Some Responses to Suffering in Silence
This is the third of four installments in a series of blogs dealing with “Appropriate Ways to Mourn” and, in particular, the role of silence as a response to the death of a loved one or to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. The first blog in the series, which used the title above, offered an introductory exegesis of the many ways Jewish thinkers dealt with the depiction in Leviticus (10:1-3) of the High Priest Aaron’s loss of his two eldest sons at the hands of God when they failed to fulfill the ritual of a specific sacrifice in the exact manner instructed by God.
The second blog in the series was called, “The Silence of Smell” and it dealt with the ways in which silence was and remains an appropriate and/or inappropriate way to respond to mass atrocities, specifically to the Holocaust, for last evening, the memorial to those who were lost or responded with heroism to that specific genocide commenced. Today, Yom HaShoah ends. And it was the immanence of that day of remembrance that gave rise to the selection of the three verses of Leviticus for our Torah study group. However, as I wrote, the almost unanimous response of the members of that group was not about the response to a catastrophic collective loss, but the role of silence in response to personal loss or to a mourner who lost a loved one. The latter is the topic for today.
In response to the first blog, a reader wrote:
I’m struck by the “held his peace” phrase (assuming that is a reasonably adequate translation of the Hebrew which is beyond me to tell)…the phrase is equated with “held his tongue” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. To my mind, it implies internal conflict and the need to restrain a verbal outburst against an outrageous power play by God. Not inner bliss and not deadness, but a shrewd political reckoning that, in the face of overwhelming abusive power, one best bide one’s time until it is safe to mourn expressively.
I agree to some degree. The rabbis who explain the silence as the correct response of an obedient servant of God in various ways are often apologists for an outrageous action. Those who see the response as a reflection of a soul that has died offer a window of light. Those who justify Aaron’s response as a way of expressing outrage at what just happened come closer, but the moral categories are inadequate. I am convinced that Aaron was conflicted, as my reader wrote, but the matter is more complicated than suggested. The need to restrain a verbal outburst against an outrageous power play by God as a pragmatic response to an overwhelmingly powerful figure – hold your tongue and bide your time – is certainly one possible way of assessing Aaron’s response. In the face of overwhelming abusive power, silence can be a way to “best bide one’s time until it is safe to mourn expressively.”
However, I think the matter is more complicated. Aaron’s silence not only likely reflected his own conflicted response to God’s outrageous and utterly disproportionate response, but it was likely a sign of a deeper and inner conflict between his utter trust in God and his inner emotional rage. It was not simply a practical and tactical move. Aaron was struck silent. He did not know how to respond otherwise. This was reinforced when his younger brother, Moses, the leader of the Jewish people who had led the Israelites into the wilderness of Sinai in the escape from Egypt, reminded him that the only response to God that was appropriate was sanctification and glorification. Moses was endorsing God as a super Kim Jong-un. “Suffer in silence,” was Moses’ message. Hence, the possible account for Aaron’s outward silence indicating his inner rage in contention with his faith in both God and his brother’s leadership.
Silence did not represent simply a tactical retreat nor the limits of language in response to a terrible catastrophe. More importantly, the issue was not the “appropriate” way to respond to a great personal loss.
Another reader wrote, “I think there is none. This I say, fully aware of the fact that there are countless rituals, traditions, and general societal and cultural expectations as to how to mourn ‘appropriately.’ But these again, are the expectations of others, rather than what honestly works or does not work for a given individual in such a vulnerable situation. If a mourning individual finds true solace in going through the prescribed steps, then they should of course do so: it may help avoiding the raw and painful feelings to focus instead on the proper behavior (somewhat akin to switching to automatic gear – not having to focus on the feeling of loss).”
The reader went on: “if someone can cope better by letting his/her pain/denial/anger/shock free reign (or alternatively, remain silent about it) and does not do the ‘proper’ things, that is also OK and a truly compassionate environment should not judge them for not going through the ‘correct’ steps. Loss is an absolutely private emotion and not a show for the dearly gathered. One should be able to react to it as one truly, authentically feels like. Having to pretend certain behaviors that one cannot identify with just to please an audience is phony, and during such extremely stressful times one should not be burdened with added expectations re: proper etiquette.”
