David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 39

Photograph by Alexander Bogomolny z"l, posted April 5, 2013. Original caption: 'Squirrels are actually very kind to each other and will adopt abandoned baby squirrels if they notice a relative has not come back for them.'
Photograph by Alexander Bogomolny z"l, posted April 5, 2013. Original caption: 'Squirrels are actually very kind to each other and will adopt abandoned baby squirrels if they notice a relative has not come back for them.'

My reading of Jewish texts on Jewish eschatology and death rituals has been fairly wide-ranging, and it continues to expand. (My copy of the just-published book Kaddish.com will be in my hands this week!) Since my father’s death last summer, I’ve filled my bookshelf with more books than I have had the time to finish, but I will still be exploring them for years to come.

It’s also refreshing and broadening to go beyond Jewish sources. My friend Sagi has lent me a book titled Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, which provides a humorous survey of philosophical approaches to death, intended as a light read on a heavy subject. Towards the beginning of the book, the authors introduce us to Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book: The Denial of Death.

Becker posits that we humans delude ourselves into thinking that we are not going to die by constructing “immortality systems”, which are “nonrational belief structures that give us a way to believe we’re immortal” (‘Heidegger’ p. 15-17):

There’s the ever-popular strategy of identifying ourselves with a tribe, race, or nation that lives on into the indefinite future, with us somehow a part of it. Then there’s the immortality-through-art system, in which the artist foresees… herself immortalized…

Then there are the top-of-the-market immortality systems enshrined in the world’s religions, ranging from living on as part of the cosmic energy in the East to sailing off to be with Jesus in the West. At a less lofty level, there is the immortality-through-wealth system…

Virtually every civilization has evolved a shared immortality system. In fact, these systems are the basic function of a culture. Without them, we’d all go wacko with death-angst and we wouldn’t be able to keep our civilization humming along… Denial of death is civilization’s survival strategy!

I see the truth of these very human mechanisms coming through in my own thinking:

[By reciting the mourner’s kaddish on behalf of his father,] the son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 420 (blog #11)

I wear my father’s cap; his yarmulke; his watch; his house shoes, but I wish that he were wearing them instead.

– Me, blog #15

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… every single cell will come to be replaced.

– Me, blog #30

It does not escape me that I am engaged in creation myself. These words, in honor of my Papa, will outlast me. The words of humankind, created in God’s image, beget memory and shape reality.

– Me, blog #33

When it comes right down to it, I couldn’t imagine my father dying (blog #19) any more than I can imagine my own end; and not a day goes by that I don’t still expect him to be updating his mathematics website or uploading new wildlife photographs to Facebook.

* * *

I sit here in my chair, some nine months after Papa died, plugging away at my keyboard, contemplating my family’s heritage and posterity, struggling to wrap my mind around his non-existence, but. There’s a degree of dissociation that goes into my writing.

On one hand, it’s therapeutic – my most intimate thoughts find their purchase in published language, freeing my mind to get through the days along with the rest of me. On the other, this is an original story I’m writing. By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

Besides: we read blogs every day. The truest form of anonymity rests perhaps in our public identities. You see a face, a name, some strings of words, a person whom you don’t know writing about the death of a father you never met. Oh, he writes so well; it’s so moving; so sad; so terrible.

Most likely: you don’t know me; these posts on David Bogomolny’s devastating loss are hypothetical to you. (We are but extras or bit characters in the lives of all but our dearest loved ones.)

Or maybe: you know me somewhat but dissociate your heart and mind from my gaping, bottomless wound. It’s simply too terrifying to go there.

I relate to your immortality systems. When I read through my own ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ blog posts, much of what I’ve written to date feels unreal to me.

The shared human experience of grief is that which is truly immortal, not its messenger.

* * *

I won’t lie. I’m quite ready to be done with these stanzas, but I can’t stomach the alternative: Show up at Papa’s grave and recite a series of unrelatable biblical passages on faith? What for? How utterly hollow to me and to Papa.

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PSALM 119:מ (verses 97-104)

[CLICK for glossary]

צז מָה-אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ: כָּל-הַיּוֹם, הִיא שִׂיחָתִי 97 O how I love Thy Torah! It is my conversation all the day.
צח מֵאֹיְבַי, תְּחַכְּמֵנִי מִצְוֺתֶךָ: כִּי לְעוֹלָם הִיא-לִי 98 From [my encounter with] my enemies, Thy mitzvot make me smarter: for it is ever with me.
צט מִכָּל-מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי: כִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ, שִׂיחָה לִי 99 From all my teachers I grew wise; for Thy eidot are my conversation.
ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.
קא מִכָּל-אֹרַח רָע, כָּלִאתִי רַגְלָי– לְמַעַן, אֶשְׁמֹר דְּבָרֶךָ 101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, in order that I might observe Thy dvar.
קב מִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לֹא-סָרְתִּי: כִּי-אַתָּה, הוֹרֵתָנִי 102 I have not turned aside from Thine mishpatim for Thou hast instructed me.
קג מַה-נִּמְלְצוּ לְחִכִּי, אִמְרָתֶךָ— מִדְּבַשׁ לְפִי 103 How sweet is Thy imrah unto my palate! more than honey to my mouth!
קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

