Rabbi Mitelman and David DeSteno discuss how rituals can be used and adapted to help people find forgiveness, comfort, togetherness, and resilience in these difficult times, particularly the relationship between presence and connection, and the Jewish bereavement rituals of Shiva, Kaddish and Sheloshim walk mourners through the complicated, interwoven stages of grief.
This interview is part of the How God Works Conversation Series, a web series from Dr. DeSteno and PopTech that welcomes people to explore a new way to think about the science behind spiritual practices and the ways in which they might boost wellbeing. Through their rituals, religions offer tools of sorts — spiritual technologies that that have been debugged over the centuries — to help people deal with the challenges of life. It’s time for science to explore these practices to see when, how, and why they work, and whether they can be adapted to help people find joy and meaning, deal with grief and stress, and build a more compassionate and resilient society.
David DeSteno: Hi, I’m David DeSteno, and I’m thrilled to be here today with Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman as our guest. Rabbi Mitelman is the founder of an organization called Sinai and Synapses, which brings together religious thinkers and scientists to foster conversation focusing on the discovery of knowledge, but also how we can use that for the greater good in society. And so Geoff, thank you very much for being here today.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you Dave, great to be with you.
David DeSteno: Thanks. You and I have talked a lot about this in the past, which is that the tension between science and religion has had its ups and downs through the centuries, but I think right now we’re kind of at a moment where we’re at loggerheads again, where it’s actually kind of vitriolic. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are about that, how you think we’ve gotten to this point, what the problems are, what problems it’s causing us by not having these conversations, and how that led you to start the organization Sinai and Synapses?
Geoff Mitelman: Sure, I’m happy to be able to answer that. And I think that’s a key question that we’re grappling with in American society right now, because ideology has actually become identity. What we believe has really become sort of who we are, and that becomes calcified in a lot of ways. There’s a perception that it’s “I’m on one side or the other.” The public discourse, which is, as you just said, vitriolic right now, it’s terrible, but it’s been bad for a while. And I think it’s been a trajectory, where maybe 30 or 40 years ago, there were arguments, but the arguments were “Oh, that’s an interesting point, let me hear a little bit about what you’re thinking about.” And then that became “No, I’m right,” and then it became “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and then that became “I’m right, you’re stupid,” and it’s now “I’m right, you’re evil.”
And what’s actually happened in a lot of ways is that the science and religion discussion is a proxy for a larger discussion that we’re having in society right now, where there’s – I think it’s a false perception – but there’s a perception that there’s two sides. One side is viewed as scientific and educated and liberal, and the other side is viewed as religious and uneducated and conservative, and there’s a belief that if you buy anything from either of those columns, you’ve got to buy everything in that column. And you get even more points if you demonize the other side.
And that’s made it impossible to talk to people that we may disagree with. It allows us to, or rather, prevents us from being able to think about different ideologies, and how different ideologies may actually help us in a lot of different ways, because it becomes a question of protecting your own identity. And it’s preventing us from addressing some of the biggest questions that we’re grappling with, like climate change and artificial intelligence and the rapid development of all these technological advancements that are going faster than what we humans can really deal with. We’ve actually we lost that ability to really stop and reflect and think through “Where can I find wisdom from all the different sides that I need?”
David DeSteno: Yeah, and I think, to my way of thinking, that’s the problem. If you look at, I think, the American populace in general, they’re not as fractionated as that. There are a lot of people who are people who value science, but also take some comfort in their faith, or at least aspects of it. If you look at the research by Pew, a lot of Americans identify as religious – or less so now, even more [as] spiritual, if not tied to the traditional religions. But if you look on Twitter, as you’re saying, it’s all one way or all the other. We have the rise of the New Atheists, saying everything about religion is bad, and on the other side fundamentalists, saying that all science is bad.
And I think that prevents people like you and me from having –from drawing people into the discussion of “What is it about these practices that can actually lead to fulfillment?” I mean, if you look at the Pew data, what you’ll see is people who are engaged in religion – not the people who say “I am religious,” but who actually are engaged in the daily practice and are active in the activities of their faith, they are happier, they’re healthier, there is some tie to well-being. And I think it’s incumbent on us to be able to have that conversation to figure out why. So how does that goal figure into what you’re doing with Sinai and Synapses?
Geoff Mitelman: There are a couple of different ways of doing that. That’s a great question.
One of them is that a lot of the conflict is actually not with the other side, but with the perception that the other side thinks there’s a conflict. And so how can we actually say “Wait a second. I’m thinking about these questions in a more nuanced kind of way, and how can I bridge that world?”
