The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 28

I harbor doubts.

Am I not sufficiently devastated by my father’s death? How can I bring myself to write about this creatively, as I do, playing with language and imagery? Why do most other people grieve privately, rather than making a public spectacle of their mourning processes?

It isn’t easy to write these blog posts, but it feels impossible for me not to. I simply don’t know what else to do with myself.

* * *

Words from the prayers spring out at me this year. Two of the Amidah’s (the core of the prayer service’s) nineteen benedictions, recited back-to-back, bring Papa to my mind (blessings #13 & #14):

יג עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים… ×•Ö°×¢Ö¸×œÖµ×™× ×•Ö¼, יֶהֱמוּ נָא רַחֲמֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ… וְשִׂים חֶלְקֵנוּ עִמָּהֶם, וּלְעוֹלָם לֹא נֵבוֹשׁ כִּי-בְךָ בָטַחְנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, מִשְׁעָן וּמִבְטָח לַצַּדִּיקִים 13 To the righteous… and to us, may Your compassion be aroused, Lord our God… Set our lot with them, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You. Blessed are You, Lord, support and trust of the righteous.

My father was a righteous man, certainly
more so than I.

I will remain
proud of him always. Do I, therefore,
trust in God, whose concern and involvement I impugn?

יד וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב, וְתִשְׁכּוֹן בְּתוׁכָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ, וּבְנֵה אוֹתָהּ בְּקָרוֹב בְּיָמֵינוּ בִּנְיָן עוֹלָם, וְכִסֵּא דָוִד עַבְדְּךָ מְהֵרָה לְתוֹכָהּ תָּכִין. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי , בּוֹנֵה יְרוּשָׁלָיִם 14 And to Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You dwell in it as You promised. May You rebuild it rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure, and install within it soon the throne of David. Blessed are You, Lord, who builds Jerusalem.

Jerusalem lived in my father’s heart, eternally
home to his soul.

He always wished to be
buried in Jerusalem, but moved away
from his one true home for the betterment of his children.

* * *

These many years later, I remain most comfortable with the prayers that I learned in preparation for my bar mitzvah during ‘Junior Congregation’. The tachanun prayer is not recited on Shabbat, and so I only learned [of] it much later.

Tachanun appeals to God to have mercy on us for our sins; usually, I don’t recite it. I have sinned, but God is of no help when it comes to living with myself, and the wicked still remain unpunished. People’s assertions of Divine judgment aim to gird the devout* and assure the anxious*, but I am neither.

*A side note:
The Hebrew word for anxious is chareid (חָרֵד).
The word for ultra-Orthodox is chareidi (חֲרֵדִי).

Still, I do read the poignant tachanun prayer while the faithful are confessing, and my eyes often alight upon the following words from Psalm 6:

ג חָנֵּנִי יְהוָה, כִּי אֻמְלַל-אָנִי: רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה–כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי 3 Be gracious unto me, Lord, for I languish away; heal me, Lord, for my bones are affrighted.
ד וְנַפְשִׁי, נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד; ואת (וְאַתָּה) יְהוָה, עַד-מָתָי 4 My soul also is much affrighted; and Thou, Lord, until when?
ה שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, חַלְּצָה נַפְשִׁי; הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי, לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ 5 Return, Lord, release my soul; save me for Thy mercy’s sake.
ו כִּי אֵין בַּמָּוֶת זִכְרֶךָ; בִּשְׁאוֹל, מִי יוֹדֶה-לָּךְ 6 For in death there is no remembrance of Thee; in Sheol who will give Thee thanks?

This translation of nefesh (נַפְשִׁ) as ‘soul’ in verses 4 and 5 is off, but it’s understandable, given the juxtaposition to atzamai (עֲצָמָי) in verse 3, meaning: ‘my bones’. The interpretive flaw above lies in the translator’s use of modern Hebrew to decipher biblical poetry.