Though I agree fully that the issue posed at the beginning of the study session – whether silence was the ‘appropriate’ response to what befell Aaron – was misleading in clearly implying that one can “legislate” or “prescribe” a general ethical, normative or even rule of etiquette as a response of a mourner or a sympathizer with a mourner, the problems I found with this reaction are as follows:
- The discussion of whether a response is appropriate or inappropriate is not just a matter of imposing social expectations on a mourner;
- Further, mourning is not just a private matter, but an expression of social values and priorities so that the criterion of a utilitarian calculus of whether silence “works” for the individual is inadequate; the category of utility is itself a contemporary dominant trope, for assessing any action; there is no more an absolute atemporal assessment of what honestly works than there is a moral assessment in terms of a divine imperative;
- Prescribed rituals in dealing with death are not just convenient or useful tools to allow an individual to find true solace, for that just begs the question of what true solace is; if the steps help you in the mourning process, use them; if not, discard them. This individualistic utilitarian calculus is as much a moral imposition as whether an activity pleases God or fails to do so.
The first reader I cited offered a psychological explanation of Aaron’s silence as an appropriate and calculated response to a threatening and oppressive situation. The second reader cited reversed priorities and offered individual utility as a measure to determine what is psychologically appropriate and, thereby, dismissed the relevance of social guidelines other than as helpful personal hints. People ought to be allowed to do their own thing, respond to death in the way they “feel” best. On the other hand, my second reader opened the door to allow for the introduction though not imposition of social norms. “There is a fine and fragile balance between feeling free as an individual and being considerate to the feelings of others. This must be a two-way street, rather than an individual completely dissolving his/her own face, needs, and reactions and fully merge with the community.” However, in the end, the criterion remained individual utility.
A third reader eschewed any attempt to offer a universal guideline to what is or is not appropriate while finding some utility in Jewish ritualistic practices, even though he is not Jewish. “A good friend of mine is losing his battle with cancer. He is dying but he is not dead. I am supposed to be light and constructively positive during his dying time but, instead, I am grieving. I am sad and angry at what feels like injustice. Because he is still alive, I do not cry. When he dies, I can openly mourn and show grief but, as a modern white male, I am unlikely to cry even then. As a modern white male without traditions or real culture, I will simply carry on. No shiva. No candles. No prayers-in-groups. I may say a few words at his funeral and then eat some bad food that he posthumously pays for. It’s not right. I know that. But I have attended every kind of death ritual and none of them seem right. Judaism seems closest, but still not right. Maybe not feeling right is the right feeling?”
This is a backhanded way of endorsing silence as an appropriate normative response, but with even more disquiet than my first responder offered as an explanation for Aaron’s plight. Tomorrow, in my final installment in this series on silence as a response to catastrophic death of a loved one, I will write on, “My Silences in Response to Personal Loss.” It will carry forth the general theme that also embraced many of those in my Torah study group of rejecting even the search of a normative guide to defining appropriate behaviour to personal loss. It will also suggest the implication of all three selected responders cited above – and others, for discussions of appropriate ways of dealing with death seems to stir up a cauldron of feelings and responses – that the assessment of the appropriateness of a response depends first and foremost on understanding the person who died, the person mourning and the context. A search for general guidelines for appropriateness is a chimera.
However, a search for defining guidelines that determine which reactions are socially inappropriate and personally inadequate is not a quixotic effort. It is an exercise in knowing oneself and attempting to understand one’s society. Whether one deals with chivalry as an appropriate or inappropriate response to challenges one encounters or with silence in response to death of a loved one, the examination is critical in understanding oneself, comprehending one’s society and, thereby, defining when and why silence is inadequate and inappropriate while leaving open the question of what behaviour is appropriate or adequate.
One final word. The responses to the first installment of this series, and the original discussion that gave rise to it, indicate how close and important the issue of mourning is to everyone. Silence is one such response. In tomorrow’s blog, I will explore why I found silence to be both personally inadequate and socially inappropriate to personal loss.
With the help of Alex Zisman