The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 43

Given my dazedness and state of shock last July, I had no preconceived assumptions nor expectations of my sudden, unanticipated status as a mourner. Then, abruptly, in the middle of Papa’s funeral, I found myself stung sharply with tenderness towards the friends and family who had been closest to him.

Papa lived a rather solitary life due to his hearing impairment (blog #19), but he resided in proximity to several friends and would go out with each of them every month or so; he used to mention his lunch dates to me with fondness. While sitting shiva, I recall being particularly moved to learn that one friend had always brought a notebook and pen whenever getting together with Papa- that way they could be sure to understand one another over the restaurant din.

30 days after the burial, when I was back in Jerusalem, another of Papa’s friends was moved to read those stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to my father’s name (אלכסנדר) at his graveside. I hadn’t yet learned then of this tradition, but now, as ‘Daddy Pig’ would say, “I’m an expert at 119.”

With the unveiling soon upon us, that same friend was kind enough to check in with me regarding my thoughts on what prayers and Psalms I might like to recite at Papa’s grave. In addition to Psalm 119, we both naturally thought of El Malei Rachamim (EMR), the traditional Jewish prayer for the soul of the departed. It is among the many Jewish mourning traditions that I have discovered this year.

At some point after my return to Israel from the shiva, the gabbai of my regular minyan asked me if I would like to have EMR recited at the synagogue to mark the first 30 days of mourning. At that time, I was battling back feelings of frustration and resentment towards shul norms and shook my head ‘no’ immediately, even grimacing involuntarily, which I immediately regretted. I didn’t know what EMR entailed, other than standing in front of the congregation while holding a Torah scroll, but I knew that my comfort zone did not extend much beyond the back wall of the synagogue.

Since my reluctant return to shul this year for kaddish, I’ve taken in many EMR recitations, which take place during public Torah reading days: Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays. In fact, my observations led me to make a false assumption (one in a line of many*): Since Torah readings are only held at shul in the presence of a minyan, I assumed that one could only recite EMR with a prayer quorum.

In any case, this isn’t true.

Unlike the recitation of kaddish, EMR does not require the presence of a minyan, and it is often intoned by solitary Jews at their loved ones’ gravesites. I won’t be on my own at Papa’s unveiling, but I could recite it even if I were.

*A tangent:
One of the reasons that I feel myself a perennial outsider in the Orthodox community is that my discovery of Jewish religious rituals is simply endless (and I’ve been at this for upwards of two decades). Untold numbers of traditions remain unfamiliar to me, including some that I’ve seen practiced countless times and assume I know.
An example: based upon years of observing Orthodox social norms, I had once assumed that only men may recite kiddush on Shabbat for their families. Imagine my shock when I began to delve into the halakha and learned that women can recite kiddush for men as well! 
(Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 271:2)

* * *

It doesn’t take much to pique my curiosity these days. What can we find out about El Malei Rachamim (EMR)?

The Hebrew volume Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus (‘The Book Containing Everything on Mourning’) was written by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955). Regarding EMR Greenwald makes the following observation (p. 211):

תפלת אל מלא רחמים. תפלה זו שנשפשטה מאד בחוגי ישראל לכל המינים, לא נודע מתי נתחברה… ״אל מלא רחמים״ לא נזכרה בשום ספר בספרי ראשונים… הראשון שמזכירה בשם ״אל מלא רחמים״ הוא המחבר מעבר יבק The prayer of EMR. This prayer -which has become very normative in Jewish circles of all kinds- it is not known when it became part of [Jewish tradition]… “EMR” is not mentioned in any book of the books of the Rishonim (the rabbinic leadership of the ~11th to ~15th centuries)… The first to mention it by the name “EMR” is the author of ‘Ma’abar Yabboḳ’ (Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena).

Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena died in 1639; and his Ma’abar Yabboḳ was published in 1626. We may assume, then, that the recitation of EMR only became popularly accepted in the 16th century, which is later than the origins of our mourner’s kaddish tradition. As I recall, the earliest text to mention the mourner’s kaddish is the Maḥzor Vitry, which was published in the twelfth century (blog #24). That was some four centuries before EMR was even a twinkle in the rabbis’ eyes.

In Dr. Ronald Eisenberg’s ‘Jewish Traditions: JPS Guide’, he explains the timing of this development (p. 87):

The prayer originated in the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe, where it was recited for the martyrs of the Crusades and of the Chmielnicki massacres.

Oof.

* * *

Historical developments in Jewish mourning practices such as El Malei Rachamim (EMR) were signs of the ongoing democratization of Judaism, which, according to Rabbi A. J. Heschel (1907-1972), began in the twelfth century, when the mourner’s kaddish tradition originated (see: blog #29).

It’s really quite fascinating. Consider that while we most often think of the mourner’s kaddish as the Jewish prayer for the dead, it actually makes no mention of death whatsoever. Clearly, the Jewish community needed something more explicit:

El Malei Rachamim

אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים, שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights,
הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה, עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה provide a true rest on the Divine Presence’s wings,
בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וּטְהוֹרִים, כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיעַ מַזְהִירִים in the holy and pure heights, like the brilliance of the sky do they radiate,
אֶת נִשְׁמַת אלכסנדר בן משה שֶׁהָלַךְ לְעוֹלָמוֹ, בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁנָּדְבוּ צְדָקָה בְּעַד הַזְכָּרַת נִשְׁמָתוֹ on behalf of the soul of Alexander son of Mosheh who left for His world, charity was given in memory of his soul.
בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתו the Garden of Eden shall be his rest
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Therefore, the Master of Mercy will hide him forever, in the hiding of his wings,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ and will bind his soul in the bond of life.
יְיָ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his inheritance,
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.

