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, 28

I harbor doubts.

Am I not sufficiently devastated by my father’s death? How can I bring myself to write about this creatively, as I do, playing with language and imagery? Why do most other people grieve privately, rather than making a public spectacle of their mourning processes?

It isn’t easy to write these blog posts, but it feels impossible for me not to. I simply don’t know what else to do with myself.

* * *

Words from the prayers spring out at me this year. Two of the Amidah’s (the core of the prayer service’s) nineteen benedictions, recited back-to-back, bring Papa to my mind (blessings #13 & #14):

יג עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים… וְעָלֵינוּ, יֶהֱמוּ נָא רַחֲמֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ… וְשִׂים חֶלְקֵנוּ עִמָּהֶם, וּלְעוֹלָם לֹא נֵבוֹשׁ כִּי-בְךָ בָטַחְנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, מִשְׁעָן וּמִבְטָח לַצַּדִּיקִים 13 To the righteous… and to us, may Your compassion be aroused, Lord our God… Set our lot with them, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You. Blessed are You, Lord, support and trust of the righteous.

My father was a righteous man, certainly
more so than I.

I will remain
proud of him always. Do I, therefore,
trust in God, whose concern and involvement I impugn?

יד וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב, וְתִשְׁכּוֹן בְּתוׁכָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ, וּבְנֵה אוֹתָהּ בְּקָרוֹב בְּיָמֵינוּ בִּנְיָן עוֹלָם, וְכִסֵּא דָוִד עַבְדְּךָ מְהֵרָה לְתוֹכָהּ תָּכִין. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי , בּוֹנֵה יְרוּשָׁלָיִם 14 And to Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You dwell in it as You promised. May You rebuild it rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure, and install within it soon the throne of David. Blessed are You, Lord, who builds Jerusalem.

Jerusalem lived in my father’s heart, eternally
home to his soul.

He always wished to be
buried in Jerusalem, but moved away
from his one true home for the betterment of his children.

* * *

These many years later, I remain most comfortable with the prayers that I learned in preparation for my bar mitzvah during ‘Junior Congregation’. The tachanun prayer is not recited on Shabbat, and so I only learned [of] it much later.

Tachanun appeals to God to have mercy on us for our sins; usually, I don’t recite it. I have sinned, but God is of no help when it comes to living with myself, and the wicked still remain unpunished. People’s assertions of Divine judgment aim to gird the devout* and assure the anxious*, but I am neither.

*A side note:
The Hebrew word for anxious is chareid (חָרֵד).
The word for ultra-Orthodox is chareidi (חֲרֵדִי).

Still, I do read the poignant tachanun prayer while the faithful are confessing, and my eyes often alight upon the following words from Psalm 6:

ג חָנֵּנִי יְהוָה, כִּי אֻמְלַל-אָנִי: רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה–כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי 3 Be gracious unto me, Lord, for I languish away; heal me, Lord, for my bones are affrighted.
ד וְנַפְשִׁי, נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד; ואת (וְאַתָּה) יְהוָה, עַד-מָתָי 4 My soul also is much affrighted; and Thou, Lord, until when?
ה שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, חַלְּצָה נַפְשִׁי; הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי, לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ 5 Return, Lord, release my soul; save me for Thy mercy’s sake.
ו כִּי אֵין בַּמָּוֶת זִכְרֶךָ; בִּשְׁאוֹל, מִי יוֹדֶה-לָּךְ 6 For in death there is no remembrance of Thee; in Sheol who will give Thee thanks?

This translation of nefesh (נַפְשִׁ) as ‘soul’ in verses 4 and 5 is off, but it’s understandable, given the juxtaposition to atzamai (עֲצָמָי) in verse 3, meaning: ‘my bones’. The interpretive flaw above lies in the translator’s use of modern Hebrew to decipher biblical poetry.

In my quest, I have acquired the book Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael. The volume charts a journey through the evolution of Jewish eschatology, beginning with biblical times. Whereas in modern Hebrew, the word nefesh has come to mean soul (or: psyche),

[In the Bible] the Hebrew word nefesh does not imply a soul, or spirit, in contradistinction to a body. The differentiation between body and soul, with the accompanying notion of a soul exiting the body upon death, was totally foreign in early biblical times and did not emerge in the Jewish consciousness until many centuries later. Nefesh was understood in a unitive way as the totality of being – ‘man does not have nefesh, he is nefesh, he lives as nefesh.’

– Jewish Views of the Afterlife, page 56

In fact, the word ‘myself’ in Arabic (Hebrew’s sister tongue) is nafsi (نفسي), which shares the same root as the Hebrew nefesh. Not only that, but in the Hebrew of our day ‘myself’ is atzmi (עצמי), which hearkens back to atzamai (my bones), which we saw in Psalm 6:3 above. This psalm isn’t drawing a distinction between the body and the soul, but rather seems to be underscoring the bottomlessness of the psalmist’s fright, which shakes his very core.

