The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 17

My father’s funeral was conducted by a very special rabbi. He gave my father the kind of burial that he would have wanted; a traditional, Orthodox ceremony. He made arrangements for a burial plot in a Jewish cemetery, despite my parents no longer being affiliated with any house of worship and not having purchased plots in advance.

Two decades ago, this same rabbi welcomed me into his community when I came home from college, stumbling through the prayers and Shabbat observances at his shul. When my younger brother was born, it was this same kind rabbi who recommended a mohel to my parents and came to the brit milah ceremony along with other members of his congregation.

He embraced me, he embraced my parents, and he accepted us as we were. There was no other rabbi I would have wanted to conduct my father’s funeral, and he provided our family with support and comfort at our darkest hour, even going so far as to visit us during the shiva more than once. I hadn’t seen him in many, many years, but I had never, ever forgotten him.

* * *

At the shiva, the rabbi listened to our stories of papa compassionately and shared his wisdom; he asked about our lives in his gentle, dignified way. I know his presence was a comfort to my mother in particular, which moved me greatly.

Of course, eschatological questions inevitably arose, and the rabbi answered these as best he could. The concepts were familiar to me, but now, with my father unexpectedly gone forever, I found neither certainty nor solace in religious imagery…

* * *

A week ago on Shabbat, reading in shul as I am wont to do, I unexpectedly came upon a text penned by the renowned existentialist Prof. Martin Buber (1878-1965) of ‘I-Thou’ fame. Apparently, just several months before his death, he published A Believing Humanism, which includes in it an essay on death that he wrote in 1928. Buber wrote (p. 27):

We know nothing of death, nothing other than the one fact that we shall die – but what is that, dying? We do not know. So it behooves us to accept that it is the end of everything conceivable by us. To wish to extend our conception beyond death, to wish to anticipate in the soul what death alone can reveal to us in existence, seems to me to be a lack of faith clothed as faith… [*cut*]… Instead of imagining ourselves living instead of dead, we shall prepare ourselves for a real death which is perhaps the final limit of time but which, if that is the case, is surely the threshold of eternity.

Such beautiful, spiritual honesty lifts my soul, but the true preciousness of this quote is actually in the section that I [*cut*] out.

It’s important to understand who Martin Buber was. While denying the obligatory nature of halakha, this famed philosopher emphasized a prophetic form of religion; his relationship with God was profoundly intimate. His philosophy focused on one’s encounter with other beings, ultimately resting on the relation with God. According to Buber, a true relationship with God must be a personal I–Thou relationship, in which God is truly met, not merely thought of. The existence of God, for Buber, was undeniable. Faith was nothing less than his life’s work. Here is the segment that I excised:

The genuine faith speaks: I know nothing of death, but I know that God is eternity, and I know this, too, that he is my God. Whether what we call time remains to us beyond our death becomes quite unimportant to us next to this knowing, that we are God’s – who is not immortal, but eternal.

Without these lines, Buber’s reflection essentially reads like a secular, albeit soulful criticism of eschatology; but it is much more. I believe that Buber was of the purest, most authentic faith.

* * *

Most of what is espoused today (by those who espouse it) regarding Judaism’s views on the soul’s departure from the body is based upon the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah, which, to put it lightly, is not accepted universally. As you can see in the video below, there are some like Rabbi Manis Friedman (1946-) who have no compunction against presenting these ideas as irrefutable Truth, without citing any sources:

One of the more disturbing Kabbalistic ideas (ever so oddly not included in Rabbi Friedman’s talk) is that the Angel of Death or the angel Dumah beats the deceased with a fiery chain immediately after burial. This was described in Rabbi Adolf Jellinek’s (1821-1893) Bet HaMidrash (Volume Ḥibbut haKever 1:150-152).

But, you ask, what is Ḥibbut haKever (חִבּוּט הַקֶּבֶר)? It is: the Kabbalistic notion of “the beating [that one receives] in the grave.”

The DA’AT Institute offers a somewhat more palatable understanding of Ḥibbut haKever, including an exception for those who “have cultivated spiritual awareness” [link]:

Hibbut ha-kever is depicted as a three- to seven-day process of separation of the soul from the physical body. During this time, the disembodied being undergoes a purification process, surrendering attachments to the physical realm. For those beings clinging to physical existence, the process of separation can be excruciatingly painful. The disembodied soul “wanders about the world and beholds the body which was once its home devoured by worms and suffering the judgment of the grave [hibbut ha-kever]” (Zohar II, 141b–142a). However, those beings which have cultivated spiritual awareness leave behind body and material existence less painfully, even effortlessly, ‘like drawing a hair out of milk’ (BT Ber. 8a).

Of course, I check the Talmudic source about “drawing a hair out of milk”, and, thankfully it exists (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 8a):

תשע מאות ושלשה מיני מיתה נבראו בעולם… קשה שבכלן אסכרא ניחא שבכלן נשיקה אסכרא דמיא כחיזרא בגבבא דעמרא דלאחורי נשרא ואיכא דאמרי כפיטורי בפי ושט נשיקה דמיא כמשחל בניתא מחלבא Nine hundred and three types of death were created in this world… The worst of them is the croup, and the easiest of them is the kiss. Croup is like a thorn in a ball of wool pulled out backwards. Some people say: It is like [pulling] a rope through the loop-holes [of a ship]. [Death by a] kiss is like drawing a hair out of milk.


