The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 1

My father died unexpectedly, suddenly, and quickly on July 7, 2018. He was buried two days later on July 9. It remains shocking and surreal for me that he is gone. I plan to share some very personal reflections about the experience of saying kaddish for my father in this and subsequent blog posts – it’s hard to identify, articulate, and summarize all of my feelings and thoughts, but this is the beginning of an attempt.

For several years before he died, I hadn’t prayed or entered a synagogue for a host of issues that I have with religion, Judaism, traditional Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, non-Orthodox Judaism, and the behaviors and espoused beliefs of many people who identify with any of those labels (not an all-inclusive list by any means) and claim to speak for them.

At first, I didn’t know whether or not I wanted to recite kaddish for him.

This had nothing to do with my feelings for my father – it was entirely because of my own religious skepticism, cynicism, and disappointment, which I have been struggling with most acutely for the past several years. However, when it came down to it, I immediately and instinctively started going to services every day to recite kaddish.

My non-dati (religious and/or Orthodox) mother told me that she wouldn’t mind if I recited the kaddish for my father on my own, but that’s not the traditional Jewish way, and I can’t bring myself to recite kaddish by myself. I continue to feel uncomfortable in minyanim (prayer quorums), but I would feel more uncomfortable not saying kaddish for my father.

He was an atheist. He once told me that he could imagine that some non-sentient force connected all living creatures, but he did not believe in God in a traditional way. He had not recited kaddish for his father or mother because it wasn’t something that held meaning for him, and I don’t think he would particularly want me to recite it for him.

My father was profoundly connected to his Jewish identity, in what I would call a spiritual way. He told me on many occasions that when he made aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70’s and looked out upon the hilltops of Jerusalem, he could feel his ancestors traversing the hills with their camels. He felt in his depths that he was a Jew, and he felt in his depths that Israel is our Jewish homeland. I don’t connect to the Land of Israel in the same powerful way my father did, despite my having been born here and despite my living here today.

However, I feel a sense of personal responsibility to preserve our people. This is, first and foremost, what draws me to Jewish tradition – its staying power. The truth is quite clear to me – à la Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927):

More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.

Shabbat to me represents the greater Jewish tradition, including the kaddish. Kaddish is what we do, and I have never encountered any compelling nor lasting Jewish alternatives.

I have realized that I share the human needs to commemorate and process my father’s death. This may go beyond the Jewish tradition. For example, Jewish men traditionally don’t shave their beards or get haircuts for the first thirty days after a close relative dies. Tomorrow, I am getting a haircut, but I am not emotionally ready to cut my beard short – I’ve decided to trim it but keep it long. My thirty days are over, but my beard makes me think of my father, and I am not ready to get rid of it.

Likewise, regardless of what kaddish means, and regardless of how I feel about Judaism, God, synagogues, tradition, etc., reciting kaddish every day is a major and inconvenient shift in my daily routine that reconnects me every day to my new, fatherless reality. This is one positive aspect of reciting kaddish, which speaks to me.

Raised in a family that has been secular for three generations, and not spiritually oriented by nature, I find myself seeking down-to-earth, practical meaning in my thrice daily recitation. I know that secular expressions of Jewish identity can be just as meaningful as religious expressions. However, history has shown me that our religious tradition holds the primary key to the preservation of the Jewish people, and the meaning that I derive from being Jewish is inextricably intertwined with my sense of responsibility to our people.

In this context, and given how central the kaddish is to Jewish tradition, I cannot imagine myself not reciting it. Firstly, nobody else in my family is going to do this every day for my father. Secondly, my commitment to Jewish tradition is greater than all of my misgivings and frustrations with Jews, Judaism, and God, of which I have many and which have kept me away from synagogues for the past several years.

Lastly, part of my personal struggle for the past several years has been my concern that my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter has had no connection to synagogue or communal Jewish life. I had not been able to bring myself to pray or attend synagogue services so her Jewish identity was entirely based upon our family life at home. She has grown up in a shomer shabbat home with a kosher kitchen, but the synagogue was beyond her remembered experience, and I had been pained that I was denying her that important connection to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

Ever since I returned home to Jerusalem from the shiva (first week of mourning) in the USA and started attending services at the synagogue, my daughter has regularly begun expressing her displeasure with my new daily routine. Her specific complaint to me, which she has articulated on more than one occasion, is not that she doesn’t want me to go to the synagogue. Rather, she has told me repeatedly that she doesn’t want me to go to the synagogue by myself.

And so, of her own volition, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter has started attending synagogue services with me for Shabbat on Fridays and Saturdays, and she keeps on insisting that I should not go alone. That going to shul for Shabbat has become a part of her life is precious to me… even though I hadn’t had the strength for several years until now to go myself. She even knows that the prayer her abba’chka recites out loud at the synagogue is called “kaddish.”

29 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 1”

  1. This a deep and emotional read. i am so sorry for your loss. I am glad that you found strength to write this down. I hope in a way this helped you heal.

  2. I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your father. ז״ל

    This is an achingly beautiful, evocative and powerful read, Ben. I’ve lost both my parents and relate to so much of your journey and how grief can pull us to return. My heart is full at the thought of your daughter going with you. The full circle process never ceases to amaze me.

