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, 36

Several weeks ago, my four-year-old daughter decided to once again start coming to shul with me on Saturdays for mincha and ma’ariv services. Last autumn, this became impossible for her when daylight savings time ended, as the timing of her afternoon naps wouldn’t allow it (blog #22). Now, as the days lengthen steadily, my child has already recommitted to joining me.

Her attendance commenced upon my return to Israel from Papa’s funeral and shiva last July when I began going to minyan every day to recite kaddish (after a hiatus of more than three years). Back then (she was not yet three-and-a-half), my daughter did not appreciate my extended daily absences; and she determined that she would join me – at least on Friday and Saturday afternoons and evenings (blog #5).

While those in mourning customarily lead the worship, I was determined at first to avoid this (blog #5). On Shabbatot, I would sit with her towards the back of the sanctuary, but several months later, I became comfortable enough to lead mincha before Shabbat (blog #18). Eventually, I started leading ma’ariv at the conclusion of Shabbat (blog #24) and unexpectedly even led shacharit one morning (blog #25). More recently, I’ve come to make my peace with leading shacharit on weekdays when there is no Torah reading (blog #34).

In retrospect, I see that all of these developments only began once daylight savings time had ended and my daughter had stopped coming to shul. Now that she has rejoined me on Saturdays, I’ve come to a realization – I can’t lead services intentfully when she’s with me. Twice since her recent return to services, I’ve led ma’ariv at the close of Shabbat, but I was unable to simultaneously focus on my duty to the congregation and be present for her.

Daylight saving time will begin in Israel in less than two weeks, and I am fully expecting my little girl to triumphantly declare that she’s back in the game for the long haul. Most likely, she’ll once again take to coming with me to shul on Friday afternoons, just as she used to. I am looking forward to that.

Sitting with my daughter at services has been one of the most meaningful experiences and one of the most wonderful aspects of my return to the synagogue. Her development as a Jew and as a person fascinates me.

In Israel, she breathes Jewish culture in a way that I never did as a child in America. The Jewish calendar is fully integrated into her life, including our family’s weekly Shabbat observance; and regardless of the tragic circumstances that brought me back to shul, my child has also developed a familiarity with the synagogue and prayer services. At four-years-old, she is aware of countless Jewish rituals and customs that I hadn’t known of in my childhood; and in many cases, she understands far more than what her parents and teachers have explained to her.

* * *

In every conceivable way, I have never been so aware of another person as I am of my daughter. It’s not only her development and her growth that I notice – it’s her ways of communicating, her shifting moods, her learning style, her manners, her energy levels, her… everything. Such, it seems, is parenthood.

Among her many habits, I’ve noted a cute and consistent quirk of hers: she eats pizza upside down, placing the cheese and toppings directly onto her tongue. I haven’t mentioned this to her or asked about it, but every time I watch her eating pizza I immediately think of Papa.

My father greatly delighted in the simple and the elegant; he was a staunch believer in humankind’s ingenuity and potential. This is precisely why he was inspired to name his acclaimed ‘Cut the Knot’ website after the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot and why he so admired creative innovations like the ‘inverted umbrella’, which he spoke of with such admiration.

In this same spirit, one of my father’s favorite Soviet era stories ends with a man coaching the main character on how to best eat an open deli sandwich – upside down with the meat directly on your taste buds. In the late 70’s, this same folk wisdom was immortalized by the classic Soviet cartoon ‘Three from Prostokvashino’, in which Matroskin the Cat shares these words of wisdom with the young boy nicknamed Uncle Fyodor:

I do appreciate this bent towards the simple solution, but it also bores me somewhat.

As I study the verses of Psalm 119 in Papa’s honor, my greatest pleasure comes from the multitude of possible understandings of the text. It satisfies me to sift through numerous opposing interpretations and unearth personal meaning in any, in none, or in all of them. Textual contradictions and inconsistencies entice and excite me; they stretch the boundaries of one’s imagination. It is only on their account that the Torah may yet hold relevance.

I’d like my Judaism complex, with a side of creativity please.

I have a tendency to complicate things, and [Papa’s] approach tended towards a rational simplicity that I did not relate to.

– Me, blog #2

* * *

In Jewish tradition, there are four classical methods of Jewish biblical exegesis (PaRDeS). Of these, peshat (פשט) is widely considered the most straightforward method of interpreting biblical text, accounting for its historic and literary context. When I find myself bemused or skeptical of the medieval commentators’ conclusions, I take a look at the source text in question. What might the words have been intended to mean? How do the verses fit together?