 

I won’t bother splitting the verses above into two separate semi-stanzas, but it’s clear that stanza מ (mem) is organized much like most other stanzas of Psalm 119. The 1st semi-stanza of 4 verses (97-100) ends with the keyword pikudim and the word אֶתְבּוֹנָן (I gain understanding); so too does the 2nd semi-stanza (101-104).

Whereas the 1st semi-stanza repeats the word שִׂיחָה (conversation) twice and emphasizes learning that leads to intelligence, wisdom, and understanding, the 2nd semi-stanza twice uses the word אֹרַח (way, style, manner), thereby contrasting the Psalmist’s rejection of [evil & false ways] with his dedication to [God’s word & edicts].

Actually, the theme of verbal expression snakes through both semi-stanzas. The 1st and 3rd verses (97 & 99) of the 1st semi-stanza relate to the Psalmist’s perpetual “conversation” on matters pertaining to God’s instructions to humankind (Torah), as well as to testimonies to His supremacy (eidot). Following this, the 2nd semi-stanza’s 1st and 3rd verses (101 & 103) relate to God’s imrahdvar, which Radak (1160–1235) understands to mean the verbal expression basic to all of God’s commandments.

The 1st half of stanza מ thus focuses on the Psalmist’s speaking God’s Torah; the 2nd half focuses on God’s utterances. Going further still, this distinction between our stanza’s two halves is suggestively underscored in yet another way: the Psalmist’s mouth in the 2nd semi-stanza (verse 103) engages in conversation no longer! It is too busy, rather, savoring the ambrosia of God’s holy imrah.

The contrast between our two semi-stanzas is perhaps most stark at stanza מ’s bookends. The 1st verse (97) uses the language of ‘מָה-אָהַבְתִּי’ (O how I love) in reference to God’s Torah, in juxtaposition to the words of the final verse (104): ‘עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי’ (therefore I hate) in reference to false ways [of living]. The Psalmist’s purposeful choice of language trumpets, “The Torah is the True Way!”

* * *

A nuance intrigues me. Let’s compare the language of verses 100 & 104 (the final verses of our two semi-stanzas), both of which contain ‘pikudim’ and ‘I gain understanding’:

Verse 100 is the capstone to the 1st four verses of our stanza, which focus on the Psalmist’s personal growth through learning and commitment to God’s commandments. The verse’s logic is: commitment to God’s edicts brings the Psalmist to gain understanding from his elders. More precisely:

Keep pikudim >>
[Learn from] elders >>
Gain understanding

ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.

 

Verse 104, capping the 2nd set of four verses, which focuses upon drawing a crucial distinction between the sweetness of God’s word and other errant, evil ways, follows a different logic:

[Keep] pikudim >>
Gain understanding >>
Hate false ways [of living]

קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

 

What might the Psalmist be suggesting?

My initial interpretation goes as follows: According to the Psalmist, keeping God’s commandments opens up two avenues towards the achievement of greater understanding.

  1. The individual dedicated to a Godly life is thereby connected to others who share his commitment. His dedication births within him an openness towards and respect for the elders of his community, who nurture his ‘love’ for Torah (verse 97) and broaden his horizons with their accumulated wisdom. Gaining understanding along this path is a rewarding end in itself, along with greater wisdom and intelligence. It grows out of one’s learning.
  2. Committed observance of the Divine precepts itself shapes one’s character, granting him the natural intuition necessary to discern between God’s true word and false, evil alternatives. In this model, understanding comes straight from ‘the Source’, as it were. The dedicated individual develops understanding enough to make the crucial distinctions between True & False, Good & Evil, Sacred & Profane. This grows out of deep commitment.

* * *

Learning for its own sake was my father’s lifelong passion. His was a curious mind, always seeking to master new concepts, ever engaged in the pursuit of further knowledge. He relished fresh insights, delighted in challenging exchanges, and savored understanding for its own sake.

Papa also had a profound, innate sense of Good & Evil and was one to rely confidently upon his intuition. In politics, he remained ever clear-eyed and principled, harboring no illusions about the flaws of his preferred candidates, nor about the existential threats that he saw represented by others.

I write this post, just as the elections for the 21st Knesset come upon us. Tomorrow we go to the polls, and I still find myself pulled in several directions. My principles have always been more squishy than Papa’s before me; concerned as I am with the all too real, existential threats that worried my father, I… I remain undecided on the eve of elections.

The political landscape is bleak to me.

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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