Mind of the Mourner – book review

One of the most challenging areas to write about is death and dying.  While there is a plethora of literature on the subject, due to the humanness of the experience, there are always new ways and insights to be presented about the emotional and psychological states a person is going through while grieving the loss.  The standard bearer in Jewish circles has always been The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by R. Maurice Lamm.  A recent attempt has been made to compliment his work, The Mind of the Mourner by R. Joel Wolowesky.  R. Wolowesky’s goal is to present the psychological underpinnings behind Jewish mourning practices.

As someone who deals with death and dying on a daily basis, I am always looking for a new insight, a new way of thinking about how people experiencing the loss might be feeling.  While that usually comes from the bereaved themselves, it is often helpful to have  a knowledge base to further draw upon, not for the purpose of categorizing, but as a means of offering support if that is what the bereaved needs at the time.

R. Wolowesky’s book does not fulfill this need.  Instead, it is a good summary of the thought of Rav Soloveitchik on areas of mourning and halacha.  However, R. Wolowesky misses the underpinning of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, namely that Rav Soloveitchik was writing and sharing his experiences in the form of philosophical treatises.  His words were meant to describe his own suffering and difficulties in his losses, not necessarily as a means of conveying a psychology of the halachic systems view of grief and bereavement.  Further, it is difficult to accept based on my experience his underlying theme, that if one fulfills the Jewish method of mourning, the grieving process will not be complicated.  In fact, for many people, the ideas in this book would be counter to providing them with a halachic grieving experience.

Overall, I feel this work was disappointing and still leaves a hole for a work on how the Jewish methods of grieving may or may not provide a strong base for someone to experience a normal grieving process.  Nevertheless, R. Wolowesky’s book does provide a good overview on the thought of R. Soloveitchik on mourning, and would make a good introduction to studying the depths of the emotional challenges that loss presented to that great Rabbi.



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