Death Healing

Mourning My (Unknown) Child

It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Holding my wife’s hand in the ultrasound room, we heard that rapid thump thump thump of newly created life. My wife was about 8 weeks pregnant with our next child. We left the room smiling and filled with a glow. I watched as my wife rested her hands gently on her abdomen. I smiled at her, and for the briefest of moments, felt a twinge of envy, knowing that I would never know our child as she would. It turned out, however, that life had other plans.

Within the following two weeks, my wife kept repeating to me that she felt something. She knew that there was something wrong with our child. Back to the ultrasound room we went, and, instead of that familiar and comforting sound of that thump thump thump, we heard silence, deafening silence. The life growing inside of her stopped growing; her cradle of life, my wife’s womb, now held lifelessness. The following week, after nurturing life for almost three months, my wife underwent a procedure, known as a “D&C”, to remove the silence.

There is so little in our literature, in our tradition, to guide the women who go through such tragedy, and less to offer wisdom to their partners on how to support in these moments of terrible loss. Over the ensuing weeks, I watched my wife mourn for the child we would never come to know. I sat silently as she would break out crying for no apparent reason, then run to hug our one and a half year-old son so tightly, and tell him how much she loved him. So often I wanted to say “something,” but I never knew the right words to say to her. What was I, a partner who could not carry life inside himself, who could never know life on that intimate of a level, what could I say besides that I grieved with her, and mourned with her.

But I’m a rabbi, aren’t I supposed to know what to do? I’ve been through chaplaincy rotations, studied the halakhot of mourning, pastored to people, shouldn’t I have been able to find something to comfort her? I soon realized that I was at a loss. There is almost nothing for a mourning of “the could have been.”

The Rav taught that the mourning of the intimate lives we know, this is aveilut hadashah – new mourning. This label has a double meaning for a situation such as this – it is new not simply because it is not the aveilut yeshanah of the Temple and ancient tragedies, but also because until very recently, Judaism has failed to recognize the need of the parents to mourn for what could have been.

My wife and I were experiencing a form of this aveilut hadashah, and even with the small collection of new material and liturgy, it felt so foreign. We didn’t discuss it in seminary, and it’s a small section of the rabbi’s manual. However, we are now living in a world where the marvels of medicine allow us to look at the fetus earlier than ever before, to hear the heartbeat of life sooner than ever before, and, we are having children later than any previous generation. Taken together, this is changing our understanding and attitudes of mourning for the loss of a life that could have been.

Standing nearly a year removed from this terrible moment, I cannot believe how completely unprepared I felt as a husband and a rabbi. It is time, I believe, that we begin to change our understanding of mourning beyond years 0 – 120. Unlike our ancestors, we live in a world where the hidden is not so hidden. Talking about and preparing our spiritual leaders, from rabbis-to-be to those already ordained, this too I believe is a part of our obligation as rabbis when we pastor. Our Mishnah, Niddah 5:3, goes so far as to say that a child one day old can be counted for mourning; perhaps it is time to take this halakhah one step further.

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt serves Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, PA.

Books Torah

Leading Torah Study: Framing the Message

What does it mean to lead a Torah study?  When we sit with congregants, friends, are guests in different communities, what is it we are doing when we are given the honor to lead a Torah study?  There is something quite amazing that we are doing – we are framing the message for this group. For that short moment in time that we are asked to lead, we are transmitting a concept, idea, ideal or moral teaching that we believe the group needs to hear.  It is a truly powerful moment and the texts, commentaries, works that we bring to the table also convey the message of what our values are or what sources contribute to our very own understanding of the week’s parashah.  For the Torah studies that I lead, I am indebted to a rabbi and teacher who taught me the important lens of gender to bring forth powerful lessons, messages and teachings.

In the Fall of 2011, I found myself sitting in the classroom of Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss.  Within the first ten minutes of her class, I quickly discovered that all I thought that I had learned, all that I thought that I knew about Torah, it was as if I was viewing only half a painting.  I was studying and teaching about an incomplete picture.  From that point on, Dr. Weiss challenged us to try to step back and expand the lenses through which we viewed Torah.  That is, to also use the lens of a woman’s view when studying and teaching Torah.

It is not an easy thing to find one’s understanding of Torah to be so challenged.  Or more simply put, to be told that I had been missing so much in my studies up until that moment.  But in that challenge, I found that it freed me to be willing to engage with our sacred texts in a way that I never had – to appreciate Torah for all of its voices and to see the beauty in the rainbow of Torah interpretation.  And where do we turn to begin this discussion?  For me, it has been and continues to be the WRJ’s The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.WTC - Jewish Book Award - Updated

In the early pages of this work, Drs. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrew Weiss write “In reproducing the variety of Torah interpretations, past and present, we envision our readers joining the centuries-old dialogue through their own personal and communal study.  We hope that The Torah: A Women’s Commentary will inspire and invigorate a lifelong exploration that will go beyond these pages and will shape women and men in our communities well into the future.  In this way, all of us will rightly pay tribute, at last, to the Torah of our mothers and fathers.”

I believe these words to be an important and perhaps even sacred charge for the Torah that I teach and the message that I pass on week to week.  What does this charge practically look like?  For me, it means beginning my Torah studies with the outline that can be found before every parashah in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  And what happens when I begin the sacred conversation with this outline? Often times, I’ll find a comment or two during, but especially after the formal teaching, where someone will share how they’ve never thought of looking at Torah in this way.  Other times, someone will tell me how the study helped them come to the realization that they’ve never looked at how the generations of commentaries before the last few decades almost all are devoid of a woman’s voice!

womens commentaryTo study Torah in this way slowly began to permeate the other ways in which I have come to understand Judaism and its rituals.  Because of this eye-opening experience, I have been spurred to begin exploring other parts of our tradition for the voices of not only women, but those other silenced minority voices.  I believe that in that class nearly five years ago, Dr. Weiss gave me a gift whose reward benefits not only me, but all who I am grateful to study Torah with during my rabbinate.  The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a work that causes us to ask difficult questions, to look at our Torah in new and exciting ways, and continues the important work of giving voice to all within klal Yisrael.

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt serves as Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sholom and is a current Pines School of Graduate Studies Doctor of Hebrew Letters student.  Check out Rabbi Weisblatt’s video about The Torah: A Women’s Commentary