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Monday, February 17, 2020

Reflections on Jewish Mourning

I have now twice travelled down the path of Jewish mourning. The first time was nearly eight years ago after my mother, Hilda Yael Kessler, z'l, died. Recently I concluded the year of mourning for my father, Seymour Sholom Kessler, z'l. May their memories be for blessing.

Both times I immersed myself in the world of Jewish mourning. I sat shiva. I observed the strictures that Jewish law places on mourners during the year following their parent's death. I did not go concerts. I did not wear new clothes. I went to shul (synagogue) every day. I recited kaddish. As a person with an obligation (חיוב) to daven (pray), I often led the service.

These journeys are now complete. I've mourned my parents and, God willing, I will never (officially) mourn again. At a remove, I can step back and reflect. To what extent did halakha (Jewish law) help me come to terms with my losses? To what extent did it help me mourn? More broadly, how and to what extent does Jewish law assist, or, just as importantly, hinder, the grieving process?

Much has been written about the wisdom of the Jewish way of mourning. Judaism, it is said, offers a psychologically astute path for dealing with death. Jewish law provides a framework for dealing with grief, from aninut (the period between death and burial) to shiva, the seven days after burial, to shloshim, the 30 days following burial, to the year of mourning itself. "The Jewish religion provides an exquisitely structured approach to mourning" writes Maurice Lamm, author of the classic The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (p. 74). First published in 1969, Lamm's book, which can be found in many a house of mourning, provides a compendium of Jewish practices surrounding death and mourning. Judaism, he writes, "leads us through moments of joy, so does it guide us through the terrible moments of grief, helping us through the complex emotions of mourning and bidding us to turn our gaze from the night of darkness to the daylight of life" (p. 2). "The accumulated wisdom of the ages," he continues, "is a source of great consolation" (p. 3).

Echoing this sentiment, the Chabad web site states: "Yet the wisdom of adhering to the observances and timetables established by the Torah has been attested to time and again by anyone who, G-d forbid, undergoes this process. The Torah's mourning laws provide the outlet and validation for our grief so crucial to the healing process, as well as the framework to graduate from one level of mourning to another, until our loss is integrated as a constructive, and not, G-d forbid, destructive, force in our lives."

In an blog I kept while going to shul daily to say kaddish after my mother died, I wrote about how the ritual of kaddish helped me deal with her loss. I found kaddish to have many positive functions, including providing "a meaningful, repetitive and concrete activity that focuses the mourner on his or her loss, providing an anchor that grounds the mourning process."

Jewish law undoubtedly sets forth a highly structured response to the unfathomable the idea that your loved one--and in the case of your parent, the one who gave you life--has departed this world. However, the very intricacy of that structure may present an obstacle to mourning. The effusive praise attributed to the Jewish way of mourning, I contend, obscures a more complex reality.

When I speak of mourning, I refer to the emotional journey that follows the loss of a loved one and the myriad experiences one encounters along the way. Some of the signposts of this journey have been identified as five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, or, more recently, four tasks of mourning: accepting the reality of the loss, working through the pain of grief, adjusting to the environment in which the deceased is missing and finding an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life. While not everyone may experience all these stages, the general point remains: mourning is a process, one that will of necessity differ from person to person. It involves processing the loss into one's psyche. The hope is that one's emotional state evolves as the proximity to the death recedes, and eventually the loss is integrated, constructively, into one's life.

My point is: adhering to the laws of mourning is not the same as mourning itself. The laws provide a pathway, a guide--but not a guarantee--for going through the stages, or tasks, of mourning and emerging emotionally intact.

