Published: Jan 12, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Jan 12, 2013 05:44 PM
Rabbi Daniel Greyber’s struggle with God, documented in his new book “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle with Grief and God” is nothing new. There’s a story in Genesis about Jacob, a spiritual ancestor of Jews and Christians alike, who spent the night wrestling with an angel from God, and woke up the next morning with a new name and a new mission.
In his book, really a memoir, Greyber recounts the death of two close friends, both dying young, that led to a mountain of doubt and anger toward God that erupted in his life after he became a rabbi.
At one point, he wondered how in good faith he could keep up the rituals of Judaism that had lost their meaning and significance for him.
It was a gutsy thing for a rabbi to share, when, as some folks think, holy men and women, unlike the rest of us flawed mortals, are “supposed” to have answers to heavy questions like “How can a loving and powerful God allow innocent children to be gunned down by a madman?” or “Why should a loving, creative and talented person like Joel (the rabbi’s friend, also a rabbi) die from cancer at 38 leaving a wife and three young children?”
“This is a Jewish story, but I want it to speak to a larger audience,” said Greyber who came to Durham last summer as the new rabbi at Beth El Synagogue on Watts Street.
His purpose in writing, he said, was not to write a handbook on how one should handle losses that are inevitable in this life.
“I resisted writing ‘Tips’ on how to grieve, as if there is a recipe one can follow for healing. I wrote a memoir of my journey rather than a guide to grieving, to respect the uniqueness of each loss, the singularity of every person’s mourning.”
Greyber and his friend the Rev. Joe Harvard of First Presbyterian Church will discuss their respective traditions’ mourning processes during a reading at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15.
The two first met a couple of years ago when Greyber came to Durham to attend a funeral service Harvard conducted after the sudden death of a mutual friend who had been a competitive swimmer with Greyber in high school.
Greyber’s struggle came after the death of his friend Joel when he found that Jewish law does not define a role for a non-family member in the mourning process. He felt like a forgotten mourner.
Few religious traditions have as defined a mourning process as the Jewish faith does. Greyber described it this way:
“One of the wisest rituals of the Jewish tradition is shiva,
the requirement to put life on hold for seven days after a funeral and do nothing but grieve,” he said. “Grief is going to happen. It’s either going to fester beneath the surface because you denied it and went back to work, or you can grieve now.
“Don’t try to rush to what can’t be rushed. Be patient. Don’t try to wish your way to being ‘done,’ he continued. “Our histories do not disappear; our past is not wiped away. We carry our experiences with us, but grief need not define us. Context, time and continuing to live life – these all heal, but they all take time.”
When compared with shiva, traditions in Christian churches in which there is no prescribed time period for mourning often seem rushed and sterile. A visitation the night before the funeral or memorial service and sometimes a social gathering after the funeral service are traditional but not always conducive to mourning. Family members who are grieving may not be ready or may even feel uncomfortable talking with those who come to share their loss.
In Christian communities, events around death and burial are most often conducted over three to four days and with an attitude that some see as let’s get this unpleasant event over so we can get on with our lives.
Actress Mayim Bialik, known for her roles as Amy on “The Bing Bang Theory” and Blossom Russo on NBC’s “Blossom,” wrote the foreword to “Faith Unravels.” She met Greyber when he was a fledgling rabbi at UCLA Hillel and she was a student. She writes:
“Rabbi Greyber has done something magnificent with the book … He has shared of himself, revealed to the most intimate way where loss can take you and where it can’t … This book is not preachy or full of instruction. It’s a personal testament of love for the Jewish people, God and those friends he loved and lost.”