The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 20

I heard something beautiful this week.

Two of the regulars at my morning minyan completed their eleven months of kaddish, just days apart, each reciting a prayer written by Jerusalem’s esteemed Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961) in memory of his own father. The first petitioner read softly through barely stifled sobs, but I managed to catch the words two days later during the second mourner’s recitation and then found the text online:

אבינו שבשמים
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי, מאז עלייתו לגנזי מרומים ועד עתה
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי בשנה זו בכל כוחי ובכל מאודי
ועתה אני עומד לפניך נרגש ואומר: עשיתי ככל אשר ציוותנו
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן מנחה
אשא תחינה לפני כסא כבודך שיעלו כל תפילותיי לפניך לרצון
ותיטיב לאבי, הריני כפרת משכבו, את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך

לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

I also took the liberty of translating it:

Our Heavenly Father,
I was privileged to complete the recitation of Kaddish for the raising up of the soul of my father, my teacher, from his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until this moment.
I strove to honor my father this year with all my strength and all my might.
Now I stand before You emotionally and say: I have done as You commanded us.
At this moment, standing before You at mincha time,
I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall be brought before You and are acceptable to You for the good of my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place, his place in a world that is all good,
Among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world.

Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
And bind his soul in the bond of life.
God is his heritage;
May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

One’s kaddish journey must necessarily end. Inspired by Rabbi Lau, a tentative, personal prayer has cautiously started taking shape in my mind… perhaps I would recite some of it in Russian or English.

* * *

The final essay in Kaddish: Women’s Voices is titled ‘Ten Plus One, Two, Three…’ by Chana Reifman Zweiter who describes reciting kaddish for her father only three months after her final kaddish for her mother. At shul, I’ve met others who have recited kaddish almost consecutively for two or even three years… an endless, aching blur of grief.

The traditional Jewish mourning process has a designated end, and mourning must be kept in proportion; on these matters, Maimonides’ (1135-1204) Mishneh Torah is clear (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11):

אין מספידין יתר על שנים עשר חדש We do not eulogize for more than twelve months.
אל יתקשה אדם על מתו יתר מדאי שנאמר אל תבכו למת ואל תנודו לו כלומר יתר מדאי שזהו מנהגו של עולם A person should not become excessively broken hearted because of a person’s death, as Jeremiah 22:10 states: “Do not weep for a dead man and do not shake your head because of him.” That means not to weep excessively. For death is the way of the world.

 

I fear the end of this year, but
I can’t keep this up forever.

* * *

Anyway, Zweiter alludes to a Mishnah in her essay, which now springs out in my mind (Brachot 4:4):

רבי אליעזר אומר, העושה תפילתו קבע, אין תפילתו תחנונים Rabbi Eliezer says: If a man makes his prayers keva, it is not a [genuine] supplication.

 

One of the classic dichotomies occupying Jewish educators the world over is the tension between keva-קבע (fixed religious requirements) and kavanah-כוונה (intention). I posit that if not for our People’s ages-old commitment to our Law (keva), no Jewish educators would be around for such a conversation. Yet it remains that I and countless others chafe at arbitrary and anachronistic restrictions and commandments, which are meaningless at their best and immoral at their worst. Ancient keva needs relevant, modern kavanah. The issue cannot be ignored, lest you lose us.

The Talmud, of course, seeks to understand the Mishnah’s use of the term keva. The rabbis do tend to aim for precision (Brachot 29b):

מאי קבע? א”ר יעקב בר אידי אמר רבי אושעיא כל שתפלתו דומה עליו כמשוי ורבנן אמרי כל מי שאינו אומרה בלשון תחנונים רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו כל שאינו יכול לחדש בה דבר What is meant by keva? — R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him. The Rabbis say: Whoever is not able to say it in the manner of supplication. Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.

 

Indeed, what do we mean by keva? As we see above, the Talmud presents us with three possibilities, and Rashi’s (1040-1105) dependable commentary awaits us on inner edge of the Talmud:

כמשוי. והיינו לשון קבע חוק קבוע הוא עלי להתפלל וצריך אני לצאת ידי חובתי 1 Like a heavy burden. And this is the language of “fixedness.” There is a “fixed” law upon me to pray. And I must fulfill my obligation.
מי שאינו יכול. לכוין לבו לשאול צרכיו 2 Whoever is not able to. To direct his heart to ask for his needs.
לחדש בה דבר. בבקשתו והיינו לשון קבע כיום כן אתמול כן מחר 3 Insert something fresh in it – in his request. And this is the language of “fixedness” – as today is, so was yesterday, so will be tomorrow.