The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition, explains that mourning in the Jewish tradition is a two-fold process that contains both an outer as well as an inner expression. The outer expression refers to adhering to the laws of mourning, such as sitting shiva and restricting one's participation in joyous occasions. Yet the real "kiyyum (fulfillment of the obligation) of mourning is grounded in the heart and finds its expression there . . . " (p. 71). The laws of mourning are different than those that can be fulfilled merely by a physical act, such as eating matzah on Passover. No particular inner thoughts are needed to fulfill this mitzvah (commandment). Mourning, like repentance, requires not only an act, but also an accompanying inner experience. This accounts for the different halakhic outcomes when shiva is interrupted by the Sabbath as opposed to the festival days (Passover, Shavuot and Succot); the Sabbath counts as a day of shiva because it cancels only the outer expression of mourning whereas festival days override the shiva entirely because the observance of these days requires both an outer and an inner expression of joy. (pp. 72-73.) This distinction helps explain the Bible's description of Abraham's reaction to the death of his wife Sarah: "he came to mourn for Sarah and weep over her (ויבא אברהם לספד לשרה ולבכתה)" (Genesis 23:2.) He "mourned" the loss of Sarah as a link in the chain of tradition (the outer expression), while he "weeped" over the personal loss of his beloved wife (the inner expression) (p. 34).

The inner expression of mourning is personal. It assumes different shapes depending on a many factors: among them, the nature of the loss, one's own emotional state as well as one's relationship to the deceased. Rabbi Marc Angel explores these issues in his work, The Orphaned Adult. He discusses Freud's "insight that grief entails a struggle between a deep attachment to the deceased loved one and the acceptance that the death has occurred and is final." Moving from shock to acceptance to integrating the loss is not easy. It requires, in his words, "work." Angel's own "work" included interviewing from his congregants to learn how they reacted to the death of their parent. He describes how losing his mother required a shift in consciousness from viewing parents as a "symbol of eternity," as well as comforters or guides, to integrating their legacy into one's identity (pp. 95-96). In this sense, mourning ideally leads to personal growth as, "[t]he adult orphan, meditating on his [or her] loss--mediating on the passing of the generations--grows older and wiser" (id, p. 100).

Whatever form the inner work of mourning assumes, it is just as, if not more, difficult to accomplish than the outer observance of the laws of mourning. The emotions surrounding the death of a loved one, which may include not only grief but guilt, anxiety and depression, are powerful. Yet the overwhelming nature of observing all the halakhic requirements of mourning may obscure the necessity of that inner work.

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning has proven so popular because it sets forth not only the basic customs related to mourning, but also explains their rationales and how they relate to the mourning process. It is also written in a non-authoritative way, as a guide book rather than as a code of law. For precisely this reason, I have noticed a movement in the Orthodox world away from relying on Lamm's book. Rather, the book has been supplanted by a work entitled P'nei Baruch by Rabbi Chaim Binyamin Goldberg, translated from Hebrew into English by the Mesorah Foundation (the publishers of Artscroll) and published as Mourning in HalachahThis 400 plus page work is an extremely detailed legal treatise, covering almost every conceivable halakhic situation that may arise related to death and mourning. The need for the book, the introduction states, is that "[a]lthough the basic laws are codified, there are many, many customs and interpretations that vary from community to community. Add to this the unavoidable situation that, when tragedy strikes, there are any number of halakhic problems, many unexpected, that demand immediate answers" (p. 17).

This book, and the outlook represented by it, is, in my opinion, highly problematic. First, it completely ignores the inner work of mourning and suggests that simply following the laws of mourning constitutes, in and of itself, mourning. Moreover, it seems to imply that emotions are irrelevant to how one deals with death. An example from the book: a person died on the Sabbath. The custom is to move the body onto the floor. But the body is muktza, and muktza items cannot be moved on the Sabbath. So the book suggests putting a piece of bread on the body; as the bread is a non-muktza item which can be moved, one could move the body to the floor since the bread is being moved simultaneously (pp. 53-54). Another example: a woman should not be in the room at the time of death, especially if she is in her menstrual period (niddah). The idea that I would put food on my just departed father so I could comply with a custom of moving his body to the floor or that a daughter or wife, or God forbid, mother, would be excluded from being with her loved one at the moment of death completely ignores the emotions that should be primary during these moments.

