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.
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.
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.
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:
* * *
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.
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:
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-midrash … all 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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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?)
In my wife’s and daughter’s absence this week, I’ve permitted myself to sleep in. Instead of my regular 6:30 shacharitminyan, I’ve taken to attending the 8:30 minyan at a different shul. Two additional hours of daily sleep have been delicious.
I’ve also had more time to simply sit, think, and feel.
* * *
THE JOKE THAT MADE ME CRY
Several evenings ago, I was watching a performance (1.25 hrs) by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, whom I’d just discovered; and I was laughing boisterously. (Maniscalco occasionally punctuates his jokes with crass language, but his humor is safe for work.)
Half an hour into the set, Maniscalco made a joke about tattoos. He portrays an imaginary man’s emotional attachment to the tattoo of a snake head on his bicep. It represents the death of his father. The punchline went: “What the hell are you doing to yourself? What, did you forget he died?” And then I was sobbing.
Because sometimes I forget that my father died.
* * *
All is darkerthan before.
When we grieve, we face realities: Life is fragile, fate is unpredictable; horrors are everywhere. God will neither reward nor punish in this world. One must acknowledge this reality in order to become an adult who can pray as an adult.
Perhaps for the first time, I am praying as an adult. I harbor no illusions about the efficacy of prayer or the purposelessness of suffering. The supernatural remains impenetrable to us; but today’s rabbis somehow or other continue treating congregants with capsules of comfort coated in cloying compounds of credence and custom (complete crap).
The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake. I never liked this statement… since it finds a religious utility for faithlessness, and thereby steals the thunder from belief and unbelief.
My unbelief is thunderous, drowning out the faithful; but I have adopted their restrained form, alive in the resulting tension. It’s the discomfort that sparks my thinking, you see, and lends meaning to my process. Tradition may compel for nontraditional reasons, but the rabbis are more invested in its inertia.
Present-day rabbis must be honest, though it may hurt. They cannot afford to alienate future generations by channeling Tevye the Dairyman: it will not do to insist on what is ritually expected simply because it is known.
True, I launched my kaddish odyssey because I’d long heard tales of this ancient route; but it would seem that my ship’s sails only billow with the winds of self-discovery. Certainly, I am taking the risk of being blown off of the time-tested course; but I have not yet missed a single day of kaddish. Most importantly, every day is an adventure.
* * *
If you know me only through my blog posts, you might conclude that I think about my father all the time; but I am writing, in part, to remind myself of him. After all, the recitation of kaddish does not, in and of itself, bring Papa to my mind. It is a practice, like so many others, with which he had no connection.
I catch myself thinking that kaddish may be more meaningful for my daughter and future children. It will retain its traditional force of inertia, but it may also remind them of me. It is something that I have chosen, something that I am investing with meaning.
Several people have recently suggested to me that I am leaving behind something special for future generations in this kaddish series. Somehow, I had not initially considered that. From the very beginning, this has been a very self-centered project; I am writing as a form of therapy. I am writing because I am good at it, because it clarifies my thoughts and shapes my experience of reality. Sometimes, the meaning behind my words is aspirational; my public process keeps me honest.
Still, I do like the idea of this as a family memoir. I would like my daughter to know that my father’s father (Moisey) was from Yanov, where his father served as the ‘crown rabbi.’ My father’s mother (Ida) was from Shpola; her parents and younger brother were murdered by the Nazis along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population while she was away, serving as a doctor in the Soviet army.
Some day, I would like my daughter to wonder and imagine, as I do, what it was that happened to my father in his mid-20’s in Soviet Moscow. He was a brilliant mind, a handsome and fit young man, a successful student, and a contented Soviet cosmopolitan with very close non-Jewish friends. Then, unexpectedly, in his mid-20’s, he ventured forth on a path of self-discovery and started studying Hebrew with local Soviet dissidents, leading him to reevaluate all that he’d once held as true about the Soviet Union. Ultimately, this led to his Aliyah and my birth in the State of Israel. Though he lived in America for more than half of his life (37 years), not a day went by that he didn’t ache for his Jewish homeland.
