The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 18

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

This, to my mind, is the truth.

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 17

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

* * *

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

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


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

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


And isn’t that ostensibly the point of kaddish?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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