Monday, 24 April 2023

Welcome to Progressive Judaism - A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century

Shalom and welcome - I am glad you have visited!  My name is Jonathan Keren-Black, and I am a Rabbi based at the Leo Baeck Centre in East Kew, Melbourne, Australia http://lbc.org.au/.
I grew up in the Progressive Movements (Reform and Liberal) in the UK and became a Rabbi in 1988 after 5 years training at the Leo Baeck College in London.  In 2003 my family and I moved to Melbourne, where I am a part of the Moetzah, the Rabbinic Council of the Union for Progressive Judaism, Australia, New Zealand and Asia (big region!).  I was the Editorial Team leader for our beautiful new prayer book introduced in 2010, the World Union Edition of Mishkan T'filah, and also developed and adapted 'A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century' (see below), which is one of our course text books, to suit our region (both available from office(at)lbc.org.au, +6103 9819 7160, or contact us for stockists).

Of course, we believe that Progressive Judaism is one of the best frameworks for a modern, spiritual life, and it is always a pleasure when people who have not grown up as Jews decide to join the journey, and often end up deciding to be Jewish themselves.  One of the most satisfying things we Rabbis do is sit on a Bet Din (a Jewish Court), hear people's stories about how they came to Judaism, and welcome them formally to be part of the Jewish people (often with tears of happiness all round!)

This blog is to record enquiries (anonymously) and my responses (starting below).  You may find something that reflects or informs your own situation.

Here in Melbourne we have run formal 'Introduction to Judaism' classes for many years, for members interested in learning more formally and broadly about Judaism, for non-Jews who are interested in understanding more about Judaism 'from the inside', and for those who are thinking of becoming Jewish.   In 2010, we decided to utilise advances in technology to make this course available on line, and I am delighted to supervise students from all over Australia and beyond, a number of whom have since gone on to become committed and involved members of their local Jewish communities.  You can try out the first two sessions of the course for free, and see if it feels useful and informative to you:
http://pjv.org.au/education/introduction-judaism-course-online-course#overlay-context=education/introduction-judaism-course-online-course

To provide suitable support materials, I have revised an excellent book written by my colleague Rabbi Pete Tobias from the UK called 'Liberal Judaism' to make it an ideal fit for the slightly different needs of our region - our version is called 'A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century' and it is available both in print and electronically from Amazon.com, ISBN 145-6-307576 (printed version) or from the Leo Baeck Centre.  


Although Hebrew is not necessary to complete an Introduction to Judaism course, it is if you wish to participate in Jewish community life, and certainly if you wish to become Jewish, and so I have also produced a teach-yourself book for adults called 'Hebrew from Zero', which utilises lots of tricks and devices learned from my own teachers and developed and refined over the years to make learning to read Hebrew, quick, easy and fun!  Again, Amazon or us, ISBN 146-6-462183

It is important to understand that there are a variety of approaches  within the Jewish world, just as there are in all other faiths (but perhaps even more so - we have a saying in Judaism 'Two Jews, three opinions!).  The 'continuum' of Jewish belief extends rightwards from Progressive Judaism to the orthodox and ultra-orthodox, and leftwards to secular and atheist Jews (although both secular and atheist Jews might sound strange, Judaism is not only a religion but a people and a culture, so there are in fact many who put themselves in those categories, including very many Israelis, who consider themselves 'khiloni' or 'secular' Jews.

The dividing line between 'Progressive Judaism' and 'Orthodoxy' comes down to how we view Torah.  If you are orthodox, you believe it is the five books dictated to Moses by God at the top of Mount Sinai.  It must therefore be 'true and without fault'.  Progressive Judaism (Reform, Liberal, Reconstructionist) believes that Torah is a human attempt to record 'what God wants from us' but is therefore naturally limited by its time and context (other groups such as Conservative or Masorti view it similarly).  The various styles of language, different names for God, internal contradictions, duplicated stories with different details (for example the two consecutive accounts of Creation and humanity) do not have to be forcibly reconciled, but are signs of our rich and wide human experience.  We might view Torah - and indeed 4000 years of Jewish tradition - as a symphony of traditions. 

