Jewish tradition: mourning in community
Papa died in July of 2018. I started blogging about my journey of mourning (i.e. kaddish) that August. That year was very intensive for me; I produced a great deal of content based upon numerous readings; research; reflections; recollections; conversations; and, yes, prayer. The kaddish, after all, is a prayer.
I have written so much about kaddish that I won’t belabor the following point; I will simply spell it out: traditionally, the kaddish doxology is only recited among other Jews in a prayer quorum of ten adults. In other words, upon losing a loved one, those Jews who are inclined towards tradition will [at least attempt to] attend prayer services at a synagogue on a daily basis so that they can recite kaddish in memory and honor of their deceased loved ones.
My kaddish year ended in the summer of 2019. The global pandemic began less than one year later. By coincidence, I launched this blog at around at that time.
COVID-19 & kaddish
Even after I completed my year of mourning; even after I had recited my final kaddish; even after I had stopped researching and blogging about my experience of Jewish mourning… I couldn’t stop.
I conducted Google searches on kaddish every day; I continued looking for other kaddish bloggers; I continued thinking about Jewish mourning… I couldn’t stop myself. That is, to a large extent, why I decided to create this blog – I desperately needed some sort of outlet.
Obsessed with kaddish as I was, you can guess what I first thought of when all of the shuls (synagogues) were shuttered due to COVID-19. I immediately thought:
- “Oh no – those poor mourners!” and:
- “Thank God I completed my year of kaddish recitations before the pandemic hit – I would have been so lost that year without the structure of Jewish tradition. What would I have written about without reciting kaddish? What would I have reflected upon? Whom would I have exchanged my doubts with?”
You see, as much I made my traditional year of kaddish a uniquely personalized spiritual expedition (and, at that, one that embraced my theological skepticism), it wouldn’t have been much of a journey without the traditional Jewish framework that has served us for centuries. Sure, I went beyond the demands of Jewish tradition… but it was always-always dependably present in my daily life, ever beckoning for my reactions to its expectations.
COVID-19 upended human lives in sundry ways all around the world. For Jewish mourners, one of the greatest fatalities of the pandemic was the opportunity to recite the mourner’s kaddish for their loved ones. Synagogues were closed, prayer quorums were limited in number of attendees, and many Jewish mourners were left without their communities – and without their kaddish.
Alternatives to traditional kaddish
The pandemic forced people to get creative, and various alternatives to traditional kaddish recitation were proposed by various Jewish leaders and communities. Of course, different denominations took different approaches, as was to be expected.
The religiously liberal Jewish denominations generally accepted the idea that prayer services could be conducted online, rather than in person, and their religious authorities ruled that a virtual prayer quorum would suffice for the purposes of permitting mourners to recite kaddish. In the Orthodox world, opinions were divided, with most communities rejecting the religious validity of online prayer quorums.
Given my fascination and deep investment in the concept of kaddish, read everything that I could find on the subject; and I came across an article written by a young Orthodox rabbi who works at Brandeis University. Rabbi Seth Winberg published an opinion piece in the JTA, in which he suggested that Jewish tradition had long provided alternatives for kaddish in the absence of a minyan (prayer quorum):
Our ancestors created legitimate substitutions for Kaddish when a minyan wasn’t available, or when someone arrived late to shul, by using biblical verses with words similar to Kaddish — and we would do well to avail ourselves of those solutions now.– Rabbi Seth Winberg, March 25, 2020
Rabbi Winberg wrote of “a modified version of the traditional prayer” which could be recited “privately at home,” and, curious, I reached out to him, requesting a copy of that 12th-13th century text, which he ever so kindly provided to me.
This prayer is very little known, or, at least, it certainly was before the pandemic broke out (and probably still is). In fact, I haven’t seen it included in a single Jewish prayerbook.
Anniversaries of Papa’s death
Last summer, when it came time for the 2nd anniversary of Papa’s death, Israel had entered its 2nd lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 1st lockdown, I remember hoping that we would come out of it in time for me to host a kiddush (refreshments after prayer services on Shabbat) in Papa’s honor. Naively, I never expected another lockdown.
To me, at that time, the shuttering of our synagogue was a temporary measure. To my mind, the dissolution of my Shabbat prayer community was also temporary. Thus, despite the 2nd lockdown, I invited my acquaintances and friends from my formerly existent prayer community to a kiddush in the park after services – back then, I was still relating to our weekly prayer quorum as merely having lapsed, rather than being gone.
Today, based upon Israel’s current reality, it seems possible that my Shabbat prayer community will gradually reconstitute itself, but most of its members have yet to return. The attendance and camaraderie today are shadows of what they once were. Israel’s situation is improving, but the way back to “normalcy” will be slow and long. Things will likely never be what they once were.
In any case, while I allow myself some optimism for the future, my Shabbat community does not currently exist as it did once. And, unlike last year, I don’t particularly want to host a kiddush in the park for a community that hasn’t been part of my life for more than a year. That feels unnatural to me.
“Kaddish for an individual”
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.-Me, ‘More skeptic than kaddish’, July 19, 2020
Last year, I somewhat accidentally missed reciting kaddish on the anniversary of Papa’s death. This year, I may do so deliberately. As I wrote last year, my practical Papa would not have cared. Perhaps we’ll mark his passing at a local waffle café that our daughter loves, just as we did last year. Afterwards, I’ll probably light a candle.
In terms of reciting kaddish, I may recite the prayer that Rabbi Winberg introduced me to – the kaddish for the individual. Technically, that prayer was designed for circumstances in which one is not able to join a full prayer quorum (which is traditionally required for kaddish recitation), but I can use it for my own purposes without breaking with Jewish tradition.
“Kaddish for an Individual” – prayer text
from Sefer Hasidim (12th-13th century Rhineland)
|אָדָם שֶׁהוּא דָּר בַּכְּפָר וְאֵין עִמּוֹ עֲשָׂרָה לוֹמַר דָּבָר שֶׁבִּקְדֻשָּׁה אוֹ בִּמְקוֹם קְהִלָּה וְאִחֵר לָבֹא עַד אֲשֶׁר אָמְרוּ כְּבָר יְהֵא שְׁמֵי’ רַבָּא יֹאמַר||A person who lives in a village without a prayer quorum or who arrived late after they had already said “may God’s great name…” should instead say:|
|וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר (במדבר יד:יז).||Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying (Numbers 14:17):|
|וְהִתְגַּדִּלְתִּי וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתִּי וְנוֹדַעְתִּי לְעֵינֵי גּוֹיִם רַבִּים וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי ה’ (יחזקאל לח:כג).||Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness, and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 38:23).|
|יְהִי שֵׁם ה’ מְבֹרָךְ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם (תהלים קיג:ב).||Let the name of the LORD be blessed now and forever (Psalms 113:2).|