I appreciate this acknowledgement that not every soul need suffer:
“The easiest of them is the kiss.”

* * *

As I’m waxing religious here, the Kabbalistic reference above to the Angel Dumah (the angel of silence and of the stillness of death) reminds me of the penultimate verse of Psalm 115, which we read during the festive Hallel prayer service (verse 17):

לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ; וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that descend to [the Angel of] silence


This Bible verse is real; refreshingly honest. And, in the spirit of Martin Buber (although he would have phrased it in the first person singular), the Psalm ends as follows (verse 18):

וַאֲנַחְנוּ, נְבָרֵךְ יָהּ– מֵעַתָּה וְעַד-עוֹלָם: הַלְלוּ-יָהּ But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for ever. Hallelujah


And isn’t that ostensibly the point of kaddish?

* * *

In closing, I’d like to share the poem “When Sorrow Comes” by Edgar Guest (1881-1959):

When sorrow comes, as come it must,
In God a man must place his trust.
There is no power in mortal speech
The anguish of his soul to reach,
No voice, however sweet and low,
Can comfort him or ease the blow.

He cannot from his fellow men
Take strength that will sustain him then.
With all that kindly hands will do,
And all that love may offer, too,
He must believe throughout the test
That God has willed it for the best.

We who would be his friends are dumb;
Words from our lips but feebly come;
We feel, as we extend our hands,
That one Power only understands
And truly knows the reason why
So beautiful a soul must die.

We realize how helpless then
Are all the gifts of mortal men.
No words which we have power to say
Can take the sting of grief away –
That Power which marks the sparrow’s fall
Must comfort and sustain us all.

When sorrow comes, as come it must,
In God, a man must place his trust.
With all the wealth which he may own,
He cannot meet the test alone,
And only he may stand serene
Who has a faith on which to lean.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 16

The kaddish d’rabbanan (the rabbis’ kaddish) is recited by mourners during prayer services after sections of liturgy that take the form of Rabbinic discourse. As such, it contains a prayer for the well-being of Torah students:

עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל רַבָּנָן, To Israel, to the teachers,
וְעַל תַּלְמִידֵיהוֹן their disciples
וְעַל כָּל תַּלְמִידֵי תַלְמִידֵיהוֹן, and their disciples’ disciples
וְעַל כָּל מָאן and to all who
דְּעָסְקִין בְּאוֹרַיְתָא, engage in the study of Torah
דִּי בְאַתְרָא (קדישא) הָדֵין in this (holy) place
וְדִי בְכָל אֲתַר וַאֲתַר. or elsewhere,
יְהֵא לְהוֹן may there come to them
וּלְכוֹן שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא, and you great peace,
חִנָּא וְחִסְדָּא וְרַחֲמִין, grace, kindness and compassion,
וְחַיִּין אֲרִיכִין, וּמְזוֹנֵי רְוִיחֵי, long life, ample sustenance
וּפֻרְקָנָא, and deliverance
מִן קֳדָם אֲבוּהוֹן דִּי בִשְׁמַיָּא from their Father in Heaven
וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן and say: Amen.

The siddurim lining the shelves of the shul in America where I first began my kaddish journey did not include the word ‘holy’  (recited only in Israel); and I didn’t note its insertion into the Israeli version of the kaddish d’rabbanan when I first returned home to Jerusalem. Eventually, Zvi, a friend from minyan, pointed it out to me, and I began to recite ‘קדישא’ with intentionality. It has become a daily reminder of my father’s immeasurable love for Eretz Yisrael.

I also feel particularly connected to my papa through this scholars’ kaddish, for he was a lifelong learner, driven by intellectual curiosity. Every day I look forward to this kaddish in particular, for the words of the shorter kaddish neither move nor speak to me. Reading, learning, sharing, discussing, processing and writing infuse my traditional Jewish practice with meaning.

* * *

Is Kaddish meant to express my loss or to contain it, I wondered? …

In the rabbinic tradition, the words of the Torah are famously described as black fire upon white fire. The black fire is to be interpreted… But the white fire, too, is laden with meaning… Black fire is language and thus contraction; white fire is reflection, emotion, expansiveness. In shul, I was white fire fighting with black fire, reaching for the words to enclose my feelings, but then spilling back again into the margins…

This beautiful metaphor can be found in an essay titled ‘Loss for Words’ by Prof. Rachel Mesch, published in the book Kaddish: Women’s Voices (p. 36), lent to me by my friend Debbie who is also reciting kaddish for her father. Mesch elegantly captures this aspect of the kaddish, which I’ve been grappling with from the first.

I must do something more, say something more, convey something more than the words of kaddish, else I will be burned empty from within. Wrestling with every word, I strive to express this searing experience to myself. Every blog post relieves, but the white fire is endless, boundless. Often I simply don’t know what to do with myself or where to put myself; my emotions startle me and defy my mind.

On an unsuspecting day in mid-August, I was singing to myself at home in the morning, readying for work. My wife and daughter were out with my mother-in-law, and I had no immediate responsibilities to my family for the first time since returning from the shiva one month prior. For some unknowable reason, the words that came to my tongue were from the famous ‘Song of the Sea’ in Exodus:

Ozi v’Zimrat Yah Vayahi li lishuah עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.