It is only fair to say, though, that although individuals often have good and strong relationships with other denominations of Jews - and most families will include Progressive, orthodox, mixed-marrieds and non-believers - the formal structures of Judaism sometimes have more difficulty getting along!  Although Rabbis may have colleagues and friends in other  denominations, there is a rule within parts of orthodoxy not to share a public platform with Progressive Rabbis, and they will not officially recognise our rabbinic status, nor therefore anyone who converts with us!  Since Progressive Judaism is the largest synagogue grouping in the world (World Union for Progressive Judaism - http://www.wupj.org/), this does not need to be a major issue, though it can occasionally lead to some difficult family situations - sadly beyond our control.  Never the less we need to warn people from the start.

In Britain, I was used to the argument that Judaism is 4000 years old, Christianity is 2000 and Islam is 1300 - with the implication that older is better (I will question that in a moment)!  But moving to Australia, we are very aware that Indigenous faith traditions go back at least 40,000 and perhaps 60,000 years in this land, which makes even 4000 pale in comparison.  But one of the principles of Judaism - and particularly emphasised in Progressive Judaism, is respect for other faiths - we believe there are many paths to God.  So I have always been very involved with interfaith relationships and understanding, and helped to establish the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia (http://jcma.org.au/) in 2003.  All three traditions actually have very similar values, which is hardly surprising given our common stories and heritage!  And, put simply, I'd call the biblical period 'Mark 1 Judaism' (or some would say 'Israelitism'), out of which stemmed two new expressions, Rabbinic Judaism - or 'Mark 2 Judaism', and Christianity.  Christianity made certain changes which may in due course have led to the start of Islam, which returns to a stricter ethical monotheism.  And all have changed and developed into multiple expressions, some more moderate, others more fundamentalist, at times working and learning and living together and from each other, at other times antithetical and destructive to the others.

So that's my starting point.  We need to work together, with respect for difference and diversity, both between traditions and within our own.  There is no 'one true path' - and even if there was, only God would know it!  And, to finish with a new note, each of the traditions believes God put us here to look after God's creations - the earth and its creatures.  And we've made a real mess of it - and if we don't immediately work together to save God's world, there will be nothing left to argue about!  (See http://jeco.org.au/, [Jewish] http://www.greenfaithaustralia.org/ [Interfaith])




Thursday, 24 August 2017

On Conversion, Marriage and Status of Children


Hello,
My name is Deborah, I am Jewish, however my partner who I have been going
out with for 8 years is not. The option of him converting has been discussed
over the last few years. I think his conversion needs to be done through a
liberal/progressive movement though, as we have looked into and spoken to a
orthadox rabbi and it's honestly just too hard.

My question is, if my partner converts through a liberal/progressive shul (synagogue) I
am aware we would ultimately end up getting married by a liberal/progressive
rabbi. Therefore, is our marriage considered Jewish? And when we ultimately
have children and we gave them bar/bat-mitzvahs do they take on the
liberal/progressive identity or would they still be considered orthadox
because of me no matter where they were given bar/bat-mitzvahs and no matter
where we got married?

Please let me know.
Many thanks.
Deborah
-------------------------------------------

Rabbi Jonathan responds:

Many thanks for your message and honesty, Deborah.

The bottom line is what you want conversion for?

If your partner is not interested in converting to Judaism, we can't convert him.  If he (and you) wish to be orthodox, we're not the right address for you.

If you both want to have a meaningful Jewish life that believes in welcoming sincere converts without making it too difficult, then we may be the right place.

However you have given no information as to where you are located.  To convert you have to be able to be part of a Jewish community.

Conversion takes a minimum of a year - realistically it usually takes more like two - and includes circumcision (for males) and mikveh (ritual immersion), which concludes the process.

