I learned something surprising recently and I’m curious about your reaction.
In the Chassidic world, it is customary NOT to give a eulogy when someone dies. This seems to completely contradict Judaism’s mitzvah to honor the dead and comfort the mourners. And yet, the practice is also rooted in alternate Jewish values.
According to Chabad teachings, three mitzvot override the tradition to give a eulogy. The first concerns lashon hara and the use of careful speech. With eulogies, there is a tendency to exaggerate the positives and gloss over any negatives resulting in an inaccurate portrait of the deceased. Skipping the eulogy altogether avoids this risk.
The second argument against eulogies has to do with the Jewish value of modesty. Even in death, we are not supposed to brag or be bragged about and therefore the eulogy – which by definition includes the person’s accomplishments and proud moments – violates this Jewish commandment for modesty.
And the final issue with a eulogy is its timing. Traditionally we want to bury a person as soon as possible so the body can return to the earth and the soul can rest. The eulogy delays that process so it’s better to eliminate it and move quickly to the burial.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because many of us have been to funerals in recent months. Many in our congregation have lost parents, spouses and close friends recently. I imagine we would agree that burying a loved one without sharing some positive words about his/her life and their impact on our lives would feel very empty and likely even wrong.
We are not Chassidic Jews and yet I think this tension over the eulogy is interesting to ponder. What could be the benefits of skipping the eulogy? Is there some comfort in focusing on the rituals of burial and shiva without worrying about a formal eulogy? Doesn’t the life speak for itself?
To me, the lesson from pondering to eulogize or not to eulogize is that people are multifaceted and complicated. The goal of mourning loved ones is to honor the fullness and complexity of their lives.
It’s to avoid neatly wrap up a human life in a page or two of accomplishments or a few sweet family anecdotes. The goal is to witness and learn from the fullness of the human life. And perhaps given the limitations of language and time, that can’t truly be done with a eulogy.
In fact, I frequently start a funeral with the disclaimer that we won’t be able to capture the fullness and uniqueness of this life no matter how much love and care are taken with the words we share at the service.
But there is another lesson here.
And that lesson is that we can find our own middle ground, our own balance between saying too much and saying too little. In fact, I think one of Judaism’s main functions is to help us avoid extremes and find meaning in the middle path.
As modern, non-Orthodx Jews, we handle this tension very well. We don’t need to forbid all eulogies because some may be exaggerated or too long. We know that people and lives are complicated; we can share memories and give honor while not being immodest or wasting time. As modern Jews, we can adapt and embrace nuance and not feel threatened by imperfection. We don’t need an all or nothing answer.
This approach may also be one Jewish response to the challenging, polarized world we live in today. Search for the nuance, find the non-absolute answers. That doesn’t mean to always compromise but it does mean to work towards our personal balance between too much and too little – whatever the issue may be.
To those of you who have lost a loved one recently … May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Israel.
May we all find more balance and a more peaceful pathway together.
Rabbi Amy Rader