Still, peshat interpretations don’t always satisfy me. As a Jew, my soul often wants something more from the text than a plain reading. After all, if the Torah is intended to hold meaning  for all Jews of all generations, it must, by definition, support disparate understandings and means of interpretation. The best Jewish educators are those who beckon us to engage intimately with Torah – to seek ourselves in its letters.

The exegetes often favor another of the four methods called drash (דרש). This is a comparative approach to biblical interpretation, aimed at expounding meanings based upon occurrences of similar words and phrases throughout the bible. While I may occasionally roll my eyes at conclusions derived by this method, I can always sink my teeth into them. Agree or disagree, they invite responses – the creativity of the rabbis encourages my own.

* * *

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PSALM 119:ד (verses 25-32)

[CLICK for glossary]

כה דָּבְקָה לֶעָפָר נַפְשִׁי; חַיֵּנִי, כִּדְבָרֶךָ 25 My ‘self’ cleaveth unto the dust; vitalize me according to Thy dvar.
כו דְּרָכַי סִפַּרְתִּי, וַתַּעֲנֵנִי; לַמְּדֵנִי חֻקֶּיךָ 26 I told of my drakhim, and Thou didst answer me; teach me Thy hukim.
כז דֶּרֶךְ-פִּקּוּדֶיךָ הֲבִינֵנִי; וְאָשִׂיחָה, בְּנִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ 27 Make me to understand the derekh of Thy pikudim that I may talk of Thy wonders.
כח דָּלְפָה נַפְשִׁי, מִתּוּגָה; קַיְּמֵנִי, כִּדְבָרֶךָ 28 My ‘self’ drips away of sorrow; sustain me according to Thy dvar.
כט דֶּרֶךְ-שֶׁקֶר, הָסֵר מִמֶּנִּי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ חָנֵּנִי 29 Remove from me the derekh of falsehood; and grant me Thy Torah graciously.
ל דֶּרֶךְ-אֱמוּנָה בָחָרְתִּי; מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ שִׁוִּיתִי 30 I have chosen the derekh of faithfulness; Thine mishpatim have I set [before me].
לא דָּבַקְתִּי בְעֵדְוֺתֶיךָ; יְהוָה, אַל-תְּבִישֵׁנִי 31 I have cleaved unto Thy eidot; O Lord, put me not to shame.
לב דֶּרֶךְ-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ אָרוּץ: כִּי תַרְחִיב לִבִּי 32 I will run the derekh of Thy mitzvot, for Thou dost broaden my heart.

Thus far, I have been providing commentary and analysis on the stanzas of Psalm 119 based primarily upon my use of peshat. However, this week’s stanza strikes me differently. The peshat isn’t speaking to me.

I could point out that the word דֶּרֶךְ (derekh) – ‘way’ occurs five times in this stanza, emphasizing, perhaps, the Psalmist’s trajectory and ways of living and thinking.

I could point out that the stanza’s first verse (25) is structurally identical to its 4th verse (28). Both describe the Psalmist’s נפש (nefesh) – ‘self’ in a humbled, sorrowful state, as he petitions God for support according to His dvar (word / promise).

Dvar is one of Psalm 119’s keywords, as listed in Rabbi David Kimhi’s (1160-1235) specialized glossary for this Psalm, so it bears particular attention. As for ‘nefesh’, many translate it as ‘soul’, but I’ve encountered this term before (blog #28), and I now know, particularly in light of Ibn Ezra’s (1089–1167) commentary on verse 25, that:

דבקה, נפשי כמו עצמי, כמו: נשבע ה’ צבאות בנפשו Cleaved, my nefesh  [it’s] like my ‘self’, like [the verse]: “The Lord of hosts hath sworn by Himself” (Jer. 51:14).

I could point out that the first verse also connects to the 7th verse (31) of the stanza, for they share the word דָּבַק (davak) – ‘cleaved’. This may, perhaps, serve to underscore the theme of humility. In the first verse, the Psalmist’s ‘self’ is humbled by cleaving to the dust, and in the seventh verse, he asks that God not shame him. In this context, the implication may be that ‘cleaving unto God’s eidot’ is itself an act of humility and self-nullification.

Perhaps I could point out that these same three verses (the 1st, 4th, and 7th) are the only ones that don’t include the word דֶּרֶךְ (derekh) – ‘way’, thereby drawing the reader’s attention to the stanza’s structure: [A, B, B] – [A, B, B] – [A, B… ?], wherein each ‘B’ verse contains the word דֶּרֶךְ. The discerning reader may reasonably wonder at why the Psalmist would divide this stanza of eight verses into two sets of three [A, B, B] and a single, awkward set of two [A, B].

