May A Person Sit Shivah For An Abusive Family Member Who Is Still Alive?

As a rabbinic panelist at the website, Jewish Values On Line, I recently answered the following difficult question:

To obtain closure from abuse and/or abandonment, can one sit shiva for a family member still living?

Below is my response.  I look forward to readers’ thoughts about my ideas.

Abuse and abandonment violate every sacred trust known to Judaism.  If you who asked this question are a victim of abuse or abandonment, please be assured that we who represent Jewish values and community are committed to supporting you unstintingly in your quest for healing, closure and safety.  God is called Rahaman, the compassionate One, in our tradition. The task of every person in the community is to imitate God’s ways, especially those of us who represent God’s teachings as the community’s leaders.  Our teacher, Maimonides, extended this obligation of imitating God’s compassion. He wrote that we are rahmanim bnei rahmanim:  compassionate people descended from compassionate people.  Our compassion is in our “spiritual DNA”, as it were.  It certainly extends to our family members as much as, if not more than, to anyone else in the world.  Further, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, which means minimally that we must do no harm to a fellow human being. How much more are we commanded to truly love the people closest to us in kinship, even if our relationships with them can never be perfect.

The Talmud and later codes of Jewish law are clear that children are obligated to honor and show reverence for their parents, God’s co-creators.  Indeed, there are sources in Jewish tradition that go as far as counseling children to stoically honor parents who treat them poorly.  However, these sources mostly record individual opinions which are balanced by other statements that mandate kind, respectful, life affirming treatment between family members.  These statements are codified as normative law, and they represent the best spirit of Jewish tradition.

All legal formalities about honoring family members notwithstanding, you now must thoroughly sever ties with a family member who has hurt you terribly.  You have a right and a responsibility to preserve your own life, physically and emotionally, and perhaps also the lives of other family members who have been damaged by this person.  Such a drastic but necessary example of pikuach nefesh (saving life) is never done lightly. I agree with you that expressing this quest for closure in an authentically Jewish ritual manner is critical to your well- being as a person and as a Jew.  You have every right to rely upon God’s people and Torah for validation of your trauma and your desire to heal by moving on in your life. Avelut, practicing the rituals of mourning — particularly through sitting shiva – is not the best way to achieve this, as I will explain below.  However, there are other very Jewish ways to do this that I will suggest to you as well.

Shivah is an obligation incumbent upon a person whose closest kin -parent, spouse, child, sibling – has died.  It is an important mitzvah (religious obligation) for two reasons.  It creates a communal and religious context in which the person experiencing the loss can grieve, especially if he or she had an unresolved, complicated relationship with the deceased. Shivah also honors the person who died, through its communal rituals of remembrance and grief.  Implicit in the observance of shivah is recognizing the finality of death.  There is truly nothing that the mourner can do to bring back that person, whether to have more time with that loved one or to resolve painful conflicts that were never dealt with.  Shivah helps the community and the mourner to face the hard facts that our loved one is never coming back and that death is what awaits all of us.

You deserved much better from the family member with whom you’re severing ties.  I infer from your question that, understandably, you wish to sit shivah to grieve the death of your relationship and the living death that family member caused you to experience.  Part of your healing involves affirming that, (for lack of a better phrase), this person is “dead to you” and can no longer hurt you.  However, he or she is actually still very much alive, in the physical sense. Your sitting shivah sends a message to others that the past is now truly the past, and that you are moving on, as if ther person has really died.  Yet the context of this message is problematic. Can your abuser now expect the resigned forgiveness or forgetfulness of others, without having repented or even attempted to repent for horrible behavior?  Also, though it is unlikely, (and for good reason), it is always possible that you will forgive the one who abused you or the one who abandoned you, who then asks to reenter your life.  If this might also be part of your healing in the future, sitting shivah beforehand might not be helpful.

Another potential issue with your sitting shivah in this circumstance is related to what I discussed above.  Shivah is about mourning and honoring a person who died.  It is not for me to judge how you are feeling as you seek closure for your trauma. You may well be experiencing this severance as one component of profound loss, even as you liberate yourself psychologically from your abuser.  However, you would certainly not seek to honor this family member.  Thus, why use shivah with its distinctive ritual symbolism to achieve the closure that I assume you seek?

I suggest a different approach to marking this severing of ties through a symbolic ritual.  The Talmud (Tractate Moed Katan, ch. 3) records an extensive discussion about communally sanctioned excommunication. (Interestingly, an ex-communicant shares many overt features with a mourner.)  It quotes a member of one rabbi’s household declaring that a person who strikes his adult child should be excommunicated. Her reason was that doing this misleads that child by causing him or her to strike back at the parent, thus promoting violence and violating the imperative to honor parents.  (The Talmud expresses this as putting a stumbling block before the blind.)  Maimonides later codified this Talmudic opinion in a list of actions for which a person incurs excommunication. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study, 6:14).  We must certainly broaden this category of banned behavior to include abusing anyone of any age, whether or not the victim strikes back at the abuser.  That is certainly in keeping with the spirit of this law, if not its letter.

We modern progressives are rightly horrified by the idea that I could put a ban on someone else, even for minor infractions of communal rules. Such practices, which probably were abused at times for vengeful purposes, fell into disuse as Jewish communities entered modernity; they likely helped ancient Jewish communities to enforce standards of conduct and to express a kind of cathartic outrage at bad behavior. I am definitely not advocating the revival of court sanctioned excommunications. However, the idea of “excommunicating an abuser” strikes me as a potent – and more on-point- Jewish metaphor for declaring that one has broken ties with an abusive family member.  Actual bans of excommunication weren’t necessarily permanent (the one banned could be rehabilitated by a communal court). However, a symbolic ritual of niddui or herem (terms for two forms of excommunication) can express very clearly what I think you are trying to say: “With the support of the community, I declare this person officially banned from my life. The community in the past could cast an offender from its midst through excommunication.  Here in the present, I am casting this egregious offender from my midst, and I am doing it knowing that the community will help me to prevent the offender from returning.”

We can think of a ceremony of niddui/herem – whose details still need to be determined – as a kind of symbolic retributive justice.  I suggest that you could follow it with attendance at mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath.  Contemporary uses of mikveh as a healing or rebirthing ritual have gone well beyond its traditional ritual purposes, and for good reason.  A mikveh purifies its user from ritual pollution, particularly pollution which is the result of contact with death. I emerge from the mikveh, as it were, “born again” out of the waters of an amniotic sac.  This is why many contemporary rabbis will take abuse and trauma victims to mikveh.  Immersion declares that you can transcend the living death you experienced in the past, so that you can truly live again. You have suffered so much.  You deserve no less than full healing.

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About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020.