The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 30

Last week, I laminated a copy of my parents’ wedding invitation, which I found in my Babushka’s apartment (my mother’s mother) after she passed away in late September. She was gathered unto her ancestors less than three months after my Papa (Blog #8). A day or so later, it happened that my aunt gave me my Dedushka’s (my mother’s father) scarf, which he used to wear. She wanted somebody in the family to have it.

I wonder at myself and at all of us. All this seems futile; what do we actually achieve by any of it? It reminds me of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s (1907-1972) description of the human condition from The Insecurity of Freedom (p. 257):

We are all very poor, very naked, and rather absurd in our misery and in our success. We are constantly dying alive. From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment.

Given this, Rabbi Heschel comes immediately to his point:

There is only one bridge over the abyss of despair: prayer.

Really? I wonder at this also. The orphan’s kaddish has brought me back to the synagogue, and I have indeed been working at prayer, but my ‘bridges’ are, at best, under construction. My most lucid prayer moments inevitably find me teetering on rickety, jutting platforms over Heschel’s ‘abyss’, scrambling to return unto myself.

* * *

I’ve been reciting kaddish for seven months (7 / 11 ≈ 64%) and blogging about it for six, but my mind continues turning to the most fundamental of questions.

A friend asked why I am saying kaddish. A good question. These were my answers. Because it is my duty to my father. Because it is my duty to my religion. (These are the strong reasons; the nonutilitarian, nontherapeutic reasons.) Because it would be harder for me not to say kaddish. (I would despise myself.) Because the fulfillment of my duty leaves my thoughts about my father unimpeded by regret and undistorted by guilt. On the subject of fathers and sons, my chore may keep me clear.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 25-26

Yes, Mr. Wieseltier. I relate to your answers, but there are at least two more components to my own experience, which I find even truer when it comes to my kaddish blog series. Indeed, I wonder if you felt similarly when you were conducting research for your tremendous opus. Rabbi Martin Lockshin, whom I believe you know, captures the first of these:

Reciting Kaddish allows mourners to feel that they are doing something difficult, making a sacrifice, in order to honor a parent’s memory.

– Lockshin, Kaddish, p. 345

Writing these blog posts is challenging: intellectually… emotionally… spiritually; this project is hard on me. Waking up early every morning for kaddish is truly a challenge, but nothing like plumbing my soul and memories, nothing like my public quest for meaning. I am striving to create something special that my father would have been proud of; something that I can be proud of.

This brings me to a second motivation, which poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980) tenderly breathed into graceful language in his poem ‘Words in the Mourning Time,’ found in his Collected Poems (p. 90):

I grieve yet know the vanity of grief.

This quote should be the epigraph for The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist. Simply put, I wouldn’t be writing if noone was reading; and that is okay. I write for myself, for my father, for my mother, for my brother, for my daughter, for all of our family, for all who loved my father, for all whom he loved, and for anybody else who may be moved or changed by these words. I do believe I have something to share with you.

Vanity can mean:

    1. Pride;

* * *

    1. Futility

Heschel battled the futility of the human condition with his own mighty faith and prayers, but he also recognized the modern Jew’s detachment from tradition. He writes (Insecurity, pp. 214-215):

The daily observances of countless rituals [have] ceased to convey any meaning; they [have] ceased to hold any answer to the countless problems of the individual soul, just as the ancient teachings seemed to be totally unrelated to the modern situation… We cannot come to the Jews and merely say, ‘Continue!’ The wells that our fathers had digged have been stopped. We have to bore new wells.

This encapsulates my kaddish project this year: I am boring a well of meaning for myself herein, the drill of cutting language. I am, as Heschel writes so eloquently, trying to take responsibility for [my] Judaism (Insecurity, p. 191):

Every individual is a pillar on which the future of Judaism rests. There is no vicarious Judaism: no institution can discharge the responsibilities of the individual. Tradition is not the monopoly of an elite. Each Jew is obliged to say: ‘Into my hands has been given the future of the entire people.’

And in Heschel’s own words, I find my answer to his challenge. I know how to construct a ‘bridge over the abyss of despair’. We, each of us, are its pillars.

True, as Heschel writes, “From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment,” but this is only from the perspective of the individual. The Jewish nation (or humanity for that matter) has lived through many moments and will live through many more.

* * *

Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there’s not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago.

Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts

I recently had an insight.
Another way of thinking
about death
if you will.

 

We are all cells in the organism of the Jewish nation (or humanity for that matter), and every single cell will come to be replaced. Together,
we are Judaism.
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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