Blemished mourning

Through the cracks

After Papa died in the summer of 2018, I was intent on chronicling my year of mourning as thoroughly as possible; but, unavoidably, many of my kaddish experiences fell through the cracks between my blog posts… I had neither the bandwidth nor the time necessary to cover every significant moment.

Each kaddish blog post of mine took on a life of its own. I would begin by recording some preliminary thoughts and then allow my reflections on the Jewish texts I’d been exploring to guide my hands across the keyboard. Usually, I would reach “the end” of every blog post upon realizing that it was complete… but there was always, always more to be written.

That’s part of why I’m blogging to this day.

Week after week I remember telling myself that I would include those inevitably omitted moments in future blog posts… but I could never quite keep up with life, and my project was, naturally, limited to my one year of mourning.

Admittedly, there were certain things that I was uncomfortable sharing publicly during that painful period, such as my decision not to recite kaddish for Babushka, my mother’s mother, who died several months after my Papa did… And some of those reflections, perhaps, I will never share.

There was one particular incident, however, that I very much did want to reflect upon in my Skeptic’s Kaddish series, which I never got around to because of timing.


Jewish tradition

The traditional Jewish mourning period for a parent is twelve Hebrew months, unlike the mourning period for other immediate family members, which lasts for only thirty days.

The first seven days after the funeral are known as the shiva, and these are the most restrictive days. Mourners stay at home during that period, seated on low stools and accepting visitors who come to comfort them. Following is the remainder of the first 30 days, called shloshim (literally: thirty), during which many restrictions remain, including not shaving and not getting a haircut.

After the shloshim, those mourning a parent continue reciting the mourner’s kaddish daily in a prayer quorum, usually for a total of eleven months, and several restrictions remain. These include not purchasing new clothing; not attending celebratory events; and not listening to live music.


The blemish

I had no difficulty in avoiding the purchase of new clothing, and I was mindful to avoid attending celebratory events. For example, my friend Arielle’s son Lavie was born during my kaddish year, and while I was excited to attend his ritual circumcision, I dutifully departed before the celebratory meal that followed.

Throughout the course of that year, I thought through potential challenges to my mourning practices in advance, and I conscientiously avoided missteps. The family outing that led to my mistake had been entirely unplanned.

Israel Independence Day, a Spring holiday, was several days before my flight to America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone in May 2019. We’d had no particular plans to celebrate, beyond watching the fireworks from afar and enjoying a family dinner at home, but my wife spontaneously suggested that we take our then 4¼-year-old daughter to watch the fireworks up close.

We were concerned because of the late hour but somehow managed to coax her into taking an afternoon nap so that she wouldn’t be overtired at night; then we were off, with her perched upon my shoulders.

My Jerusalem stone

At the time, I was also very preoccupied with the upcoming unveiling. In fact, when we arrived at Papa’s beloved Promenade for the fireworks, I took that opportunity to search for a Jerusalem stone, thinking about how I might place it atop his tombstone in a few days time.

This took place during my eleventh and final month of daily kaddish recitations, and I was emotionally and physically worn out. When the renowned Shalva Band, a group of disabled musicians, started playing beneath the fireworks, I was pleased to see them live, for I’d read so much about them in the press; and when the lead singer, a blind woman, joked that we would have to describe the fireworks display to her, I recall being very amused.


My realization

Days later, at home with my brother and my mother in New Jersey, it hit me. I had accidentally listened to live music during my year of mourning.

My brother and I were downstairs in the basement, discussing Jewish mourning traditions, when it dawned on me; I actually needed a minute to process this realization. “Oh…. shit.” In truth, I didn’t have any feelings of guilt because my error had been inadvertent; and I knew that I had been trying my best. Still, I did experience a pang of regret over having blemished my year of mourning… after having invested so much of myself in prayer, study, and tradition.


