Commentary Magazine


Saying Kaddish

I have recently gotten into the habit of saying Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, for Gentiles. This may be unusual, but I need no rationale to justify extending a traditional Jewish family rite to non-Jews. The persons for whom I say Kaddish were all members of my so-to-speak extended family—in-laws on my wife’s side of whom I was fond.

Still, I am puzzled about this newfangled practice of mine. For I still remember all too vividly a time in my life when saying Kaddish was a daily torment, a reminder of my hapless confusion and disorientation as an orphan boy in a world ruled by crabby old men passing their final gray years in ritual repetition of prayers they did not understand. And here I am now, myself an aged, too often angry man in a world with which I am not at ease, seizing every opportunity to recite the same Kaddish that was the bane of my existence some 60 years ago! Why do I persist in going back time after time to that low point from which I have struggled so long and hard to rise?

Is it that death is still, in the current parlance, “my thing”? Can it be the memory of other bad times, when I have suffered or brought pain to others, that I am trying to atone for with this sanctification of God’s name? Is it because I secretly agree with the Midrashist that “prayer is midway to atonement”?

I was eleven when my father suddenly (to me) died. Actually, he had had a severe heart attack several weeks before, and I had visited him in the hospital, at his request. He had given me a strange, quizzical, compassionate look out of his light-blue eyes. I had been told to leave. A week later, he died at home.

My first, and for a long time only, reaction was one of uncertainty. I simply did not know what I should be feeling. I had come across references to death (in fact, dramatic depictions) in many of the books I read. But none of them had prepared me for the time after death as an enduring numbness. People in books were usually said to be unhappy for a line or two, and then they would go on with the exciting plot of their lives. For me, life just came to a standstill. Was that it—was that all?

Early one morning my mother had unexpectedly screamed my father’s name from the bedroom they shared. (Even then I had sensed the incongruity: my father’s name was Simha, meaning joy.) Then my elder brother and I were told that Papa had died.

I was at a loss. Nobody explained anything to me. There was a funeral, which I do not remember, then a week of mourning, during which we sat at home. I recall sensing a gap, but it was not enormous. I had had a father whom I did not know very well. Now he was gone. His place had never been a large one in my life, and now it would be empty. Years later I would be moved by Job’s summation of mortality: “His place shall know him no longer.” My father, precisely.

My bald, full-lipped father was a kind of friendly absence, a rare visitor at home. He taught Hebrew in two schools: full-time in a so-called “progressive” Talmud Torah (one where the teaching was in Hebrew rather than Yiddish or English), and as an occasional substitute in a yeshiva. Both my brother and I attended Papa’s Talmud Torah weekdays after public school.

What I chiefly remembered of my father was that he had been keen on my education. When I learned how to read, he brought home a primer which he had picked up at the yeshiva, where the public-school curriculum was followed in the morning. He also personally escorted me to the neighborhood library and asked that I be issued a children’s card. (He was turned down—I was too young for a card.) Later, when I did well at the Talmud Torah, my father made a fitful attempt to teach me the Book of Amos at home. He tried to sweeten this extramural study with a dime for each session; but when he saw that I was really not interested and preferred to play, he dropped the whole matter. (I have never had a good head for business. My big brother earned a first-baseman’s mitt by humoring Papa in this way.)

In addition to his other labors, my father prepared boys privately for bar mitzvah (this was in the dinosaur age, before bat mitzvah for girls). So Papa came home late every evening, and I rarely saw him before going off to sleep.

Many years later, I came across a book of Yiddish poems by the popular Morris Rosenfeld. It had a crude jacket showing a bloated capitalist literally sucking the blood of an emaciated worker through a pipe inserted into the worker’s belly button. One of the poems particularly caught my fancy. It was the heartbreaking lament of an exploited sweatshop worker bemoaning his lot. He cried that he left home at the crack of dawn before the children awoke, and did not return until late at night. He got to see his dear little ones only when they were asleep. And they never saw him.

Reading this poem, I used to think that my own hardworking father had been in the same situation. But nowadays I wonder whether his was not a self-imposed drudgery, whether Papa was a driven workaholic, and whether he really preferred to be away from home (my mother and he, I later learned, had not been compatible).