David DeSteno: I think you’re right, I think you need to get beyond that. And so let’s start doing that. And so I want to start by thinking about the idea that rituals and practices serve – you know, what’s the job of a ritual? What does it do and who does it do it for? And once you know that, even if you want to take it away from the underlying theology, you can use it for different purposes. And so what I’d like you to talk about is: Do you agree with that? I think you do. But then give us an example of – I know you’ve been experimenting with using Shabbat in different ways for people.
Geoff Mitelman: Sure. So Shabbat is the seventh day of rest, of being able to say, “I am actually going to take one day out of seven to not do something, to intentionally not do something.” And there are all sorts of restrictions of what you’re not supposed to do. You’re supposed to say no to a variety of things, and be able to say yes to others.
So when I work with wedding couples, I say, “I need you to observe Shabbat for four weeks.” And what that traditionally means, I often suggest that they light candles, you light candles at sunset, you have a delicious meal, have some wine or something that tastes good, and to be able to – traditionally, and hopefully people can do this again soon – getting together with friends and family. And all the devices off. Traditionally, it’s 25 hours. I am not able to do 25 hours, I think that would be very hard, but you know what? Do it for five hours. Do it for like – from when dinner comes till ever till after everybody leaves, the last person leaves. Five hours of being fully present. And then say “How does that change who you are, how does that feel? How does that impact your relationship with your spouse?”
And basically across the board, the couples have said, “This has been incredible.” And does it maintain itself at that level forever? Some yes, probably not, but if it’s at this high, then it still allows them to be able to have this connection and this ritual that says I” need to intentionally set this time aside. “
David DeSteno: So the ritual is that we’re using the time now to chat to one another, as we know, one of the problems now in society is we are all interacting in an asynchronous way. We’re interacting over email, over Twitter, over whatever it might be. That’s not the way the human mind evolves or communicates. When you and I sit across from each other, or when you and your significant other sit across from each other, there’s a lot that goes on there, in being fully present there. There’s the nonverbals, there’s all of the other cues and the facial expressions and [in] the body. We find that when people talk to one another, especially if they feel close to them, their heart rate synchronizes. Their breathing synchronizes. Those things, in turn, draw people together.
And so here is, you know, I think the wisdom of these rituals. Even moving feet???? (7:40), in our lab, we make people move together in time, walk together in time, or move their hands together in time – suddenly they feel connected, right. And so I think what you’re showing there is how you can take this idea of rest and ritual – eating together, moving together, cooking together – and use it to cement relationships, even in new ways.
Geoff Mitelman: And there’s a line that I love that says “One thing we need to do is ethicize the ritual, and ritualize the ethical.” And I think that ritual gets a bad rap, but ritual is hugely powerful. I might forget to brush my teeth if I didn’t know that when I wake up in the morning, I’ve got to brush my teeth, right? I might forget to do certain things if I didn’t say “Oh, right, it’s 11 o’clock, this is my coffee break,” right, we ritualize our lives.
David DeSteno: We do, you know, in the psychological literature, in behavioral science, we spend a lot of our time talking about nudges, right. Nudges are certain things that make me behave more ethically, or save that money or not. But the way I like to describe rituals is symphonies of nudges. They are not one simple nudge, like signing your name somewhere or testing something. They operate at multiple levels, physiological, psychological, to push us in certain ways.
So what I want to do now is think about that more in terms of the difficulties people are facing. Right now, it’s the time of COVID-19, and many people have experienced grief, and many people are thinking about loss. Will they be here next year?
And so, as we’re having this conversation right after Yom Kippur, and the Jewish Days of Awe, correct me if I’m wrong, but between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah is start of the new year, Yom Kippur, as the day of atonement, [it] kind of symbolically represents the time from birth to death. And I think – one of the things I like about Yom Kippur is it focuses people on the idea that our time on this earth is limited, and if we don’t want to have those regrets, we’d better act on it now. Which is why, right, there’s the whole issue of the day of atonement. And I think having that psychological nudge is a powerful thing. In Catholicism, we have, you know, Ash Wednesday. That reminds us of that.
But I think what happens in Yom Kippur is also this notion that we have potentially offended another and we need to atone for it. And so how do you think about that in terms of drawing us closer in our relationships to other people?
Geoff Mitelman: So, the very first sermon I gave as an ordained Rabbi started with one of my favorite cartoons, that I think was from a cartoon called Non-Sequtir. And it’s two people walking at a corner, they’re about to be at a corner, and they’re holding up placards, and one is saying “Rejoice, today is the first day of the rest of your life,” and the other is holding up a sign that says, “Repent, today may be the last day of your life.” And they were about to meet, and it was called “The Philosophical Showdown.”
