The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 4

A dear mentor and friend of mine, Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, gives me pause with an observation over lunch at the Harutzim Bistro in Jerusalem: â€śThese blog posts are your personal kaddish.”

At first, I find myself resisting this idea. Kaddish is kaddish, and blog posts are blog posts.

“It’s your process,” she clarifies.

The collective wisdom and kindness in the hearts of those who have reached out to me is humbling.

* * *

I cannot recall how many different people have recommended that I read Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish. I ask my friend Aytan from shul to bring it back from America for me; and I begin devouring it. The book lives in my backpack and travels with me everywhere, but my progress is slow because I have to reread every page that I’ve consumed on Shabbat in order to highlight the author’s insights for future reference. I also end up rereading even the pages that have already been covered with pink and blue streaks.

Upon burying his father in 1996, the famed journalist also returned to shul to recite the mourner’s kaddish thrice daily for his year of mourning. He too went on a journey of exploration and discovery in his efforts to understand this kaddish. I am relating to many of his impressions and experiences. Others, less so.

Unlike my reflections, which I am making public during my year of mourning, Wieseltier published his journal of traditional Jewish source materials and personal speculations only after his mourning period had ended.

Back when I lived in Washington, DC I would sometimes see Wieseltier at shul, but I never had occasion to speak with him.

* * *

The recitation of kaddish for a dead parent is a religious obligation. There are other mourning customs, such as restrictions on attending festive occasions and large gatherings, especially where live music is performed. These practices are grounded in ancient Jewish wisdom and intention, but traditional Judaism at its core is a set of detailed laws governing our daily behaviors, life cycle events, and relationships, which do not require me to derive meaning from the recitation of kaddish.

Leon Wieseltier defends custom (pp. 68-69):

The veneration of custom is not a surrender of the mind to anthropology. A ritual life is not an unexamined life.

Ritual is the conversion of essences into acts.

The evanescence of human life is the reason for human ceremony. Since things pass, things must be repeated. Only the eternal can dispense with repetition…

Every custom shows the smudge of time. That is why customs seem so opaque. Yet they owe their beauty in part to their opacity. They are like one of those Indian statues whose features have been blurred by the touch of hands over the centuries. What they lose in definition, they gain in devotion.

Since things pass, things must be repeated. Wieseltier’s prose is lovely. (One might even think that he writes for a living.)

Also, more banally, if nobody were committed to repeating Jewish rituals, with whom would I recite the mourner’s kaddish?

* * *

My father would not want me to go through meaningless motions in his memory or for any other reason.

I can’t recall how many times he told me that attending Hebrew school was a waste of time. “What did you learn today?” he would ask; more often than not, my answers were lacking.

My parents were not active in the Jewish community; we only attended synagogue services once a year; the activities of my local youth group bored me. Hebrew school connected me to Jewish culture and community, and I loved it from my earliest childhood. True, I learned and retained only the very rudiments of Bible stories, modern Hebrew, and traditions that I never saw in practice; but I always looked forward to Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays; I attended of my own volition until graduating from high school.

Belonging for the sake of belonging did not move my father, nor did ritual for the sake of ritual. He would have had great respect for Wieseltier’s intellectual pursuit and deep-dive into Jewish texts to uncover the hidden secrets of the mourner’s kaddish.

In his preface to Kaddish the author reflects:

Since I am so inclined, and to assist myself against my inadequacy, I began to study. I was bred for bookishness. I set out in search of the history of the mourner’s kaddish…

* * *

The texts of our heritage are important to me. I spent years of my life as an adult learning how to decipher them, not having had an Orthodox upbringing like Wieseltier, but my [public] reflections on this year of mourning are manifesting themselves differently than did Wieseltier’s in his Kaddish. I find my inadequacy fascinating. I want to tease it apart into fragile, shimmering strands, to understand my soul’s relationship with my loss, to experience the kaddish with self-awareness…

My feelings are my primary sources, perhaps to the detriment of my intellectual development. What did I learn today… What did I learn today… What…

What did I feel today?

* * *

Carl Jung’s theory of psychological functions comes to my mind. He noted four main psychological functions: thinking/feeling, sensing/intuiting, juxtaposing the first two (thinking/feeling), as well as the second pair (sensing/intuiting). This framework is instructive.

I would describe my “feeling” function as dominant over my “thinking” function, and my “intuiting” function as dramatically dominant over my “sensing” function. My father’s dominant psychological functions differed from mine.

Dr. Alexander Bogomolny z”l left behind a virtual treasure trove of â€śInteractive Mathematics Miscellany and Puzzles” for students and teachers of mathematics, as well as an endless collection of breathtaking photographs, capturing thousands of nature’s most enchanted moments, which set this viewer’s heart atremble.


* * *

Dr. Alexander Bogomolny z”l left behind his loving wife, two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a granddaughter. His older son is writing a â€śpersonal kaddish” in the wake of his father’s death, in loving memory of his papa and in the way he finds most meaningful.

6 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 4”

  1. I love the photo–it really is an enchanted moment. Is there a place I can view more of your father’s photos?

  2. This really spoke to me: ‘The veneration of custom is not a surrender of the mind to anthropology. A ritual life is not an unexamined life. Ritual is the conversion of essences into acts.’

    As a practising Christian who happens now to attend an Anglican church, much of the ritual baffled me at first. But there is a comfort in being part of something traditional, in knowing that I am not alone in the experience. It seems like that is a part of your mourning, too.

  3. I was not a Navy Seal, but I did serve in the Navy. One thing that inspires me from the Seals is that they strive to learn something new everyday. Like your Father asking you what you learned each day. I think that is very important in life. No matter how smart we are or what degrees we have, we should always strive to learn something new each day. Thank you for sharing, and I agree that this blog was/is part of your Kaddish because it helps you process the emotions and thoughts you are/were experiencing. Eric

    1. One thing that inspires me from the Seals is that they strive to learn something new everyday.

      Eric, I agree. And I didn’t know that about the Seals – that’s really cool!

      I really appreciate your feedback 🙂


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