A Need For This Shiva Service

 

One of the main purposes of a shiva service is to comfort the mourners, but many modern Jews are troubled by the theology of traditional and even Reform prayer books. Some of us, like the Reconstructionists, “celebrate the power that animates life, providing the impetus for creating goodness, courage, and caring, but identifies no divine person as the subject of prayer.” Some of us believe in God as an idea that impels us to do justice, love compassion, and walk with humility as we continue our search for the divine presence. Our view is that God does not intervene supernaturally in our lives to alter the course of nature.

As a result, when traditionalist theology includes statements yearning for and making requests of a Divine Being who hears and literally responds to prayer, mourners who do not believe in such a Divine Being find neither comfort nor meaning in theological statements that are based on a supernatural theology.

With the foregoing in mind, we created a service for the house of mourning that should be emotionally meaningful and intellectually acceptable to many contemporary Reform Jews:

  • Ideally, our prayers should create within us a sense of the sacred and a greater awareness of how we, as agents of God, might intervene to comfort the mourners. God “responds” to our prayers through our feelings and actions.
  • In keeping with the suggestions of some rabbis, as well as some laymen, we have kept certain traditional texts (e.g.,the Sh’ma, the Kaddish, etc.) as mantras that provide a linkage to the past, providing familiarity and continuity to those who desperately seek this at their time of grief. In order to preserve these traditional prayers without compromising our intellectual integrity, we have prefaced them with phrases such as “as our ancestors said…”, or “as our ancestors believed…”, or “as in ancient times they prayed…”, etc.
  • We have attempted to have more poetry and more metaphors.

We believe that it is possible to incorporate all of the foregoing views in a contemporary shiva service that reflects a non-supernatural theology while providing solace to those grieving. It is our hope that many will participate in this service—that they will be able to mourn for their loved ones with language that is true to their beliefs. The Association for Progressive Judaism is pleased to offer this service, and hopes that this first attempt will be for blessing.

Best wishes,
Rabbi Sim Prystowsky
Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, z”l
Thanks to Rabbi David E. Ostrich for formatting and editing assistance.