When I was a university student, there was a professor who joined the Orthodox daily minyan (services) for a time in order to say Kaddish for a relative. He commented that he felt that Judaism “got it right” when it came to mourning rituals — that Jewish mourning practices were reassuring and comforting during that difficult time.
The professor wasn’t observant in general — he went to synagogue on occasion, but that’s all. But nonetheless he found the customs provided a framework for getting through his grief. His son (with whom I went to high school) has no Jewish attachment today, as far as I know, and more’s the pity.
That, however, is a pattern we see reproduced across Jewish America — the comfort in ritual only lasts for a generation or so. Practices must have meaning in order to have permanence.
And, indeed, it is not just the practice of Jewish mourning that is comforting. The entire Jewish belief system provides a framework of support. Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses” — and while it is easy to dismiss his comparison of religion to a drug, religious faith certainly alleviates pain in situations like mourning. I look at the reverse: operating under the athiest’s conception that there is no G-d and no afterlife makes a death that much more painful.
I’m looking at this, of course, through the loss of our nephew last week. He was eighteen. He was supposed to be beginning his life, not ending it. Without the knowledge that G-d only does good, and that there is a World to Come… I can hardly understand how people go on without that.
Meanwhile, please look at the comments from Aaron’s fellow students. Grief counseling is certainly warranted, but these young men seem to do a marvelous job counseling themselves and each other, simply by drawing upon the bedrock of strength that is provided by classical Jewish teachings on life and beyond. I am, frankly, awed by their words.