How to handle the shiva issue when you’re not observant...
May 21, 2019 12:39 AM   Subscribe

My father is a fairly observant Conservative Jew. I am culturally Jewish, but an atheist and not observant. When he passes away, I do not intend to sit shiva (or, by extension, host it). What are my options for remaining respectful of his beliefs without doing something with which I’m uncomfortable?

I am an only child and he is my only remaining parent. When he passes away, there will be a service at the funeral home followed by a graveside service, after which I expect I will host folks at my home who wish to pay their respects. I do not intend to host a shiva or observe it, but I am not sure of the ramifications of this - I don’t wish to offend his many Jewish friends, and I’m not sure how awful they would consider my choice to be. But I’m also just not going to do it. Are there compromise options? Can a friend of his host shiva instead if they want to? Other possibilities that I haven’t thought of? Is this not as big a deal as I’m worried it might be? Thanks for your thoughts.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can a friend of his host shiva instead if they want to? Other possibilities that I haven’t thought of?

Yes, a friend or friends can host the shiva, which would (to me anyway) be the respectful thing to do.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:42 AM on May 21 [8 favorites]

Yes, a friend can do it. I mean, it's not halachic, but it's fine. We just had a similar situation with a guy whose family lived out of town. We called it a "shiva gathering."

One compromise option might be having people over right after the funeral, the same day, hosting a quick minyan, and then not doing anything the following days. Not saying you have to do this.

If you and your dad live in different houses, you may be able to get someone to host minyanim at HIS house that you do not attend. This is a mainstream Orthodox thing done for people who do not have relatives to sit shiva for them. Contact your synagogue.

You can pay someone to say kaddish for you if you're interested, whether just for a few days, or the whole 11 mos. Contact your local yeshiva or kollel (or not local).
posted by 8603 at 4:36 AM on May 21 [7 favorites]

So, has your father expressed wishes for this? Very often what defines actions is what the person who passed has requested. It's certainly up to you to choose to execute or ignore those requests but it's clearly a different thing to fulfill a request than selecting a process based on your own moral framework. I believe that a Shiva is specifically about immediate family members but the advice above about a Shiva gathering for his friends sounds like it could honor he and they and for you just be a variation of visitation in that you don't have to perform the customs associated with your role.
posted by chasles at 4:41 AM on May 21 [5 favorites]

One compromise option might be having people over right after the funeral, the same day, hosting a quick minyan, and then not doing anything the following days.

If you and your dad live in different houses, you may be able to get someone to host minyanim at HIS house that you do not attend.

These are both good options. I also want to note that it's important that whatever you do, you communicate that to his rabbi and the leadership of his congregation. People grieve in different ways and they should understand, even if it is unusual per their typical customs. But especially if his community is more Conservadox and he was a popular person, people will definitely expect that there will be a shiva, and if you live within driving distance it is quite likely people will show up at your house with food unexpectedly if you don't make it clear you don't want that. People will definitely want to gather, and they will want to say kaddish, I think that their desires are not your responsibility but having someone else organize minyanim at someone else's house (or his) that you do not attend is a way to keep good graces with his community (if you want that) and honor his memory.

Talk with his rabbi. Be respectful but firm about your desires (blame it on your grief rather than your disinterest if you like), and ask for help with coming up with an alternative that your father would be satisfied with that meets your criteria.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:25 AM on May 21 [6 favorites]

Is there a particular reason you are averse to a shiva gathering?

My family is not-very-observant Reform Jews. When my father died, we did sit shiva - but it was not particularly religious. It was primarily a space for old friends, family, and neighbors to gather and mourn together. I saw people I had not seen in decades. Amidst the awfulness of losing my father, it was a healing moment of community. The rabbi came to the house in the evening for a quick prayer. You could possibly skip it or just step out the room if it truly bothers you.

I don’t wish to offend his many Jewish friends, and I’m not sure how awful they would consider my choice to be.