Second, there should be great flexibility in how the laws of mourning are interpreted and applied. Very few of the mourning rituals, perhaps only the requirements of burial and kriah, tearing one's garment at the moment of death, are biblical in nature. Most of the other rituals occupy a space between rabbinic decrees and established customs, over which there is more latitude for divergence in practice. Moreover, these laws do not exist in a vacuum--they exist for the very purpose of helping the mourner deal with his or her loss. Considering that purpose should be vital in deciding the extent of their applicability. Whether and how they should be applied depends upon individual and communal factors. As the saying goes, consult your local rabbi, someone who understands the particulars of your situation. As Rabbi Jeff Fox has recently noted, "Many are comforted by the dictates of Halakha when they face loss. Others feel as though God is intruding into their inner emotional state in a way that can feel uncomfortable. The efficacy of these Halakhot (laws of mourning) will be different for everyone. Finding the right balance between guidance and strict rulings is a key role of the rabbinic figure for individuals and families experiencing loss and mourning." The laws of mourning should not be, in my opinion, one size fits all.

The most visible act associated with mourning is reciting kaddish daily. Most people say kaddish simply because that's what the Jewish tradition says should be done. To be sure, attending synagogue regularly to say kaddish carries many benefits to the process of healing. You are altering your usual routine because you are not the same person you were before your loved one died. Kaddish connects you to the community generally and to other mourners specifically. The bonds created between kaddish-sayers are deep and meaningful. Saying kaddish regularly is a meaningful way to honor the memory of your loved one. The words of the kaddish offer the hope of peace and consolation.

And yet, the place that kaddish has assumed is out of all proportion to its status under Jewish law. Kaddish is a custom. It is not mentioned in the Talmud. One kaddish a day is sufficient to fulfill one's kaddish obligation. Yet I've noted a tendency, particularly among men, to strive never to miss a single kaddish, as if an award is given to those who achieve a "perfect score." Moreover, as with any oft-repeated ritual, kaddish can become a mindless act. There is nothing magical about the kaddish's ability to help you mourn. Indeed, its incessant repetition, about eight times a day over the course of eleven months for those who attend morning, afternoon and evening services, can lead to fetishizing the prayer so that its repetition becomes an end in itself, divorced from any other sense of purpose.

In addition, the drive to say as many kaddishes as possible borders on obsessiveness. Many people, myself included, develop a love-hate relationship with kaddish and find that getting to shul daily for each prayer service becomes a grind. In his book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier, who'd been attending services daily, writes that he came to feel that "there was not a single word of the prayers that held my attention. Not a single word" (p. 255). David Bogomolny, who blogged weekly about his year of saying kaddish for his father reflected that, eight months into his mourning, the "process has felt rather like a slog of late. I've been plodding to weekday services, plodding through prayers . . . . Sometimes I can't tell if my plodding is mental or physical; I'm spent regardless." During my own year of saying kaddish for my mother, I emoted: "I'm getting to shul on time, I'm saying my prayers, I'm saying my kaddishes. I'm trying to keep my mother's memory in mind, but it all feels a bit tiring. I'm worn out." When one gets to the point of exhaustion, I would question whether the ritual of kaddish, insofar as it requires shul attendance at every prayer service, is playing any positive role in aiding the mourner in coming to terms with his or her loss.

The notion of chiuv (the obligation of mourners to lead prayers) can also be taken too far. Admittedly, there is something profound in the idea the broken hearted serving as the congregation's representative before God. The responsibility bestowed on the mourner is another way of honoring the deceased. Yet in some synagogues, chiuv has become a competition, leading to conflict among mourners over who should lead prayers, with some mourners insisting they have priority over others. To avoid such disputes, at least one shul I visited resorted to posting a detailed list of the hierarchy among mourners depending on yahrzeit, shloshim, year of mourning, and whether the mourner is a visitor or member of the synagogue. Mourning in Halachah presents a rather absurd example and solution to such a conflict in synagogues where only one mourner recites kaddish: "Three mourners are present. One is a resident who is a mourner in shloshim. The second is also a resident, and is observing a yahrzeit. The third is a visitor who is observing a yahrzeit. In this case, the visitor has the right to recite one Kaddish. The resident who is observing a yahrzeit cannot tell the visitor, 'I take precedence over you,' because the visitor can answer 'I'm not taking the Kaddish from you, but from the mourner in shloshim. Therefore, the resident who is observing a yahrzeit should recite the first Kaddish; the visitor should recite the second one; and the mourner in shloshim, the third one" (p. 371, n. 83).

