The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 48

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

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

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

* * *

Lassitude

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

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

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

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

* * *

Equilibrium

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

Ultimately, I didn’t even put them on.

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

… it is I who am granting our religion authority.

– Me, blog #6

Understand authority and you have crippled it.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 113

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

* * *

Humility

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Denouement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Challenge

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

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

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

* * *

Memory

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

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

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

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

* * *

Understatement

My father’s fingerprints are all over me.

* * *

Shabbat 30a-b

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

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Me, blog #2

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ד (verses 25-32)

[CLICK for glossary]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 27

I am better rested.

In my wife’s and daughter’s absence this week, I’ve permitted myself to sleep in. Instead of my regular 6:30 shacharit minyan, 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 darker than 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.

– Rabbi Barbara Thiede, Kaddish, p. 168

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.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 322

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.

– Rabbi Barbara Thiede, Kaddish, p. 167

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.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 26

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.

– Me (blog #25)

I was re-reading my last blog post and stopped cold.
The candid embrace of our limitations.

Why did I write that?
Why our?
Why not my?

Because we are all
human; thus we
all have
limitations.

My father was
human; God
knew his
limitations.

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.

– Me (blog #19)

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’s website. 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
יִתְעַלֶּה פֹּעַל-חַיָּיו May his life’s achievement be elevated
וְיִתְקַדַּש בְּזִכְרוֹנֵנוּ 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
עַל הַחֲלוֹמוֹת שֶנִּטְווּ – וְנָמוֹגוּ For the dreams that were spun – and dissipated
עַל סְגוּלוֹת-יְקַר For the dear, unique qualities
וְאַף עַל חוּלְשוֹת-אֱנוֹש And even for the human weaknesses
שֶנָגוֹזוּ מִבַּעַד לַדּוֹק הָעַרְפִילִי שֶל הַזְּמַן That disappeared through the hazy veil of time
~
יִפָּקֵד זֵכֶר הָאָדָם The memory of the man will be preserved
הֵד-חַיָּיו כְּזֹהַר הָרָקִיעַ בְּלִבֵּנוּ The echo of his life like the brightness of the heavens in our hearts
וּשְמוֹ לִפְנֵי שֶמֶש יִנּוֹן And may his name be continued as long as the sun
כִּי מוֹתָר הָאָדָם הוּא הַזִּכָּרוֹן For the preeminence of man is his memory
לֹא בַּחֹשֶך שְמוֹ יְכֻסֶּה His name shall not be concealed in darkness
~
הֶמְשֵך-הַחַיִּים The continuation of life
יַצְמִיחַ פּוּרְקָן לִכְאֵבֵנוּ Will grow relief for our pain
וְנִנְצוֹר אֵת כָּל פִּרְחֵי-חַיָּיו לְיָמִים רַבִּים And we shall preserve all the blossoms of his life for many days
~
יִתְגַּדַּל שֵם הָאָדָם וְיִשְתַּבַּח בְּזִכְרוֹנֵנוּ 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.

I am sorry that I judged you.

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.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 9

The traditional kaddish journey is deliberately connectional. It pulls mourners into their communities, for they cannot recite kaddish without a minyan. Having surrendered myself to this tradition, I’ve come to draw upon the wisdom of people that I’ve reconnected with (those I prayed with before giving up on shul some 3 years ago), as well as others that I’ve connected with since beginning this process.

Speaking of connections, a related insight into the humanism of kaddish was presented to me by Professor Emeritus Martin Lockshin, a regular at my minyan. In his chapter on kaddish (published in the book Kaddish), Rabbi Lockshin calls our attention to the following nuance (pp. 344-6):

In many Jewish prayers, human beings address God… Other Jewish prayers are two-way conversations between humans and God… Kaddish is also a conversation, but between human beings while Kaddish is about God, it fails to fulfill one of the most basic functions of prayer: communication between people and God.

Mourner’s kaddish is recited in a responsive fashion, with the mourners reciting the prayer, and the congregation responding with: Amen, Blessed be He, and May His great name be blessed for ever and ever.

* * *

Traditional Jewish prayer is formulaic. It serves when we don’t know what to say, when articulation is too overwhelming, when we feel empty of self-expression, when we simply need a dependable tool for connection… to community, to our ancestors, to our heritage, to ourselves… to God. (did I just go there?)

Kaddish itself is more a representation, symbolic of a conversation. Imagine endlessly rehearsing a scene from Shakespeare with alternating co-stars and extras. You may vary your tone, your volume, your pose, your attire, your expression, even the set… but the entire conversation is already known to you. There’s no deviating from the script.

Still. Still. It doesn’t have to end there, and it usually doesn’t.

The kaddish itself is but the equivalent of a conversational still life, but it’s also a model for communication with the mourner who does most of the speaking. Give him room to speak, affirm his reflections, and respond to him with utter, unmistakable sincerity: Amen.

* * *

When I first started reciting kaddish for my father, I was in a daze and did not notice the other mourners. Then they approached me. The timeless conversation unfolded.

Not long afterwards, friends and family reached out to me in love. I was struck at how many of those conversations shifted away from my own father’s death, towards the piercing memories, the simmering hurts, and the irrecoverable losses of my comforters. The timeless conversation unfolded.

As I became a shul regular again, others would approach me and ask about my father, offering their condolences. Some profound conversations about death, halakha, kaddish, tradition, faith, and more sprung from these gestures, and the timeless conversation – unfolded.

My kaddish is about my father. My kaddish is about myself. My kaddish is about others. My kaddish is about Jewish peoplehood. Perhaps my kaddish is also yours.

* * *

These blog posts became my personal kaddish, taking on more of a life than I’d expected. At first, I only intended to write once a month, but found I couldn’t empty my mind and heart fast enough.

The responses continue to come electronically and in person – and if there was ever a kaddish conversation, it is this one.

* * *

My mother flew to Israel on Wednesday for her mother’s (my Babushka’s) funeral, and I picked her up from the airport.

She feels that my writings have not been entirely true to my father; that he wasn’t as secular and removed from God as I’ve made him out to be. My mother reminds me that my father was fascinated with Jewish texts (Talmud, Torah, Rambam, etc.), studied them extensively on his own, and often consulted with rabbis for clarity on the finer points.

I point out that there are those who study Jewish texts academically, without spiritual or soulful pursuit, simply to excavate our Jewish religious tradition. My mother agrees, but says that my father was a spiritual man who believed in God in a personal way; the texts spoke to his mind and his soul alike. She adds that my father perceived much of ritual to be a performance, which fails at expressing many of its practitioners’ true spiritual yearnings. (He was correct.)

She adds that I was mistaken about another thing – my father was not motivated by concern about preserving the Jewish heritage in the Diaspora. Wherever he was, my father was confident in his identity. He was unimpressed by the shifting ebbs and tides of Jewish culture and religion, and remained steadfast and consistent as a proud Jewish Israeli. On this, I fully agree.

All that remains are memories, but not only mine, and I do not seek to limit my father to my reflections. He would have been right to resent that, I think.

Kaddish should be a conversation.

* * *

A rather severe argument between me and my father comes back to me, which I recall attempting to diffuse by suggesting that our disagreement was but a reflection of cultural differences (I’d been raised in the USA, he’d grown up in the USSR). To my dismay, the attempt backfired spectacularly; and my father expressed his offense vehemently. Who was I to label him and dismiss his views as anything other than – his own? Who was I to treat him as anything other than a thinking individual?

This kaddish journey is turning out to be difficult to navigate.

In memory and honor of my father, I am striving to be utterly, unmistakably sincere.