Such beautiful imagery; and I know just the right charity to donate to in memory of Papa’s soul.

* * *

Now that I’ve read through and translated the full prayer, I recall that Dr. Eisenberg highlights an evocative textual nuance (ibid.):

El Maleh Rahamim includes the phrase on the wings of the Divine Presence,’ rather than the more common under the wings of the Divine Presence.’

The latter phrase implies heavenly protection from danger by using the analogy of a bird spreading its protective wings over its young. The analogy is reversed when speaking of spiritual elevation–God’s presence is compared to a soaring eagle that puts its young on top of its wings and carries them aloft.

There’s much more to this. In the 17th volume of the Ḥakirah Journal, a journal of Jewish law and thoughtRabbi Yaakov Jaffe has an article titled “Upon the Wings of Eagles” and “Under the Wings of the Shekhinah”: Poetry, Conversion and the Memorial Prayer, in which he makes this point (pp. 195-6):

There are numerous scriptural passages that… convey the poetic image of being ‘under the wings’ of a stronger and more powerful Divine Being in the context of protection from danger. Psalm 17:8… ‘Hide me away in the shadow of Your wings’ … Psalm 61:4-5 conveys similar sentiments: ‘… I will be covered by being hidden by Your wings, selah.’ Other Psalms also speak about refuge, shelter, or concealment under God’s wings in difficult times… In contrast, there are no scriptural precedents for the image of being upon the wings of the Deity per se.

According to Rabbi Jaffe’s article, it’s not only that scripture doesn’t provide a basis for the imagery of “being on the wings (כנפיים – knafaim) of God”. In the 43rd chapter of his seminal Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides (1135-1204) comes down hard on the implication of God’s “wings” in Scripture (Jaffe, p. 200):

According to Maimonides, whenever the word ‘wing’ is used in reference to the Deity, it must be translated as ‘that which conceals’ or ‘that which covers.’ … Maimonides here indicates that the very translation of the word kanaf is ‘tool of covering or concealment.’ …

Despite all of this, Jaffe notes (p. 192-4) that:

Increasingly, [Modern Orthodox] congregations in the United States have begun turning to the text ‘al kanfei ha-Shekhinah’ … The dominance of this version in modern siddurim and modern communities is particularly striking in light of the practice of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik to use the ‘taḥat kanfei ha-Shekhinah’ formula. Soloveitchik, the leader of Modern Orthodox American Jewry for decades, preferred one version, although today, increasingly, congregations and prayer books that purport to represent the Modern Orthodox ideology prefer the other version.

Jaffe explains that the original shift from ‘under’ (תחת – taḥat) to ‘on’ (על – al) is attributed to the mystic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630), and made its way into the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mystical thought: Kabbalah. This is intriguing on its own merits, but also: did Modern Orthodoxy start slipping towards mysticism in the mid-20th century, or do people simply find the imagery of “true rest on the Divine Presence’s wings” more compelling? I’d wager that it’s the latter.

* * *

The very notion of God hiding my father’s soul under his protective metaphorical wings leaves me cold. Firstly, I don’t believe in postmortem metaphysical punishment in the slightest (ask: what would God be protecting Papa’s soul from?). Secondly, as regards Papa in particular:

This is unrelatable. My father was an incredibly kind and unassuming man, and the person he most hurt was himself. I am certain that my father punished himself more than enough during his lifetime.

– me, blog #11

In fact, Papa, strong and courageous spirit that he was, was much more a protector than one who sought protection from others. When I was born during a wet Jerusalem winter and it came time to bring me home from Hadassah Hospital, my father, anxious at the fragility and vulnerability of the tiny bundle that had been entrusted to him, cradled his newborn son in his arms and ran to the dormitory, shielding me from the rain with his broad, muscular torso. This was quintessentially Papa.

When he did need saving, it was always Papa’s boldness and boundless curiosity that got him into trouble. Whether it was getting stung by a rockfish while diving off the coast of Sharm El Sheikh or one of his misadventures in alpinism in the USSR, his eagerness and sense of adventure were most to blame.

In my mind’s eye, I envisage my father soaring ever higher on his new adventure, one from which he needs no saving. If Papa could soar upon God’s wings and come back to tell us of it, the photographs he surely would have taken would be absolutely epic.

Photo by Alexander Bogomolny z”l, 2016: Agamon HaHula, Israel

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 35

My kaddish journey has been uneventful recently. I’ve settled into my commitment, and the days are going by.

On Tuesday, I saw a poster on the building opposite ours indicating that a neighbor had just died. She was a very elderly woman who would often sit on the patio between our buildings in the sunshine. She always waved to our 4-year-old daughter, beckoning to her with a smile of pure joy. Through our limited interactions we came to learn her name: Zohara.

It was clear that Zohara’s health had been failing, and she was noticeably quite frail. She usually sat alone, save for her Filipina caregiver, although some of our other neighbors would occasionally stop to chat with her. Last Sunday, I waved to her in the afternoon as I made my way to pick up our daughter from preschool, noting the oxygen tube in her nose. Zohara was no longer sitting in the sunshine when we returned home.

The announcement, therefore, did not surprise me. (Also, ever since Papa died, I’ve come to perceive death everywhere and hovering just behind every one of us.)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote (blog #30):

From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment.

