David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 31

Does the traditional recitation of kaddish do honor to the non-believer?

I don’t see why not, but there are those for whom this is a sticking point. Writer and poet Aurora Levins Morales was uncomfortable with the notion of reciting the traditional kaddish for her atheist father; she instead wrote a personal version of it to honor him (from her website):

My father… was an atheist, and I couldn’t bring myself to say a traditional kaddish for him, but he did believe in forces greater than himself, and I decided to write my own kaddish celebrating his faith in their endurance and hopefulness.

Rabbi Marjorie Berman faced a similar conundrum when her anti-religious mother passed away, and while she didn’t rewrite the kaddish itself, she took a non-traditional approach to its recitation (from ‘Ritual Well’ blog):

It didn’t feel right to join a daily minyan … my mother was anti-religious. I decided the best way to remember her was to take a daily morning walk with a friend and say kaddish by the water in a beautiful and wild park…

At first, I too was struck by the incongruity of honoring my father this way.

He was an atheist… He had not recited kaddish for his father or mother because it wasn’t something that held meaning for him, and I don’t think he would particularly want me to recite it for him.

– Me, Blog #1

Nevertheless, I happen to be inclined towards tradition (partially for lack of imagination). This sentiment resonates:

The kaddish is my good fortune. It looks after the externalities, and so it saves me from the task of improvising the rituals of my bereavement, which is a lot to ask.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 39

My father may not have held a traditional belief in God, and he may not have been religiously oriented, but he held the Jewish heritage in high regard (blog # 10). He would have wanted to be buried according to Orthodox customs, just as he was; he would have respected my decision to recite the mourner’s kaddish for him in a traditional way.

Those of us who opt for the traditional approach are no less empowered to personalize our kaddish experiences. Jewish educator Nili Isenberg put the words of kaddish to the tune of Adele’s song ‘Hello’ (see the video above) while reciting kaddish for her father; artist Max Miller made a painting of every synagogue in which he recited kaddish (maxmillerstudio.com) in his father’s memory; and I have my blog.

Reflecting upon this now, I realize that my father’s religious beliefs and practices have only barely and almost imperceptibly shaped the contours my kaddish journey. This series should more aptly be called ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for his loving father’.

* * *

I happen to be inclined towards tradition.

Most of Jewish mourning practice is custom, rather than halakha. The recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a widely held custom, not unlike reciting Psalms at the unveiling of the tombstone, usually including segments of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 is unique among the Psalms in its length, for it contains eight verses corresponding to each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet – a total of 176 verses. In the Talmud, Tractate Brachot 4b, this Psalm is referred to as the eight-faceted Psalm (תמניא אפין), and thematically it describes the Psalmist’s striving to live according to the Torah of God. Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK, 1160–1235) points out that every single verse contains one of eleven words that refer to Torah:

בכל פסוק ופסוק יש בו 1) דרך, או 2) תורה, או 3) עדות, או 4) פקודים, או 5) מצוה, או 6) אמירה, או 7) דבור, או 8) משפט, או 9) צדק, או 10) אמונה, או 11) חוקים, ואלא המילות הם חלקי כל התורה Every single verse contains [one of the following]: 1) derekh, or 2) Torah, or 3) eidot, or 4) pekudim, or 5) mitzvah, or 6) amirah, or 7) dibur, or 8) mishpat, or 9) tzedek, or 10) emunah, or 11) hukim, and these are the words that [together] are [all] the parts of the entire Torah.

 

Stop.
I’m getting carried away already.
(texts do that to me)

Why am I doing this?

* * *

Before delving further, I must articulate a truth: I have never found the recitation of Psalms meaningful.

Most individual psalms involve the praise of God—for his power and beneficence, for his creation of the world, and for his past acts of deliverance for Israel. The psalms envision a world in which everyone and everything will praise God, and God in turn will hear their prayers and respond.

Wikipedia

I praise God very sparingly and with sincerity only in my own words. I tell God that I doubt His existence more often than I make requests of Him. I find the faith-oriented language of the Psalms unrelatable in both form and content, and I find their rote recitation mindless under the best of circumstances. I am not in possession of simple faith.

In Jewish tradition, however, the Psalms are a big deal. Rabbi Levi Cooper, a former teacher of mine, wrote (Jerusalem Post):

Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman of Buczacz (1771-1840)… cited the Midrash which describes King David as requesting from the Almighty that his Psalms be granted unique status… Psalms should be read and pondered. Moreover, readers of Psalms should receive reward as if they were studying difficult passages of the Oral Law(Midrash Shoher Tov 1:8).

Rabbi Cooper suggests we ponder the Psalms. This, at least, is a step up from mouthing their syllables endlessly, brow furrowed; torso swaying; hands clenching on bus rides.

Psalms will be recited at the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, and I have an opportunity to prepare myself accordingly. I am indeed inclined towards tradition, but disinclined towards ceding my mental and spiritual faculties to its champions. I am skeptical of God’s good nature and concern for His creations, but I am mistrustful too of my narrow, human inclinations.

Some say this is what we do. I say no; this is what we’ve been doing. We’ve been reciting Psalm 119 to honor our loved ones by selecting from it those verses that correspond to their names. My father was א-ל-כ-ס-נ-ד-ר (Alexander), comprised of seven Hebrew letters, each of which is represented by eight verses.

I will turn to our tradition for wisdom; and then I will answer.