I would point out, though, that we run an Introduction to Judaism course (which can be done on-line), which is the 'academic' side of the Conversion course.  Your partner (or you both) would be welcome to undertake this, and would both then know and understand more about Judaism and our perspectives, and would be better equipped to understand Judaism, discuss with family, raise children in a Jewish home, and know whether or not he wished to continue to conversion at some point.  You'll find details here:
http://pjv.org.au/education/introduction-judaism-online

Regarding your wedding questions:

The Progressive Movement in Australia, New Zealand and Asia only does marriage between two Jews.

If your partner converted with us, he would sadly not be accepted as Jewish in the eyes of most orthodox, and therefore you would not be able to get married in an orthodox synagogue.

However, since the orthodox observe the matrilineal rule, if the mother is accepted as Jewish by the orthodox, then so are the children.  Therefore, from the narrow point of view of the Jewish status of the children, it makes no difference whether your partner does not convert, or converts through the Progressive movement, or converts through the orthodox system.

Wanting a 'Chuppah' (a Jewish wedding under the canopy) is certainly not a good enough reason to convert and take on an entire framework and world view of belief and practice.  However, if a couple are both born Jewish, or if one converts through our Bet Din (Jewish court), then of course we'd be delighted to conduct a Chuppah.  A past orthodox Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, Rabbi Jakobovitz, ruled that if a couple could have been married by the orthodox, then the children are counted as Jews, whether they are married in a Progressive or orthodox ceremony.   

Therefore, they could if you chose celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah in orthodox synagogues (though your husband would not be able to be involved, whereas in a Progressive congregation they could).

I hope this is helpful.

Please don't hesitate to contact me with any further questions, or to make an appointment to come together to chat about it all, without obligation of course!  And if you might be interested, why not come along to a service or two to see if you feel comfortable with our lovely, friendly community in East Kew?

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jonathan 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Do you welcome converts - and how should conversion students keep kosher?

Dear Rabbi,

I wonder about how Progressive and Reform Judaism handles potential converts, and kosher eating. Do converts have any dietary guidelines or commitments to hold to?

Thanks for your questions.

In terms of our approach to potential converts, we welcome them and support them as best we can, depending on where they are geographically  - in fact we had a Bet Din (Jewish Court) today in Melbourne and welcomed an excellent person who I'm sure is already a brilliant asset to the community and will become even more so.  He has been interested in Judaism since he was seven, and moved from rural Australia to Sydney to become part of a community and complete his conversion.  He understands more about God, Judaism and Progressive Judaism (and himself) than many born Jews, I have no doubt at all, and this is quite often the way!

Your question about kashrut is apposite.  The answer is no, we don't currently have particular expectations and standards, because we believe in 'Educated choice'.  However I believe there is a fundamental flaw with this concept as it is (as, in fact, I am increasingly thinking about democracy!).  The key word is 'Educated' and how do we get people to have the time, interest, ability and knowledge to make 'Educated Choices' for themselves (and all the more so when it affects others, or society, as well)?

I feel more and more that we should have a 'Progressive Shulchan Aruch' (Guide to Jewish practice) so that there are clear suggestions, expectations and a framework, developed and used by long term, knowledgeable educated Jews, which are 'Guidelines' (not laws).  By following these, candidates would have a good idea of what many Progressive Jews do (shop, cook, eat etc), or how they celebrate Shabbat and what they do and don't do... Having tried to adopt and live by these guidelines over some time, and during their studies, they may in due course decide after study and consideration that they want to modify their practice one way or other, but that would be in a more 'educated' setting, and the revised choices therefore more valid and legitimate, and they would be able to explain to themselves and others why they have chosen as they have.  

