The Wisdom of the Shiva

A letter from the publisher of Jewish Currents.

Daniel May
October 19, 2023

Of all the rituals of Jewish life, I have found the shiva—the seven days of mourning after the death of an immediate family member—to be the one that speaks most powerfully to me.

The basic insight of shiva is that grief incapacitates. In traditional practice, the mourner is forbidden to cook, or wash, or care for their daily well-being. Mourners sit on the floor or low to the ground. Mirrors are covered, an acknowledgment that even looking at one’s own living face in such times can be unbearable, as the self that returns the gaze appears alien. Now is not the time, shiva says to the mourner, for anything at all.

I have been thinking a lot about the wisdom of shiva through these days, as its practices have seemed especially wise in the face of their impossibility. Over the last 13 days, every day I have heard from a different friend who lost a loved one to Hamas’s brutal attacks in the south of Israel; every day, I have read notes from those in Gaza in anguished fear as their homes are destroyed and their neighbors killed in horrifying Israeli airstrikes. And still, every day, there is work to do.

At Jewish Currents, just as at every other Jewish or Palestinian institution around the world, these days have demanded maximum professional effort at a moment of profound personal and communal loss. Palestinian contributors in Gaza write our editors to ask whether their dispatches will be published before they die; Israeli contributors call to express their sense of abandonment by the global left, their despair at the horrifying war fervor that has gripped their country and hijacked their grief. As a staff, we have tried to be there for our people, as we have worked to be there for you, our readers.

And still, we are acutely aware that our efforts, both personal and professional, will inevitably disappoint. Over the last week, it has often felt as though we are holding an impossible position, as the conditions for credibility in many of our communities seem to have become mutually exclusive. On some parts of the left, any reaction that foregrounded Jewish grief and reached quickly for condemnation of Hamas’s atrocities appeared to obscure the root of the violence in decades of subjugation, and to distract from the ongoing atrocities in Gaza. In some parts of the Jewish community, any reaction that did not fully and forcefully condemn Hamas’s violence and bear witness to the extent of Jewish grief appeared as a moral failure and a lack of concern for Jewish lives. On either side, the voices on the other have been received as unforgivable moral and political failures.

As I have watched relationships strain to the breaking point, my own grief has at times curdled into despair. How can we face our work, I have asked, when we can barely face one another?

The depth of that challenge clarifies the task before us. We must grow a political community held together by a basic commitment to ending this regime of domination so that everyone caught in it can thrive.

We cannot know, in this bleak moment, if we will be successful. But if one thing is clear, it’s the urgency of making the attempt. In the immediate term, we will do all we can to draw attention to the calamity unfolding in Gaza and throughout Israel/Palestine. And we will try to bring you, our readers, together through online and in-person events and discussion, to build the sustaining community we need today and in the weeks and years ahead.

The questions that have been raised in this moment will be with us for a long time. Our work at Jewish Currents is to ask those complex questions, name the challenges, and provide writing that can help us move through them together. Over the next weeks, we will aim to do so with courage, nuance, and empathy. Through this time, we ask you, our readers, for your patience and, if our work speaks to you, your support.

Daniel May is the publisher of Jewish Currents.