"You are children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be His treasured possession" (Deut. 14: 1-2).
These words have had a considerable history within Judaism. The first inspired the famous statement of Rabbi Akiva: "Beloved is man because he was created in the image [of God]. Beloved are Israel for they are called children of the All-present" (Avot 3: 14). The phrase, "Do not cut yourselves", was imaginatively applied by the sages to divisions within the community (Yevamot 14a). A single town should not have two or more religious courts giving different rulings.
The plain sense of these two verses, though, is about behaviour at a time of bereavement. We are commanded not to engage in excessive rituals of grief. To lose a close member of one's family is a shattering experience. It is as if something of ourselves had died too. Not to grieve is wrong, inhuman: Judaism does not command Stoic indifference in the face of death. But to give way to wild expressions of sorrow - lacerating one's flesh, tearing out one's hair - is also wrong. It is, the Torah suggests, not fitting to a holy people; it is the kind of behaviour associated with idolatrous cults. How so, and why so?
Elsewhere in Tanakh we are given a glimpse of the kind of behaviour the Torah has in mind. It occurs in the course of the encounter between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah had challenged them to a test: Let us each make a sacrifice and see which of us can bring down fire from heaven. The Baal prophets accept the challenge:
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. (I Kings 18:26-28)
This was, of course, not a mourning ritual, but it gives us a graphic sense of the rite of self-laceration. Emil Durkheim provides us with a description of mourning customs among the aborigines of Australia. When a death is announced, men and women begin to run around wildly, howling and weeping, cutting themselves with knives and pointed sticks.
Despite the apparent frenzy, there is a precise set of rules governing this behaviour, depending on whether the mourner is a man or woman, and on his or her kinship relationship with the deceased. "Among the Warramunga, those who slashed their thighs were the maternal grandfather, maternal uncle and wife's brother of the deceased. Others are required to cut their whiskers and hair and then cover their scalps with pipe clay." Women lacerate their heads and then apply red-hot sticks to the wounds in order to aggravate them (Emil Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by Karen Fields, Free Press, 1995, pp. 392-406).
(A similar ritual is performed by some Shia Muslims on Ashura, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the prophet's grandson, at Karbala. People flagellate themselves with chains or cut themselves with knives until the blood flows. Some Shia authorities strongly oppose this practice.)
The Torah sees such behaviour as incompatible with kedushah, holiness. What is particularly interesting is to note the two-stage process in which the law is set out. It appears first in Vayikra/Leviticus 21:
The Lord said to Moses, "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: A priest may not defile himself for any of his people who die, except for a close relative . . . They may not shave their heads or shave the edges of their beards or cut their bodies. They must be holy to their God and must not profane the name of their God." (Lev. 21: 1-6)
There it applies specifically to cohanim, priests, on account of their holiness. In Deuteronomy the law is extended to all Israel (the difference between the two books lies in their original audiences: Leviticus is mainly a set of instructions to the priests, Deuteronomy is Moses' addresses to the whole people). The application to ordinary Israelites of laws of sanctity that apply to priests is part of the democratization of holiness that is central to the Torah idea of "a kingdom of priests". The question remains, however: what has restraint in mourning to do with being "children of the Lord your God", a holy and chosen people?
 Ibn Ezra says that just as a father may cause a child pain for his or her long-term good, so G-d sometimes brings us pain - here, bereavement - which we must accept in trust without an excessive show of grief.
 Ramban suggests that it is our belief in the immortality of the soul that is why we should not grieve overmuch. Even so, he adds, we are right to mourn within the parameters set by Jewish law since, even if death is only a parting, every parting is painful.
 R. Ovadiah Sforno and Chizkuni say that because we are "children of G-d" we are never completely orphaned. We may lose our earthly parents but never our ultimate Father; hence there is a limit to grief.
 Rabbenu Meyuchas suggests that royalty does not defile itself by undergoing disfiguring injuries (nivul). Thus Israel - children of the supreme King - may not do so either.
Whichever of these explanations speaks most strongly to us, the principle is clear. Here is how Maimonides sets out the law: "Whoever does not mourn the dead in the manner enjoined by the rabbis is cruel [achzari - perhaps a better translation would be, 'lacking in sensitivity')" (Hilkhot Avel 13: 12). At the same time, however, "One should not indulge in excessive grief over one's dead, for it is said, 'Weep not for the dead, nor bemoan him' [Jer. 22: 10], that is to say, weep not too much, for that is the way of the world, and he who frets over the way of the world is a fool" (ibid. 13: 11).