While alive, a human being is considered a nefesh hayyah (Gen. 2:7), a living nefesh, a vital psychophysical entity. Once dead, the individual becomes a nefesh met (Lev. 21:11, Num. 6:6), a dead nefesh, a depotentiated psychophysical entity.

– ibid.

The biblical concept of nefesh hayyah/met appeals to me. It blunts the fangs of the unknowable; we are all nefesh, alive or dead. Raphael (ibid.) cites Johannes Pedersen (1883 – 1977), a noted Old Testament scholar, who stresses: “Life and death [in the bible] are not sharply distinguished spheres, because they do not mean existence or nonexistence.” This may hint at nihilism to some, but I find it comforting. To me, the notion recalls Genesis 3, which asserts:

יט בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ, תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם, עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה, כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ: כִּי-עָפָר אַתָּה, וְאֶל-עָפָר תָּשׁוּב 19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

We are

Nefesh / Dust

Forever

It’s really all
the same.

* * *

Going back to Psalm 6, another word bears attention: what is Sheol?

The nefesh hayyah, the living person, dwelt with family clan, tribe, or nation in the terrestrial realm. Upon death, the individual descended into the subterranean realm and as a nefesh met dwelt in the grave, in the family tomb, and eventually in Sheol, the abode of the ancestral dead.

– Jewish Views, page 56

Two particular and related aspects of death as understood in early biblical times appeal to me: 1) its amoral character, 2) its exclusive concern with the collective, rather than the individual. As Raphael explains (p. 53):

[Sheol] is not a realm of torment or punishment; it is simply the domain of the dead. The negative, punitive aspects that later characterized Sheol were almost completely lacking in its original conception.

And (p. 43):

From its inception, biblical Judaism… was concerned… not at all with the postmortem fate of the individual Israelite per se. In patriarchal and Mosaic times… there is no notion of an individual afterlife experience for the soul… nor any idea of a soul separate from the body.

It is not until the Book of Jeremiah (completed during the last half of the 6th century BCE) that “the concept of individual retribution, and hence individual responsibility, finally enters Jewish thought” (ibid., p. 61). Theologian John Hick (1922 – 2012) explains this theological shift in the context of the Babylonian exile in his book Death and Eternal Life (p. 70):

So long as the stream of national life continued in full spate… the immortality of the nation did not require an individual immortality… But with the crushing Babylonian conquest… and the exile… faith in continuing national existence was shaken and the individual became more conscious of his own personal status and destiny.

This is when the concept of Divine judgment was introduced into Judaism, and it came about as a response to national insecurity. If we hadn’t been exiled from the Kingdom of Judah, the entire mythology behind the recitation of kaddish and its supposed metaphysical impact upon the souls of our departed might never have developed.

This doctrinal shift leaves me cringing.

* * *

Not only does there exist no indication of Divine judgment beyond the written and spoken words of believers, but the biblical Jewish understanding of death in its national context has been abandoned by us. In the Book of Genesis, our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were simply “gathered to their people.” To my heart, this imagery is achingly beautiful.

I am reminded of a section from a poem by Rav Kook (1865-1935) in the second volume of Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness), which he titled the ‘Fourfold Song’. In it, he explores the theme of universalism vs. particularism and identifies five personality types, each of which “sings a song” expressing its primary mode of empathy. These are the songs of 1) the self, 2) the nation, 3) humanity, 4) the universe, and 5) God. Personally, I relate most closely to the ‘song of the nation’:

ויש שהוא שר שירת האומה, יוצא הוא מתוך המעגל של נפשו הפרטית, שאינו מוצא אותה מרוחבת כראוי. ולא מיושבת ישוב אידיאלי, שואף למרומי עז, והוא מתדבק באהבה עדינה עם כללותה של כנסת ישראל, ועמה הוא שר את שיריה, מצר בצרותיה, ומשתעשע בתקותיה, הוגה דעות עליונות וטהורות על עברה ועל עתידה, וחוקר באהבה ובחכמת לב את תוכן רוחה הפנימי And there is one who sings the song of the nation. He leaves the circle of his own individual self, because he finds it without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis. He aspires toward the heights, and he cleaves himself, with a gentle love, to the whole community of Israel. Together with her he sings her songs. He feels grieved in her afflictions and delights in her hopes. He contemplates noble and pure thoughts about her past and her future, and probes with love and wisdom her inner spiritual essence.

* * *

If my father hadn’t died so suddenly, I might never have started this ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series; the daily surreality of the loss of my Papa remains no less intense for me today than my grief. Some people are given the opportunity to steel themselves, as their loved ones’ bodies deteriorate, but I learned of my father’s hospitalization and death quite unexpectedly, just after Shabbat had ended in Israel.

I take no small solace in the fact that Papa died quickly and painlessly. He had been put under and was lying unconscious when his being became fully depotentiated; Papa was gathered to his ancestors in the mere span of five hours.

