Ask the Rabbi with Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet
Comforting my bereaved friend
A close friend aged 39 recently lost her mother after a short battle with breast cancer and is so overwhelmed by her grief she is finding it difficult to cope. I work full-time, and any spare time I have I use to look after my elderly mother, so I don’t have the time to visit my friend. I don’t know how to help her cope at such a hard time and feel like a horrible friend not being there at a time when she needs me. Can you suggest words of comfort I could send her, perhaps in a letter to show my thoughts are with her, even if I’m not there in person?
Any support you can offer your friend will be very valuable, even if it is less than you would want to give. The main thing is that she feels you are with her at some level. Bereavement support (and counselling) is not an intellectual process, but about giving her the sense that she is not alone, and not abandoned. The overwhelming emotion is one of disorientation and disbelief. Then there is the isolation and anger. All of these are ameliorated by the fact that others are there at this time with empathy and sympathy. So, while it is always better to spend time with her, if that is impossible, then other expressions of caring and warmth are also good. Don’t fall into the trap of being frozen and not knowing what to do. Whatever you can offer from the heart will be appreciated.
True pals and opposite sex
In the Jewish view, can a man and woman just be friends without concerning themselves about anything intimate?
Your question could well be posed as a general one in addition to a specifically Jewish one. This is because the sexual dynamic will often come into cross-gender friendships as this is human nature. That is not to say every such friendship will have this element, but it’s a prevalent and universal issue. As a result, the Halacha, while certainly permitting polite interchange, is quite cautious about allowing men and women to get into more challenging dynamics in the first instance. Accordingly, there are rules of Yichud, which regulate to what extent a man and a woman may place themselves in intimate isolation behind doors and beyond the observation of others.
There are also rules of Tzniut or modesty, which further place restriction on interaction that could lead to inappropriate intimacy. So I suppose the answer to your question is that, while in theory, men and women might well be able to just be friends, there are challenges that can intervene owing to the sexual dynamic between the genders. The rabbis were alive to this and created rules around these relationships with the message that caution and common sense is required.
Should I forgo spurs matches?
I recently took my six-year-old son to his first Spurs match. I was upset that he heard the word ‘Yiddo’ coming from the stands and was unsure how to explain the term to him. Am I at fault for exposing him to such chants at such an early age, as there was also lots of swearing around us, which I was also very upset he heard?
My understanding is that the term ‘Yiddo’ as traditionally used by Spurs supporters is not necessarily anti-Semitic or offensive. Even though terms such as ‘Yid’ or ‘Yiddo’ can carry negative connotations in a different context, your son will eventually need to know about anti-Semitism and, therefore, I can’t see the issue in exposing him to this benign usage. Swearing, however, is a different issue. It does him some harm to hear such language and runs the risk that he will begin to see it as normal. Accordingly, you ought to find ways to ensure he can be spared such exposure.
Uneasy about Christmas meal
I’m from a religious background and my wife’s family is traditionally Jewish but likes to celebrate Christmas Day with family. Although it did not bother me at a minor level, the fact my in-laws had a full Turkey dinner, along with Christmas crackers and even a Christmas sing-a-long did make me uncomfortable. I participated just to make my wife happy. Any advice for next time?
It is certainly no mitzvah to embrace Christmas as your in-laws appear to have done. We have Chanukah at this time of year on which to focus our energies and ought not to observe a holiday antithetical to Judaism. That said, Christmas has now become secularised and empty of much of the original Christian and pagan religious content. It is important to try to preserve the peace within the family and not embarrass or alienate your wife – or her family.
So, if you are in a position next time to make a polite excuse to absent yourself without offending anyone, then all the better. If that is not the case (as appears to be the situation), then – on the basis their behaviour is devoid of religious intent – it is probably better to keep shtum, but avoid any participation. Perhaps, as your in-laws are traditional Jews, you can work together with your wife to find a way to gently raise your view with them without fallout.