‘Death reveals the depths of our love.’ Rabbi Steve Leder on dying and grieving

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"One of the things I hope this pandemic has taught us is that good is really great and that a little is a lot," says Rabbi Steve Leder. Photo by Pixabay.

Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, Steve Leder, reflects on dying, death, and grief. He shares his own experience dealing with his father’s death to Alzheimers and poignantly articulates both the struggle and the beauty he felt as his son.“Death reveals the depths of our love,” he says, “and that is, at times very painful. But mostly incredibly beautiful.”

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Rabbi Leder about his upcoming book “The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift” - and how “making room to grieve as a son, has made him a far better rabbi.”

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

As you sit here, kind of holding the energy of a wild, wild year, what what comes to your mind?

Leder: “Optimism. I am daily, multiple times amazed at the ingenuity, resilience, creativity, ability, faith, hope, caring, that I am witness to and have the opportunity to be a part of. Obviously there have been many mistakes made in managing this pandemic but in so many very powerful ways it has revealed the strength within us. For me, I’ve fallen in love one more time with the wisdom of the ancient sages who fought through every aspect of the human condition with real depth and clarity. 

I think it's been an epic and amazing time to be alive and that is not for a moment to dismiss the awful pain and suffering that has come with this pandemic, not for a moment is it worth the things I just described but I am here to tell you neither is it worthless. This has been a very rare and extraordinary opportunity for all of us, to lead and to examine who we really are.”

I remember speaking to a Jewish leader who said we've all almost been in Sabbath for an entire year, we've all been forced to look inwards, very unexpectedly in a way that perhaps we may never have to again.

Leder: “I see it in an even broader fashion. I see the Sabbath, ultimately, as being so much more about the negative commandments than the positive commandments. In other words, there are ‘thou shalt and thou shalt nots’ and the Sabbath is laden with ‘thou shalt nots,’ very few, ‘thou shalts’ but lots of ‘thou shalt nots,’  and what does that teach us? Why is the Sabbath such a beautiful and special day? Well, by the way, why did I call the book that's coming out in a few weeks, ‘The Beauty of What Remains?’ It's really for the same reason. Let me explain. There's a theological concept called ‘via negativa’ by way of the negative, and to make a complicated, long story very short, it's a way of saying that we can understand what God is, by understanding first what God is not, by what we remove. 

Let's think about this in a broader but simpler context. Think for a moment about the most beautiful marble sculpture you've ever seen in your life and think about how that sculpture began. It began as a solid block of marble and the beauty of that sculpture was always within it, hiding in plain sight, but in order for it to be revealed a lot had to be taken away, a lot had to be removed and it's created by removing.

The Sabbath is creating by ceasing to create and this pandemic has shut down so much of our lives and some of that is terrible and difficult but it has also chipped away and stripped us down to a very beautiful essentialism, to to the simplest, most meaningful people and things in our lives and hopefully, a deeper sense of gratitude for the simplest and most meaningful things in our lives. We've all learned that it's not what but who we have that matters. we've all learned that in this pandemic. So in this sense, I agree with that observation, that taking away so much has revealed so much beauty that was hiding in plain sight all along.”

Death is a very important theme in your new book and on a personal level you grappled with the death of your father. Can you share a little bit about the experience?

Leder:. “Well, I was a rabbi for 30 years before my father died and during those 30 years, I really had done my best to help people through this ‘valley of shadows,’ as the poet puts it, that we know of his death and mourning. I thought I was doing a pretty good job, I would have given myself an A or an A minus. And then my father died after a 10 year battle with Alzheimer's and what I learned through that experience, indicated to me that despite my best efforts in the past, everything that I had been saying and teaching and doing to help people through death and through loss was, as I put it, in the prologue, one degree shy of the deepest truth. My father's death taught me in so many powerful ways about that final degree of truth, that death comes to teach us about life and I felt I had to write about it. 

So the book is, in a sense, almost an apology for everything that I got sort of right in the past, but not exactly right. It is also, and I think this is the most beautiful and challenging part of the book, two parallel stories, A: it's a field guide for this journey, through loss, but B: on a parallel track, that sometimes intersects it is the story of Steve Leder, the rabbi, becoming Steve leader, the son. The journey between those two realities that often in my life are completely aligned, but sometimes are not. 

