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

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