I didn’t notice my voice rising at first, but as it filled the apartment and space contracted, I realized that I was bellowing at the top of my lungs. Eventually, some part of me quieted, and the walls drew back. Tentatively, I raised my voice again, but this was apparently too deliberate. Something within me had shifted, and my singing settled into quiet contemplation.

* * *

What if there’s something other than contraction and expansiveness, between the black and white, restricted by the one and aspiring towards the other? Is it gray fire flowing out upon my keyboard? My words may be interpretable, but they have long since spilled out past the margins of my prayer book. Some truths do defy our comprehension, but still we are compelled to pursue them.

* * *

I share the imagery of black fire upon white fire with my friend Sagi, and he reflects that the concept of the Torah’s white fire (unknowable, uninterpretable truth) reminds him of Prof. Kurt Gödel’s (1906-1978) incompleteness theorems, the first of which posits that for any sufficiently expressive math system, there will always be statements that are true, but that are unprovable within the system.

This is not something that I recall my father specifically discussing with me, but I do remember seeing the book Gödel, Escher, Bach sitting on his shelf. I am sure he would have loved this comparison, tying together the Torah’s and mathematics’ pursuits of truth and the limitations inherent to both.

* * *

I am certain that this approach to my kaddish journey is heightening my self-awareness and lowering my barriers to vulnerability. It’s also interesting that kaddish itself is not the only way and not even the primary way that Jews may honor their departed parents. Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried (1804-1886) wrote (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 26:22):

Though kaddish and prayers are helpful to the departed, they are not of primary importance. What is most essential is that their children proceed in the path of righteousness and, in that manner, bring merit to their parents.

These words are heartening, for I can only do what I can do, and I do it simply because I must. Ultimately, this is true for all of us who are mourning our loved ones.

Somewhere between our endless, unfathomable, and inarticulable experiences of loss and the unyielding rootedness of our traditions we come to discover our own gray fires. In mourning, we offer what we can.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 14


It happened that on Friday evening I was the only mourner in my minyan. Between mincha and the end of ma’ariv on Friday, there are three mourner’s kaddishes and one kaddish d’rabbanan (rabbis’ kaddish), all of which are the mourners’ domain. On this particular Shabbat, they were all exclusively mine.

The unexpected force of the congregation’s response, ‘amein,’ to my first kaddish reverberated through the room and I nearly stepped backwards. After my recitation, the gabbai chanted a special prayer in honor of the eleven Jews murdered the week before in Squirrel Hill, and the context crystalized for me. Scanning the room, I noted that the gentleman waiting to lead us in the kabbalat shabbat service had a firearm clipped onto the back of his pants, concealed under his well-pressed white shirt. ‘Good,’ I thought, ‘thank you for bringing that, and no less for covering it.’

I felt myself an agent of collective Jewish sorrow, voicing the pain of Pittsburgh, of my own community, of world Jewry. With each of my kaddishes, I took the luxury of enunciating the syllables, not chanting them, but speaking them as though I were engaged in plaintive discourse. I was glad for my three-and-a-half year old daughter’s absence from shul on this particular Shabbat evening, for I was left spent, my own grief more palpable with the weight of eleven additional Jewish souls.

I am just one Jew, and this just one journal entry, but I humbly dedicate it to the memory of those eleven Jews who were murdered in Pittsburgh for being Jews. May all of their memories be for blessings.

* * *

My mother queries, “So, I wonder, does a son say Kaddish for his mother too? Or is it only for the father? Will you be saying Kaddish for me when my time comes?”

“Yes,” I respond wistfully, “a son says kaddish for both parents.”

My fuller response begins so: The term “mourner’s kaddish” (as it is most commonly translated into English) is a mistranslation. In Hebrew, it is known as the kaddish yatom (קדיש יתום), which is the orphan’s kaddish.”

noun: orphan; plural noun: orphans
a child whose parents are dead.

The recitation of the kaddish yatom has historically been the child’s duty to his parents, rather than to any of his other immediate relatives (including children, siblings, and spouses), for whom he is expected to mourn according to Jewish tradition.

Prof. Judith Hauptman writes [here]:

The only relatives for whom one traditionally observes rites of mourning for 12 months are parents, both father and mother.

A text from the Talmud drives home the point that mourning rites for parents are more demanding than those for other relatives. It lists nine ways in which the two sets of practices differ (Mo’ed Katan 22b).

I’ve learned that the recitation of orphan’s kaddish is not mentioned in the Talmud (because it developed later), but today’s standard practice is to recite kaddish for one’s parents for the duration of this traditional year of mourning (minus one month). Neither Jewish mourning practices nor the orphan’s kaddish make a distinction between one’s father and one’s mother. The distinction is between one’s parents and everybody else.

In old-fashioned Orthodox communities, it is common to see men reciting the orphan’s kaddish for their departed mothers, while their fathers remain standing silently nearby.

* * *

We must be honest with ourselves. My mother’s question is entirely natural, given the tenor and tone of Orthodox Judaism. Also, it could have gone the other way. After all, a historic dispute does persist over whether daughters should be allowed to recite the orphan’s kaddish for their parents.