Even if you are not religious, it is a Jewish social/cultural tradition and the members of his community will negatively view your choice here. They will likely view your choice as depriving your father of his proper mourning and depriving the living members of the community a chance to grieve and process the death of their friend. I would see if someone else if willing to host it.
posted by gnutron at 7:02 AM on May 21 [17 favorites]

we did sit shiva - but it was not particularly religious

Seconding this. I have been to many shivas, including an Orthodox one, and I never witnessed any prayers or Brachot being recited. (If Kaddish Yatom was recited it was not while I or many others were there.) The main purpose of shiva is to give comfort and aid to the bereaved (e.g. by bringing food so they don't have to shop or cook) and to express condolences and also fond memories of the deceased. Many people would refer to any gathering of loved ones in the days immediately following death and burial to be a "shiva." The only thing I could see that would make a shiva religious would be covering up all the mirrors, or requiring people to sit on low stools, which are Orthodox practices.

after which I expect I will host folks at my home who wish to pay their respects.

Well, that would be considered to be part of a "shiva" by many people, so there you go. The advantage of a days-long "shiva period" is to accommodate people who wish to make a condolence call who are unable to get into town or whatever on the day of burial. I don't think it actually matters where a shiva is held (I went to one that was in an apartment building's community room!), but I do think it would be a good idea for you to attend, wherever it is. You might find you get more out of it than you anticipate.
posted by RRgal at 7:41 AM on May 21 [2 favorites]

Nthing that even the most secular of cultural Jews will have a shiva, and tailor it to exactly what works for them.

According to Halacha, the seven close relatives (father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse) are supposed to sit shiva (and pray with a minyan three times a day, and sit on low stools, and wear sneakers, and cover mirrors and photographs) for seven days. My secular relatives said eff that, and sat shiva for two days (to accommodate out of town relatives). The one thing they did to accommodate the more traditional folks was to cover the big mirror in the hall.

Another interesting thing about shiva is that the visitors are not expected to be served in any way by the seven close relatives. It is assumed that the relatives will not produce any food or drinks or coffee, and that their friends will do all the work. They don't have to lift a finger; everyone else will bring all the casseroles. (In that same vein, visitors traditionally do not ring the doorbell or knock but instead just walk in, because they are not being served by the mourning household.) So your desire to disappear into the background fits well with all of this.
posted by Melismata at 8:06 AM on May 21 [5 favorites]

[One deleted. Folks, OP stipulates they're not going to sit shiva, please take that at face value and suggest approaches compatible with that. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:27 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

I've known some Reform Jews that essentially have a space after the funeral that acts somewhere between a procession line and a shiva, but I've always found them a little awkward.

If you don't want to have a shiva for whatever reason, you don't have to have one. You can talk to your father and get his suggestions as to who to ask in your stead - and I'd strongly suggest telling him because anyone that you'd want to ask would be likely to let him know. There will likely to be people who feel like this is wrong, but anyone who would let you know that they disapprove of your grieving practices are officially dicks.
posted by dinty_moore at 10:17 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

I visited someone I knew sitting shiva. In this particular case, the deceased had lived away but wanted his services in his hometown. His children were all relatively young, as in the youngest was still in high school. The older children were in their early 20s. Their mother had died about 10 years prior. None of them had a home they felt suitable for a shiva.

So they held it at their dad's favorite yacht club the afternoon of his funeral and the next day in the morning. And that was it. That's what worked for them and to my knowledge, no one faulted these very young adults who now had no parents for doing exactly what they did. Though, it was the first shiva outside of a home many of my local Jewish friends had heard about when I asked about protocols for attending.

Do what works best for your situation, and if that's having a friend of your dad's host it because that's what meets both your needs and your dad's wishes, then so be it.
posted by zizzle at 11:07 AM on May 21 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure I understand your question -- so bear with me if my answer isn't what you're asking. What does it mean to you when you ask "what are my options for remaining respectful of his beliefs"? Are you asking for options of what you can do to show him / his memory respect according to Jewish tradition (hoping to pick something that doesn't rub against your personal beliefs)? Or are you asking for what options exist to you because you personally feel like you should do something? Because those are two very different questions.