* * *

Radak’s 11 keywords for Psalm 119

Before tackling the first eight verses of Psalm 119 that correspond to the letter א (alef*), let’s get back to Radak and the eleven keywords of this particular Psalm. This will be instructive to our learning, as we make our way through the verses.

*A side note:
Alef means to learn/ study/ train/ teach, according to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 104a; therefore א-ל-פ (a-l-f) is the root of the word אולפן (ulpan), which is an institute or program for the intensive study of Hebrew.

 

Radak explicates each of the eleven terms as follows (translations mine):

Torah means ‘the attribute of the mitzvah, [which focuses on] how it is performed’. Derekh means ‘the improvement of [your] character traits’. Hukim are ‘the mitzvot whose reason[s] have not been revealed’. Mitzvot are ‘those of which it is [explicitly] stated [in the Torah] that these are commandments’. Mishpatim are ‘the laws between man and his fellow [man]’. Eidot are ‘the mitzvot that [serve as] testimony and memory’ [of the revelation of Torah and God’s supremacy]. Pikudim are ‘the mitzvot instructed by common sense, which are [naturally] stored and archived in man’s heart’. Tzedek is ‘the justification of the mitzvot, for they were uttered in righteousness’. Dibur and Amirah are ‘[the verbal expression] basic to all mitzvot; and dibur and amirah are also reminder[s] of the promise, which God promised’. Emunah is ‘the fulfillment of God’s word[s] at the Creation of the World’.

Precision and systematization are the names of the game.

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

PSALM 119:א (verses 1-8)

א אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי-דָרֶךְ– הַהֹלְכִים, בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה 1 Happy are they that are upright in the derekh; who walk in the Torah of God.
ב אַשְׁרֵי, נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו; בְּכָל-לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ 2 Happy are they that keep His eidot; that seek Him with the whole heart.
ג אַף, לֹא-פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה; בִּדְרָכָיו הָלָכוּ 3 Yea, they do no unrighteousness; they walk in His drakhim (plural).
ד אַתָּה, צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ– לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד 4 Thou hast ordained Thy pikudim that we should observe them diligently.
ה אַחֲלַי, יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי– לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֶּיךָ 5 My wishes are that my drakhim (plural) were directed to observe Thy hukim!
ו אָז לֹא-אֵבוֹשׁ– בְּהַבִּיטִי, אֶל-כָּל-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ 6 Then I shall not be ashamed, when I have regard unto all Thy mitzvot.
ז אוֹדְךָ, בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב– בְּלָמְדִי, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 7 I will give thanks unto Thee with uprightness of heart, when I learn Thy misphatei tzedek.
ח אֶת-חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר; אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי עַד-מְאֹד 8 I will observe Thy hukim; O forsake me not utterly.

 

It’s a happy coincidence that my father’s name begins with alef. I’ll be jumping around from stanza to stanza, based upon the letters of the name אלכסנדר, but the beginning is a fortuitous place to start – particularly with a Bible chapter of such daunting length. Wikipedia points out that “the grounds for the [Psalm] are established in the first two stanzas (alef and beth): the Torah is held up as a source of blessing and right conduct, and the psalmist pledges to dedicate himself to the law.”

There are three aspects to this first stanza that draw my thoughts.

The first thing I notice, given the glossary of eleven keywords that Radak provided us, is that the word derekh (or its plural) occurs thrice in this stanza, and the word hukim occurs twice. Verse 5 serves as a transition between the initial emphasis on derekh in verses 1, 3, and 5 to the later use of hukim in verses 5 and 8.

The first two occurrences of derekh are references to ‘ways of God’, whereas the third instance (verse 5) refers to the psalmist’s own human ways. These ‘ways of man’ are explicitly portrayed as lacking natural relationship to hukim (in the same verse), which are those Divine commandments that confound all human reason.

My second realization is that there exists another shift between verses 3 and 4, in the manner of how the psalmist is referring to God. In the first three verses, God is referred to in the third person, but verses 4-8 appeal to Him personally. This transition precedes the transition between derekh and hukim by just one verse.

It is as though the human can only bring himself to truly accept the incomprehensible hukim by way of personal relationship with God. Still, in verse 8 the psalmist promises to abide by the hukim regardless, in hope that he will not be forsaken.

Thirdly, the word אֵבוֹשׁ (I will be ashamed) in verse 6 immediately recalls for me the thirteenth benediction of the Amidah’s (the core of the prayer service’s) nineteen benedictions, which we recite thrice daily. That benediction, which refers to the righteous among us, reminds me of my Papa (blog #28), as I have written.

The Amidah requests that God ‘cast our lot with the righteous ones, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You’, whereas in Psalm 119 the author puts the burden upon his own shoulders: man will only cease to be ashamed once he has directed his ‘human ways’ to observe God’s impenetrable demands.

The relationship between shame and faith in God is not clear to me. Are we to be ashamed for doubting God or for something else? And how would devotion to God assuage our human shame? If a person of true faith were to sin, wouldn’t his shame be all the greater for his faith? And isn’t the pious man with no shame potentially a great danger?

Papa was righteous and pure of heart without having drawn inspiration from the Book of Psalms, and his personal ‘way’ was to be repelled by lack of reason. I am proudest of my parents for their authentic decency, and -even more so- for their integrity.

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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