“Better to go to the house of mourning,” says the book of Ecclesiastes “than to go to a house of feasting.” Heeding this advice—even if not by design—Howard Jacobson has found himself going to quite a few funerals and memorial services of late. But a recent one led him to some thoughts about how Jews mourn their dead:
So here I am, sitting on the back row of a little urban chapel, giving thanks for a life that ended only last week. But at least the service isn’t taking the humanist route. No breezy gathering of accidental mourners wearing cardigans in a room resembling a bridge club and everyone desperate not to mention God. Instead, a real vicar in a real surplice; a reading from St. John’s Gospel; many in the congregation wearing black; and proper hymns instead of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
Even so, the hymns make me feel uncomfortable. They always do, though there’s often no discernible religious difference in sentiment between a hymn and a psalm, unless the hymn happens to be one of those that ends with an invocation of the cross. The mourners, I notice, move without any sort of spiritual jolt between “Guide Me, O, Thou Great Redeemer,” and “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” though the first is unmistakably theirs and the second definitively ours. So if the Anglicans make no distinction, in the face of bodily dissolution, between Old Testament and New, why must I?
Let’s rephrase the question: am I right in thinking there’s a qualitative difference—religiously speaking, and poetically speaking as well—between a psalm and a hymn? How desperate the gravity of Psalm 77: “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.” How jaunty, by comparison, [the Christian hymn] “Be Thou My Vision”: “Thou my best thought, by day or by night;/ Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.”
Isn’t a psalm a more elevated form, as different from a hymn as a hymn is from an ironic song in a Monty Python movie? . . . Even in the King James Version some unwarranted Christianizing was afoot. But if that means essential distinctions between psalms and hymns were elided, there remains difference enough for a Jew to feel that hymning is a species of trespass.
But why, Jacobson wishes to know, should he, a very secular Jew, care?