Tradition: just do it?

Some axioms for life

  • Once an institution comes into existence, its top priority becomes perpetuating its existence;
    • If an institution achieves its stated goals, it will assign itself new goals in order to justify and perpetuate its continued existence;
  • All religions are institutions.

Kaddish: basic logistics

  • There are several different versions of the kaddish prayer (technically, it’s a doxology), but the best known of these is oft called the mourner’s kaddish, which is recited by Jewish mourners after they have lost close relatives;
    • Traditionally, the mourner’s kaddish is recited daily for 30 days following the death of a spouse, sibling, or child; and it is recited daily for twelve (or eleven) Hebrew months following the death of a parent;
    • Traditionally, the mourner’s kaddish is recited at each of the three daily prayer services – morning, afternoon, and evening.
  • Traditionally, one may only recite kaddish with a Jewish prayer quorum, which is defined as ten males of age (13 yrs old +) in Orthodox communities and ten humans of age in most non-Orthodox communities;
    • Prayer services with prayer quorums may be held anywhere, but they are most often held at synagogues.

Putting aside the metaphysical

For the purposes of this post, let’s put aside the metaphysical. Let’s put aside the purported effects of living people’s prayers upon their dead loved ones.

While I don’t deny that the supernatural may exist, I believe that all religious traditions and rituals originally developed, first and foremost, as reflections and outgrowths of individual and communal human needs, be they social, spiritual, economic, etc.

From the perspective of the Jewish mourner, our tradition forces us into our communities after we lose our loved ones. After all, the mourner’s kaddish, that doxology that we recite multiple times every day for an extended period of time can only be recited within a Jewish prayer quorum — that is to say: among other Jews.

From the perspective of Jewish communities, for which synagogue life has long been central to their existence, having a regular stream of participants attending communal prayer services is clearly a win. After all, plenty of Jewish people are disinclined to go to shul (synagogue) daily, let alone weekly or monthly. In fact, many daily Jewish prayer quorums are comprised of retirees with no family & work responsibilities; it’s fairly easy to understand why this is so.

Therefore, the tradition of reciting mourner’s kaddish, which compels many of even the most unaffiliated Jews, serves to keep synagogues stocked with congregants. In fact, the experience of reciting mourner’s kaddish (particularly for the duration of an entire year in the case of a deceased parent) is so powerful that many mourners continue attending prayer services long after their allotted kaddish periods have ended.


Tradition: just do it?

It’s fair to say that the more traditional the community, the less personal, creative religious expression is encouraged. The traditional message is, essentially: ‘There is a traditional way of doing things, which has been handed down to us through the many centuries, and it, by definition, meets all of our human needs, if only we commit ourselves to it fully and deeply.’

Nevertheless, it took me one no more than a single month of daily kaddish recitations following Papa’s death before I felt that Jewish tradition wasn’t doing it for me. I needed something more. I needed to feel that it was my kaddish, not simply the kaddish. And that’s when I started my kaddish writing project, which begat this blog.

I don’t think I can entirely qualify how much love, effort, time, and energy went into that project. I remain very proud of it, and I often wonder how the heck I managed to get through those 51 blog posts, which wove my personal kaddish reflections & experiences together with my memories of Papa and with the intensive research that I did throughout the course of that year. Seriously – how the heck did I do manage it?

But from the perspective of organized Jewish community, one might say that my kaddish writing project frustrated one of the primary, practical goals of the mourner kaddish institution. Not only did I find and create my own meaning in mourning, rather than derive it primarily from my communal experience; but, ultimately, I ended up convincing myself even more firmly of my religious skepticism. I went through the motions of tradition but simultaneously set myself apart from it and observed it from the side. Everything I read and wrote that year only served to further convince me of my preconceived beliefs.

After all, which part of my Jewish mourning experience has remained with me to this day? It certainly hasn’t been my synagogue attendance, which is currently non-existent… rather, it’s been my writing, which has evolved into something more than I’d expected and continues to define and shape my identity profoundly.

35 thoughts on “Tradition: just do it?”

  1. Enjoyed your article and found it thought provoking. I agree that bad traditions are smothering, and I know little of kaddish. Good traditions can connect us to each other and make it feel like we belong to something bigger than us. Take marriage for example. You might not understand why you are doing it, but if you accept the ancient tradition and take responsibility for another, you may find an unexpected well of purpose, meaning and happiness.

    1. Michael, I have a tradition-inclined personality, it seems. While I was raised by parents who self-identify as secular, I became very traditional (some would say I live a religious lifestyle), primarily because I find my traditional beautiful and meaningful, and – because I perceive the Jewish tradition as the glue that has kept my people in existence for so many generations.

      That said, I have found that not all traditions “work” for me – and attempting to force them onto myself only results in resentment and frustration, pushing me further away from even those traditions that I enjoy.

      ❀
      David

  2. I’ve had this type of tradition vs culture vs individual spiritual experience discussion with a close friend and a couple of my children. I joined a particular church when I was 17. Several were my reasons and I feel blessed for the experiences of this community. Shortly over 4 years ago I became a widow and my learning curve has been immense. My husband and I always followed traditional ways but believed firmly, and acted upon our belief, that the purpose was much deeper than appearances. In the past year, I have found so many cultural traditions imbedded in this organization. I focus on my heart and who I really am, seeking truth beyond appearances. Thank you for your forthright manner. It’s very refreshing. I can see another post for my writing. May I link to this post of yours?