He was profoundly principled and kind, always driven by the purest of intentions. While very sophisticated, he also had a very crass sense of humor and many of his most common expressions were quite inappropriate. In fact, I recall him saying (on more than one occasion) that I should know how to curse in Russian. Papa was also an intellectual and read endless books on sundry subjects; and he published a massive educational mathematics website, which he developed and maintained for more than twenty years. When he passed away, countless students of mathematics from the world over expressed their devastation and condolences.
Papa used to say that he couldn’t cry anymore; that he hadn’t cried for more years than he could remember; that tears simply wouldn’t come. Me? I cry for my father – but only in the absence of my nearly four-year-old daughter.
Children begin by loving their parents; after a time, they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.
~ Oscar Wilde
I am mourning the father I had, and I am mourning the father I didn’t have. He had limitations, and I judged him for it.
Certainly, my expectations were unrealistic. I saw him as smarter, stronger, more dexterous, more capable, more talented, more focused, more sophisticated, more, more, more than me. He was the father who climbed the Caucasus and Pamir Mountains, built railroads in the Arctic, discussed high level mathematics with his teachers and smoked with them after class, studied Hebrew underground in Soviet Moscow, and took the leap of faith necessary to leave everything and everyone he’d ever known behind as he departed alone for Israel in the mid-70’s.
As a child, if there were problems in our relationship, I assumed they were my fault. If he failed at something, I saw success as lying well beyond my own grasp. I adored him.
As I grew up, subconsciously at first, I came to judge him. Why does he care so much about mathematics? Why is he so busy working on his project all the time? Who is he to advise me if he cannot understand me? (and more)
It was just this week, just two days ago, that I finally…
* * *
[My comfort] is in the conversations with friends new and old, in gestures of kindness, in proud, shared heritage, and in the candid embrace of our limitations.
I was re-reading my last blog post and stopped cold. The candid embrace of our limitations.
Why did I write that?
Why not my?
Because we are all
human; thus we
My father was
He was approximately twenty-five years old when his hearing was permanently impaired, leaving him entirely deaf in his right ear, with constant background noise reverberating in his damaged left. This was the side effect of being treated for meningitis with streptomycin for ten days in a Soviet hospital.
This was my father’s most obvious limitation, and its impact upon every facet of his life and its trajectory cannot possibly be overstated, but this was not his greatest limitation. That honor goes to his humanity.
* * *
Rabbi Dalia Marx coauthored a chapter for the book Kaddish with Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, in which she drew my attention to the history of the secular kibbutz movement’s kaddish. She writes (p. 211):
In the 1960s… the founders of the kibbutzim began to pass away in ever-increasing numbers. Moreover, many kibbutz members found the notion of silence in the face of death inadequate and insufficient.
My curiosity whetted, I found the kibbutz kaddish on Kibbutz Ma’anit’swebsite. Some further research revealed that this version of the kibbutz kaddish was written by Shalom Semid (1909-97, born Semiatitzky), an Israeli poet and member of Kibbutz Negba. I translated the flowery Hebrew with the help of my friend Sagi:
יִתְגַּדַּל שֵם הָאָדָם
May the man’s name be exalted
May his life’s achievement be elevated
And may he be sanctified in our memories
עַל צְרוֹר מַעֲלָלָיו בִּימֵי חֶלְדוּ
For the accumulation of his exploits during the days of his life
וְעַל הַמַּעַשׂ שֶלֹא הִסְפִּיק לְהַשְלִימוֹ
And for the deed that he did not have time to complete
May the man’s name be exalted and praised in our memories
The power of this kaddish is not simply in that it focuses on the human himself, rather than on God. The power lies in this kaddish’s focus on the human’s humanity… Even for the human weaknesses.
It strikes me that this kibbutz kaddish is more difficult to recite than the traditional orphan’s kaddish, which focuses on a vague, unknowable God. One cannot take this kaddish with any measure of earnestness and recite its words lightly. If I were to recite this kaddish every day at shul, I would be a mess.
* * *
I have spent much energy fighting my demons and battling for self-acceptance on this journey. I have been upset; I have been frustrated; I have been resigned; I have been striving; I have been trying to accept my humanity.