The centrality of kaddish stems, in no small part, from the metaphysical notion that saying it, and having the community respond “יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם  ולעלמי עלמיה”, serves to elevate the soul of the departed. The idea is that, for the first year following death, the soul resides in a kind of purgatory and the saying of kaddish, as well as serving as prayer leader, rescues the soul from the lower depths (Gehinnom). Of course, this supposed effect of kaddish is unprovable. I do believe that kaddish serves as a bridge between the living and the departed. The parent-child relationship continues in some way after the death of a parent. Yet the exact nature of that connection is unknowable and inexpressible. It becomes problematic when the metaphysical results of kaddish are treated as a matter of certainty. Moreover, the supposed metaphysical effect of kaddish creates an unhealthy sense of guilt in the mourner that, if you miss a kaddish, you are damaging your parent's soul.

The idea that saying kaddish affects the soul of the departed has become so ingrained that it seems to go unquestioned, even among people who would otherwise reject the supernatural effects of observing halakha. Mourning in Halachah asserts, as if it were fact: "It is a mitzvah for the congregation to allow the mourner to serve as [prayer] leader, for this gives spiritual satisfaction to the deceased and rescues him from the punishment of Gehinnom" (pp. 373-374). The book also reports that "[i]f one knows for certain that one's parent is among those who are punished for Twelve Months in Gehinnom--for example, if they did not observe the Sabbath--one is obligated to recite Kaddish for the full Twelve Months" (pp. 352-353).

As the child of parents who were traditional but not sabbath observant, I can't begin to describe how offensive this statement is. My parents made an incredible impact on the lives of many people, through their work as therapists, teachers, Israel activists, community organizers, and so much more. I cannot accept the idea that the main criteria for whose soul gets to enjoy the afterworld is halakhic observance, as if all the other good works a parent did is meaningless. It is also difficult to fathom that otherwise rational people have come to believe that whether or not they miss a kaddish or how often they say kaddish will have a decisive effect on the quality of their parent's afterlife. Why have people come to believe that their behavior during the year after their parent died is more significant to the fate of their parent's soul than how many good deeds the parent accomplished during his or her own lifetime?

The idea of kaddish's spiritual effects has led to the practice of paying someone to say kaddish for their parent, as if the kaddishes of a person who never met one's parent can make or break the fate of their parent's soul. Two and businesses exclusively devoted to saying kaddish for others. (As my grandparents might say, "from this one makes a living"?) The former offers four plans "customized to fit the needs of all Jews." Many other Jewish organizations offer this "service." Chabad charges $180 a year. Any number of other organizations will do it for a donation of any amountOne website encourages anyone to use its service, even if there is a child (read: son) reciting kaddish, on the grounds that it "brings extra merit to the deceased and works as a backup in case the sons miss one of the prayer services due to some emergency." The priciest option seems to be Hadassah’s Enhanced Perpetual Yahrzeit service, which, for $5,000, payable in installments over two years, "Kaddish will be recited for your loved one every day for 11 months after burial" and then annually on the yahrzeit thereafter.

Mourning in Halachah actually encourages this practice, suggesting that if you have someone other than a relative say kaddish, "it brings more merit to the deceased if the person takes payment than if he does not" (p. 362). Not only is it better to pay for kaddish, but a hired kaddish-sayer is permitted to get paid "to say Kaddish for a number of people" (ibid). Am I being too cynical to suggest some self-interest involved in justifying the monetization of kaddish?

Rabbi Lamm, I should note, condemns this practice, considering it "reprehensible to the religious spirit" (p. 165). Paying for kaddish, he writes, leads to the notion that kaddish is "a sort of credit system that can be manipulated financially." People come to view "paying [as] more important than praying" and "the synagogue as a celestial supermarket" (Ibid).

