Wherefore ‘ben Alexander’?

Some basics of Jewish names

Most Jewish people have Jewish names, which they use in religious contexts, although they do not necessarily go by them in public. Some Jewish names like mine (David) are universal enough, but others do not roll off the gentile tongue so easily. Jewish names are typically of Jewish languages: primarily Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino.

Of course, as many Jews are secular; non-practicing; or unaffiliated with religious community, their Jewish names are not particularly relevant in their daily or weekly lives. It’s the Jews who somewhat regularly attend synagogue services who are most often called by their Jewish names.

Now, in the traditional religious context, one is not simply known by his/her Jewish first name. One is known as [first name] [son/daughter of] [parent’s name]. For prayers of healing, I would be called David [son of] [mother’s name]. When I am called to make a blessing upon the Torah scroll at the synagogue, I am traditionally called David [son of] [father’s name].

One notable thing regarding my personal Jewish identity is that neither of my parents were assigned specifically Jewish names at birth because they were both born into the militantly secular and institutionally antisemitic USSR; for the most part, Jews in the USSR were inclined to downplay their Jewish identities. My Mama is Svetlana. My Papa was Alexander.


‘ben Alexander’

As an adult, I became religious, and that’s when being called up to make blessings upon the Torah scroll at shul became relevant to me.

At the first, as I was learning the ropes, I was rather self-conscious about being called up as David [son of] Alexander. Nobody else in any of my Jewish communities had such a Jewish name, nor a father with such a Jewish name as Alexander. Being called David [son of] Svetlana would be even more uncommon, but I have never been sick enough to need or request prayers for health – so that situation has yet to arise.

Anyway, my proclivity for Jewish tradition and active involvement in religious Jewish community ultimately caused me to internalize Papa’s name as a significant part of my identity. His name was officially part of my name; and… perhaps you’ve already surmised that the Hebrew for [son of] is [‘ben’].

I am, therefore, the Jew known as David ben Alexander.


‘Alexander’

The Legend of the Gordian Knot

Papa the mathematician launched his educational mathematics website in 1996, shortly after the Internet had made its way into people’s homes around the world. But what to call it?

At the time, we were living on a street called Alexander Road, which amused Papa and somewhat excited his imagination; and he decided to call his website and company ‘Cut the Knot’ after the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. Papa’s vision was to present mathematics as only seemingly impossible to conquer. Much like the Gordian Knot, which Alexander the Great cleverly sliced apart, Papa believed that mathematics riddles all had comprehensible, straightforward solutions.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Eastern Europeans

I’ve come to learn that in Eastern Europe, some non-Jewish names are more common among Jews than others. To the trained ear, such names suggest that their owners could very well be Jewish. Boris, Mark, and Alexander are such names. (Other gentile names generally trigger the opposite assumption… for example: Fyodor, Nikolai, Vasily.)

I never thought to discuss Papa’s name with him, but he would certainly have been sensitive to this cultural nuance.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Jews

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I learned this, but it turns out that the name Alexander is, surprisingly, a Jewish name, even though it is of distinctly Greek origin; and – it entered Jewish culture because of Alexander the Great.

In the Talmud there is a popular Jewish story about an interaction between Alexander the Great and the Jewish High Priest Simeon the Just, in which Alexander bowed down to the Jew (Tractate Yoma 69a):

בעשרים וחמשה [בטבת] יום הר גרזים [הוא] דלא למספד יום שבקשו כותיים את בית אלהינו מאלכסנדרוס מוקדון להחריבו ונתנו להם באו והודיעו את שמעון הצדיק מה עשה לבש בגדי כהונה ונתעטף בבגדי כהונה ומיקירי ישראל עמו ואבוקות של אור בידיהן וכל הלילה הללו הולכים מצד זה והללו הולכים מצד זה עד שעלה עמוד השחר כיון שעלה עמוד השחר אמר להם מי הללו אמרו לו יהודים שמרדו בך כיון שהגיע לאנטיפטרס זרחה חמה ופגעו זה בזה כיון שראה לשמעון הצדיק ירד ממרכבתו והשתחוה לפניו אמרו לו מלך גדול כמותך ישתחוה ליהודי זה אמר להם דמות דיוקנו של זה מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי The twenty-fifth of Tebeth is the day of Mount Gerizim, on which no mourning is permitted. It is the day on which the Cutheans demanded the House of our God from Alexander the Macedonian so as to destroy it, and he had given them the permission, whereupon some people came and informed Simeon the Just. What did the latter do? He put on his priestly garments, robed himself in priestly garments, some of the noblemen of Israel went with him carrying fiery torches in their hands, they walked all the night, some walking on one side and others on the other side, until the dawn rose. When the dawn rose he [Alexander] said to them: Who are these [the Samaritans]? They answered: The Jews who rebelled against you. As he reached Antipatris, the sun having shone forth, they met. When he saw Simeon the Just, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him. They said to him: A great king like yourself should bow down before this Jew? He answered: His image it is which wins for me in all my battles.