In my quest, I have acquired the book Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael. The volume charts a journey through the evolution of Jewish eschatology, beginning with biblical times. Whereas in modern Hebrew, the word nefesh has come to mean soul (or: psyche),

[In the Bible] the Hebrew word nefesh does not imply a soul, or spirit, in contradistinction to a body. The differentiation between body and soul, with the accompanying notion of a soul exiting the body upon death, was totally foreign in early biblical times and did not emerge in the Jewish consciousness until many centuries later. Nefesh was understood in a unitive way as the totality of being – ‘man does not have nefesh, he is nefesh, he lives as nefesh.’

– Jewish Views of the Afterlife, page 56

In fact, the word ‘myself’ in Arabic (Hebrew’s sister tongue) is nafsi (نفسي), which shares the same root as the Hebrew nefesh. Not only that, but in the Hebrew of our day ‘myself’ is atzmi (עצמי), which hearkens back to atzamai (my bones), which we saw in Psalm 6:3 above. This psalm isn’t drawing a distinction between the body and the soul, but rather seems to be underscoring the bottomlessness of the psalmist’s fright, which shakes his very core.

While alive, a human being is considered a nefesh hayyah (Gen. 2:7), a living nefesh, a vital psychophysical entity. Once dead, the individual becomes a nefesh met (Lev. 21:11, Num. 6:6), a dead nefesh, a depotentiated psychophysical entity.

– ibid.

The biblical concept of nefesh hayyah/met appeals to me. It blunts the fangs of the unknowable; we are all nefesh, alive or dead. Raphael (ibid.) cites Johannes Pedersen (1883 – 1977), a noted Old Testament scholar, who stresses: “Life and death [in the bible] are not sharply distinguished spheres, because they do not mean existence or nonexistence.” This may hint at nihilism to some, but I find it comforting. To me, the notion recalls Genesis 3, which asserts:

יט בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ, תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם, עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה, כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ: כִּי-עָפָר אַתָּה, וְאֶל-עָפָר תָּשׁוּב 19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

We are

Nefesh / Dust


It’s really all
the same.

* * *

Going back to Psalm 6, another word bears attention: what is Sheol?

The nefesh hayyah, the living person, dwelt with family clan, tribe, or nation in the terrestrial realm. Upon death, the individual descended into the subterranean realm and as a nefesh met dwelt in the grave, in the family tomb, and eventually in Sheol, the abode of the ancestral dead.

– Jewish Views, page 56

Two particular and related aspects of death as understood in early biblical times appeal to me: 1) its amoral character, 2) its exclusive concern with the collective, rather than the individual. As Raphael explains (p. 53):

[Sheol] is not a realm of torment or punishment; it is simply the domain of the dead. The negative, punitive aspects that later characterized Sheol were almost completely lacking in its original conception.

And (p. 43):

From its inception, biblical Judaism… was concerned… not at all with the postmortem fate of the individual Israelite per se. In patriarchal and Mosaic times… there is no notion of an individual afterlife experience for the soul… nor any idea of a soul separate from the body.

It is not until the Book of Jeremiah (completed during the last half of the 6th century BCE) that “the concept of individual retribution, and hence individual responsibility, finally enters Jewish thought” (ibid., p. 61). Theologian John Hick (1922 – 2012) explains this theological shift in the context of the Babylonian exile in his book Death and Eternal Life (p. 70):

So long as the stream of national life continued in full spate… the immortality of the nation did not require an individual immortality… But with the crushing Babylonian conquest… and the exile… faith in continuing national existence was shaken and the individual became more conscious of his own personal status and destiny.

This is when the concept of Divine judgment was introduced into Judaism, and it came about as a response to national insecurity. If we hadn’t been exiled from the Kingdom of Judah, the entire mythology behind the recitation of kaddish and its supposed metaphysical impact upon the souls of our departed might never have developed.

This doctrinal shift leaves me cringing.

* * *

Not only does there exist no indication of Divine judgment beyond the written and spoken words of believers, but the biblical Jewish understanding of death in its national context has been abandoned by us. In the Book of Genesis, our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were simply “gathered to their people.” To my heart, this imagery is achingly beautiful.

