Some Responses to Suffering in Silence

 

 

Some Responses to Suffering in Silence

by

Howard Adelman

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

The Silence of Smell

The Silence of Smell

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday I began to probe the question about an appropriate or the appropriate way to deal with the loss of a loved one or with a mourner who suffered such a loss. In particular, I was concerned with silence as a response, a focus stimulated by my Torah study group that zeroed in on Aaron’s silence in the face of God’s murder of his two eldest sons for their error in using incense and lighting the fire in the holy of holies. Though the link to this passage was provided by Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance that begins this evening, almost everyone in that study session focused on the issue of individual responses to death rather than to a historic and unprecedented community loss.

Perhaps that is because the answer is simple in the latter case. A common trope in Holocaust literature is the inability of language or any individual emotional response to deal with the enormity and incomparibility of the disaster. In the face of the Holocaust, silence may possibly be the only appropriate response. This is true to Jewish religious tradition. In Lamentations 2:13, in the face of the destruction of the Temple, the Israelite asks, “what can I liken you, oh fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you, oh fair maiden of Zion?” When disaster is overwhelming, when there is no pain like it, no response, not even silence, seems appropriate.

However, in reality, silence may not simply be inadequate. It may be wrong. It may be an inappropriate response. To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th of January, Donald Trump issued a statement that did not mention the Jewish people. Admittedly, this is not exactly comparable, for it is the response of a sympathizer rather than the mourner. Further, it was not as if the White House remained silent. It issued a response that simply omitted any mention of Jews. It then doubled down on its error by attempting to explain in terms of an effort at inclusiveness for there were many other victims of the Nazi murder machine than Jews – Roma, homosexuals, liberals, trade union leaders, the victims of the Nazi euthanasia program of the disabled. The collective furor from the Jewish community, however, was understandable.

But they might have been thankful for small favours. Trump did not engage in an even more inappropriate response by shifting the focus to America’s sacrifices in the conquest of Nazi Germany. If silence becomes an excuse for ignoring the specificity of suffering, recollecting one’s countries positive efforts is surely an inappropriate response.

Contrary to my belief that Donald Trump never seems to learn from his daily errors, this time the White House responded very differently to Yom HaShoah. Trump sent out a video tape in which he said the following:

“On Yom HaShoah we look back at the darkest chapter of human history. We mourn, we remember, we pray, and we pledge: Never again. I say it, never again. The mind cannot fathom the pain, the horror and the loss. Six million Jews, two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, murdered by the Nazi genocide. They were murdered by an evil that words cannot describe and that the human heart cannot bear. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we tell the stories of the fathers, mothers and children, whose lives were extinguished and whose love was torn from this earth. We also tell the stories of courage in the face of death, humanity in the face of barbarity, and the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people.”

While the sentiments expressed were now appropriate, Trump still erred, this time by commission rather than omission, by going on to repeat another myth, one most frequently perpetrated by Jews themselves. The birth of Israel was a response to the Holocaust and testimony to Jewish perseverance. The latter may be true, but Israel would have come into existence without the Holocaust. There is no evidence that the passage of the UN motion on partition took place because of worldwide guilt over the Holocaust. Silence in the face of the Holocaust was the usual response at the time and is now generally perceived as “inappropriate.”

Further, an outpouring of grief is the usual response of young people when they come face to face with the Holocaust. In response to yesterday’s blog, a reader described a documentary I have never seen about Israeli youth visiting the crematoria and internment camps in Poland. Each young person is given the name of a specific victim and asked to research their lives, their history. The effort is painful. The youth do the work and cry and wail. They are not silent.

What a contrast with the depiction of visitors by Alex Cocotas in his article in Tablet entitled, “BLOW UP THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE.” The memorial is located in Berlin’s central government district near the Brandenburg Gate. If a visitor is not cavorting among the 2,711 stelae, he or she is bewildered and struck silent, not by the enormity of the deed, but by the disorientation of the maze that results. Quiet contemplation, as he has observed, is rare. Play and selfie photos are the norm. As he writes, “It is, for them, an Event, spreading from Instagram to Instagram, an item on the itinerary, somewhere between currywurst and the East Side Gallery, tethered to intention by a geotag.”

