The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 50

Papa’s first yahrzeit fell out on the Shabbat before last.
So… what did marking this date change for me?

* * *

Some things are inevitable.

Even before learning anything meaningful or interesting about the orphan’s kaddish, I knew that I would attend minyan every day to recite it for Papa.

I also knew that this would last for the duration of eleven months; that the process would inevitably end.

Throughout the year, I wrestled with the boundaries of tradition. Why must I stop reciting kaddish after eleven months (blog #21)? Should I? Will I? Why am I not considered a “mourner” during the thirteenth month of this Hebrew leap year, before the first anniversary of Papa’s death (blog #32)? How do I feel about this? Do I cease to consider myself a “mourner” after twelve months, without having marked Papa’s yahrzeit?

Still, from the first, I never struggled for a moment with the notion of hosting a kiddush at my early morning Shabbat minyan to commemorate Papa’s yahrzeit. On August 6, 2018, not even one month after my father’s death, I e-mailed the kiddush coordinator:

– May I reserve a date for July 2019?
~ Surely – just tell me which shabbat
– The last shabbat in July 2019
~ Booked!

Kiddush at shul was within my comfort zone; I could see the hints of its contours on the horizon all my kaddish year (blog #7).

* * *

In truth, the kiddush at shul is not considered a  Jewish mourning ritual in halakhic literature; but it has become commonly accepted; and, in some communities, expected.

Sponsoring this kiddush to commemorate the first anniversary of my Papa’s death must therefore be understood in the social context of the process that I went through this year in my community. It was not an isolated event.

Upon my father’s death, I opted in to the traditional Jewish mourning experience, grounded in ancient texts and customs. I would come to shul every day and be seen by the same, increasingly familiar faces; and over the course of my year I formed some new relationships and strengthened other bonds that had already existed. Countless times, I lifted a glass and recited blessings in honor of other people’s parents; I shared in their experiences and partook of their contributions to our community.

My kiddush for Papa marked the end of a chapter for me, of course, but it was also, simply: THANK YOU.

* * *

yahrzeit is a 24-hour commemorative experience. Many who do not otherwise attend shul regularly will nonetheless show up for the each of the three daily prayer services (evening, morning, afternoon) to say kaddish on a parent’s yahrzeit, along with the mourners who recite it daily. If one is marking a yahrzeit, he is given precedence in leading the prayers so that he may recite more kaddishes that day.

On Friday evening, I asked the gabbai for permission to lead the evening prayers after the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Then something within me trembled. As a mourner this year, I would never have made such a request! After all, according to Ashkenazi custom, mourners do not lead the services on Shabbat and festivals, as taught by Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572) (Yoreh De’ah 376:4):

האבלים אומרים קדיש אפילו בשבת ויו”ט (בא”ז בשם ר”י מקורביי”ל) אבל לא נהגו להתפלל בשבת ויו”ט (כן הוא בתשובת מהרי”ל) אע”פ שאין איסור בדבר The mourners say kaddish even on Shabbat and festivals (in the ‘Or Zarua’, [as is taught] in the name of Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil), but they do not lead the prayers on Shabbat and festivals (according to the responsa of Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin), even though there is no prohibition in this matter.

Over the course of my kaddish year, I became programmed in particular behavioral norms. As a mourner, I was encouraged to lead services – and I’d come to prefer that somebody in mourning (although preferably not me) would do so (blog #24). However, we mourners were never to lead services on Shabbat, for its atmosphere is one of joy; and ours is an air of grief.

* * *

My first orphan’s kaddish recitation that Friday evening after Kabbalat Shabbat tore through my chest cavity with the force of a whole year’s worth of daily doxologies. The muscles of my face knew every syllable intimately, but I was two months out of practice since my de-kaddish’ment. Anxiety gripped me, as I stumbled over one of the final phrases.

Then that first kaddish of Papa’s yahrzeit was over, and my heart was fluttering as I made my way to the dais to lead ma’ariv. I knew I wouldn’t be leading services again in his honor until the 24th of Tamuz the following year.

Standing at the center of the sanctuary, I draped a prayer shawl over my shoulders and breathed out heavily, centering myself. I would now lead the evening prayers so that I could recite every single blessing and kaddish, so that I could lead the orphan’s kaddish at the end…

According to tradition, I hadn’t been “in mourning” for the entirety of the previous month, and I hadn’t recited kaddish at shul for two months’ time, but somehow I’d never shaken myself out of my familiar mourner’s headspace…

That Shabbat evening, I led a service from the rostrum that no mourner would think to lead, in order that I could lead the mourners.

Against the joyous Shabbat backdrop, I grieved before the community.

* * *

Leading Shabbat services on Papa’s yahrzeit took some emotional preparation, but I’d been easing my way towards this moment for months; and I know the standard liturgy. Reading the Haftarah on Saturday morning after leading shacharit, however, was another matter entirely. I hadn’t done that since I was thirteen years old (blog #48).

I rehearsed at home over the course of the week, twice meeting for guidance and support with Rabbi Lockshin in the evenings. My printed copy of the Haftarah, which I read from at shul on Papa’s yahrzeit, was covered in highlighter markings. I wouldn’t have been able to even begin to chant it without my blue and green scribbles. Careful to at least pronounce the words correctly, I chanted the text to some tortured tune and recited the corresponding blessings.

Finally, it was over. I looked at the gabbai for confirmation.

– Am I done?
~ Yes, unless you want to lead Musaf.
– Oh no, that’s quite enough, thank you.

And then I was off to prepare for kiddush.

* * *

My wife and I had thought through the menu for our kiddush. There were four different kinds of herring, two sorts of cheese, and crackers (the kiddush staples). Everything else was in memory of Papa. My wife prepared my father’s favorite Olivier Salad, much like the one Mama had prepared for the unveiling (blog #44), as well as a delicious cake with chocolate cream and pineapple slices, which she’d always prepared for his visits to Israel (Papa and I both prefer creamy desserts). My wife, mother and daughter brought these just in time for the kiddush, which began at 8:30 in the morning.

I brought a bottle of AKASHI White Oak Blended Japanese Whiskey, which I’d purchased at the airport last summer on my way home for Papa’s funeral. It hadn’t been intended for this kiddush, but I hadn’t yet been able to open it. Also, I decided to bring a bottle of Beefeater Gin to mix with tonic water – this had been my father’s favorite drink. A bottle of orange juice and a big box of bourekas from Papa’s favorite local bakery rounded out the kiddush.

There was a second bottle of whiskey at the table, a majestic 18-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich brought by my Rav, Rabbi Landes. He had come to my minyan in continued support of me, and I was deeply moved by his presence at Kehillat Yedidya so early on a Shabbat morning.

Rabbi Landes graciously poured me a glass of Glenfiddich before I stood to recite kiddush for the community, but upon hearing my explanation for the bottle of AKASHI he ever so subtly poured me a second glass and switched the two while I was yet speaking. Later in the week, my Rav would call to provide me with further ‘chizúk’ (חיזוק) – encouragement. Thank you, Rabbi.

