One of the most common enquiries any rabbi receives is how to deal with death and mourning – but when it comes to comprehending the deaths of famous celebrities, who we did not know personally, is our sense of grief appropriate?
In the Jewish tradition, it is only the immediate family who carry out the rituals of mourning – burial, Kaddish, shiva and so on.
Certainly, we are not the immediate mourners of Terry Wogan, Carrie Fisher or George Michael. But people who have touched our lives through music or a voice in our ear – through their art or public life – always leave deep marks.
In the words of Rabbi Lionel Blue, another great who died in 2016 – and whose death was felt keenly by members of the Jewish community – “Nothing disappears”.
Rabbi Blue said those words only recently to a friend of mine. This was the faith, as Lionel always told it, discovered by a deeply closeted and distressed Jewish boy from East London in the stillness of a Quaker meeting house in Oxford.
“I am too small to reach You,” Lionel wrote in our Progressive Jewish liturgy, “and You are too great for me to comprehend. Therefore I shall try to be still, and in the stillness wait patiently for You to find me. You are so great, You can bend down to me and the distance between us, which my mind could not cover, Your love can bridge.”
Another Jewish great, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen – who was buried this past November – wrote to his great love only a few months before his own death: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine…”
As for how to grieve for someone you’ve never met, I would advise a quiet reflection to oneself as to what they meant to you and why they brought meaning into your life is perhaps the most appropriate response.
Rabbi Leah Jordan is Liberal Judaism’s student and young adult chaplain