August 12, 2004
How to Approach a Grieving Jew
"Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief" by Rabbi Maurice Lamm (Jewish Publication Society, $30).
Grief erases all regular rules. All the logic that has ever seemed to govern one's life suddenly seems useless. More than useless, it seems pointless. In death, we are all brought down to the same physical level. In grief, all rules are shaken to the core. Individual, groups, even whole societies can exist in states of suspended animation, for in struggling with the implications of death, they cannot participate in the daily activity of living.
In a religious context, that very suspension is a double-edged sword. Religion must be based on a system of logic. Without it, no belief or ritual would make any sense. So what is a religion like Judaism, with its long history of legal logic, to do with mourning? How is Judaism to cope with the mourner, who is living the paradox of grief: showing the rest of us exactly how crucial the laws that govern every moment and gesture can be to maintaining order and meaning in life, but also making us face the question of whether those rules really mean anything at all.
In 1969, Rabbi Maurice Lamm published "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning," which became a staple for those trying to cope with the death of a loved one, and served as the template for the hundreds of books dealing with grief in a Jewish context that have been written since. Now, 35 years later, he has returned to the subject in "Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief."
An Orthodox rabbi, Lamm lives and writes in a world that values halacha, or Jewish law, as the proper way to deal with all aspects of life, both good and bad. Yet grief is the one example of a time and state that defies law. We can see in his treatment of the topic of mourning the ways in which Judaism itself has tried to reconcile the difficulty of grief.
Lamm goes into great detail about the practice of "sitting shiva," the seven-day period of enforced mourning that traditional Jews have long followed. During that week, members of the community visit those who have experienced a death. He goes into great detail about the particulars that govern even the experience of shiva: The mourner is to sit low to the ground so that he or she is closer to the earth and thus to death; the mourner doesn't wash his or her hair and wears a piece of clothing that has deliberately been torn. Visitors, too, are given instruction about how to interact with those whom they visit. They may not allow the person to isolate himself in his sorrow, but by the same token may not greet the mourner directly.
All these rules to regulate what is ultimately ungovernable. Even this has been written into Judaism's understanding of the grief process. Before shiva even begins, the mourner exists in a netherworld, not subject to the regular rules. For a day or two, the mourner exists outside the legal system. He or she lives out the fact that death cancels all logic, that law is powerless in the face of death.
What Lamm never seems to confront is that in laying out how the mourner is to travel from that netherworld to full participation in life, Judaism finds a way to re-exert its own logic onto the moment of greatest grief. In the progress from the first shock of death to the re-entry into the community one week later, the mourner is brought back from the place where law has no meaning to the world in which law reigns supreme. In fact, traditional Jewish thoughts about grief and the practices that it has devised, never really do let go of the logic of law.
The result, for "Consolation," is that Lamm is on surest ground when he sticks to the formalities of grief -- not just the laws of interaction with a mourner, but even in the suggestions he gives about how to deal with someone in that delicate state.
In fact, Lamm shows sensitivity to the turbulent emotions of any mourner in his approach toward those who would wish to give consolation. The book stresses patience. It offers detailed advice about how to avoid the most dreaded of all situations: saying the wrong thing to a person sitting shiva. He even encourages those visiting to endure some discomfort if it will alleviate some of the mourner's anguish.
To his credit, Lamm anticipates the existential questioning that comes up during a period of grief, but his book is less successful when it tries to engage those questions on their own, precisely because the law is never too far out of sight. One cannot attempt to answer the spiritual dilemmas that death inevitably brings up if one is unwilling to also suspend all logic, if only for a brief moment, and Lamm simply cannot do that. His worldview is too caught up in the reassertion of the law, and not open enough to its seeming irrelevance in the light of grief's suffering.
For all that, Lamm has written an important book, a book that offers something to grab onto at a time when the bottom seems to have dropped out, when nothing makes sense and we yearn for the assurance that there is meaning, that the existential questions do have answers. Sometimes, rules can be the greatest consolation of all.
Lamm will be speaking Aug. 31 from noon-2 p.m. at the University of Judaism. For more information, call (800) 757-4242.