I think it will be no surprise to readers of my blog posts that I am an avid reader of the Off the Derech (formerly Orthodox) genre of books that have proliferated in the past few years. If you really want to delve into the pain, difficulty, resistance and political muscle employed against those that leave Orthodoxy, primarily ultra-Orthodoxy, read Shulem Deen’s book, All Who Go Do Not Return. And if like me, you struggle between belief in God, or at least the God they taught me about in yeshiva and attachment to Judaism, Google Deen and read his columns; they really resonate.
Deen has a talent for explaining exactly what so many of us feel. One column that struck me so deep was this one, from July 2016 in The Forward. Deen refuses to say kaddish for his father on the day of his Yahrtzeit, rejecting that kaddish a prayer praising God, will bring his father’s soul, which he doesn’t really believe exists, closer to a God he does not believe in.
My mother has been gone for 38 years and I never miss a Yahrtzeit or the Yizkor prayer (memorial service) recited in synagogue four times a year. Like Deen, I believe that these customs have been created to perpetuate and incentivize the religious lifestyle whose reward is primarily in the afterlife. I doubt highly that the candle I light in my mother’s memory five times a year, the kaddish I recite on her Yahrtzeit or the Yizkor prayer I say four times a year benefit my mother or her soul. My mom died at 46 years old and though I only remember her in the mind of a child 14-years-old or younger, I can assure you her neshamah does not need my prayers or anyone else’s. From all accounts and my limited memory she was a good even righteous person. If heavenly reward exists, does hers depend on me? If so, how fair is it to judge her when she was taken from me so young that her influence in my life was limited to that very short time frame?
So perhaps these customs are for us the living. And perhaps some people need some sort of marker for their memory, a Yahrtzeit or Yizkor. Personally, I really don’t need to be reminded about my mother, I think of her everyday. I talk to her and wonder what she would advise me, how things would be different had she lived and most likely how different and probably a better person I would have been. I wonder how divergent my choices and mistakes would have been had she been here to guide me through college, dating, marriage, parenthood and now grandparenthood.
I thought about those exact things Monday when I said the Yizkor prayer for my mom. I, with my evolving values and beliefs cling to this primitive ritual of memory out of respect for mom’s wishes, even though instinctively I feel that had she lived, she would understand my newfound apprehension at involvement in such things. I recall that in the year of mourning when parties and movies are forbidden, I often went behind the back of my father and family and went anyway. My justification? That mom would not want me to suffer more than I was already.
Mourning and memory — possibly the most personal of feelings, so dominated by religion. In the Selichot prayers we say to God “The soul is yours and the body your vessel,” meaning to me at least that the concept of free choice in religion is limited to the choices God supposedly wants us to make. I don’t have the answers, only more questions but I will continue to say kaddish and Yizkor for my mom because four or five times a year I can connect to her outside the bitterness of having lost her. In these things religious practice offers me great value.