I was very moved by Erin’s kaddish for the old Bay Bridge — which, of course, wasn’t about the bridge at all. And I thought, oy, what a can of worms this kaddish has opened. Daily kaddish may well be harmful to the health, I thought. Every day you are in mourning, focusing on that mourning, immersing yourself in grief and loss. Could kaddish recitation (or horn) that is not ritually correct — at least in the sense that it is directed not to one lost soul but to so many — actually bring about even greater loss? Erin was finally ready to say kaddish for her departed ones — but there she is, immersed in more departure. Has her daily kaddish been too diffuse? In learning to let go through kaddish, has she let go much more than she intended?
Or has Kogan’s Kaddish, day after day, brought her solace in the face of inevitable loss?
So. Of course, I can’t answer these questions. But it set me on a path to explore what others have written about the function of kaddish. And, equally of course, there’s an awful lot written. And it’s not like I turned this into a research project — it was a cursory exploration on the internet, not a learned inquiry into dusty old tomes. But I came up with a website that tried to cover all the bases. You won’t be surprised to hear that it smacks of Chabad, and appears to be one of a multitude of weekly Chabbadnik online newsletters that link to each other and use each other’s sources. More than that, no author is attributed to the kaddish essay I found so fascinating. Collectivist that I may be, I do like to cite my sources. Sorry. This time I can’t completely. It appears to be an adaptation from the teachings of the Lubovitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. But you’re welcome to check out the Sichos in English kaddish meditation here, or take a look at my annotated remarks below. Or both. Or neither. Free will. Although, not according to the essay.
The essay is pretty concerned with the destiny of our souls. So, if that’s not a topic that floats your boat, you could skip this post entirely. I’m bringing it up because we have evidence just from our own experience, that daily kaddish does do something to us. Call it ‘soul’ or call it ‘psyche’ — either way, something is happening. Rabbi Schneerson chooses to call it ‘soul.’
The first premise in the essay is what caught my eye. It made me very very nervous to the point that I found it downright dangerous. It also almost made me stop reading right then and there. But no. I continued. The little blurb’s section was called ‘Kaddish makes us special.’ It distinguishes between saying kaddish for a tzaddik and saying kaddish for anyone else (“even the ignorant or sinful”) (a distinction that would never have occurred to me), making the point that one should say kaddish for those non-tzaddikim as well. And then, somehow the commentary implies (and I’m not sure how or why) that “the kaddish evokes the idea that all Jews are special …” (his emphasis, although I’m not sure if that would be R’ Schneerson’s or his paraphraser’s emphasis) … “even ordinary Jews.” I have no idea what this means, but at first glance, I don’t like it. It sounds like something that I’m gonna see next on a neo-Nazi website proving the Jews’ arrogance and exclusivity. The notion of ‘special’ surely bodes nothing but trouble.
But maybe that’s the evil eye speaking.
Before going any further, let me affirm: we are not special. That’s a fact.
The points thereafter were divided in two: what kaddish does for the soul of the deceased, and what kaddish does for the soul of the mourner. And it was downright fascinating. And kabbalistic. An anthropological motherlode.
One of the distinctions, then, between the tzaddik and the ‘ordinary’ Jew is how long it takes for the soul to ascend. For the tzaddik it sounds fairly instantaneous. For the ordinary Jew, his (sic) soul needs some pushing and prodding for almost 12 months before it can get a move-on, and the recitation of kaddish for him (sic again) gives that push and gets it going in the right direction. It just takes a year.
Which means that our kaddish project is going about things all wrong. It’s too diffuse to push a single soul in the right direction. Note to self: start all over. And focus next time. Then again, my own impetus for our kaddish project was to mourn a tzaddik, to begin with, so maybe I shouldn’t worry so much. And for those ‘ordinary’ people we’ve been mourning? Something tells me that they’ve got some spiritual cojones of their own to help them ascend the cosmic ladder.
Recitation of kaddish also appears to function such that it helps the mourner’s soul ascend from world to world — all the way from the lowest world, Assiyah, to the most exalted, Atzilut. And I don’t believe a word of that either. I don’t think humans (whether tzaddikim or ‘ordinary’ souls) have any business up there in Atzilut. Even my dad. I’d like to think he’s evolved enough to not need Atzilut. Or if he got there, he’d look around and decide which museum each bit belonged to, and he’d start collecting and redistributing. I can’t picture my dad staying put. Even in Atzilut.
I mean, isn’t that the point of being a tzaddik? You don’t stay put. You act. My guess is that folks like my dad become (if they become anything at all) a Maggid — one who whispers teachings into the ears of deserved (living) seekers. I’m afraid that’s a rather shamanistic-Jewish point of view. The idea being that the departed still have something to teach us.
Another part of the Sichos in English essay on the functions of Kaddish was all about the alleviation of sin. It might as well have talked about heaven and hellfire for all its focus on redemption of the wicked. I didn’t like that part either. It sounded so, well, goyische to me. But what do I know?
The point is, that the Sichos folks (dare I say, Chabad, or the revered Reb Schneerson himself, whom some call the Moshiah) believe that reciting kaddish has a significant impact on the nature and progression of souls. And that even in some downright earthly psychological dimension (i.e., the lowest of the lowest part of Malkhut), we are moved and then transformed.
Maybe we’re supposed to suffer all this loss. Maybe it’s supposed to be good for us? A kind of cleansing from the past. A way to start over again. To re-new ourselves. Maybe we need that kick in the teeth to move us along to the next stage. Maybe kaddish is a marker for that. I’m okay with ascension of the soul in this regard. Maybe we weren’t moving on, and saying kaddish forces us to take the step we weren’t ready for. Maybe we were stagnant and now we’re flowing?
Maybe Schneerson (or his redactor) has been right all along, and it’s just the language I’ve been having trouble with?