Among the Mourners of Zion

By Micah Stein
Wednesday, April 11, 2012

We are a nation of mourners this month, collectively observing the Jewish rituals of grief in memory of . . . well, something or other.  The occasion for mourning is the Omer, which began on Saturday night; the reason for mourning is more mysterious.  Though the custom traces back to talmudic times, no one seems quite sure what, exactly, we are mourning—or why. In its obscurity, this practice challenges our basic conceptions of history and tragedy and raises some important questions: What does it mean to mourn the past?  And is such mourning possible?

The Omer itself is benign.  As described in Leviticus 23, it involves a pair of grain offerings (one barley, one wheat) separated by a 49-day count, spanning the period between Passover and Shavuot. Today, the offerings have gone but the counting remains. Mourning is the main focus now, and we don't hold back: no shaving, haircuts, live music, or wedding celebrations.  New clothing and movies are frowned upon.  As for recorded music, please consult your local rabbi.

The grief is commonly associated with Rabbi Akiva, who lost 24,000 students to a deadly plague during the Omer period.  The Talmud attributes the plague to spiritual infirmity—"They died because they did not treat one another with respect"—but makes no reference to a communal mourning in their memory.  Rabbis and academics have also suggested alternative sources for the practice.  Julius Landsberger, a 19th-century scholar, argued that the mourning has pagan roots: The Omer typically coincided with the Roman Festival of the Dead, Lemuria, an unlucky time for weddings and celebrations; in Landsberger's view, the superstition carried over, modified, to Jewish practice.  Earlier, David Abudraham, a 14th-century Spanish rabbi, claimed that the mourning reflects seasonal agricultural anxiety, as this period marks "the days of judgment of the grain."

Mourning during the Omer has also been reinterpreted to encompass later tragedies.  Sefer Minhag Tov, a 13th-century book of Italian-Jewish customs, says we mourn the victims of the First Crusade, in 1096.  Rabbi Jacob Emden connected the mourning to the 1648 Chelminiski massacre.  In 2007, the Conservative movement added the Holocaust to the list of catastrophes to be mourned during the Omer.

Jewish history has no shortage of tragedies, but the choice of "mourning" as the manner of commemoration is curious.  Are these mourning rituals meant to conjure up feelings of grief, or are they merely symbolic?  What does it mean to mourn the ancient past?

Joseph B. Soloveitchik addresses these questions in his lectures and writings on Tisha b'Av, another annual period of national Jewish mourning, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple.  He distinguishes between the emotional experience of "new mourning," as for a just-deceased relative, and "ancient mourning" for a long-ago national tragedy.  In mourning a relative, he observes, Jewish law codifies a natural emotion, grief, into representative actions like tearing clothes.  When we mourn the past, the process is reversed: The actions associated with mourning are used to induce a sense of grief.  We mourn so that we may grieve.

The notion that actions can generate emotions is not farfetched.  In a groundbreaking 1884 essay titled "What is an Emotion?" William James challenged the then-standard view of emotion by arguing that emotions are the result of actions, not the other way around.  "Common sense says," he wrote, "we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike."  But "the more rational statement," he said, "is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble."  In other words, we act first and feel later.  In this view, which became known as the James-Lange theory of emotion, mourning can precede—and, indeed, cause—genuine grief.

But something feels off about the James-Lange theory.  For starters, recent psychological research has discredited its action-emotion causal chain in most normal situations.  Moreover, it flies in the face of our own emotional experiences: That bear does frighten us, thank you very much.  Besides, whether or not the theory works, the use of emotion as a religious tool feels unnatural, bordering on manipulative.

This year I found the practice particularly upsetting.  What changed?  Well, everything: My dad died on January 31, rendering me a "new mourner" in this Omer season of "old mourning."  It was unexpected and awful, an alternately surreal and horrifying experience.  It was also, of necessity, a religious one: From the moment of my father's death, I was occupied with the countless Jewish laws associated with mourning.  I rent my garment and removed my leather shoes.  I declared, with a mixture of disbelief and numbness, "Blessed is the true Judge."  My hair grew long, my beard untrimmed.  I sat on a low chair for seven days, accepting condolences and consolation from friends, family, and strangers.  I recited the burial kaddish, the mourner's kaddish, and the Rabbis' kaddish (over and over and over . . . ).  I studied Mishnah.  I ate bagels.

In sum, I followed the Jewish laws of mourning, fulfilling a religious duty and, more important, expressing my bottomless respect for my father's memory.

Yet not all the rituals were particularly helpful.  Praising God at the funeral seemed a little tasteless, if not cruel, like the governor offering condolences after an execution—or asking for a campaign contribution.  And, to be honest, I could have done with a little less shivah.  But saying kaddish gave structure to the otherwise amorphous days, and the sheer volume of visitors was genuinely uplifting and comforting.

I learned from the harrowing ordeal that the emotional experience of mourning cannot be induced or reproduced with any measure of sincerity.  To pretend otherwise—to call what we do during the Omer "mourning"—trivializes mourning's sacred rituals and sabotages our attempts to commemorate the past properly.  I don't mean to suggest that we should do nothing to memorialize the Temple, Rabbi Akiva's students, the Crusades, or the Holocaust.  To the contrary, recalling our national tragedies is a profoundly important endeavor, one that has sustained Jewish survival and shaped Jewish identity.  But I think that it can, and must, be accomplished in other ways.  To use the template of mourning as the basis of our encounters with the past is an emotionally impossible endeavor.  We must learn from the past; we cannot truly mourn it.

Micah Stein is a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.

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