ECO-KASHRUT
So having said that, let me give you some basic information about my own practices and that of my family, but let me first mention 'Eco-kashrut or kosher'.  If one intention of kashrut is to minimse animal cruelty and exploitation (and this is in line with the established principle of tz'ar ba'alei chayim - minimising pain to animals), then there are various new issues not directly addressed by traditional kashrut - factory farming, raising veal in crates, hormones and artificial feedstuffs, and extending to cruel practices such as inversion pens for easier kosher slaughtering, employing illegal workers etc. Another related issue is environmental - emissions, both from raising meat and 'food miles', ie bringing food from long distances, unnecessary packaging, destruction of rainforests etc. Eco-kosher would therefore mean avoiding factory farmed eggs, chickens and other animals, veal, caution with the sourcing of milk and dairy products and palm oils, buying local and in season, looking for less packaging, less processed foods, and probably less food - ie smaller, healthier portions.  We say 'God provides sufficient food for all' ('noten lechem l'chol basar' in Birkat hamazon, grace after the meal), but the truth is that the developed world uses (and wastes) a hugely disproportionate amount, leaving many millions hungry or starving.  All of the above are, or should be, Jewish and kashrut issues. Judaism is about putting 'prayer into practice'! 

HOW WE KEEP KASHRUT
So, my family and I are vegetarian.  We also only eat free-range eggs (and we'd love to have our own chickens!).  We are aware of the problems in industrial milk and dairy food production, but have not (yet) discovered an easy answer to that, short of having or knowing a cow and butter/cheese maker! We try not to eat cheese with animal rennet (made from enzymes from an animal stomach), though we don't exclusively buy vegetarian cheese etc.  It is however much easier to buy foods with the vegetarian symbol on them.   

We never ate prohibited foods (pork products, or rabbi, camel, kangaroo, dog etc - kosher animals need to both chew the cud and have cloven hooves), or shellfish, eel or shark (deceitfully known as 'flake' here in Australia and common as fish and chips!) - kosher sea animals should have both fins and scales.  

When we ate meat, we tried not to eat foods cooked with meat and milk together, or the two in the same meal - but we might say grace after meals after the main course, go to sit in the lounge and then have a milk coffee or an ice cream, having deliberately made it a 'different meal'!

We have never had separate crockery or cutlery.  We believe that washing up, or the dishwasher, cleans any meaty or milk bits away - and even if it doesn't, that was the intention!  But of course we'll explain our practices to guests who might be concerned - and if necessary we'll get disposable (paper or bamboo leaf) plates (still bad for the environment), etc.

Generally all fruit and vegetables are kosher (parev, meaning neutral - they can be eaten with either meat or dairy), although technically even some of them are not kosher - for example if they are grown in Israel during the sabbatical year!  There was a suggestion that one shouldn't drink orange juice unless it had a hechsher - kosher seal - because Israel produces much citrus and some of it may have been frozen and made its way - perhaps years later - into any orange juices ('produce of more than one country')!  These complications do not worry us - it is the intent that counts, and anyway, there is a handy law called 'shishim' which basically says that if by accident there is a small part (less than a sixtieth) of a prohibited product in what you eat, that is fine - it is still kosher!    

Whatever the rules are for home, we apply them as far as possible when out as well.  It seems to me to be inconsistent to have one rule for home and another out! 

And we DO keep kashrut.  But if someone says do we, depending on the intent of the question, we'd say yes, but to our own understanding.  If we are going to them or they to us, or we're going out to eat together, of course we'd explain as necessary.

Sometimes people say 'that's crazy - either you do or you don't'.  But that is their problem - they are wrong.  The rules of kashrut are many and derive from nay different parts of Torah - and of course later tradition: do not eat blood, do not eat these animals or those, do not seethe a kid in its mother's milk, do not eat the cow and her calf together, shoo the mother bird away before eating the eggs, do not eat tithed food, do not eat food grown during the sabbatical year....  

There is actually no one agreed set of laws for kashrut.  On Passover the Ashkenazim (Middle European origin Jews) have quite different rules from the Sephardim (Spanish/Portugese).  And year round, some people wait one hour between milk and meat, while others wait 3 or 6 hours!  Some people determine that some fish are kosher whilst others say they are not!  And then there is 'glatt kosher' or 'super-kosher' - for some people kosher is not kosher enough - and for some groups, even glatt-kosher is not sufficient - only food approved by their own rebbe!