* * *

After returning home from shul that afternoon, I thought of several takeaways, based upon a conversation that ensued with Mama.

Firstly, I once again felt profoundly thankful that my mother had been able to join me for this capstone event, in support of my personal mourning process. Secondly, I was gratified to see that almost all of the kiddush food and drink had been obliterated by my little community. Despite their not knowing my Papa, their oneg Shabbat was brightened that morning because of our love for my father.

Thirdly, I was struck by the holy mundanity of communal kiddush.

* * *

The words ‘kaddish’ (קדיש) and ‘kiddush’ (קידוש) share a common Semitic root: Q-D-Š, meaning “holy” or “separate”.

The word ‘kaddish’ would seem to be an Aramaic word, meaning “holy”, and ‘kiddush’ is a Hebrew word, meaning “sanctification”. Having studied Spoken Arabic for several semesters, I’m also aware that the Arabic name for Jerusalem is ‘Al Quds’ (القدس), which means: “The holy [one].”

The very first line of kaddish, which I had been reciting all year is:

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba May His great name be exalted and sanctified.

In theory, the purpose of the kiddush is to sanctify Shabbat, by reciting a blessing over a cup of wine, but on that early morning of Papa’s yahrzeit I saw this communal ritual in a different light.

While the words of kiddush are of lofty, holy intent, perhaps it is the gathering together in community and the sharing of simple, human pleasures that truly sanctifies the Sabbath and sanctifies our loved ones’ yahrzeits. For me, on that morning, and perhaps on every single day that I had recited kaddish throughout the year, it was my community that warmly embraced me.

* * *

Words from Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish come back to me (p. 250):

Kaddish is not said for the dead,’ the rabbi said to me tonight. ‘It is said for the living.’ But the living have needed to believe that it is said for the dead; and so the plot thickens.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 48

I am no longer a “mourner” according to tradition, but am I no longer mourning? This is beyond me. Can one truly mourn forever, or does mourning inevitably decay into normalcy?

Less than one Hebrew month remains until my father’s first yahrzeit, thirteen months since his heart stopped for the second time at the hospital. Papa died on July 7, 2018 – on Shabbat* one year ago on the Gregorian calendar. However, the Hebrew anniversary of his death is the 24th of Tammuz (כ״ד בְּתַמּוּז), which will be on Shabbat, July 27, 2019. (From Sabbath to Sabbath.)

*I learned something:
According to the Tractate Shabbat 30a-b of the Babylonian Talmud, King David died on Shabbat afternoon. (see text at the bottom.)
According to the Zohar, we traditionally recite the Tzidkatcha prayer (צדקתך, “Your righeousness”) during mincha on Shabbat in memory of three individuals who died on Shabbat: Joseph, Moses and David.  

* * *

Lassitude

With eleven months of daily kaddish recitations and a twelfth month of additional mourning restrictions behind me, my grief’s sails have been hanging [un]expectedly limp these days.

I’ve mentioned to my friend Dov that I am worn out from grieving and have been feeling uninspired of late; he suggests that I submit a truncated blog post, writing just that. I check with the Times of Israel blog editors: would that be acceptable to them? Deputy Editor Anne Gordon responds:

There’s no specific minimum, and in your case, we’re not worried, especially given that you’re posting [in] the context of everything else. Use your judgement. We trust you

I almost did it -almost posted nothing more than the words above- but our family happened to be moving into a new apartment last week, and time evaporated in the balagan (בלגן) that ensued.

* * *

Equilibrium

Weary from the move, I didn’t go to shul for several days last week so I brought my tefilin home one evening, intending to pray by myself.

Ultimately, I didn’t even put them on.

Sometimes I feel the need to reboot, and this is such a time. It’s an occasionally much needed reminder to myself that commitment to tradition is a choice.

… it is I who am granting our religion authority.

– Me, blog #6

Understand authority and you have crippled it.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 113

This week, I won’t be able to attend my weekday morning minyan, as my wife will be abroad, and I cannot leave our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter alone at home by herself. Perhaps I will get back into the groove of davening on my own. We’ll see.

* * *

Humility

My new landlord lost his father when he was but fourteen years old and spent that year of his childhood reciting kaddish at shul. I’m almost forty years old; his was a different experience.

Also, I’ve noted that the same eccentric gentleman who had once (until January – blog #24) regularly led the ma’ariv prayer on Saturday evenings at the close of Shabbat in honor of his father is now back at the rostrum. It turns out that his mother passed away some two months ago. Losing two parents in quick succession is another experience.

Reflecting upon these and other stories of loss that I’ve encountered, I recall a piece of wisdom from Sherri Mandell who lost her thirteen-year-old son Kobi to Arab terrorists in 2001 [link]:

Humility means that I recognize that one day even grieving will assume its proper proportion. In time, I will learn to give death its measure, and no more.

These words are directly from the chapter titled ‘Humility’ in Sherri’s book: Blessing of a Broken Heart.

* * *

Denouement

Papa’s yahrzeit is imminent. With kaddish recitations no longer drawing me to shul, my thoughts turn towards the kiddush I will sponsor after my Shabbat morning minyan. By coincidence*, it turns out that Mama will be in Israel then; she will stay with us for Shabbat and come to shul for the kiddush.

*A pious friend tells me that there are no coincidences. I tell her that the title of ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ is much more true to my nature than ‘The Believer’s Kaddish’ ever could have been. Also, it sounds more intriguing.

What traditions are associated with the yahrzeit? There aren’t many. I already know, of course, of yahrzeit candles. Apparently, this tradition goes all the way back to Talmudic times, as the rabbis ruled that one may not use the “candle for the dead” for the havdalah ceremony, performed upon the departure of the Sabbath (B.T., Tractate Brachot 53a):

אין מברכין לא על הנר ולא על הבשמים של מתים The blessings [for havdalah] may not be recited over the candle or the spices of the dead.

I also know that it is considered appropriate to donate to charity and study Torah on the date of a yahrzeit, but I wonder if there’s something more in our tradition. From the Hebrew volume Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus (‘The Book Containing Everything on Mourning’) by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955), I learn that there is also an ancient tradition of fasting on a parent’s yahrzeit, but further research suggests that this practice has mostly fallen into disuse. Regardless, we do not fast on Shabbat, which is a day of holy pleasure.

Then, by chance, my friend Aytan asks me if I’d like to read the haftarah portion on Papa’s yahrzeit.
What? Why?
I’m not entirely sure, but that’s the tradition.
Interesting! I’ll do some research on this.
Of course you will.

Chabad renders any “research” entirely unnecessary: a thorough answer can be found on their website.

* * *

Challenge

I haven’t read haftarah since my bar mitzvah nearly 27 years ago. I am… terrified?