I could point out that a look at the very first verse of the following stanza (verse 33) reveals that this third set [A, B… ?] actually spills over into the next stanza and is thus comprised of three verses with the same [A, B, B] pattern. After all, this verse also contains the word דֶּרֶךְ:

לג הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דֶּרֶךְ חֻקֶּיךָ; וְאֶצְּרֶנָּה עֵקֶב 33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy hukim; and I will keep it eikev.
(Remember ‘eikev’ from last week?)

Anyway, I could, perhaps, do all of that, but the peshat of stanza ד doesn’t draw me. Where are the Psalmist’s enemies in this verse? Where is the action at?

* * *

For stanza ד, the action can be found in the medieval drash, for much of it focuses on the dramatic story of King David. I’ve been inclined to move past such commentaries, for nothing I’ve read in the verses of Psalm 119 suggests Davidic authorship, but as I’ve written (blog #33):

Traditional religious authorities attribute the Book of Psalms to King David who ruled the first Israelite Kingdom, but scholars suggest that the majority originated later – in the kingdom of Judah.

Clearly, the traditional notion makes for very compelling religious narrative; and one can well imagine why the Psalmist would want his works attributed to the most beloved King of Israel. After all, how better to justify the inclusion of this book in the Jewish canon?

I may be a skeptic, but the medieval commentaries on stanza ד are particularly unified in their drash: these verses, they claim, are from the quill of King David. While I can’t suspend doubt or reason, my imagination is now chomping at the bit. So let’s get into it with Rashi (1040-1105), Radak (1160-1235), and Rabbi Altschuler (1687-1769):

רש״י: חיני כדברך. כמו שהבטחתני על ידי נתן הנביא טובה Rashi: Vitalize me according to Thy dvar. Like You promised me via Nathan the prophet [as an] act of grace.
רד״ק: דבקה. כשהיה בסכנה, והיה בורח מפני אבשלום, והיה קרוב למות כאילו נפשו דָּבְקָה, היה מתחנן לאל יתברך, ואומר חַיֵּנִי כִּדְבָרֶךָ שאמרת בתורתך (דברים לב, לט) אֲנִי אָמִית וַאֲחַיֶּה. או פירוש כִּדְבָרֶךָ שהבטחתני על ידי נתן הנביא (שמואל-ב ז, יב), כִּי יִמְלְאוּ יָמֶיךָ, וְשָׁכַבְתָּ אֶת-אֲבֹתֶיךָ Radak: Cleaved. When he [King David] was in danger, and he was fleeing from before [his son] Absalom and was close to death, as if his ‘self’ cleaved [unto the dust], he entreated the Blessed God, and said ‘vitalize me according to Thy dvar’, as you said in your Torah (Deut. 32:39), ‘I kill, and I make alive’. Or [an alternative] interpretation of ‘according to thy dvar’ is that which you promised me via Nathan the prophet (II Samuel 7:12): ‘When thy days are fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers…’
הרב אלטשולר: דבקה. שחה נַפְשִׁי ודָּבְקָה עד לֶעָפָר, ואשאל ממך חַיֵּנִי מהצרה כִּדְבָרֶךָ עלי על ידי נתן הנביא Rabbi Altschuler: Cleaved. My ‘self’ was bent over and cleaved unto the dust’, and I asked of you to vitalize me from [my] distress, according to your dvar to me, [which came] via Nathan the prophet.

See? Isn’t this drash so much more exciting than the peshat was? David is pursued by his son Absalom who means to kill him, and he cries out to God for salvation, reminding Him of the promise made to him by God’s prophet Nathan – that God would establish the kingdom of King David’s offspring after him.

(Actually, it’s interesting that Absalom was King David’s son no less so than Solomon who ultimately succeeded their father. If Absalom had killed King David and taken the throne, Nathan’s prophecy would still have been fulfilled.)

On the theme of fathers and sons, I find the following element of David’s story very powerful – even after Absalom plotted against his father; waged battle against him for the throne of Israel; and fully intended to have him killed, King David was utterly devastated by the tragic loss of his beloved son (II Samuel 19:1):

וַיִּרְגַּז הַמֶּלֶךְ, וַיַּעַל עַל-עֲלִיַּת הַשַּׁעַר–וַיֵּבְךְּ; וְכֹה אָמַר בְּלֶכְתּוֹ, בְּנִי אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנִי בְנִי אַבְשָׁלוֹם, מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתִי אֲנִי תַחְתֶּיךָ, אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנִי בְנִי And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, thus he said: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

I know that Papa’s love for my brother and me was no less unconditional.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 29

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

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

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

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

This is something that Papa used to say.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

I heed my insight.I am a simple Jew.

* * *

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

And no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shall we answer them?

* * *

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

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, Kaddish, p.235

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

And no.

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

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

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

God would love to authorize all of us.

* * *

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

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