Mordechai Silverstein

Making Sense of Kaddish

There was a story published in the “Die Yiddishe Tzeitung” in 1946 entitled Yoselle Rackover Speaks to God” which was purportedly the will of a Gerer Hasid from Ternopol, who sealed it in a bottle moments before the Nazis overtook his bunker. In it, he talks of the God who hid His face from the world and as a consequence left the world to its baser forces. In the will, he, nevertheless, declares his faith in the God of Israel even though God did all that was in His power to preclude belief. He continued: “And as much as I love You, God, I love Your Torah even more.” He ends: “You, God, have done all that is in Your power to disillusion me, in order that I might not believe, but I die as I lived, believing with unshakable faith in Your blessed name forever, God of the dead, God of truth and justice, who should speedily return and reveal His face to the world, שמע ישראל ה’ א-לקינו ה’ אחד – Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

Only later was it discovered that this was a story written by an Israeli author, Tzvi Kolitz. Nevertheless, what this story had to say was deemed so important by the French Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas that after he read it, he said: “I have read something that is both beautiful and true; true in a way that only a story can be”. Levinas saw in this story an expression of the believer’s coping with the experience of God’s absence.

Levinas even found a midrash which seemingly captured the religious angst, exhibited in this story:

Who is like You among the gods? – is interpreted to mean: Who is like you among those who are unable to speak – who hears of your children’s humiliation but remains silent. (Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Masechta d’Shira 8)

Levinas, utilized this story to develop a unique theology based on a phrase from this past Shabbat’s parasha – הסתר פנים – God’s hidden face. In the Torah, this phrase means that God hides himself allowing for Israel’s punishment on account of their sins. For moderns, הסתר פנים – God’s absence, has been brought to describe God’s inaction in the face of terrible evil, leading some to assume that God does not exist. Levinas, however, sees in Yosef Rackover’s response to God’s seeming inaction something different. He sees in it a more mature understanding of God, a rejection of what he calls “the God of kindergarten who hands out prizes and metes out punishments, treating people as perpetual children” – “הסתר פנים” is not a temporary condition, according to Levinas, it is the condition of the mature believer. The belief of Yoselle Rackover, is the belief in God where the love of God’s Torah takes precedent even over the love of God. It is a faith in God who is the source of our sense of justice; it is the faith in God who leads us to that which is exalted. It is a faith in God who is absent from those who are wicked.

Let me make clear the two alternative religious pictures being offered here. One vision, usually described as the traditional worldview, has it that human beings act in the world and God metes out reward and punishment for their actions. More broadly stated, there is active interaction between God and human beings in the world.

Levinas holds a different view. He asserts that God is the inspiration behind the good in the world who plays a role in the world through His Torah. The evil that is found in the world is a result of God’s absence from the lives of the wicked. The Torah, according to Levinas, is the source of the divine inspiration for good.

I am not willing to define things as extremely as Levinas. For me, this debate does not play itself out as two different religious worldviews. I do not see Levinas’ position as an explanation of a permanent religious condition. Instead, I understand it as an ongoing struggle within each of us. There are times when I feel God’s presence intimately, when I have a sense of divine interaction – both give and take; and there are other times, when I experience הסתר פנים or Deus Absconditus – God’s hiddenness. How am I to contend with these two radically different religious conditions which might face me at any moment? What do I do when I experience the deafening silence? The answer to both conditions is the life of Torah and the study of its message.

I am frequently stymied at the assumption that there are those who think that these religious dilemmas only appeared in our generation – that no one was bothered by the seeming deafness we sometimes experience in times of trouble.

I thought that I would bring for you an appropriate example for these moments before we recited the Yizkor prayers, before the אלה אזכרה – martyrology where we relive the tragic martyrdom of our sages. I want to examine the role of קדיש יתום – Mourner’s Kaddish in our lives – something apropos to Yizkor.  In particular, I want to look at a single phrase in the Kaddish.