 

These reflect three successive spiritual challenges on my journey [this year]:

  1. If prayer is but a heavy, fixed burden, the weight of endless, repetitive meaninglessness will suffocate my will. My resentment and sense of estrangement from tradition will render the kaddish journey intolerable. The aspiration: measured doses of keva; a balance between regular daily recitations and room for breath and thought.
  2. If I am unable to find and express myself in [any of] the prayers, I am reduced to the function of a cog in the machinery of Jewish tradition. The aspiration: understand myself; relate to [some of] the prayers; weave self and prayer together in my heart.
  3. If my kaddish journey is not dynamically self-aware, if my daily words are never my own, then this is not truly my process. The well-intentioned life of pure keva ultimately remains one of alienation from the self. I am a Jew; it’s true, but I am also this Jew (just as my father was).

* * *

Often, my father and I did not communicate well. He would accuse me of nitpicking at his words and missing his broader points, and I would accuse him of the same. Once, in a pleasant mood, I told him that I was content with my life and received a lecture on lacking for ambition. “You’re content? That is worrying. You shouldn’t be content – you should always be striving for something.”

Is peace an appropriate ambition for the soul? Peace can be a means or an end, a condition of activity or a condition of stillness. If peace is a means, then it is desirable so that the soul can work freely, without interference, and expend its energies only on what is significant to itself; but then the soul is not peaceful, the soul bustles and strains. Such peace is an external peace. But dare one aspire also to an internal peace, to peace as an end, to a peaceful soul? Or is the end of activity also the end of meaning?

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 318

I’ve caught myself on the thought recently that kaddish is not a peaceful process. My soul is not content; my mind is perpetually occupied, straining for understanding. I cull stories of my father from relatives, sifting through my memories, putting them to word and context. An “advantage” of dying before your time: people yet live who remember you.

At the recommendation of a dear cousin, I have reached out to my father’s close friend from his youth who lives still in Moscow. His name is also Alexander, but he goes by Sasha, rather than Shurik (like my father). Hopefully, we will speak soon. Once again, I’m thankful to be fluent in Russian.

* * *

A Loose End
(a tangent)

I found a quote (while reading in shul this morning) from Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993), which I would have liked to include in blog post #18:

[Halakhic man’s] approach begins with an ideal construction and finishes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? – To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it in order to establish a relation between it and the real world… There is no phenomenon, being or creature to which the a priori Halakhah does not truly apply its ideal standard.

– “Ish HaHalakhah,” Talpiot 1, no. 3-4 (1944): 665.

 

2 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 20”

  1. Prayer as a burden made me stop to think for a moment. In my prayer life, there are of course days when I don’t want to bother – perhaps I’m unwell or in a bad mood or just mithered. My struggle then is: if I don’t pray, I’m disobeying God; if I do pray, I’m obeying God’s command to pray but disobeying God in my attitude towards prayer. I might be obeying the rules but why should God listen when my intention is just to obey for the sake of obeying?

    I find it comforting to know that I’m not alone in this. I also find your perspective very interesting, both atheist and Jewish. Our belief systems might differ but we are more alike than different; there is tremendous comfort in knowing that people are the same the world over. If only we could get out of our own way.

    Your aspirations are what count, I believe; and your motives. I cling to the hope that God forgives my reluctant prayer because my desire is always to obey Him. Sometimes, I succeed 😉

    ***
    I love this: ‘I am a Jew; it’s true, but I am also this Jew’

    I think many of the difficulties caused by any religion is the one size fits all approach to a planet of individuals. Yes, there is much that is similar about us; but we are each THIS person, as you say: this unique person with unique experiences that have shaped us. That’s bound to cause problems in any religion. For myself, I know that God is a God of infinite variety, and I think He enjoys the different faiths (but probably wishes we’d stop using them to hurt each other).

    ***
    On peace: once, when I was struggling, my friend (the assistant priest at my church) told me that peace is not necessarily the presence of something; it could be the absence of something. I’m not sure where your struggle falls in that equation but, as I have mentioned more than once, it is the struggle that matters. You didn’t have a straightforward relationship with your father in life, if I read you correctly, so it is unlikely to be straightforward after his death. I have had a similar struggle with my relationship with my mother after her death; more than once, I have asked God for the forgiveness she cannot now give me.

    ***
    Thanks again, David, for sharing your journey. I find it fascinating and I enjoy the opportunity to explore my own thinking via yours. Shalom.

    1. I might be obeying the rules but why should God listen when my intention is just to obey for the sake of obeying?

      Yes, EXACTLY, Linda.

      Our belief systems might differ but we are more alike than different; there is tremendous comfort in knowing that people are the same the world over. If only we could get out of our own way.

      This is also, so, SO true… I wish!

      I think many of the difficulties caused by any religion is the one size fits all approach to a planet of individuals. Yes, there is much that is similar about us; but we are each THIS person…

      Exactly! And this is also an issue related to modernity – individualism is definitely not an ancient value – everything used to be about tribes and clans. Identity was once corporate, so to speak, for all of us – men, women, etc.

      Linda – I want to thank you too for adding so much meaning to this series – your reading it and commenting on it makes it even more precious to me.


      David

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