More skeptic than kaddish

During my first year of mourning, as I recited the kaddish on a daily basis, exploring and reflecting upon this famous Jewish doxology, I had neither the time nor the bandwidth to do justice in my writings to all that I was learning and pondering.

Among the many tidbits that I omitted was the following: traditionally, parents would refer to their sons as ‘my kaddish’, which is to say that the son himself was his parents’ kaddish by virtue of the fact that he was expected to take the responsibility of reciting the mourner’s kaddish for his mother and father upon their deaths, thereby redeeming and/or elevating their souls. In fact, this use of the word ‘kaddish’ is still mainstream in the most religiously conservative Jewish communities today. I am Papa’s kaddish, and I am Mama’s kaddish.

I wanted to recite the kaddish for Papa every day that first year, as is traditionally expected of a bereaved son, but I truly didn’t know if I could make it through an entire year of daily prayer services because I didn’t believe in any of the mythological explanations behind this ancient tradition. Blogging the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series that year generated the fuel I needed.

Somewhat paradoxically, it also reinforced my religious skepticism.

* * *

When I first met Orthodox Jews as a student in college, I would hear them express the following: “I’m not Orthodox. I’m just Jewish.” Here’s what they meant by this:

“There are no Jewish religious denominations because there is only one authentic version of Judaism, defined by the Torah and the mitzvot (Divine commandments). Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and even Orthodox Judaism are meaningless concepts. All that matters is God’s will, handed down to us by an unbroken tradition going all the way back to the Torah that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, and I am a follower of that tradition.”

Today, more than two decades later, I would also say: “I’m not Orthodox. I’m just Jewish” – but I mean something quite different by this.

I present as a Zionist, Orthodox, Israeli Jew. If you were to meet me, you would see a bearded male with a kippah on his head and sandals on his feet. Further, my family keeps a kosher kitchen, and we keep the Sabbath in a traditional way. BUT: I don’t believe that God commanded us to do any of these things, and I may well perform actions that I know are against halakhah (Jewish law) in private.

Contrary to mainstream Orthodox Jewish thought, I recognize the validity of all Jewish denominations as expressions of many people’s Jewish identities. BUT: None of them are home to me. All are institutions, networks of institutions, or umbrellas of institutional networks. They all have in-groups and out-groups. They all espouse some ideas that I accept, and they all espouse other ideas that I flatly reject. I trust none of them.

But I will always remain a Jew.

* * *

It was empowering to honor Papa’s memory by reciting kaddish daily for a year, as Jewish tradition demands. However, it was more empowering to do so with integrity.

Since I’m ‘socially Orthodox’, so to speak, which means that I look like an Orthodox Jew, can go through the motions of Orthodox daily life well enough to ‘pass’ as Orthodox, and prefer Orthodox prayer services, one of the most difficult things about publishing my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series in a public forum was coming out to the world (and more importantly: to everyone who knows me) as a somebody who doesn’t buy into the doctrine maintained by his religious community.

Unexpectedly, the acceptance and support that I received from friends and role models in my community that year made a profoundly positive impact upon me. People whom I think highly of as humans and Jewish leaders gave me respect for my kaddish project, validating me. Not one suggested that my beliefs were unreasonable or wrong. Rather, they engaged me in conversations, relating to my views as a legitimate side to the ‘conversation’.

Over time, I increasingly came to feel that my voice was truly valid – that I had something worthwhile to contribute to our people’s conversation about our shared heritage. My confidence grew, and so too did my self-identification with religious skepticism. I did not, by any stretch of the imagination, become more of a believer over that course of that year. If anything, I only came to feel more strongly about my lack of conviction in the fulfillment of God’s will and in the likelihood of His involvement in our lives.

I certainly wasn’t reciting kaddish for God, and I wasn’t even reciting kaddish for Papa, who wouldn’t have cared about this mourning tradition in the slightest. I was doing it for myself – and that is the only reason that Papa would have wanted me to do so.

