When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.


Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

Disillusionment

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

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

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

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

* * *

Setting the stage:
The Mishnah & Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Fast forward to early modernity:
Jewish Emancipation in Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

More recently…
The Holocaust

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

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

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

* * *

Even more recently…
The Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Too long; not long enough

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

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

* * *

My eventual disillusionment with Torah and rabbis in general

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

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

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

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

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

Keyboard Judaism

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism at the age of eighteen, I experienced it as the meaningful vision for religious Judaism that I had never thought to imagine. Through many of the years that followed, even when I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I aspired only to Orthodoxy. I judged myself and others by the standards and positions of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Although there was deep dissonance for me between the ideals of the extended Orthodox community and the modern society I inhabited, I pushed it out of my mind. The confidence in Orthodoxy’s voice lent it credibility with me, and, like most that pass through this uncertain world, I found solace in certainty.

For me today, there lies elusive but enticing comfort in the unlikely possibility that the lives of individuals have purpose, and there also exists a second, concomitant comfort for me in the existence of my people. For complicated reasons, some indiscernible even to myself, I find great meaning in being a Jew. This lends me some sense of purpose, therefore I am invested in my nation’s continuity.

Either way, I must acknowledge to myself that I am done with Orthodoxy, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

Being done with Orthodoxy in a world of limited communal options is a fairly meaningless sentiment if the remaining alternatives are lacking for me; and communities, as far as I am concerned, are the Jewish nation’s largest building blocks. With due respect to God, to the extent that I can muster it (a failing of mine), I find Judaism without community nearly meaningless.

While my thinking has evolved from Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy, and I have developed sincere respect for people’s personal agencies and choices, as well as a deep appreciation for the historical contexts and worldviews of the non-Orthodox denominations, I retain a concern about non-Orthodoxy, which hasn’t abated over the years.

Simply put, I believe that the greatest failing of non-Orthodoxy is the relative ignorance that the great majority of its adherents have of Judaism, including ignorance of Jewish history, language, theology, literature… you name it.

One need not follow Jewish religious law (halakhah) in an Orthodox way, nor follow it at all, but I cannot wrap my mind around the notion of a meaningful Jewish identity empty of Jewish substance. There is much to laud in non-Orthodoxy, and I am happy to do so, but non-Orthodoxy around the world seems to be moving increasingly towards human universalism, away from national particularism.

At some point, universalism does cease to be Judaism, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

A serious, developing problem of mine is that I am increasingly creating my own religious experience, apart from Jewish community of any sort… and the developing of one’s own, private Judaism is distinctly a heterodox undertaking.

I recently wrote, regarding my kaddish blogging following Papa’s death:

… I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience… Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

– Me, ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, Sept. 11, 2020

Thinking on this further, I realize that I’m doing much more than ‘living off my kaddish’s fumes’. On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre. Yes, true, I attended synagogue every single day for an entire year following Papa’s death; and, true, I recited the traditional orphan’s kaddish in his memory every day… but it was my thinking and writing, which imbued my kaddish experience with real meaning.

Now, having returned to writing some two-thirds of a year after completing my kaddish odyssey, I realize how much purpose this process continues to provide me with. While I think that Judaism without community is pointless, it would seem that the essence of my own Judaism is being actualized in the chair before my keyboard.

COVID-19 lockdowns have certainly limited my access to community during this last half year and more, but… I haven’t been desperately clawing for any opportunities for communal engagement (which yet exist), nor tearing at the gates of my synagogue to return to daily communal prayer.

Instead, I’ve been writing.

And now I wonder: is my Judaism without community any more Jewishly substantive than a Judaism without Jewish substance?

Israel, the secular elephant

Would I have embraced the path of religious skepticism to this extent if I had remained in the USA instead of making my home in Israel? I’m inclined to think not, and it troubles me.

* * *

After the secular Jewish upbringing of my youth, I inadvertently discovered Orthodox Judaism as a college freshman in Cleveland, OH, seeking to make connections with any and all other Jews in the face of what felt to me a dearth of Jewish life on campus. I feared, subconsciously, becoming unmoored from my ‘Jewishness’ in the absence of fellow tribesmen.