So to conclude, you too can keep kosher, and it's a good idea - but over time and with study and thought, you'll decide just how and what it looks (and tastes!) like.

L'shalom

Rabbi Jonathan

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Can you help a non-Aussie?

Hello,

I'm a Canadian living in Asia, nowhere near a non-Orthodox Jewish community, and am highly interested in learning more about (progressive) Judaism in support of a possible conversion in the near to mid-future. It appears you have online Intro classes.

My questions are obvious. Do you take non-Australian tutees residing outside of Australia? Also, are there any significant differences between your presentation of Judaism and that presented by the Reform movement (in Canada, in case that's a significant point)?

Thanks,

Sarah

Hi Sarah,

The basic answer is yes - we certainly welcome students from outside Australia, and Progressive Judaism as taught on our course is a 'close sibling' of US/Canadian Reform (we are all members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, wupj.org).  The US/Canadian movement covers a spectrum from more traditional to very liberal, and we tend to be towards the more traditional in practice and learning, but more liberal end in terms of beliefs etc.

The more complex answer is that ours is an 'Introduction to Judaism' course.  It would prepare you well to complete conversion in Canada (or with us).  But to convert, it is necessary to have a developing relationship with a congregation, so you can attend shabbat and festival services and become part of a community.  It is very hard to be a Jew on your own - and virtually impossible to convert on your own.

We had an excellent student from deepest New Zealand - she completed the course and attended our December open weekends in Melbourne twice running several years ago.  But she then decided to move to Melbourne six months ago and has become involved with the community and attending several times weekly - and went to the Bet Din (Jewish Court) and was accepted last month.  

I hope this is a useful response. If you have not already done so I would refer you to https:// progressivejudaism.blogspot.com to read my responses to a range of other queries, and to http://pjv.org.au/education/introduction-judaism-online
where you can do two free trial introductory sessions and then get registered and started if you wish.

If you could give me a bit more background about yourself, family/partner, where exactly you are located to see if we have a community in the vicinty etc, it will help me give you better guidance.

Shabbat Shalom (the greeting leading up to shabbat)

Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black

Monday, 30 January 2017

Death - and what comes after

Dear Rabbi Jonathan,

Sadly, my Father passed away recently, after his long illness. As a result, I have been thinking a good deal about what happens when one dies, and I was wondering if you could provide a Jewish perspective on that part of life? I have received the copies of A Judaism for the 21st Century, and the Mishkan T'filah - World Union Edition prayer book from your office. I look forward to begin reading them when I return home in the next week or so.

L'Shalom,

Jane.


Rabbi Jonathan responded (at length - sorry!)


https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/images/cleardot.gif
Hi Jane,

Thanks so much for letting me know.  I am sorry to hear about your mother's death and the loss it must be to you - but at the same time it doesn't sound as if her last months were very comfortable, and sometimes there is blessing along with sadness, and especially when the dying person and the family have come to terms with the inevitable and said their goodbyes with love and mutual support.  It is course true that we will all die - and that there are better and worse ways of doing so - but animals, nature - even rocks and mountains, eventually die or wear away (even before we advanced humans so selfishly started helping the process along!) - and that only God is truly Eternal.

You ask for a Jewish perspective on 'that part of life' and I hope you draw some comfort from the following - in Judaism we believe that the soul too is eternal - that in some sense it returns to 'the shelter of God's wing'.

Other than that we have a variety of beliefs - but overall I would say that we don't know what, if anything, is after death, and that our emphasis is on living this life as well and fully as we can.  If we have some concept that we may be judged when we die, we at least know that God will not be unreasonable:  God will not ask me 'Why was I not like Moses?, but 'Why was I not like the Jonathan I had the potential to be?  But, because we don't believe that anyone has actually died and come back (and I don't mean to decry stories of peace, white lights and other 'near death or temporary death experiences), we simply don't know what, if anything, is after life.

