David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 45

My grief is terribly indescribable and indescribably terrible. Writing about it twists my stomach into knots, clauses searing through my abdomen, as I tear into it with jagged words, gashing at sticky, fleshy gobs of disbelief that spill out in thick rivulets of revulsion.

That’s as far as I got with blog post #45 before Tuesday, May 28. I couldn’t force out any further words before the final kaddish.

I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t accept it.

It’s ridiculous, really.

* * *

In December, when I’d first learned (blog #20) of Rabbi Benny Lau’s (b. 1961) ‘prayer for the last Kaddish’, I’d been judgmental of the two women I’d heard reciting it. Wouldn’t it have been more meaningful for them to write ‘final prayers’ of their own? I thought. I will write my own prayer; I will use my own words.

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

Months later, as May 28 made its steady approach, I couldn’t find any inspiration. Worse, I was rebelling against the very premise of this prayer. I don’t care that eleven months of kaddish recitations have gone by. My ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog is my true kaddish for Papa;  I’ll continue with it until his yahrzeit. I don’t care about shul; I’m only going through the motions anyway.

I lie to myself sometimes. The truth is- I do care.

On May 26, two days before the final kaddish, I stopped by the bakery where Papa used to purchase bourekas on his visits to us during the summer months. How early do you open? I wanted to know. Fresh bourekas are available by 6:00, I was told. Good, that’s before the first kaddish of shacharit.

On May 27, one day before the final kaddish, I took a deep breath. I can’t write a personal prayer -I can’t even admit how much I care about this- but tomorrow is the final day of kaddish. This is the end. Will I really let it pass without notice? Damn, damn, damn it. Ugh! Truth is: I’m no different than any other mourner, overwhelmed and wordless. Maybe I should use Rav Benny’s prayer as those two women did… I suppose his words would feel no less foreign to me than the kaddish once did… 

Traditional Jewish prayer is formulaic. It serves when we don’t know what to say, when articulation is too overwhelming, when we feel empty of self-expression, when we simply need a dependable tool for connection…

– Me, blog #9

And so.
I pulled up Rav Benny’s prayer in my browser.
Despite and because of myself.

* * *

But… Rav Benny is an Orthodox rabbi. His prayer, creatively innovative though it is, is a believer’s prayer. Its words not only flow along with the rhythms of Jewish tradition; they flow forth from it.

Skeptic that I am, I don’t accept some of Rav Benny’s premises:

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם… הִשְׁתַּדַּלְתִּי לְכַבֵּד אֶת אָבִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת… עָשִׂיתִי כְּכָל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנוּ… לָעֵת הַזֹּאת… אֶשָּׂא תְּחִנָּה לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁיַּעֲלוּ כָּל תְּפִלּוֹתַי לְפָנֶיךָ לְרָצוֹן וְתֵיטִיב לְאָבִי, הֲרֵינִי כַּפָּרַת מִשְׁכָּבוֹ Our Father in Heaven… I strove to honor my father this year… I have done as you commanded us… At this time… I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall go up before You and be acceptable to you, and You shall do good for my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place…

 

Where to begin?

Firstly, I couldn’t bring myself to write a personal prayer for my final kaddish precisely because I am still in my year of mourning for Papa. Rav Benny’s prayer refers to ‘this year’ in the past tense, as if his year of mourning ended upon his recitation of this personal plea, which took place after only 11 months (following his final kaddish for his own father).

Further: as far as I am concerned, my Jewish mourning experience lasts for the duration of 13 months from the date of my father’s death until his yahrzeit (this anomaly is the result of the Hebrew leap year, which has pushed the anniversary of Papa’s death back by a full month on the Hebrew calendar – blog #32).

Secondly, I don’t believe that God ‘commanded us’ to recite Kaddish for our loved ones. As of today, I remain entirely unconvinced of God’s involvement in our lives, let alone what He may or may not have commanded us to do.

Further: as we’ve learned on this kaddish journey, the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a tradition (not included on any list of 613 mitzvot), which was developed by human beings and incorporated into communal Jewish prayer during the medieval era.

