The Mind of the Mourner: Individual and Community in Jewish Mourning

By Joel B. Wolowelsky
OU Press
New York, 2010
126 pages
Reviewed by Maurice Lamm


The former Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol, was very busy and tried to avoid meeting an American philanthropist, but couldn’t. As the gentleman entered, Eshkol said, “Look, you’re busy, I’m busy. Let’s start at the end.” Bottom line: the book is outstanding; the subject unavoidable, the writing lucid and the content includes extensive breathtaking insights and inimitable articulation of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

The book is halachically cogent, and thoroughly researched. Organized in seriatim, every major halachah is applied
to circumstances of mourning and further illuminated by a variety of posekim. The halachah is not only stated elegantly
but succinctly, unlike other contemporary works listing the halachot of mourning in such excruciating detail that, while they may become useful to learned Orthodox rabbis and advanced bnei Torah, they are utterly unsatisfactory and frustrating for the broad public.

Halachic writings are not self-help books or feel-good recipes. In writing on aveilut, halachic expression often remains normal, indeed, sinewy—even as it stands face-toface with the debility of those grieving deeply. It remains robust even as it so often proclaims in matters of aveilut that mekilin b’aveilut, we decide more sympathetically in the circumstances of grief. By right, one might expect sentimentality in such a discussion, yet the book does not turn crumbly or syrupy.

It is in the very nature of this subject that seems to call for expressions on death to be served up in simplistic, pious platitudes, homespun remedies, and sickly sweet tear-wiping, as though these words, by themselves, could evaporate the grief. It is also this very syndrome which elicits the often torturous, tongue-tied, though sincere, greetings of shivah visitors.

Joel B. Wolowelsky surely does not intend to provoke weeping. He is sophisticated without being sophist, an urbane scholar whose goal is teaching. His expressions are clear, his halachic decisions convincing, his sources precise and pertinent. He serves up halachic insights that are readable by the general Jewish public, preferably with some yeshivah background.

The Mind of the Mourner builds on the insights of the Rav, whose preeminence in halachic and philosophical concepts is particularly evident in treatment of the halachot of mourning, and even more conspicuously, in his portrayals which reveal the unfathomable in a mourner’s soul. The Rav is exceptionally graphic, virtually pictorial, and paints blood-words in broad strokes. But they terrify instead of soothe. They function as the pattern for Dr. Wolowelsky’s work.

For example, on the recital of Kaddish, and a mourner’s hope, he quotes the Rav:

When the mourner recites: “glorified and sanctified by the great name . . .,” he declares: no matter how powerful death is, notwithstanding the ugly end of man, however terrifying the grave is, however nonsensical and absurd everything appears. No matter how black one’s despair is and how nauseating an affair life is, we declare and profess publicly and solemnly that we are not giving up, that we are not surrendering, that we will carry on the work of our ancestors as though nothing has happened, that we will not be satisfied with less than the full realization of the ultimate goal—the establishment of God’s kingdom, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal life for man.

He then seamlessly extends these thoughts and stretches them further into current reality:

While Rabbi Soloveitchik’s analysis of Kaddish speaks to its philosophical importance in expressing defiance at death’s attempt to undermine man as a significant being, it does not explain the hold that saying Kaddish has on many, including countless people who do not understand the words they are saying, let alone their philosophical underpinnings.

Mourners require this genre of book to be centered on the agonizing human being as the starting point, instead of arranging it on the systematic, logical order of the Shulchan Aruch. Better to start with the anthropocentric and proceed to the theocentric, especially in the profound turmoil that paralyzes the mind of the sufferer.

Dr. Wolowelsky’s brief volume deals with the tangible condition of the mourner. We can hear the shriek, the torment, the confusion of a suffering mourner followed by an explanation of how halachah codifies this harsh sentiment. This has the advantage of revealing, in psychological terms, the true contortions of “the mind of the mourner.” This is an immensely more complex undertaking, but an effective way of understanding the machinery of grief.