Let’s recall that the Jewish tradition of mourner’s kaddish is based upon a legend of Rabbi Akiva, as I’ve written previously. In the story, a deceased, corrupt tax collector’s soul is saved from damnation after Rabbi Akiva finds the man’s son and teaches him to praise God properly before the congregation. Some traditional sources highlight the son’s role (a son redeemed his father’s soul, rather than a daughter), but it strikes me that the rabbis could have just as readily focused on the role of the tax collector in the story (a father’s soul was redeemed, rather than a mother’s).

In fact, the great Rabbi Isserles (1530-1572) who penned HaMapah (still to this day, the central halakhic document for Ashkenazi Jewry), explicitly begins his explication of the laws surrounding the mourner’s kaddish as follows (Yoreh De´ah 376:4):

It is found in the midrashim that one should say the Kaddish for a father.

Thankfully, his quill did not stop there, but we must be mindful that it could have. Such a non-egalitarian tradition wouldn’t have nonplussed my mother or countless other non-Orthodox women; it would simply have been par for the course.

* * *

Anybody researching the nuances and history of the mourner’s kaddish will come across rabbinic texts that address the matter of daughters reciting kaddish for their parents. As expected, Wieseltier covers many of these sources in his book Kaddish, and the Israeli Beit Hillel rabbinic association’s ‘Responsum: May a Woman Say Kaddish For Her Parents?’ also covers a selection.

I’d like to put this to rest (from my perspective) by quoting Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen z”l who wrote the following on ‘Women and Kaddish’:

… the rulings of the three most influential halakhic sages in America… permeated the essence and formed the standards of synagogue life in America: namely, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.

Rav Henkin (1880-1973)… wrote: ‘If she does keep… basic mitzvoth, it is permissible for her to say Kaddish…’ Rav Moshe accepts a woman reciting Kaddish as a normal, unquestionable practice… Rav Soloveitchik ruled that it was permissible for women to recite Kaddish in synagogue.

Today’s halakhic authorities can readily permit women to recite the orphan’s kaddish in shul, yet many choose not to. Why? (That’s what interests me.)

* * *

Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1639-1702) opposed a daughter’s recitation of kaddish for her father (even with a minyan in the privacy of her home!), although he conceded that (Kaddish, p. 179):

There is no proof that would contradict it – for women, too, are commanded to sanctify the Name… Even though the tale of Rabbi Akiva, which is the basis for the recitation of kaddish by mourners, speaks only of a son, it is reasonable to assume that a daughter, too, may bring benefit and calm to the soul of the dead, for she, too, is his progeny.

So why did Bacharach oppose a daugher’s recitation for her father?

All this notwithstanding, we must be concerned that, as a consequence, the force of the customs of Israel, which are also Torah, will be weakened, and everybody will build his own altar on the basis of his own thinking, and will treat the words of the rabbis with derision and jest, and come to scorn them.

Historically, most poskim (halakhic decisors) ruled against daughters reciting the orphan’s kaddish, even in their homes. Rabbi Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen (1670-1749) wrote that sons recite kaddish because they, unlike daughters, are their parents’ heirs. According to his responsum, even the son of a daughter does not qualify to recite the kaddish. Rabbi Ephraim Margolioth (1762-1828) also forbade it, and in 1906 Rabbi Meshullam Finkelstein published his commentary on Margolioth’s ruling (Kaddish, p.186):

In our day, when lewdness is common, we are not to… allow a daughter to say the kaddish… for she will certainly want to sound lovely… instead of the others sanctifying the Name of heaven… the others will hit a stumbling-block.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (1805-1855) followed a similar line of thought (Kaddish, p. 187):

The man who hears her may be aroused to an evil thought, which is worse than sin. The woman must be very careful that she is not responsible for the failure of the men. 

TL;DRDespite there existing no substantive, text-based reason to forbid a daughter from reciting the orphan’s kaddish, she may still be prohibited because A) changes to Jewish tradition may lead Jews to think critically about claims made by rabbinic authorities, and B) women’s sexuality must be controlled.

* * *

The inclination of many modern halakhic authorities to continue limiting women’s expression in the public sphere is ironic. Even the rabbis of yore cited above accepted the premise that a daughter was eligible to recite the orphan’s kaddish for her parents, and their rulings to the contrary may be excused, given that they lived long before women were accepted as full citizens of their respective societies.

In the modern day, however, the debate has actually expanded from one over women’s participation in communal ritual functions to the matter of women’s leadership in Jewish communities. For example, the modern religious authorities who oppose Orthodox women’s rabbinic ordination, as I’ve written, follow closely in the steps of their religious precursors. They admit that such a thing is permissible according to halakha, but still they forbid it.

In Yeshivat Maharat’s Keren JournalRabbi Alan Yuter tackles criticisms of ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis. He draws attention to Rabbi Schachter’s post ‘Can Women be Rabbis?’ in which Rabbi Schachter (a foremost opponent of ordaining Orthodox female rabbis) admits that there is no halakhic text explicitly forbidding this.

Rabbi Schacter believes that Orthodox Jewish law is not a legal normative order, but a social and ethical culture… and recognition of dissent undermines the authority… manifest in the charisma of great rabbis.

This is exactly the argument of Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1639-1702) against a daughter’s recitation of the orphan’s kaddish! This sociopolitical rejection of ordination of female rabbis came into the spotlight in late October 2015 when the Rabbinical Council of America (affiliated with Yeshiva University) passed a resolution against it. The RCA’s vote was halakhically questionable for at least two reasons:

  1. If the ordination of women as rabbis is “against Jewish law”, why did the RCA have to vote at all? Does it follow that the RCA could have voted against halakha?
  2. Halakha is not determined by voting! Ever since the ultimate abolition of the Great Sanhedrin (and throughout the many centuries of Jewish exile) individual religious decisors have been issuing halakhic rulings for their local communities.