_____________

 

When the shiva—the week of home mourning—was over, my knowledgeable big brother told me that we two were expected to say Kaddish three times a day for a year—morning, afternoon, and evening. I was taken aback. Three times a day? For a whole year? In a prayerhouse, a shul, where there was the required minyan, or quorum?

Still, though timid and easily frightened, I was curious about this novel experience. (I loved adventure stories.) So early the next morning, before going off to public school, I turned up at a neighborhood storefront shul. It was not too bad. My able and assertive big brother was with me; he was glad to show me the ropes: when to stand, when to sit, when to say the Kaddish. Under my brother’s tutelage all went well that morning. But the next day my troubles began.

My mother was a modest woman, but she enjoyed showing a kind of modern-woman superiority. She liked to say that she was frum but not meshugah frum, pious but not crazy pious (like certain unnamed persons). As such, she could not see why her younger orphan son should have to rise early in the morning for Kaddish. Kaddish twice a day would be enough.

It was—and still is—the custom for afternoon and evening prayers to be recited consecutively, just before and after sunset. In those days, this was an excellent practical compromise that saved garment workers the time and expense of leaving work in the afternoon and being docked for the time they were away from their sewing machines and cutting tables. It also meant that to say Kaddish twice I would only have to show up in shul once, in the late afternoon.

And so, on the second day, skipping the morning service, I presented myself alone at the shul in time for the afternoon and evening prayers (my busy brother said his Kaddish elsewhere in the city). I had been too unsettled the day before to see the shul clearly. Now I took it in and was aghast. It was dingy, and had not been painted in a long time. The only books were enormous, dogeared copies of the Talmud over which ancient, feeble men were arguing in hoarse, shrill, perplexed voices. They looked up when I came in, then, suddenly, realizing that I was a prospective Kaddish sayer, turned silent. It was time for prayers. Someone banged on the lectern: “Minhah!” The afternoon prayers began. There was no leader. It was every man for himself.

I located a siddur, or prayer book, and hurriedly found the place. But the oldsters read so fast, garbling prayers they knew by heart, that I was soon at sea. I could make out the initial word of each prayer as it was shouted aloud, but I soon fell behind.

Oddly enough, though a faithful Talmud Torah student, I had never been to shul, had never read the prayers before. For my father had been an intellectual, a rationalist of the 19th-century Haskalah (Enlightenment) school. He was a Jew by culture, not by faith. My father may have found it necessary, as a professional Hebrew teacher, to go to shul on Saturdays, but he never bothered to take me with him. So I was quite unprepared to say Kaddish properly after him.

Soon the afternoon prayer came to its end. There was an expectant silence. People looked at me. Finally, the lectern was banged again: “Kaddish!” I said it.

The same thing happened at the end of the evening prayer. I, the young Talmud Torah student, kept falling behind the speedy veterans. Indeed, I never did manage to orient myself properly to the order of the prayers, and had to wait until I was a student at a college of Jewish studies to learn the method in this apparently inchoate madness.

And yet (this is most strange), even in the throes of my youthful travails, I enjoyed saying the Kaddish—and still do, despite the prayer’s association with my father’s unexpected death, and with that dusty shul which to my childish mind was the bastion of traditional senility.

_____________

 

The new Testament says somewhere that in the midst of life we are in death. I was good at languages; the Kaddish is a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew. Was reading a prayer for the dead in a partly foreign language the equivalent of being in life in the midst of death (language being the core of my life)?

Is that too far-fetched? I remember clearly my delight in deciphering Hebrew components in the Aramaic of the Kaddish: e.g., the Hebrew malkhut (kingdom) in the Aramaic malkhuta. I was not terribly (or consciously) interested in the memorable hallowing of God’s name that is the purpose of the Kaddish. I liked the sound of the words, but was indifferent to their connotations for faith.

Is that still the case—or was it entirely the case even then?

Or do I recite the Kaddish with such enthusiasm for reasons which I know not of? W.H. Auden has a wonderful line that I am fond of repeating (to myself and others): “We are lived by forces we pretend to understand” (it is from his poem in memory of Ernst Toller, the German-Jewish poet who committed suicide in New York during World War II). The key word, I keep telling people, is “lived.”

