Sarah Silverman’s Mom & (Jewish) Grief Beyond Belief

Sarah Silverman’s Mom & (Jewish) Grief Beyond Belief August 24, 2015

Like many of you, I just read Sarah Silverman’s moving post about her mother, who died last week:

Granted I heard about this earlier today from my friend [REDACTED] who knows and loves Sarah from mutual Hollywood circles and was looking for advice about the right way to acknowledge her grieving process, from a culturally Jewish perspective.  (My advice may have involved noodle kugel, which was in fact the advice Humanist Hub assistant chaplain Vanessa Zoltan gave me when I asked her about it, but this redacted friend is an extremely thoughtful person who ultimately didn’t need my help in order to figure out what to do.) So that’s maybe a bit unusual. But we all experience this. Every day, we all put one foot in front of the other and walk around on earth, knowing in our hearts that the most important thing in life is to have good relationships with good people, and knowing that the many of the very best people we’ve ever met are going to die before us and we’ll have to mourn them and live without them– and that’s the best case scenario for us. 

What do we do with all the uncertainty, all the fear, all the pain that kind of loss brings? This is, indirectly and totally without connection to Sarah Silverman, what a group of 27 of us got together to discuss at the Humanist Hub tonight, in three small groups. The topic was uncertainty and the idea was that humanists, atheists and other self-described “rational” people like us have many strengths, but we also tend to have a few blind spots we could stand to work on, and one of those is acknowledging there are things in life that all the Reason in the world can’t completely decide: like, who to love, where to go to school, what job to pursue, how to deal with the possibility of rejection, or how to prepare for the death of your mother. I can’t tell you what was said or shared about these things, because I want to completely protect the anonymity of the brave and awesome people who come to the Humanist Hub to share, but I can say I heard smart and accomplished people admit to one another and themselves that there are plenty of moments in life where we just can’t know what’s next or how to deal with the pain…and that’s okay. That’s why I think Silverman’s brief internet eulogy for her mom is going to resonate so powerfully with so many of us– because her mom taught her to embrace uncertainty, because the opposite– total certainty and predictability in life– is way worse.

Sarah Silverman’s mother, Beth Ann O’Hara, apparently taught her, through repeated actions little and big, that love is worthwhile despite all its uncertainty: even when we fear, realistically and rationally, to lose that love to the ultimate end of death. I say “apparently” to emphasize that I have no idea– I’ve never met Ms. Silverman, or certainly not her mother, I wasn’t there, I have no insight into this situation. From what I understand, Silverman has a rabbi sister who I have to presume is more religious than me, if only because my fellow secular humanist rabbis and I are so few in number still that I tend to believe I’ve met every single one of us, though I haven’t quite. So, even though I know Silverman has called herself godless and is a hero to many an atheist and agnostic, I can’t claim that I or we are certain to have “The Answers” that will resonate and comfort her at this time. Nor can I ever be certain anyone in my community will be completely comforted by a humanistic approach to death. Whether it’s any one of the 27 who attended tonight or the hundreds of atheists and agnostics looking for community that I meet every week, or any of the countless millions of us out there in society more broadly– yes, to an extent we are all out there on our own, we don’t know the answers, and we never will. How’s that for cheery, eh? Sarah might probably literally be throwing toasters right now if she was at home reading this, not that she will be, because she won’t be.

And yet– and yet– we’re in this together, and we do truly have a way of comforting one another. We can sit, whether in little circles like tonight, or metaphorically, and spend some time being curious about our own uncertainty, getting to know our own fears, and sharing them with others. We can be curious about the people around us and know that if they don’t have it figured out either, then why should we? We can then know that if none of us have it figured out, then we can all have a lot more fun together because it’s not as embarrassing to laugh at life when you know there’s no damn reason to be so serious. And when you know that if you end up, halfway through a fit of laughter, literally or metaphorically needing to curl up in a ball by the bed, back bent in half from weeping and dripping long strands of white snot into a pool of spilled chocolate brownie ice cream and tragedy, then, that’s okay too. Knowing and experiencing all of that gets you back to the laughter a lot faster. I suspect Ms. O’Hara was one of those people who knew these things, and I suspect the fact that she taught them to her daughter is one of the reasons Sarah Silverman is such an inspiring comedienne.

Well, this is just a blog post, so I won’t try to have the final word on death, but I do want to offer a couple of my favorite reflections on secular humanistic Jewish death, in case anyone sitting Shiva in the Silverman household is bored and looking for something to do, or in case anyone else out there, Jewish or not, happens to need an inspiring thing to read today because the rest of the internet was empty. These are from Sherwin Wine, my teacher to whom my book Good Without God was dedicated. He was the world’s first ever openly and famously atheist rabbi, and I can’t help but thinking Sarah and her family would have liked him. These were read at his funeral, which was an excellent sobbing opportunity for me:


Death needs courage.  It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear.  When it arrives at the end of a long and happy life it is never welcome, yet not deeply resented.  But when it comes too soon, invading young lives, disrupting hopes and dreams, it adds anger to our fear.  We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come.

Courage is the power to confront a world that is not always fair.  It is the refusal to beg for what will never be given.  It is the willingness to accept what cannot be changed.

Courage is loving life even in the face of death.  It is sharing our strength with others even when we feel weak.  It is embracing our family and friends even when we fear to lose them.  It is opening ourselves to love, even for the last time.

Courage is self-esteem.  It prefers quiet determination to whining.  It prefers doing to waiting.  It affirms that exits, like entrances, have their own dignity.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine, in Celebration


I believe.

I believe in hope.

I believe in hope that chooses-
that chooses self-respect above pity.

I believe in hope that dismisses-
that dismisses the petty fears of petty people.

I believe in hope that feels-
that feels distant pleasure as much as momentary pain.

I believe in hope that acts-
that acts without the guarantee of success.

I believe in hope that kisses-
that kisses the future with the transforming power of its will.

Hope is a choice,
never found,
never given,
always taken.

Some wait for hope to capture them.
They act as the prisoners of despair.

Others go searching for hope.
They find nothing but the reflection of their own anger.

Hope is an act of will,
affirming, in the presence of evil,
that good things will happen,
preferring in the face of failure, self-esteem to pity.
Optimists laugh, even in the dark
They know that
hope is a life style-
not a guarantee.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine

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