This experience, I would come to realize years later, was emblematic of Jewish life outside of Israel:

  1. In most places on earth, maintaining one’s Jewish connection and identity necessitates deliberately affiliating with other Jewish people and communities.
  2. Modern day Jewish communities are primarily religious ones, identified by denominational affiliations.

In the years following college and graduate school, I took the opportunity to explore Jewish communities of different stripes, hoping to find my home among them – not only socially but also in terms of religious values, practices, and beliefs.

* * *

It’s important to understand that I was raised with very strong ties to Israel, which profoundly shaped my concept of Jewishness as a child.

Before repatriating to Israel in the mid-70’s, my parents both lived secular lives, as was the default in the USSR. Mama and Papa didn’t become religious in their new home, but they were exposed to traditional Jewish texts and holidays, and they embraced Jewish traditions.

While I was raised in the USA, my cousins grew up in Israel; my parents and I would visit them every few years. Although I didn’t reflect much upon this as a child, my cousins’ lives were much different than my own, Jewishly speaking. In the USA, my secular parents had joined a synagogue, and I attended Hebrew school in the afternoons; my cousins, on the other hand, were not connected to any particular community, but they resided in the Jewish State.

The differences went beyond mere affiliation. Unlike our extended family in Israel,

… our concept of Pesach was grounded in tradition; our seder went beyond simply putting a seder plate on the table.

– Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #10, Oct. 14, 2018

If we had remained in Israel, instead of moving to the USA when I was but a toddler, I dare say that we would have celebrated Passover with our extended family every single year; and we would not have been able to delve into the texts of the haggadah as much as Papa loved to do.

* * *

More likely than not, had my parents and I remained in Israel I would never have developed such a fascination for Judaism as a religion. I would have grown up much like my cousins – a secular Jew in Israel. I would never have worried about losing my ‘Jewishness’, such as it might have been, and never would have felt the need to affiliate myself with a Jewish community.

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays. The symbols of government are all Jewish: the Star of David in the center of the Israeli flag, the 120 members of our Knesset, etc., etc. Also, ~¾ of Israeli citizens are registered as Jewish by the civil government so most of them end up marrying other Jews by default.

Suffice it to say that Jews living in Israel are secure in their Jewish identities, regardless of the degrees to which their personal and family lives are guided by Jewish values and traditions.

* * *

Unfortunately, this security comes with a profound down side, which is that for many secular Israeli Jews – living here in the Jewish State is the primary or even sole Jewish facet of their lives. For too many residents, speaking Hebrew, serving in the Israeli Defense Force, and raising their children in Israel has become the totality of their ‘Jewishness’.

So… what becomes of their Jewish identities when these secular Jews move abroad? Well, many of them come to discover that their children, raised in the Diaspora, feel neither particularly Israeli nor particularly Jewish.

Even for those who remain in Israel, there is a bit of a hollowness to their ‘Jewishness’. Many take the existence of the country for granted and feel no particular attachment to the Land we live on. If the State of Israel had been founded in Uganda in 1903, such Israeli Jews would not have felt much different about their attachment to the Jewish State.

Essentially, with no fear of assimilation to drive them, most Israeli Jews are complacent about their Jewish identities. Many are even apathetic.

* * *

Having grown up in the USA, I have had many an encounter with assimilated Jewish people of all ages and generations – some have been 1st generation Americans and some have lived in the States for multiple generations.

I spent more than a decade, beginning with my earliest college days, trying to find my place among the many models of Jewish community in the USA, in an attempt to buttress my Diaspora ‘Jewishness’. Ultimately, my search led me back to Israel.

And now – here I am – living in Israel, raising my family in Israel. Here I am – observing Shabbat in a more or less traditional manner. Here I am – with access to untold numbers of synagogues, Jewish resources, rabbis, etc. Here I am – within walking distance of the very heart of the ancient Israelite kingdom –

And, increasingly, I am struggling to maintain my motivation – to live a religious Jewish life.

* * *

It’s so damn’d powerful, this experience of living in the Holy Land. It’s actually intoxicating in its mundanity. Being Jewish here – in Israel – in Jerusalem – requires nary a thought, nary an effort.

