The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 16

The kaddish d’rabbanan (the rabbis’ kaddish) is recited by mourners during prayer services after sections of liturgy that take the form of Rabbinic discourse. As such, it contains a prayer for the well-being of Torah students:

עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל רַבָּנָן, To Israel, to the teachers,
וְעַל תַּלְמִידֵיהוֹן their disciples
וְעַל כָּל תַּלְמִידֵי תַלְמִידֵיהוֹן, and their disciples’ disciples
וְעַל כָּל מָאן and to all who
דְּעָסְקִין בְּאוֹרַיְתָא, engage in the study of Torah
דִּי בְאַתְרָא (קדישא) הָדֵין in this (holy) place
וְדִי בְכָל אֲתַר וַאֲתַר. or elsewhere,
יְהֵא לְהוֹן may there come to them
וּלְכוֹן שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא, and you great peace,
חִנָּא וְחִסְדָּא וְרַחֲמִין, grace, kindness and compassion,
וְחַיִּין אֲרִיכִין, וּמְזוֹנֵי רְוִיחֵי, long life, ample sustenance
וּפֻרְקָנָא, and deliverance
מִן קֳדָם אֲבוּהוֹן דִּי בִשְׁמַיָּא from their Father in Heaven
וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן and say: Amen.

The siddurim lining the shelves of the shul in America where I first began my kaddish journey did not include the word ‘holy’  (recited only in Israel); and I didn’t note its insertion into the Israeli version of the kaddish d’rabbanan when I first returned home to Jerusalem. Eventually, Zvi, a friend from minyan, pointed it out to me, and I began to recite ‘קדישא’ with intentionality. It has become a daily reminder of my father’s immeasurable love for Eretz Yisrael.

I also feel particularly connected to my papa through this scholars’ kaddish, for he was a lifelong learner, driven by intellectual curiosity. Every day I look forward to this kaddish in particular, for the words of the shorter kaddish neither move nor speak to me. Reading, learning, sharing, discussing, processing and writing infuse my traditional Jewish practice with meaning.

* * *

Is Kaddish meant to express my loss or to contain it, I wondered? …

In the rabbinic tradition, the words of the Torah are famously described as black fire upon white fire. The black fire is to be interpreted… But the white fire, too, is laden with meaning… Black fire is language and thus contraction; white fire is reflection, emotion, expansiveness. In shul, I was white fire fighting with black fire, reaching for the words to enclose my feelings, but then spilling back again into the margins…

This beautiful metaphor can be found in an essay titled ‘Loss for Words’ by Prof. Rachel Mesch, published in the book Kaddish: Women’s Voices (p. 36), lent to me by my friend Debbie who is also reciting kaddish for her father. Mesch elegantly captures this aspect of the kaddish, which I’ve been grappling with from the first.

I must do something more, say something more, convey something more than the words of kaddish, else I will be burned empty from within. Wrestling with every word, I strive to express this searing experience to myself. Every blog post relieves, but the white fire is endless, boundless. Often I simply don’t know what to do with myself or where to put myself; my emotions startle me and defy my mind.

On an unsuspecting day in mid-August, I was singing to myself at home in the morning, readying for work. My wife and daughter were out with my mother-in-law, and I had no immediate responsibilities to my family for the first time since returning from the shiva one month prior. For some unknowable reason, the words that came to my tongue were from the famous ‘Song of the Sea’ in Exodus:

Ozi v’Zimrat Yah Vayahi li lishuah עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.


I didn’t notice my voice rising at first, but as it filled the apartment and space contracted, I realized that I was bellowing at the top of my lungs. Eventually, some part of me quieted, and the walls drew back. Tentatively, I raised my voice again, but this was apparently too deliberate. Something within me had shifted, and my singing settled into quiet contemplation.

* * *

What if there’s something other than contraction and expansiveness, between the black and white, restricted by the one and aspiring towards the other? Is it gray fire flowing out upon my keyboard? My words may be interpretable, but they have long since spilled out past the margins of my prayer book. Some truths do defy our comprehension, but still we are compelled to pursue them.

* * *

I share the imagery of black fire upon white fire with my friend Sagi, and he reflects that the concept of the Torah’s white fire (unknowable, uninterpretable truth) reminds him of Prof. Kurt Gödel’s (1906-1978) incompleteness theorems, the first of which posits that for any sufficiently expressive math system, there will always be statements that are true, but that are unprovable within the system.

This is not something that I recall my father specifically discussing with me, but I do remember seeing the book Gödel, Escher, Bach sitting on his shelf. I am sure he would have loved this comparison, tying together the Torah’s and mathematics’ pursuits of truth and the limitations inherent to both.

* * *

I am certain that this approach to my kaddish journey is heightening my self-awareness and lowering my barriers to vulnerability. It’s also interesting that kaddish itself is not the only way and not even the primary way that Jews may honor their departed parents. Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried (1804-1886) wrote (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 26:22):

Though kaddish and prayers are helpful to the departed, they are not of primary importance. What is most essential is that their children proceed in the path of righteousness and, in that manner, bring merit to their parents.

These words are heartening, for I can only do what I can do, and I do it simply because I must. Ultimately, this is true for all of us who are mourning our loved ones.

Somewhere between our endless, unfathomable, and inarticulable experiences of loss and the unyielding rootedness of our traditions we come to discover our own gray fires. In mourning, we offer what we can.

3 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 16”

  1. The power of an outpouring of joy, of grief, of any emotion, felt purely and with reverence and love is what makes us more than animals. I am glad you sang your song when you needed to. Your kaddish posts are unwaveringly beautiful. What a wonderful man you father must have been, David. Sending you kind thoughts…TPS

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