Perhaps that’s too strong a word, but the performative aspects of Judaism have never been my strong suit. Even publicizing my intention to attempt this scares me – it may raise expectations that I may not be able to meet. Still… I will give it my all.

After all, I’ve come this far, haven’t I?

* * *

Memory

Memories of my bar mitzvah come back to me. I remember having no idea what a haftarah was, but I knew that I was expected to read it. Perhaps it was considered “half” as important as the “Torah”? Nobody thought to clarify this for me back then.

I remember chanting one of the kaddishes to the wrong tune; but I pushed my way through it. The rabbi, of course, noticed and remarked upon it later (in the spirit of constructive criticism).

I remember writing my bar mitzvah speech based upon my father’s reading of the weekly Torah portion. He drew a connection to the theme of family and progeny, and I spoke about being the first Bogomolny in several generations to celebrate his bar mitzvah, even as my grandparents sat in the front row before me. They had emigrated from the FSU only several years before, and I don’t think their English was strong enough to understand me.

I remember receiving many earnest compliments from the regular shul-goers in regards to my speech. It had been wordsmithed by me, but it had been inspired by my Papa.

* * *

Understatement

My father’s fingerprints are all over me.

* * *

Shabbat 30a-b

אמר לו בשבת תמות אמות באחד בשבת אמר לו כבר הגיע מלכות שלמה בנך ואין מלכות נוגעת בחברתה אפי’ כמלא נימא אמות בערב שבת אמר לו (תהילים פד) כי טוב יום בחצריך מאלף טוב לי יום אחד שאתה יושב ועוסק בתורה מאלף עולות שעתיד שלמה בנך להקריב לפני על גבי המזבח Said He [God] to him [David]. ‘Thou wilt die on the Sabbath.’ ‘Let me die on the first day of the week!’ ‘The reign of thy son Solomon shall already have become due, and one reign may not overlap another even by a hairbreadth.’ ‘Then let me die on the eve of the Sabbath!’ Said He, ‘For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand’ (Psalms 84): better is to Me the one day that thou sittest and engagest in learning than the thousand burnt-offerings which thy son Solomon is destined to sacrifice before Me on the altar.’
כל יומא דשבתא הוה יתיב וגריס כולי יומא ההוא יומא דבעי למינח נפשיה קם מלאך המות קמיה ולא יכיל ליה דלא הוה פסק פומיה מגירסא אמר מאי אעביד ליה הוה ליה בוסתנא אחורי ביתיה אתא מלאך המות סליק ובחיש באילני נפק למיחזי הוה סליק בדרגא איפחית דרגא מתותיה אישתיק ונח נפשיה Every Sabbath day he would sit and study all day. On the day that his soul was to be at rest, the Angel of death stood before him but could not prevail against him, because learning did not cease from his mouth. ‘What shall I do to him?’ said he. Now, there was a garden before his house; so the Angel of death went, ascended and soughed in the trees. He [David] went out to see: as he was ascending the ladder, it broke under him. Thereupon he became silent [from his studies] and his soul had repose.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 46

I continue attending minyan every day, despite having completed the traditional 11 months of orphan’s kaddish. I continue standing alone at the back, feeling forever a faithless foreigner.

Why do I –
go?
care?
bother?
… always the same tired questions.

Putting aside the old, stubborn basics, it is the kaddish that most draws me to shul these days. I may no longer be a kaddish’er, but the recitations of others sustain me.

For some days after my final kaddish for Papa, I continued reacting instinctively to the voices of the other mourners; catching myself after each false start of “yitga-“ and stopping abashedly, although hardly anyone noticed…

I’ve since adapted; mine is now to respond:
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach…

* * *

Throughout the course of these many months since Papa’s death, even at the very beginning, “I reasoned that [my recitation of kaddish] would [mark] my return to shul…” (blog #25). While I had grown very distant from Jewish community at that point, “part of my personal struggle for [those] past several years [had been] my concern that my… daughter… had no connection to synagogue or communal Jewish life…” (blog #1).

And, of course, there’s the matter of gender. As an adult male, I count for an Orthodox minyan, which means that my very presence in the room could make the difference for other petitioners, as to whether or not they may recite the orphan’s kaddish. The math is heartless: Are there ten Jewish men present? Very well, Mourner, you may recite. What, no minyan? Alas, then- no kaddish.

This is the same calculus that leads many female mourners to forgo further shul attendance after their final kaddishes. In my search for other kaddish bloggers (blog #29), I found Dr. Naomi L. Baum’s recounting of her ‘Last Kaddish’ for her mother, which brings home the point:

… after much soul searching, I concluded that I would not continue praying on a daily basis with a minyan.

Why not? First, I, as a woman, am not counted as a member in the prayer quorum, the minyan. If there are nine men, and me, there is no minyan. Only 10 men over the age of 13 are eligible to be counted for a minyan. After spending almost a year waiting on a daily basis for a quorum to assemble, the importance of the minyan is very clear to me. However, I am of no value there…

Unlike Dr. Baum, I am “of value” to the minyan regardless of my unease. Last September, two months after Papa died, I acknowledged my need of a daily minyan of religiously committed Jewish men, despite my misgivings about the rote practice of Jewish prayer and ritual (blog #5):

I am taking advantage of those religious Jews who perform the rituals with absolute consistency. They are committed; wherefore this mourner has a minyan.

Mine is hardly a model life of religious constancy, but I am moved to help make a minyan for the mourners of my community.  Also, I find myself thinking: were I to quit once more after these eleven months of daily shul-going, I might never find the strength to return again.

* * *

For eleven months, the relentless daily pulsations of kaddish across the taut fabric of time reverberate. It’s the rhythm’s reliable regularity whose abrupt end leaves one straining for melody after three hundred and thirty consecutive days.

A break in the flow, inconceivable, but I missed
one
day of kaddish.

Sort
of… *sigh*

It’s like this.
Several months ago, I was searching Expedia.com for tickets to return to New Jersey for Papa’s unveiling (blog #44) when it hit me: I was probably going to miss at least one day of kaddish in flight, perhaps even two.

I had a choice.
Direct flights between the Ben Gurion and Newark Liberty airports in June would likely have had Jewish prayer quorums on board (like my flight after the funeral and shiva last summer – blog #2), but not so the substantially cheaper flights with layovers in Europe.

Conflicted,
I consulted a wise mentor, who advised: Why don’t you ask somebody else to recite the kaddish for your father while you’re in transit? Startled at the simplicity of his suggestion, I wondered: Why hadn’t I thought of that?

Oh, that’s right…
I’d been swayed by Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev Ben Mattathias’ (early 16th c.) sentiments, which were translated by Leon Wieseltier in his iconic Kaddish tome regarding “the custom of hiring the precentor or somebody else to say the kaddish in place of the son” (p. 388):

I do not approve of this at all, except when the deceased has no son or when the deceased has a son who does not reside in the community permanently… Why didn’t Rabbi Akiva hire somebody to say kaddish for that [deceased tax collector of Jewish legend, blog #11] and thereby release him from his suffering? Indeed, Rabbi Akiva preferred to leave him in his suffering until his young son grew up.

Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev was hardly alone among the rabbis in his disdain for this practice. It is the orphan’s kaddish, is it not? Still, even and perhaps particularly into the modern day, kaddish recitation services have proliferated for the unable and the unwilling. Examples (in no particular order) include: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7] and many others.

I’ve been biased against this from the beginning. How could anybody else (other than my brother) say kaddish for Papa?

* * *

Author Nathan Englander published a work of fiction just over two months ago: ‘Kaddish.com’, and I was excited to acquire it (blog #39) during my year of mourning. The work is a light, entertaining read, but intellectually underwhelming. I had expected much more religious nuance vis-à-vis kaddish itself from Englander; and the story’s ultra-religious characters fell flat to me in their fervent obsessiveness.

Still, the book’s ending is poignant and touchingly redemptive.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the main character, who had years ago hired an anonymous stranger to recite kaddish for his father, ultimately commits himself to reciting kaddish for one hundred individuals every year for the rest of his life; but he intends to do this in the most intimately meaningful way possible (p. 199):

By the time the sun rises, Shuli… decides he’s sufficiently well versed in the first thirteen – not just in his command of the names but with the essence of the people behind them… To hold a full hundred in his head, he’d need a while longer, that was certain.

This is an example to follow. If I am to ask somebody else to recite kaddish for Papa, it must be a friend of mine. It must be somebody who has been devotedly following my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog series; somebody who has come to know Papa and me better through my writing.

I ask a friend from my daily minyan to recite kaddish for my father while I’m airborne; he can’t do it – he’s flying to the USA that same night. I ask another friend from minyan, but both of his parents are yet living – it’s considered a bad omen to recite kaddish before their times have come. A third friend is already reciting kaddish that month for a cousin of his; and, selfishly, I want somebody to recite kaddish exclusively for my Papa.

Then I think of a good friend from another minyan nearby who has been kindly reading all of my blog posts. Hersh has already lost both of his own parents, and he takes his commitment to kaddish (and to Judaism; and to God; and to the dignity of others) very earnestly. Also, Hersh davens with a minyan every day – my request won’t be much of a burden for him.

Happily for me, my friend agrees immediately. A load is lifted. I am afloat with gratitude.

Ultimately, I am able to recite kaddish for Papa at the airport synagogue before my flight to America; but no opportunities present themselves upon my return. I pray alone on the layover flight to Switzerland; but I know that Hersh is in Jerusalem, faithfully reciting kaddish that day on my behalf for Papa.

Thank you.

* * *

Some reflections (after completing 11 months of kaddish):

  • Two weeks have transpired since my final kaddish (May 28); and nearly as long since my previous blog post. Time feels slower.
  • I have come one or two minutes late to shul several times since May 28, just after or during the recitation of the first morning kaddish. I tell myself that this is a coincidence, but I am not so sure; minyan attendance feels less urgent to me now.
  • On the morning of Shavuot, which was two days ago, I arrived on time for services, but no kaddish’ers were present for the earliest recitations of the morning. I felt discombobulated.
  • This morning, I was one of the first ten men present at shul; the mourners were able to recite kaddish without delay. I am “of value”.
  • I returned home from New Jersey with a book from Mama’s shelf, which I’ve now read and intend to reread: The Blessing of a Broken Heart by Sherri Mandell. It has left me full of impressions and emotions. Every chapter of her book reads to me like a kaddish blog post. I feel compelled to write more on this.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 40

In less than a month’s time I return to New Jersey for the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, 10 months after his death. I’ve been preparing myself. Gravesite visitations never used to draw me, but I feel compelled to stand before his grave to tell my Papa how much I love him; and embrace the part of me that will remain with him forever in America.

Some days before my father’s death last summer, I was in Vilnius with my mama’s cousin, his wife, and their son. They are all the family we have left in Lithuania and diligently maintain our forebears’ graves, namely those of my mother’s grandparents. Upon guiding me to the gravesite through the misty rain, my relatives immediately took to tidying up the tombstones. To be honest, that isn’t something that had ever occurred to me to do. The moment touched and changed me.

I’d never known my great-grandparents but am named after my mother’s father’s father; and I have heard much spoken of his kindness. My Dedushka had always wanted to name a child after his father Давид, but he was blessed with three daughters. In 1979, therefore, upon arriving more quickly than humanly possible from Beer Sheva to Jerusalem and hearing my given name for the very first time, Dedushka responded to Papa with classic nonchalant gruffness, “That’s a good name.”

Last summer was the first I’d ever visited Lithuania, and it may have been the last, but the thread of my own life’s journey glistened there in the morning mist before me, as I stood looking at that particular tombstone engraved with the name Давид, at a portion of myself that will forever and ever remain in Vilnius.

Gravesite visitations never used to draw me, but then neither did mortality and meaning so consume my everything.

* * *

Need anything be inherently meaningful? My expectations of the kaddish year were arguably high from the start, I suppose. Why not just go through the motions, regardless of my feelings? Or, better yet, why bother? And, ultimately, nihilistic though it may be to ponder, what does it matter that I’ve had some breakthroughs in my prayers and writings? The most basic questions have no answers.

Many, many Jews opt in to kaddish when their loved ones die. Some find it worthwhile, some do not, but meaning is not intrinsic to ritual.

In my ongoing search for kaddish bloggers (blog #29), I came across an essay by activist and author Jay Michaelson. It’s rather unlike most other kaddish essays in that Michaelson writes that he did not find kaddish helpful or healing [link]:

 I’ve resisted writing about my year of saying Kaddish for my mother… Often, such writing carries a sense of lyrical, self-indulgent profundity. But my process hasn’t been profound. It’s been mundane, and pontification seems ridiculous.

After 11 months, having taken on a practice of saying Kaddish regularly, I’m now relieved to let it go… 

I didn’t find the ritual particularly helpful. I think of my mom all the time; I didn’t need to be reminded of her by anapests of Aramaic. I know she would’ve wanted me to do it, so I did it and I’m glad I did. But it wasn’t healing…

I recall now that in the book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier also shares his struggles with the regular, rote kaddish recitations: “In shul and out of shul, dawn and dusk, day after day after day. Spirituality is declining into schedules” (p. 227); and “this morning there was not a single word of the prayers that held my attention. Not a single word” (p. 255). This discontent must surely have had something to do with his committed, year-long poring through the ancient kaddish literature.

Perhaps because I had long been in religious crisis, perhaps because I was already familiar with the basics of Jewish ritual life, perhaps… perhaps because I wanted more, I knew that I would never make it through eleven months of daily prayers and kaddish recitations without personalizing them. Initially, I only intended to write once a month, but fissures were propagating across my heart, pulsing with pressure and dripping with expression. My first blog post, plastered over the cracks, was saturated and leaking so I covered it with another… and then a third and a fourth…  and now a fortieth.