And what’s wonderful is they are both true. And so being able to be forced to think about both of those things – both the idea that “I have an opportunity of a new beginning on Rosh Hashanah,” and “This may be my last day on earth, what do I want to stand for? How do I want to act? What do I want to use my time for?” That’s an incredibly powerful –
David DeSteno: And there’s an incredibly powerful notion – and I’m not Jewish, I apologize for any ignorance that I have – isn’t there a notion that there’s something written, and then on Yom Kippur it is sealed? And so the notion, if I’m understanding, is in this time of making you think about this, you have time to make those changes. Here’s the language, right, because people, as part of the service, right – you told me this – they admit together, communally, that “I’ve sinned in this way and I’ve sinned in that way.” And recognizing those is the first step toward changing.
Geoff Mitelman: Mhm. And it’s also interesting that it’s not actually “I’ve done this,” it’s actually all “We’ve done this.” “We’ve sinned”– and actually the Hebrew is chait, which is translated as “sin,” but that has its own Christian connotations. A better translation is “We’ve missed the mark.” So it’s not “how can we be good,” it’s “How can we be better?”
David DeSteno: Let me talk about one more thing before we end, and that is something else that is unfortunate right now. A lot of people have passed, or known someone who’s passed, or have a relative with COVID in general. One of the things that I’ve come to admire is the ritual, in fact, of Shiva. It’s just, to me, understanding the psychological literature, the way it works, it hits so many of the buttons that we know helps people through grief.
So a friend of mine is George Bonnano, who is at one of the colleges at Columbia University, one of the nation’s leading experts on grief and bereavement. And what the majority of people tell you is that one of the biggest predictors of who goes through grief in a resilient fashion isn’t the size of their social network, it’s what we call “instrumental health.” That is, when you need it, do people show up, to be there? To help you? And one of the things i love about Shiva is the way it turns almost into a moral obligation, right, what’s known as a mitzvah, as something we should do for good. We have to come – we have to be together for minyans to say prayers, we have to bring food. These people are never alone.
But I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit to the way Shiva works and how you see it helping people through grief?
Geoff Mitelman: So yeah, so Shiva, it’s the seven days following death, and it’s a very intense period of mourning, and you’re not supposed to be worried about your appearance, but it is one of those things that if you are part of this community, they don’t have a choice, they are obligated to be able to bring food and show up. And one of the things that happens is saying a prayer called the Mourners’ Kaddish, and the Mourners’ Kaddish is a prayer that only mourners say, but it can be said in a community of 10, of what is called a minyan. And so that also means that “Okay, we need to make sure we can find nine other people to say Kaddish with you.” In other words, we need to make sure that there is a community here to support you, to be able to say this.
David DeSteno: And that’s kind of automatically, right, the mourners don’t need to organize it, right, and make sure people are always there. And the time element is also very impressive, because it’s seven days of intense grieving, then you enter – and I’m not pronouncing it correctly – 30-day period of sheloshim, is that how say it?
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, sheloshim, which means 30.
David DeSteno: Right, which kind of – at the end of seven days people go out – the mourners – and they finish their walk around the block, and it’s kind of a sign to the community that “We’re beyond this,” but then we’re in this transitional period and it eases people back into the community slowly.
And the thing I love about that is in Victorian times there was this custom to how you would dress in grief. And so when someone died, immediately you’d wear black. But then after a certain amount of time, you’d wear gray. And then after 6 months you would wear lavender, right, or mauve, which is called “half-mourning.” You’re in half-mourning. You’re kind of coming back but you aren’t fully ready. And then back to light clothes.
And the beauty of that is it let people know where you were, right. Part of the hard part of giving comfort to people is knowing where they are in their grief – what do you say? How do you treat them? And my sense, from the outside, is that Shiva also kind of normalizes that, right, at different periods.
Geoff Mitelman: That’s exactly right. And then for 11 months after that, you say Mourners’ Kaddish for your family member, and then it’s once a year after that. But one of the other obligations is that you wait for the mourner to start the conversation.
David DeSteno: And that’s the beauty of Shiva to me is that it is really focusing not on the deceased, but on the mourner. You know, the thing to take from this, right, even if you’re not Jewish, is some of these elements have nothing to do – in terms of doing them, the on-the-ground practice of them – with the theology of it. So if you make it a practice in your family, or your friends, or if you know someone who has family, who has friends who has lost someone to COVID or to any other tragic event, these are things that you can do, right. Bring them food, step up, give them that instrumental health. Yes, it’s ritualized here, but you can just make it a family practice or a practice among your friends and your social group to do this. Give them the space, understand the time to have them reorient and come back to the community. And so I think, you know, my sense in doing these types of conversations is “Let’s figure out how different religions have provided these tools,” but also how we can make them available to people, to use in different ways. And so Geoff, thank you very much for joining us. I appreciate your wisdom and insight.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you Dave, this was wonderful.