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A Culture of Endless Mourning

By Hamutal Bar-Yosef

Israel's preoccupation with grief is in stark contrast to Jewish tradition.


Bereavement and mourning play a powerful role in Israeli culture. We belong, after all, to a people with a long history of collective grief, one that casts its shadow over our lives even today. We know, as our memorial days remind us time and again, that it is our eternal duty to remember our dead and honor their memory. We must not forget what has happened to our people and what it has suffered. We have come to see this duty as a given, as an almost sacred responsibility whose purpose is self-explanatory. And for those who have lost loved ones in the Holocaust, in Israel’s wars, or in terrorist attacks, the duty to remember—and to mourn—seems even more obvious and unquestionable.
Each encounter with death is traumatic, a painful psychological blow which is not easily overcome. Even in the case of natural death, it is immensely difficult to reconcile oneself to the loss of a loved one and to continue leading a “normal” life. The trauma is, of course, far weightier and more devastating if a loss is the result of an unnatural death. Thus may Israelis be said to be in a state of perpetual grief: Television regularly broadcasts into our homes the anguished images of those who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks. National memorial ceremonies recall, and thus reinforce, the ongoing traumas experienced by Holocaust survivors and by the family members of soldiers who have fallen in Israel’s wars. Israeli authors, artists, and filmmakers have laid bare for us, in evocative ways, the nightmarish inner worlds of those haunted by death. And visits to the Nazi death camps, which have now become part of the standard curriculum of Israeli high schools, make the horrors of the Holocaust that much more real, if no more comprehensible. Clearly, the collective act of bereavement and mourning has become an integral and indispensable part of our national identity, just as the destruction of the Temple and centuries of antisemitic persecution play a critical role in our Jewish identity. What does this do to us as a people? And how does this affect us as a nation?
Undoubtedly it changes us. We relate to Holocaust survivors, for example, as though they were different people (an approach exemplified by the title of renowned Israeli author Yehudit Hendel’s 1950 book, They Are Different People),1 whose experience of profound suffering requires different treatment: More respect, more affection, more patience. Similarly do we treat parents who have lost children in Israel’s wars and, of late, bereaved siblings as well. Following an increased awareness of combat stress reaction, our former soldiers are treated as different people too, from whom less can be expected. Finally, we feel that the Jewish people’s experience of the Holocaust has made us a different nation and that one must visit Yad Vashem in order to understand us, our worldview, and our behavior. We expect other peoples to recognize and pay homage to our past sufferings and to judge us with them in mind.
These observations are in no way intended to underestimate the severity of the trauma suffered by Jews who have been through the Holocaust, or the crushing grief of those who have lost children or siblings in Israel’s wars. Nor are they meant as a criticism of the country’s practice of commemorating Holocaust victims or fallen soldiers by means of national memorial days, which indeed serve an important collective function. It is my firm belief that one cannot hope to understand Israel without first understanding the impact of the Holocaust as well as the price we have paid for our numerous wars of survival. Yet I also believe that Israeli culture demonstrates an unhealthy, even dangerous fixation on grief. Perhaps more troubling, Israeli culture has come to perceive mourning as a permanent state. Regrettably, this cultural approach to bereavement disregards, and even impedes, individual efforts to resume a normal life. Ironically, it is also at odds with the Jewish tradition, which emphasizes recovery from loss as the natural and ideal human condition.
 
To the bereaved, every death is traumatic, a seemingly unbearable experience that can trigger the most extreme of emotional responses. Along with grief, depression, and guilt, there is primarily a feeling of intense, almost physical pain, as if a vital organ has been removed. There is the difficulty of reconciling oneself to the loss, the urge to inflict harm upon oneself, even the wish to join the deceased. There is a feeling of indistinct yet passionate rage, at times directed toward oneself, and at times toward others. And in the case of an unnatural death, there is a desire for vengeance. Bereavement separates a person from the normal flow of life, making it difficult for him to function both emotionally and physically. One’s grief may even silence the will and the will power to live. It may effect a crisis of values by subverting prior distinctions between good and evil. It may, in extreme cases, result in a host of antisocial, even violent behaviors.
Yet despite its universal aspects, bereavement, like other human experiences, is deeply influenced by cultural settings. As such, different cultures demonstrate particular emotional and cognitive perceptions of death and the trauma of losing a loved one. Different cultures define their own modes of mourning, providing specific mechanisms for the relief of the negative and potentially destructive feelings to which grief can give rise. Ancient mourning customs attest to this, especially (although not exclusively) those that applied to women: The act of cutting off or burning one’s hair, smearing one’s face with mud, or maiming oneself (the Charrúa people of South America, for example, had a custom of chopping off a finger and casting it into a loved one’s grave) were all common practices in early cultures. In addition, both bereaved men and women abstained from eating, secluded themselves in their homes, or walked around naked, exposed to harsh weather. Some mourning customs express a refusal to accept the death of a loved one, such as embalming dead bodies, burying the dead with their belongings, preserving the remains of the dead, and maintaining and adorning the gravesite—not to mention the various legends of resurrection and the afterlife. These rituals are attempts by both individuals and entire societies to deceive themselves into believing that the deceased are still in some sense among the living and thus lessen the pain of their loss.
Biblical Judaism distanced itself from these rites, with their emphasis on suicidal rituals and the communion between living and dead. In stark opposition to the practices of the surrounding Canaanite culture, it forbade mourners from self-inflicted injury: “You are the children of the Lord your God: You shall not gash yourselves or make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For thou art a holy people to the Lord thy God, and the Lord has chosen thee to be a special possession to himself, out of all the nations that are upon the earth.”2 The justification given for this prohibition, along with that of other general prohibitions against self-inflicted injury, is that the living person is sacred, for he was created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image.3 Judaism sanctifies life and not death, which it views as impure. This is an idea that has distinguished it from other religions throughout history.
This is not to say that the Bible is indifferent to bereavement. On the contrary, the authors of the biblical stories knew well how difficult it is for even the greatest of men to reconcile themselves to the death of a loved one. King David, for example, upon hearing of Absalom’s death, breaks down publicly, crying out, “O Absalom, my son, my son!”—in spite of the fact that Absalom was his own bitter enemy. Nevertheless, the biblical narrator places wise if piercing words in the mouth of David’s adviser Joab,
Thou hast shamed this day the faces of all thy servants, who this day have saved thy life, and the lives of thy sons and of thy daughters, and the lives of thy wives, and the lives of thy concubines; in that thou lovest thy enemies, and hatest thy friends. For thou hast declared this day, that thou regardest neither princes nor servants: for this day I perceive, that if Absalom had lived, and all we had died this day, then it had pleased thee well. Now therefore arise, go out, and speak comfortably to thy servants.4
Joab demands that David cease his self-destructive behavior, and David does so. In yet another biblical narrative, David demonstrates his remarkable strength of character by accepting the death of another beloved son to illness. Thinking that self-denial might contribute to his son’s recovery, David practices the mourning customs for the seven days preceding his son’s death. And yet, after the death itself, he ceases to mourn. David explains his behavior to his bewildered servants in the following astounding words: “While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept; for I said: Who can tell? God may be gracious to me, and the child may live. But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not come back to me.”5


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