It’s true, but the permanence of death continues to unsettle my human sensibilities. Infinity may be of moments, but I experience only one.

Unlike us, the Torah has spanned countless, rippling moments, and its words have been taught in each. In our surging flow, however, the challenges are increasingly defying dry instruction. The Torah, for its own sake and perhaps for the sake of humanity, is called to answer every moment, but the questions pour out without end.

I once sought answers for my moment, but only questions last.

* * *

Recently, I’ve taken to listening to some modern religious music, and the sheer optimism of the God-oriented lyrics cheers me. How much more so for those who believe the answers?

Modern Israeli musicians often include bible verses in their songs, whether they’re religious or not. Hebrew is the holy tongue, after all; and 80% of Israelis believe in God (see: the 2012 AVI CHAI Israel report) so the lines are meant to resonate with the audience.

As I research various Jewish themes for my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series, I come across songs that move me. This week, I came across a haunting song (see above) by Israeli vocalist Zehava Ben, which she put out nearly thirty years ago. The lyrics are simply the first two lines (verses 105-106) of stanza נ (nun) of Psalm 119, which I am studying now in Papa’s memory.

In fact, it turns out that verse 105 was also popularized throughout the Christian world by Amy Grant’s song ‘Thy Word’, which has since been covered by many, many others: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path ♪♫

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:נ (verses 105-112)

[CLICK for glossary]

נ-A

קה נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר, לִנְתִיבָתִי 105 Thy dvar is an oil lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
קו נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי וָאֲקַיֵּמָה– לִשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 106 I have sworn and have fulfilled it, to observe Thy righteous mishpatim.
קז נַעֲנֵיתִי עַד-מְאֹד; יְהוָה, חַיֵּנִי כִדְבָרֶךָ 107 I am afflicted very much; sustain me, O Lord, according to Thy dvar.
קח נִדְבוֹת פִּי, רְצֵה-נָא יְהוָה; וּמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לַמְּדֵנִי 108 Accept, please, the freewill-offerings of my mouth, O Lord, and teach me Thine mishpatim.

נ-B

קט נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי תָמִיד; וְתוֹרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי 109 My life is always in my hand; and I have not forgotten Thy Torah.
קי נָתְנוּ רְשָׁעִים פַּח לִי; וּמִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ, לֹא תָעִיתִי 110 The wicked have laid a snare for me; anI went not astray from Thy pikudim.
קיא נָחַלְתִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ לְעוֹלָם: כִּי-שְׂשׂוֹן לִבִּי הֵמָּה 111 Thy eidot have I taken as a heritage for ever; for they are the rejoicing of my heart.
קיב נָטִיתִי לִבִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת חֻקֶּיךָ– לְעוֹלָם עֵקֶב 112 I have inclined my heart to perform Thy hukim for ever, eikev.

Stanza נ (nun) can easily be broken apart into two semi-stanzas; I call them נ-A (105-108) and נ-B (109-112). These two follow different poetic patterns, which distinguish them, but they are also bound to one another at the ends, as I will explain below.

* * *

נ-A (105-108)

The first semi-stanza is made distinct by its repetition of two particular keywords that Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak, 1160–1235) identifies in his glossary for Psalm 119: dvar (verses 105, 107) and mishpatim (106, 108). The structure of נ-A’s alternating verses, according to their keywords, is: 1,2-1,2.

105-106

The imagery of verse 105 (‘an oil lamp unto my feet’) is one of the Psalmist walking through the darkness, afraid to stumble, but reassured by the glow of God’s dvar. Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) paints the picture in his ‘Metzudat David’ commentary:

נר לרגלי. כמו הנר מציל הוא בחשכת הלילה מכל מכשול לבל תגוף הרגל An oil lamp unto my feet. [It is] like the oil lamp saves him in the darkness of night from every obstacle [before him] in order that his foot not be hurt.

Regardless of his trying circumstances, the Psalmist has sworn to uphold God’s mishpatim (verse 106). The commentators consistently write that intensifying one’s commitment to God’s commandments by personal oath serves to whet one’s motivation. The ‘Metzudat David’ explains:

נשבעתי וגו׳. רצונו לומר, כדי לזרז את עצמי נשבעתי לשמר וגו׳, וקיימתי את השבועה I have sworn, etc. This means to say: in order to motivate myself I have sworn to observe, etc., and I fulfilled the oath.

107-108

Verses 107-108 follow the themes of 105-106, but now the Psalmist sounds markedly less assured.

Whereas he had been walking through darkness, he’d had God’s dvar to guide him. Now (verse 107) the Psalmist feels afflicted, hoping humbly for the fulfillment of the holy dvar (word, promise). Rashi (1040-1105) and Radak both suggest that the Psalmist is afflicted to the point of near death. One wonders about the transition between verses 105 and 107.

Verse 108 reflects this same shift. Whereas the Psalmist in verse 106 spoke confidently of his deliberate commitment to God’s mishpatim, two verses later he’s suddenly unsure of himself: ‘Accept, please, the freewill-offerings of my mouth’. Whereas at first (verse 106) he claimed to observe the mishpatim, he now (verse 108) requests: ‘teach me Thine mishpatim’. Again, what happened here?

* * *

נ-B (109-112)

Unlike the preceding semi-stanza, the second half of ‘נ’ is not knit together by the keywords of Psalm 119, which refer to God’s commandments. Verses 109-112 each contain their own distinct keywords: Torah, pikudim, eidot, and hukim. 