      1. I too found it to be deeply healing after many years of estrangement from Judaism.

  3. Ahh David, I knew from reading some of your other posts that your blog focused on your father, but until I read this article I didn’t know about your loss of your father, and that you have a daughter, and that you have come from an atheistic background. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    To me, knowing someone who lives in Jerusalem is such a wonderful thing, and I am learning so much about Jewish culture and traditions through your blog, so please keep on blogging, I intend to read every post! I’m going to explore your blog a little more now. You’re such a good writer as well.

    Peace be with you, friend! ❤️

  4. My family were official blatant hypocrites. As a child I didn’t consciously know that. But one day I had the courage to ask. I asked my father if he believed in God. He gave an angry and vehement “no,” — he was very angry that no one, including God, helped him in his cursed life: His mother got TB and was sent away “to rest” and her 10 children were sent to an orphanage where he was stuck in a place where they stole food money by diluting the milk (one example). My Mother said, “Of course not — who would believe in that silly non-sense.” When my father died, however, she wanted to recite the kaddish. She did it by reading the transliteration — she said the sounds but had no idea what it meant. When she found out that it praised God, she was insulted: She said that she came to praise her husband, to mourn and cry for her husband; it was for him that she prayed and she did not come to praise God. She thought that it was ridiculous and that it was an assault and an insult against her by the establishment. After knowing the translation into English she felted duped into reciting nonsensical “magic” words that had no power related to her true feelings and did not respect her husband who she wanted to honor.

    1. Thank you for sharing that. Those are some dark and heavy stories, Doug.

      But why do you refer to your family as official blatant hypocrites? which part was hypocritical?

      1. My family tells the world that they believe in God and official religion. Anyone who inquired was given a long obfuscation and a statement that they belong to the official religion. Everyone assumed that membership included belief in God. No one except me actually asked them if they believed in any specific tenets. I once went down a list of tenets with my Father, and he said to me privately that he rejected each and every aspect that could be called religious. In public he said the opposite or implied the opposite. He always used the impersonal pronoun — “one can believe, and one would think so etc.”. It took a careful “interrogation” to illicit the answer, *i* don’t believe in anything(non-physical or spiritual); Of course, ONE is told to believe, and it is said that….blah,blah, blah. But the question is “Do YOU, yourself believe in anything. Answer: “It is said that ONE believes when asked to…” [private: Do you? answer: NO].

  5. I enjoyed your blog, I mourn with you the loss of your father and I hope your grief is healing. I enjoyed reading this because I graduated from a Christian college with a Bachelors of Science in Religion and a minor in Biblical studies. Nevertheless, I do not believe traditionally. I avoid going to Church or joining a congregation / denomination because I believe “(G)god” resides in all life, and has mercy & grace and wouldn’t see a soul, part of (I)it burn in punishment and torment. I explain this to express my connection with your avoidance of the different Sects of Judaism and distance from culture and religion which is such a huge part of both our upbringings. I deeply appreciated learning more of your culture and I plan to read through these. Much respect.

  6. Hi David. I’m sorry for your loss. Even though it’s been a couple years, I’m sure it’s still painful. But I look forward to reading through your reflections – you’re a wonderful writer. This inspires me in my ongoing effort to grow closer with my own father.

    Bryce

    1. Bryce, thanks so much for stopping by. I really appreciate it. Yes, it remains painful of course, but I do find that writing (even if it’s not always about my father’s death) is healing for me. That’s largely why I continue to write poetry.

      Yours,
      David

  7. So, one never knows where intersections in life may occur. Oddly enough, one of them is here.

    When my mother passed in 1998, I discovered among her hundreds of books a Hebrew/English lesson book for children and a pocket Hebrew/English prayer book that had been carried by an American serviceman during the Korean War (another intersection: I served three years in the Republic of South Korea in the U.S. Air Force). My mother died a Gentile — I was a pastor back then. The prayer book led me in mourning my mother as tears would not come. I read the Kaddish for thirty days, three times a day… the best a Gentile could do, I’m afraid.

    When I was done, I donated both books to a local Synagogue in my mother’s name. She would have approved. Her last job was as a private duty nurse to a Survivor in an establishment called Shalom Home.

    One never knows.

    1. Charles, wow – that’s an amazing story. I would have loved to know why your mother had those books. Fascinating!

      You say you were a pastor “back then” – are you no longer a pastor? Why/when did you leave that calling?

      Yours,
      David

  8. Why she had them… one of three possibilities: she dated a non-observant Jewish man when I was a young boy; the doctor-son of her last patient gave them to her, or… she never knew a book she didn’t like (many of them found in second-hand shops). Also, my mom was a unabashed Judeophile. At one time she looked into converting. I don’t know what stopped her.

    I moved on from the pastorate in 2007. A “gentleman” of the church threated a battle; the following Sunday I called his bluff… by resigning. It was my third dying church. When asked for a description of what I did for a living, I often felt the urge to respond: I hold a dying lady’s hand as she slowly expires.

    Now I teach, write, and live.

    Charley

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