What are ethical wills? They’re a beautiful gift for generations to come – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted By on January 11, 2022

When he began writing about ethical wills in the 1970s, former San Diego Rabbi Jack Riemer would spend much of his time explaining this ancient Jewish tradition before he could even get into the notion of writing one of your own.

Regular wills pass on your valuables, he would tell them, but ethical wills pass on your values. We are more than the sum total of our china and our savings account. Our spiritual treasures also are precious from how weve tried to live our lives to our hopes and wishes for loved ones.

Riemer would talk about their history, with roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud. At first, they tended to be delivered orally. As writing became more commonplace, they began to be put down on paper.

Over time, however, familiarity and practice faded. Riemer himself acknowledges ethical wills werent on his radar until a congregant shared one he had written with him. It was, he remembers, marvelous.

He teamed up with the late Nathaniel Stampfer, a well-known Jewish scholar from Chicago, and the pair published a series of books describing what ethical wills were and how to prepare them. They also included samples of good ones and not so good ones.

What a difference a half-century has made.

Today, the crafting of ethical wills has become a kind of cottage industry, with workshops, websites and how-to guides offered across the country for people of all beliefs and cultures.

Law firms also have gotten on board, offering to include them with their clients estate plans.

All this is just fine with Riemer.

This is something that anyone of any faith can do, he says from his Florida home, where he has long since retired from leading synagogues. We are only pleased if others do it, too.

Riemer, whose long career included a stint at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, says many people just assume their kids understand their values.

Sometimes, the things that meant the most to them, their kids havent really understood until they see them in writing, he adds. When we take the time to do that, Riemer says we create a really beautiful gift for generations to come.

But this new wave of teachers also is adding some modern-day massaging to the concept starting with what to call them.

A British scholar named Israel Abraham is often credited with coining the term ethical wills in his 1926 book, Hebrew Ethical Wills.

But for a more-contemporary audience, the name is awkward and confusing. Does it mean writing a last will and testament that is ethical? And, by the way, what exactly is ethical?

Nobody knows what an ethical will is, says Rachael Freed, founder of Life-Legacies, from her home in Minneapolis. When you are doing a cottage industry, you want people to know what you are doing.

Freed, a social worker by training who took several classes on writing ethical wills in the 1990s, calls what she teaches legacy writing.

At first, her program focused on women to help them find their voice. Then she expanded it to include all genders and generations, showing them how to write legacy letters that convey values, wisdom, history and blessings to future generations. And they can be given at any time during a persons life to mark everything from milestones and special occasions to simply wanting to share a life lesson with someone you love.

In her book, Your Legacy Matters, she provides a template: beginning with the context of what you are writing, the story you want to share, lessons you took from it and, finally, a blessing for your own wishes for the recipient.

Up in Seattle, Rabbi Elana Zaiman calls what she teaches forever letters, which also became the title of her book, The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe for Those We Love.

Zaiman, who used to teach about traditional ethical wills, says the shift in name also reflected another shift.

I realized I was teaching about a different letter entirely, a different letter that needed a new name, she explains. That is how the forever letter was born. The focus of the forever letter is on connection and relationship. Specifically, deepening, healing, strengthening or uplifting relationships.

Like Freed, Zaiman advocates giving these letters while you are still living. This allows the writer and recipient a chance to have a conversation, giving them an opportunity to repair and strengthen their relationship.

She says these letters arent really ethical wills, though they were inspired by the ethical wills from medieval times by the intimacy and urgency and necessity of writing, and focusing on what we most need to say or want to say to the people we love while we still can.

Regardless of what you call them, Encinitas attorney Gabriel Katzner, of the Katzner Law Group, is among a number of firms who offer to add them as another component of the clients estate plans.

What Ive always told clients is it is a way to pass along those lessons that are important, those values that are important to you, Katzner says.

About a quarter of his clients take him up on the offer, while another half or so say they plan to do it.

In addition to advice on what to put in these writings, Riemer and the others also warn about what not to put in them.

There is a temptation to leave a guilt trip from the grave, says Riemer, who maintains that ethical wills have a place at the end of your life and not just those other times. You shouldnt do that. It does no good.

In their book, So That Your Values Live On, Riemer and Stampfer include a stinging example from a 12th century ethical will in which the father slams his son over more than 50 pages complaining about everything from how much hes done for him to his bad penmanship. He ends by asking his son to read this ethical will twice a day for the rest of his life.

Freed offers this advice: I always suggest that they use the Buddhist tenet: do no harm. And I say, Think about being dead for 50 years and somebody reads the letter that you wrote to the grandchild and it is full of anger or resentment or regret. Thats not the place for that. The place for that is your journal or on a piece of paper that you can burn up after youve written it. You dont want to be remembered that way.

When I ask her for any final thoughts, she says she wishes people would not be scared off because they feel writing one of these letters is too formidable. It can do so much good both for the writer and the receiver.

That brought to mind a story Rabbi Ron Shulman had shared with me just a few days earlier. Shulman is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth El, where Riemer once served.

He was 13 years old and sitting in his bedroom on the night before his bar mitzvah, when his father came in and handed him a letter. I opened it up and he had written me this beautiful letter about how he felt about me. His pride and his hopes for my future and his values. In essence, he had written me his ethical will.

Shulman cherishes that letter to this day (and was inspired when he became a father to do likewise for his daughters). The words written so long ago are like a spiritual tool box that can be opened over and over to provide comfort and guidance. And that may be the greatest reason of all for why to do an ethical will or whatever name you want to call it.

Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a former president of the Religion News Association. Email: sandidolbeecolumns@gmail.com.

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What are ethical wills? They're a beautiful gift for generations to come - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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