I have had only one very direct experience in encountering the mass deaths of victims of a genocide. In my study with Astri Suhrke of the role of bystanders in the genocide of 800,000 to one million Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, we visited the disinterred bodies of a mass grave that held over 16,000 victims. The skeletons of children, of women with rods thrust up their vaginas, of body after body laid out on the school benches in each of the classrooms at the technical school where they were killed, was overwhelming. We were all struck dumb, but not exactly silent. We had to talk because our visit had a functional component – confirming the accuracy of the figures of the total number of victims. We counted and compared counts.

The bodies had been disinterred only weeks before. The mass grave had been so packed, that there was very little decomposition of the flesh. It hung on the skeletons like the rags left of their clothes. If the picture never leaves me of that scene, the most powerful experience was the horrific smell. I need only mention the incident and the smell comes back as if I was still there. The immediacy of the confrontation with mass death comes primarily from my nostrils, not my voice. My mind goes into overdrive, racing from one portrait to another, one reflection to another.

Nothing is as evocative as the sense of smell, more so even than any picture. Auditory and visual records, words formed to convey experiences – none of these seems to compete with smell. Therefore, I entitled this blog the Silence of Smell. I could have called it the Smell of Suffering but that would have ignored my major theme – the appropriateness or inappropriateness to giving voice to the suffering of others and one’s own suffering at the memory. At that time, giving voice was not the issue. Olfactory nausea and unfathomable emotional disturbance was the order of the day and was the source of the most recurring and disturbing memories.

We know our sense of smell is located in the centre of the brain. So perhaps smell, rather than debates over giving voice to the enormity of the crime, may be a more appropriate way of memorializing mass murder and death. After all, smell is central to many happy memories as well. That is how I best remember my children when they were infants. I can still smell the sweet scent of their poop and fragrance of the powder applied to prevent any rash from forming.

There may be another reason for stressing the silence of smell as a route to memorializing. Scent is associated with nostrils. And nostrils are associated with being nosy, with sticking your nose into affairs ostensibly not of your making or your concern. When it comes to genocide, the dictum of minding your own business, of remaining silent, is inappropriate. And the issue is not simply that you could have been the victim, that we ought to engage in humanitarian intervention because of our shared humanity. An abstract common identification as humans has not proven to be very effective in motivating risk and involvement.

In any case, the identification is a false one. I live a life of privilege in a land that not only guarantees freedom, but delivers on the promise, in a land that not only ensures my well-being, but goes a long way to delivering on that promise as well. But not all the way. Not for everyone. And if the promise proved false for me, it is possible that I might focus my attention exclusively on my and my family’s deprivation rather than the general deprivation of others.

But perhaps that is not the purpose of silence, not the purpose of the silence of smell or the smell of suffering. The issue is really not my identification with the victim. The issue is not whether, but for the grace of God, that could have been me. As I counted bodies disinterred from that mass grave dug three weeks before Juvénal Habyarimana was killed and three weeks before the Rwanda genocide began, the issue was not my identification with those killed, but with those who perpetrated the crime. But most of all with those who abetted the crime by their silence, by their indifference.

The victims of the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide and the Armenian genocide and all the other enormous crimes against particular peoples, were victims because they were not responsible for taking their fate into their own hands. The genocide was perpetrated because that responsibility was removed from their hands. If we identify with that victimhood, we identify with our incapacity in some circumstances to take action when we need to be reminded that we are in a position of responsibility to intervene.

Further, it is almost impossible for us who live in privileged circumstances and enjoy the responsibility of guiding the course of our own lives to identify with victims who were denied that privilege. And if we had been so denied, at the time our response might just as likely have been the responsibility to protect ourselves, not other victims of the crime of cancelling that responsibility. Identification with victimhood has a tendency to inculcate either self-pity or passivity and not our sense of responsibility. The task of memorializing and of mourning is to remember, not that we or those who died were ineffectual and passive victims of the laws of nature or the realism of international political affairs, but that they lived lives of wonder and discovery and to discover how and why we betrayed them. For ordinary people allow the perpetuation of such atrocities by the few.

I was and remain a citizen of one such country that failed in its responsibility – not the main one, for General Roméo Dallaire somewhat redeemed a streak of Canadian honour. Canada did not live up to the responsibility to protect. The issue was not identification with the victim or identification with victimhood, but identification with perpetrators. In that, there can be and should not be any silence as the silence of smell always reminds me. The smell of mass death is universal. But memory must bring to life those who lived and became victims, individuals who had parents and children or were children themselves. Yom HaShoah for me is both the silent smell of mass murder and the need to talk about the personal lives of those who lived and died.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman