From a psychological perspective, loss is one of the most common dynamics in human life — everyone experiences it — but psychologists are at a loss to define it. We can easily describe loss — the feeling of emptiness when something dear to us is taken away. And mourning, an important mechanism, is the process by which we try to overcome the feelings of loss.
Well known are the psychological stages of mourning: shock; denial; confrontation with the reality of the loss; the range of feelings — anger, helplessness, depression, grief; and finally, a search for meaning: how do we transform these feelings into constructive behavior? Loss and the mourning process each has its own discrete history, place, and function in Jewish tradition.
Journal Watcher counterintuitively begins this month’s historical survey of loss and mourning not with the Hebrew Bible — the Tanach — but with the near past: the destruction of European Jewry, with an unusual approach to mourning that emerged from the encounter of survivors with descendants of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Quinnipiac University’s Kathy Livingston explores this phenomenon (“Opportunities for Mourning when Grief is Disenfranchised: Descendants of Nazi Perpetrators in Dialogue with Holocaust Survivors,” Omega, 2010), and examines the experience of the cross-generational dialogue between these two groups of “mourners.” In her approach to understanding the “inheritance” by children of their parents’ actions, Livingston describes how un-mourned grief is passed down from generation to generation in families that keep secrets — as did many survivor families, and many families of Nazis as well — and avoid mourning the deaths of family members. This we know, well. What is revelatory for Livingston is that dialogue between Holocaust survivors and the children of Nazis enables grief, on both sides, to be mourned and resolved: “Future generations do not have to inherit the painful legacies from past generations.”
Moving back several millennia to biblical times, Journal Watcher registers the fact that deep loss and mourning sound a trope in a number of books of the Tanach. In “Mourning and Loss and the Life Cycle in the Book of Ruth” (European Judaism, Autumn 2007) psychotherapist Ora Dresner uses as a case study the twin narratives of Ruth and of Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi. Dresner suggests that Naomi is ambivalent in her love of Ruth and of Ruth’s late husband — nowhere does Naomi directly refer to her dead son, and she does not want Ruth to accompany her back to Israel.
But it is this ambivalence that is part of Naomi’s managing of her loss; the book tells us that distorted reality is often part of the reaction to traumatic loss. Naomi is simply unable to be in touch with her own extreme pain and with the pain of her daughter-in-law. Among the many lessons taught by the Book of Ruth is that we cannot grieve properly until we are able to be in touch with such pain. Naomi does go through the stages of grief — her anger is expressed in “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara (Hebrew for “bitter”)”; ultimately her (and Ruth’s) search for meaning comes out in the developing of new relationships, the episodes with the kinsman Boaz. The book ends with Naomi, a grandmother, the mother of a chain that leads to none other than David.
Following biblical patterns, Journal Watcher notes as well a smart article by Hunter College’s Yitzhak Berger. “On Patterning in the Book of Samuel: ‘News of Death’ and the Kingship of David” (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 2011), looks not at death itself but at the impact of getting the bad news — or sometimes the good news — of death. The narrative of the Book of Samuel, in which Israel’s leaders, especially David, are portrayed warts and all, sounds a recurring trope in which a central figure receives news of death. The news of the deaths of Eli’s sons, of Saul and of Jonathan all are precursors to David’s problematic reaction to the death of Batsheva’s husband Uriah (whom David had killed) — the death does not matter a tinker’s damn to David. David’s lack of response to this news marks a pivotal change in his attitude, “a change that threatens the continuity of the royal line and suggests that it might suffer the same fate as the ruling families of Eli and Saul.” But the sharp reversal of this attitude, underscored by David’s selfless reaction to the death of Batsheva’s infant son and, later, his reaction to the news of the death of his beloved son Absalom (“O Absalom, my son, my son!”), play off the earlier instances of the motif, and highlight the uncertainty and anguish that plague David in the aftermath of the Bathsheba affair, and symbolize David’s growing maturity as a leader. The chastened King David is reinstated, and the royal family of Israel is restored to its place.
Bringing the biblical narratives up to date — literally to up-to-date Israel — Ben Gurion University’s Hamutal Bar-Yosef tracks (“A Culture of Endless Mourning,” Azure, Summer 2008) how bereavement and mourning play a powerful role in Israeli culture, mirroring, to be sure, the society itself. Moving seamlessly from the Tanach though the Zionist struggle to present-day Israel, Bar-Yosef develops a paradigm of a history of loss, which leaves deep psychological wounds, “the traces of which cannot be expunged … The act of mourning is a continuous post-traumatic condition.” While Bar-Yosef’s mastery of literary sources is impressive, and her psychological analysis is spot-on, Journal Watcher gets the sense that the author is yet mired in a “lachrymose theory” of Jewish history that is a history, replete with “endless mourning,” to be sure; but it is a history of endless achievement as well.
Finally, literary critic Sara Horowitz of Toronto’s York University offers up “Kaddish — The Final Frontier” (Studies in American Jewish Literature, 2010), in which Horowitz muses on the motif of the Kaddish as depicted in American Jewish literature and popular culture. Kaddish in Jewish literature mirrors its function in Jewish life, avers Horowitz: the eponymous “final frontier” is the “ultimate and irreducible link with Jewishness.” As a prayer for the dead, Kaddish’s redemptive thrust is, for many Jews, drowned in a sea of incomprehensible foreign syllables — it’s not even in Hebrew, but in Aramaic, no less! But Horowitz teaches us that the readers of Jewish literature “become the responsive congregation to the writer’s Kaddish, thereby continuing Jewish community.” With Kaddish, the circle is complete: anger, depression, grief — ultimately, the search for meaning.
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and organizations. Forthcoming is “The Future of American Judaism,” a volume in the “Future of American Religion” series (Trinity/Columbia University Press).