When I called my father’s beloved cousins Senya and Bella in Israel during the shiva in New Jersey at my mother’s request, Bella listened intently to my description of Papa’s death, and then she said to me:

I understand. Your father lived and died like an angel.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 27

I am better rested.

In my wife’s and daughter’s absence this week, I’ve permitted myself to sleep in. Instead of my regular 6:30 shacharit minyan, I’ve taken to attending the 8:30 minyan at a different shul. Two additional hours of daily sleep have been delicious.

I’ve also had more time to simply sit, think, and feel.

* * *

THE JOKE THAT MADE ME CRY

Several evenings ago, I was watching a performance (1.25 hrs) by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, whom I’d just discovered; and I was laughing boisterously. (Maniscalco occasionally punctuates his jokes with crass language, but his humor is safe for work.)

Half an hour into the set, Maniscalco made a joke about tattoos. He portrays an imaginary man’s emotional attachment to the tattoo of a snake head on his bicep. It represents the death of his father. The punchline went: “What the hell are you doing to yourself? What, did you forget he died?” And then I was sobbing.

Because sometimes I forget that my father died.

* * *

All is darker than before.

When we grieve, we face realities: Life is fragile, fate is unpredictable; horrors are everywhere. God will neither reward nor punish in this world. One must acknowledge this reality in order to become an adult who can pray as an adult.

– Rabbi Barbara Thiede, Kaddish, p. 168

Perhaps for the first time, I am praying as an adult. I harbor no illusions about the efficacy of prayer or the purposelessness of suffering. The supernatural remains impenetrable to us; but today’s rabbis somehow or other continue treating congregants with capsules of comfort coated in cloying compounds of credence and custom (complete crap).

The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake. I never liked this statement… since it finds a religious utility for faithlessness, and thereby steals the thunder from belief and unbelief.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 322

My unbelief is thunderous, drowning out the faithful; but I have adopted their restrained form, alive in the resulting tension. It’s the discomfort that sparks my thinking, you see, and lends meaning to my process. Tradition may compel for nontraditional reasons, but the rabbis are more invested in its inertia.

Present-day rabbis must be honest, though it may hurt. They cannot afford to alienate future generations by channeling Tevye the Dairyman: it will not do to insist on what is ritually expected simply because it is known.

– Rabbi Barbara Thiede, Kaddish, p. 167

True, I launched my kaddish odyssey because I’d long heard tales of this ancient route; but it would seem that my ship’s sails only billow with the winds of self-discovery. Certainly, I am taking the risk of being blown off of the time-tested course; but I have not yet missed a single day of kaddish. Most importantly, every day is an adventure.

* * *

If you know me only through my blog posts, you might conclude that I think about my father all the time; but I am writing, in part, to remind myself of him. After all, the recitation of kaddish does not, in and of itself, bring Papa to my mind. It is a practice, like so many others, with which he had no connection.

I catch myself thinking that kaddish may be more meaningful for my daughter and future children. It will retain its traditional force of inertia, but it may also remind them of me. It is something that I have chosen, something that I am investing with meaning.

Several people have recently suggested to me that I am leaving behind something special for future generations in this kaddish series. Somehow, I had not initially considered that. From the very beginning, this has been a very self-centered project; I am writing as a form of therapy. I am writing because I am good at it, because it clarifies my thoughts and shapes my experience of reality. Sometimes, the meaning behind my words is aspirational; my public process keeps me honest.

Still, I do like the idea of this as a family memoir. I would like my daughter to know that my father’s father (Moisey) was from Yanov, where his father served as the ‘crown rabbi.’ My father’s mother (Ida) was from Shpola; her parents and younger brother were murdered by the Nazis along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population while she was away, serving as a doctor in the Soviet army.

Some day, I would like my daughter to wonder and imagine, as I do, what it was that happened to my father in his mid-20’s in Soviet Moscow. He was a brilliant mind, a handsome and fit young man, a successful student, and a contented Soviet cosmopolitan with very close non-Jewish friends. Then, unexpectedly, in his mid-20’s, he ventured forth on a path of self-discovery and started studying Hebrew with local Soviet dissidents, leading him to reevaluate all that he’d once held as true about the Soviet Union. Ultimately, this led to his Aliyah and my birth in the State of Israel. Though he lived in America for more than half of his life (37 years), not a day went by that he didn’t ache for his Jewish homeland.

He was profoundly principled and kind, always driven by the purest of intentions. While very sophisticated, he also had a very crass sense of humor and many of his most common expressions were quite inappropriate. In fact, I recall him saying (on more than one occasion) that I should know how to curse in Russian. Papa was also an intellectual and read endless books on sundry subjects; and he published a massive educational mathematics website, which he developed and maintained for more than twenty years. When he passed away, countless students of mathematics from the world over expressed their devastation and condolences.

Papa used to say that he couldn’t cry anymore; that he hadn’t cried for more years than he could remember; that tears simply wouldn’t come. Me? I cry for my father – but only in the absence of my nearly four-year-old daughter.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 22

If I’m being honest, it’s easier to read and write about kaddish than it is to bethink myself of memories, even privately.