    1. Vicki, it’s very kind of you to ask for permission, but I am comfortable with people sharing my content – that’s why those buttons are available to you πŸ™‚

      I look fwd to reading your reflections.

      All best,
      David

  3. I agree there is room for both in most lives. Grief is individual, but community support of some kind seems essential to me. In a world that has tried to eliminate and sanitize the reality of death, I really understand the urge to be part of some accepting, even affirming, ritual. No one just “gets over it”. And so we each need to find our own balance and community. (K)

        1. Kerfe is her name – it’s pronounced kerf-ee ~ I have no idea what its origins are, but it’s a unique name for a uniquely talented and lovely human being πŸ™‚

  4. This is so insightful and introspective David.
    I do love the time and honor of the 30 day period to honor and mourn the deceased. Even though the spirit leaves, the way we have connected with our loved ones is through a physical exchange. I love what you created with your writing and our bloggin family creating you own kaddish with your Papa.
    We kept Harry 3 days after his death in our family room and his sister 4 which helped us transition πŸ’–

  5. I don’t know why there should be rivalry between secular and regious ones. Secularism doesn’t mean that religion should be discarded by one and all.

    Coming to traditions, we also follow anyhow, but if we go into depth, we find that there is some logic, scientific ones, behind those traditions, whether we accept or not, that’s precisely own perspective.

  6. I find the idea of a kind of communal grief hard to grasp, though I’m sure having a sense of community can help the mourner. You have expressed beautifully just how personal an experience mourning can be.

  7. Thank you, once again for this insightful (and very honest) post. I believe traditions(religious or otherwise) are meant to bring families together, more than anything else, but somehow in my family, it has done the exact opposite! Strange, isn’t it. I suppose people (you and me included) have changed with times and circumstances. I am happy the way I am. As long as we know who we are. πŸ€—πŸ€—πŸŒ»β€οΈπŸŒ·

    1. somehow in my family, it has done the exact opposite!

      Yes – I can imagine that, Diana! My wife and I are the “religious ones” in our family – the majority are entirely secular so our religious observances create some barriers between us and them, particularly our observance of Shabbat, when we can’t drive to visit them or go out to restaurants, etc.

      How about you?

      ❀
      David

      1. Unfortunately (maybe fortunately) we do not have too much of interaction with our relatives because we are here out in Dubai, and a majority of them are scattered around the globe. So we do what we need to do, and don’t really let others’ comments bother us too much. Everyone has their own equal right to be as they have to. ❀️

  8. So interesting reading of your experiences, David. After losing my Mum and being awakened to a newborn faith (outside of any religious setting) , I began attending church (because it’s what I grew up with). But after several harmful experiences, I left.

    I have since discovered a community of believers who also don’t attend a church (incidentally also through my writing). I don’t foresee myself returning to a physical church either. Like this, I am free to pursue a relationship with my living breathing God amongst those who also have an intimate relationship with Him also. It is a breath of fresh air.

  9. Clearly, the orthodox process involves power, it seems to strengthen the bond between the individual and the synagogue and presumably allows the synagogue to exert more of a “gravitational pull”. Is there more to it than that, though? Are individuals encouraged to donate money to the synagogue, for example?

    1. There is a concept of donating money in memory of a departed loved one, but not necessarily to the synagogue… although synagogues often do have various fundraising drives – and it’s a common tradition to donate money in the NAME OF our loved ones who died – so you’ll see various plaques all over synagogues (on the pews, on the walls, on the shelves, etc., etc.) with the names of those who are being honored by the donations of their children and grandchildren… but I wouldn’t say there’s any pressure to donate – it’s just a very common thing to do.

  10. It is my understanding that the aspect of community is fostered when we gather for prayer. It would seem that after a death, the coming together with others 3 times a day for 11-12 months would foster connections that would fill (imperfectly) the loss of connectedness that we had with the one who has died. Although you no longer have the strands of connection with the congregants at the synagogue, you forged new community through your blog. It is my experience, having lost my father, that my blogging friends were the best and most supportive community I could have asked for.

    1. you know, Muri, that is actually a terrific insight. thank you.

      at one point, during my year of mourning, I wrote about how I remembered Papa catching me as I fell backwards into his arms (the trust game), and I reflected upon how reciting kaddish, for me, was like falling backwards… in that post (which I could find if I were to look for it) I asked – who is catching me now?

      and one of my fellow congregants wrote something obvious to me by email upon reading my question, which I hadn’t considered for some reason – that the congregation was “catching me”. His insight helped me visualize what was going on with me at that time much in the same way that your insight does, Muri.

      thanks ❀
      David

  11. Very interesting and much appreciated, David. For a number of reasons, not least of which is, as Peter pointed out, your honesty. My own experience of religion–however much I have prayed or performed rituals–has never gone beyond the intellectual. Which has left me doubtful ever how much I might be able to achieve any sense of belonging to the religious community. Reading your experiences, my friend, is ever enlightening. And calming.

    1. George, I have been through periods of my life when I either believed, or convinced myself that I believed, in God in a traditional Jewish way… but the more I consider this from the perspective of my lived experience, the less plausible and probable it seems to me.

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