Beth El Synagogue rabbi writes grief memoir, ‘Faith Unravels’
In the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Daniel Greyber explains in his new memoir, there is a role for certain mourners. When someone dies, the person’s spouse, children, parents and siblings are designated mourners. There is an intense weeklong period of mourning after the funeral, called shiva, and designated prayers for months. But what about the grieving friends? Is there a role for them? Not a defined one.
In “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle with Grief and God” (Resource Publications/Wipf and Stock Publishers) Greyber, who is rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, writes about the loss of two close friends. First, his friend from high school, Jay, who died from leukemia not long after graduating from college. In “Faith Unravels,” Greyber remembers the funeral and not wanting to place a symbolic small shovel of dirt on the grave, but rather wanting to bury his friend himself. Rather than the week of mourning, he went back to daily life, as expected.
In his 30s, married with three sons, Greyber makes another close friend in Joel, also married with three sons. They worked together at Camp Ramah in California, where Greyber was executive director, and also taught at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, where Joel was in one of his classes.
Then Joel, too, was struck down by leukemia and died, no matter how many prayers were said or people praying them. As a grieving friend, Greyber struggled. As a rabbi, Greyber struggled. In his book, Greyber shares his thoughts about God and death and dying and grief and his search for answers.
But he offers no answers. At the end, at the recommendation of actress and friend Mayim Bialik, who wrote the foreword, Greyber offers a reluctant guide as an appendix.
“Sometimes people do want the answers,” he said. “First of all I think people want honesty and integrity, authenticity or realness most of all. The parroting of dogma doesn’t help people … If you have faith, if you have convictions, they also need to understand where they came from and why they’re important.”
Greyber’s task, he said, is not to supply answers but explore what the answers are as defined by people’s own relationships with God.
“Faith isn’t something you have,” Greyber said. “You live faithfully. You ask these questions from inside of a relationship [with God].”
He said that when he graduated seminary, he didn’t receive a handbook on how each person in his congregation relates with God. “I think you need humility in those questions,” he said.
In “Faith Unravels,” Greyber writes about the awkward, often unhelpful things people say at funerals to loved ones of those who have died. There’s an arrogance in presuming to know why things happen to other people, he said.
“The awkwardness comes when we repeat things we learned in Sunday school to make people feel better, but it makes an idol out of our knowledge of God,” Greyber said. Knowing is the province of God, he said, or not, but definitely does not belong to human beings.
Rather, mourning can be about just being present, and of acknowledging the truth of the moment. Greyber wrote about darkness, when it seems God is not there – not as systemic theology, but walking through a lot of his own struggles, he said.
It was the death of another friend that first brought Greyber to Durham in the fall of 2009. A childhood swimming friend he hadn’t seen in years had died, and he came for the funeral at First Presbyterian Church. It was Shabbat, and Greyber does not travel during it, so he stayed close enough to walk both to the church and also the nearest Conservative synagogue, Beth El. He found the services at Beth El to be very meaningful, and found out they were looking for a rabbi. He went home to his job in California, applied to Durham, and took the job full-time in the summer of 2011, after a year’s fellowship in Israel.
Greyber said as long as a person’s encounter with death isn’t debilitating, an awareness of death in daily life can be a healthy thing because it makes you aware of the preciousness of each moment. In “Faith Unravels,” Greyber’s story of his friend Joel’s death is also the story of Joel’s family and his widow, Heather, who read the book drafts. Last year, Greyber spoke at the bar mitzvah of his late friend’s son.
Greyber hopes his book, which also explains Jewish traditions to those who aren’t Jewish, can be helpful to people in a time of mourning and grieving the death of a friend.
“Everyone out there loses a friend,” he said. “It’s a unique and important loss because in American society there are fewer and fewer people raising families in the community where they grew up.”
Greyber said that friendships today often take on a sibling-like quality, and the loss of a friend is a deep and important loss.
WHAT: Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue and author of “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle with Grief and God,” in conversation with the Rev. Joe Harvard, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Jan. 15
WHERE: The Regulator Bookshop
720 Ninth St., Durham