– Me (Blog #13)

At first, I thought I would study the kaddish in my father’s memory to suffuse the rote with meaning, perhaps to even make it interesting.

Quickly, I came to realize that my approach would not be that of Leon Wieseltier in his dense Kaddish volume, wherein he published the notes from his yearlong deep dive into the halakhic and aggadic texts on kaddish, death and mourning. His was truly a feat for the generations, unearthing countless layers of seemingly impenetrable bedrock, but for me these same traditional texts beckon foremost as springboards, anchoring me in the Jewish fundament, yes, but also inviting my meandering responses.

I find that the texts are endless, but my ends somehow defy them. At times I am utterly unmoored and teetering, with no text but that of my stifled, pounding heartbeats, as I flail wildly for ancient wisdom.

That’s how it is now.

* * *

My feelings are my primary sources, perhaps to the detriment of my intellectual development. What did I learn today… What did I learn today… What…

What did I feel today?

– Me (Blog #4)

This is what I wrote back in early September, but I’ve continued to lean heavily on Jewish texts to buttress me. Can I write without citation?

* * *

I’ve been reflecting upon the kinship I feel with many of the women who contributed personal essays to the book Kaddish: Women’s Voices. Three facets of their shared experiences speak to me in particular, the third of which I will explore below:

  1. Most obviously, the contributors to this volume are sharing the intimate details of their kaddish odysseys, as I am attempting to do. This I expected.
  2. For most of the authors, the decision to recite kaddish was not a foregone conclusion. Few women in traditional Jewish circles attend shul on a daily basis, and not all communities are supportive of or friendly towards women who want to take this religious obligation upon themselves. Whether to recite kaddish at all, how often to recite kaddish, whom to recite kaddish with, and many other related deliberations speak to my experience – even though I am a man. Such reflections have been weaving their ways through my own writings.
  3. Many of the women (I counted 14) related their kaddish journeys in some way to their children. This theme was absent from Wieseltier’s Kaddish, for he didn’t have any children of his own during his year of mourning.

* * *

My 3-and-a-half year-old daughter… insists upon coming with me to shul every week…

Last week I and a few others noticed that my child was reciting the mourner’s kaddish along with me, as I stood beside her.

– Me (Blog #5)

My daughter is no longer 3-and-a-half years old. In early February, she’ll be turning four, and she’s been growing up so, so quickly. (Those of you who are parents can appreciate this.)

Unfortunately, due to daylight savings time, my child hasn’t come to shul with me since late October – she wakes up groggily from her afternoon naps just as I am running out the door for mincha on Fridays and Saturdays and cannot get ready in time to join me. Still, she often reminds me that she’ll be returning as soon as the spring rolls around. I’ve been missing our shul time together, but I must also admit that it has been liberating to have these prayer times entirely to myself.

Perhaps because I’ve recently been feeling alone on my kaddish journey and aware that my daughter is no longer an active participant, I’ve taken to deliberately mentioning my father to her in conversation. For Chanukah, I bought her a nice children’s camera, reminding her that Dedushka Shurik was an avid photographer, and I have also introduced her to peanut butter spread on apple slices, which my father would often snack on enthusiastically (he always ate the entire apple).

* * *

Alexander Bogomolny, the man who knew to cherish and praise the beauty (of math, of nature, of people of different ages, of family ties and relationships) and made us all appreciate it more. You are deeply deeply missed…

While there are many, many words and long texts that have already been written; and many more could be and should be written in your memory, I miss one very significant aspect of yours: what a great, special, kind, and devoted GRANDFATHER you were and you will always be in my mind. The special connection, love, appreciation, and joy that you brought to each other from the very first months of our daughter’s life and since then are not forgotten and will never be… We love you, we miss you, and we always will.

– My wife, two days following the funeral (lightly edited)

A couple of days after the funeral, my wife wrote this from our home in Israel. I read it before going to bed that night in America, and I read it again after awaking. It was then, sitting alone in the stillness of my parents’ kitchen that I sobbed for the first time. I arrived at shul with my eyes tearing, avoiding the other petitioners’ gazes as I recited kaddish.

My father cherished his granddaughter. He nannied her for two months full-time by himself when she was only several months old, and he returned for each of the following two summers to care for her during the Augusts when her daycare was closed. This year, he had deliberately been planning to visit us during Sukkot to spend time with her while she was on holiday.

I have no memories of my years as a baby or toddler, and I don’t recall what my father was like with my younger brother, but he seemed to me a transformed person when he was with my daughter. He adored her utterly, and gave of himself completely and unconditionally. I have never known and cannot imagine a gentler, more caring grandfather. My baby’s loss of such a precious dedushka remains the hardest loss for me to accept.

When he died, we told her that he had been sick and then moved to a faraway place where he would no longer be ill, but he could no longer come to visit us. Upon leaving Israel for the funeral and shiva, I told her that I was going to America to help Dedushka Shurik move. Even today, I continue to struggle with how to talk about this with my not-yet-four-year-old daughter and attempt to nurture her memories of him. I’ve told her that I am reciting kaddish for my papa at the request of my mama (in part), but what can I relate to her about kaddish beyond this?