Before I begin, I want to say a word or two on the role of this prayer for mourners. Kaddish originally had nothing to do with mourners. It was only adopted as a prayer for mourners somewhere around the 12th century amongst Ashkenazic Jewry. From there, its recitation by mourners became universal. It should be noted from the outset that there is nothing in it about mourning, death, the afterlife, or the netherworld. It is a doxology, a prayer in the third person, recited largely in Aramaic, proclaiming God’s greatness. It is not a prayer of intimacy. It is more of a declaration and in reciting it as a mourner; one is declaring God’s greatness at the moment when one’s faith is being tested, at a point of weakness – at a moment of great vulnerability. It is recited at a moment of crisis in faith from which none of us are exempt. It represent moments in our lives when God’s face is seemingly hidden, where we might feel closed off from the mercy of His reach.

The key refrain in this prayer is מבורך לעולם ולעמי עלמיא  יהי שמיה רבה – May His great name be blessed for ever and ever. This phrase, which everyone recites, is the crux of the Kaddish. What is its religious significance? The Talmud relates a story (Berachot 3a):

“It has been taught: R. Jose says, I was once travelling on the road, and I entered into one of the ruins of Jerusalem in order to pray. Elijah of blessed memory appeared and waited for me at the door until I finished my prayer…  He [further] said to me: My son, what sound did you hear in this ruin? I replied: I heard a divine voice, cooing like a dove, and saying: Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world! And Elijah said to me: By your life and by your head! Not just once but three times a day the Heavenly Voice exclaims thus! And more than that, whenever the Israelites go into their synagogues and their batei midrash and respond: ‘May His great name be blessed!’ the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says: Happy is the king who is praised in this house, namely the Temple! Woe to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father!”
God, in this story, is sorely missing the recitation of this praise in His Temple. Nothing, כביכול as it were, made Him happier. Israel’s tragedy also left God bereft. Why was God so impressed by the recitation of “יהא שמיה רבה”?

There seems to have been a big debate in the Middle Ages over the significance of this phrase, remnants of which we find in the Tosafot. Did this prayer affect God? Did it have cosmic power or was it simply praise to God? One school of thought, the Mahzor Vitry, apparently under the influence of the strong desire for redemption caused by the Crusades, maintained that by reciting this phrase, God’s name was made whole and was established both in this world and the world to come. [In other words, praying this phrase made a cosmic change. God’s name was established both in the Heavens and on Earth.] The Tosafot, on the other hand, rejected this claim and argued instead that reciting this prayer was a normative human outpouring of praise for God, a proclamation that God’s name is both great and praised.

Notice here the two very different religious responses, one mystical and one rational. One sees in prayer something which can have tremendous affect and the other sees it as a means of praising our Creator. One approaches a God with whom there is interaction and the other, God who is removed.

This debate continued over another issue. Why is Kaddish recited in Aramaic and not in Hebrew? According to the first school, the reason was so that the angels on high won’t get involved in the situation and wreak havoc on High disrupting God’s rule, since as we all know, angels understand Hebrew but do not understand Aramaic. The second school’s explanation of why Kaddish is in Aramaic is much more prosaic – the reason the Kaddish is in Aramaic was that that was the language that people spoke at the time.

This debate was also carried out on another level – one we are more familiar with. Why say Mourners Kaddish, in the first place – well, because there is a tradition that even the most wicked person spends only twelve months in the netherworld. Kaddish, recited by one’s child rescues the decease from the travails of the nether world. This explanation falls into the category that Levinas rejects. But one did not need to wait for Levinas; his point of view was already expressed in the twelfth century where one authority explained that the reason for reciting Kaddish or performing mitzvot was that the proper behavior was a meritorious way of honoring the deceased. Incidentally, the whole reason for the establishment of Yizkor was that meritorious behavior, that is to say, the observance of the commandments honors the dead.

This discussion brings us full circle. Which is it? Is our faith in God founded in our intimate interaction with the Divine, through our performance of God will? Do we have an actual affect? And how do I contend with the silence of God when I do not feel God’s presence?

I think that the answer is the same on both counts. In times of intimacy with God, carrying out the ways of Torah will enhance that intimacy. The Torah serves as our conduit to impact God and be impacted in return. One can feel the flow through our service to God.

Yet, there will also be times in our lives when that intimacy is lost, where we will be overcome by darkness, where we lose our moorings, where chaos overcomes order. It is in these circumstances where the Torah will serve for us to reestablish our bearings, to affirm God’s presence by making it felt in the world through our deeds, where routine helps to overcome the chaos. Here, too, God will be found – As Yoselle Rackover put it: through loving God’s Torah even more than loving God.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
Related Topics
Related Posts