The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 12

Angels don’t speak Aramaic.

What, you didn’t know? This is a popular idea in the kaddish literature; there are differing explanations as to why we don’t want the angels to understand the kaddish of humankind. Here’s a particularly juicy morsel from the illustrious Rashi’s (1040-1105) Book of the Orchard (ספר הפרדס), as transcribed by Leon Wieseltier in his book Kaddish (p. 430):

‘Magnified and sanctified.’ But how may a mortal magnify and make greater the Name of the Holy One? As if, heaven forbid, it were lacking! But it is lacking… We pray… that He… sanctify His Name to make it whole…

The kaddish’s opening words, the author writes, “hope for the healing of God. In this way, they are a confession of divine infirmity – and this information must not fall into the hands of the angels” (p. 431). The Book of the Orchard goes on:

If a man should ask why the kaddish is recited in Aramaic, [the answer is that] it is so that the angels do not sense that the Name of the Holy One is lacking, lest they destroy the world.

Wieseltier explains (p. 431):

They do not wish to share God with men. And it is only the fear of God that deters them… Our Aramaic words prevent them from acquiring the knowledge… that there is a wound in God.

* * *

As I read such texts, my reactions are mixed. These are myths. These are my myths. They are attempts at expression. Values. Ideas. Contradictions. The human condition. Life and death. The unknowable. Fear and comfort. Insecurity. Meaning.

Meaning?

I ponder the axioms underlying Rashi’s commentary:

    1. Humankind is capable of communicating directly and exclusively with a Higher Power, who loves and strives to protect humankind.
    2. There exist terrifying forces in the world, beyond our comprehension and beyond this this Higher Power’s control.
    3. These forces do not perceive the Higher Power’s limitations, but humankind does.
    4. Humankind’s existence is fragile and precarious; the Higher Power remains our only hope.

A thought: Perhaps our recitation of kaddish should serve as a reminder that things could be worse.

* * *

My incredulity at spiteful, uninstructed angels whets my hunger for mundanity, and thankfully the Jewish tradition provides this also. Wieseltier cites Rabbi Isaac Ben Samuel of Dampierre (1100-1174) who describes the situation dispassionately (p. 434):

The kaddish used to be said after teaching and preaching, and there were ignorant people present, and they did not understand the Holy Tongue. Therefore, the rabbis established the kaddish in the language of translation, so that everyone would understand it, for this was their language.

Nothing so dramatic as angels. I’ll take it gladly.

* * *

Aramaic, according to Rabbi Isaac Ben Samuel, was widely understood by the extended Jewish world of yore, but there exist no Aramaic speaking Jewish communities today. What might today’s rabbis have to say?

Last month, I picked up HaMizrachi magazine published by Mizrachi, the global religious Zionist movement. The Tishrei edition’s final article, written by Rabbi Chaim Navon, is titled ‘Why is the Kaddish in Aramaic?’ He opines that it would be a “problem” to translate the Aramaic kaddish into Hebrew, even as he admits that it is incomprehensible:

Our incomprehensible Aramaic Kaddish wrenches hearts far more than the perfectly understood Yishtabach [prayer]. Non-religious mourners throng to shuls to say the Kaddish for their parents… Kaddish is drenched with the tears of a hundred generations. Perhaps it is halachically permitted to translate it into Hebrew; but so what?

As I wrote two months ago:

I don’t really care what the kaddish means… Experientially, at its best, [the kaddish is] an expression of emotions that I can’t articulate… Not everything can be expressed with language. Not everything needs to be.

No lofty theology or angelology this, only the human experience. Limpidity birthed the kaddish, yet incomprehensibility sustains it. Its externalities remain the same, but our expectations of it have shifted.

* * *

An anecdote.

I was at the bank yesterday, and the teller was frustrated that I hadn’t received a confirmation e-mail from her on my cellphone. “It’s not a ‘kosher phone,’ is it?” she asked. (A kosher phone can only make and receive voice calls. They’ve been an ultra-Orthodox staple since 2012, when the Satmar Rebbe declared smartphones verboten.) “No,” I laughed heartily, “it definitely isn’t.”

The secular teller had made an assumption about me, based upon my large yarmulke and beard. She thought I might be the religious sort who would deliberately avoid the excesses and “sins” of secular society.

Do mind the externalities.

* * *

A parallel.

Why was electricity prohibited on Shabbat? Is it the same reason that some Jews refrain from using electricity on Shabbat today? Is it the same reason I refrain? Wikipedia: “Orthodox authorities of Jewish law have disagreed about the basis of this prohibition since the early 20th century.” This is true.

A popular idea is that creating an electric spark is like lighting a fire, which is halakhically prohibited on Shabbat. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis who asked him, “Is electricity fire?” The renowned physicist responded that electricity is not a chemical process, as fire is. (This story is quite entertaining. My father had many of Feynman’s books; but now I will never know if he was familiar with this particular episode.)

Rabbis have proposed various halakhic categorizations of the prohibition against electricity on Shabbat, which I can’t do justice to in this composition (again, Wikipedia is quite the resource), but would you like the truth? The truth is that I am not motivated by halakhic considerations.

1) In today’s hyperconnected reality, it is a relief to disconnect from the world and be exclusively present with my family for a full day every week. 2) Shabbat is not simply a day of rest for the individual Jew; it is a day of rest for the Jewish people. As such, there exist communal norms, which I accept in order that my family belong. 3) My countercultural lifestyle grounds me and does honor to my forebears; it’s not by chance that my last name means “He Who Prays to God.” (My father’s last name.)

My motivations and considerations are not anomalous, and today’s rabbis know it.

If you were to see me in my prayer shawl and phylacteries at the synagogue on any given morning, you would naturally make assumptions, but do mind the externalities.

* * *

My father, far more than most, innately understood this. It was he who gave me permission to attend Shabbat services during my first semester of college.

“I want to make Jewish friends,” I wrote, “but there aren’t many here, and the few who are involved all go to services on Friday night at the Hillel. I don’t know most of the prayers, and I don’t believe in what they’re saying. It feels hypocritical to go through the motions just because I want to meet people.”

“Boy,” he wrote, “If you’re not disrupting anyone else, it’s fine to attend for your own reasons.”

… He called me “Boy.”

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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