To the Editor:
“Saying Kaddish” by Jacob Sloan [December 1993], who now intones the memorial prayer for his Gentile relatives, reminded me of an episode in my early childhood when I became a steady attendant Friday nights and Saturdays at a Lower East Side shul on Rivington Street.
I knew that Kaddish was what someone who had lost a parent or child said three times a day for a year, the assigned period of mourning. Saying Kaddish was so important that if one were unsure there would be someone trustworthy enough to intone the prayer for the required year, one would hire ante-mortem—for money—some pious congregant who would substitute for a potentially delinquent son or other relative. In fact, it was not unusual for a father to refer to his son as “mein kaddish,” usually with heavy sarcasm about having to depend on a son who would in a godless America undoubtedly grow up to be an unbeliever.
Kaddish is usually recited toward the end of the prayer service. . . . As I grew older, I began to note something I couldn’t understand. Usually, over the months, the faces of Kaddish-sayers changed with the expiry of the required year of mourning. One face, I began to notice, never seemed to change—Reb Moishe Bear’s. A big, broad-shouldered man (a carpenter, I recall), he was always saying Kaddish. Week after week, High Holy Days, Sabbath, and weekdays, Reb Moishe Bear, eyes shut tight, face rapt, head swaying from side to side, was always saying Kaddish, and loudly. At first, I assumed that he had a lot of relatives who were dying all the time, and I felt sorry for him because he was a nice man. But as I approached my barmitzvah year, I began to wonder: how could this be?
One Friday night, I decided to satisfy my curiosity. I asked my father about Reb Moishe Bear and what seemed like his terribly sad fate. “For whom is Reb Moishe Bear saying Kaddish?”
My father replied in Yiddish with a gentle smile: “Er zogt Kaddish oyf der velt”—he is saying Kaddish for the world.
I didn’t know what my father meant. Didn’t you have to have a death in the family? Not necessarily, said my father. Anybody over the age of thirteen could say Kaddish, and if Reb Moishe Bear wanted to say it “oyf der velt,” he could do it and maybe even earn the merit of performing a mitzvah. I persisted: so why didn’t my father do the same?
My father smiled; his sense of tzneeyus (modesty), he said, prevented him from mourning for the world.
Not until years later did I grasp the gentle irony in my father’s answer about people who undertake to say Kaddish “oyf der velt.”
To the Editor:
I had an experience similar to that of Jacob Sloan when I was fourteen years old and my father died. On my own, I went to a strange shul to say Kaddish. In my case, however, a miracle happened: there were two young women, also mourning a parent, who knew the ropes and helped me out. Like Mr. Sloan, I had been tutored in modern Hebrew but had never attended a religious service. I, too, recall dismal surroundings, the thump on the table to announce minhah (afternoon prayers), and the “us” vs. “them” mentality, but I wanted to say Kaddish for my father and was glad to be there. . . .
Mr. Sloan’s parents did not teach him to find his way around the prayer book; neither did mine. To walk into a daily minyan without a guide is to be an alien in a foreign culture. . . . But from their point of view, the men in the minyan were doing what they were supposed to do—davening (praying). They might even have known that Mr. Sloan’s father had not taught his son to say Kaddish—should they have done it for him?
Children of Orthodox parents are brought to shul as soon as they can walk the distance. By nine or ten they can find their way in the prayer book and certainly can recite Kaddish. They are known to the men of the minyan and can expect an insider’s welcome. I do not say this to belittle Mr. Sloan’s unhappy childhood experience, but it is a source of wonder to me that there are people who think that a shul is like a cinema with a long-running movie that they can duck into when they get around to it. . . .
Although Orthodox worshippers may pray by rote and may even do so in ugly rooms, it is my observation that they are clear about why they pray and about the substance of their prayers. I have heard people with an animus toward the Orthodox accuse them of not understanding the prayers and of teaching their children by rote. In my experience this is not true; they know well that they pray to obey the commandments and the law, to achieve personal closeness to God, and to hasten the redemption of the world.
To the Editor:
Jacob Sloan . . . states that he “gratefully, even gladly,” accepts “God’s superiority to the all too common and completely understandable human plea for the ‘consolations of religion.’” He finds support for this view . . . in the following sentence from Nahum Glatzer’s translation of the Kaddish:
He is high above all blessings and
and words of solace which are
uttered throughout the world.
It should be pointed out, however, that these lines are not the generally accepted translation of the original, which is commonly understood to correspond to Philip Birnbaum’s rendering in his edition of the siddur (prayer book):
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world.
What Glatzer translates as a new sentence beginning “He is high above,” Birnbaum interprets as a prepositional phrase beginning “beyond,” and modifying the words of blessing and praise which precede it. According to Birnbaum, therefore, the prayer states not that God is aloof from the prayers of man, but that man is incapable of appropriately praising God.
Support for Birnbaum’s translation . . . is found not only in the syntax of the original, but in the fact that it is quoted in the article on that subject in the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Similar translations appear in other widely used translations of the siddur. . . .