This week I thought, my father was human; he gave me all he could give, but I judged him; I did not appreciate him as he was. And then I forgave him; I whispered aloud to him as I was falling asleep, I forgive you. I accept you. I accept you so that I can accept myself. I too am human, Papa; I also have my limitations.
Beyond purportedly elevating the soul of one’s departed parent to higher metaphysical planes or possibly demonstrating why one’s parent deserves to be granted a good fate (blog #11), the kaddish, according to the Talmud, also affects God Himself. In Tractate Brachot 3a, we read the following:
בשעה שישראל נכנסין לבתי כנסיות ולבתי מדרשות ועוניןיהא שמיה הגדול מבורךהקב”ה מנענע ראשו ואומר 1)אשרי המלך שמקלסין אותו בביתו2)כך מה לו לאב שהגלה את בניו ואוי להם לבנים שגלו מעל שולחן אביהם
Whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: ‘May His great name be blessed!’ the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says: 1)‘Happy is the king who is thus praised in His house!’2)‘Woe to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father!’
Apparently, God reacts to the kaddish. He is both 1) pleased that we honor Him and 2) remorseful at the destruction of our great Temple and our exile. There’s much to be explored in that juxtaposition, but my thoughts are wandering elsewhere.
The Talmud also suggests that those who respond passionately to the recitation of kaddish nullify the Divine decrees against them for the sins they’ve committed (Tractate Shabbat 119b):
אריב”ל כל העונהאמן יהא שמיה רבא מברךבכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו שנאמר (שופטים ה) בפרוע פרעות בישראל בהתנדב עם ברכו ה
R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up, as it is said, “When retribution was annulled in Israel, For that the people offered themselves willingly, ‘Bless ye the Lord'” (Judges 5:2).
The players in the orphan’s kaddish drama are four: 1) the deceased, 2) God, 3) the congregation, and 4) the mourner.So what does kaddish do to the mourner?
On this matter, the texts of Jewish tradition say nothing.
Perhaps distressingly, the Kaddish reciter – the mourner – is the only one for whom the act of reciting Kaddish does not have any intrinsic benefit.
* * *
Rabbi Olitzky offers a response to the challenge he poses, but I am left dissatisfied (ibid.):
The simple, sublime act of getting lost in a sea of ‘responders’ as one of the few ‘reciters’ yields comfort.
Rabbi, yours is the view of a Jewish leader invested in and committed to encouraging the perpetuation of the religious heritage that he serves. This may be what I should be experiencing in the ideal when reciting kaddish, but it’s contingent upon too many factors to be universally true: personalities-community-inclination-towards-prayer-comfort-with-tradition-state-of-mind-level-of-exhaustion-penchant-for-the-spiritual-degree-of-Jewish-self-identification-preferred-mode-of-self-expression-etc.-etc., etc.
Personally, I do find comfort in my community but mostly beyond the choreography of our rituals. Mine is in the conversations with friends new and old, in gestures of kindness, in proud, shared heritage, and in the candid embrace of our limitations.
Also, mine is in my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ series. Truth, creativity and introspection are my comforts.
* * *
Ask not what your country tradition can do for you, but what you can do for your country tradition?
When I decided to recite kaddish for my father, I reasoned that this would be my return to shul. I would continue to attend daily services even after my yud–aleph chodesh (י״א חודש: blog #24); for the sake of my people, my heritage, my family, my…
Not good enough.
It is this, my blogging project, which truly makes daily shul attendance tolerable. It is the reading, the feeling, the thinking, the learning, the weaving…
Suddenly, I’ve realized: my study and reflection sustain my practice. What shall I do with myself when kaddish has ended? What shall I do with my Judaism?
The question hangs over me: How shall I continue?
* * *
Suddenly, I’ve realized: I am not okay.
Last week, I almost dropped my Spoken Arabic class at the Polis Institute (my fifth semester). Winter break had ended, and class resumed on Tuesday. That morning, I simply felt that I couldn’t take it. I didn’t want to study Arabic – I wanted to read about kaddish. I wanted to remember my father. I e-mailed my teacher, informing her that I was dropping the course. I did not return to class that Tuesday.
By Thursday, I had received messages of concern from my classmates, and I was moved to return. After all, I reasoned, the semester ends in another two weeks. I can do this. I can do this.