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere. While attending her state-secular preschool, my daughter learns about the Torah, the Jewish holidays, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She need never attend an afternoon Hebrew school program, as I did (nor do I think there is such a thing in this country).

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.

To be honest, I feel foolish writing about this because I’ve “known” this all my life. “Everyone” knows that being Jewish in Israel is fundamentally different than anywhere else in the world, certainly anyone concerned with Jewish identity. And yet – the actual power of living immersed in Israeli Jewish society is not one that I can convey fully even to the most committed Diaspora Jew. In Israel, ‘Jewishness’ is in my every step and fills my lungs to capacity.

And I am scared. I am scared for myself and especially for my daughter.

What if we succumb to the State and become complacent Israeli Jews?

More skeptic than kaddish

During my first year of mourning, as I recited the kaddish on a daily basis, exploring and reflecting upon this famous Jewish doxology, I had neither the time nor the bandwidth to do justice in my writings to all that I was learning and pondering.

Among the many tidbits that I omitted was the following: traditionally, parents would refer to their sons as ‘my kaddish’, which is to say that the son himself was his parents’ kaddish by virtue of the fact that he was expected to take the responsibility of reciting the mourner’s kaddish for his mother and father upon their deaths, thereby redeeming and/or elevating their souls. In fact, this use of the word ‘kaddish’ is still mainstream in the most religiously conservative Jewish communities today. I am Papa’s kaddish, and I am Mama’s kaddish.

I wanted to recite the kaddish for Papa every day that first year, as is traditionally expected of a bereaved son, but I truly didn’t know if I could make it through an entire year of daily prayer services because I didn’t believe in any of the mythological explanations behind this ancient tradition. Blogging the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series that year generated the fuel I needed.

Somewhat paradoxically, it also reinforced my religious skepticism.

* * *

When I first met Orthodox Jews as a student in college, I would hear them express the following: “I’m not Orthodox. I’m just Jewish.” Here’s what they meant by this:

“There are no Jewish religious denominations because there is only one authentic version of Judaism, defined by the Torah and the mitzvot (Divine commandments). Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and even Orthodox Judaism are meaningless concepts. All that matters is God’s will, handed down to us by an unbroken tradition going all the way back to the Torah that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, and I am a follower of that tradition.”

Today, more than two decades later, I would also say: “I’m not Orthodox. I’m just Jewish” – but I mean something quite different by this.

I present as a Zionist, Orthodox, Israeli Jew. If you were to meet me, you would see a bearded male with a kippah on his head and sandals on his feet. Further, my family keeps a kosher kitchen, and we keep the Sabbath in a traditional way. BUT: I don’t believe that God commanded us to do any of these things, and I may well perform actions that I know are against halakhah (Jewish law) in private.

Contrary to mainstream Orthodox Jewish thought, I recognize the validity of all Jewish denominations as expressions of many people’s Jewish identities. BUT: None of them are home to me. All are institutions, networks of institutions, or umbrellas of institutional networks. They all have in-groups and out-groups. They all espouse some ideas that I accept, and they all espouse other ideas that I flatly reject. I trust none of them.

But I will always remain a Jew.

* * *

It was empowering to honor Papa’s memory by reciting kaddish daily for a year, as Jewish tradition demands. However, it was more empowering to do so with integrity.

Since I’m ‘socially Orthodox’, so to speak, which means that I look like an Orthodox Jew, can go through the motions of Orthodox daily life well enough to ‘pass’ as Orthodox, and prefer Orthodox prayer services, one of the most difficult things about publishing my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series in a public forum was coming out to the world (and more importantly: to everyone who knows me) as a somebody who doesn’t buy into the doctrine maintained by his religious community.

Unexpectedly, the acceptance and support that I received from friends and role models in my community that year made a profoundly positive impact upon me. People whom I think highly of as humans and Jewish leaders gave me respect for my kaddish project, validating me. Not one suggested that my beliefs were unreasonable or wrong. Rather, they engaged me in conversations, relating to my views as a legitimate side to the ‘conversation’.

Over time, I increasingly came to feel that my voice was truly valid – that I had something worthwhile to contribute to our people’s conversation about our shared heritage. My confidence grew, and so too did my self-identification with religious skepticism. I did not, by any stretch of the imagination, become more of a believer over that course of that year. If anything, I only came to feel more strongly about my lack of conviction in the fulfillment of God’s will and in the likelihood of His involvement in our lives.