Before I returned to Israel, my mother took the last bills from my father’s wallet and purchased four sets of Play-Doh for my daughter as a final gift from Dedushka Shurik. We’ve given her two of them thus far and will give her the other two on coming special occasions.

Can one send presents to his loved ones from “a faraway place,” I wonder?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 20

I heard something beautiful this week.

Two of the regulars at my morning minyan completed their eleven months of kaddish, just days apart, each reciting a prayer written by Jerusalem’s esteemed Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961) in memory of his own father. The first petitioner read softly through barely stifled sobs, but I managed to catch the words two days later during the second mourner’s recitation and then found the text online:

אבינו שבשמים
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי, מאז עלייתו לגנזי מרומים ועד עתה
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי בשנה זו בכל כוחי ובכל מאודי
ועתה אני עומד לפניך נרגש ואומר: עשיתי ככל אשר ציוותנו
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן מנחה
אשא תחינה לפני כסא כבודך שיעלו כל תפילותיי לפניך לרצון
ותיטיב לאבי, הריני כפרת משכבו, את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך

לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

I also took the liberty of translating it:

Our Heavenly Father,
I was privileged to complete the recitation of Kaddish for the raising up of the soul of my father, my teacher, from his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until this moment.
I strove to honor my father this year with all my strength and all my might.
Now I stand before You emotionally and say: I have done as You commanded us.
At this moment, standing before You at mincha time,
I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall be brought before You and are acceptable to You for the good of my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place, his place in a world that is all good,
Among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world.

Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
And bind his soul in the bond of life.
God is his heritage;
May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

One’s kaddish journey must necessarily end. Inspired by Rabbi Lau, a tentative, personal prayer has cautiously started taking shape in my mind… perhaps I would recite some of it in Russian or English.

* * *

The final essay in Kaddish: Women’s Voices is titled ‘Ten Plus One, Two, Three…’ by Chana Reifman Zweiter who describes reciting kaddish for her father only three months after her final kaddish for her mother. At shul, I’ve met others who have recited kaddish almost consecutively for two or even three years… an endless, aching blur of grief.

The traditional Jewish mourning process has a designated end, and mourning must be kept in proportion; on these matters, Maimonides’ (1135-1204) Mishneh Torah is clear (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11):

אין מספידין יתר על שנים עשר חדש We do not eulogize for more than twelve months.
אל יתקשה אדם על מתו יתר מדאי שנאמר אל תבכו למת ואל תנודו לו כלומר יתר מדאי שזהו מנהגו של עולם A person should not become excessively broken hearted because of a person’s death, as Jeremiah 22:10 states: “Do not weep for a dead man and do not shake your head because of him.” That means not to weep excessively. For death is the way of the world.

 

I fear the end of this year, but
I can’t keep this up forever.

* * *

Anyway, Zweiter alludes to a Mishnah in her essay, which now springs out in my mind (Brachot 4:4):

רבי אליעזר אומר, העושה תפילתו קבע, אין תפילתו תחנונים Rabbi Eliezer says: If a man makes his prayers keva, it is not a [genuine] supplication.

 

One of the classic dichotomies occupying Jewish educators the world over is the tension between keva-קבע (fixed religious requirements) and kavanah-כוונה (intention). I posit that if not for our People’s ages-old commitment to our Law (keva), no Jewish educators would be around for such a conversation. Yet it remains that I and countless others chafe at arbitrary and anachronistic restrictions and commandments, which are meaningless at their best and immoral at their worst. Ancient keva needs relevant, modern kavanah. The issue cannot be ignored, lest you lose us.

The Talmud, of course, seeks to understand the Mishnah’s use of the term keva. The rabbis do tend to aim for precision (Brachot 29b):

מאי קבע? א”ר יעקב בר אידי אמר רבי אושעיא כל שתפלתו דומה עליו כמשוי ורבנן אמרי כל מי שאינו אומרה בלשון תחנונים רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו כל שאינו יכול לחדש בה דבר What is meant by keva? — R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him. The Rabbis say: Whoever is not able to say it in the manner of supplication. Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.

 

Indeed, what do we mean by keva? As we see above, the Talmud presents us with three possibilities, and Rashi’s (1040-1105) dependable commentary awaits us on inner edge of the Talmud:

כמשוי. והיינו לשון קבע חוק קבוע הוא עלי להתפלל וצריך אני לצאת ידי חובתי 1 Like a heavy burden. And this is the language of “fixedness.” There is a “fixed” law upon me to pray. And I must fulfill my obligation.
מי שאינו יכול. לכוין לבו לשאול צרכיו 2 Whoever is not able to. To direct his heart to ask for his needs.
לחדש בה דבר. בבקשתו והיינו לשון קבע כיום כן אתמול כן מחר 3 Insert something fresh in it – in his request. And this is the language of “fixedness” – as today is, so was yesterday, so will be tomorrow.

