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.”

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

  1. Shalom David,

    Thank you for visiting my site. I have visited yours in return and am happy that I did so.

    I offer my condolences for the loss of your Abba. I read your first post on Kaddish and was moved. I especially loved the end, when your precious daughter decided you shouldn’t go alone. I have many experiences that this called to. But one thing stood out, if you will permit me. This proverb came to mind.

    Proverbs 22:6. Train up — Hebrew, חנךְ, initiate, or instruct; a child in the way he should go — Or, according to his way, that is, in that course or manner of life which thou wouldest have him to choose and follow. Or, as some render the clause, in the beginning of his way, that is, in his tender years, as soon as he is capable of receiving instruction, the Hebrew על פי דרכו, signifying, literally, in the mouth of his way, and the mouth being often put for the beginning or entrance of a place or thing. And when he is old, he will not depart from it — Namely, not easily and ordinarily. The impressions made in his childish years will remain, unless some extraordinary cause occur to erase them. “Instruct a child,” says Bishop Patrick, “as soon as ever he is capable, and season his mind with the principles of virtue before he receive other impressions, and it is most likely they will grow up with him; so that when he is older he will not forsake them, but retain them as long as he lives.”

    I am by no means an expert in Hebrew, so I am happy for you to correct or instruct me on the above.



    1. hi, Cate

      Thanks so much for your comment.
      Yes, I’m familiar with that proverb 🙂

      I wouldn’t overemphasize the “mouth” aspect of “על פי” because it’s a commonly used expression, even in modern Hebrew, and it’s used in all imaginable contexts, simply meaning “according to”. Also, the preposition “על” doesn’t mean “in” ~ it actually means “on” ~ so the wordplay doesn’t quite work…

      I mean, the interpretation you’ve shared is beautiful and the intention is also very beautiful, but the proverb stands pretty strongly by itself, I think, without any embellishment… at least… it does for me, personally ❤


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