For me, it’s quite simple. If you claim to uphold God’s law (halakha), then you must act and rule accordingly. Further, if you have conceded that halakha allows for the possibility of women being public participants in particular Jewish communal rituals or functioning as leaders of Jewish communities according to God’s law(!) it is nothing less than immoral to forbid this.

As a wise rabbi once noted, “Around half of all Jews are women.”

* * *

Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal chronicles the kaddish journey of Dr. Esther M. Broner after the death of her father in 1987. She committed herself to reciting the orphan’s kaddish daily for eleven months in an all-male minyan at an Orthodox shul, despite the refusal of some regulars to respond, ‘Amein,’ to her kaddish (and other harassment). A second-wave Jewish feminist, Broner was the author of the 1976 Women’s Haggadah. She was no stranger to bucking gender norms.

Ah-hah! A feminist! A troublemaker! An outsider! Surely Broner doesn’t represent the average Jewish woman and her desire to mourn and honor her parents according to Jewish tradition?

Very well then, how about the following example?

The Recitation of Kaddish: A Personal Odyssey chronicles Dr. Ruth Walfish’s kaddish journey after the death of her mother in 2012, after not having recited the orphan’s kaddish for her father in 2002. Some two months into her year of mourning, this Orthodox woman scholar spontaneously stood up and recited the kaddish in shul on Friday evening. A product of her Orthodox culture and background, she “came to understand [her] decision to say Kaddish for [her] mother as a way of also grieving for [her] father.”

* * *

My father was no feminist. He was politically and socially conservative; and quite skeptical of political activism and social causes. This blog post would have intrigued him primarily because it was written by me, as an insight into my mind. He may also have appreciated the intellectual exercise.

Reluctant as he was to take political action (beyond voting), the following two snapshots from his life are particularly illuminating:

  1. In 1996, my father flew to Israel to vote for Bibi Netanyahu for Prime Minister. He considered the Oslo Accords to be an existential mistake, posing a terrible danger to the State of Israel’s very being, and he couldn’t sit idly by in America while the Israeli left brought about the downfall of the Jewish state.
  2. In 1974, my father was detained by the Soviet militsia for protesting for the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel. He was no refusenik leader, but his friends had called him (on the day of!) to join them at a protest near the Mayakovskaya Metro stop in Moscow, and he had agreed to come. Minister of Internal Affairs Shchelokov interrogated my father, and my father felt the Minister’s cold gaze boring through him – focused somewhere upon on the back of his skull. This was the first and only protest my father attended in the USSR; he was one of the lucky few to receive an exit visa and moved to Israel shortly afterwards.


The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 13

One of the most fascinating aspects of the mourner’s kaddish is that it doesn’t directly mention death or mourning. Given that kaddish is a conversation between people, this leaves me wondering.

How much do we leave unspoken between us? How much was left unspoken between me and my father z”l? If the death prayer omits death, how much more so might loved ones omit love? How much of humankind’s communication lies between our lines? Between our words? Between our breaths and syllables?

There are so many reasons I write. One is: my daily recitation of the traditional mourner’s kaddish is not about my father. If the traditional kaddish is impersonal, this kaddish series is not. Even so, reflecting now, I would say: my personal kaddish cannot express everything. My tears don’t stain your computer screen. In truth, they rarely come, but how would you know? I fear letting go, even as I write with desperation and my father continues to slip through my fingers like dry sand.

Also, if I were to write an entire composition about my love for God (assuming that I loved Him) without mentioning my father, would that befit my father’s memory? Would it honor him? Would it preserve any of him? Would it have anything to do with him? Would it be more in the spirit of the traditional mourner’s kaddish, or less so? If I’m being honest, it’s easier to read and write about kaddish than it is to bethink myself of memories, even privately.

I must read between my own lines.

* * *

Now, regarding the tradition: Two questions spring to mind.

  1. Why not mention death or mourning in the mourner’s kaddish?
  2. Given this pretermission, why does the kaddish persist as the Jewish prayer for the dead?

* * *

The answer to the first question, it seems, is more equivocal. I discover an answer in Wieseltier’s book Kaddish that resonates with me. He brings a text from a novel written by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky titled The Five. The Editor quotes the Revisionist (p. 164-5):

A man stands at the open grave… and presents his… accounting for the damages, to the Lord of the Universe. He is furious… and… behind the tombstone nearby, Satan squats and lies in wait for… when the man… explodes with curses… As soon as he hears these words… he… addresses God: ‘See what you get for your goodness! And see from whom: from a Jew! From your own agent and representative on this earth! So go quietly, old man. I am in charge now.’ This is the devil’s plan. But the [man]… guesses Satan’s game. He asks himself: ‘… Will I really allow evil to rule the world? No! …’ – and at this point… the man begins to list all those praises of God… who needs reasons? It is reason enough to lay the devil low… To say, in other words: ‘You, Satan, keep out of this! Whatever grievances I have against God… Somehow we will settle the matter between ourselves…’

In Jabotinksy’s understanding, the kaddish takes the form of a doxology in order that we keep our worst demons in check. Give in to our darkest inclinations; succumb to our pain; permit unfettered evil to reign. Therein lies no honor for our loved ones.