 

These reflect three successive spiritual challenges on my journey [this year]:

  1. If prayer is but a heavy, fixed burden, the weight of endless, repetitive meaninglessness will suffocate my will. My resentment and sense of estrangement from tradition will render the kaddish journey intolerable. The aspiration: measured doses of keva; a balance between regular daily recitations and room for breath and thought.
  2. If I am unable to find and express myself in [any of] the prayers, I am reduced to the function of a cog in the machinery of Jewish tradition. The aspiration: understand myself; relate to [some of] the prayers; weave self and prayer together in my heart.
  3. If my kaddish journey is not dynamically self-aware, if my daily words are never my own, then this is not truly my process. The well-intentioned life of pure keva ultimately remains one of alienation from the self. I am a Jew; it’s true, but I am also this Jew (just as my father was).

* * *

Often, my father and I did not communicate well. He would accuse me of nitpicking at his words and missing his broader points, and I would accuse him of the same. Once, in a pleasant mood, I told him that I was content with my life and received a lecture on lacking for ambition. “You’re content? That is worrying. You shouldn’t be content – you should always be striving for something.”

Is peace an appropriate ambition for the soul? Peace can be a means or an end, a condition of activity or a condition of stillness. If peace is a means, then it is desirable so that the soul can work freely, without interference, and expend its energies only on what is significant to itself; but then the soul is not peaceful, the soul bustles and strains. Such peace is an external peace. But dare one aspire also to an internal peace, to peace as an end, to a peaceful soul? Or is the end of activity also the end of meaning?

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 318

I’ve caught myself on the thought recently that kaddish is not a peaceful process. My soul is not content; my mind is perpetually occupied, straining for understanding. I cull stories of my father from relatives, sifting through my memories, putting them to word and context. An “advantage” of dying before your time: people yet live who remember you.

At the recommendation of a dear cousin, I have reached out to my father’s close friend from his youth who lives still in Moscow. His name is also Alexander, but he goes by Sasha, rather than Shurik (like my father). Hopefully, we will speak soon. Once again, I’m thankful to be fluent in Russian.

* * *

A Loose End
(a tangent)

I found a quote (while reading in shul this morning) from Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993), which I would have liked to include in blog post #18:

[Halakhic man’s] approach begins with an ideal construction and finishes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? – To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it in order to establish a relation between it and the real world… There is no phenomenon, being or creature to which the a priori Halakhah does not truly apply its ideal standard.

– “Ish HaHalakhah,” Talpiot 1, no. 3-4 (1944): 665.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 19

Tired.

There comes a point at which the furnace begins to sputter. One seeks fuel, whereas once it was piled up everywhere. Just yesterday, it would seem, everything was aflame or imminently flammable.

Would I have committed myself to this writing project if my father’s death hadn’t been so unexpected and sudden? If I’d been more prepared?

At not yet eleven months old, my daughter once stayed overnight at the hospital to receive treatment for pneumonia. She was home the next day, her condition improved markedly. My father, on the other hand, succumbed to pneumonia on the day that mama brought him to the hospital. Before learning of his death, I remember thinking well… it’s pneumonia… right…?

Still,
I might never
have been
ready, regardless.

Some twenty-five years ago, I saved papa’s life off the shore of Belmar, New Jersey. We were scuba diving together, and I recall the urgent look in his eyes when he signaled that we needed to surface. A lifelong smoker (mostly on, sometimes off), his breathing was labored, and he was struggling to swim. Instinctively, I pulled him along the surface towards a jetty, lodging myself between the craggy rocks, he in my arms, bracing with my legs for life. As the waves burst over us, I shielded his mouth with my hand. Luckily, some passersby noticed us and we were pulled up onto the seawall. I was unpanicked because his death was obviously impossible. Later, standing by his hospital bed, I still couldn’t fathom any different outcome.

He was approximately twenty-five years old when his hearing was permanently impaired, leaving him entirely deaf in his right ear, with constant background noise reverberating in his damaged left. This was the side effect of being treated for meningitis with streptomycin for ten days in a Soviet hospital. He lay unconscious those ten days, and the doctors thought he wouldn’t make it. On the tenth day, he awoke. His constitution is incredibly robust, they said, few others would have survived this. That’s how I remember him – always strong and fit, entertaining friends by lifting heavy chairs with a single hand grasping the bottom of one front leg. For me,
his life went beyond
the human, his
death: unthinkable.

* * *

The 2016 book Kaddish, a series of essays written by scholars and rabbis, is lying before me. The third essay is ‘For a God Who Mourns’ by Rabbi Noah Farkas. I am struck by his sensitivity (p. 45):

I am always moved by the mourner’s ability to rise and declare God’s greatness in the face of death. It takes bravery to mourn, and it takes strength to mourn. Kaddish is recited as a memorial prayer, and it requires all of our courage to be singled out publicly as bereaved and to tell the story of those who died.

