The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 11

We must discuss the purpose of kaddish. What is it, exactly, that I’m doing this year? (Depends on whom you ask.) This is a major, running theme of Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish. He writes (pp. 40-41):

A story about Rabbi Akiva introduces the mourner’s kaddish and announces that its function is the redemption of the dead. The story is told robustly in the Maḥzor Vitry, a liturgical, legal, and exegetical compendium… It records the practices and opinions of the Jewish community in the age of Rashi in the eleventh century…

The myth goes that Rabbi Akiva taught an orphan Torah so that he could “stand before the congregation and recite [the prayer] ‘Bless the Lord who is blessed!’ … and… say ‘May the Great Name be blessed!’ [a sentence from the kaddish]” thereby releasing his deceased father’s soul from its eternal punishment. Most traditional kaddish literature refers back to this story.

This is unrelatable. My father was an incredibly kind and unassuming man, and the person he most hurt was himself. I am certain that my father punished himself more than enough during his lifetime. Even a vindictive God would be satisfied.

Wieseltier shares my sentiment (p. 134):

I am thinking that there is a nasty quality to the legend of Rabbi Akiva and the condemned man. It is premised on the turpitude of the parent… The obligation of kaddish lasts eleven months and not twelve months precisely because the rabbis chose to dissociate the deceased from the rabbinical pronouncement that the wicked receive their punishment in the twelve months after they die.

The author then presents a more optimistic interpretation (pp. 134-5):

My objection to kaddish, my feeling that it insults my father as much as it honors him, had been anticipated by none other than Isaac Luria, the mystical master of the sixteenth century… The kaddish is not only a recourse for the wicked… it also raises the righteous [soul] from level to level…

This version is kinder; it’s… quaint. I believe none of this, but at least Rabbi Luria allows for the possibility of a righteous soul. Not all are doomed to suffer. Let’s shelve my skepticism for the moment. Very well, then. Why, dear Heritage, should God heed my petition for my father in the first place?

After a hefty book’s worth of research findings and commentary, Wieseltier arrives at an answer that works for him. It’s neither the son’s biological nor supernatural connection to his father, as various texts suggest. In a series of responsa by Rabbi Benjamin Zev (early 16th century) regarding the mourner’s kaddish we find the following in the name of an unknown rabbi named Ovadiah (pp 419-420):

This kaddish is not a prayer that the son prays for his father, that God should raise him up from the lower depths. It is, rather, and ascription of merit to the father, that the father fulfilled his duty, in that one of his descendants will sanctify the great and exalted and awesome God before the congregation… The son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…

He taught me to be here, and here I am.

But he didn’t, did he? My father, I mean.

My father, following the rabbi’s instructions before my bar mitzvah, purchased the cheapest, smallest set of tefilin for me that we could find. He meant no disrespect to tradition, but he neither had use for prayer nor for phylacteries and didn’t think that I would either. I didn’t mind at all; the rabbi had shown me how to wrap them, but further commentary had been lacking. “This is what boys wear after their bar mitzvahs,” he said. In my bewilderment, I didn’t know what to ask, and my father’s indifference dampened my curiosity.

Prayer was not a part of my father’s life. He’d never known it as a child in the Soviet Union, and he did not seek to connect with it. He may have known of kaddish, but Jewish liturgy was of bygone eras. The spiritual yearnings of ancient rabbis held no inherent meaning to my father that I could discern, other than as archaic remnants of Jewish history.

So what can I do with this text? Wieseltier is right that it’s the most plausible and potentially relatable understanding of kaddish that our tradition has to offer. Regrettably, its insight bears no resemblance to my reality.

He did not teach me to be here, yet here I am.

* * *

My sense of alienation from the texts only increases upon encountering a responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s on mourner’s kaddish. Let’s set the stage:

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was regarded by many as the preeminent halakhic authority in North America in the twentieth century. He was haredi, but his brilliance and compassion were admired even throughout the Modern Orthodox and dati leumi communities, as this eulogy by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015, a renowned, leading posek) demonstrates:

[Rabbi Feinstein’s] remarkable boldness flowed, on the one hand, from the depth of his knowledge, and on the other hand, from his profound compassion.

R. Moshe managed to build, within the halakhic world, an edifice of compassion, a torat chesed, that is manifest every step of the way.

In the book Kaddish, the author transcribes Rabbi Feinstein’s responsum (Page 344):

“When the son knows that [his parents]… were violators of the Sabbath – even if it was for the sake of their livelihood and not for any other end – he should say kaddish for the full twelve months. And all the more should he say kaddish for the full twelve months if they were violators of the Sabbath for other reasons, even just for the sake of appetite.”

To be clear, Rabbi Feinstein is not making reference to heretics in this particular ruling; he is describing ordinary people. (If one’s parent is a heretic, he writes, “it is not appropriate to require the son to say kaddish for him…”) In other words, this paragon of compassionate(!) Judaism is consigning my father’s soul to a full year of torment for not being a Sabbath observer. (The wicked, remember, are punished in hell for twelve months.)

I am floored by the tone deafness of this text. Rabbi Feinstein was writing in America in the twentieth century! Must it be said that not observing Shabbat in the modern world is a perfectly reasonable and natural choice? That Sabbath observance has nothing to do with the quality of one’s character? Must it be said that my father’s Jewish identity continues to inspire and challenge his son, even now in his absence? That I am left desperately grasping at the wisps of my father’s pure, innate connection to the holy Land of Israel and our proud, ancient ancestry? Must it? Must it?

He taught me to be here, and here I am.

* * *

My combativeness is getting the better of me (and I’m letting it), but I well know that modern, inclusive perspectives exist with Orthodoxy. Rabbi Martin I. Lockshin has served me as a gentle voice of reason and empathy these last months, and unsurprisingly I find an interpretation in his chapter of the book Kaddish that may do honor to my father (pp. 349-50):

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg… teaches that our primary task here on earth is, as the Aleinu prayer puts it, l’takkein olam b’malkhut shaddai—to perfect the world and make it more godly, to bring God’s sovereignty into effect here on earth. Whenever a Jew dies, in addition to all the personal sadness of the survivors, the community is also sad that the deceased did not succeed in that task. The world unfortunately is still unperfected and God’s sovereignty has not yet been established. When a son or daughter of the deceased recites Kaddish and expresses the hope to the congregation that God will establish God’s kingdom in our world “in your lifetime and in your days” (v’yamlikh malkhuteih b’ḥayeikhon u-v’yomeikhon), the community can feel some consolation. The deceased may not have established God’s sovereignty here on earth, but he or she has left behind a child who still strives to achieve that goal.

For this hopeful vision, I may (perhaps) leave my skepticism on the shelf this year, but I am not assuaged entirely. I know of Rabbi Greenberg; I’ve heard him speak; I’ve spoken with him. Dishearteningly, this brilliant rabbi’s enlightened theology is rejected by the vast majority of Orthodox scholars and rabbis (he has suggested, for example, that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was broken by the Holocaust). My pontoon bobs and floats upon such plausible beliefs, but it is buffeted by the unforgiving winds and waves of generations.

Until not so long ago, my father would strain to see me from the comfort of the shore, wondering why one would venture out into this storm in the first place.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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