Withdrawing in unto myself betrays the spirit of kaddish, which must be recited in community.
I can do this.
* * *
Suddenly, I’ve realized: I must only go through this process at my own pace. (Vigilance required!)
I awoke at 6:36 on Friday, after the start of my regular 6:30 minyan at Kehillat Yedidya. Well, I sighed, at least I can make it to shul for the final kaddishes.
And then the lightning bolt struck: Wait, I don’t have to take anyone to preschool this morning (my wife and daughter just left to visit family in Russia)… I could simply go to a different minyan. Luxuriously, I got myself dressed, grabbed my tallit and tefilin and walked up the hill to the Shai Agnon synagogue for a 7:00 shacharit. I arrived at shul at 6:58, as the previous minyan was ending. Does anyone have a ḥiyuv (an obligation to lead the prayer service, often in memory of one’s parents)? asked the gabbai.
Looking around, I noticed only a single hand in the air – my own – and the gabbai gestured to me. Shit, what have I done? I thought to myself, Shacharit is the longest service. The gabbai approached me and whispered, This is a slow minyan – please don’t daven quickly. I laughed. Oh, don’t worry, I responded, that won’t be a problem. Reassured, I led the davening at a comfortable pace, and I got through it. I can do this.
I can do this.
There comes a point at which the furnace begins to sputter. One seeks fuel, whereas once it was piled up everywhere. Just yesterday, it would seem, everything was aflame or imminently flammable.
Would I have committed myself to this writing project if my father’s death hadn’t been so unexpected and sudden? If I’d been more prepared?
At not yet eleven months old, my daughter once stayed overnight at the hospital to receive treatment for pneumonia. She was home the next day, her condition improved markedly. My father, on the other hand, succumbed to pneumonia on the day that mama brought him to the hospital. Before learning of his death, I remember thinking well… it’s pneumonia… right…?
I might never
Some twenty-five years ago, I saved papa’s life off the shore of Belmar, New Jersey. We were scuba diving together, and I recall the urgent look in his eyes when he signaled that we needed to surface. A lifelong smoker (mostly on, sometimes off), his breathing was labored, and he was struggling to swim. Instinctively, I pulled him along the surface towards a jetty, lodging myself between the craggy rocks, he in my arms, bracing with my legs for life. As the waves burst over us, I shielded his mouth with my hand. Luckily, some passersby noticed us and we were pulled up onto the seawall. I was unpanicked because his death was obviously impossible. Later, standing by his hospital bed, I still couldn’t fathom any different outcome.
He was approximately twenty-five years old when his hearing was permanently impaired, leaving him entirely deaf in his right ear, with constant background noise reverberating in his damaged left. This was the side effect of being treated for meningitis with streptomycin for ten days in a Soviet hospital. He lay unconscious those ten days, and the doctors thought he wouldn’t make it. On the tenth day, he awoke. His constitution is incredibly robust, they said, few others would have survived this. That’s how I remember him – always strong and fit, entertaining friends by lifting heavy chairs with a single hand grasping the bottom of one front leg. For me,
his life went beyond
the human, his
* * *
The 2016 book Kaddish, a series of essays written by scholars and rabbis, is lying before me. The third essay is ‘For a God Who Mourns’ by Rabbi Noah Farkas. I am struck by his sensitivity (p. 45):
I am always moved by the mourner’s ability to rise and declare God’s greatness in the face of death. It takes bravery to mourn, and it takes strength to mourn. Kaddish is recited as a memorial prayer, and it requires all of our courage to be singled out publicly as bereaved and to tell the story of those who died.
I recall forcing myself to drive to shul every day during the shiva in a community that was not my own. I recall returning to the shul that I had stopped attending several years earlier. I recall shuddering, my finger quivering over my mouse button as I clicked on ‘Submit for Review’ for the first and second times. Farkas’ acknowledgement is well taken; thank you, Rabbi, but it fades. It does.
With time, the bravery cools; strength steadies; courage gives way to commitment. I read and write and ‘submit’ these blog posts, but I am not so affected as I once was. My father is dead; what words can hurt me? Let all the world know that I’m grieving, I say. Deal with it or don’t, but I shall not sugarcoat my mourning.