I recall forcing myself to drive to shul every day during the shiva in a community that was not my own. I recall returning to the shul that I had stopped attending several years earlier. I recall shuddering, my finger quivering over my mouse button as I clicked on ‘Submit for Review’ for the first and second times. Farkas’ acknowledgement is well taken; thank you, Rabbi,
but it fades.
It does.

With time, the bravery cools; strength steadies; courage gives way to commitment. I read and write and ‘submit’ these blog posts, but I am not so affected as I once was. My father is dead; what words can hurt me? Let all the world know that I’m grieving, I say. Deal with it or don’t, but I shall not sugarcoat my mourning.

I recently finished reading another book: Kaddish: Women’s Voices. It’s an easy read, technically. Not so easy, emotionally. On bus rides, while waiting for lunch dates, whenever a moment presented itself, I could read the women’s essays in this book, absorbing their recollections of and reflections on their experiences of loss and kaddish. My reading was impeded only by tears. Parents, children. The old, the young. Natural causes, accidents and suicide. Comparisons rendered absurd, pointless.

During my shloshim period (the first 30 days of mourning) it was almost unbearable for me to attend somebody else’s shiva. Of that experience, I wrote in the late summer [link]:

For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

And:

It wasn’t fair of me, but I couldn’t help drawing comparisons.

Everything was about my pain then, and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.

And this is the simple, stark truth of it:
There is no time for any of us but borrowed time.

In her TED Talk (below), the author Fawn Weaver dusts off the obvious, which too often slips by us. Heed, friends, for your loved ones yet living:

The love we share in this moment is the only love we are guaranteed to give. When we argue with those we love most, we make an unwise and presumptive decision. When we slam the door; hang up the phone on someone we love; when we spew hurtful words, we make an assumption: that they will later be there to allow us to apologize for our words, to make up for our nasty comments. We assume that they will be on the other side of the door when we decide to open it. Or that they will be on the receiving end of the phone when we decide to call again. But what a tragedy it is for those who never get that chance.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 18

I know the premises of my father’s manifesto on mathematics well because his educational philosophy and related reflections were common subjects of conversation between us. I was yet in high school when the Internet came into existence and my father launched cut-the-knot.orgMuch of his thinking in those early days spilled over from his online lessons and applets directly into our home life. The following is from his manifesto:

Pretend you are [a mathematician], and next time when making a new acquaintance suggest as much. Chances of a response in the spirit of ‘Oh, really. I have always had problems with math,’ or ‘Math was the most difficult subject I ever …’ are overwhelming. Somehow I feel that a biologist would not hear (at least not too often) complaints about biology, and a chemist about chemistry. I am sure of this because the term ‘math anxiety’ has gained a respected position in our vocabulary long ago which may only compare to the position afforded to a more recent ‘computer illiteracy.’ But whoever heard or confessed of ‘biological anxiety’ or ‘chemical illiteracy’?

My father noted that: “In pragmatic terms we need mathematics very rarely, and, when we do, the mathematics we need is mostly trivial.” The reason then that many people learn “very little or next to nothing” in their math classes, he believed, is reflective of a flaw in the education system itself. Rather than requiring the rote memorization of esoteric axioms and formulae, teachers should aim instead to instill in their pupils an appreciation for mathematics’ infinite beauty.

Once when I was in high school, papa showed me an elegant way to complete a mathematics assignment on my computer, producing a diagram that my teacher had specifically asked us to do with thread and tape by hand. Upon my homework being predictably and categorically rejected, he scheduled a meeting with the principal, arguing that arts and crafts is not the point of mathematics. After all, I had learned the nuances of the underlying concepts better by incorporating them into computer code than I would have by pulling strings tautly across a paper. The principal was apologetic but inconvincible; and my father was indignant.

* * *

I cannot know if papa would have agreed with me, but I had a flash of insight during the shiva when the subject of his life’s work filled the air, and friends and family filled the house. Judaism, I thought, is also taught wrongly.

Let’s try this thought experiment: “In pragmatic terms we need mathematics Judaism very rarely, and, when we do, the mathematics Judaism we need is mostly trivial… I know for sure that Mathematics Judaism may be beautiful. Judging Mathematics Judaism by its pragmatic value is like judging symphony by the weight of its score.”

This, to my mind, is the truth.

* * *

My mother tells us that she first felt me move in her stomach while she was sitting in an undergraduate Talmud class at Hebrew University, and she laughed out loud with joy. For as long as I can remember, I loved Judaism.

For whatever reason, I vividly remember an episode from my elementary school years when mama was late in returning from work to drive me to Hebrew School so I walked there instead, despite the daunting distance. She found my note and called the principal in a panic; Mr. Solomon found me sitting at the back of the classroom, listening to the teacher.