* * *

Actually, it’s the second question that draws me because I think its answer is simpler, and I’ve already touched upon it: the mourner’s kaddish persists because we cannot coherently articulate the immeasurable depths of our helplessness and loss. That the Jewish wisdom of yesteryear saw fit to attach mysterious words of an ancient language to the opacity of death is comforting. Tradition consoles. Even the most articulate mourner lacks for expression.

My sorrow’s voice is age-old.

In volume six of My People’s Prayer Book, I unearth a gem. Rabbi David Ellenson writes the following (p. 155):

The rationalism of Reform’s founders did lead the authors of the 1819 Hamburg Gebetbuch to address the fact that no mention was made of the dead in this prayer. They compensated for this “lapse” by inserting an Aramaic paragraph… whence it found its way into the classical Reform prayer book… Despite the fact that the new version of the Mourner’s Kaddish thus achieved considerable long-term standing in Reform tradition, no other Reform prayer book in the twentieth century… retained it. This ultimate failure of even an innovation that lasted over 150 years demonstrates the tremendous tenacity of folk traditions in matters surrounding mourning. The affective power of the classical version of the Mourner’s Kaddish has proved more enduring than theory and a century and a half’s sustained novelty.

I am struck hard by curiosity. What were the words of this discarded text? A bit of online research brings up the following:

Insertion from the 1819 Hamburg
Reform Gebetbuch (prayer book):


Not only does the mourner’s kaddish not directly relate to death or mourning, but it would seem that we Jews don’t want it to.

* * *

Is humankind’s rejection of reason so hard to understand? For me, it’s the most intuitive facet of the mourner’s kaddish. Consider this: For as long as I can remember, my father kept spare batteries in the door of our refrigerator, insisting that this would extend their lifespans. Of course, even a cursory review of articles suggests that this is a dubious claim [see: 1, 2, 3], but you can still guess where I keep my batteries.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 12

Angels don’t speak Aramaic.

What, you didn’t know? This is a popular idea in the kaddish literature; there are differing explanations as to why we don’t want the angels to understand the kaddish of humankind. Here’s a particularly juicy morsel from the illustrious Rashi’s (1040-1105) Book of the Orchard (ספר הפרדס), as transcribed by Leon Wieseltier in his book Kaddish (p. 430):

‘Magnified and sanctified.’ But how may a mortal magnify and make greater the Name of the Holy One? As if, heaven forbid, it were lacking! But it is lacking… We pray… that He… sanctify His Name to make it whole…

The kaddish’s opening words, the author writes, “hope for the healing of God. In this way, they are a confession of divine infirmity – and this information must not fall into the hands of the angels” (p. 431). The Book of the Orchard goes on:

If a man should ask why the kaddish is recited in Aramaic, [the answer is that] it is so that the angels do not sense that the Name of the Holy One is lacking, lest they destroy the world.

Wieseltier explains (p. 431):

They do not wish to share God with men. And it is only the fear of God that deters them… Our Aramaic words prevent them from acquiring the knowledge… that there is a wound in God.

* * *

As I read such texts, my reactions are mixed. These are myths. These are my myths. They are attempts at expression. Values. Ideas. Contradictions. The human condition. Life and death. The unknowable. Fear and comfort. Insecurity. Meaning.


I ponder the axioms underlying Rashi’s commentary:

    1. Humankind is capable of communicating directly and exclusively with a Higher Power, who loves and strives to protect humankind.
    2. There exist terrifying forces in the world, beyond our comprehension and beyond this this Higher Power’s control.
    3. These forces do not perceive the Higher Power’s limitations, but humankind does.
    4. Humankind’s existence is fragile and precarious; the Higher Power remains our only hope.

A thought: Perhaps our recitation of kaddish should serve as a reminder that things could be worse.

* * *

My incredulity at spiteful, uninstructed angels whets my hunger for mundanity, and thankfully the Jewish tradition provides this also. Wieseltier cites Rabbi Isaac Ben Samuel of Dampierre (1100-1174) who describes the situation dispassionately (p. 434):

The kaddish used to be said after teaching and preaching, and there were ignorant people present, and they did not understand the Holy Tongue. Therefore, the rabbis established the kaddish in the language of translation, so that everyone would understand it, for this was their language.

Nothing so dramatic as angels. I’ll take it gladly.

* * *

Aramaic, according to Rabbi Isaac Ben Samuel, was widely understood by the extended Jewish world of yore, but there exist no Aramaic speaking Jewish communities today. What might today’s rabbis have to say?

Last month, I picked up HaMizrachi magazine published by Mizrachi, the global religious Zionist movement. The Tishrei edition’s final article, written by Rabbi Chaim Navon, is titled ‘Why is the Kaddish in Aramaic?’ He opines that it would be a “problem” to translate the Aramaic kaddish into Hebrew, even as he admits that it is incomprehensible:

Our incomprehensible Aramaic Kaddish wrenches hearts far more than the perfectly understood Yishtabach [prayer]. Non-religious mourners throng to shuls to say the Kaddish for their parents… Kaddish is drenched with the tears of a hundred generations. Perhaps it is halachically permitted to translate it into Hebrew; but so what?