Birnbaum’s translation does not contain the thought that God is superior to human grief. I do not think that that concept is consistent with traditional Jewish belief. One does not have to accept the concept, however, to find, as Mr. Sloan does, a similarity in the theme of the Kaddish with the verse in Leviticus he quotes: “For the land is mine [God’s], and you are but aliens who have become my tenants.” Thus, Birnbaum comments, “The Kaddish, . . . recited on the occasion of a death, seems to express the sentiment: ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21).”
To the Editor:
. . . The traditional understanding of the lines Jacob Sloan quotes about God’s being “high above all blessings and hymns, praises and words of solace. . .” is that all words of praise for God are insufficient to describe His greatness, but that He should be blessed and praised as if we were capable of expressing such praise.
There are divergent traditional interpretations of the word “nehemata,” translated above as “words of solace.” One view is that it is a synonym for praise, as in the Hebrew phrase “shevah v’tanhumim,” meaning praises which give consolation to man. See, for example, Rashi in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 31a, who gives as an example of tanhumim the verse, “He does the will of those who fear Him” (Psalms 145).
A second view is that of Rabbi David Ben Joseph Abudarham (14th century) in his Sefer Abudarham, who interprets “nehemata” as referring to consolation. He explains that God Himself, as it were, mourns the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and finds comfort in events that tend toward their restoration. As Mr. Sloan notes, the Kaddish is a prayer for the coming of the messianic era. It is we, then, who, so to speak, console God, by the recitation of the Kaddish. We are praying that God will find it propitious to bring the messianic era so that He and we can be comforted. . . .
Perhaps in reciting the Kaddish we are saying that even God suffers loss and that we are not alone in our sadness. Mr. Sloan, a professed agnostic, acknowledges that he devoutly wishes that the existence of God could be proved. Why, however, he prefers a God who is removed from the world to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—that is, one who is vitally concerned in the affairs of man—escapes me.
Jacob Sloan writes:
I am grateful to Arnold Beichman and Dorothy Rapoport for sharing their experiences of saying Kaddish with the readers of COMMENTARY. Mr. Beichman’s letter is delightful, and I have read it several times with more and more pleasure.
I am sorry Miss Rapoport has taken offense at what she interprets as an attack on traditional, Orthodox Judaism. I was recollecting my own childhood (and childish) experience in an old-fashioned shul more than 60 years ago. As a child, the harum-scarum nature of the services and the garbled, mispronounced Hebrew of the congregants led me to believe that they prayed not out of a desire to “achieve personal closeness to God, and to hasten the redemption of the world,” as Miss Rapoport says, but only to “obey the commandments and the law.” I might not be so harsh in my judgments today, when the services I attend include many English translations, or, more often, paraphrases of the original. Yet even today I have the uneasy feeling that few, very few, persons who pray do so in the way Miss Rapoport describes. I respect her report of her own experience with (ideal) Orthodox worshippers. It is not mine. (I wish it were.)
Sinclair Kossoff prefers Philip Birnbaum’s translation of the Kaddish to that of Nahum Glatzer in his anthology of liturgical texts, Language of Faith. I admit to being prejudiced in Glatzer’s favor, since I worked under his supervision in translating many of the prayers in Language of Faith (but not the translation of the Kaddish). But I make no claim to being an Aramaic scholar. I do admit to preferring the wonderful metaphor of the Kabbalists for God’s relation to man: they speak of the “abyss” that cannot be bridged between the divine and the human. I consider death to be part of that abyss. And I believe that traditional Judaism accepts the superiority of the immortal divine to mortal man. Moses, you may recall, in the Book of Deuteronomy pleads with God to be allowed to live on; but God, having decided that Moses’ time has come, replies: “Let it suffice thee.” Incidentally, T. Carmi, in his anthology of Hebrew verse (Penguin, 1981), includes a sequence of poems on the death of Moses (8th to 11th centuries). In one of the poems, Moses tries to guess what sin he committed that warrants his death. To each guess, God replies: “That is not why.” Finally, Moses cries out: “If that is not why, why then should I die?” God, of course, has the final, irrefutable word: “Moses, go up and die, for it has been decreed that you shall die.”
I am content with God’s answer, as expressed in the Jewish (and, in fact, the world) tradition. There is no questioning God, or death.
I am impressed by Jordan Pollack’s scholarship. It would appear that various scholars have recognized the difficulty the Kaddish presents, and have ingeniously circumvented the plain statement of the gulf between God’s inexorable will and our human incapacity where death is concerned. We cannot sufficiently praise Him, but, as Mr. Pollack puts it, “He should be blessed and praised as if we were capable of expressing such praise” and “We are praying that God will find it propitious to bring the messianic era so that He and we can be comforted.” The “as if” is reminiscent of William James’s pragmatic axiom: “We should act as if there was a God.” I doubt, too, that mourners now (or ever?) were willing to wait for the messianic era to be comforted. But Mr. Pollack has hit on the paradox in the Jewish tradition: it assumes a God who is far beyond human beings and yet is “vitally concerned in the affairs of man.”