* * *

Papa’s first yahrzeit (Hebrew anniversary of his death) brought my first year of mourning to a close. Experientially, this felt like the true end of my year-long kaddish journey, and I was determined to mark it at shul with the community that had made space for my kaddish all that year. Also, by sheer coincidence, his first yahrzeit fell out on the Sabbath, which is the day when shul-goers traditionally sponsor and partake in communal kiddush after Saturday morning services.

I continued going to shul for some months after that, but once the rainy season began (i.e. the Israeli winter), my motivation to walk to shul every morning through the dark and the rain decreased dramatically, and I stopped. As I would have expected, my personal prayer practice also fell apart in the absence of my shul attendance.

My intention was to return to shul in the spring, but then COVID-19 broke out, and that never happened due to the nationwide lockdown. Even after the lockdown ended, prayer services were restricted to the patio outside, prayer-goers had to sit far apart from one another with masks on over their faces, and our weekly kiddushes were cancelled indefinitely. Self-centered person that I am, I didn’t want to bear any of these personal discomforts for the sake of community, and I continued to stay home.

Over the course of the past month, several members of our Saturday morning minyan, including myself, hosted kiddushes in honor of their departed parents in the park next to the synagogue, and I attended prayer services on those dates before joining these social gatherings. Otherwise, I’ve continued staying at home and my shul attendance has remained practically non-existent.

In the spirit of honesty, I must share that it didn’t take much to dissuade me from waking up early in the mornings in order to spend an hour on walking back and forth to shul and praying there with my community. If one doesn’t believe that God commanded him to act a particular way, it becomes difficult to find alternative motivations that are sufficiently compelling in the long-run, or so I find.

* * *

The candle that we lit for Papa’s yahrzeit

And… so… while I hosted a kiddush in Papa’s memory two Saturdays ago (July 11th), the actual date of the yahrzeit fell out on July 16th, which was last Thursday. I’d known this for some time, and I’d thought I would make my way to shul that morning in order to recite kaddish in his honor. This is traditionally done, for once the first year of mourning has ended, one only recites the mourner’s kaddish in honor of his loved once annually, on their yahrzeits.

On Wednesday evening, as we’d planned, the three of us went out to a local cafΓ© for dinner and dessert. We deliberately picked one that our daughter enjoys because her Dedushka Shurik (my Papa) would have wanted us to enjoy ourselves – of this I am certain. When we returned home, just before sunset, we lit a yahrzeit candle in his memory, and we very deliberately spoke of our love for Papa and his love for us so that our daughter would understand the significance of the day and of preserving our memories of Papa.

That night, I was writing poetry late at night, and I realized that I was extremely tired. The idea of waking up very early in order to drag myself to shul felt more than unappealing to me. I weighed my options: A) wake up early and go to shul to recite kaddish, or B) wake up at a more reasonable hour and forgo the annual kaddish recitation.

I chose not to go to shul.

* * *

I have justifications, but by the standards of the mainstream Orthodox Jewish community, they are all inadequate. I did not honor my Papa publicly in my community on the anniversary of his death, as sons have traditionally done for their deceased parents for hundreds of years, as I could have despite the COVID-19 restrictions. Now, I will only have the opportunity to recite kaddish for Papa next year – on his next yahrzeit.

But… I don’t feel too bad about it. I feel sad, but I’m honestly not sure if I’m simply sad because two years have already passed since Papa’s death, or if I’m additionally sad that I didn’t recite kaddish for him this year. It’s hard for me to tell.

Papa certainly wouldn’t have cared about me reciting kaddish for him on his yahrzeit. If anything, as I’ve said, he would have appreciated the idea of his loved ones enjoying themselves in his memory. He may have even empathized with the inclination to light a candle in memory of a loved one (even though he would never have done so himself).

Also, I really don’t feel religiously obligated to recite kaddish because I don’t feel any religious obligation. As traditional as I am, almost nothing I do is for the sake of God or done because I think He expects it of me or cares about my actions.

So – without any premeditation – I marked Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit much like a secular Jew might… and while I’m not yet sure how I’ll feel myself inclined to mark Papa’s future yahrzeits, I know that he would, first and foremost, want me to do whatever I personally find most meaningful. He would agree with the obvious: all of our mourning practices are intended to bring comfort to the living.

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