Corona-Kaddish: The Pray/Learn Conundrum

“Davening up a piece of Gemara.”  That’s the seeming self-contradiction that a decades-ago teacher of mine would use, with just a touch of derision, to describe the approach of a yeshiva student who sped through a section of Talmud with more focus on getting it done than on figuring out its meaning.  My teacher was glad, of course, that the student was learning, but made mild fun of the fact that anyone who was davening – mumbling the text of the law as they would a prayer — when they should have been learning was not giving the subject matter the proper intellectual attention.

I’ve been giving some thought to the ironies that surround the relationship between Jewish learning and davening – praying – as the world deals with an as-yet untamed virus galloping from place to place, touching so many and radically challenging the routine of Jewish ritual.  In more ordinary times, optimal davening is conducted in a minyan, a group of ten or more whose existence permits its members to participate in parts of a service that consist of “devarim sheb’kedusha”— literally, words that are imbued with a particular holiness, such as Kaddish and Barchu.  What does it mean when we try to use learning as a substitute, as many of us in our Kaddish year do right now?

Today, davening with a minyan is problematic.  Social distancing doesn’t allow us to readily gather in groups, and according to many halachic authorities we can’t make a minyan using the twenty-first century digital tools that blessedly allow us to stay connected for lots of other purposes.  In many respects, we can deal with this circumstance by simply getting used to davening b’yechidut – as individuals, in isolation, even as we contemplate the nearly 8 billion people with whom we share both a planet and the impact of a disease.  But that approach can’t be ideal.

Particularly for some people saying Kaddish for a loved one, it might not seem effective to say “remember that saving lives is of supreme importance, so forego the opportunity for now to say a prayer that has come to represent a memorial for someone who’s already deceased.”  One approach that many follow is to learn Mishnayot as a less-than-perfect stand-in for Kaddish.  After all, proponents of this practice point out, the Hebrew word for Mishna is an anagram for the word neshama, meaning soul.  I wonder, though, in what way learning instead of davening serves as an effective memorial for the dead, and what we accomplish when we turn from the emotional work of davening to the intellectual activity involved in learning.

If any individual’s Kaddish experience is shaped by the personality of the deceased and the Kaddish sayer’s relationship with that person – and how could it not be? – I consider myself lucky in this regard.  I’m a little more than halfway into the eleven-month period of saying Kaddish for my father.  (I notice the oddity of using the term “saying Kaddish” to refer to the reality of thinking about Kaddish when I haven’t been able to say it of late, but I don’t let that bother me very much.)  Although he was pretty punctilious in his Jewish observance, I don’t think my dad would be bothered by my not actually say Kaddish these days.  Indeed, I remember him as enough of a skeptic that I think he would have gotten a kick out of wondering how to resolve the contradictions raised by an a pivot from prayer to learning as a way of remembering him.  He likely would have enjoyed wondering how those tensions might be described and how they play out in these tense times.

Let’s look at those issues, to begin, in the language that we use when we recite Kaddish.  Kedushah, holiness, is about dynamic separation, about a recognition of some kind of tug and pull – between concepts, between realms, between beings – and an attempt to resolve the tensions.  Let’s look at some examples.

Genesis 2:3 tells us that even as the seventh day of creation received a divine blessing, that day was also touched with holiness.  The separateness, the unique nature, of that day is clear. The seventh day is the odd one out, not having a partner to share itself with.  It, unlike the other days, is not a time when any physical manifestation of divine creativity comes into being.  It’s a time for ultimate rest.  And as the early Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught, the seventh day of holy rest is the day that invites us to travel back mentally across the six previous days that we’ve experienced and to contemplate the spirituality meaning of the actions we’ve taken over the course of the week.

We know that separation isn’t always something that’s spiritually elevating.  After all, the word “kedeishah,” which shares a root with “Kaddish,” means “prostitute.”  In whatever way the dignity of the profession might be viewed through 21st century eyes, the fact remains that prostitution calls to mind questions about the separate natures of physicality on the one hand, and emotional attachment on the other.  But to determine whether an action or an idea is sacred or profane, we have to keep a wide focus.  The Sh’nei Luchot Habrit (a sixteenth and seventeenth rabbinic scholar) writes that when the messenger sent by the biblical figure Judah inquired as to the whereabouts of Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar and asked where the “kedieshah” was (Genesis 38:21), that might be understood to have been a question about the whereabouts of a prostitute, but the messenger might on some level have been wondering where divine holiness resides, suggesting that we have the ability to create meaning out of the distinctions that we encounter.

