The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 17

My father’s funeral was conducted by a very special rabbi. He gave my father the kind of burial that he would have wanted; a traditional, Orthodox ceremony. He made arrangements for a burial plot in a Jewish cemetery, despite my parents no longer being affiliated with any house of worship and not having purchased plots in advance.

Two decades ago, this same rabbi welcomed me into his community when I came home from college, stumbling through the prayers and Shabbat observances at his shul. When my younger brother was born, it was this same kind rabbi who recommended a mohel to my parents and came to the brit milah ceremony along with other members of his congregation.

He embraced me, he embraced my parents, and he accepted us as we were. There was no other rabbi I would have wanted to conduct my father’s funeral, and he provided our family with support and comfort at our darkest hour, even going so far as to visit us during the shiva more than once. I hadn’t seen him in many, many years, but I had never, ever forgotten him.

* * *

At the shiva, the rabbi listened to our stories of papa compassionately and shared his wisdom; he asked about our lives in his gentle, dignified way. I know his presence was a comfort to my mother in particular, which moved me greatly.

Of course, eschatological questions inevitably arose, and the rabbi answered these as best he could. The concepts were familiar to me, but now, with my father unexpectedly gone forever, I found neither certainty nor solace in religious imagery…

* * *

A week ago on Shabbat, reading in shul as I am wont to do, I unexpectedly came upon a text penned by the renowned existentialist Prof. Martin Buber (1878-1965) of ‘I-Thou’ fame. Apparently, just several months before his death, he published A Believing Humanism, which includes in it an essay on death that he wrote in 1928. Buber wrote (p. 27):

We know nothing of death, nothing other than the one fact that we shall die – but what is that, dying? We do not know. So it behooves us to accept that it is the end of everything conceivable by us. To wish to extend our conception beyond death, to wish to anticipate in the soul what death alone can reveal to us in existence, seems to me to be a lack of faith clothed as faith… [*cut*]… Instead of imagining ourselves living instead of dead, we shall prepare ourselves for a real death which is perhaps the final limit of time but which, if that is the case, is surely the threshold of eternity.

Such beautiful, spiritual honesty lifts my soul, but the true preciousness of this quote is actually in the section that I [*cut*] out.

It’s important to understand who Martin Buber was. While denying the obligatory nature of halakha, this famed philosopher emphasized a prophetic form of religion; his relationship with God was profoundly intimate. His philosophy focused on one’s encounter with other beings, ultimately resting on the relation with God. According to Buber, a true relationship with God must be a personal I–Thou relationship, in which God is truly met, not merely thought of. The existence of God, for Buber, was undeniable. Faith was nothing less than his life’s work. Here is the segment that I excised:

The genuine faith speaks: I know nothing of death, but I know that God is eternity, and I know this, too, that he is my God. Whether what we call time remains to us beyond our death becomes quite unimportant to us next to this knowing, that we are God’s – who is not immortal, but eternal.

Without these lines, Buber’s reflection essentially reads like a secular, albeit soulful criticism of eschatology; but it is much more. I believe that Buber was of the purest, most authentic faith.

* * *

Most of what is espoused today (by those who espouse it) regarding Judaism’s views on the soul’s departure from the body is based upon the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah, which, to put it lightly, is not accepted universally. As you can see in the video below, there are some like Rabbi Manis Friedman (1946-) who have no compunction against presenting these ideas as irrefutable Truth, without citing any sources:

One of the more disturbing Kabbalistic ideas (ever so oddly not included in Rabbi Friedman’s talk) is that the Angel of Death or the angel Dumah beats the deceased with a fiery chain immediately after burial. This was described in Rabbi Adolf Jellinek’s (1821-1893) Bet HaMidrash (Volume Ḥibbut haQever 1:150-152).

But, you ask, what is Ḥibbut haQever (חִבּוּט הַקֶּבֶר)? It is: the Kabbalistic notion of “the beating [that one receives] in the grave.”

The DA’AT Institute offers a somewhat more palatable understanding of Ḥibbut haQever, including an exception for those who “have cultivated spiritual awareness” [link]:

Hibbut ha-kever is depicted as a three- to seven-day process of separation of the soul from the physical body. During this time, the disembodied being undergoes a purification process, surrendering attachments to the physical realm. For those beings clinging to physical existence, the process of separation can be excruciatingly painful. The disembodied soul “wanders about the world and beholds the body which was once its home devoured by worms and suffering the judgment of the grave [hibbut ha-kever]” (Zohar II, 141b–142a). However, those beings which have cultivated spiritual awareness leave behind body and material existence less painfully, even effortlessly, ‘like drawing a hair out of milk’ (BT Ber. 8a).

Of course, I check the Talmudic source about “drawing a hair our of milk”, and, thankfully it exists (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 8a):

תשע מאות ושלשה מיני מיתה נבראו בעולם… קשה שבכלן אסכרא ניחא שבכלן נשיקה אסכרא דמיא כחיזרא בגבבא דעמרא דלאחורי נשרא ואיכא דאמרי כפיטורי בפי ושט נשיקה דמיא כמשחל בניתא מחלבא Nine hundred and three types of death were created in this world… The worst of them is the croup, and the easiest of them is the kiss. Croup is like a thorn in a ball of wool pulled out backwards. Some people say: It is like [pulling] a rope through the loop-holes [of a ship]. [Death by a] kiss is like drawing a hair out of milk.

 

I appreciate this acknowledgement that not every soul need suffer:
“The easiest of them is the kiss.”

* * *

As I’m waxing religious here, the Kabbalistic reference above to the Angel Dumah (the angel of silence and of the stillness of death) reminds me of the penultimate verse of Psalm 115, which we read during the festive Hallel prayer service (verse 17):

לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ; וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that descend to [the Angel of] silence

 

This Bible verse is real; refreshingly honest. And, in the spirit of Martin Buber (although he would have phrased it in the first person singular), the Psalm ends as follows (verse 18):

וַאֲנַחְנוּ, נְבָרֵךְ יָהּ– מֵעַתָּה וְעַד-עוֹלָם: הַלְלוּ-יָהּ But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for ever. Hallelujah

 

And isn’t that ostensibly the point of kaddish?

* * *

In closing, I’d like to share the poem “When Sorrow Comes” by Edgar Guest (1881-1959):

When sorrow comes, as come it must,
In God a man must place his trust.
There is no power in mortal speech
The anguish of his soul to reach,
No voice, however sweet and low,
Can comfort him or ease the blow.

He cannot from his fellow men
Take strength that will sustain him then.
With all that kindly hands will do,
And all that love may offer, too,
He must believe throughout the test
That God has willed it for the best.

We who would be his friends are dumb;
Words from our lips but feebly come;
We feel, as we extend our hands,
That one Power only understands
And truly knows the reason why
So beautiful a soul must die.

We realize how helpless then
Are all the gifts of mortal men.
No words which we have power to say
Can take the sting of grief away –
That Power which marks the sparrow’s fall
Must comfort and sustain us all.

When sorrow comes, as come it must,
In God, a man must place his trust.
With all the wealth which he may own,
He cannot meet the test alone,
And only he may stand serene
Who has a faith on which to lean.

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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