The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 5

My 3-and-a-half year-old daughter has been attending services with me for nearly two months now. She insists upon coming with me to shul every week on Friday and Saturday evenings (on Saturday mornings, I go to shul too early for her to join me).

Last week I and a few others noticed that my child was reciting the mourner’s kaddish along with me, as I stood beside her.

She has quickly learned the names of all of the prayer services, and she even understands that the evening prayer service can be called מעריב (Maariv) or ערבית (Aravit), both of which share the Hebrew root ע-ר-ב, which means evening. She’s also picking up on other details that I haven’t even explained to her.

One evening at shul, we were nearing the end of the service, and I was preparing her for what would follow. “Next, we’ll say this prayer, then we’ll say kaddish, then we’ll say another prayer, then we’ll say one more kaddish, and then we’ll go home,” I explained.

“Why aren’t you saying it?” she asked; I thought she was referring to the kaddish.

“Because the kaddish is only after this prayer,” I answered.

Her beautiful eyes looked at me thoughtfully, and she reformulated the question. “No,” she clarified, “why aren’t you saying this prayer that everybody else is saying?”

At that moment, I understood what she was asking, but luckily I didn’t have a chance to answer because I had to stand and recite the final mourner’s kaddish. “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra chirutei…” Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world, which He has created according to His will…

* * *

I struggle with this exercise of reciting the mourner’s kaddish for my father, for two reasons above all others:

  1. I don’t feel that my father would have wanted me to do this, and I’m not sure that he would have approved of my approach to it. I touched upon this in my previous post.
  2. One doesn’t simply show up to a synagogue, recite the kaddish with a minyan, and leave. From a ritual perspective, my commitment is to attend and participate in religious prayer services.

Irony lies here because my aim is to honor and remember my father in a Jewish way, thereby doing honor to the Jewish tradition itself by accepting the roles that it has assigned me: Jew, son, mourner, [father]. My greatest struggles are with those whom I hope to honor.

* * *

Further irony lies here because honoring my father may at times come at odds with honoring Jewish tradition.

An example. The rabbi at my father’s funeral offered to arrange a minyan for me at my parents’ home during the shiva so that I could recite the mourner’s kaddish. Instinctively, I said, “No, thank you.” My father would not have wanted a group of strangers to show up at twice a day to worship together at his home; he was a very private man and disinclined towards communal activities and religious ritual.

While sitting shiva for my father in New Jersey, I drove to the synagogue every morning and evening to recite the mourner’s kaddish.

* * *

At a traditional Jewish prayer service, there is a shaliach tzibbur (a prayer leader). Mourners are expected (and considered privileged) to lead communal Jewish worship, but this is something that I hope to avoid for the entirety of this year.

The heaviness of serving as shaliach tzibbur is not a struggle that Leon Wieseltier explores in his book Kaddish. He writes (p. 5):

A red velvet cloth is thrown over the rostrum at the front of the room… Here stands the… mourner; and as I place my hands on this cloth… I see the traces of hands that preceded mine… This is an exquisite erosion… The more threadbare, the better. The thinner, the thicker.

Wieseltier is driven to understand the nuances of the mourner’s kaddish during his year of mourning. He strives to understands its history, its implications, its relevance.

I am driven to find sense and purpose in ritual Jewish life and prayer. The kaddish does not stand alone – it is surrounded on all sides by the words of the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings, the Rabbis…

Kaddish is the Jew’s spiritual intermezzo, cleansing our souls’ palates between courses of prayer. One doesn’t simply show up to shul, recite the kaddish, and leave.

* * *

For years, I prayed thrice daily; ever so slowly, deliberately, searing the words of the siddur into my mind… vowing to become proficient enough to pray fluidly in a meaningful way. I studied the words of the prayers, attempted various practices, and bowed before the ages’ wisdom. The quest for proficiency was endless and stifling.

Commitment.

Traditional Jewish prayer is part of the package. My commitment to my heritage was spiritually compelling – not the prayers themselves (usually), but the regularity and consistency of my Jewish efforts, doing as our Sages claim that God demanded. I prayed out of spiritual momentum.

Truth.

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

Acceptance.

Personally, I’ve ceased believing that everybody can “get that way.”

* * *

Recently, I rented a car and took my family on several day trips in northern Israel. One might compare the shaliach tzibbur to the driver of the prayer service for his fellow congregants, but this is analogy is flawed. A driver has the agency to pick his destination, and he may stop for extended coffee and bathroom breaks. He may take a detour. He may alter his course or change his plans entirely.

The shaliach tzibbur is the railroad engineer.

Weiseltier (p. 21):

There are days when there are just too many words in the liturgy… But I can’t go slowly because I’m the leader. I must get the entire company through this, to the kaddish and away. I must be spiritually efficient.

There are no days when there aren’t too many words in the Jewish liturgy. I am dreading the High Holy Days, which are upon me. Some people are proficient enough or [at least] spiritually inclined enough to regularly find traditional Jewish prayer meaningful. Far too many others cannot “get that way.”

Spiritual efficiency deserves its own kaddish.

* * *

One doesn’t simply show up to shul, recite the kaddish, and leave. So what do I do?

Leon Wieseltier writes (p. 68):

Many customs have come down to you, denoting many concepts. You cannot practice all the customs and defend all the concepts. You must take your pick.

(I’m taking the author out of context here, but it works. It’s much like midrash – the great sages of the Talmud and their spiritual heirs were masters of textual reinterpretation and recontextualisation. I too know how to play such games.)

So I have been taking my pick of the siddur, sticking primarily to the most fundamental prayers – the Shema (2x daily) and the Amidah (3x on weekdays, 4x on Shabbat). And, of course, the mourner’s kaddish. Always the kaddish.

I will partner with my tradition in honoring my father’s memory, but I will not be enslaved by it. My father would have respected this; I am certain of it.

* * *

Balance.

My balance is in seeking balance. Some days I pray more, some days I pray less. Once, not long after I returned from sitting shiva for my father in New Jersey, I told God during maariv that this whole process is bullshit and that I don’t believe in it; I refused to pray the Amidah.

It strikes me that I am hypocritical.

I am bothered by the Jews who make donations to religious institutions in lieu of practicing Judaism. “Those religious Jews will preserve our tradition for us. We can never live as they do, but thank goodness for us that they exist.” Still, today, I am knowingly and deliberately drawing my own lines, and I am taking advantage of those religious Jews who perform the rituals with absolute consistency. They are committed; wherefore this mourner has a minyan.

It strikes me that I am human.

* * *

A curious thought

Last week, I prayed and recited kaddish for my father with the community of Nahariya in Northern Israel for several days, noting that there seemed to be a disproportionate number of mourners there. Reflecting upon this afterwards, it struck me… was that little shul simply full of parentless beachgoers?

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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