As I wrote two months ago:

I don’t really care what the kaddish means… Experientially, at its best, [the kaddish is] an expression of emotions that I can’t articulate… Not everything can be expressed with language. Not everything needs to be.

No lofty theology or angelology this, only the human experience. Limpidity birthed the kaddish, yet incomprehensibility sustains it. Its externalities remain the same, but our expectations of it have shifted.

* * *

An anecdote.

I was at the bank yesterday, and the teller was frustrated that I hadn’t received a confirmation e-mail from her on my cellphone. “It’s not a ‘kosher phone,’ is it?” she asked. (A kosher phone can only make and receive voice calls. They’ve been an ultra-Orthodox staple since 2012, when the Satmar Rebbe declared smartphones verboten.) “No,” I laughed heartily, “it definitely isn’t.”

The secular teller had made an assumption about me, based upon my large yarmulke and beard. She thought I might be the religious sort who would deliberately avoid the excesses and “sins” of secular society.

Do mind the externalities.

* * *

A parallel.

Why was electricity prohibited on Shabbat? Is it the same reason that some Jews refrain from using electricity on Shabbat today? Is it the same reason I refrain? Wikipedia: “Orthodox authorities of Jewish law have disagreed about the basis of this prohibition since the early 20th century.” This is true.

A popular idea is that creating an electric spark is like lighting a fire, which is halakhically prohibited on Shabbat. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis who asked him, “Is electricity fire?” The renowned physicist responded that electricity is not a chemical process, as fire is. (This story is quite entertaining. My father had many of Feynman’s books; but now I will never know if he was familiar with this particular episode.)

Rabbis have proposed various halakhic categorizations of the prohibition against electricity on Shabbat, which I can’t do justice to in this composition (again, Wikipedia is quite the resource), but would you like the truth? The truth is that I am not motivated by halakhic considerations.

1) In today’s hyperconnected reality, it is a relief to disconnect from the world and be exclusively present with my family for a full day every week. 2) Shabbat is not simply a day of rest for the individual Jew; it is a day of rest for the Jewish people. As such, there exist communal norms, which I accept in order that my family belong. 3) My countercultural lifestyle grounds me and does honor to my forebears; it’s not by chance that my last name means “He Who Prays to God.” (My father’s last name.)

My motivations and considerations are not anomalous, and today’s rabbis know it.

If you were to see me in my prayer shawl and phylacteries at the synagogue on any given morning, you would naturally make assumptions, but do mind the externalities.

* * *

My father, far more than most, innately understood this. It was he who gave me permission to attend Shabbat services during my first semester of college.

“I want to make Jewish friends,” I wrote, “but there aren’t many here, and the few who are involved all go to services on Friday night at the Hillel. I don’t know most of the prayers, and I don’t believe in what they’re saying. It feels hypocritical to go through the motions just because I want to meet people.”

“Boy,” he wrote, “If you’re not disrupting anyone else, it’s fine to attend for your own reasons.”

… He called me “Boy.”

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 10

My father z”l identified as a non-religious Jew, à la the Israeli paradigm of religious identity (as does my mother), but this bears clarification.

Babushka z”l (my mother’s mother) described my parents as “religious,” which both would consider amusing. I spoke with my Babushka nearly every day for years, and she often voiced this. According to her, my wife and I were “quite kosher” (совсем кошерные), and my parents were simply religious (просто религиозные). Granted, her familiarity with Judaism was limited, still Babushka was the most intuitive woman I’ve ever known.

* * *

An anecdote:

After years of celebrating the Jewish holidays in America away from family, my parents and I flew to Israel for Pesach when I was yet in my teens. Our previous visits had been during summer vacations, but that year we made an intentional decision to share Passover with our family. One memory pierces through the fog: the shock when everyone began to eat without delving into the Hagaddah. Now, my parents and I certainly had no sense of obligation to read the Haggadah in its entirety (and we never did), but our concept of Pesach was grounded in tradition; our seder went beyond simply putting a seder plate on the table. I recall my mother’s reflection later: “We’re never doing that again.”

* * *

For my father, intellectually curious as he was, Pesach was a pleasure. He enjoyed the text of the Hagaddah, and he took pleasure in riffing on it (…אני כבן שבעים שנה). Also, the seder is a private affair, his comfort zone. Thinking back, I recall my father challenging me to share my insights at our seder, but I was never inclined to be decoded and unriddled by him.

In any case, was he non-religious?

* * *

In Israel, there are popularly accepted categories of Jewish religious identity.  Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist), Masorti (Traditional), and Hiloni (Secular). One may well submit that my father was Masorti.

A ~dozen years ago, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics officially split the “Masorti” category into two subcategories: “Traditional – Close to Religion” (מסורתי – קרוב לדת) and “Traditional – Not so Close to Religion” (מסורתי – לא כל כך קרוב לדת). The Bureau did not see fit to divide any of the other major demographic categories. Given the new subcategories, perhaps my father was “Close to Religion,” at least in spirit.


* * *

Upon first coming into contact with Orthodox Jews when I was eighteen, I was struck by their model of cohesive Jewish community. I was drawn to their warmth and to the traditions and institutions that united them.

