After Ariel died, several books were given to me by well meaning friends. These books, about Judaism and bereavement, are I was assured, deeply comforting and helpful. Over the past few months I have read some of these books, and put many down after just a few chapters. I'm sorry to say that I do not find them useful or comforting. In truth, I find them depressing in their reliance on New Age cliches.
Their main arguments seem to be that Judaism is "profoundly knowledgeable about human psychology." The learned men who write these books portray our sages as pipe smoking psychiatrists who just happened to put on tefillin. My wife Karen, the finest psychologist I know, has always held that the best psychologists are men and women who are able to genuinely empathize with their clients; psychologists who form deep bonds with their patients and are willing to discard any and all rigid schools of thought. In other words, the ability to listen and to care is paramount in successful therapy. Theories inevitably shudder and fracture under the weight of reality.
The authors of these Jewish self-help volumes proudly boast that our rituals of death and mourning are psychologically astute. This seems shallow praise to heap on a religion that brought monotheism to the earth. I care nothing for sophisticated psychology in this life of loss that I will never exit. The consolation I seek should and must transcend popular psychology. So I ask these learned and well intentioned writers: what happens if Judaism were not psychologically astute? Would that make it any less true? The answer is obvious. We are bound to Torah with love and duty and the chain of mesorah. In fact, the highest praise I could imagine for Judaism is not that we recognize its psychological integrity, but that we are able to see beyond it. Where a psychologist will see grief as the unresolved fear of abandonment, a Torah Jew will view grief as a necessary part of life, something to be confronted head-on, and struggled with, first among family and community and then inevitably alone. The Rav's Lonely Man of Faith is the paradigm that I turn to and find most heroic, and at the same time, realistic. I prefer Rebbeim who are Rebbeim, not Rebbeim who have turned into smooth talking pop psychologists.
As for the books, they sit on my shelves, comfortable beside the Whole Earth Catalog, The Big Book of Hula Hoops, and books about alternative medicine and holistic healing. I am alone with Karen, we are in a place only grieving parents inhabit; we are beyond self-help manuals, beyond ordinary words.
But your words have been extraordinary.
To all who read this blog, I thank you for your patience, and generosity. I am well aware that these pages are often difficult to reaqd, but for some reason you keep coming back. And your presence provides a measure of comfort. I feel that I have actually met you, even though I only know you in cyberspace. For this, Karen and I thank you. We wish you a Shana Tova Umituka.