Is the Kaddish a force that still lives me? I feel in my bones the truth of that striking phrase. But what does it mean exactly—or even inexactly? What does it have to do with my compulsion to say Kaddish? What force wills me to do it?

I never did say the Kaddish for a full year, in the traditional fashion. My father died in the spring; in the summer, I was sent to camp. When camp was over, I simply did not go back to that horrendous shul.

But I have said the Kaddish as a memorial prayer many times in the course of the years—more and more often of late, as people I cared for have gone the way of all flesh, or, in the fine biblical phrase, have gone to “sleep with their fathers.” As I drive to my suburban Jewish community center where services are held, I keep wondering why I, who am so doubtful about the very existence of God, keep coming back to the Kaddish. Can it be the music of “the language of faith” that so stirs me?

Music? . . . I search my memory. Some five years ago, I copied into my commonplace book a passage from Goethe’s table talk. He drew a close connection between music and worship:

Music (like poetry) has an absolute power no one can explain. That is why music is indispensable for religious worship; it is one of the chief means of exercising miraculous influence on people.

I find it hard to admit that the Kaddish exerts a “miraculous influence” on me. I wonder whether the Sage of Weimar was not indulging in a mocking, deliberate grandiloquence. As a scientist, as well as a poet and dramatist and chancellor of the Duchy of Weimar, would he not have agreed (as I do) with the rabbis in the Midrash that the age of miracles ended with the Revelation at Sinai? Both he and they knew that miracles are not a daily occurrence in religious worship except (maybe) metaphorically. Goethe must have used the word “miraculous” the way we nowadays say “wonderful” (nothing religious or spiritual about it).

So, at any rate, I speculate. Nevertheless, I have myself been quite moved by gospel songs sung with deep devotion by ordinary people in central Tennessee—moved to the point of tears. And, at odd times, I also find myself singing (low and off-key—I have no ear) the opening words of the Kaddish.

_____________

 

I have been talking about the Kaddish, in the abstract, so to speak. It is time to read it literally, in its own words, to get the true feel and sense of it.

Here is the translation of the Kaddish as printed in Nahum Glatzer’s anthology of liturgical texts, Language of Faith (Schocken, 1967):

Mighty, hallowed be His great name,
in the world He has created according to His
    will.
May he establish His kingdom
in the days of your life,
and in the life of the whole house of Israel
    speedily.
Let us say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed unto all
    eternity.

Blessed and praised, honored, adored, and
    extolled, glorified and exalted
be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.
He is high above all blessings and hymns,
    praises
and words of solace which are uttered throughout
    the world.
Let us say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven,
and life for us and for all Israel.
Let us say, Amen.

May He who makes peace on high
bring peace to us and to all Israel.
Let us say, Amen.

A scholarly footnote by Glatzer informs us that originally the Kaddish was a prayer for the coming of the kingdom of God, recited at the conclusion of a public study session, and that it only later developed into a part of the synagogal liturgy, being first mentioned around 600 C.E. The custom of reciting the Kaddish during the year of mourning for parents originated in medieval Germany. The central theme, “Let His great name be blessed,” alludes to the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible, and to a passage in the Talmud. The Kaddish is also comparable to one of the most frequently recited prayers from the New Testament:

After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. [Matthew 7:9-10]

Clearly, the faithful among both Jews and Christians aspire to the establishment of God’s dominion everywhere in the universe (though Jews no longer proselytize extensively—not since the 4th century, when the newly converted Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, forbade their competing with Christians).

As for me, I am not a utopian by temperament. I can understand why so many people long for the world to be saved from the consequences of the human propensity to sin. But I suspect that humanity has not, will not, and cannot be redeemed, either tomorrow or at the end of days, by God, or man, or God in the shape of man. Perhaps this is simply a lack of imagination on my part. I admire, even envy, reformers and revolutionaries their enthusiasm, but I do not share millenarian hopes for the world. I shall be happy to be able to atone for my own private failings—that would be more than enough.

So, though ardently to be desired, it is not the Kaddish’s plea for the imminent (“in the days of your life”) realization of the sanctity of the Divine, and with it “abundant peace from heaven,” that makes the Kaddish so significant to me.