Lyrical and self-indulgently profound? Undoubtedly so, Mr. Michaelson, yet my sealant is holding.

* * *

Given my personal experience, I do quite agree with Michaelson’s sentiment. Traditional Jewish prayer is foremost a religious obligation, and my process has felt rather like a slog of late. I’ve been plodding to weekday services, plodding through prayers, and even plodding along through my study of Psalm 119, which continually fails to inspire me. Sometimes I can’t tell if my plodding is mental or physical; I’m spent regardless.

Still, the power of the orphan’s kaddish itself has been moving me recently. It feels right that my Papa’s death should be declared before the nation. It feels right to stand up and proclaim those ancient words that now flow so effortlessly from my lips. It even feels right to make an intellectual exercise of mundane Psalm verses representing his name: Alexander son of Mosheh. When the time comes, I shall stand tall to recite these stanzas at his gravesite.

My grief finds expression in my element.

* * *

This week’s stanza is ש (shin), which I’ve had my eye on for some time now because of verse 165, which is part of the Ein Keloheinu (אֵין כֵּאלהֵינוּ) prayer that is said every day in Israel at the end of the morning services. Also, something that I only just discovered is that verses 166, 162, and 165 are recited in that order by the mohel at a brit milah.

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PSALM 119:ש (verses 161-168)

[CLICK for glossary]

קסא שָׂרִים, רְדָפוּנִי חִנָּם; ומדבריך (וּמִדְּבָרְךָ), פָּחַד לִבִּי 161 Princes have pursued me without a cause; but my heart is in awe of Thy dvar.
קסב שָׂשׂ אָנֹכִי, עַל-אִמְרָתֶךָ— כְּמוֹצֵא, שָׁלָל רָב 162 I rejoice at Thy imrah, as one that findeth great spoil.
קסג שֶׁקֶר שָׂנֵאתִי, וַאֲתַעֵבָה; תּוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 163 I hate and abhor falsehood; Thy Torah do I love.
קסד שֶׁבַע בַּיּוֹם, הִלַּלְתִּיךָ– עַל, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 164 Seven times a day do I praise Thee for Thy righteous mitshpatim.
קסה שָׁלוֹם רָב, לְאֹהֲבֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ; וְאֵין-לָמוֹ מִכְשׁוֹל 165 There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them.
קסו שִׂבַּרְתִּי לִישׁוּעָתְךָ יְהוָה; וּמִצְוֺתֶיךָ עָשִׂיתִי 166 I have hoped for Thy salvation, O Lord, and have done Thy mitzvot.
קסז שָׁמְרָה נַפְשִׁי, עֵדֹתֶיךָ; וָאֹהֲבֵם מְאֹד 167 My being hath observed Thy eidot; and I love them exceedingly.
קסח שָׁמַרְתִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ, וְעֵדֹתֶיךָ: כִּי כָל-דְּרָכַי נֶגְדֶּךָ 168 I have observed Thy pikudim and Thy eidot; for all my drakhim are before Thee.

The final section of the Ein Keloheinu prayer, which includes Psalm 119:165, is taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 64a (the final folio):

אמר רבי אלעזר אמר רבי חנינא תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם שנאמר (ישעיהו נד) וכל בניך למודי ה’ ורב שלום בניך אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך (תהילים קיט) שלום רב לאוהבי תורתך ואין למו מכשול (תהילים קכב) יהי שלום בחילך שלוה בארמנותיך (תהילים קכב) למען אחי ורעי אדברה נא שלום בך (תהילים קכב) למען בית ה’ אלהינו אבקשה טוב לך (תהילים כט) ה’ עוז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמו בשלום R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, ‘And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children’ (Isa. 54:13). Read not banayikh [thy children] but bonayikh [thy builders]. ‘There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them’ (Ps. 119:165). ‘Peace be within thy walls and serenity within thy palaces’ (Ps. 122:7). ‘For my brethren and companions’ sake I will now say, Peace be within thee’ (Ibid. 8). ‘For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good’ (Ibid. 9). ‘The Lord will give strength unto His people, the Lord will bless His people with peace‘ (Ps. 29:11).

For those who feel themselves at home at shul, these words are very familiar.

Regardless, their theme, at a glance, isn’t subtle.

* * *

In his commentary on the Book of Psalms, Radak (1160–1235) riffs on verse 119:165:

שלום רב. כי לעולם אוהבי התורה לא יכשלו כי דרכם דרך ישרה ולעולם יהיו בשלום כי הם מסתפקים במעט שישיגו מן העולם הזה ולא ידאגו לכל מקרה והנה להם שלום רב Great peace. For the lovers of the Torah will never falter, for their derekh is the straight derekh; and they will forever be at peace, as they are satisfied with the little that they’ve obtained from this world; and they will not worry in any case, and this, for them, is ‘Great Peace’.

Love of Torah leads one to live a moral and satisfied existence, says Radak. Inner peace is the ‘great’ peace. It’s that simple. It is the kind of peace that we turn to religion for. It’s the kind of peace that we can reasonably attain.

* * *

Peace is one of the most fundamental of human aspirations, and its continued absence in this world poses a challenge to faith of profound proportions. Our verse 165 was one of several biblical gleanings fashioned together in the Talmudic passage above (and then inserted into the Jewish liturgy), as if to say – look, the Bible is relating to your lived concerns and experiences – and the Almighty has responded!

Verse 165 inspired and affirmed the rabbis’ reflections on peace, as it is the only one of Psalm 119’s 176 verses to mention shalom at all. Hence it was assigned a prominent spot in Jewish prayer and study.

The orphan’s kaddish, on the other hand, comprised of six sections, dedicates the final two of these to the theme of peace. The penultimate section is in Aramaic:

יְהֵא שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא מִן שְׁמַיָּא וְחַיִּים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל. וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן May there be great peace from heaven and life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

Immediately, we see that this “great peace” for “all of Israel” is something entirely different than the personal “great peace” described by Radak. Also, this line of kaddish offers us no formula – how does one bring such peace about? The [predictable!] answer lies in the final line of kaddish, the famous ‘Oseh Shalom’ in Hebrew:

עושה שָׁלום בִּמְרומָיו הוּא יַעֲשה שָׁלום עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

With ‘Oseh Shalom’, the kaddish concretizes its strategy for achieving peace: God.

Just pray to God.

May He make peace for us. Amen.

What? No peace yet? Well, let’s keep on praying then.

* * *

Unexpectedly, after weeks of plodding analysis through the stanzas of Psalm 119 in honor of Papa, I have found a precious nugget buried in the crevices of its type. A relatable alternative to the lofty language of faith. Amen.

