A Jewish person dies. How is he or she to be mourned? The short answer is that the family engages in age-old rituals that include sitting Shiva, chanting prayers, lighting candles, and other activities pegged at seven days, thirty days, a year, and annual yahrzeit anniversaries. In addition, there are other ways people mourn: crying, reminiscing, making charitable donations in the person’s memory, posting photos of the person on social media accounts, and so on. Friends, colleagues, former students, and neighbors, even the general public, may engage in certain mourning rituals as well.
Is this made more complicated if the person was a “difficult person”? What if the person was a serial criminal? Or abusive? Or just a very abrasive person who angered several people in her or his community? Many people might be turned off at the thought of mourning a difficult person, a person who broke so many laws, hurt so many people, even ruined lives. How do we grapple with mourning this type of person?
I thought about this a number of times during the past year-plus. The most obvious example was with the passing of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff in April 2021, a man who had been trusted with great sums of money and then, through a lengthy series of criminal moves, lost fortunes and upturned many lives. He broke the trust so many had in him. He was a high-profile Jewish person who made the Jewish community as a whole a target, a “Shonda for the Goyim.” He died in prison. How is he to be mourned? The Atlanta Jewish Times published a story “Madoff Not Mourned by Many“. They are not the only ones to think this way.
I also thought about this earlier during the Covid-19 pandemic. Within the first month or so, I knew three people who had succumbed to Covid-19; two were wonderful, accomplished people and have been celebrated in the news (Professor William Helmreich, teacher Sandra Vizcaino). But one was a man whom I knew for a few years and deeply disliked, so much so that on one occasion when he was haranguing me in public, I told him that if he didn’t stop I would file an order of police protection against him. On a few occasions after that, he tried to speak with me and I reminded him that I would contact the police. (He had once deeply embarrassed friends of mine at a synagogue kiddush, made nasty homophobic comments to them, and insulted me about various topics on more than one occasion. I also watched him loudly menace other people at a synagogue, on several occasions.)
Yet when I heard that he was very sick with Covid, I reminded people that we should make a mi sheberach for him. And when he died, I felt bad. He was just a few years older than I, and while I disliked him, I knew he wasn’t evil. I hadn’t wanted him to suffer in this manner.
I felt sorry about him, but did not mourn him; I assume his family and friends did. This spring I heard about an online yahrzeit lecture in his memory and at first, I debated joining it. But I chose not to, primarily because I thought it would be awkward, especially because he and I had argued loudly on more than one occasion, and other people had witnessed this.
Mourning rituals have many meanings, goals, layers. But are they performed for the deceased? For the survivors? Both? This is a heavy, complicated topic with which we should grapple, because it happens, and we need guidance and precedents.
Rabbis have made various statements about this predicament, in the past as well as recently, in light of the deaths of Bernard Madoff and Jeffrey Epstein. Rabbis are not all in agreement, and they examine this topic in different ways. For instance, in an article published in The Forward which featured rabbis discussing Madoff’s death, they made these two comments:
“While Jewish tradition puts serious emphasis on honoring the deceased, the death of someone like Madoff, who caused tremendous pain within the Jewish community, is an emotionally fraught challenge to that principle.”
“If mourning is primarily a means for recognizing the standing of the deceased, certain egregious sinners are not worthy of the recognition expressed through the mourning rituals.”
So, if a Jewish person has committed many serious and harmful crimes, his or her death may not be worthy of typical mourning. Perhaps mourning someone like this might even be seen as a bad precedent. At the very least, it’s not a straightforward process and certainly atypical.
What about a more common situation, in which family members were estranged from a person who died? Perhaps the dead person was abusive in one or more ways. Advice columns occasionally tackle this: children who are ambivalent about mourning a parent, relatives who deeply disliked another member of the family. What should they do?