The emphasis here is on other words stitched into these verses, and the structure of this semi-stanza follows a different pattern than נ-A. The first two verses (109, 110) both contain the pattern of ‘and I… [verb] not’ (ו… לא {שם הפועל}י). Likewise, the second pair of verses (111, 112) share common language: לב (lev) – heart and לעולם (l’olam) – forever. These last four verses follow the pattern 1,1-2,2, unlike the first semi-stanza.

109-110

The first two verses of this semi-stanza pick up on the theme of threats and challenges faced by the Psalmist, which we saw at the end of נ-A.

On its face, the phrase ‘My life is always in my hand’ (נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי תָמִיד) doesn’t hint of danger to me. (In modern English and modern Hebrew, if something is “in your hands” this suggests that you have control of it.) However, Rashi, Radak, and Rabbi Altschuler link the biblical phrase directly to danger:

רש״י: נפשי בכפי תמיד. הרבה נסתכנתי בסכנות רבות קרובות למיתה Rashi: My life is always in my hand. I have been endangered by great dangers, close to death.
רד״ק: נפשי. … אני בסכנה תמיד כאילו נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי Radak: My life. … I am always in danger, as if my life is in my hand.
הרב אלטשולר: נפשי בכפי. … נפשי היא תמיד בסכנה כמו המחזיק דבר מה בכפו שהיא קרובה לפול כשפיתח כפו Rabbi Altschuler: My life is in my hand. … My life is always in danger, like one who is holding a thing in his hand that is nearly falling, should he open his hand.

This phrase occurs elsewhere in the bible and consistently refers to one’s life being in danger. Perhaps I understand: The Psalmist would rather have his life in God’s hand than in his own. This is not unlike the common fear of flying, in comparison to the not-so-common fear of driving.

The Psalmist’s fear of driving would be greater, and he would be correct:

Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. However, it may feel more dangerous because risk perception is based on more than facts, according to David Ropeik, risk communication instructor at Harvard School of Public Health. Driving affords more personal control, making it feel safer.

USA TODAY

Thus we see that verses 109 and 110 continue the theme of ‘being in danger’ from the preceding verses, but they differ from verses 107 and 108 in a critical way. The beginning of semi-stanza נ-B expresses the Psalmist’s awareness of the dangers he faces, but he is not pleading for God’s aid. Rather, he reverts to a language of confidence and mission, which he first used in verses 105 and 106, at the beginning of semi-stanza נ-A.

111-112

This shift back towards purpose and security continues building up in the final two verses of stanza נ. Here, in 111 and 112, the Psalmist makes no reference to any threats or dangers; rather, he expresses his unending commitment to God’s laws and his joy at performing them. ‘They are the rejoicing of my heart.’

* * *

Tying together the ends

While these two semi-stanzas can stand on their own, they do tell a story together. It’s a tale of a determination shaken by apprehension, followed by newfound perseverance, ultimately leading the Psalmist to soaring confidence and commitment. It’s the classic story of grit and spirit, set against the backdrop of faith and a strive for holiness.

The Psalmist employs multiple poetic devices in the telling, some more subtle than others. נ-A and נ-B flow together in narrative, but there is something more binding them together.

108 and 109 (the middle)

The end of נ-A connects elegantly to נ-B with language referring to uniquely human capabilities. Verse 108 evokes the element of human speech, that essential part of human culture, and thus of our evolution. Verse 109 evokes the human being’s hands, those dexterous appendages that enabled us to develop the technologies needed to dominate the planet.

105 and 112 (the ends)

Perhaps more intriguingly, the very beginning of נ-A ties beautifully into the end of נ-B, at least according to Rashi.

The key to understanding this is the very last word of the stanza: eikev (עקב). What does it mean? According to the BDB Dictionary, meanings (depending upon vowelization) include: heel, footprint, follow, circumvent, overreach, insidious, deceitful, steep, hilly, consequence, end.

The rabbis had to get very creative in order to interpret verse 112, which would have made perfect sense even without the word eikev. Radak and Rabbi Altschuler both suggest that eikev comes to emphasize l’olam (לעולם) – forever. In their readings, eikev means ‘to the utmost’, stemming, perhaps, from the idea that the heel is the utmost end of the body.

Rashi has a different take. Likely drawing a correlation to eikev in the context of heel (part of the foot), follow, and circumvent, he writes as follows:

לעולם עקב. על מעגלותם ועל נתיבותם For ever, eikev: On their circuitous routes and on their paths.

The word Rashi uses for ‘path’ is netivot (נתיבות), which is exactly the same word used by the Psalmist in verse 105: ‘a light unto my path’ (נְתִיבָתִי)!

This gracefully brilliant interpretation brings the stanza around full circle – the story’s end becomes its beginning. This understanding suggests that nothing less than the Psalmist’s soaring confidence and commitment to God’s commandments anticipate his affliction and desperate, humble beseechment before the Almighty.

Might the Psalmist have intuited a fault in boundlessness of faith?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 30

Last week, I laminated a copy of my parents’ wedding invitation, which I found in my Babushka’s apartment (my mother’s mother) after she passed away in late September. She was gathered unto her ancestors less than three months after my Papa (Blog #8). A day or so later, it happened that my aunt gave me my Dedushka’s (my mother’s father) scarf, which he used to wear. She wanted somebody in the family to have it.