Personally, as a mourner, I am hurting and hungering for an inner peace this year, much more so than an elusive, universal peace for the Jewish people. If I were to write a prayer of my own (a kaddish perhaps?), I would be inclined to end it with the words of Psalm 119:165.

There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them.

My love of Torah has been bringing me some measure of peace these days. Amen.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 39

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Photograph by Alexander Bogomolny z”l, posted April 5, 2013. Original caption: ‘Squirrels are actually very kind to each other and will adopt abandoned baby squirrels if they notice a relative has not come back for them.’

My reading of Jewish texts on Jewish eschatology and death rituals has been fairly wide-ranging, and it continues to expand. (My copy of the just-published Kaddish.com will be in my hands this week!) Since my father’s death last summer, I’ve filled my bookshelf with more books than I have had the time to finish, but I will still be exploring them for years to come.

It’s also refreshing and broadening to go beyond Jewish sources. My friend Sagi has lent me a book titled Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, which provides a humorous survey of philosophical approaches to death, intended as a light read on a heavy subject. Towards the beginning of the book, the authors introduce us to Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book: The Denial of Death.

Becker posits that we humans delude ourselves into thinking that we are not going to die by constructing “immortality systems”, which are “nonrational belief structures that give us a way to believe we’re immortal” (‘Heidegger’ p. 15-17):

There’s the ever-popular strategy of identifying ourselves with a tribe, race, or nation that lives on into the indefinite future, with us somehow a part of it. Then there’s the immortality-through-art system, in which the artist foresees… herself immortalized…

Then there are the top-of-the-market immortality systems enshrined in the world’s religions, ranging from living on as part of the cosmic energy in the East to sailing off to be with Jesus in the West. At a less lofty level, there is the immortality-through-wealth system…

Virtually every civilization has evolved a shared immortality system. In fact, these systems are the basic function of a culture. Without them, we’d all go wacko with death-angst and we wouldn’t be able to keep our civilization humming along… Denial of death is civilization’s survival strategy!

I see the truth of these very human mechanisms coming through in my own thinking:

[By reciting the mourner’s kaddish on behalf of his father,] the son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 420 (blog #11)

I wear my father’s cap; his yarmulke; his watch; his house shoes, but I wish that he were wearing them instead.

– Me, blog #15

I recently had an insight. Another way of thinking about death if you will. We are all cells in the organism of the Jewish nation… every single cell will come to be replaced.

– Me, blog #30

It does not escape me that I am engaged in creation myself. These words, in honor of my Papa, will outlast me. The words of humankind, created in God’s image, beget memory and shape reality.

– Me, blog #33

When it comes right down to it, I couldn’t imagine my father dying (blog #19) any more than I can imagine my own end; and not a day goes by that I don’t still expect him to be updating his mathematics website or uploading new wildlife photographs to Facebook.

* * *

I sit here in my chair, some nine months after Papa died, plugging away at my keyboard, contemplating my family’s heritage and posterity, struggling to wrap my mind around his non-existence, but. There’s a degree of dissociation that goes into my writing.

On one hand, it’s therapeutic – my most intimate thoughts find their purchase in published language, freeing my mind to get through the days along with the rest of me. On the other, this is an original story I’m writing. By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

Besides: we read blogs every day. The truest form of anonymity rests perhaps in our public identities. You see a face, a name, some strings of words, a person whom you don’t know writing about the death of a father you never met. Oh, he writes so well; it’s so moving; so sad; so terrible.

Most likely: you don’t know me; these posts on David Bogomolny’s devastating loss are hypothetical to you. (We are but extras or bit characters in the lives of all but our dearest loved ones.)

Or maybe: you know me somewhat but dissociate your heart and mind from my gaping, bottomless wound. It’s simply too terrifying to go there.

I relate to your immortality systems. When I read through my own ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ blog posts, much of what I’ve written to date feels unreal to me.

The shared human experience of grief is that which is truly immortal, not its messenger.

* * *

I won’t lie. I’m quite ready to be done with these stanzas, but I can’t stomach the alternative: Show up at Papa’s grave and recite a series of unrelatable biblical passages on faith? What for? How utterly hollow to me and to Papa.

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PSALM 119:מ (verses 97-104)

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צז מָה-אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ: כָּל-הַיּוֹם, הִיא שִׂיחָתִי 97 O how I love Thy Torah! It is my conversation all the day.
צח מֵאֹיְבַי, תְּחַכְּמֵנִי מִצְוֺתֶךָ: כִּי לְעוֹלָם הִיא-לִי 98 From [my encounter with] my enemies, Thy mitzvot make me smarter: for it is ever with me.
צט מִכָּל-מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי: כִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ, שִׂיחָה לִי 99 From all my teachers I grew wise; for Thy eidot are my conversation.
ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.
קא מִכָּל-אֹרַח רָע, כָּלִאתִי רַגְלָי– לְמַעַן, אֶשְׁמֹר דְּבָרֶךָ 101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, in order that I might observe Thy dvar.
קב מִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לֹא-סָרְתִּי: כִּי-אַתָּה, הוֹרֵתָנִי 102 I have not turned aside from Thine mishpatim for Thou hast instructed me.
קג מַה-נִּמְלְצוּ לְחִכִּי, אִמְרָתֶךָ— מִדְּבַשׁ לְפִי 103 How sweet is Thy imrah unto my palate! more than honey to my mouth!
קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

I won’t bother splitting the verses above into two separate semi-stanzas, but it’s clear that stanza מ (mem) is organized much like most other stanzas of Psalm 119. The 1st semi-stanza of 4 verses (97-100) ends with the keyword pikudim and the word אֶתְבּוֹנָן (I gain understanding); so too does the 2nd semi-stanza (101-104).

Whereas the 1st semi-stanza repeats the word שִׂיחָה (conversation) twice and emphasizes learning that leads to intelligence, wisdom, and understanding, the 2nd semi-stanza twice uses the word אֹרַח (way, style, manner), thereby contrasting the Psalmist’s rejection of [evil & false ways] with his dedication to [God’s word & edicts].

Actually, the theme of verbal expression snakes through both semi-stanzas. The 1st and 3rd verses (97 & 99) of the 1st semi-stanza relate to the Psalmist’s perpetual “conversation” on matters pertaining to God’s instructions to humankind (Torah), as well as to testimonies to His supremacy (eidot). Following this, the 2nd semi-stanza’s 1st and 3rd verses (101 & 103) relate to God’s imrahdvar, which Radak (1160–1235) understands to mean the verbal expression basic to all of God’s commandments.

The 1st half of stanza מ thus focuses on the Psalmist’s speaking God’s Torah; the 2nd half focuses on God’s utterances. Going further still, this distinction between our stanza’s two halves is suggestively underscored in yet another way: the Psalmist’s mouth in the 2nd semi-stanza (verse 103) engages in conversation no longer! It is too busy, rather, savoring the ambrosia of God’s holy imrah.