I certainly wasn’t reciting kaddish for God, and I wasn’t even reciting kaddish for Papa, who wouldn’t have cared about this mourning tradition in the slightest. I was doing it for myself – and that is the only reason that Papa would have wanted me to do so.

* * *

Papa’s first yahrzeit (Hebrew anniversary of his death) brought my first year of mourning to a close. Experientially, this felt like the true end of my year-long kaddish journey, and I was determined to mark it at shul with the community that had made space for my kaddish all that year. Also, by sheer coincidence, his first yahrzeit fell out on the Sabbath, which is the day when shul-goers traditionally sponsor and partake in communal kiddush after Saturday morning services.

I continued going to shul for some months after that, but once the rainy season began (i.e. the Israeli winter), my motivation to walk to shul every morning through the dark and the rain decreased dramatically, and I stopped. As I would have expected, my personal prayer practice also fell apart in the absence of my shul attendance.

My intention was to return to shul in the spring, but then COVID-19 broke out, and that never happened due to the nationwide lockdown. Even after the lockdown ended, prayer services were restricted to the patio outside, prayer-goers had to sit far apart from one another with masks on over their faces, and our weekly kiddushes were cancelled indefinitely. Self-centered person that I am, I didn’t want to bear any of these personal discomforts for the sake of community, and I continued to stay home.

Over the course of the past month, several members of our Saturday morning minyan, including myself, hosted kiddushes in honor of their departed parents in the park next to the synagogue, and I attended prayer services on those dates before joining these social gatherings. Otherwise, I’ve continued staying at home and my shul attendance has remained practically non-existent.

In the spirit of honesty, I must share that it didn’t take much to dissuade me from waking up early in the mornings in order to spend an hour on walking back and forth to shul and praying there with my community. If one doesn’t believe that God commanded him to act a particular way, it becomes difficult to find alternative motivations that are sufficiently compelling in the long-run, or so I find.

* * *

The candle that we lit for Papa’s yahrzeit

And… so… while I hosted a kiddush in Papa’s memory two Saturdays ago (July 11th), the actual date of the yahrzeit fell out on July 16th, which was last Thursday. I’d known this for some time, and I’d thought I would make my way to shul that morning in order to recite kaddish in his honor. This is traditionally done, for once the first year of mourning has ended, one only recites the mourner’s kaddish in honor of his loved once annually, on their yahrzeits.

On Wednesday evening, as we’d planned, the three of us went out to a local café for dinner and dessert. We deliberately picked one that our daughter enjoys because her Dedushka Shurik (my Papa) would have wanted us to enjoy ourselves – of this I am certain. When we returned home, just before sunset, we lit a yahrzeit candle in his memory, and we very deliberately spoke of our love for Papa and his love for us so that our daughter would understand the significance of the day and of preserving our memories of Papa.

That night, I was writing poetry late at night, and I realized that I was extremely tired. The idea of waking up very early in order to drag myself to shul felt more than unappealing to me. I weighed my options: A) wake up early and go to shul to recite kaddish, or B) wake up at a more reasonable hour and forgo the annual kaddish recitation.

I chose not to go to shul.

* * *

I have justifications, but by the standards of the mainstream Orthodox Jewish community, they are all inadequate. I did not honor my Papa publicly in my community on the anniversary of his death, as sons have traditionally done for their deceased parents for hundreds of years, as I could have despite the COVID-19 restrictions. Now, I will only have the opportunity to recite kaddish for Papa next year – on his next yahrzeit.

But… I don’t feel too bad about it. I feel sad, but I’m honestly not sure if I’m simply sad because two years have already passed since Papa’s death, or if I’m additionally sad that I didn’t recite kaddish for him this year. It’s hard for me to tell.

Papa certainly wouldn’t have cared about me reciting kaddish for him on his yahrzeit. If anything, as I’ve said, he would have appreciated the idea of his loved ones enjoying themselves in his memory. He may have even empathized with the inclination to light a candle in memory of a loved one (even though he would never have done so himself).