From the way your question is worded, it sounds like your father is still alive -- is he still able to communicate with you, that you could ask him what he wants? Because that would be the most respectful of his beliefs - since only he (and possibly his rabbi, who would be another good person to ask) knows what those are.

If that's not possible, then there are two sets of traditions when it comes to the dead in Judaism -- there's what you do for the deceased, and there's what you do as a mourner. For the deceased, there needs to be a Jewish burial and funeral (and his rabbi will be the best person to arrange that). Someone should say Kaddish for him (ideally you, but as an atheist this may be the last thing you'll want to do and I can understand choosing to skip it) - you can arrange to have someone in his congregation do this if you think it would matter to him, to have it said in his memory (I imagine Chabad also has people who volunteer to do this). Everything else - the shiva, tearing your clothes, lighting a candle on the anniversary of his death, etc - is for the mourners, not for the deceased. It's meant to help make the grieving process easier - you're not expected to go to work, to care how you look, to entertain people, to go to parties. So you can sit and mourn with the people who knew and loved him.

If that is a burden or meaningless to you, by all means skip it. But when you say ...I expect I will host folks at my home who wish to pay their respects. ... This is literally what sitting shiva is. If you call it a shiva and say those are the hours, and then that's all you do, you've already done what you're asking. If you have reasons why it's uncomfortable for you to use the word "shiva" for what you are doing, you're fine to not call it that, but people will be asking where and when the shiva is, meaning where and when to go to do the thing you are likely already okay with doing (pay respects, maybe bring you some rugalach) -- you should at least allow the rabbi to know why you're avoiding using the word if you want to avoid misunderstandings and confusion.

But Nthing everyone who said that the actual shiva is more of a social get-together than anything religious. It's just a chance to pay respects and talk about the person who's gone. It can be at someone else's home or at the synagogue or not at all. It doesn't mean you have to take on any of the religious rituals if they have no meaning for you. If you're looking for the least religious Jewish mourning option available to you, that's actually it.
posted by Mchelly at 1:26 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]

Maybe reach out to your local Jewish Family Services, because they may have a nonjudgmental social worker who you can talk to, and they may be able to offer ideas and help with coordination with the local community. Also, apparently there is such a thing as a shiva coordinator:
Specific observances will vary depending on the beliefs of the family and the Jewish community, so it is important to be thoughtful and considerate when choosing the traditions that are most appropriate to the family.
One thing to maybe also keep in mind is that the kaddish also has cultural resonance, beyond the religious tradition.
posted by Little Dawn at 3:57 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

I'm not really clear on whether you mean being respectful of his beliefs now, to him, while he is alive, or being respectful in a more abstract way after he passes.

If the former, I'd say follow his lead in terms of what he wants to talk about. Offer to have the difficult conversations so that he doesn't feel he has to protect you from them, but he may not be interested either. It might be a kindness to him to tell him you will say kaddish for him. You don't have to clarify that it'll just be at the graveside service or your friends' kids' bar mitzvah service. He might also want to know that you will help make sure that there is shiva for him. Again, you don't need to get into the details of whether that will be a gathering at a friend's home after the service or paying to sponsor weekday morning Kiddush for a week at his shul. Finally, depending on his mood and state of mind and abilities, I don't know that you need to worry much about strict honesty at all. The underlying truth is that you love and respect him, and will honor his memory. The details about how... it may not be the time to get into them.

I'm willing to bet that most of his friends have children/friends on different places of Jewish observance, and they will not be shocked or horrified. I agree that it would be a kindness to let the Rabbi or a good friend of his know that you will not be hosting or participating in any shiva, but are happy to let his religious community organize whatever seems meaningful to them. If you have the means, it could be a nice gesture to sponsor something in his memory.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:19 AM on May 27

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