Today

Today, I find myself thankful for this memory… It has become one of many that I continue to reflect upon; and in retrospect, I’m actually pleased that my year of mourning for Papa was imperfect – because that is a reflection of myself.

To India (and others) with love

How did I end up on WordPress?

The Times of Israel website is an international news portal, read by millions of people around the world every month, and, of course, the percentage of its readership that is Jewish is particularly high, as one would probably expect.

Given this, I naturally decided to publish my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series there following my father’s death. The decision was an instinctive one.

Later, after I’d completed my year of reciting kaddish, I eventually decided to transfer the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ to this personal WordPress blog, primarily so that I, my family, and our friends could more readily browse and navigate my yearlong kaddish journey in honor of Papa.


The WordPress that readers do not see

WordPress, WordPress, WordPress.

I suppose I should have expected nothing less in 2020.

In a world of soundbites, Tweets and Instagram posts, I rejected those limited mediums in favor of substance. I’ve always been a writer at heart; blogging came naturally to me. But- inescapably- today’s WordPress is just another node on the social network.

Those of you who don’t blog on WordPress wouldn’t know that WordPress encourages its bloggers to create Facebook and Twitter accounts for their blogs, as well as to monetize our blogs in various ways. It also goes a step further – the website provides us with readership statistics. Look how many people have viewed your blog today! Look how many people have commented! Look have many people have ‘liked’ one of your posts! Look! Look! Look!

Look to see what countries most of your views are coming from! Look! Look! Look!

In any case, I don’t quite understand it, but it seems that most of my views are coming from India and surrounding countries.


Would you like to understand me?

And, so, I find myself in an unexpected position, as everything I write is from a distinctly Jewish perspective. I don’t have any personal connection to India (although I ❤️ Indian food), but apparently many residents of India, among others throughout Asia, find my content intriguing.

On the one hand, some ideas and values are universal, and I relish discussions on culture, religion, and politics across international borders. On the other hand, being committedly Jewish is a very particular experience in some very fundamental ways, and I’d like to expound upon some of these for my new readers. Based upon our interactions, it would seem that you’d like to know more about where I’m coming from.

Below are some preliminary personal reflections on how I relate to being a Jew.


Judaism: not a “religion”

Much of this feels odd for me to write because it’s all so ingrained in me, but, still, let’s lay out some basics.

The first thing that I would like to make clear is that Judaism is unlike every other “religion” that I am aware of in one very specific way (feel free to challenge me with contradictory evidence). The reason I put the word “religion” in quotes is – Judaism is not really a religion. Or, rather, if you want to insist that it is a “religion” (as some do), then you must make a distinction between “Judaism” and “Jewishness”.

In Russian, for example (but not in colloquial American English), there rightly exist two separate terms: 1) Yevrei (A Hebrew; a Jew by nationality) and 2) Iudei (A person of the Jewish faith). A Yevrei is analogous to an Indian, and a Iudei is akin to a person of the Hindu faith.

For the vast majority of Jewish history, no such distinction existed because, as I’ve written, previous to the Jewish Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries:

… one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion.

The more curious among you may be interested to know that a Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, Dutch Republic) was the first Jew to publicly challenge the basic tenets of Jewish faith, including the core doctrine that the Torah is of Divine origin. Spinoza was an Enlightenment philosopher and the Jewish community expelled him for his iconoclastic views. In those times, a Jew could not declare his rejection of the Jewish faith and expect to remain in the Jewish fold.

In the modern day, this is no longer an issue outside of the most traditional circles. Many Jews comfortably identify as agnostics or atheists, while maintaining their cultural Jewish identities and even affiliating with Jewish religious communities. In many conversations of mine with religious people of other faith traditions, I have found that this concept is very challenging for them. Can there be such a thing as an atheist Christian or Muslim?


Peoplehood: a primary facet of Jewish identity

Personally, I have always felt very comfortable in my skin as a Jew, and I was always proud of my ethnic identity even as a child, long, long before I decided that it bore deep exploration.