I wonder at myself and at all of us. All this seems futile; what do we actually achieve by any of it? It reminds me of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s (1907-1972) description of the human condition from The Insecurity of Freedom (p. 257):

We are all very poor, very naked, and rather absurd in our misery and in our success. We are constantly dying alive. From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment.

Given this, Rabbi Heschel comes immediately to his point:

There is only one bridge over the abyss of despair: prayer.

Really? I wonder at this also. The orphan’s kaddish has brought me back to the synagogue, and I have indeed been working at prayer, but my ‘bridges’ are, at best, under construction. My most lucid prayer moments inevitably find me teetering on rickety, jutting platforms over Heschel’s ‘abyss’, scrambling to return unto myself.

* * *

I’ve been reciting kaddish for seven months (7 / 11 ≈ 64%) and blogging about it for six, but my mind continues turning to the most fundamental of questions.

A friend asked why I am saying kaddish. A good question. These were my answers. Because it is my duty to my father. Because it is my duty to my religion. (These are the strong reasons; the nonutilitarian, nontherapeutic reasons.) Because it would be harder for me not to say kaddish. (I would despise myself.) Because the fulfillment of my duty leaves my thoughts about my father unimpeded by regret and undistorted by guilt. On the subject of fathers and sons, my chore may keep me clear.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 25-26

Yes, Mr. Wieseltier. I relate to your answers, but there are at least two more components to my own experience, which I find even truer when it comes to my kaddish blog series. Indeed, I wonder if you felt similarly when you were conducting research for your tremendous opus. Rabbi Martin Lockshin, whom I believe you know, captures the first of these:

Reciting Kaddish allows mourners to feel that they are doing something difficult, making a sacrifice, in order to honor a parent’s memory.

– Lockshin, Kaddish, p. 345

Writing these blog posts is challenging: intellectually… emotionally… spiritually; this project is hard on me. Waking up early every morning for kaddish is truly a challenge, but nothing like plumbing my soul and memories, nothing like my public quest for meaning. I am striving to create something special that my father would have been proud of; something that I can be proud of.

This brings me to a second motivation, which poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980) tenderly breathed into graceful language in his poem ‘Words in the Mourning Time,’ found in his Collected Poems (p. 90):

I grieve yet know the vanity of grief.

This quote should be the epigraph for The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist. Simply put, I wouldn’t be writing if no one was reading; and that is okay. I write for myself, for my father, for my mother, for my brother, for my daughter, for all of our family, for all who loved my father, for all whom he loved, and for anybody else who may be moved or changed by these words. I do believe I have something to share with you.

Vanity can mean:

    1. Pride;

* * *

    1. Futility

Heschel battled the futility of the human condition with his own mighty faith and prayers, but he also recognized the modern Jew’s detachment from tradition. He writes (Insecurity, pp. 214-215):

The daily observances of countless rituals [have] ceased to convey any meaning; they [have] ceased to hold any answer to the countless problems of the individual soul, just as the ancient teachings seemed to be totally unrelated to the modern situation… We cannot come to the Jews and merely say, ‘Continue!’ The wells that our fathers had digged have been stopped. We have to bore new wells.

This encapsulates my kaddish project this year: I am boring a well of meaning for myself herein, the drill of cutting language. I am, as Heschel writes so eloquently, trying to take responsibility for [my] Judaism (Insecurity, p. 191):

Every individual is a pillar on which the future of Judaism rests. There is no vicarious Judaism: no institution can discharge the responsibilities of the individual. Tradition is not the monopoly of an elite. Each Jew is obliged to say: ‘Into my hands has been given the future of the entire people.’

And in Heschel’s own words, I find my answer to his challenge. I know how to construct a ‘bridge over the abyss of despair’. We, each of us, are its pillars.

True, as Heschel writes, “From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment,” but this is only from the perspective of the individual. The Jewish nation (or humanity for that matter) has lived through many moments and will live through many more.

* * *

Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there’s not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago.

Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts

I recently had an insight.
Another way of thinking
about death
if you will.

We are all cells in the organism of the Jewish nation (or humanity for that matter), and every single cell will come to be replaced. Together,

we are Judaism.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 29

No small number of the memories evoked for me by my father’s death are those of his most oft used expressions, but his voice is fading from my recollections. I am struggling to hear the sound of him; but his turns of phrase, textured with his rhythm and inflections, are looped and shuffled.

Nearly all of his go-to expressions were in Russian, with the exception of “אני כבן שבעים שנה” (blog #6). Translation reduces his idioms to their bare meanings, pulsing nothing like my heart’s memories. Still:

“Час смеха вырабатывает стакан морковного сока.”
An hour of laughter produces [the equivalent of] a glass of carrot juice.
i.e. laughter is healthy.
“Ну вот и все. Я разлагаюсь.”
Well, that’s it then. I am decomposing.
i.e. [said in jest:] this symptom is a sign of my old age.
“Если нельзя, но очень хочется, то можно.”
If one should not but very much wants to, one can (/it’s possible).
i.e. if you’re not supposed to, but you want to, go for it.
“Ну, мужик, ты влип.”
Well, Buddy (/Man), you’ve gotten stuck [in it].
i.e. I can’t save you from yourself.
“Это не стоит выеденного яйца.”
This isn’t worth an empty egg shell with the egg sucked out.
i.e. this is not worth a damn.
“Я простой человек (/еврей).”
I am a simple person (/Jew).
i.e. let’s not complicate things.

