Jewish Mourning

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When I was a university student, there was a professor who joined the Orthodox daily minyan (services) for a time in order to say Kaddish for a relative. He commented that he felt that Judaism “got it right” when it came to mourning rituals — that Jewish mourning practices were reassuring and comforting during that difficult time.

The professor wasn’t observant in general — he went to synagogue on occasion, but that’s all. But nonetheless he found the customs provided a framework for getting through his grief. His son (with whom I went to high school) has no Jewish attachment today, as far as I know, and more’s the pity.

That, however, is a pattern we see reproduced across Jewish America — the comfort in ritual only lasts for a generation or so. Practices must have meaning in order to have permanence.

And, indeed, it is not just the practice of Jewish mourning that is comforting. The entire Jewish belief system provides a framework of support. Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses” — and while it is easy to dismiss his comparison of religion to a drug, religious faith certainly alleviates pain in situations like mourning. I look at the reverse: operating under the athiest’s conception that there is no G-d and no afterlife makes a death that much more painful.

I’m looking at this, of course, through the loss of our nephew last week. He was eighteen. He was supposed to be beginning his life, not ending it. Without the knowledge that G-d only does good, and that there is a World to Come… I can hardly understand how people go on without that.

Meanwhile, please look at the comments from Aaron’s fellow students. Grief counseling is certainly warranted, but these young men seem to do a marvelous job counseling themselves and each other, simply by drawing upon the bedrock of strength that is provided by classical Jewish teachings on life and beyond. I am, frankly, awed by their words.

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1 Response

  1. Chana says:

    Mourning in Judaism is a profound and somewhat beautiful concept. The fact that the mourners
    are to reminisce, to understand, to speak of the dead, to observe certain customs in their memory,
    the awesome transition of the onen to the mourner, the one who can do no mitzvot at all to the one
    who must specifically refrain from doing certain actions, is fascinating.

    Erich Fromm writes of various religions and their ideas as to death. He says that one emotion that
    is tabooed is the sense of tragedy, and goes on to explain how various religions understood death.
    Fascinatingly, he speaks of Judaism as being the only one to approach death realistically, but also
    to look forward towards a time when the world would be ruled through justice- the ending days, or the days
    of the Messiah.

    There is a sefer published in the MeOtzar HaRav series which has R’ Soloveitchik’s profound
    understanding of what it means to suffer, to mourn, and to die. He contrasts the great negation
    of the individual at death with the mourning we must follow, and brings up various ideas
    and connections to death. One idea I really liked was that of the Rambam’s, which explained
    that the soul longs to be reunited with God, and that in those instances, death is but a “kiss”
    as it is mentioned through the Torah.

    The sefer is called ‘Out of the Whirlwind’- here is the link: http://www.shma.com/bookreviews/Julian.phtml
    The fact that he does not negate suffering, pain, emotion, or mourning is beautiful.

    My friend’s brother passed away this year, and many people did not know how to comfort her.
    Therefore, they said things like, “He’s in Olam Haba now,” or “It’s better this way,” things which,
    far from comforting her, only made her feel worse. I think it is a very difficult thing to
    comfort mourners, and therefore the comments about Aaron were very truthful, and probably much
    more meaningful because they were genuine…instead of simply a repitition of something someone
    once heard about the next World.