Biblical Judaism (say 1500 BCE to 70 CE) seems fairly pragmatic.  Over and over, Torah repeats, our ancestors got old or sick, they lay down, they may have had a chance to call the family together and tell them they loved them - or other home truths - and then they die.  Sometimes the phrase 'gathered to meet their ancestors' is used but in all probability that means that, once their flesh has gone and only bones remain, they are pushed into the collection with their ancestors bones. or gathered into a pot (ossuary) and put with the other pots (and perhaps believing, along with that action, the 'obvious' idea that the 'life force' that animated their body had returned to join the life force that had also animated their ancestors before them).

Rabbinic Judaism (starting say 586 BCE and taking over from Biblical on the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE) had a variety of problems to resolve, and the idea of life after death, familiar from the Egyptian tradition, seemed to address a key challenge - that of reward and punishment. It might seem that God was not always rewarding the observant, as Torah repeatedly promises, or punishing the wicked - but just wait till they died!  Then the virtuous who had lived a life of poverty and illness would be rewarded in perpetuity - whilst the rapacious sinners who seemed to spend their affluent lives by their pools and travelling in luxury to far flung, verdant oases would suffer for ever after they died!

It is true that they taught that life after death was not only the soul but body too, and the idea of a physical resurrection (the literal meaning of 'M'chayei metim') led to burial of bodies facing Jerusalem, so that, at the appropriate time (perhaps the day of Judgment?) they would all travel to Jerusalem where they would emerge alive again. This is also the reason why Judaism has traditionally been opposed to cremation - not only is it disrespectful to the body that has been the container and carrier of the holy (the soul), but that God (who can do anything) can apparently not recreate a person if their 'luz' (cockyx) has been destroyed?  (If one was to argue against cremation for Jews today, I think that the disposal of so many of our people by this means in the Shoah - Holocaust - is a stronger argument, though it should be noted that many Shoah survivors choose to be cremated, so that their bodies are disposed of as were so many of their family members).  Though by no mains 'mainstream', I should also mention the kabbalistic (mystical) belief in 'gilgul' (rolling), transmigration of souls.  Once a person dies, their soul is reborn as a new baby (with the opportunity to cleans it of past sins).  If you look hard enough, you can find many things in 4000 years of tradition!

I believe that just as Biblical Judaism transitioned into Rabbinic Judaism over some hundreds of years as the world and Jewish situation changed (between the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE to the destruction of the Second temple by the Romans in 70 CE), so now we are several hundred years into a transition to what we might call 'Autonomous Judaism' which started with the 'Enlightenment' and where Rabbis, if they are to survive at all in the long term, must transition to being teachers and guides and companions on the journey, rather than the 'authorities' of Judaism.  That is the way I view myself and my colleagues.  And in regard to your question, what do we believe about 'Life after death', or rather, 'Death and what follows'?  Drawing on the vast and wide range of beliefs I have mentioned (especially now with the help of the internet!), a Jew today can believe what they feel is most genuine and convincing to them.  In the area of belief, as long as it is not viewed as the sole and exclusive truth, a Jew has a lot of freedom and no one to tell them they can't believe - though they can engage in discussion about where the belief stems from, whether it is a fair deduction from Jewish teaching and experience, and whether they wish to invite them into their home and community!  So, for example, Jews who chose to believe in Jesus as God or son of God, distinct from every other human being, are well outside normative Jewish belief, which acknowledges Jesus probably existed as a charismatic Jewish healer living in the Galilee, a child of God like the rest of us.  To return to the question - and my response:  I believe that the (p'shat) straightforward reading of the Torah rings true.  We are born, we live, we die.  Life after death (or life after we have died) is influenced by our life, our children, our friends and families, our good as well as our bad deeds.  The world (and the unknown future) is not the same as if we had never existed.  We will live on in our children, and/or those we have touched and influenced, and their memories of us.  But I feel comfortable that when I finally close my eyes and cease to breathe, I will be in permanent oblivion, more restful than the deepest restful, dreamless and unaware sleep, and safely 'in the shelter of God's wings' (of course this is a metaphor - God does not have wings or any other bodily parts - God is an all embracing invisible spirit permeating the entire creation).     