I recently finished reading another book: Kaddish: Women’s Voices. It’s an easy read, technically. Not so easy, emotionally. On bus rides, while waiting for lunch dates, whenever a moment presented itself, I could read the women’s essays in this book, absorbing their recollections of and reflections on their experiences of loss and kaddish. My reading was impeded only by tears. Parents, children. The old, the young. Natural causes, accidents and suicide. Comparisons rendered absurd, pointless.
During my shloshim period (the first 30 days of mourning) it was almost unbearable for me to attend somebody else’s shiva. Of that experience, I wrote in the late summer [link]:
For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.
It wasn’t fair of me, but I couldn’t help drawing comparisons.
Everything was about my pain then, and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.
And this is the simple, stark truth of it: There is no time for any of us but borrowed time.
In her TED Talk (below), the author Fawn Weaver dusts off the obvious, which too often slips by us. Heed, friends, for your loved ones yet living:
The love we share in this moment is the only love we are guaranteed to give. When we argue with those we love most, we make an unwise and presumptive decision. When we slam the door; hang up the phone on someone we love; when we spew hurtful words, we make an assumption: that they will later be there to allow us to apologize for our words, to make up for our nasty comments. We assume that they will be on the other side of the door when we decide to open it. Or that they will be on the receiving end of the phone when we decide to call again. But what a tragedy it is for those who never get that chance.
We must discuss the purpose of kaddish. What is it, exactly, that I’m doing this year? (Depends on whom you ask.) This is a major, running theme of Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish. He writes (pp. 40-41):
A story about Rabbi Akiva introduces the mourner’s kaddish and announces that its function is the redemption of the dead. The story is told robustly in the Maḥzor Vitry, a liturgical, legal, and exegetical compendium… It records the practices and opinions of the Jewish community in the age of Rashi in the eleventh century…
The myth goes that Rabbi Akiva taught an orphan Torah so that he could “stand before the congregation and recite [the prayer] ‘Bless the Lord who is blessed!’ … and… say ‘May the Great Name be blessed!’ [a sentence from the kaddish]” thereby releasing his deceased father’s soul from its eternal punishment. Most traditional kaddish literature refers back to this story.
This is unrelatable. My father was an incredibly kind and unassuming man, and the person he most hurt was himself. I am certain that my father punished himself more than enough during his lifetime. Even a vindictive God would be satisfied.
Wieseltier shares my sentiment (p. 134):
I am thinking that there is a nasty quality to the legend of Rabbi Akiva and the condemned man.It is premised on the turpitude of the parent… The obligation of kaddish lasts eleven months and not twelve months precisely because the rabbis chose to dissociate the deceased from the rabbinical pronouncement that the wicked receive their punishment in the twelve months after they die.
The author then presents a more optimistic interpretation (pp. 134-5):
My objection to kaddish, my feeling that it insults my father as much as it honors him, had been anticipated by none other than Isaac Luria, the mystical master of the sixteenth century… The kaddish is not only a recourse for the wicked… it also raises the righteous [soul] from level to level…
This version is kinder; it’s… quaint. I believe none of this, but at least Rabbi Luria allows for the possibility of a righteous soul. Not all are doomed to suffer. Let’s shelve my skepticism for the moment. Very well, then. Why, dear Heritage, should God heed my petition for my father in the first place?
After a hefty book’s worth of research findings and commentary, Wieseltier arrives at an answer that works for him. It’s neither the son’s biological nor supernatural connection to his father, as various texts suggest. In a series of responsa by Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev Ben Mattathias (early 16th century) regarding the mourner’s kaddish we find the following in the name of an unknown rabbi named Ovadiah (pp 419-420):
This kaddish is not a prayer that the son prays for his father, that God should raise him up from the lower depths. It is, rather, and ascription of merit to the father, that the father fulfilled his duty, in that one of his descendants will sanctify the great and exalted and awesome God before the congregation… The son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…
He taught me to be here, and here I am.
But he didn’t, did he? My father, I mean.
