The Mind of the Mourner: Individual and Community in Jewish Mourning
By Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky / OU Press
The cycle of life inevitably includes death. Births, weddings, and other celebrations are only one side of our experiences as we make our ways through life. Mourning is universal, and all Jews need to know how to do so in the Jewish way. Thankfully, there are numerous manuals that explain the laws of mourning. Today we are blessed with an ever-expanding literature about the details of halachah that guide us in our daily and seasonal practices. Every law, every case, every divergence of opinion has been researched, catalogued and extensively footnoted. However, this abundance of resources comes at a risk–the danger of getting lost in the details.
Judaism is a religion in which regulations steer emotions. A person’s spiritual and psychological reactions to community, seasons and lifecycle events are channeled through halachah. To truly understand Judaism, we have to take a step back from all the legal details and look at the mosaic of Jewish life. We have to see not just the rules but also the impact they have on those who observe them.
Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky does just that in his new book, The Mind of the Mourner: Individual and Community in Jewish Mourning. Based on the teachings and writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the book explores the philosophical underpinnings of the halachot of mourning and the psychological impact those laws have on the mourners. Why do we do what we do? What do the rules mean, when taken together as an entity rather than individual requirements?
Shivah, the week of home-bound consolation, is an essential part of the mourning process. It is a time when the community supports the individual, when the mourner is prevented by the community from falling into lonely despair. One mourns as part of a larger group, not alone. The comforters provide a structure of support for the grieving mourner. Even the end of shivah is a communal act–it ends when the comforters leave on the final morning.
Mourners want to be left alone. They wish to retreat into themselves and their sorrow. But Judaism does not allow them to do that and lose the comfort of being part of a community. It does, however, recognize that need in a different way. Comforters visiting a mourner may not speak until addressed by him. The mourner is allowed to sit in silence, lost in his sad thoughts, but still aware that a community has come to support him in his time of sorrow. Dr. Wolowelsky has found depth and insight in the laws of mourning. He has discovered consistent meaning in the ritual, ways in which Judaism supports people in their time of need and repairs the injured soul. This book will offer great comfort to those suffering a loss and great insight to students learning about the rituals of Jewish life.
Toras HoRav Books
MeOtzar HaRav / Ktav
In 1993, the Jewish world lost a guiding star with the passing of “The Rav,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. While he is gone from this world, his teachings continue to lead us through the industrious efforts of his students. The Toras HoRav Foundation, under the guidance of the Rav’s two daughters, Dr. Atarah Twersky and Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, and the editorial direction of Rabbi Dr. David Shatz, Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky and Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, has published ten English volumes of essays, edited and adapted from the Rav’s handwritten manuscripts and recorded lectures.
Most recently, the Foundation published an English translation of one of the Rav’s most important philosophical works, And From There You Shall Seek (U-Vikkashtem mi- Sham), a brilliant philosophical analysis of religious consciousness and the religious experience. Prior to that, the Toras HoRav Foundation published Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch. This book examines the story of the first Jew, whose experiences and actions foreshadow critical patterns in Jewish history. These, and other volumes of the Rav’s teachings, have made his profound insights into the meaning of Judaism available to a wide-ranging audience.
The Mesorah Commission of the Orthodox Union, led by Rabbi Menachem Genack and Julius Berman, is also committed to preserving the Rav’s teachings in writing. Since 1989, the Mesorah Commission has published twenty-four issues of the Mesorah Journal. Each issue contains numerous Talmudic insights adapted from students’ notes of the Rav’s classes. This widely acclaimed journal has preserved and disseminated many of the Rav’s “Brisker” chiddushim or conceptual insights. The Mesorah Commission has also published four volumes of Shiurei HaRav, each of which present synopses of the Rav’s lectures on Talmudic themes. One volume addresses Tishah B’Av and mourning, another Mishnayot Challah, and a third, kashrut issues in Yoreh Deah. The most recent volume addresses topics in the first three chapters of Gittin. A new volume on Berachot is in production.
The written word fails to convey the charisma of such a talented speaker as the Rav. It does, however, express his ideas and allow a new generation to discover his brilliance. Toras HoRav and Shiurei HaRav books are available at discounted prices at www.OUPress.org. Past issues of the Mesorah Journal are available for free download at www.ou.org/kosher/mesorah.htm.