Halakhah, Jewish law, strives to create a balance between too much and too little grief. Hence the various stages of bereavement: aninut (the period between the death and burial), shiva (the week of mourning), sheloshim (thirty days in the case of other relatives) and shanah (a year in the case of parents). Judaism ordains a precisely calibrated sequence of grief, from the initial, numbing moment of loss itself, to the funeral and the return home, to the period of being comforted by friends and members of the community, to a more extended time during which one does not engage in activities associated with joy. The more we learn about the psychology of bereavement and the stages through which we must pass before loss is healed, so the wisdom of Judaism's ancient laws and customs has become ever more clear. As it is with individuals, so it is with the people as a whole. Jews have suffered more than most from persecution and tragedy. We have never forgotten these moments. We remember them on our fast days - especially on Tisha B'Av with its literature of lament, the kinot. Yet, with a power of recovery that at times has been almost miraculous, it has never allowed itself to be defeated by grief. One rabbinic passage (Tosefta Sotah 15: 10-15; see also Baba Batra 60b) epitomizes the dominant voice within Judaism:
After the Second Temple was destroyed, ascetics multiplied in Israel. They did not eat meat or drink wine . . . Rabbi Joshua told them: "Not to mourn at all is impossible, for it has been decreed. But to mourn too much is also impossible."
In this anti-traditional age, with its hostility to ritual and its preference for the public display of private emotion (what Philip Reiff, in the 1960s, called "the triumph of the therapeutic"), the idea that grief has its laws and limits sounds strange. Yet almost anyone who has had the misfortune to be bereaved can testify to the profound healing brought about by observance of the laws of avelut(mourning). Torah and tradition knew how to honour both the dead and the living, sustaining the delicate balance between grief and consolation, the loss of life that gives us pain, and the re-affirmation of life that gives us hope.
Religion is about open hearts not closed minds
The Times – Credo 2009
Back in 1993 I received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University together with Thomas Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of DNA. Meeting him gave me the opportunity to say the blessing, coined by the sages two thousand years ago and still to be found in all Jewish prayer books, thanking God for bestowing his wisdom on human beings. Essentially it’s a blessing to be said on seeing a great scientist, although the word ‘scientist’ wasn’t coined until 1833. What a difference between the first century and now, when there seems so often to be at worst hostility, at best estrangement, between religion and science. It shouldn’t be like that.
The rabbis had every reason to fear science. It was done, in their day, by the Greeks, and there was a profound difference between the two cultures, so much so that Jews had fought a war – essentially a war of culture – against Hellenism. The name Epicurus, the Greek thinker who more than anyone was the forerunner of atomic science, was synonymous for Jews with ‘heretic’. Yet the rabbis knew wisdom when they saw it, and they valued it even though they dissented from some of its conclusions. They did so for three reasons. First, it was evidence of the fact that God had indeed created humankind ‘in his image, after his likeness’, meaning according to Jewish tradition, ‘with the capacity to understand and discern.’ Intellect, insight, the ability to frame and test hypotheses: these are God-given and a reason to give thanks.
Second, scientific method can apply to religion as well. The Talmud tells the story of a Rabbi Shimon Ha-Amsoni who had spent a lifetime applying certain exegetical principles to biblical texts. On one occasion he encountered a verse which, if interpreted by his rules, would yield an unacceptable conclusion. He then and there declared his principles unsound, in effect abandoning his entire life’s work. His students were aghast. They asked him: are you really willing to give up everything you have taught because of one counterexample? He smiled and said, “Just as I received a [divine] reward for the exposition, so I will receive a reward for the retraction.” This is in effect an anticipation, many centuries earlier, of Sir Karl Popper’s account of scientific method in his book Conjectures and Refutations. Religion may not be science but it can use the same rules of logic.
Third, science, regardless of the conclusions drawn from it, provides stunning testimony to the law-governed orderliness of the universe and the beauty and intricacy of creation. That was evident to the sages long ago, and it has become all the more pronounced today. I lose count of the number of times I have had reason to say, reading about some new scientific discovery, “How many are your works, O Lord: You have created them all in wisdom” (Psalm 104: 24). The rabbis felt so strongly about this that they said about those who could study astronomy but failed to do so, that they were the people about whom the prophet Isaiah was speaking when he said (5: 12), “they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of His hands.”
One passage in the Talmud is indicative of the rabbinical approach. The topic under discussion is the question, where does the sun go at night? The sages give their account. Next they give the Greek account, that of Ptolemy. They then conclude that the Greek explanation is more plausible than the Jewish one. End of discussion. They got it right; we got it wrong. That to me is a model of intellectual integrity. I mentioned that the Jewish blessing on seeing a great scientist uses the word ‘wisdom,’ and that is the key concept. Judaism recognises two distinct sources of knowledge, wisdom and Torah, the products respectively of reason and revelation. Entire books of the Bible, notably Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, are dedicated to wisdom. Unlike revelation, wisdom is universal. Anyone can achieve it, regardless of religious belief, and traces of it are to be found in all the world’s cultures.
There are tensions between reason and revelation, and that is particularly evident in Ecclesiastes and Job, two of the most dissident books ever to be included in a canon of sacred scriptures. Yet they too are part of the religious life. So let’s continue to thank God for great scientists. Religion is about open hearts, not closed minds.