There are, of course, many others, but these are among those that spring out. In recent weeks, I’ve caught myself unintentionally channeling him, responding to my wife, saying, “I am a simple Jew.” Upon realizing that I’ve begun using this phrase on a regular basis it struck me:

This is something that Papa used to say.

* * *

I chanced upon a short, truly delightful book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972): The Earth is the Lord’s. Actually, the book chanced upon me. It so happened that I was a bit late to my 6:45 AM Shabbat shacharit minyan several weeks ago, and my friend Dov noticed. He knows me well.

He knows that I like to sit at a table behind the prayer quorum on Saturday mornings with a book; he knows that I prefer not to disturb the women’s section during davening to peruse the bookshelves; he knows that I like Heschel. That week, my friend arrived to shul before me, and left several books waiting for me at “my” table. The Earth is the Lord’s was among them.

In his book, Heschel portrays the spirit and character of the Jews of Eastern Europe throughout the centuries. This passage got me thinking (pp. 37-38):

The earthiness of the villagers, the warmth of plain people, and the spiritual simplicity of the maggidim or lay preachers penetrated into the beth ha-midrashall were partners in the Torah. The maggidim… did not apply for diplomas to anyone. They felt authorized by God to be preachers of morals…

Ideals became folkways… the people itself became a source of Judaism, a source of spirit… Spontaneously, without external cause, the people improvised customs of celestial solemnity. The dictates of their own insight were heeded as commandments of highest authority.

This depiction of Jewish yore rendered me nostalgic and something else. It twinged of loss. Given the circumstances of my odyssey, I may have developed a heightened sensitivity to lack and absence this year, but Heschel’s portrayal did sting. Today’s traditionalist Judaism, for which tradition’s outward trappings are a primary goal (blog #10) unto themselves, is a top-down enterprise. The people no longer trusts its own insight.

Kaddish is, perhaps, the ultimate folk ritual. Rabbi Martin Lockshin highlighted this point in his chapter of Kaddish (p. 343):

The status that the Mourner’s Kaddish has attained in the last few centuries is strong proof of the enduring power of Jewish folk religion… It begins to be mentioned in codes of law only in the last five hundred years, although presumably it existed at the folk level for a number of centuries before that.

This is our ritual; we should own it. Make it meaningful; make it personal; make it matter. Where are today’s kaddish maggidim? Where is our creativity, our self-seeking? Where do we find ourselves in this process?

* * *

I have been searching for kindred kaddish spirits. Surely others must have written about their experiences, as they were living them, I thought, but the findings have been sparse:

In 2012, a gentleman named Chanan Kessler blogged his kaddish odyssey during his year of mourning. His dive into challenging theological and sociological questions, which I read through ever so greedily, as well as his dedication to his project; the regularity of his writing; and his openness towards confronting uncomfortable ideas reminds me more of my Skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist than anybody else I’ve discovered.

Other personal kaddish chronicles that I found include: Elie Rosenfeld (2005-06 – 1, 2, 3, 4) Tamar Fox (2008-09), Howard Labow (2012-13), Matthew Geller (2013), Judah Lifschitz (2014-15), Ed Colman (2014-15 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), Mayim Bialik (2015-16 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19), Terry Friedman Wine (2015-2016), David Werdiger (2016 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Amy Fechter (2017-18), Rabbi Jennifer Gorman (2017-18 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29,) and Naomi L. Baum (2018 – Posts: 1, 2, 3). (do you know of others?)

(I’ve also found a number of individual essays and poems, which I list below. They are quite moving, both individually and collectively; but those that were written in retrospect were themselves shaped by kaddish experiences, rather than vice-versa.)

Most of these kaddish bloggers and essayists are not rabbis. Rather, we are the maggidim’s inheritors of spiritual simplicity. We are a source of Judaism, a source of spirit. We are simply Jews.

I heed my insight.I am a simple Jew.

* * *

Is it so simple? May our insight and experience become sources of Jewish custom and spirit? Yes.

And no.

For centuries after our exile (6th century BCE), our sages – who codified the Talmud and the Mishnah – who led our communities and ran our academies – who deliberately undertook the historic project of Jewish self-preservation – these giants were the source of Judaism. Then, according to Heschel in The Earth is the Lord’s (pp. 40-41), the Jewish diaspora began to democratize:

It was not until the twelfth century that the [Jewish] Occident began to emancipate itself… No longer was it necessary to refer [halakhic] questions to Babylonia… Rashi democratized Jewish education, he brought the Bible, the Talmud, and the Midrash to the people… Learning ceased to be the monopoly of the few.

This was the context for Jewish self-empowerment: unfettered access to Jewish learning. “Poor Jews whose children knew only the taste of ‘potatoes on Sunday, potatoes on Monday, potatoes on Tuesday’ … possessed whole treasures of thought, a wealth of information, of ideas and sayings of many ages” (Heschel, p.43). Today, however, a different reality confronts us; I recall suddenly a scathing passage in Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish (p.44):

Knowledge is not only for oneself, it is also for others… whose occasions require the interventions of tradition. The great unlettered community of America… do they expect their children to save them? Their children who will inherit an ignorance of Jewish tradition unprecedented in Jewish history?

After shacharit this morning, my friend Aytan suggested to me that it’s not only a matter of Jews being unlettered, as Wieseltier writes. In our day, many are unaware that meaning can be found in Jewish letters – or that our letters exist at all.

But kaddish is full of – l e t t e r s.

Shall we answer them?

