The Power of Kaddish for Believers and Skeptics Alike

March 2 2018

According to tradition, a Jew is required to recite kaddish for eleven months following the death of a close relative. For the Orthodox, fulfilling this obligation requires finding a minyan—a quorum of ten adult Jewish males—three times every day. Jay Lefkowitz, now mourning the death of his father, reflects on the experience:

[T]he kaddish is an odd prayer to have become the centerpiece of mourning. Despite its association with death and dying, it does not mention the word death. Instead, it is a repetitive celebration of the glory of God. . . . [But] the text of the prayer leaves me cold. Each day as I say kaddish, I struggle with the fact that I am praising a God who, according to [its words], 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 five-year-old during his last eighteen months on earth? . . .

Yet despite my theological ambivalence, I am turning somersaults to say kaddish at three different prayer services each day. . . . Already, in the two months since my father passed away at the age of eighty-six, I have prayed in synagogues and office buildings, schools and private homes in far-flung places, including Texas, Florida, California, Colorado, Copenhagen, and London. . . .

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 honor and reconnect with my father.

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More about: Judaism, Kaddish, Mourning, Religion & Holidays

 

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