Throughout all of the swerves and detours on my religious journey, I have always been pained at my separations from Judaism. What, then, kept me away for long stretches at various periods in my life? Why had I avoided shul for three years before my father died suddenly? The answers are many, but in a smattering of passages by Martin Buber (1878-1965) I recognize some of myself –

* * *

Prof. Martin Buber was very critical of organized religion, as he underscored in Pointing the way (p. 113). His claim was that religion may actually serve to confound one’s (I) personal relationship to God (Thou):

All ‘religious’ forms, institutions, and societies are real or fictitious according to whether they serve as expressions, as shape and bearer of real religio – a real self-binding of the human person to God – or merely exist alongside it, or even conceal the flight from actual religio… At present the prevailing religious forms, institutions and societies have entered into the realm of the fictitious.

So what alternative does Buber offer us? In the book On Judaism (p. 80), Buber drew a distinction between religion and religiosity, which would have resonated with my father:

Religiosity starts anew with every young person, shaken to his very core by the mystery; religion wants to force him into a system stabilized for all time. Religiosity means activity… religion means passivity…

Still, Buber did acknowledge the need for religion, given the human condition, as he explained in A believing humanism (p. 115). This leaves me wary. In my humanity, I am driven to recite kaddish for my father but must maintain my perspective and search for meaning:

Each religion is a house of the human soul longing for God… Each religion is an exile into which man is driven… and not sooner than in the redemption of the world can we be liberated from the exiles and brought into the common world of God.

I must not allow religion to distract me from religiosity; but
I must allow myself religion.

* * *

Inevitably, expectedly, the boundaries of my comfort zone are shifting. After several months of kaddish’ing (to coin a word) much of my religious angst and acrimony have been tempered by prayer, reflection and writing. My feelings have been painstakingly panned, screened and separated, leaving me with sparkling nuggets of sorrow. My thoughts are clarifying.

Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish has been resting on my bookshelf as a reference guide, as I have continued my trek by way of other sources. Suddenly, some of his musings remember themselves to me in light of my own experience. He writes (p. 19):

The shul is losing its strangeness for me. This worries me. In a strange place, solitariness is possible. Sociability poses a threat to spirituality… Prayer is a throb of individuation, at least for me. And yet the congregation is one of the conditions of my kaddish… I used to stay away from shul in part because I was too easily influenced by it. I wanted so much to be like the people with whom I prayed. This troubled me. One should not wish to be influenced. One should wish to be convinced.

Two related concerns arise for me when it comes to davening with others. 1) The more I enjoy the company, the less certain I am of my intentions. 2) I have a propensity for comparing my prayer experiences to those of my fellow suppliants. In the moment, I am always certain that they are more capable and intentional than I.

Thankfully, the approach that I’ve adopted has been working healingly. Nearly three months ago I wrote:

I have been taking my pick of the siddur, sticking primarily to the most fundamental prayers – the Shema (2x daily) and the Amidah (3x on weekdays, 4x on Shabbat). And, of course, the mourner’s kaddish. Always the kaddish.

Somehow, I’ve put others aside and found solace, even pleasure, in my recitations of these central prayers. Twice now I have even surprised myself by leading the mincha prayer service before Shabbat, for it is the shortest avodah, and I find myself able to maintain my concentration and intentionality from start to final kaddish. Whereas once ‘sociability posed a threat to [my] spirituality,’ I now permit myself to pray as myself with purpose.

I note that not unlike Martin Buber, Wieseltier draws a distinction between religion (shul) and religiosity (religious experience). For him, religion is not simply a distraction from meaningful experience. He writes that the two are unrelated (p. 119):

I might spend a whole year in shul, morning prayers, afternoon prayers, evening prayers, and never have a religious experience… Shul was not invented for a religious experience. In shul, a religious experience is an experience of religion. The rest is up to me.

The rest is up to me. The Jewish tradition only requires me to recite kaddish with a minyan. For better and for worse, it does not require me to have a ‘religious experience.’ I accept this, and recalling my father’s advice from my early college days (“If you’re not disrupting anyone else, it’s fine to attend for your own reasons.”), I now fully embrace it, for I am learning how to have both:

I have my reasons for religion;
I have my own religiosity.

* * *

My reasons for swerving away from religion have been many, but my reasons for returning to religion time and time again have been twofold. First, I am a skeptic. I may be skeptical of spiteful, uninstructed angels and fiery, mystical chains, but I am also skeptical of the materialist who dismisses the possibility of the supernatural. Wieseltier captures this sentiment eloquently in his book (p. 123):

For many years I have lived without religion. But I could not have lived without the possibility of religion… The fact that I spend my entire life in darkness does not prove that there is no light. My experience is not the only philosophical datum that counts.

Secondly, as my father said, “I know for sure that Mathematics Judaism may be beautiful.” Perhaps “the mathematics Judaism we need is mostly trivial” (i.e. brit milah, bar and bat mitzvah, wedding, and funeral ceremonies), but “Judging Mathematics Judaism by its pragmatic value is like judging symphony by the weight of its score.”

I have yearned too much, experienced too much, learned too much, and grown too much to dismiss my appreciation for Judaism’s infinite beauty. ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ is inspired by my love for papa; its essence is my yiddishkeit.