* * *

The Kaddish has become popular to the point of cliché in Jewish culture and religious practice. Whether in the original Aramaic and Hebrew or translated into English and other languages, most Jews are to some degree or another familiar with its text.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, Kaddish, p.235

In fact, the popularity of kaddish goes far beyond its influence upon the Jewish community. As noted in Wikipedia, it “has been a particularly common theme and reference point in the arts,” including the famous poem by beatnik Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), the name of Symphony No. 3 by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), and even an episode of the science fiction television series The X-Files.

You almost certainly had heard of kaddish before clicking to read my blog posts.

I most certainly had heard of it and titled my series The Skeptic’s Kaddish accordingly, although I knew almost nothing about it when I began this trek.

The popularity of kaddish is significant because so much ink has been spilled over it throughout the years. Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish is in English. Birnbaum’s and Cohen’s Kaddish is in English. Diamant’s Saying Kaddish is in English. Smart’s and Ashkenas’s Kaddish: Women’s Voices is in English. Goldman’s Living a Year of Kaddish is in English. Olitzky’s Grief in Our Seasons is in English. There are others.

Beyond these, Jewish texts for the curious have never been so accessible as they are today. The Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud and more have all been translated into English. They are available on websites like Sefaria.org.il and Mechon-Mamre.com in English and Hebrew. Websites like like Chabad.org, TheTorah.com, and MyJewishLearning.com are in English. There are others.

We will never learn everything. Still, we must commit to learning.

* * *

Is it so simple? May our insight and experience become sources of Jewish custom and spirit? Yes.

And no.

We must learn to trust and listen to ourselves. This may be the most difficult aspect of our challenge, even among the lettered. The letter teachers often discourage us. Tradition, they say. This is the way we do things.

No, I say, my heart is a Jewish text also. Even if I rejected the rituals; even if I never went again to another synagogue; even if I refused to recite kaddish – this would still remain my tradition, and I could still make it meaningful through learning and thinking. Tradition belongs also to the nontraditional. The letters of kaddish are traditional; but the letters of this odyssey are my own.

I am a simple Jew, authorized by God as a maggid of kaddish.

God would love to authorize all of us.

* * *

Individual kaddish essays and poems: (do you know of any others?)

M. Elizur Agus, Prof. Edward Alexander, Robert J. Avrech, Matt Baer, Dr. Zev Ballen, Howard Barbanel, Debbie Bastacky, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, Rabbi Marjorie Berman, Danielle Berrin, Gabrielle Birkner, Sarah Birnbach, Talia Bloch, Lisa A. Bloom, Brian Blum, Rabbi Anne Brener, Rabbi Chaim Brown, Faithann Brown, Bob Bruch, Alex Brumer, Prof. Melvin Jules Bukiet, Shelley Richman Cohen, Rabbi Gary Creditor, Debra Darvick, Ethan Daniel Davidson, Mindy Dickler, Rabbi Wayne Dosick, Jay Eddy, Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, Jane Eisner, Stephen Epstein, Judy Bolton-Fasman, Rabbi Joshua Feigelson, Elissa Felder, Leonard Felson, Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, Arlene Fine, Beth Firestone, Laura Shaw-Frank, Jennifer Futernick, Rabbi Lisa Gelber, Daniela Gerson, Allen Ginsburg, Arnie Glick, Prof. Hillel Goelman, Jay Goldberg, Andy Goldfarb, Larry Gordon, Ann Green, Barbi Price Green, David Groen, Prof. Susan Gubar, Dr. John Yaakov Guterson, Dr. Donna Harel, Catherine Heffernan, Malkie Hirsch, Anndee Hochman, Laura Hodes, Sara Horowitz, Eva Hutt, Ruth Hyman, Mike Isaacson, Rabbi Ari Israel, Simcha Jacobovici, Paula Jacobs, Michael Jankovitz, Rabbi David Joslin, Rabbi Henry Jay Karp, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, Rabbi Jay Kelman, Deborah Klapper, Rabbi Zvi Konikov, Amy Koplow, David R. Kotak, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Frances Kraft, Ilene Kupferman, Esther Kustanowitz (+ revisited), Rob Kutner, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, Jan Lee, Jay P. Lefkowitz, Shelly Levinthal, Steve Lewis, Alan Magill, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, Dr. Robert Metnick, Joshua Metzger, Jay Michaelson, Bernadette Miller, Aurora Levin Morales, Marian Henriquez Neudel, Eli Neusner, Rabbi Mark Novak, Tova Osofsky, Moshe Parelman, Peta Jones Pellach, Peta Marge Piercy, Penina Pinchasi, Chanah Piotrkowski, Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, Dania Rajendra, Gil Reich, Adam Reinherz, Judith Rosenbaum, Paula Rosenberg, Avrum Rosensweig, Rabbi Donald Rossoff, Julia B. Rubin, Prof. James R. Russell, Eric Salitsky, Dr. Peg Sandel, Nigel Savage, Stephen J. Savitsky, Sam Sax, Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, Rachel Selby, Paula Shoyer, Wendy Meg Siegel, Prof. Gila Silverman, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, Jacob Sloan (+ responses to JS), Paul Socken, Barbara Sofer, Mori Sokal, Susan Lynn Solomon, Rabbi Marc Soloway, Rebecca Speicher, Prof. Ilan Stavans, Bruce Stiftel, Melanie Takefman, Rivka Tibber, Rhoda Trooboff, Carol Ungar, Ruth Walfish, Van Wallach, Rabbi Yehuda Weinberg, Rabbi Robert Weiner, Edie Weinstein, Talia Weisberg, Ari Weisbrot, Dr. Harlan Weisman, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, Tanya White, Terry Friedman Wine, Rona Wineberg, Ari Zeltzer, Jill Zimon, Vivienne Grace Ziner, Effy Zinkin.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 8

This entry is in honor and memory of my grandmother Maria bat Shmuel and Sima, who passed away a few days ago, at Shabbat’s twilight. 