Also, I really don’t feel religiously obligated to recite kaddish because I don’t feel any religious obligation. As traditional as I am, almost nothing I do is for the sake of God or done because I think He expects it of me or cares about my actions.

So – without any premeditation – I marked Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit much like a secular Jew might… and while I’m not yet sure how I’ll feel myself inclined to mark Papa’s future yahrzeits, I know that he would, first and foremost, want me to do whatever I personally find most meaningful. He would agree with the obvious: all of our mourning practices are intended to bring comfort to the living.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 14

IMG-20181102-WA0003-640x400

It happened that on Friday evening I was the only mourner in my minyan. Between mincha and the end of ma’ariv on Friday, there are three mourner’s kaddishes and one kaddish d’rabbanan (rabbis’ kaddish), all of which are the mourners’ domain. On this particular Shabbat, they were all exclusively mine.

The unexpected force of the congregation’s response, ‘amein,’ to my first kaddish reverberated through the room and I nearly stepped backwards. After my recitation, the gabbai chanted a special prayer in honor of the eleven Jews murdered the week before in Squirrel Hill, and the context crystalized for me. Scanning the room, I noted that the gentleman waiting to lead us in the kabbalat shabbat service had a firearm clipped onto the back of his pants, concealed under his well-pressed white shirt. ‘Good,’ I thought, ‘thank you for bringing that, and no less for covering it.’

I felt myself an agent of collective Jewish sorrow, voicing the pain of Pittsburgh, of my own community, of world Jewry. With each of my kaddishes, I took the luxury of enunciating the syllables, not chanting them, but speaking them as though I were engaged in plaintive discourse. I was glad for my three-and-a-half year old daughter’s absence from shul on this particular Shabbat evening, for I was left spent, my own grief more palpable with the weight of eleven additional Jewish souls.

I am just one Jew, and this just one journal entry, but I humbly dedicate it to the memory of those eleven Jews who were murdered in Pittsburgh for being Jews. May all of their memories be for blessings.

* * *

My mother queries, “So, I wonder, does a son say Kaddish for his mother too? Or is it only for the father? Will you be saying Kaddish for me when my time comes?”

“Yes,” I respond wistfully, “a son says kaddish for both parents.”

My fuller response begins so: The term “mourner’s kaddish” (as it is most commonly translated into English) is a mistranslation. In Hebrew, it is known as the kaddish yatom (קדיש יתום), which is the orphan’s kaddish.”

or·phan
/ˈôrfən/
noun: orphan; plural noun: orphans
a child whose parents are dead.

The recitation of the kaddish yatom has historically been the child’s duty to his parents, rather than to any of his other immediate relatives (including children, siblings, and spouses), for whom he is expected to mourn according to Jewish tradition.

Prof. Judith Hauptman writes [here]:

The only relatives for whom one traditionally observes rites of mourning for 12 months are parents, both father and mother.

A text from the Talmud drives home the point that mourning rites for parents are more demanding than those for other relatives. It lists nine ways in which the two sets of practices differ (Mo’ed Katan 22b).

I’ve learned that the recitation of orphan’s kaddish is not mentioned in the Talmud (because it developed later), but today’s standard practice is to recite kaddish for one’s parents for the duration of this traditional year of mourning (minus one month). Neither Jewish mourning practices nor the orphan’s kaddish make a distinction between one’s father and one’s mother. The distinction is between one’s parents and everybody else.

In old-fashioned Orthodox communities, it is common to see men reciting the orphan’s kaddish for their departed mothers, while their fathers remain standing silently nearby.

* * *

We must be honest with ourselves. My mother’s question is entirely natural, given the tenor and tone of Orthodox Judaism. Also, it could have gone the other way. After all, a historic dispute does persist over whether daughters should be allowed to recite the orphan’s kaddish for their parents.

Let’s recall that the Jewish tradition of mourner’s kaddish is based upon a legend of Rabbi Akiva, as I’ve written previously. In the story, a deceased, corrupt tax collector’s soul is saved from damnation after Rabbi Akiva finds the man’s son and teaches him to praise God properly before the congregation. Some traditional sources highlight the son’s role (a son redeemed his father’s soul, rather than a daughter), but it strikes me that the rabbis could have just as readily focused on the role of the tax collector in the story (a father’s soul was redeemed, rather than a mother’s).

