The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 7

Last Shabbat was Shabbat Shuva, which is the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and a member of the community shared a brief drasha (words of Torah) with the kehila (congregation) on Friday evening. To my mind, her question was classic and critical: Which is the holier day—Yom Kippur or Shabbat?

Shabbat is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah; the fourth commandment tells us we must observe Shabbat. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is only mentioned three times in the Torah; it is not included in the Ten Commandments. (Also, the commandment to fast on Yom Kippur is not in the Torah.)

The young woman further pointed out that seven members of the kehila are honored every Shabbat morning by being called up to recite a blessing upon the Torah. On Yom Kippur only six get called up to the Torah, and this is clearly a matter of hierarchy: five are called up to the Torah on all of the major Jewish festivals, four are called up at the beginning of every Hebrew month, and only three are called up during the week – on Monday and Thursday mornings.

So… what?

* * *

Here’s the question: to what extent are reflection and repentance processes that we should be engaged in throughout the course of the year? Shouldn’t our weekly spiritual respite on Shabbat serve as an opportunity for cheshbon ha-nefesh (an accounting of the soul)? To what extent does Judaism stress the exceptional, intensive “leap of faith,” compared to our daily or weekly deeds of gradual growth?

* * *

I read Leon Wieseltier’s personal account of reciting kaddish during the High Holy Days. As it happened, just before Rosh HaShanah, I arrived at that those pages of the book Kaddish, which paralleled my own kaddish journey along the Jewish calendar. (Its sixteen sections are marked only by Roman numerals and one cannot search the book by topic.)

The author writes (p. 233):

[The rabbi wants] to consider the manner in which an eleventh-century thinker understood the distinction between the wicked, the righteous, and the souls who are neither wicked nor righteous… I have been trying to puzzle it out for almost half a year. Maybe that is why Yom Kippur is a bit of a fizzle this year. This year, every day has a touch of this day.

Yom Kippur is tomorrow evening, and I’m pondering this. Why was Wieseltier’s Yom Kippur a “fizzle” after months of study and reflection? Why cast this in a negative light? Isn’t it only natural? Isn’t a Yom Kippur “fizzle” better than a “bang” of atonement?

* * *

I am finding that it is precisely the long period of reciting the mourner’s kaddish, which makes it so effective for me. The regular repetition of the now familiar words and associated rituals is always there for me, day after day, after day. Memories of my father and reflections upon our relationship flit through my mind constantly. Perhaps I will always think of him even after this year is over, but somehow I feel an unspoken imperative in the kaddish’s daily demands – remember your father to yourself and to others.

I have evidence… from this year in shul, that… a man dies with the death of his body, but… He survives himself… in the people he loved… I can be sure that [my recitation of the mourner’s kaddish] is proof of his posterity. (Kaddish, p. 242-3)

* * *

A new friend from my regular minyan turns out to be Professor Emeritus Martin Lockshin who shares a chapter on kaddish with me (which he wrote for a recently published book also called Kaddish), in which he writes (p. 346):

The Mourner’s Kaddish makes no reference to death, dying, mortality, sadness, life after death, parents, bereavement, or the precariousness of the human condition.

This is a fundamental point. My father is nowhere to be found in the kaddish. He is to be found in my recitation of the kaddish. My father survives himself in me.

* * *

It takes me time to decipher my emotions so the lengthy mourning period is helpful. (And – if I only reflected and repented on Yom Kippur I would have no idea what I was repenting for.)

But there’s more.

Given the structure and opportunity for meaningful reflection over time, one cannot but change. A year thinking about, praying about, and writing about one’s father… that year is transformational. I know what my tradition expects of me, and I know who I am today, but I don’t know where this will lead.

I know that I will be sponsoring a small kiddush next year to commemorate my father’s yahrtzeit after completing this year of mourning. I’ve reserved the date far, far in advance. I hope to make it a truly lovely tribute to my father, but now I’ve opened my mind’s door to the future and find myself thinking about how these eleven months of kaddish will inevitably end. It’s surreal. The commitment is so intense, so encompassing – life is a perpetual kaddish to me. What will I be without it? Who will I become because of it? I can only give myself over to it.

* * *

An exchange with my mother brought a memory back.

I was ten or eleven, I think, when we took a trip to Disney World. Funny enough, I don’t remember much of the vacation, but I remember my father teaching me a trust exercise in a Disney parking lot, while we waited for our shuttle. Upon some coaxing, he convinced me to fall backwards, ceding my body to gravity; and he caught me before I hit the ground. After the first time, I was enthused; and he was the one who eventually put an end to our game.

Kaddish is like falling backwards, ceding myself to my memories, my reflections, my tradition, this process. I’m not sure who’s been catching me, but every day I fall again.

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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