The contrast between our two semi-stanzas is perhaps most stark at stanza מ’s bookends. The 1st verse (97) uses the language of ‘מָה-אָהַבְתִּי’ (O how I love) in reference to God’s Torah, in juxtaposition to the words of the final verse (104): ‘עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי’ (therefore I hate) in reference to false ways [of living]. The Psalmist’s purposeful choice of language trumpets, “The Torah is the True Way!”

* * *

A nuance intrigues me. Let’s compare the language of verses 100 & 104 (the final verses of our two semi-stanzas), both of which contain ‘pikudim’ and ‘I gain understanding’:

Verse 100 is the capstone to the 1st four verses of our stanza, which focus on the Psalmist’s personal growth through learning and commitment to God’s commandments. The verse’s logic is: commitment to God’s edicts brings the Psalmist to gain understanding from his elders. More precisely:

Keep pikudim >>
[Learn from] elders >>
Gain understanding

ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.

Verse 104, capping the 2nd set of four verses, which focuses upon drawing a crucial distinction between the sweetness of God’s word and other errant, evil ways, follows a different logic:

[Keep] pikudim >>
Gain understanding >>
Hate false ways [of living]

קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

What might the Psalmist be suggesting?

My initial interpretation goes as follows: According to the Psalmist, keeping God’s commandments opens up two avenues towards the achievement of greater understanding.

  1. The individual dedicated to a Godly life is thereby connected to others who share his commitment. His dedication births within him an openness towards and respect for the elders of his community, who nurture his ‘love’ for Torah (verse 97) and broaden his horizons with their accumulated wisdom. Gaining understanding along this path is a rewarding end in itself, along with greater wisdom and intelligence. It grows out of one’s learning.
  2. Committed observance of the Divine precepts itself shapes one’s character, granting him the natural intuition necessary to discern between God’s true word and false, evil alternatives. In this model, understanding comes straight from ‘the Source’, as it were. The dedicated individual develops understanding enough to make the crucial distinctions between True & False, Good & Evil, Sacred & Profane. This grows out of deep commitment.

* * *

Learning for its own sake was my father’s lifelong passion. His was a curious mind, always seeking to master new concepts, ever engaged in the pursuit of further knowledge. He relished fresh insights, delighted in challenging exchanges, and savored understanding for its own sake.

Papa also had a profound, innate sense of Good & Evil and was one to rely confidently upon his intuition. In politics, he remained ever clear-eyed and principled, harboring no illusions about the flaws of his preferred candidates, nor about the existential threats that he saw represented by others.

I write this post, just as the elections for the 21st Knesset come upon us. Tomorrow we go to the polls, and I still find myself pulled in several directions. My principles have always been more squishy than Papa’s before me; concerned as I am with the all too real, existential threats that worried my father, I… I remain undecided on the eve of elections.

The political landscape is bleak to me.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 31

Does the traditional recitation of kaddish do honor to the non-believer?

I don’t see why not, but there are those for whom this is a sticking point. Writer and poet Aurora Levins Morales was uncomfortable with the notion of reciting the traditional kaddish for her atheist father; she instead wrote a personal version of it to honor him (from her website):

My father… was an atheist, and I couldn’t bring myself to say a traditional kaddish for him, but he did believe in forces greater than himself, and I decided to write my own kaddish celebrating his faith in their endurance and hopefulness.

Rabbi Marjorie Berman faced a similar conundrum when her anti-religious mother passed away, and while she didn’t rewrite the kaddish itself, she took a non-traditional approach to its recitation (from ‘Ritual Well’ blog):

It didn’t feel right to join a daily minyan … my mother was anti-religious. I decided the best way to remember her was to take a daily morning walk with a friend and say kaddish by the water in a beautiful and wild park…

At first, I too was struck by the incongruity of honoring my father this way.

He was an atheist… He had not recited kaddish for his father or mother because it wasn’t something that held meaning for him, and I don’t think he would particularly want me to recite it for him.

– Me, Blog #1

Nevertheless, I happen to be inclined towards tradition (partially for lack of imagination). This sentiment resonates:

The kaddish is my good fortune. It looks after the externalities, and so it saves me from the task of improvising the rituals of my bereavement, which is a lot to ask.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 39

My father may not have held a traditional belief in God, and he may not have been religiously oriented, but he held the Jewish heritage in high regard (blog # 10). He would have wanted to be buried according to Orthodox customs, just as he was; he would have respected my decision to recite the mourner’s kaddish for him in a traditional way.

Those of us who opt for the traditional approach are no less empowered to personalize our kaddish experiences. Jewish educator Nili Isenberg put the words of kaddish to the tune of Adele’s song ‘Hello’ (see the video above) while reciting kaddish for her father; artist Max Miller made a painting of every synagogue in which he recited kaddish (maxmillerstudio.com) in his father’s memory; and I have my blog.

Reflecting upon this now, I realize that my father’s religious beliefs and practices have only barely and almost imperceptibly shaped the contours my kaddish journey. This series should more aptly be called ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for his loving father’.

* * *

I happen to be inclined towards tradition.

Most of Jewish mourning practice is custom, rather than halakha. The recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a widely held custom, not unlike reciting Psalms at the unveiling of the tombstone, usually including segments of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 is unique among the Psalms in its length, for it contains eight verses corresponding to each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet – a total of 176 verses. In the Talmud, Tractate Brachot 4b, this Psalm is referred to as the eight-faceted Psalm (תמניא אפין), and thematically it describes the Psalmist’s striving to live according to the Torah of God. Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK, 1160–1235) points out that every single verse contains one of eleven words that refer to Torah:

בכל פסוק ופסוק יש בו 1) דרך, או 2) תורה, או 3) עדות, או 4) פקודים, או 5) מצוה, או 6) אמירה, או 7) דבור, או 8) משפט, או 9) צדק, או 10) אמונה, או 11) חוקים, ואלא המילות הם חלקי כל התורה Every single verse contains [one of the following]: 1) derekh, or 2) Torah, or 3) eidot, or 4) pekudim, or 5) mitzvah, or 6) amirah, or 7) dibur, or 8) mishpat, or 9) tzedek, or 10) emunah, or 11) hukim, and these are the words that [together] are [all] the parts of the entire Torah.

Stop.
I’m getting carried away already.
(texts do that to me)

Why am I doing this?

* * *

Before delving further, I must articulate a truth: I have never found the recitation of Psalms meaningful.

Most individual psalms involve the praise of God—for his power and beneficence, for his creation of the world, and for his past acts of deliverance for Israel. The psalms envision a world in which everyone and everything will praise God, and God in turn will hear their prayers and respond.

Wikipedia

I praise God very sparingly and with sincerity only in my own words. I tell God that I doubt His existence more often than I make requests of Him. I find the faith-oriented language of the Psalms unrelatable in both form and content, and I find their rote recitation mindless under the best of circumstances. I am not in possession of simple faith.