In fact, the great Rabbi Isserles (1530-1572) who penned HaMapah (still to this day, the central halakhic document for Ashkenazi Jewry), explicitly begins his explication of the laws surrounding the mourner’s kaddish as follows (Yoreh De´ah 376:4):

It is found in the midrashim that one should say the Kaddish for a father.

Thankfully, his quill did not stop there, but we must be mindful that it could have. Such a non-egalitarian tradition wouldn’t have nonplussed my mother or countless other non-Orthodox women; it would simply have been par for the course.

* * *

Anybody researching the nuances and history of the mourner’s kaddish will come across rabbinic texts that address the matter of daughters reciting kaddish for their parents. As expected, Wieseltier covers many of these sources in his book Kaddish, and the Israeli Beit Hillel rabbinic association’s ‘Responsum: May a Woman Say Kaddish For Her Parents?’ also covers a selection.

I’d like to put this to rest (from my perspective) by quoting Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen z”l who wrote the following on ‘Women and Kaddish’:

… the rulings of the three most influential halakhic sages in America… permeated the essence and formed the standards of synagogue life in America: namely, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.

Rav Henkin (1880-1973)… wrote: ‘If she does keep… basic mitzvoth, it is permissible for her to say Kaddish…’ Rav Moshe accepts a woman reciting Kaddish as a normal, unquestionable practice… Rav Soloveitchik ruled that it was permissible for women to recite Kaddish in synagogue.

Today’s halakhic authorities can readily permit women to recite the orphan’s kaddish in shul, yet many choose not to. Why? (That’s what interests me.)

* * *

Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1639-1702) opposed a daughter’s recitation of kaddish for her father (even with a minyan in the privacy of her home!), although he conceded that (Kaddish, p. 179):

There is no proof that would contradict it – for women, too, are commanded to sanctify the Name… Even though the tale of Rabbi Akiva, which is the basis for the recitation of kaddish by mourners, speaks only of a son, it is reasonable to assume that a daughter, too, may bring benefit and calm to the soul of the dead, for she, too, is his progeny.

So why did Bacharach oppose a daugher’s recitation for her father?

All this notwithstanding, we must be concerned that, as a consequence, the force of the customs of Israel, which are also Torah, will be weakened, and everybody will build his own altar on the basis of his own thinking, and will treat the words of the rabbis with derision and jest, and come to scorn them.

Historically, most poskim (halakhic decisors) ruled against daughters reciting the orphan’s kaddish, even in their homes. Rabbi Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen (1670-1749) wrote that sons recite kaddish because they, unlike daughters, are their parents’ heirs. According to his responsum, even the son of a daughter does not qualify to recite the kaddish. Rabbi Ephraim Margolioth (1762-1828) also forbade it, and in 1906 Rabbi Meshullam Finkelstein published his commentary on Margolioth’s ruling (Kaddish, p.186):

In our day, when lewdness is common, we are not to… allow a daughter to say the kaddish… for she will certainly want to sound lovely… instead of the others sanctifying the Name of heaven… the others will hit a stumbling-block.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (1805-1855) followed a similar line of thought (Kaddish, p. 187):

The man who hears her may be aroused to an evil thought, which is worse than sin. The woman must be very careful that she is not responsible for the failure of the men. 

TL;DRDespite there existing no substantive, text-based reason to forbid a daughter from reciting the orphan’s kaddish, she may still be prohibited because A) changes to Jewish tradition may lead Jews to think critically about claims made by rabbinic authorities, and B) women’s sexuality must be controlled.

* * *

The inclination of many modern halakhic authorities to continue limiting women’s expression in the public sphere is ironic. Even the rabbis of yore cited above accepted the premise that a daughter was eligible to recite the orphan’s kaddish for her parents, and their rulings to the contrary may be excused, given that they lived long before women were accepted as full citizens of their respective societies.

In the modern day, however, the debate has actually expanded from one over women’s participation in communal ritual functions to the matter of women’s leadership in Jewish communities. For example, the modern religious authorities who oppose Orthodox women’s rabbinic ordination, as I’ve written, follow closely in the steps of their religious precursors. They admit that such a thing is permissible according to halakha, but still they forbid it.