I am reminded of a section from a poem by Rav Kook (1865-1935) in the second volume of Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness), which he titled the ‘Fourfold Song’. In it, he explores the theme of universalism vs. particularism and identifies five personality types, each of which “sings a song” expressing its primary mode of empathy. These are the songs of 1) the self, 2) the nation, 3) humanity, 4) the universe, and 5) God. Personally, I relate most closely to the ‘song of the nation’:

ויש שהוא שר שירת האומה, יוצא הוא מתוך המעגל של נפשו הפרטית, שאינו מוצא אותה מרוחבת כראוי. ולא מיושבת ישוב אידיאלי, שואף למרומי עז, והוא מתדבק באהבה עדינה עם כללותה של כנסת ישראל, ועמה הוא שר את שיריה, מצר בצרותיה, ומשתעשע בתקותיה, הוגה דעות עליונות וטהורות על עברה ועל עתידה, וחוקר באהבה ובחכמת לב את תוכן רוחה הפנימי And there is one who sings the song of the nation. He leaves the circle of his own individual self, because he finds it without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis. He aspires toward the heights, and he cleaves himself, with a gentle love, to the whole community of Israel. Together with her he sings her songs. He feels grieved in her afflictions and delights in her hopes. He contemplates noble and pure thoughts about her past and her future, and probes with love and wisdom her inner spiritual essence.

* * *

If my father hadn’t died so suddenly, I might never have started this ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series; the daily surreality of the loss of my Papa remains no less intense for me today than my grief. Some people are given the opportunity to steel themselves, as their loved ones’ bodies deteriorate, but I learned of my father’s hospitalization and death quite unexpectedly, just after Shabbat had ended in Israel.

I take no small solace in the fact that Papa died quickly and painlessly. He had been put under and was lying unconscious when his being became fully depotentiated; Papa was gathered to his ancestors in the mere span of five hours.

When I called my father’s beloved cousins Senya and Bella in Israel during the shiva in New Jersey at my mother’s request, Bella listened intently to my description of Papa’s death, and then she said to me:

I understand. Your father lived and died like an angel.

4 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 28”

  1. I reiterate my earlier point – your loss is so great, it had to be shared. This was clearly such a profound loss for you, you needed the world to know what a wonderful man he was. You honour him with your public grief.

    People grieve in many different ways; I would just accept that this was what you needed to do to move on. I have written quite a number of poems about my loss of my parents and I hope one day they will form part of a larger collection about them, and that people will read them.

    I believe there’s a deep-seated human need to shout our losses to the world, or there would be far fewer headstones in cemeteries, obituary pages, not to mention park benches with plaques, charities set up in the names of the dead, and so on. I know that when my Dad died and we couldn’t afford a headstone, I never properly moved on until he got one; it was as if he had never existed without that marker, and I desperately needed to let the world know that he HAD existed and he meant something to someone.

    Please be kind to yourself and accept that it’s okay that you wrote this blog. One day, when your grief is less of an ache than it is now, there’s nothing to stop you taking it down. And if you never do, that’s okay, too xx

    1. I know that when my Dad died and we couldn’t afford a headstone, I never properly moved on until he got one; it was as if he had never existed without that marker, and I desperately needed to let the world know that he HAD existed and he meant something to someone.

      Thanks for sharing this, Linda…


  2. ‘Am I not sufficiently devastated by my father’s death? How can I bring myself to write about this creatively, as I do, playing with language and imagery? Why do most other people grieve privately, rather than making a public spectacle of their mourning processes?’
    I believe you were absolutely devastated by your father’s death, which is why you ARE grieving publicly; so great a loss must be shared. It’s not public spectacle; it’s writing for wellbeing, to help you come to terms with your loss. If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t write about it. And there’d be no quest.
    Your father’s cousin’s quote – what a tribute to him. Such a man should be long mourned. x

    1. it’s writing for wellbeing, to help you come to terms with your loss.

      Linda, thanks for your empathy… I do agree that it helped me – I cannot imagine what I would have done otherwise – how would I have coped? On the other hand, I couldn’t help (and can’t help) asking myself – why did I need to do it this way? How is it that most other mourners cope without publicly proclaiming the deaths of their loved ones over and over? I mean, somehow… people throughout all of human history have managed to deal with loss, right?

      I guess you could say that not all people actually “deal” with it… but, still… I could just as well have written my thoughts in a private journal, and I did not do that – I instinctively posted my first blog post in a very public online forum that countless people can find.


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