As I have explored the many facets of Jewish identity over the years, as well as my respective degrees of attachment to them, my thinking has gradually evolved, and ultimately, I’ve come to some fairly straightforward understandings of myself.


An understanding of peoplehood as extended family

I had a wonderful conversation not so long ago with somebody who had converted to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion process. Of all the Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy (in all its variants) is the most legalistic. It is the most committed to the observance of halakhah, which is Jewish religious law.

Orthodoxy (and Conservative Judaism as well) maintains the traditional legal definition of ‘Who is a Jew’, which is as follows: one must either 1) be born to a Jewish mother, or 2) convert to Judaism before a council of 3 adult Jewish males who committedly live according to halakhah.

The Orthodox convert with whom I was conversing laid out the following train of thought for me:

  1. Halakhah is God’s Law.
  2. God’s Law defines who is a Jew, including the setting of the standards for conversion to Judaism.
  3. Conversions to Judaism performed according to halakhah are legitimate, and conversions conducted by other standards are illegitimate. (Reform Judaism, for example, does not consider halakhah binding.)
  4. Any understanding of Jewish group identity not based upon God’s Law is inherently unreliable and based upon human, limited biases.
  5. These limited human biases regarding the matter of “Who is a Jew” ultimately have no bearing upon “true reality” (which is entirely defined by God’s will) and boil down to nothing more than mere human racism.

In the interest of dialogue, I responded as follows:

  1. It is natural to love one’s family, including family members who may have different ethnic identities than one has him/herself.
  2. According to Jewish tradition and religious doctrine, the Jewish people are the descendants of our forefather Abraham and foremother Sarah, and this, according to our tradition, includes all converts throughout the centuries.
  3. It is therefore no more racist for a Jew to have a special love for his/her people than it would be for someone to love their extended family, and neither halakhah nor God need enter into this equation.

That’s how I see it. The Jewish people are an extended family.

By the way, there is another simple reason why my love of the Jewish people is not racist: conversion. Simple put, the Jews have never been an exclusive club. While we are, indeed, a people, any human being on earth can join our tribe.


An understanding of peoplehood as another step beyond the monkeysphere

Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number? It’s a very important concept, otherwise known as the monkeysphere. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person… Humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships…

150 stable relationships is the average limit for us humans, but that’s not to say that all of those relationships are equally meaningful to us. Within our respective monkeyspheres, we usually care most about our nuclear family members, then our friends, and then our communities, right?

Of course, we humans are also naturally concerned with other human beings far beyond our monkeyspheres. For example, we are likely to be concerned with the well-being of other people in the cities and countries where we reside. Many of us are even concerned with all of humanity’s well-being – otherwise why would one be concerned about global pollution and carbon emissions?

There is clearly a spectrum for every one of us, ranging from the most particular to the most universal relationships, and one of my rabbis once made a beautiful point to me in this vein, regarding the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Essentially, he explained, our universal concern for others throughout the world is grounded in our ability to empathize with and appreciate the worth of every individual human being. We are capable of relating to the humanity of those whom we will never meet because we intimately recognize the humanity of those who are within our monkeyspheres, and we intuitively understand that all humans have close, stable relationships with other humans – just as we do ourselves.

If we take this a step farther, we can make the following argument: our relationships with our nuclear families inform our relationships with our circles of friends, which in turn inform our relationships with our communities, which in turn inform our relationships with those who live in our cities, etc., etc.

Essentially, each of our spheres of concern allow our limited human minds to grasp the concept of the next larger sphere beyond it. One cannot truly be universally concerned for all of humanity if one does not first understand the experiences of being human and of maintaining close human relationships.

My relationship to my people is one of my many spheres of concern. Because of this relationship, I am better able to value your humanity, dear Reader, even if we’ll never meet.

By the way, the fact that my people live throughout the world in different countries and cultures makes it all the easier for me to relate to people who may have very different life experiences than my own.