In Yeshivat Maharat’s Keren JournalRabbi Alan Yuter tackles criticisms of ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis. He draws attention to Rabbi Schachter’s post ‘Can Women be Rabbis?’ in which Rabbi Schachter (a foremost opponent of ordaining Orthodox female rabbis) admits that there is no halakhic text explicitly forbidding this.

Rabbi Schacter believes that Orthodox Jewish law is not a legal normative order, but a social and ethical culture… and recognition of dissent undermines the authority… manifest in the charisma of great rabbis.

This is exactly the argument of Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1639-1702) against a daughter’s recitation of the orphan’s kaddish! This sociopolitical rejection of ordination of female rabbis came into the spotlight in late October 2015 when the Rabbinical Council of America (affiliated with Yeshiva University) passed a resolution against it. The RCA’s vote was halakhically questionable for at least two reasons:

  1. If the ordination of women as rabbis is “against Jewish law”, why did the RCA have to vote at all? Does it follow that the RCA could have voted against halakha?
  2. Halakha is not determined by voting! Ever since the ultimate abolition of the Great Sanhedrin (and throughout the many centuries of Jewish exile) individual religious decisors have been issuing halakhic rulings for their local communities.

For me, it’s quite simple. If you claim to uphold God’s law (halakha), then you must act and rule accordingly. Further, if you have conceded that halakha allows for the possibility of women being public participants in particular Jewish communal rituals or functioning as leaders of Jewish communities according to God’s law(!) it is nothing less than immoral to forbid this.

As a wise rabbi once noted, “Around half of all Jews are women.”

* * *

Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal chronicles the kaddish journey of Dr. Esther M. Broner after the death of her father in 1987. She committed herself to reciting the orphan’s kaddish daily for eleven months in an all-male minyan at an Orthodox shul, despite the refusal of some regulars to respond, ‘Amein,’ to her kaddish (and other harassment). A second-wave Jewish feminist, Broner was the author of the 1976 Women’s Haggadah. She was no stranger to bucking gender norms.

Ah-hah! A feminist! A troublemaker! An outsider! Surely Broner doesn’t represent the average Jewish woman and her desire to mourn and honor her parents according to Jewish tradition?

Very well then, how about the following example?

The Recitation of Kaddish: A Personal Odyssey chronicles Dr. Ruth Walfish’s kaddish journey after the death of her mother in 2012, after not having recited the orphan’s kaddish for her father in 2002. Some two months into her year of mourning, this Orthodox woman scholar spontaneously stood up and recited the kaddish in shul on Friday evening. A product of her Orthodox culture and background, she “came to understand [her] decision to say Kaddish for [her] mother as a way of also grieving for [her] father.”

* * *

My father was no feminist. He was politically and socially conservative; and quite skeptical of political activism and social causes. This blog post would have intrigued him primarily because it was written by me, as an insight into my mind. He may also have appreciated the intellectual exercise.

Reluctant as he was to take political action (beyond voting), the following two snapshots from his life are particularly illuminating:

  1. In 1996, my father flew to Israel to vote for Bibi Netanyahu for Prime Minister. He considered the Oslo Accords to be an existential mistake, posing a terrible danger to the State of Israel’s very being, and he couldn’t sit idly by in America while the Israeli left brought about the downfall of the Jewish state.
  2. In 1974, my father was detained by the Soviet militsia for protesting for the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel. He was no refusenik leader, but his friends had called him (on the day of!) to join them at a protest near the Mayakovskaya Metro stop in Moscow, and he had agreed to come. Minister of Internal Affairs Shchelokov interrogated my father, and my father felt the Minister’s cold gaze boring through him – focused somewhere upon on the back of his skull. This was the first and only protest my father attended in the USSR; he was one of the lucky few to receive an exit visa and moved to Israel shortly afterwards.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 11

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 Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was regarded by many as the preeminent halakhic authority in North America in the twentieth century. He was haredi, but his brilliance and compassion were admired even throughout the Modern Orthodox and dati leumi communities, as this eulogy by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015, a renowned, leading posek) demonstrates:

[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.