By Jay P. Lefkowitz
March 1, 2018
Like countless Jews before me, I am saying Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. Three times a day, wherever I am in the world, I strive to find a minyan (quorum) so I can recite these ancient Aramaic verses as a last measure of devotion to my father.
At each service, I repeat the mantra: “Magnified and sanctified be His [God’s] great name in the world He has created according to His will.” To which my coreligionists respond with great force: “Let His great name be forever blessed for all eternity.”
I say those words and hear that refrain three times daily. The strange thing is that I’m not sure I really believe them.
The Kaddish is probably the most famous of all Jewish prayers. Leonard Bernstein set it to music in his Third Symphony; Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem by the same name upon the passing of his mother. In Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” two of the characters say the full Kaddish over Roy Cohn’s dead body. And it was chanted by Neil Diamond, playing a cantor, in “The Jazz Singer,” and by all of the workers in the factory in the last scene of “Schindler’s List.” Most improbably, it is even recited by Rocky Balboa when he mourns the passing of his beloved trainer, Mickey, in “Rocky III.”
Yet, the Kaddish is an odd prayer to have become the centrepiece of mourning. Despite its association with death and dying, it does not mention the word death. Instead, it is an endlessly repetitive celebration of the glory of God.
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The Kaddish’s origin, and its adoption by Jews as the signal act of mourning, is not entirely clear. The first words of the prayer are adapted from a verse in the Book of Ezekiel. And there are opaque references to the dominant refrain of the Kaddish — “Let His Great Name be forever blessed for all eternity” — in a commentary on the Bible written in Talmudic times.
But it appears that the custom of reciting the Kaddish for a deceased parent did not develop until the Middle Ages. Many scholars believe it to have been a Jewish response to the massacres of Jews of the Rhineland during the Crusades. Others have posited, based on a story about Rabbi Akiva, a leading second-century scholar, that the Kaddish was a response to the Christian concept of purgatory, and is intended as a plea to God to mitigate the eternal punishment of the deceased.
Whatever its origins, the text of the prayer leaves me cold. Each day as I say the Kaddish, I struggle with the fact that I am praising a God who, according to Jewish tradition, created the world “according to His Will.” Does God really will that the world endure the cruelty and suffering we see so often? And, on a more personal level, did God will that my father, an intellectual who suffered from dementia, would lose the ability to communicate and have the mental faculties of a 5-year-old during his last 18 months on earth?
The Kaddish is hardly the only prayer that troubles me. Take the 145th Psalm, which I say every day as an observant Jew. It proclaims that “God protects all those who love God, but will destroy all the wicked?” Really? Do I honestly believe that’s a true reflection of God or our universe?
Yet despite my theological ambivalence, I am turning somersaults to say Kaddish at three different prayer services each day. And in accordance with tradition, I will continue to say the Kaddish daily for 11 months within my period of mourning. Already, in the two months since my father passed at 86 years old, I have prayed in synagogues and office buildings, schools and private homes in far-flung places, including Texas, Florida, California, Colorado, Copenhagen and London.
One night I took a red-eye flight back from the West Coast so I could attend an early-morning minyan near Newark Airport, because any of the available flights the next morning would have caused me to miss saying Kaddish altogether that day. Another time, I found a minyan in Orlando where everyone was a Moroccan Jew and the only languages spoken were Hebrew and French. There is a minyan in San Francisco that meets every afternoon in a Trolley car, and another in Manhattan that meets on Track 42 at Grand Central Terminal. And come spring, I know I won’t have any problem finding a minyan during home games at Yankee Stadium, just past the kosher hot-dog stand.
The fact is that makeshift synagogues where Jews can gather to say Kaddish are ubiquitous. They spring up like mushrooms wherever there are Jews. And for one simple reason: They create community.
Unlike some people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who take great comfort in communicating with God, I am not confident that God even listens to our prayers. Yet I have reoriented my life to accommodate my obligation to say Kaddish. And I do so cheerfully because it links me to Jews across generations and continents. It defines me as a member of the tribe. My tribe.
That is the essential gift of the Kaddish. It fosters community for a person who has just suffered a searing loss of a parent or sibling, spouse or child, even when we find ourselves far from home.
Even if the words themselves offer little comfort, I take great satisfaction in this communal act of prayer; of hearing the voices of others respond to my own prayers; and of being welcomed and enveloped by a larger and transcendent community. And in that experience, I honour and reconnect with my father.
Jay P. Lefkowitz was the United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea from 2005 to 2009.