In brief, Alexander the Great bowed to the Jewish High Priest because the image of the Priest’s face would appear before him before his battles, leading him to victory when he was on the battlefields. Ultimately, according to legend, Alexander the Great left the Holy Temple in Jerusalem be.

Further adds Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin:

… for memorializing the occasion, [Simeon the Just] suggested… [that] all male [Jewish priests] born that year would be named “Alexander.”

Alexander liked the idea, and the Jews, who were very thankful to Alexander for all that he did for them, including sparing the Holy Temple from destruction, gratefully named their children after him. Thus, the name Alexander forever became a Jewish name.

‘Why Is Alexander a Jewish Name?’ by Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin

I actually have no idea if Papa knew about this Talmudic story, but I get a real kick out of the fact that Papa’s name is, indeed, a Jewish one; and not only that – Papa’s name became a Jewish name because of the same great conqueror who inspired the culmination of Papa’s lifework: ‘Cut the Knot’.


Ben Alexander’ or ‘ben Alexander’

I haven’t made mention of this before, but I actually created this WordPress account in 2012, long before Papa died – long before I became ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’. Back then, my blog had a rather uninspired Jewish blog name; and – back then I was blogging anonymously.

I have always enjoyed writing, but it’s only been in the past several years that I’ve felt comfortable enough in my own voice to blog so very publicly about sensitive personal matters under my own name. Back in 2012, I deliberately called myself ‘Ben Alexander’ so that nobody would find me out. I deliberately chose it as my pen name, knowing that most people would parse ‘Ben’ as a common English name. That’s why I capitalized it back when.

Then – in April of 2020 when I was transferring the many posts I had written about reciting kaddish for Papa to this website, I made a seemingly slight change to my handle. I changed the first letter to lower case, rendering myself ‘ben Alexander’, and thereby deemphasizing the ‘Ben’.

Of course, people still continue to assume that my full name is actually ‘Ben Alexander’, but that is okay with me. For those who are curious enough to explore my website and get to know me, I have an ‘about’ page with my full name available therein. I am, as they say, hiding in plain sight.

This version of my name continues to feel so very right and comfortable… I am deeply proud to be known as:

David ben Alexander.

Holiday thoughts, part II: Jewish v. Not

Tonight is New Year’s Eve so before I get into the substance of this post, I would like to wish all of you a Happy and Healthy New Year! 🥳


So… New Year’s…

Growing up in America, this was not a holiday that I marked in any way, shape or form. Truly, I did not understand what all the fuss was about. Why was the transition between December 31st and January 1st any more significant than that between any two other calendar days?

The funny thing is that New Year’s Eve had once been a very big deal to both of my parents. You see, my mother had grown up in Lithuania, and my father had grown up in Russia, both under Soviet reign, both celebrating Novy God (Новый Год), which designates the Russian New Year’s celebration. Today, this holiday remains extremely popular in countries that were formerly part of the USSR, as well as in Soviet emigrant communities worldwide.

The elimination of religion was an objective of the USSR’s official ideology, with the goal of establishing state atheism. Therefore, most of the traditions that were originally associated with Christmas in Russia (Grandfather Frost, a decorated fir-tree) were moved to New Year’s Eve after the Revolution and remain associated with Novy God to this day.