So there's this dichotomous tension between being the rabbi and being my fathers’ son. And the latter taught me so much about how to be better at the former. And the former gave me a little bit of buttressing, as I faced the latter but it is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful dialogue between those two realities.”

You discuss some deep and complicated decisions about prolonging life and not prolonging life. Can you say more about this issue which you discuss in your book?  

Leder: “Well, I think what you're referring to, is chapter four in the book, which is about my experience in an assisted suicide - let's call it what it is. Where I really felt the sting of the conflict between rabbi and for lack of a better term, human being. Not that rabbis aren't human, but they're bound to a certain set of beliefs and practices, which are not always consistent with their own personal beliefs. It would be nice to say, we're completely aligned, there's no lack of alignment between me and what a rabbi is supposed to represent. But this was one of those moments where there was a very clear conflict. 

So just to help all the listeners get on the page with us. I was called to the bedside of a woman who had ALS and was really suffering and lost her ability to speak and couldn't really move much and had from an outsider's perspective, almost no quality of life. Before she lost her ability to speak she told her husband that when she gave him a certain sign, she wanted him to reach out to me and have me come and grant her permission to take the medication, which is legal in California after going through an appropriate process, to end her life. 

And the call came and I went to her bedside and assessed things. We couldn't really have a conversation but here I was, in this conflict where Jewish law and tradition is categorically opposed to active euthanasia. It allows passive euthanasia, but it is categorically opposed and to be an assistant in that, is to be an accomplice to murder. The tradition is very clear. 

And yet here was this poor woman, who I'd known for 30 years, knew her children, knew her family and her husband was saying to me, she wants to know she can take the medication, yes, or no, she won't do it unless you say it's okay. So there I was and what I had to figure out was, in my heart was Tara - I call her Tara in the book, was Tara asking Steve Leder, the rabbi, this question, or was she asking Steve Leder, the man this question? She couldn't answer that for me. I had to answer that for myself and I stepped out of the room with her daughter and her husband and said I'm gonna go in there and tell her, it's okay to take the medication because I can't live with the fact that I would treat my dog more humanely than your wife and your mother right now. And I went back in and I said, Tara, you should take the medication, you have my blessing. 

And after a few more minutes, then I got into my car and I went home and about two hours later, the phone rang. It was her husband saying Tara's gone, thank you, thank you. And as I put it in the book, he thought he was calling to thank Rabbi Leder but it was Steve Leder who answered the phone.”

As we think now about entering 2021, talk about the theme of your book “the beauty of what remains,” and bringing it with us. What are you looking at practically as signs of hope right now? 

Leder: “Well, I'll give you a way of thinking about it that I hope is helpful and it will also be an easy thing as a reminder for all our listeners today.  I do not wish people Happy New Year —  I think it's a mistake. Let me go back to Jewish tradition for a moment. On our new year, which happens in the fall, the greeting we offer to each other is ‘Shana tovah,’ which means a good year. Now people always translate it as Happy New Year but that's not what it means. It means a good year. I don't wish people happy New Year, I wish people a meaningful New Year, a love filled New Year, a good New Year. One of the things I hope this pandemic has taught us is that good is really great and that a little is a lot.

There's so much wisdom in the notion that a little is a lot and good is really, really great. So I'm hopeful for a good New Year, not a happy New Year. By the way, I've always felt that we each have our own default happiness setting and whatever happens to us, changes that very little for a very brief time. We are who we are, so I don't think we can always control how happy we are but we can control how good we are, without a doubt. So one of the ways of holding on to the lessons, the essentialism, the purity and clarity that the pandemic brought to so many of us, is to think about goodness rather than happiness. To think about gratitude, rather than entitlement and to think in the coming year, about how we can be better, not just better off and then we will not have come out of this hell empty handed. 

If you have to go through hell, don't come out empty handed, that's my wish for everyone in the new year, don't come out of this hell empty handed. Take what you have learned and use it to make your life more meaningful and more beautiful.”



Andrea Brody