In Jewish tradition, however, the Psalms are a big deal. Rabbi Levi Cooper, a former teacher of mine, wrote (Jerusalem Post):

Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman of Buczacz (1771-1840)… cited the Midrash which describes King David as requesting from the Almighty that his Psalms be granted unique status… Psalms should be read and pondered. Moreover, readers of Psalms should receive reward as if they were studying difficult passages of the Oral Law(Midrash Shoher Tov 1:8).

Rabbi Cooper suggests we ponder the Psalms. This, at least, is a step up from mouthing their syllables endlessly, brow furrowed; torso swaying; hands clenching on bus rides.

Psalms will be recited at the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, and I have an opportunity to prepare myself accordingly. I am indeed inclined towards tradition, but disinclined towards ceding my mental and spiritual faculties to its champions. I am skeptical of God’s good nature and concern for His creations, but I am mistrustful too of my narrow, human inclinations.

Some say this is what we do. I say no; this is what we’ve been doing. We’ve been reciting Psalm 119 to honor our loved ones by selecting from it those verses that correspond to their names. My father was א-ל-כ-ס-נ-ד-ר (Alexander), comprised of seven Hebrew letters, each of which is represented by eight verses.

I will turn to our tradition for wisdom; and then I will respond.

* * *

Radak’s 11 keywords for Psalm 119

Before tackling the first eight verses of Psalm 119 that correspond to the letter א (alef*), let’s get back to Radak and the eleven keywords of this particular Psalm. This will be instructive to our learning, as we make our way through the verses.

*A side note:
Alef means to learn/ study/ train/ teach, according to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 104a; therefore א-ל-פ (a-l-f) is the root of the word אולפן (ulpan), which is an institute or program for the intensive study of Hebrew.

Radak explicates each of the eleven terms as follows (translations mine):

Torah means ‘the attribute of the mitzvah, [which focuses on] how it is performed’. Derekh means ‘the improvement of [your] character traits’. Hukim are ‘the mitzvot whose reason[s] have not been revealed’. Mitzvot are ‘those of which it is [explicitly] stated [in the Torah] that these are commandments’. Mishpatim are ‘the laws between man and his fellow [man]’. Eidot are ‘the mitzvot that [serve as] testimony and memory’ [of the revelation of Torah and God’s supremacy]. Pikudim are ‘the mitzvot instructed by common sense, which are [naturally] stored and archived in man’s heart’. Tzedek is ‘the justification of the mitzvot, for they were uttered in righteousness’. Dibur and Amirah are ‘[the verbal expression] basic to all mitzvot; and dibur and amirah are also reminder[s] of the promise, which God promised’. Emunah is ‘the fulfillment of God’s word[s] at the Creation of the World’.

Precision and systematization are the names of the game.

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:א (verses 1-8)

[CLICK for glossary]

א אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי-דָרֶךְ– הַהֹלְכִים, בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה 1 Happy are they that are upright in the derekh; who walk in the Torah of God.
ב אַשְׁרֵי, נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו; בְּכָל-לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ 2 Happy are they that keep His eidot; that seek Him with the whole heart.
ג אַף, לֹא-פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה; בִּדְרָכָיו הָלָכוּ 3 Yea, they do no unrighteousness; they walk in His drakhim (plural).
ד אַתָּה, צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ– לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד 4 Thou hast ordained Thy pikudim that we should observe them diligently.
ה אַחֲלַי, יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי– לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֶּיךָ 5 My wishes are that my drakhim (plural) were directed to observe Thy hukim!
ו אָז לֹא-אֵבוֹשׁ– בְּהַבִּיטִי, אֶל-כָּל-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ 6 Then I shall not be ashamed, when I have regard unto all Thy mitzvot.
ז אוֹדְךָ, בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב– בְּלָמְדִי, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 7 I will give thanks unto Thee with uprightness of heart, when I learn Thy misphatei tzedek.
ח אֶת-חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר; אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי עַד-מְאֹד 8 I will observe Thy hukim; O forsake me not utterly.

It’s a happy coincidence that my father’s name begins with alef. I’ll be jumping around from stanza to stanza, based upon the letters of the name אלכסנדר, but the beginning is a fortuitous place to start – particularly with a Bible chapter of such daunting length. Wikipedia points out that “the grounds for the [Psalm] are established in the first two stanzas (alef and beth): the Torah is held up as a source of blessing and right conduct, and the psalmist pledges to dedicate himself to the law.”

There are three aspects to this first stanza that draw my thoughts.

The first thing I notice, given the glossary of eleven keywords that Radak provided us, is that the word derekh (or its plural) occurs thrice in this stanza, and the word hukim occurs twice. Verse 5 serves as a transition between the initial emphasis on derekh in verses 1, 3, and 5 to the later use of hukim in verses 5 and 8.

The first two occurrences of derekh are references to ‘ways of God’, whereas the third instance (verse 5) refers to the psalmist’s own human ways. These ‘ways of man’ are explicitly portrayed as lacking natural relationship to hukim (in the same verse), which are those Divine commandments that confound all human reason.

My second realization is that there exists another shift between verses 3 and 4, in the manner of how the psalmist is referring to God. In the first three verses, God is referred to in the third person, but verses 4-8 appeal to Him personally. This transition precedes the transition between derekh and hukim by just one verse.

It is as though the human can only bring himself to truly accept the incomprehensible hukim by way of personal relationship with God. Still, in verse 8 the psalmist promises to abide by the hukim regardless, in hope that he will not be forsaken.

Thirdly, the word אֵבוֹשׁ (I will be ashamed) in verse 6 immediately recalls for me the thirteenth benediction of the Amidah’s (the core of the prayer service’s) nineteen benedictions, which we recite thrice daily. That benediction, which refers to the righteous among us, reminds me of my Papa (blog #28), as I have written.

The Amidah requests that God ‘cast our lot with the righteous ones, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You’, whereas in Psalm 119 the author puts the burden upon his own shoulders: man will only cease to be ashamed once he has directed his ‘human ways’ to observe God’s impenetrable demands.

The relationship between shame and faith in God is not clear to me. Are we to be ashamed for doubting God or for something else? And how would devotion to God assuage our human shame? If a person of true faith were to sin, wouldn’t his shame be all the greater for his faith? And isn’t the pious man with no shame potentially a great danger?

Papa was righteous and pure of heart without having drawn inspiration from the Book of Psalms, and his personal ‘way’ was to be repelled by lack of reason. I am proudest of my parents for their authentic decency, and -even more so- for their integrity.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 30

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

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

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

Given this, Rabbi Heschel comes immediately to his point:

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

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

* * *

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

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

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 25-26

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

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

– Lockshin, Kaddish, p. 345

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

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

I grieve yet know the vanity of grief.

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

Vanity can mean:

    1. Pride;

* * *

    1. Futility

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts

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

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

we are Judaism.