The Psychological Benefits of the Traditional Jewish Mourning Rituals: Have the Changes Instituted by the Progressive Movement Enhanced or Diminished Them?

Article excerpt


This paper describes the traditional Jewish laws and customs of mourning, translates and evaluates their psychological benefit and contribution to recovery from bereavement. It further investigates the influence of Progressive Judaism where its approach differs to that of traditional practice: does this enhance or diminish the psychological value of Jewish mourning rituals?

The distinction between law and custom is often blurred, particularly in relation to death, a subject steeped in superstition and fear. Although the Jewish relationship with death is intrinsically realistic, superstition, and sometimes intuitive wisdom, rather than rational thought, appear to be the motive for certain practices. Suffice it to say that whatever facilitates the mourning process, moving it from suffering and consuming to that which is bearable, is relevant, be it law or custom, rational or superstitious, individual or community based.

I do not source, evaluate, rationalise or interpret any of the Jewish mourning rituals. I relate them to the equivalent sequence of mourning and grief response, and establish their psychological qualities. (1) Bereavement is a transition period during which it is necessary to experience loss in practical terms, express it in emotional terms, integrate it and adapt to it in order to recover sufficiently to continue with hope and a sense of future. 'Grief is a process not a state'. (2)

Orientation of the Essay

This essay provides a brief outline of the stages of mourning described by psychologists, namely, numbness; pining; disorganisation and despair; and recovery.

These stages will be equated to the traditional Jewish mourning rituals of aninut; avelut; shiv'ah; shloshim; and the remainder of the mourning year. There is obviously overlap between the stages, but they do, in essence, reflect the different periods of ritual. While the discussion will focus on the traditional rituals, comments will be made on the particular manner in which the philosophy of the Progressive Movement contributes to each stage.

In conclusion, the essay will attempt to address the question which considers if the changes instituted by the Progressive Movement have enhanced or diminished the psychological benefits of the traditional Jewish mourning rituals.

The Mourning Process: A Psychological Analysis

In his paper, 'Mourning and Melancholia' (1917) Freud referred to 'grief work'. This describes the process of integrating the changes brought about by bereavement, a process that requires physical and emotional energy. A major change such as bereavement cannot be fully realised at once, and a mourning period is required. This period comprises a process of realisation during which the bereaved moves from denial towards acceptance of the true situation.

Although different writers delineate various psychological stages associated with loss and mourning, the ones selected for discussion are 'numbness', the first stage, which is the natural reaction to stress. It is followed by 'pining', then 'disorganisation and despair' and finally 'recovery'. Each stage has its own characteristics, and each individual has his or her own pattern.

Feelings of guilt, self-reproach, anger, sadness, ambivalence, relief, fear and anxiety come and go and will continue to do so with differing intensity for many months to come. These feeling are natural symptoms of grief-work.

According to Parkes, the most characteristic feature of grief is not prolonged depression but 'acute and episodic pangs of severe anxiety and psychological pain'. (3) Problems arise when the bereaved gets fixated in one of the phases of grief-work. It is psychologically and emotionally healthy to move through each phase into integration, adaptation and recovery. Recovery does not equal cure; rather recovery is the integration of and adaptation to the changes caused by the bereavement, (for example, change in status, from "wife' to 'widow', 'we' to 'I'). …