Yizkor, the memorial prayer, has also been monetized as a source of funds for synagogues, though without the suggestion that contributing will affect your loved one's soul. Though I respect the financial needs of our houses of worship, the request for funds at this time takes advantage of people in their time of sorrow and vulnerability. (I love the scene from The Big Lebowski when the funeral home demands $180 for a "receptacle" in which to place Donnie's ashes, which Walter and the Dude intend to scatter. Walter finds a nearby Ralphs Supermarket and has Donnie's ashes placed in an empty Folgers Coffee can.) Why do I need to be hit up for funds every time I'm about to engage in one of the most meaningful acts imaginable: recalling, reconnecting and rekindling the eternal connection between parent and child?

One last thought on kaddish: I have much respect for a friend of mine who purposefully did not say kaddish for his father until several months after his father died. He had a very difficult relationship with his father and simply could not, at first, bring himself to say kaddish. The contours of one's mourning cannot be divorced from one's lived relationship with the departed. The year of mourning is a time to take stock of one's relationship, in all its complexities, with the deceased. The year of mourning is a coda to and not a substitute for the parent-child relationship.

But the issues here go beyond kaddish. They lie in the very structure of Jewish mourning itself. An entire system of halakha has developed around the laws of mourning, and mourners spend the year after their parent died enmeshed in its details. The complexity of the laws are well suited to the obsessive personality, for there is no other time in your life when dos and don'ts are so meticulously spelled out. Jewish mourning creates a world unto itself, with its own vocabulary and set of norms. The mourner perforce enters into that alternate reality. Conversations with and among mourners tend to center on the rigors of daily synagogue attendance rather than on how that attendance is helping you deal with your loss. The mourner is much more likely to address questions such as "when are you getting your hair cut?," "what job do I need to do in order to attend this simcha?," "which mourner will be davening from the amud (leading services) today?," "how much longer are you saying kaddish?," and "when is your parent's yahrzeit?", than with "how are you coping with your loss?" The inner work of mourning tends to get swallowed up by the outer requirements of mourning, thus creating an illusion that the outer requirements, in and of themselves, constitute the inner work.

It is helpful to have a structure, as the halakha provides, in dealing with the psychological issues that inevitably arise in confronting the final departure, the absence, of a loved one. However, to truly mourn, one has to go beyond the halakha. The outer observance of mourning is no substitute for inner work of mourning. Unless the rituals are internalized, unless one is working to make meaning out of the rituals, one is not fully mourning.

Personally, observing the laws of mourning and going to shul to say kaddish were important, indeed indispensable, parts of mourning my parents. I do not regret devoting myself to saying kaddish, though the second time around, I put less pressure on myself and felt more at ease with the synagogue obligations. While I felt the strictures of pleasure an appropriate response to my emotional state, I did attend kiddushes, went to family weddings, and saw a couple of movies and a play with somber themes. Neither of my parents ever told me what they expected me to do after they died, but I'm sure they didn't expect or even want me to give up all pleasures during the year of mourning.

Saying kaddish was central to my mourning, but my mourning was not defined by kaddish. The years of mourning included many other aspects just as, if not more, important than kaddish. Talking to and reading the writings of other mourners. Going to other shiva homes. Helping my father after my mother's death. Reading the writings of my parents. Putting together a book of my mother's writings. Listening to my father's music. Going through their possessions and following their instructions on how to dispose of their assets. Reflecting on what it means to live without parents. Connecting with people who knew my parents. Getting therapy. Blogging. Crying. Carrying on.

I am not saying how a person should mourn. As with any deep emotion, it is a highly personal experience, one that depends on so many factors. Each person's experience will be different. The outer aspect of mourning may look the same from person to person, but the inner work will differ. The Jewish tradition offers a wise path to guide us in difficult times. But it is up for us to walk that path in our own particular way, to do the "work" of mourning so that, as Rabbi Lamm puts it, we emerge from night of darkness recommitted to the daylight of life.