The weeks of lockdown have stretched the imagination of the rabbinate. Zoom, Facebook and YouTube have become their new domain. And clergy of all denominations have comforted themselves with the knowledge that their congregations have expanded exponentially. On the Sunday ‘God’ programme on the BBC a guest described as the Anglican online minister waxed lyrical that as many of 3,000 people were part of the Eucharist liturgy, breaking all records for live services.
Most rabbis have discovered the same. Kabbalat Shabbat services, studiously timed to finish before candle lighting, are so popular that the Zoom boxes with faces and names stretch into infinity. Friends I contact during the working week to ask about their well-being are quick to tell me they are listening to a shiur so could I call back later. Covid-19 has increased the need for spiritual, intellectual and entertainment fulfilment. But it is not without spiritual problems. At a moment of heightened bereavement in the community the difficulty among the Orthodox of reciting the Kaddish has caused consternation and alienation. One acquaintance in his 11-months of mourning tunes in to a daily Mishnah study with helpful young rabbi. As fulfilling as that has proved, it lacks the emotional intensity of the three-times-a-day minyan and Kaddish.
As someone who completed my period of Kaddish a year ago I know what he means. The uplift and spirituality I gained from attending and often leading Shacharit was hugely rewarding and comforting. As good as it is being able to attend services online, the fellowship, physicality and warmth of praying with other people in minyan is impossible to replicate.
For my family the spring is the poignant time. It was in this season of 1944 that my grandparents Shalom (after whom I am named) and Fanya were taken from their family home and farm on the Hungarian-Czech border and shipped off to Auschwitz where they were gassed. Before he died in in 2018 my father wanted to be assured that I and my brother honour their blessed memory and those of three siblings lost in the Shoah by lighting a memorial flame and reciting the Kaddish.
May (Sivan) would normally see me marking their yarzheit and those of my father Michael, my father-in-law Saul and my mother-in-law Jacqueline, who died in a cluster in this period. They will not be forgotten. Rabbi Lionel Rosenfield of Western Marble Arch is conducting a morning minyan at which he makes a point of reciting the memorial prayer. It is a moving moment recited with kavana – sincere feeling.
But for all the affecting feeling that a memorial prayer can unlock, it lacks the personal involvement of Kaddish. At the funeral, shiva and weeks after death, many secular Jews who have drifted from regular prayer struggle with the recitation. Watching them conquer the Ivrit or the transliteration is itself part of a journey to perfection and back to their Judaism. It can bring people into community not just at the time of bereavement but for many months afterwards and many years at the time of yarzheit.
It provides an enduring connection with lost family elevated to a higher place.
The Beth Din view that Kaddish can only be recited with a minyan and not online seems insensitive at this time of lockdown. Many will ignore the advice and recite the Kaddish (which doesn’t even contain the name of Hashem) as an act of personal memory providing a moment of contemplation on the lives of those lost.
Challenges to the value of rabbinical-made law and rulings, I recognise, can be a slippery slope. But honouring the fine names of our parents and martyrs of the Shoah is a connection to the past which many Jews, including this writer, are not prepared to sever.