Babushka’s determination to live was tremendous, particularly given her frailty and failing constitution. Last summer, after being intubated in the hospital and suffering from a calcified heart valve (among other health complications), my grandmother mustered the will to breathe independently. The hospital staff were utterly flabbergasted when she walked out of the hospital.

During my father’s last visit to Israel in the summer of 2017, he drove my wife, my daughter, and me to visit Babushka some time after she had been released from the hospital. Back then, she already seemed to be fading from this world, and I noted this to my father. “It will probably be a matter of weeks,” he concurred; but ultimately she lived for one year more, long enough to mourn his unexpected death.

After my father passed away, Babushka told me one day that she had spoken to him all night in her dreams, but she couldn’t recall their conversation.

* * *

1974 – the year after the Yom Kippur War. My father arrives in Israel with nothing, after being strip searched by Soviet officials and required to leave behind his only suitcase. He has no way of contacting his family in the USSR; he may never see them again. He is shocked by the first newspaper he reads in Hebrew; corruption, crime, and politics are reported on and rigorously debated in public. He is unnerved at first and then excited. He feels that his soul is grounded here, in the Land of his ancestors.

2009 – 35 years later. Having been born in Israel and having visited regularly throughout my childhood, I am at ease here. Still, this visit stands apart; I will be in Israel for an entire year to study Torah, to explore my religious heritage through the ancient texts and inherited Land of my ancestors. Towards the end of Sukkot that year, the skies open up above me. At first I am startled and then deeply moved that our traditional prayers for rain, recited by Jews the world over, are in alignment with the seasons here, in the Land of my ancestors.

My father’s stories of adversity and self-discovery continue to compel my love for the Jewish people and for our Land. (In his mid-twenties, he learned to read Hebrew upside down in Soviet Russia, as the members of his underground learning circle had to arrange themselves around their only textbook.)

For lack of a compelling narrative, I chose tradition.

* * *

My father began building a sukkah some years after I graduated from the university, mostly for my younger brother’s benefit. Over the decades he’d spent away from Israel, my father had come to feel that Diaspora life demanded a special effort to preserve the Jewish heritage. He remained uncomfortable with unfamiliar traditions, but found beauty in many others. Even after my brother left home, my father continued to erect his sukkah on the balcony – he had grown to love it.

Sukkot is the holiday that most refreshes Jewish tradition for me; it’s the sukkah that does it. “The anomaly of the setting,” writes Leon Wieseltier in Kaddish, “has a quickening effect” (p. 319).

For my father, the sukkah was beautiful. For me, the sukkah is necessary.

* * *

My three-and-a-half year old daughter has come to enjoy attending shul since my return to Jerusalem. She is particularly and increasingly enthusiastic about Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday evening, but that’s not entirely because of her shul experience.

By coincidence, she began attending preschool just a month and a half after I rose from sitting shiva with my mother and brother in America. On Fridays, her preschool has a Kabbalat Shabbat program, which includes the singing of various Shabbat prayers, including the iconic Lecha Dodi liturgical song.

In addition to drawing, doing puzzles, reading, writing with letter magnets, building rocket ships on the bed out of pillows and blankets, and sundry other amusements, my daughter has decided upon a new activity: singing Shabbat songs and other prayers from the siddur with me during play time. The mourner’s kaddish is one she knows quite well.

If my family hadn’t left Israel when I was not yet two-years-old, I would have grown up singing Lecha Dodi in preschool; [and/but] my father might never have come to build his beloved sukkah.

* * *

Curiously, the sukkah is an intrinsically space-oriented religious tradition in Judaism, which itself is a “religion of time,” as described by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his seminal work – The SabbathHe writes (p.8):

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to… learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals… Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.

Whereas the sukkah symbolizes the insecure and the temporary, as much as we invest ourselves in constructing and bedecking it, Shabbat is eternal. Writes Heschel (p.21):

The seventh day is like a palace in time… The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than of the Sabbath being within us…

‘How precious is the Feast of Booths [Sukkot]! Dwelling in the Booth [sukkah], even our body is surrounded by the sanctity of the mitzvah,’ said once a rabbi to his friend. Whereupon the latter remarked: ‘The Sabbath Day is even more than that. On the Feast you may leave the Booth for a while, whereas the Sabbath surrounds you wherever you go.’

In my mind, the majestic halls and spires of the palace rise from one Sabbath to the next, Shabbat an infinite, glorious edifice spanning all of our generations through time. My papa and my babushka both spent their final moments within its walls, although neither of them would have been inclined to think so.

* * *

Time is passing. Shabbats have come and gone.

July has 31 days, as does August, but September has only 30. In my childhood, my father taught me the “knuckle mnemonic,” which is a device for remembering the number of days in the months of the Gregorian calendar.

knuckles

During the shiva in July, I took a watch from my father’s desk, which is powered by light and never needs a battery. Fitting, I thought, because it will remind me of him forever; the only thing I have to do is adjust the date every month.

My daughter is learning how to read a calendar, and she jubilantly informed me this week that October 1st is after September 30th.

For the first time since my father died, I adjusted his watch accordingly.