Metaphysical Denial vs. Cathartic Confrontation

Even the Rabbis sometimes stumbled onto that famous road to hell, the one paved with good intentions.

Trying hard to console the mourner, the Rabbis anthropomorphized the dead, convincing the bereaved that their loved ones continue to metaphysically live on even after they die.

Kibbud av ve’eim (honoring one’s parents) is one of the places where the rabbinic idea of posthumous life plays itself out. מכבדו במותו, they say. One is obligated to honor their parents after they passed on as if they were still alive.

Their intention is no doubt honorable. Nevertheless, internalizing this notion too strongly can inadvertently turn into a cruel joke.

Typically, I would honor my dad on a day like today, when I am returning to NY after being away at a conference for a while. As soon as the conference ended, I would instinctively rush to be mechabed him by sharing with him my experiences.

Reporting about the event was filial heaven, extremely gratifying to both of us. He kvelled despite the vast theological golf between us, while I was happy to give him nachat, payback for the love and kindness he showered us with all those years.

Totty and I lovingly bickered over my presentation (he would, obviously, disagree with many of my arguments), cynically kibbitzed about the participants, and mischievously kvetched about the other presentations. It was sheer bliss. His infectious parental smile shined through the phone receiver, our spatial distance notwithstanding.

Today was no different. Having internalized the rabbinic notion of posthumous living, I ignored the fact that he has been gone for close to three months and rushed to share with him my experience at the London Limmud conference I just attended.

As I left the hotel, I took out my phone and excitedly pressed auto-dial, hoping to hear his soothing voice on the other end of the line. He did not respond. Instead I got his pixilated voicemail. After a momentary pause it hit me: My dad is NOT alive, he is truly dead, his tender voice survived by a robotic imitation. The Rabbis overreached!

Turns out that in the 21st. century, humans die permanently, while their pixilated voice, which in reality was never alive, paradoxically, goes on living for eternity.

Kaddish it seems then is the only consolation during such moments. While the Rabbis counsel metaphysical denial, the liturgist prescribes cathartic confrontation. Kaddish offers the mourner a space to express their theological agony about the unfairness of a painful and premature death.

יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא , we say. Ignoring authorial intent, I personally experience it as liturgical reproof of God, a backhanded critique of the indecency of it all. G-d, You profaned the world with this senseless death, make it holy again!

Surprisingly, the power of the words does not diminish over time. The repetitive recital, in fact, allows the mourner to constantly grapple with the tragedy of their loss, spending close to a year defiantly dialoguing with a Creator who let you down.

The words are powerful enough to retain their potency beyond the twelve months of mourning. It is mental candy. The words are beautiful, the phrases bittersweet. You meditate on it for a few minutes and suddenly the words start melting in your brain, filling your head with spiritual sensuousness. The color and aroma staying with you long after you are done.

Ultimately, the kaddish stands in stark contrast to my failed attempt to dialogue with dad. While there was no one at the receiving end of my father’s phone, kaddish always reaches its intended destination.

Divine immanence makes Him an inescapable part of His subject’s joy and parcel of their ire. Their anger upsets Him. Their pain hurts Him.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Senior Rabbi of PHS, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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