When a loved one dies, it is traditional to say the words of the Mourner's Kaddish (page 598 in Mishkan T'filah - World Union Edition, and see also the English readings from page 592 leading up to it).  The Mourner's Kaddish (Sanctification) praises God, maker of the universe.  It does not mention the dead - effectively what it is saying is that, even at times of great pain and loss, when are hearts are breaking, we still acknowledge God, who created the rhythms of the universe, including the cycles of nature and life.  

The funeral is done as soon as possible after death (out of respect for the body and the knowledge that living with your loved ones unburied is the most painful time, and practically, because decomposition in hot climates and without cooled morgues commences very quickly.  I am not sure how Christian burials started being done later, but believe that is why it became necessary to have the perfume of flowers accompanying the burial).  For the first week, the mourners traditionally stay at home, and sit on low stools (to be near the earth, either reminding us of our own mortality and/or of being closer to our loved ones) - this is called 'sitting shivah'.  Because they stay at home, but need a 'minyan' (quorum of 10 which makes a minimal community rather than individuals, so sometimes this service in the home is known as the 'Minyan') to say the Mourner's Kaddish, people traditionally come round to hold at least the evening service with them, and bring food so they don't have worry about mundane things like shopping and cooking, and to keep them company and talk about their loved ones. If you don't know what to say, the tradition offers you the formula 'I wish you long life', though I'd be cautious about saying that to an older person who has just lost their lifetime partner.  It may be the last thing they want at that moment.  If you don't know what to say, say nothing.  Just being there is important.  Hold their hand if appropriate, or give a hug. That's just as effective - certainly better than some of the terrible and trite comments like 'God took them early because they were such a wonderful soul'. Let them speak if they want to, or not. 

At the funeral and shivah or minyan, the formula 'Adonai natan vAdonai lakach' is said.  This literally means 'God gives and God takes'. Since I believe that God gives us all finite life, and sometimes terrible natural or human tragedies happen, but God never 'takes' life, I prefer the interpretive translation that you'll find in our prayer book after the prayer for lighting the candle after a funeral (with the prayer for lighting a yahrzeit candle), on page 619, by Rabbi Frank Hellner: 'God has given, and now God has received back'.  

The month from death is known as 'shloshim' (thirty), when they can go out and the mourning is a step less intense, and then the reminder of the year it is a step up again.  

The Mourner's Kaddish prayer is traditionally said for a year after the death, until the first 'Yahrzeit' (Yahrzeit is Yiddish for 'year-time'), anniversary of the death, when the formal mourning is said to be over, and the final step is made back into normal life, albeit without your loved ones physical presence. Some years ago, research showed that this mourning pattern, marking the end of the first week, the first month and the first year, was the optimal way to recover from bereavement. The first and subsequent anniversaries are marked by a 'Yahrzeit candle' which burns for 24 hours or so, on every anniversary, as we particularly remember our loved one, and mention their name and say Kaddish in synagogue.  These traditions can be observed by someone who is Jewish even if their loved one was not, of course.  It is to help the bereaved to manage and come to terms with their grief - and gain some reassurance and support from the idea that both God and their community are still there for them and in some way share their loss - they are not left to grieve on their own. 

I hope that is useful.  It was longer than I anticipated, and I am glad to have had the chance to lay it down in these terms.

Finally, a Progressive version of the tradition is to say to a mourner 'Hamakom y'nakhem et sha'ar ha'avelim' - May God grant you consolation along with all mourners.  


Rabbi Jonathan