The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 25

Beyond purportedly elevating the soul of one’s departed parent to higher metaphysical planes or possibly demonstrating why one’s parent deserves to be granted a good fate (blog #11), the kaddish, according to the Talmud, also affects God Himself. In Tractate Brachot 3a, we read the following:

בשעה שישראל נכנסין לבתי כנסיות ולבתי מדרשות ועונין יהא שמיה הגדול מבורך הקב”ה מנענע ראשו ואומר 1) אשרי המלך שמקלסין אותו בביתו 2) כך מה לו לאב שהגלה את בניו ואוי להם לבנים שגלו מעל שולחן אביהם Whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: ‘May His great name be blessed!’ the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says: 1) ‘Happy is the king who is thus praised in His house!’ 2) ‘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!’

 

Apparently, God reacts to the kaddish. He is both 1) pleased that we honor Him and 2) remorseful at the destruction of our great Temple and our exile. There’s much to be explored in that juxtaposition, but my thoughts are wandering elsewhere.

The Talmud also suggests that those who respond passionately to the recitation of kaddish nullify the Divine decrees against them for the sins they’ve committed (Tractate Shabbat 119b):

אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו שנאמר (שופטים ה) בפרוע פרעות בישראל בהתנדב עם ברכו ה R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up, as it is said, “When retribution was annulled in Israel, For that the people offered themselves willingly, ‘Bless ye the Lord'” (Judges 5:2).

 

The players in the orphan’s kaddish drama are four: 1) the deceased, 2) God, 3) the congregation, and 4) the mourner. So what does kaddish do to the mourner?

On this matter, the texts of Jewish tradition say nothing.

In his chapter of the book Kaddish, Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky reflects (p. 137):

Perhaps distressingly, the Kaddish reciter – the mourner – is the only one for whom the act of reciting Kaddish does not have any intrinsic benefit.

* * *

Rabbi Olitzky offers a response to the challenge he poses, but I am left dissatisfied (ibid.):

The simple, sublime act of getting lost in a sea of ‘responders’ as one of the few ‘reciters’ yields comfort.

Yes… But.

Rabbi, yours is the view of a Jewish leader invested in and committed to encouraging the perpetuation of the religious heritage that he serves. This may be what I should be experiencing in the ideal when reciting kaddish, but it’s contingent upon too many factors to be universally true: personalities-community-inclination-towards-prayer-comfort-with-tradition-state-of-mind-level-of-exhaustion-penchant-for-the-spiritual-degree-of-Jewish-self-identification-preferred-mode-of-self-expression-etc.-etc., etc.

Personally, I do find comfort in my community but mostly beyond the choreography of our rituals. Mine is in the conversations with friends new and old, in gestures of kindness, in proud, shared heritage, and in the candid embrace of our limitations.

Also, mine is in my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ series. Truth, creativity and introspection are my comforts.

* * *

Ask not what your country tradition can do for you, but what you can do for your country tradition?

When I decided to recite kaddish for my father, I reasoned that this would be my return to shul. I would continue to attend daily services even after my yudaleph chodesh (י״א חודש: blog #24); for the sake of my people, my heritage, my family, my…
Not good enough.

It is this, my blogging project, which truly makes daily shul attendance tolerable. It is the reading, the feeling, the thinking, the learning, the weaving…

Suddenly, I’ve realized: my study and reflection sustain my practice. What shall I do with myself when kaddish has ended? What shall I do with my Judaism?

The question hangs over me:
How shall I continue?

* * *

Suddenly, I’ve realized: I am not okay.

Last week, I almost dropped my Spoken Arabic class at the Polis Institute (my fifth semester). Winter break had ended, and class resumed on Tuesday. That morning, I simply felt that I couldn’t take it. I didn’t want to study Arabic – I wanted to read about kaddish. I wanted to remember my father. I e-mailed my teacher, informing her that I was dropping the course. I did not return to class that Tuesday.

By Thursday, I had received messages of concern from my classmates, and I was moved to return. After all, I reasoned, the semester ends in another two weeks. I can do this.
I can do this.
Withdrawing in unto myself betrays the spirit of kaddish, which must be recited in community.
I can do this.

* * *

Suddenly, I’ve realized: I must only go through this process at my own pace. (Vigilance required!)

I awoke at 6:36 on Friday, after the start of my regular 6:30 minyan at Kehillat Yedidya.
Well, I sighed, at least I can make it to shul for the final kaddishes.
And then the lightning bolt struck: Wait, I don’t have to take anyone to preschool this morning (my wife and daughter just left to visit family in Russia)… I could simply go to a different minyan.
Luxuriously, I got myself dressed, grabbed my tallit and tefilin and walked up the hill to the Shai Agnon synagogue for a 7:00 shacharit. I arrived at shul at 6:58, as the previous minyan was ending.
Does anyone have a ḥiyuv (an obligation to lead the prayer service, often in memory of one’s parents)? asked the gabbai.
Looking around, I noticed only a single hand in the air – my own – and the gabbai gestured to me. Shit, what have I done? I thought to myself,
Shacharit is the longest service.
The gabbai approached me and whispered, This is a slow minyan – please don’t daven quickly.
I laughed.
Oh, don’t worry, I responded, that won’t be a problem.
Reassured, I led the davening at a comfortable pace, and I got through it. I can do this.
I can do this.

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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