Carrying my people with me everywhere

At its core, the Torah has always been a legal system. Regardless of whether it is of Divine origin or not, it is the Law that we have lived by since first becoming an independent nation. Of course, we became a nation some three millennia ago – at a time when all nations were known by their gods; and the One God, the Creator of the Universe, was, for the ancient Israelites, their Monarch.

There was a time when I had convinced myself of the Torah’s Divine origin. I believed that, ultimately, all of halakhic practice came from God, and that I was obligated by God to adhere to it.

After a year of studying Torah in Jerusalem, I traveled to Russia for a summer to work at a JAFI children’s camp. There, I was one of only two observant people on staff (the other was my not-yet-wife). We two were the only ones limiting ourselves to kosher food, and I was the only one who prayed three times a day, donning phylacteries and prayer shawl every morning.

Even back then, believing as I did that I was following God’s will, the experience of committedly adhering to the traditional Jewish way of life in the diaspora left me with an unexpected insight, which had nothing to do with the spiritual or the supernatural.

In a substantive way, our lives in our respective countries are defined by local legal systems, languages, and popular cultures. Humans are of particular nationalities while they live in their home countries, but once they emigrate, how many future generations maintain the nationalities of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? Let’s say a couple moves from India to the USA. How strongly will their American-born children identify as Indian? What about their American-born grandchildren?

Every summer that I traveled to work in Russia, the traditions of the Jewish people surrounded me like a bubble, reinforcing my national identity. One who follows the traditions of the Torah can never fully assimilate into another culture; (s)he can never cease identifying as a member of the Jewish people, even as (s)he may very strongly identify with the country in which (s)he resides.

As a Jew who finds tremendous personal meaning in his ties to the Jewish people, the calculus is quite simple.

Disillusionment

Some cultural aspects of Orthodox Judaism require a lot of explanation, which makes them challenging to write about with accuracy and general appeal both. Also, I am no authority on this subject and am sure to miss some pertinent points in any explanation that I offer.

Nevertheless, I want to try, to the best of my ability, to describe some of the historic developments behind a particular facet of Orthodox Judaism: the tendency of the vast majority of today’s Orthodox rabbis to make religiously conservative rulings on matters of halakhah (Jewish law). These include:

I also want to touch upon a related subject that is very personal to me: the minority of modern day Orthodox halakhic authorities who tend to make religiously liberal rulings.

I will attempt to paint this composition in broad strokes, but even so I will have to cover much more canvas that I prefer.

* * *

Setting the stage:
The Mishnah & Talmud

Let’s set the stage somewhat for the Jewishly uninitiated.

Jewish Orthodoxy operates under a few fundamental premises. First and foremost, there exists a single omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. This God personally gave the Torah to the Jewish people some three thousand years ago, which is ostensibly the basis for all Jewish religious laws that developed throughout the subsequent centuries.

Secondly, according to mainstream doctrine, the Torah given by God was not limited to merely the Pentateuch, which is traditionally known as the ‘Written Torah’. God’s Torah also includes what is popularly called the ‘Oral Torah’, which was intended to never be written down – a tradition to be passed down orally from generation to generation. The ‘Oral Torah’ is considered to be as authoritative as the ‘Written Torah’.

As human history had it, the ‘Oral Torah’ ceased being oral when Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (Judea, ~135 to ~217 CE) compiled and redacted the six orders of the Mishnah some time around 200 CE. This was done to preserve the ‘Oral Torah’ in the face of persecution at Roman hands. The rabbis feared that the oral traditions from the 2nd Temple period would be lost, and so the Mishnah thus became the authoritative source for all developments in ‘Oral Torah’. Following this, the next major, authoritative written work of ‘Oral Torah’ became the Babylonian Talmud, written and compiled in exile at around 500 CE.