Having never experienced a non-Orthodox approach to Judaism that inspired me, I eagerly absorbed the messages I received from rabbis, educators, and community members regarding Orthodox Judaism’s exclusive claim to Jewish authenticity. Even as my religious practices fluctuated throughout the years, I judged myself and everybody else by the theological and cultural norms of Orthodoxy.

By the time I came to Israel to study Torah more than ten years later, I had gained exposure to a wider range of compelling and empowering Jewish perspectives. Enamorment had faded, and many of Orthodoxy’s claims no longer rang true. Still, the traditional and unshakable commitment to Jewish religious life and peoplehood remained alluring; and I had picked up on hints of a freethinking, intellectual strain of Orthodoxy, which gave me hope.

I will forever admire my teachers in Jerusalem for their commitments to Torah and masorah on the one hand, and to reason and modernity on the other. For some years, learning at their feet, I thought I’d found a home in Orthodoxy; I thought I could belong.

But knowledge.

* * *

In his work The Jewish Religion: A Companion theologian Rabbi Louis Jacobs z”l (1920-2006) describes the popular understanding of ‘Orthodoxy’ as follows:

[at the beginning of the nineteenth century] the term [came to be] used… as a convenient shorthand for the attitude of complete loyalty to the Jewish past… faithfulness to the practices of Judaism, to the halakhah (Jewish law) in its traditional formulation.

The term once described a theological response to the Jewish Enlightenment and the Jewish Emancipation. Today, faithfulness to traditional halakhah no longer defines Orthodoxy, as explains cuttingly:

Rather than truly being a defining word… ‘orthodox’ has been an attempt by Jews to force people into a… reality in which they must adhere to certain culturally-defined strictures in order to be considered that word.

Thus, a person could keep Shabbat and kashrut, but also lie, steal, not pay back debts… and still be considered orthodox.

Or a person could start to have doubts about their beliefs, start to look in different areas for enlightenment, perhaps even stop keeping certain things, like Shabbat… and they are defined as ‘off the derech’

Why are defrauders and sex offenders still accepted as Orthodox?

* * *

What’s not ‘Orthodox’?

Partnership with Reform and Conservative rabbis and synagogues is stigmatized. Tacit validation of non-Orthodox Judaism’s authenticity tarnishes an Orthodox leader’s standing in Orthodox society.

This hearkens back to the theological disputes during the period of the Jewish Emancipation some two hundred years ago when the Jewish denominations (including Orthodoxy!) were born. Within Orthodoxy, there were different approaches. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch z”l (1808-1888) asserted that Orthodox Jews should secede from communities that maintained Reform institutions, while Rabbi Márkus Horovitz z”l (1844-1910) served with the conviction that differing religious approaches could coexist.

Today’s mainstream Orthodox view, expressed by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks below, rejects pluralism. This is at odds with those who assert that any Judaism that doesn’t recognize the validity of non-Orthodox Judaism is itself invalid, as Rabbi Emil Fackenheim z”l expressed:

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, z”l
“Within Judaism… Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism are regularly portrayed as the four Jewish denominations. Those who think in these terms see such a description as just that: neutrally descriptive. But it contains a momentous hidden premise. It imports pluralism into Judaism… Orthodoxy… does not validate, in the modern sense, a plurality of denominations. Orthodox Judaism remains a modern-minded possibility – if it is open-minded regarding the possible validity of other, non-Orthodox forms of Judaism as well. This line of thought, to be sure, produces the specter of an all-encompassing relativism. But however one may cope with that specter, the fear of it does not justify resort to a medieval-style authoritarianism that can no longer be honestly maintained.”
One People
p. 31
What is Judaism?
pp. 28-29


Opposition to granting any validation to the non-Orthodox streams manifests in religious edicts issued by Orthodox rabbis and rabbinic associations, aimed at setting their society apart from Reform and Conservative Judaism. Such edicts are couched in halakhic language, but are ultimately sociocultural.

For example, Rabbi Hershel Schacter, a prominent rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, declared the ordination of women to be a threat to the fabric of the Orthodox community. His YU colleague Rabbi Brander explained: “such an initiative, if institutionalized, challenges the… Orthodox community vis-à-vis the Conservative and Reform.” It’s not that halakha forbids women’s ordination. Rather it’s that Orthodox religious leaders don’t want to be perceived as Reform or Conservative.

Sex offenders may be Orthodox. Female rabbis may not. In a brilliant and scholarly article called The Novelty of Orthodoxy, Rabbi Natan Slifkin (I simply cannot recommend his article enough) provides the historic context and explanation for incongruities like this one (p.6):

It was not actually the case that Orthodoxy opposed all change… Rather, Orthodoxy’s overriding concern was to oppose changes that appeared to be changes; changes that came from without, rather than from within.

Female rabbis, you see, come from without. Criminals may come from within.

* * *

I had been pushing my doubts aside, dreaming of and hoping for an inspiring, modern-minded Orthodoxy. I had found an ugly, modern political battle over a hollow identity construct. The walls (whose foundations had been set in college) crumbled; I stopped caring about Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy.

A yearning for belonging remains; it would be easier, of course. It would be less lonely. (Just leave your conscience at the door.)

I am not Orthodox. I am not Reform. I am not Conservative. I am Jewish and done with sociopolitical nonsense. I am “Traditional – Close to Religion,” and I am motivated by love of my People and my heritage. My Jewish identity is my own, just as my father’s Jewish identity belonged to nobody but himself.

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.


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.