The Loss of Intactness
In general, the halachah took note of subterranean emotions which subtly entrap a mourner’s mind and then utilized them as healing tools (of course, not in so many words) in a period when such audacious forward thinking in the secular world was still extraordinary.

Halachic writings are not self-help books or feel-good recipes. In writing on aveilut, halachic expression often remains normal, indeed, sinewy—even as it stands face-toface with the debility of those grieving deeply.

Here is one salient illustration: A prominent medical researcher suffered a stroke and lost the use of his voice. He could have lived on and even succeeded in his life’s goal but he had lost his sense of intactness. Without his own voice he was incapacitated. Life was not worth living. The loss of his voice was the loss of his existence; he would become somebody else.

Notice that this behavior did not make sense. The stroke would not have caused embarrassment or dishonor. It could befall anyone, randomly. Simply, what happened was that the blow to the intactness, by itself, transformed his self-image to the point that it was serious enough even to his explicitly accepting death.

A similar sense of loss could infect anyone who loses a lifelong mate, parent, or sibling. In reviewing a death in the family, a mourner is prone to examine the album of his family for reminiscences. “Mom is missing; she won’t ever be with us again.” “I miss her already; I can’t take it.” “Without her our family is shrinking.” “If my child was taken from me, am I still a mother?” “Without my husband, I am not me.”

A more observable result may be not in death, as above, but in losing a sense of the mourner’s direction. Without a derech, life could become severely dislocated and disoriented. Interestingly, such a phenomenon may explain a long-established minhag whereby the children of the deceased change their seats in shul for an entire year following the demise. The reshaping that distorts the mourner’s view could become a symbolic replay of his loss, and replace a mourner’s outlook with one from a new, unfamiliar angle. He is faced with a different montage of friends and family. There is something missing. The picture is not intact. “I’m out of place.”

Sheleimut Pegumah, Blemished Perfection
The loss of intactness is not a condition unfamiliar to the Jewish worldview. The Talmud likens the death of a friend to a stone arch, held together by a keystone, a central rock that enables the other rocks to lean upon one another. When a friend dies, it is akin to a keystone toppling, the whole structure collapsing in its wake. Their friends fear for their own lives.

The loss of intactness can cause a person to become vulnerable to collapsing when the keystone falls. He feels unhinged in ways that thoughtful people understand. In the case of the shattered family portrait, the survivor’s sheleimut may be shattered by the loss. “If he was taken, where does that leave me?” The stone arch is the most compelling graphic of the loss of intactness. What appeared strong and permanent as rock is unexpectedly beginning to crumble.

The term, “Blemished Perfection,” coined by Professor Yair Hoffman of the Bible Department of Tel Aviv University, is paradoxical, though not absurd. On the surface, the term seems to be based on an obvious contradiction: perfection is precisely that which is not blemished. The loss of intactness or sheleimut is an imperfection, but the Av HaRachamim allows the sheleimut to shine through. Our sheleimut will bounce back, and our ideals will ultimately bear no blemish.

Regrettably, I must use this term to characterize a common American Jewish malady. There are wonderful consolers, who with full hearts and perfect intention, are blemished by the sayings that are not only boringly common but sometimes hurtful, inconsiderate, thoughtless, capable of triggering agony, even hysteria. This is doubly true of those “perfect” consolers who give advice based on their personal stories. They do this with sincere motives but they are blemished. I often wondered why Chazal drew from the prophet Ezekiel the very best advice—keep quiet. It is, of course, the better part of wisdom to console with the eyes instead of the mouth.

Dr. Wolowelsky, unlike many writers, I am happy to say, did not overlook even this aspect of the halachah of aveilut. His interpretations are novel and thought-provoking, as is his entire book.

Rabbi Maurice Lamm is the author of The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (New York, 2000) and Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief (Philadelphia, 2004). He is president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice.



This article was featured in the Summer 2011 issue of Jewish Action.
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