Rabbi Ben Kamin, an Israeli-born “post-denominational” spiritual leader who works at the Reform Temple of Laguna Woods in California and the San Diego-based Reconciliation: The Synagogue Without Walls, is a prolific author whose subjects include the Rev. Martin Luther King, the Kennedy brothers and the American rabbinate.
His latest book, “The Blessing of Sorrow: Turning Grief into Healing” (Central Recovery Press), deals with the mourning process and people’s reluctance to accept the finality of death, topics that are coming into sharper focus this week as the “Reimagine End of Life” event kicks off here (letsreimagine.org). Rabbi Kamin cites his father’s death at 45, the country’s “funeral culture,” the medical profession’s preparation for dealing with loss, Jewish mourning traditions and his experiences counseling congregants through grief.
The Jewish Week caught up with Rabbi Kamin by email; this is an edited transcript.
Q: How do you define “blessing”?
A. A blessing is any transition that grows and heals you. Grief is a blessing in favor of deep personal insight, and/or when it sends us back to serve the living.
Do you have to be “religious” to find blessing in a time of misfortune?
Absolutely not. Religiosity is not a singular function of healing. Spirituality and personal values are the framework of coping. And it is often through clinical therapy that we are moved towards blessing at a time of bereavement. There is no set formula here nor can anyone else tell you exactly how to grieve. But you must grieve.
Where do you draw the line between “healing” in death, or simply acceptance?
The two are intertwined. Healing means you have submitted to and accepted the loss and can now function normally. Acceptance means you have healed and can now function normally. However, neither healing nor acceptance are realized fully unless the bereaved person recognizes that he/she is not the same person anymore.
You write that you “do not reject the mourning practices” of Judaism but feel no need to impose them on the bereaved. As a rabbi, what latitude do you see in adapting such Jewish traditions as immediate burial, a seven-day shiva period, etc., for the preferences of people not comfortable with Jewish tradition?
There is a time to teach Jewish ritual and then there is a time to be helpful without judgmentalism or authoritative pronouncements. (In fairness, some people need that kind of structure — and we should respond and serve accordingly.) So, it’s true that I do not impose the rituals, but, as stated, do not reject them.
My point is that we are dealing with an American society that is locked into the sanitizing of death and that worships youth, sports, fashion and social media. The 80 percent or so of American Jews who are not fundamentalists simply don’t have a liturgical context to bring with them into mourning and bereavement. But they do arrive with their pain and sorrow. And we rabbis need to reach out and serve them at their point of need.
You are open about the effect that your father’s death when you were young has had on you and on shaping your views on death. What would you tell the teenage Ben Kamin that would help him better cope with his loss?
I would first listen to the teenager and let him voice his anguish, fear, anger and anxiety. Let the sorrow flow out. Then I’d encourage him to share what his feelings are. I would not pretend this was God’s will or rationalize the dreadful seriousness of the matter. I would judiciously share some of the general Jewish ideas about mortality, the soul and (as First Aid) that we do believe there is a spiritual existence following death.
I say “First Aid” because just after a death, the pain is searing and there is an urgent need to offer some hope, some initial structure. I’d be present but — unlike the rabbi who buried my father — not offer platitudes or formulaic answers. I’d do my best to be both real and consoling.
Have you found that your own experience with losing a loved one — in addition to your rabbinical training and chaplaincy work — gives you an additional credibility in dealing with people facing their own challenges?
There is no doubt about this. I would add that each and every one of us grows each time we attend to a grieving person or family. My professional training certainly informs me. But academic texts are not our homeland; life is.
Is there a physical benefit in your approach, looking at putative tragedies as teaching moments or opportunities for growth, or primarily spiritual and emotional benefits?
There is a significant benefit: If you embrace the teaching moments and/or growth opportunities, you are less likely to become physically and certainly emotionally unwell or damaged. Every clinician I’ve consulted agrees. Grief has to be treated like any other ailment of the soul/body.
In addition to your book, there are recent ones with titles like Sherri Mandel’s “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” and Wendy Mogul’s 2001 guide to raising resilient children, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” Is there a movement to find blessing — not merely comfort — in pain and tragedies? Is this an attempt to cover up one’s pain, or to face it more honestly?
At the end of the day, there is a movement to find love. The intense impact of the world situation seems to exacerbate the sense of loneliness and stress imposed on us by personal loss.
Yes, Americans are often quite lonely (they have a lot of digital data but not much actual knowledge.) Our elderly are really lonely, especially facing the termination of life. Any time we assist someone in this situation, we are helping them to achieve blessing — through redemptive, personal growth. And yes, I do believe that these “Blessing” books are a manifestation of the need to deal more honestly with the hard stuff.
What are the limits of situations in which we can find a blessing? Are some moments of pain simply painful?
Yes, there are limits. Every person on this planet is unique — in terms of family narratives, medical history, cultural influences, personal values and emotional issues that are all part of any life. There are limits,z but there are far more opportunities to help and console others.