The Talmud, which expounded upon the Mishnah, became the primary religious text upon which further works of Halakhah (Jewish law) were anchored, and it remains so to this day. Certain Halakhic codes of the medieval period are widely held as particularly authoritative to this day, but these differ among different Orthodox Jewish communities (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yemenite).

It’s important to understand that while nobody denies that the Mishnah and the Talmud were written by humans, Orthodox doctrine maintains that these are part of an unbroken chain of transmission (from teacher to student) of the Divine ‘Oral Torah’, which is intended as an interpretive tradition. Accordingly, God’s Torah contains many levels of interpretation, and later generations of Torah scholars have been left to discover those that have not yet been revealed.

* * *

Fast forward to early modernity:
Jewish Emancipation in Europe

There exist real distinctions between the way most modern day Orthodox rabbis tend to make halakhic rulings versus how this was done for many centuries. Why?

It’s important to understand that before the Jewish Emancipation, during the Age of Enlightenment, the non-Orthodox movements (precursors to today’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, etc.) did not exist. Nor did Orthodox Judaism exist, as the precursors to both ultra-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy were also born during that era. These distinct approaches to Judaism all came about as modern religious responses to the European Jews’ historic abandonment of their ghettos and integration into 18th and 19th century gentile society.

The Emancipation and the resulting births of these Jewish religious denominations had at least two major ramifications upon rabbis’ religious approaches.

Firstly, Jews were no longer living in insular Jewish communities under local religious leaders. Following the Emancipation, rabbis could only exert religious authority over those who accepted it from them. Previous to that period, one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion. Afterwards, identifying as a Jew became a matter of choice, with assimilation offering the Jews great social and economic benefits. Rabbis had to become convincing or become irrelevant.

Secondly, the newly born heterodox and Orthodox denominations locked horns in endless religious and political battles for the future of Judaism’s soul, thereby shaping their respective positions and practices. Heterodox Jews deliberately wanted to be identified primarily as Europeans (‘not Orthodox’) in order to integrate into gentile Europe while maintaining elements of their Jewish identities.

Inversely, Orthodox communities were deliberate in rejecting “illegitimate” heterodox religious practices, which they considered outside the traditional framework of ‘Oral Torah’. Neither group wanted to validate the other, and therefore, at least in part, each came to be defined by its rejection of the other.

Both of these factors hold true today, but further, more recent historic changes transpired that also deeply influenced the dynamics behind modern rabbinic rulemaking, as well as the relationships between rabbis and the Jewish laity.

* * *

More recently…
The Holocaust

For the purposes of this particular post, I want to make one very particular point about the implications of the decimation of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis: that murder of six million Jews was no less than the complete destruction of the vast majority of Orthodox communities in Europe, along with their respective religious traditions.

Thus, for example, whereas the laity of Europe’s Litvishe (non-Hasidic Orthodox) Jewish communities once maintained their kosher kitchens without having to consult their rabbis over every little nuance, those ageless family traditions that had been passed down from mothers to their daughters through the many generations, were erased. Beyond this, the vast majority of religiously literate European Jews (who could navigate the Talmud and the Mishnah) were forever lost to us.

In short, after the Holocaust came to its gruesome end, Jews who wished to live according to Halakhah were almost entirely reliant upon rabbis for religious rulings pertaining to their daily lives, as their families’ traditions had been murdered, along with their parents, grandparents, and most of learned European Jewry.

* * *

Even more recently…
The Internet

Historically speaking, halakhic rulings were made locally. These included rulings on Jewish conversions (a particularly touchy political subject today), but they essentially covered all areas of Jewish communal, family and personal life.

For centuries, local rabbis issued religious rulings according to the realities and needs of their respective communities and of the individuals who came to them for religious guidance. Their rulings would account for the nuances of situations that went beyond the prescriptions of popularly accepted halakhic codes, sometimes even ruling against the codes’ instructions; but the local decisor’s’ wisdom, learning, and authority was accepted, respected, and implemented by his community.

