Death as Estrangement

Mourning customs reflect the depersonalization and distance from God experienced by the mourner who has just confronted the death of a close relative.

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Excerpted with permission from Feldman's essay "Death as Estrangement: The Halakhah of Mourning," published in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

The mourning laws are a concrete manifestation of the Judaic view of death; namely, that death desacralizes man because it is the end of the dynamic interaction with God that can take place only in life. Death removes man from an intimate relationship with God; he can no longer serve Him, he can no longer perform the mitzvot [commandments], he no longer possesses the nishmat chayim, the breath of life, which is the dis­tinguishing characteristic of the human being.

Experience of Death Diminishes the Living

What of the surviving, living mourner, who alone among the living now knows what it is to experience the end of life and the termination of a meaningful relationship with God? In effect, the law asks the mourner to behave as if he himself were dead. He is now an incomplete person, and his daily life begins to reflect the fact of his incompleteness. His physical appear­ance and his body are neglected. His relationship with God is interrupted. He has no commonality or community with other men. The qualities and characteristics of a living human being are suspended.

According to the midrash, death is one of the aspects of human life which liken man to a beast. In death, man has witnessed the ultimate opposite of life, of God, and of man, and he cannot now summarily leave death behind him and return quickly and easily into the land of the living. He knows now what it is to be without the breath of the God of life, and he can return to normal life and to renewed contact with the sacred only by degrees.

In a word, the mourner must now live as an alien between the two worlds of life and death, moving imperceptibly from the defiled land of tumah [impurity] and death back toward sanctity and life.

A careful examination of the specifics of the mourning legislation indicates that the laws would have the mourner react and behave in a manner consistent with that death force which he has just experienced. He has been touched by the antilife, and therefore he himself becomes less lifelike, less complete as a being. His brush with death causes him, at least for the mo­ment, to lose his identity as a person and as a human. For just as death separates man from God, so it also separates man from the fraternity and community of other men, and sepa­rates man from his essential self, from his essence as a person.

In the face of death, man as a person, as an identity, as a being, as a living creature, as the image of God, ceases to exist. The rites of mourning are a physical expression of the essential facts of death. Thus the mourner, in his conduct, is devitalized, depersonalized, deidentified in his normal relationships and connections.

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Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, presently living in Jerusalem, is a distinguished rabbi, writer, and teacher. He led Atlanta's Congregation Beth Jacob for almost 40 years. He has served as Editor of Tradition magazine, and he has published six books, including The Shul Without a Clock, Tales Out of Shul, and On Judaism.