Today we attended a funeral … well … to be honest … a funeral practically attended us. We are almost (literally) at an end of a road. There is only one more house beyond us and there lived an old man who died a couple of days ago. Our neighbors, on the other side, informed us. We had never met the man and occassionally saw members of his family as they passed our property in a car on the way up to him. The day after he died there was a procession of people going up to visit before the day of the funeral – Andreea joined them. Today there was a much larger procession of people passing through our property (mostly by foot) on the way up for a funeral (the man was buried on a small plot of land on their property – typical in Romanian villages). This time we both joined. It was my first time attending a non-Jewish funeral let alone a Romanian village style funeral.
I was born into a Jewish family & society and I live in a dominantly Christian Orthodox village. That is pretty much where my relationship with religion starts and ends. Having grown up in Israel I am a bit more familiar with Jewish religious traditions then I am with Christian ones. I have never taken much interest in religions, even, or especially when I was culturally closer to one. It is only in recent years, through my Yoga teacher that I have learned to appreciate subtle and I dare say even spiritual aspects of the Hebrew language. I also know, through her, that there is a vast and deep body of spiritual knowledge in Judaism – one that is almost timeless and exists regardless of Jewish religious traditions which (like any tradition that aspires to survive) changes with the times.
Today as I witnessed a Romanian Christian funeral ceremony it dawned on me, to my own surprise, that Judaism indeed is a more advanced body of knowledge then Christianity. Both have religious expressions which serve as social frameworks (a means of creating and sustaining social order). But that’s pretty much where Christianity seems to peak. Judaism, on the other hand, has, for those interested in pursuing it, additional avenues of exploration leading into personal spiritual growth (such as the ever-so-popular “Kabala”). Hebrew language alone provides a tremendous space of exploration that simply does not exist in latin languages (the only other language I know of with this kind of depth is Sanskrit). From what little indirect periperhal experience I’ve had of this potential in Judaism I can say that it seems to be intellectually challenging.
As I looked around me today I realized that most of the people around me (some of whom I already know personally – to varying extents) lacked the intellectual capacities that would be required to delve into the potential spiritual depth of Judaism. I’ve had semi-spiritual conversations with some of these people. Usually these conversations are fueled by a curiosity towards us as strangers and most people here (in the village) have a hard time grasping how it is possible that we do not practice any religion (religion is a very powerful social force in Romania – even more so in villages). People generally seem to have a hard time relating to our spirituality (there are exceptions) and even more so the differences between spirituality and religion. For example, today we were asked by a fellow villager what would happen when we (as in Andreea and I) die? Though it may seem like a childish question – it is actually a very practical one. Obviously we would stop breathing and something would have to be done with our bodies – but since death is usually handled by religious institutions who provide direction and guidance, who would do that for us? It’s almost as if he could not imagine a burial without a religious authority present.
This entire train of thought was prompted by a question from the above mentioned individual. He asked about the differences between Jewish funerals and Christian ones (like the one we were attending). We told him about the Judaic tradition of “Shiv’a” – 7 days of mourning during which the immediate family stay and mourn together, the house stays open for visitors and life chores of the family (including cooking and feeding guests) are often tended to by friends and relatives. In comparison, here in Christian Romania the funeral is a large and expensive production for the grieving family who needs to accommodate an elaborately accessorized ceremony and two large feasts – one the day before the funeral and one immediately after it.
As we were walking today from the house to the place of burial I thought about this one point. Here, in Christian Romania, the family in mourning is essentially required to support the community that comes to visit – the individual is in servitude of the community. In Jewish Israel it is the community that is called upon to support the mourning family – the community is in servitude of the individual. Though I believe both traditions to be obnoxious and intrusive I do believe that the Jewish tradition represents a better social moral order – where a society supports the spiritual needs of its individuals. I should say that I believe death is a transformative experience, it practically attacks a grieving family and its life values – it demands that they find a way to integrate the abruptness of death with life that continues – making it, beyond its obvious emotional expressions, a spiritual matter.
My closing thoughts take me in a different direction. I feel a need to express a reservation regarding the intellectual aspect of Judaism. Despite its intellectual and spiritual depth, Judaism, as a religious social order generates intolerance to others (in Orthodox circles this intolerance is also aimed at secular Jews – so this is a systemic feature of Judaism). However, as a stranger (in more then just religion) here in Romania I have felt for the most part welcome and embraced. I am again reminded that intellect can be destructive and that it must be tempered with a higher (spiritual?) power – one that I believe comes from beyond any religious authority or tradition.