One of the best known Jewish prayers today is Kaddish, perhaps only second to the Shema. Many Jews who do not pray regularly or understand Hebrew know Kaddish, or at least parts of it, by heart.
Although Kaddish has many liturgical functions and comes in four different versions, its popularity stems from the version known as the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that Jews recite after the death of a parent (and occasionally after the death of another close relative).
Surprisingly, the Mourner’s Kaddish makes no reference to death, dying, mortality, sadness, life after death, parents, bereavement or the precariousness of the human condition. As Leon Wieseltier wrote two decades ago in his monumental book Kaddish: “The liturgical function of the Kaddish has nothing to do with its content.”
For generations, Jewish thinkers have struggled to explain the popularity of this unusual prayer. Even calling it a prayer is controversial, since it is neither addressed to God nor does it mention God’s name.
David Birnbaum and Martin S. Cohen have edited a collection of 28 new essays about Kaddish written by rabbis and scholars from Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan. (Disclaimer: I wrote one of the essays.) The pieces in the collection approach Kaddish from many angles, ranging from linguistic analysis and philosophical speculation to reflections on the prayer’s historical development and the actual experience of reciting Kaddish.
I offer here on an idiosyncratic sampling:
The essay by Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa begins by summarizing the problem of Kaddish: “The perplexing connection between Kaddish and mourning is comparable to suggesting that one can alleviate hunger by reading short stories and allowing oneself to be distracted by them. Some people who read may actually have their hunger alleviated, but there is no real cause-and-effect relationship.”
Rabbi Bulka develops his own proposal: “Kaddish is a diversion from death and a counterpoint to bereavement; it is an antithesis to the thesis of loss, a purposeful radical departure from the logical process of putting a salve on a wound to ease the pain.”
Kaddish is written mostly in Aramaic, a language that few Jews understand, with just a few Hebrew words, broadening its audience only somewhat. Accordingly, most Jews reciting Kaddish have no idea what they are saying. Rabbi Michael Marmur of Jerusalem, the provost of The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, tries to explain how this could be the case whenKaddish is commonly perceived as “the irreducible minimum of Jewish religious allegiance.”
Rabbi Marmur uses modern theories of language to explain Kaddish as a “speech act” that has significance beyond the meaning of the words. “It is my contention that even for the individual unfamiliar with all the nuances of the prayer, there are aspects of its language that emphasize its role as a bridge between one state and another,” he writes.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Toronto uses Kaddish as a springboard for an erudite analysis of the differences between the “Aristotelian God of Maimonides,” who is distant from human beings, and the more involved God of Jewish mystics and some modern thinkers like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose God is in need of human beings just as we are in need of God.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl argues that in our age this second model is more appropriate. “I . . . want to believe in a God who is more than a cosmic process,” he writes. “I yearn for a personal God of conscious concern and covenantal love who is affected by our intent, our words, and our actions.”
Dr. Ruth Walfish, who teaches Bible in Jerusalem, observes the changes that have occurred in modern Orthodox communities in Israel. (Similar changes are taking place among modern Orthodox North Americans.)
When Walfish’s father died in 2002, it was considered controversial in her circles for a woman to eulogize her father at the funeral service or to recite Kaddish in his memory. Walfish’s brothers discharged those duties. But when her mother died only 10 years later, the Orthodox community in Israel had changed, and perhaps Walfish had, too. She eulogized her mother at the funeral, and decided, to her own surprise, to take upon herself the obligation of reciting Kaddish.
“I did not immediately decide to recite Kaddish. But at one Kabbalat Shabbat [Friday night] service, about two months into the year of mourning, I spontaneously stood up and joined the men in the recitation of Kaddish.”
She decided that she would recite Kaddish as often as practical, ignoring the often stated but baseless claim that if a woman wants to say Kaddish for a parent she has to commit to saying it every day – morning, afternoon and evening – for 11 months.
Walfish does not see herself as a pioneer or a revolutionary. But she sensitively discusses what it means to be the lone woman reciting Kaddish in an Orthodox service that is very male-centred.
It would be difficult to claim that this book has finally solved the riddle of Kaddish. But it contains thoughtful essays by knowledgeable Jews who have struggled to find meaning in the prayer itself or in the experience of reciting it. The essays are a useful resource for Jews to add meaning to their experience of mourning (or to their thinking about that experience), and to help in the process of consolation.