Certainly, rabbis of different communities had disputes about their respective religious rulings and communities’ ways of practice; and many such disagreements were recorded and preserved in pieces of correspondence between scholars. Nevertheless, nobody would have thought to say that one rabbi’s rulings were illegitimate – every single rabbi was considered a link in the chain of Jewish interpretive oral tradition.

Then came the Jewish Emancipation, as mentioned, and that historic paradigm shift began to unfold. Given the newfound mobility of European Jewry, its members could select the rabbis and communities that most suited their personal preferences, and Orthodox rabbis found themselves judged, in part, by their stances towards non-Orthodox Judaism and gentile society.

Hardline religious stances in the Orthodox Jewish community came to carry an air of ‘authenticity’, which later gained further traction after the devastation of the Holocaust when those wishing to abide by Halakhah were left reliant upon religious leaders intent upon rebuilding a traditional, Torah-based Jewish society.

Broadly speaking, Orthodox rabbinic leaders gradually succeeded at refounding Orthodoxy following the Holocaust, and, in a lot of ways, it came to thrive as a counterculture in the increasingly permissive West. However, rabbis continued to be judged by the laity and by other rabbis on the basis of their ‘commitments’ to ‘authentic’ Torah (juxtaposed with modernity, secularism, and non-Orthodoxy), and much of the shell-shocked post-war Orthodox community was distrustful of non-Jewish cultural influences.

Then, some decades later, with the advent and eventual global adoption of the Internet, nearly limitless information became instantly available to everybody. This included news of rabbinical rulings, the majority of which had been becoming increasingly monolithic in the decades following the Holocaust. Most Orthodox rabbis that wanted to keep their jobs had to toe the majority’s line, else the global Orthodox community would learn of their ‘heresies’ (I invoke this word with irony), and they would face immediate backlash.

* * *

Too long; not long enough

This post is both too long and not long enough, but I did my best, given the medium, to fill in large sections of the picture. In truth, there are many more factors that I haven’t touched upon, such as:

  • The power dynamic at play between the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel and Orthodoxy in the diaspora…
  • The politics at play between rabbinical associations representing the various religious denominations…
  • The implications of traditional Jewish texts becoming available, often with accessible translations, via the Internet…

* * *

My eventual disillusionment with Torah and rabbis in general

I used to peripherally occupy and aspire to a particular Jewish space, which was that of modern-minded, intellectually honest Orthodoxy. My community was committed to religious observance, traditional Jewish text study, open channels of communications with those who held differing views, and the modern sensibilities of civil rights and human dignity.

Broadly speaking, we were, as a group, turned off to the kneejerk restrictive religious rulings representative of the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis. This became increasingly true as we poured through Halakhic texts together, learning that lenient positions existed within Jewish tradition, and realizing that many mainstream Orthodox religious rulings and social norms are not required by Jewish law.

Unfortunately for me, as I developed close relationships with some intellectual, religiously lenient rabbis, I found that a good number of them were also prone to issuing kneejerk religious rulings, which were flexible, rather than restrictive.

I came to understand that intellectual religious leaders could justify nearly any interpretation of Torah, meaning that they were ultimately playing with traditional Jewish texts to provide religious bases for their personal sensibilities. For these Orthodox rabbis who sincerely consider themselves links in the chain of interpretative Jewish oral tradition, their rulings are as legitimate as those of any other intellectual, knowledgeable Torah scholar… I am not doubting their intentions or commitments to God and the Jewish people, but I have come to profoundly doubt the Divine essence, root, and purpose of the system that all of these rabbis are committed to.

If Torah can be nearly anything, then what is Torah? And – if Torah reflects the restrictive majority’s views, then what is Torah to me?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

In any case, this isn’t true.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oof.

* * *

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

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

El Malei Rachamim

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

– me, blog #11

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

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

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

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

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 14

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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.”

or·phan
/ˈôrfən/
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.