And then we have the verse that has been interpreted to direct us to recite certain of our prayers only with a minyan.  “V’nikdashti b’toch bnei yisrael,” the Torah tells us in Leviticus 22:32; “and I will be made holy amidst the Children of Israel.”  As Maimonides says with reference to this verse, every “davar sheb’kedushah,” every holy liturgical action, should be undertaken only within a congregation.  If we are to achieve the holiness of separation, we’re told, paradoxically, that we must experience it with others.

How ironic that this time of radical separation on a physical level is when we most need a holy coming together in so many other senses.  Perhaps by elevating ourselves in some sort of sacred solitude, we can lower the incidence of the virus that prevents us at this moment from coming together, praying together, in a common space.

The text of Kaddish itself is also full of irony.  Kaddish appears in Jewish liturgy in multiple forms, differing across axes of geography and utility, as different versions of the prayer are used by Jews from different parts of the world and by any one person depending on when exactly the prayer is said.  Yet one concept is central to Kaddish in all its variations.  And we can recognize the centrality of that concept by contrasting Kaddish to another prayer that’s referred to as kaddish l’yachid – a sort of proto-kaddish included in one of the earliest known prayer books as a prayer that can be recited by an individual praying without a minyan.  (I have to thank Rabbis Nissan Antine and Eitan Cooper for teaching me about this prayer, and my Kaddish buddies with whom I’ve been sharing the experience, virtually.)  Both the “real” Kaddish and the kaddish l’yachid describe the many ways in which the divine name and divine identity are elevated and exalted.  But of them, only the version that’s recited with a minyan says that divinity is “l’eila,” above all human ability to exalt.  Perhaps only when we come together as a congregation of at least ten do we have the temerity – or is it humility? – to declare that despite our creative ability to describe divine reality as being lofty and glorified, we are incapable of reminding the cosmos how far beyond human comprehension that reality actually is.  By sharing space as a minyan, we empower each other to declare our spiritual limitations to the universe.

In another allusion to the unique nature of the divine idea that appears in Kaddish but not in kaddish l’yachid, we say that the divine features described in Kaddish are in some manner “b’chayechon uvyomeychon,” in our lives and in our days.  When we declare that the God that is in our lives is here with us even as that divinity is also so far beyond us as to be indescribable, we have no choice but to make that declaration as part of a group.  After all, who is any of us an individual to know what such a self-contradictory message even means?  We have no choice but to stand on each others’ spiritual shoulders as we declare that we simply lack the capacity to discern the meaning and the makeup of the great beyond.  Today, as we collectively fight to maintain our individual and collective grip on life as we know it, we deny ourselves the opportunity to come together to make that sort of collective declaration.

And how about the experience of saying Kaddish?  In ordinary times, we say Kaddish along with others, in the presence of still others, but I’m guessing for many of us the experience doesn’t involve a whole lot of shared thinking and feeling in the moment.  Even when we recite Kaddish Yatom – Mourners’ Kaddish – together, in many respects we remain in our own emotional silos when we intone its words.  The individualization of the process is underscored by two features of the prayer.  First, even if we happen to consider the words of Kaddish while we’re having our own little moment of grief we’ll see the complete disconnect between mourning and the meaning of Kaddish’s words.  Glorifying the divine doesn’t, on its face, have much to do with remembering the dead.  Second, even if we want to think about the words, it’s hard for most of us because at least the main elements of Kaddish aren’t written in Hebrew, but rather in Aramaic – certainly more challenging for most.  So the meaning of the prayer and the emotional valence of its reading keep us at least somewhat separated even as halachic norms regarding its recital keep us together.

But Kaddish in a time of corona is different.  We don’t say Kaddish now because we all have to stay apart.  And Kaddish when we’re apart, we’re told, doesn’t work.  So instead of expressing our emotional attachment to the person for whom we’re saying Kaddish, we learn.  We think.  We intellectualize.  Today, how easy that is.  The number of online learning opportunities that have popped up in the last month seems to be growing as fast as Covid-19 infections.  And because we need not surf widely at all to find a group of like-minded people, (many of whom are mourners) with whom we can exchange ideas about an array of Torah topics, we can readily share the substance of our thinking as a way to commemorate our loved ones.  When we can’t stand in the same physical location, each of us having a singular emotional moment, we stay apart in space but come together in our minds.

Remembering the deceased is something we do both in our heads and in our hearts, together and alone.  We cogitate, we emote, we hold onto a bit of the past that we can use to help us confront the future.  But particularly in these corona-muddled times, we might find ourselves with just one more reason to avoid davening up a piece of Gemara, mumbling when we might better be thinking.  As we spend time with our recollections of those who are gone, we might find ourselves inclined just a little bit more than usual to consider how connected we are today with those around us despite our necessary physical distance.

About the Author
Jud is a retired lawyer, a cyclist, and a writer who lives in Potomac, MD.
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