who share and can use its tools and those who receive and understand the messages.

In doing Jewish ritual, we are attempting to etch Jewish meanings into the lives and souls and bodies of Jews. Ritual both gives people access to Judaism and shapes their sense of themselves as Jews. In the atomized modern world in which we live, rituals place the individual in community, in continuity. Rituals create a place.

Alternative Rites of Passage

Some contemporary Jews have been extending the definition of the Jewish lifecycle beyond the traditional rituals for birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, divorce, and death. The proliferation of new ceremonies in recent decades has invested a host of other life passages with Jewish meaning. Events that were once deemed too private, too female, or even too frivolous to be recognized ritually are finding their ways into the “lingua franca” of Jewish culture.

About Other Life Passages

Pregnant mom and daughter

As Jewish women began to realize that some of their most intense experiences were being denied religious expression, they began to create new lifecycle ceremonies. To develop a ritual language for these new ceremonies, they plumbed existing texts for themes and symbols that they could reinterpret or use in new contexts. Although critics maintain that some of the “lifecycle events” being honored are too trivial for ritual recognition, proponents claim that the role of ritual is to invest the ordinary with significance and that rituals that people use will endure. Some feminists worry that some of these new rituals–for example, pregnancy or menarche ceremonies–focus overly on women’s bodies, but realize that not doing so would deny the validity of female experience. An unexpected consequence of this wave of ritual creation has been to draw peripherally affiliated Jews towards the center of the Jewish community.

Illness and Healing

The history of Jewish healing reflects a movement from a view of God as absolute healer to physicians as God’s partners in the healing process. At the same time, attitudes toward folk-healing traditions have fluctuated in strength. In addition, the belief that illness is a divinely mandated punishment for individual and communal sins has diminished. Modern Jews generally understand illness as a manifestation of genetics, biochemistry, and the environment. Although Americans have generally sought science-based medicine practiced by trained physicians, in the 1980s a non-hierarchical, grassroots format for spiritual healing has emerged as an adjunct to modern medicine. Its most popular technique is the healing service, in a synagogue or a small group, that provides communal support to those in need of healing.