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A Jewish Perspective on Pastrol Care

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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This week I received a phone call from a Jewish student from abroad, spending a year in London. She said she’d been having a really tough time in the last few years. Although she wasn’t a practising Jew, she thought she would like to talk to a rabbi because it is often in time of crisis people turn to their faith. Now, I think it’s true that people do sometimes turn to their faith in moments of crisis, but in my own case I have often turned to Judaism for the support and care I will receive from the community and not because of my faith. They have been the place to take my anger and frustration at God, rather than finding my deep rivers of faith automatically flowed.

Sharing the highs and lows of life

One of the reasons I decided to become a rabbi was the privilege it allows of being present with people during the highs and lows in their lives. This week I had a day where I officiated at a funeral; taught a pupil who was about to become Bar-Mitzvah and perform a huge ritual in front of all his family and friends, and interviewed a woman who was just starting out on our conversion course because she had been journeying towards Judaism since she was 14. Every one of these encounters was a special one to be a part of, and to see the strength, ritual and joy people were able to draw from their Judaism.

Within the community

Pastoral care has always been an important function of the Jewish community because we are all responsible for the care of our neighbour. But it has not always necessarily been the role of the rabbi, who was a teacher and a legal authority. Traditionally the rabbi’s wife was more likely to fulfil the pastoral role. Today, however, this role is increasingly falling to rabbis, and while they are not trained therapists, pastoral care is a part of their training. Helping people to find how their community, and/or their faith, can support them to be the best person they can be in a crisis, is a humbling experience.

Judaism has emphasised certain parts of pastoral care for thousands of years, such as bikkur cholim: visiting the sick, clothing the naked, showing hospitality to strangers, creating peace between people, comforting mourners and ensuring a respectful burial of the dead. One key text explains that God sets the example to teach that we should do some of the above things in the Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a:

Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina said: What does the text: ‘You shall walk after God’ (Deuteronomy 13) mean? Is it possible for a human being to walk after God; for has it not been said: ‘For God is a devouring fire’ (Deuteronomy 4)? But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One. Just as God clothes the naked, as it says, ‘And God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them’ (Genesis 3), so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy Blessed One visited the sick, for it is written: ‘And God appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre’ (Genesis 18) [this is understood as God visiting Abraham after his circumcision], so do you also visit the sick. The Holy Blessed One comforted mourners, for it is written: ‘And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son’ (Genesis 25), so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be God, buried the dead, for it is written: ‘And God buried him in the valley’ (Deuteronomy 34), so do you also bury the dead. [Soncino translation]

Looking out for each other

Whether or not people gain comfort from their faith, or from their community, religions, community groups, and even friendship groups have an important role to play in pastoral care. We all need to look out for one another, and be careful with one another, and we also need to remember to take care of ourselves. If we were all a little better at both of these things, I think we would be a much happier society.