Between Aveilut and Clinical Social Work: Interdisciplinary Reflections

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Noah Marlowe

“Gone is the joy of our hearts; our dancing is turned into mourning (Lamentations 5:15).”[1]

“The same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor (Esther 9:22).”

 In late June, I completed my first semikha exam on hilkhot aveilut (the laws of mourning) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). The previous semester, I had studied loss in the lifecycle during my (undergraduate) stint in clinical social work at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work.  My two experiences could not have been more different. When studying loss, be it the death of a loved one, divorce, sexual abuse, issues related to sexual orientation, etc., I found the experience overwhelmingly emotional and fraught with anxiety-provoking readings and class discussions. I would leave class mid-Thursday afternoon and need to unwind from the affective intensity. Too often, I would find myself reading about loss late at night and need a subtle human reminder that there is a lot of good in the world, notwithstanding the pain. My final paper for “Coping with Loss” described a horrific case of sexual abuse experienced by a friend of mine.  Writing this paper took a lot out of me. On the one hand, I was writing an evidence-based intervention plan and resilience analysis for a survivor of sexual abuse. On the other hand, I was processing the bitter tragedy of a friend—a cataclysmic, life-altering tragedy. When I finished the paper, I took a deep breath and uttered a brief prayer. 

In stark contrast to this hyper-emotional experience, my study of aveilut rarely provoked emotional responses. Each shiur (lesson), we would trace the origins of the modern-day practices and rituals back to the Tanakh and Talmud (and its attendant commentators), sensitizing us to the halakhic corpus and key concepts. The major difference between my study of aveilut and my study of loss can be demonstrated by my introduction to each subject. My first reading for “Coping with Loss” was the authors’ introduction to our textbook[2], in which they shared their variegated and profoundly sad encounters with loss. These dark, and often lonely, encounters determined that their lives would be devoted to helping others challenged by loss. I cried. It was real.  I thought of my own loss (of which the wounds were still fresh); I could only imagine their heartache, their fractured spirits. In hilkhot aveilut, however, we began with a dry, legal analysis of the biblical and rabbinic sources for aninut, the pre-mourning stage in which a mourner is prohibited from engaging in mitzvot (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah §341). No tears, no sorrow.

The following two exceptions deviated from the norm of our study of aveilut, and while they didn’t fill me with the same fervor, they did explore the humanistic dimensions of aveilut and loss. The first was the halakhic treatment of suicide. Many practical ramifications exist for a relative of an individual who committed suicide (Shulhan Arukh §345). Typically, these restrictions limit grieving rituals and expressions of mourning. Because of this, mainstream approaches attempt to mitigate the issue by narrowing the halakhic category of suicide, also known as “me’abed atzmo la-da’at.”[3] Surprisingly, R. Yechiel Michel Epstein, the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, approaches the topic of suicide from a highly psychological angle. His position (345:4) is that to qualify for halakhic suicide there must be an explicit (verbal) expression of intent followed by immediate action. Expression of suicidal intent, when not followed by immediate action, he believes is not sufficient. Moreover, he writes (345:5) that the act of suicide is so unfathomably heinous that only in rare instances can it arise from clear agency and autonomy.

This position greatly resembles some of the new research on modern suicidality, specifically the notion that there are risk factors other than suicidal ideations, thoughts of suicide. In fact, Dr. Thomas Joiner[4], one of the leading researchers in the field of suicidality, developed a theory[5] that states the following: for an individual to successfully commit suicide, they must experience (a) perceived burdensomeness – they perceive their life as burdensome to others, (b) low belonging/social alienation – feeling deeply alone and removed from family, friends, or others in a group, and, critically, (c) have an acquired ability to enact lethal self-injury – have eliminated or minimized their fear of pain and thwarted self-preservation motives. In other words, Joiner’s theory requires that an individual has the desire to die (a and b) and the ability to die (c).[6] Suicidal ideations, according to Joiner’s theory, are not the sole predictor of successful suicide attempts—similar to the position of R. Epstein. Modern psychology and contemporary Halakha, disciplines with significantly different epistemological assumptions, surprisingly arrive at similar truths about the depths of human experience, consciousness, and agency. 

The second issue that deviated from the norm was Se’udat havra’a, the first meal brought to the mourner following the funeral. There is a dispute among post-talmudic interlocutors about the prohibition for a mourner to eat his or her own food on the first day of mourning. Rabbeinu Yeruham (Toledot Adam ve-Hava, Netiv 28: Helek 2) is of the opinion that the minimum requirement is the first meal after the funeral. The mourner, he writes, is so distraught that s/he has no desire to eat – s/he feels lonely, dejected, abandoned, and purposeless – perhaps no longer wanting to live. In turn, the obligation to provide the mourner with a post-funeral meal is meant to fill a biological need, to prevent malnutrition. Rambam (Hilkhot eivel 4:9), too, follows this rationale and expands the requirement to provide food for the mourner for the entire first day of mourning.

Levush (Yoreh De’ah 378:1) also maintains the one-meal post-funeral requirement, but offers a different rationale than Rabbeinu Yeruham. The meal, according to Levush, is meant to minimize social isolation (and reduce yearning for and over-active thinking of the deceased). Friends and relatives, in turn, have an obligation upon them to provide a meal and offer comfort to the mourner.  This not-so-dry halakhic controversy revolves around deeply-human concerns. Unlike Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s description of his grandfather’s revolutionary talmudic methodology – “Suddenly the pots and the pans, the eggs and the onions disappeared from the laws of meat and milk; the salt, the blood, and the spit disappeared from the laws of salting”[7] – these two discussions brought back the death and the dying, the tears and the trials, the solace and the sorrow to the laws of mourning.