A rabbi who calls himself “Wandering Hebrew” wrote a blog post in 2018 about this, and stated that “those deaths that we feel a need or desire to ritually acknowledge in some way, but for a variety of reasons, the Jewish script on how to do so doesn’t fit quite right…it can be an even harder loss because it can bring up all sorts of regrets, thoughts of ‘If only’ and ‘What if?'”
Conflicting feelings around mourning will also impact a person who attends synagogue on holidays when the Yizkor prayers are chanted (Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, final day of Passover, second day of Shavuot). The Conservative prayer book Mahzor Lev Shalom includes a meditation, written by Rabbi Robert Saks, for those who are conflicted about acknowledging a relative’s passing:
“My emotions swirl as I say this prayer. The parent I remember was not kind to me. His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger, and dismay… I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.”
This sense of obligation and wanting to find a place in the Jewish ritual system is important for many people and a mode of coping.
Rabbi Lev Meierowitz Nelson of Brooklyn’s Flatbush Jewish Center writes that “The central question in mourning rituals, going back to the Talmud, is whether one believes they are meant for the honor of the deceased or the honor/comfort of the survivors. There’s a case to be made both ways. If you come down on the side of the survivors, that potentially creates a lot of leeway to change or discard practices for a hurtful person who has died. If you believe it is about the honor of the deceased, then it doesn’t really matter how difficult they were– they were an image of God nonetheless, and it’s the survivors’ responsibility to give them the final chesed shel emet, the “kindness of truth” that everyone deserves. That doesn’t mean you can’t feel conflicted, even angry, about the circumstances.”
Thus, uneasy mourners can cobble together their own meaningful experiences, based upon Jewish tradition; they can also reach out to other sources, including those that are secular, and formulate their mourning program.
We can also ponder the nature of public mourning over celebrities, politicians, and other people who have come to have “larger than life” personas. Fans of certain musicians have created informal and formal mourning gatherings and shrines for Kurt Cobain, for example (my daughters and I visited the Kurt bench in Seattle’s Viretta Park). A Los Angeles mural of basketball star Kobe Bryant became a shrine after his death in a helicopter crash. Lying in state for public viewing is a tradition for many politicians. After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 there was a three-week series of commemorations, and then his funeral train was viewed by a large portion of Americans.
But what about celebrities who have mixed or tarnished reputations? They might be revered by some, reviled by others. Is it in bad taste to say this publicly, to go on social media and say “Good riddance” or something stronger? Certainly, this happened after Madoff’s death, after Epstein’s death (and both died in prison). Especially in a society that is polarized by political and ideological viewpoints, a celebrity death or the death of a notorious person can trigger a torrent of anger, criticism, and scathing commentary.
This brings up the question, is it wrong to critique or unload on a person who is recently deceased? Is it off-limits to point out a dead person’s faults, crimes, unfortunate statements on social media? Opinions vary on this as well. Is no one above reproach, or should there be a period of time for the deceased to be left alone? When is the time right for backlash?
(For what it’s worth, after Kobe Bryant’s death, there were people who wrote about the sexual assault case with which he was embroiled years earlier.)
In the case of the man with whom I argued, and who died of Covid, it was a shame that he and I didn’t get along better. I am pleased that a local museum held an online history program in his name and his memory. This is an interesting way to memorialize someone, but not unusual to Judaism. Organizations, as well as individuals, will hold a Yom Limmud, or a Day of Learning, to honor the memory of someone who passed on. These events are often pegged to the dead person’s field of expertise or interests.
So many of us “curate our lives” (for better or worse), and most of us do want to be remembered in a positive light after we are gone. It’s easily understandable that people would want to be viewed in a flattering manner, so when we encounter people who commit a lot of crimes and do many awful things, it’s hard for us to understand why. Don’t they comprehend what it would do to their reputations? Do they want others to think “good riddance” about them?
Some people are hard to understand, and not everyone leaves this world with a golden halo.
Ellen Levitt is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu) and 3 other books. She has also written for various online and print publications, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. Ellen is a longtime member of the Flatbush Womens Davening Group. She and her husband and children reside in Brooklyn, NY.