Yet, as I read the prayer carefully, and reread it in astonishment, two lines, entirely private and personal, strike me between the eyes. I am taken aback, and blink at their stark implication:

He is high above all blessings and hymns,
    praises
and words of solace which are uttered throughout
    the world.

Do I read this correctly? Why did those medieval German rabbis ordain that mourners repeat this prayer, with its reminder of God’s superiority to human grief? To humiliate them? Whatever happened to the famous “consolations of religion”? Are we to be left only with the drastic “God’s will be done,” His remote mystery, the ineffable “His ways are not your ways”?

It seems that we are so to be left. And (who knows?) perhaps even as a child I may have recognized that the Kaddish, for all its magnificent music in a partly familiar, partly foreign language, was not meant to justify the apparently meaningless death of my father—or my own death in some remote time to come. Perhaps that is because death has no meaning. But isn’t that what God is for? Isn’t He the idea of meaning in the universe?

I was no metaphysician at the age of eleven. But I may well have connected the humiliation I felt at the hands of those old men in the shul who raced through the prayers, leaving me far behind, with the “meaningless” Kaddish I was required to say, a prayer that glorified God but ignored my dumb mourning.

_____________

 

Humiliation. . . . A few years ago I was struck by a powerful passage in the memoirs of Natan Sharansky. The Soviet-Jewish dissident says that he had learned an invaluable truth from the KGB’s deliberate program to demean him. They had stripped him of his own clothing, cut off his connections with the outside world—letters, radio—beaten him, mocked him. He had almost succumbed to their classic tactics of dehumanization—until one day, from the depth of his despair, he had drawn a maxim that asserted his essential autonomy and gave him the strength to survive his ordeals: “No one can humiliate me but myself.”

And now I begin to wonder whether in looking for every opportunity to say Kaddish I may not be defying the memory of the (admittedly self-inflicted) humiliation I assumed as a troubled child in an indifferent world of pathetic valetudinarians, that moribund world of rote and routine. Or perhaps it is that (as a stoical adult and not anangry child) I repeat the Kaddish time and again to confirm its hard truth: that “God is high above all words of solace.”

For now, as a frequent mourner in the presence of death, I gratefully, even gladly, accept God’s superiority to the all too common and completely understandable human plea for the “consolations of religion.” Were not the well-intentioned explanations that Job’s friends gave him for God’s apparently meaningless hostility to the good and righteous Job a kind of deprecation, both of the suffering Job and of the God whose (incomprehensible) will was being done? For me, at any rate, death is death, mourning is mourning, both are inevitable, and there is no humiliation in yielding to God’s inexorable will, however mysterious.

The biblical book of Leviticus puts it very well when it explains the reversion of land to the original owner during the jubilee year: “For the land is mine [God’s], and you are but aliens who have become my tenants.” So, with the Kaddish standing behind me, I can accept my jubilee tenancy on the earth. God is above solace for my mourning, and I am above the humiliation of being a perpetual tenant.

Thus I foresee that I shall be saying Kaddish for those I cared about for the rest of my life.

Yes, it may be merely the last stage of my preoccupation with my father’s death, and with my own that is not so far off.

Yes, it may be a covert attempt at atonement for all the bad things I have done, or that have been done to me, by mistake or deliberation.

Yes, it may not be my own willed act at all, but the act of some subterranean force that lives in me of which I am completely unaware—the will of the force within me that is the true meaning of my life.

I accept, indeed embrace, all these explanations of why I keep saying the Kaddish with such ardor. Perhaps the first and simplest, the least rational and pretentious, is closest to the essence of my personality: I say Kaddish out of love of language, of the music of language, and of the language of faith.

I remain an agnostic, one who thinks that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved—though, in my case, devoutly to be wished. This is a paradox I have struggled with all my life—or at least since my father’s death.

Sharansky, in the same autobiographical memoir, tells us that he was immeasurably strengthened during his imprisonment by a saying of a hasidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, reverently known as “the Bratslaver”: “This entire world is a very narrow bridge. The thing is not to be afraid.”

Saying Kaddish for those I loved will, I hope, help me to cross that narrow bridge without too much fear.

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