Reflecting on the study of aveilut and loss without seeing the texts and contexts speaking to one another would be a missed opportunity. Death and loss are fundamental human experiences.  We cannot strip the human from the experience; this, of course, includes the accompanying human feelings.  Hilkhot aveilut– the dinim and se’ifim (the laws and the sections) – cannot and should not be divorced from human suffering, anguish, apoplexy, and confusion. However, the breath-taking chill of intense human suffering cannot permeate the graduate student’s study of loss. Clinical social work, too, must tone down the intensity and borrow some of the dryness of halakhic study. (I’m sure Halakha would be glad to share!) Although compassion fatigue, burnout, or secondary trauma is common among clinicians,[8] sometimes over-engagement with psychological materials, in my experience, leads to burnout for the student.

My second reflection on my inter-disciplinary experience  is a sense of pride and humility. Jewish tradition has thought critically about mourning rituals, intervention plans, sensitivity to mourners, resilience, social systems and social support, and more for hundreds and thousands of years. Let me share one example about resilience.

In “Coping with Loss” we frequently spoke about loss from a growth perspective.  In other words, we asked  how an individual experiencing loss can channel her past and transform it from tragedy to opportunity. A parent who loses a child, for example, has two options.  First, he or she can forever mourn and lament the horrific and untimely death. Alternatively, he or she can harness their new-found sensitivity and empathize with other parents who have lost children. In the words of the late Dr. Phyllis R. Silverman, a revolutionary scholar of bereavement, about the role of the helping professional: “I learned that I cannot help the bereaved from feeling their pain. The goal of help is to promote the ability of the widowed to find new directions in their lives, to develop a new sense of competence in their ability to cope.”[9] While thinking about loss from a growth perspective, I clung to Rav Yitzhak Hutner’s famous letter in Pahad Yitzhak Igrot u-Ketvavim (128), in which he explicates the verse “Seven times a righteous person falls and rises up (Proverbs 24:16)” to mean that a righteous person rises up not despite but because he or she first falls. Metaphorical or spiritual “falling,” for Rav Hutner, is the sine qua non of spiritual elevation and development (Rav Hutner’s lucid and inspiring words, in fact, found their way into one of my essays for “Coping with Loss”!).

Many times that semester I discovered that issues studied by modern clinical researchers were also thought about by the Tanna’im, Rashi, Tosafot, Rosh, Maharam, Noda be-Yehuda, Rambam, Ramban, Rabbeinu Yeruham, Rav Yosef Karo, Rav Moshe Isserles, Shakh, Taz, Rav Soloveichik, Rav Hutner and Rav Moshe Feinstein! Moreover, the biblical verses of the introduction, I felt, echo the ethos and cyclical pattern of joy to loss and loss to joy so central to the study of loss and found abundantly in Jewish thought. I am proud to be part of such a rich mesora, a relevant and vibrant tradition.

While halakha and Jewish thought contain enriching and ennobling perspectives on death and loss, the study of aveilut would benefit from some of the essential and repeating pedagogical and pastoral questions of “Coping with Loss.”  What social systems are in place? What are the risk factors or, conversely, opportunities for resilience of the mourner? Is the mourner exhibiting developmentally appropriate signs of grief? Does the mourner have a history of loss? How does his or her history impact their response to the current loss? What rituals can best help the mourner cope with their loss? What are the different forms of loss? Does halakha address secondary losses (for example, losing one’s social circle following the loss of a spouse or partner)? How can we analyze the halakhic obligations of nihum aveilim, comforting mourners, with a sensitive eye toward social systems? 

The commonality, I found, is that both aveilut and “Coping with Loss” are a call to action. A call to live life to the fullest. A demand that we embrace life’s hardships, develop resilience, and continue to grow. A responsibility to comfort those who experience the lowest of human physical, psychological, and spiritual ailments. A recognition that to live a meaningful life we must be willing to lose it all; to build intimate friendships and relationships we must confront the reality that they do not last forever; to lose means to have loved, to cope means to have cried, and to mourn means to have meaning. Alas, even with loss, we must keep living; we must turn our grief into newfound joy and old memories into new narratives.

[1] All biblical translations follow the 1985 edition of the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures

[2] Hooyman, N. and Kramer, B. (2008). Living Through Loss. New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] Within early Rabbinic Literature, for example, see the two separate incidents reported in Masekhet Semahot (2:4-5), in which Rebbi Tarfon and Rebbi Akiva, respectively, exonerate a katan (child under Bar/Bat Mitzvah) for commiting suicide because the true cause was their fathers’ unhealthy and inappropriate discpline.  In the contemporary literature, Arukh ha-Shulhan (345:5) explicitly writes that we should use all the tools in our arsenal to limit halakhic suicide.

[4] Many thanks to Dr. Alex Mondrow for sharing this research with me.

[5]  Thomas Joiner, “The Interpersonal-Psychological Theory Of Suicidal Behavior: Current Empirical Status, ” APA 2009,

[6] See Joiner’s groundbreaking work. Thomas Joiner Why People Die by Suicide (London: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[7]Joseph Soloveitchik, Besod Ha-yahid Ve-hayahad (Jerusalem: Orot, 1970).

[8] Carol Tosone, Orit Nuttman-Shwartz, and Tricia Stephens. “Shared Trauma: When the Professional Is Personal,” Clinical Social Work Journal 40, no. 2 (2012): 231–39.

[9] Phyllis Silverman, “Lessons I Have Learned,” British Journal Of Social Work 43, no. 2 (March 2013): 227.

Noah Marlowe is a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School and rabbinic intern at YIOZ of North Riverdale and Yonkers.