I was recently at a Jewish funeral prayer service for a friend’s grandfather. I often heard as part of my Jewish education that Judaism’s approach to mourning is very effective to help the grieving process despite (or because of) being counterintuitive. I’m not sure about this — there are things that probably do help but others might not. There’s probably the bias of a ritual being familiar from childhood and hence assumed to be helping. Or even “I did XYZ, I eventually reached a certain stage in grieving, therefore XYZ helped me reach this stage”.
One custom I find particularly bizarre is the study of parts of the Mishna (the earliers part of the Talmud) whose first letters correspond to the first letters of the deceased’s Hebrew name. This is based on a ridiculous idea that the merit the family earns from this Torah study will help earn merit on behalf of the soul of the deceased. Because there is a restriction of letters though and because the Mishna covers thousands of topics, the actual topic studied is usually completely inappropriate or pointless given that it’s a funeral.
In this case it wasn’t just inappropriate but the way the rabbi dressed up the barbarism reminded me of why I hate “sophisticated” or “liberal” religion. The Mishna is Makkot 2:2. Chapter 2 talks about the cities of refuge where someone who commited manslaughter can flee to escape the avenging kinsman of the victim (see Numbers 35, Deut 19). So already a poor choice of topic. Here’s a translation I found online (formatting edited for conciseness):
If a man threw a stone into the public domain and killed a person, he goes into banishment. R Eliezer b Jacob says: “If after the stone had left his hand another person put out his head and caught it, the thrower is exempt [from banishment].” If a man threw a stone into his [own] court and killed a person, then, if the victim had a right of entry there, the thrower goes into banishment, and if not, he does not go into banishment, as it says, “As when a man goes into the forest with his neighbor” (Deut. 19:5): the forest is a domain accessible to the victim and to the slayer and it therefore excludes the court of the householder where the victim has no right of entry. Abba Shaul says: “Hewing of wood is an optional act and it therefore excludes a father beating his son, or a master disciplining his pupil, or an agent of the court [administering lashes].”
Firstly, the topic area. Many Jews love to proclaim things like the cities of refuge to be some great, progressive innovation. From a secular, historical perspective perhaps they were a mild improvement, especially in relation to the time. But still, the reason they were set up is to protect the manslaughterer from a blood feud, which I believe was also legal. The usual excuse is that YHWH was going for slow changes that were more likely to stick rather than imposing big changes that went against the prevailing culture. (This excuse is also often given for slavery.) The totally unoriginal answer is that YHWH has no problem going on for 5 million verses about (say) idolatry and trying to impose a dramatic change against the prevailing culture.
But it’s how the last statement by Abba Shaul was presented that got my nerve. The rabbi mumbled something about Abba Shaul and the beatings he mentioned and then straight away went on to an explanation of how these are cases where our best intentions to educate someone have failed as they are wont to do and how the deceased never needed to use anger to correct his family and friends. I was stunned because that completely skirted over the fact that the Mishna is talking about there being no banishment if an agent of a rabbinic court beats someone to death, at least according to Abba Shaul. It’s not that obvious from what he said and he certainly never spelled it out. Now that I’ve got the text in front of me, it’s even worse: these are all ok because they are not “optional”. Meaning that it’s because it’s mandatory for a father to beat his son if he misbehaves that it’s not counted as manslaughter if he dies.
Now, obviously this whole discussion doesn’t apply today since there are no cities of refuge. And culturally few Orthodox congregations would be into corporal punishment — although I don’t know if it’s actually forbidden. But still, the law on how it’s ok to beat someone to death was studied in honour of someone’s funeral and that is insane. If there’s any debate about whether corporal punishment is ok, a non-brainwashed reading of the above Mishna would settle it in the negative. And the mask that was put over it (probably unconsciously — that particular rabbi is a very decent guy) was ludicrous.
This is just another reminder. Pretty much all religions I’ve encountered have some utterly horrible doctrines. In many cases it’s ones where the adherents themselves would likely be horrified if they realised their full extent. But sometimes, the more horrid the doctrine the better evolved the religion has become in masking and downplaying it. And nothing works better than talk of sophistication and context, even if the context is utterly misleading. Buyer beware!