For my parents, Novy God belonged to the regime they had escaped from in the mid-70’s, the regime, which had nearly succeeded at obliterating their Jewish heritage. While they both considered themselves secular, they strongly embraced their Jewish and Israeli identities, shedding themselves of Soviet culture and traditions.


I was eight or nine years old when I first met my father’s parents.

My father had been lucky enough to get out of the USSR in the mid-70’s, but his sister and his parents were only permitted to leave in the late 80’s, just before the Soviet Union’s final collapse. Developing a relationship with my formerly non-existent (from my perspective) grandparents at that age left me with some very vivid memories, including a seemingly insignificant moment that I only came to appreciate many, many years later.

It so happened that upon one of our visits to my grandparents in Rockville, Maryland, I was flummoxed to find that my grandmother had purchased place mats with Christmas trees for their little apartment. As an Israeli-born and American-raised Jewish boy, I was truly flabbergasted. “We’re… Jewish. Why would you buy these?”

That’s when my parents somewhat casually explained the holiday of Novy God and its symbols to me. My grandmother hadn’t intended to purchase Christmas place mats – she’d intended to purchase them for Novy God. Still, even then, upon my first exposure to the concept of Novy God, the significance and complete pervasiveness of this secular Soviet national holiday was not made clear to me; and I didn’t reflect upon the fact that my parents had never, ever mentioned this tradition to me before.


For many years, I continued to regard Novy God with suspicion as a non-Jewish holiday that had incorporated Christian symbols. To me, it represented assimilation, which was the ultimate threat to the Jewish people. However, having moved [back] to Israel as an adult changed my perspective and attitude dramatically for several reasons.

First of all, in today’s Israel I encountered many Jews who had repatriated to the Jewish State after the USSR fell apart. Whereas my parents had been among the lucky few to be granted permission to leave the USSR in the 70’s, and whereas their citizenships had been revoked due to their betrayals of the Motherland, those who emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union were no longer considered traitors. These new immigrants retained their ties to Russia, Ukraine, etc., wherever their families lived; and they could visit them freely.

Also, whereas during the late 1960s and the 1970s, only ~163,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel, immigrants and descendants of immigrants from formerly Soviet Jewish communities residing within the State of Israel today number around 900,000. In fact, Russian-speaking Jews in Israel include an enlarged population of 1,200,000, including non-Jewish members of Jewish households, which represents ~15% of Israel’s total population. By virtue of sheer numbers, elements of Russian culture have become mainstream here.

Of course, many Jews in Israel continue to look askance at Novy God as a non-Jewish phenomenon, but a sizable percentage of the population continues to celebrate it. My secular Babushka (my mother’s mother) who moved to Israel in the seventies stopped celebrating Novy God because of the Israeli culture of those years, but she confided in me on more than one occasion that Novy God remained her favorite holiday. I’m certain that had she emigrated later, in the nineties, she would have continued marking this secular holiday.


Now, on a very personal level, Novy God has entered my life through my wife of nine years. Her extended family, including her mother and her grandparents, still reside in Russia, and they continue to celebrate Novy God, as do all Russians.

My wife was raised celebrating this holiday, and she loves it. Every year, she prepares various traditional Russian dishes in advance of December 31st; every year, she chats long-distance with her family members in Russia, as they celebrate Novy God together; and every year my wife and daughter visit my mother-in-law in January who leaves presents for her granddaughter underneath her Novy God tree.

This year, for the first time, my wife will be putting up a little tree for Novy God here in our home in Jerusalem, which she brought back from her last visit to Russia… and I am totally unbothered by it. In fact, I’m happy to support her and to participate. I’m happy that this makes her happy.

You see, living in Israel has removed the threat of assimilation from my personal calculus. It has become a non-issue for me. Furthermore, my wife and I are both Torah observant Jews by choice. We not only live in Israel, but we also keep the Sabbath and maintain a kosher kitchen. By personal choice, we have become the religious Jews in an extended family of secular Jews and gentiles, and we live this way because this is how we choose to express our Jewishness.

Today, secure in our family’s religious, cultural, and national Jewishness and Israeliness, I can comfortably embrace other facets of our family’s collective identity. And, so, I’m happy to wish all of you a Happy New Year! 🍾

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

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כ

ל

א

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ן

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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

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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.)

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.