My father, following the rabbi’s instructions before my bar mitzvah, purchased the cheapest, smallest set of tefilin for me that we could find. He meant no disrespect to tradition, but he neither had use for prayer nor for phylacteries and didn’t think that I would either. I didn’t mind at all; the rabbi had shown me how to wrap them, but further commentary had been lacking. “This is what boys wear after their bar mitzvahs,” he said. In my bewilderment, I didn’t know what to ask, and my father’s indifference dampened my curiosity.
Prayer was not a part of my father’s life. He’d never known it as a child in the Soviet Union, and he did not seek to connect with it. He may have known of kaddish, but Jewish liturgy was of bygone eras. The spiritual yearnings of ancient rabbis held no inherent meaning to my father that I could discern, other than as archaic remnants of Jewish history.
So what can I do with this text? Wieseltier is right that it’s the most plausible and potentially relatable understanding of kaddish that our tradition has to offer. Regrettably, its insight bears no resemblance to my reality.
He did not teach me to be here, yet here I am.
* * *
My sense of alienation from the texts only increases upon encountering a responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s on mourner’s kaddish. Let’s set the stage:
[Rabbi Feinstein’s] remarkable boldness flowed, on the one hand, from the depth of his knowledge, and on the other hand, from his profound compassion.
R. Moshe managed to build, within the halakhic world, an edifice of compassion, a torat chesed, that is manifest every step of the way.
In the book Kaddish, the author transcribes Rabbi Feinstein’s responsum (Page 344):
“When the son knows that [his parents]… were violators of the Sabbath – even if it was for the sake of their livelihood and not for any other end – he should say kaddish for the full twelve months. And all the more should he say kaddish for the full twelve months if they were violators of the Sabbath for other reasons, even just for the sake of appetite.”
To be clear, Rabbi Feinstein is not making reference to heretics in this particular ruling; he is describing ordinary people. (If one’s parent is a heretic, he writes, “it is not appropriate to require the son to say kaddish for him…”) In other words, this paragon of compassionate(!) Judaism is consigning my father’s soul to a full year of torment for not being a Sabbath observer. (The wicked, remember, are punished in hell for twelve months.)
I am floored by the tone deafness of this text. Rabbi Feinstein was writing in America in the twentieth century! Must it be said that not observing Shabbat in the modern world is a perfectly reasonable and natural choice? That Sabbath observance has nothing to do with the quality of one’s character? Must it be said that my father’s Jewish identity continues to inspire and challenge his son, even now in his absence? That I am left desperately grasping at the wisps of my father’s pure, innate connection to the holy Land of Israel and our proud, ancient ancestry? Must it? Must it?
He taught me to be here, and here I am.
* * *
My combativeness is getting the better of me (and I’m letting it), but I well know that modern, inclusive perspectives exist with Orthodoxy. Rabbi Martin I. Lockshin has served me as a gentle voice of reason and empathy these last months, and unsurprisingly I find an interpretation in his chapter of the book Kaddish that may do honor to my father (pp. 349-50):
Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg… teaches that our primary task here on earth is, as the Aleinu prayer puts it, l’takkein olam b’malkhut shaddai—to perfect the world and make it more godly, to bring God’s sovereignty into effect here on earth. Whenever a Jew dies, in addition to all the personal sadness of the survivors, the community is also sad that the deceased did not succeed in that task. The world unfortunately is still unperfected and God’s sovereignty has not yet been established. When a son or daughter of the deceased recites Kaddish and expresses the hope to the congregation that God will establish God’s kingdom in our world “in your lifetime and in your days” (v’yamlikh malkhuteih b’ḥayeikhon u-v’yomeikhon), the community can feel some consolation. The deceased may not have established God’s sovereignty here on earth, but he or she has left behind a child who still strives to achieve that goal.
For this hopeful vision, I may (perhaps) leave my skepticism on the shelf this year, but I am not assuaged entirely. I know of Rabbi Greenberg; I’ve heard him speak; I’ve spoken with him. Dishearteningly, this brilliant rabbi’s enlightened theology is rejected by the vast majority of Orthodox scholars and rabbis (he has suggested, for example, that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was broken by the Holocaust). My pontoon bobs and floats upon such plausible beliefs, but it is buffeted by the unforgiving winds and waves of generations.
Until not so long ago, my father would strain to see me from the comfort of the shore, wondering why one would venture out into this storm in the first place.