Lastly, while I have been at prayer and praying every single day since my father was buried on July 9th, I reject the notion that I need ‘plea’ for my prayers to ‘be acceptable’ for Papa’s redemption. The God I may just be capable of believing in is just and merciful – He knows full well whether my prayers have been sincere and deserving or not.

Further: my father does not need anybody else to be an ‘atonement’ for him. He was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.
(This is not to say that he was perfect)
Further: I am certain that everyone who knew him well would agree with this.
Further: this is true regardless of religious doctrine, regardless of my father’s religiosity, and regardless of my religious proclivity.

 

So…

* * *

With humility and deep appreciation, I rewrote Rav Benny Lau’s prayer to reflect my beliefs and sentiments (the skeptic’s version of the believer’s prayer):

אבינו שבשמים Our Heavenly Father,
על פי דרישות המסורת according to the expectations of the Tradition,
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי I have merited to complete the recitation of kaddish for the rising up of the soul of my father and teacher,
מאז עלייתו לגִּנְזֵי מרומים ועד עתה from the time of his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until now.
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי במשך תקופה זו בכל נפשי ובכל מאודי I have striven to honor my father during this period with all my soul and all my might,
אך מבחינתי although from my perspective,
התהליך הזה לא יושלם עד היארצייט שלו this process will not be completed until his yahrzeit,
אשר יהיה בעוד חודשיים which will be in another two months.
ועתה עומד אני לפניך קצת נִרְגָּשׁ And now I stand before You, slightly anxious,
אבל גם בביטחון ואומר but also with confidence, and say:
עשיתי מה שנדרש על פי המסורת I have done that which is expected according to the Tradition.
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן שחרית At this time, as I stand before You during the morning prayer,
אני מאמין שכל כוונותי ממשיכות לעלות לפניך לרצון I believe that all of my intentions continue to rise up before You and are acceptable to You,
ואני מאמין שתיטיב לאבי and I believe that You will do Good by my father,
שהרי היה הוא אדם טוב לב, הָגוּן וצנוע for he was a kindhearted, decent, and modest man,
ותעניק לו את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב and You will grant him his place in the world that is all good,
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָת אלכסנדר בן משה And bind the soul of Alexander ben Mosheh in the bond of life.
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his heritage;
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

 

I spent some time editing the text; once I felt satisfied with it, my friend Sagi (a native Israeli) was kind enough to review my Skeptic’s Prayer and ravel out my Hebrew. I read through it yet again at my desk, closed my eyes, and shuddered.

* * *

On May 28, the day of the final kaddish, my alarm rang at 5:30 in the morning. I got myself out of bed, mechanically went through my morning routine, and put one bottle of orange juice and one bottle of Monkey Shoulder Scotch whiskey into a sturdy, reusable shopping bag, along with my ‘Skeptic’s Prayer for the Last Kaddish’ in a firm, plastic sleeve.

I walked to shul and left the bag near the entrance; then crossed the street over to the bakery. At the back, I ordered two large, heaping boxes of sundry bourekas, and made my way over to the cashier, who happened to be the owner. So you came for the bourekas. He smiled. Today is my final kaddish for my father. I nodded. Of course I came. The man’s eyes lowered and rose to meet mine again. May his memory be for a blessing. Here, have a discount.

I recited each kaddish that morning as if I were parting with every syllable forever, but my voice held steady. At the end of services, the gabbai announced: David Bogomolny would like to invite all of us to partake of refreshments in honor of his father, and he will now recite a prayer to mark the end of his eleven months of kaddish.

After a brief introduction and sincere note of appreciation for my fellow petitioners, I read my Skeptic’s Prayer aloud so that all could hear me. My voice shook, but I managed to read it in its entirety. ‘May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.’

– AMEN.

Afterwards, standing at the refreshments table and surrounded by kind, familiar faces, I heard everybody making blessings in honor of my father. My legs felt unsteady, my breath uneven; my heart pounding as I let my breath out. Man… I could sure use some whiskey.

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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