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kaddish, pain, and ascension

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?


By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

2 replies on “kaddish, pain, and ascension”

What I really want, of course, is to pick up the phone and call my dad — and ask him his thoughts on all this. And I know I would be startled at the simplicity and elegance of his response, his wisdom, his lack of judgementalism, his kindness and his compassion. When will I ever learn to let go the snarky tone, the defensive sarcasm, and the anthropological distance — and well, be more like my departed dad? I still don’t care that much about ascension per se. But I’d take my dad as Maggid any old day.

Good questions about diffusion.

I wrote a while back about how we’d agreed not to continue expecting each day’s Kaddish to have a specific theme—that carrying out this ritual for our list of lost loves, day after day for our year and a day, was theme enough. Yet here we are, continuing to work with specific themes almost every day.

I wonder if that’s part of the process. We’ve each written about starting this project with specific losses in mind, with the pain of those specific losses feeling like plenty of impetus for our efforts. We’ve also both written about how we’ve felt those specific pains fading into dull aches and gradually into a sense of acceptance—and even into boredom and a feeling of being “all kaddished out.”

Here we find ourselves now, in our eighth month, making daily Kaddishim that reflect the more immediate concerns of the day.

And isn’t that the point? That through this daily ritual, we are emerging from our grief back into daylight? acceptance? a will to live?

Dare I say, “happiness”?

You also ask whether in learning to let go, through Kaddish, I’ve let go of more than I intended.

The answer to that question has to be “yes, but.”

In starting this project, I did not intend to let go of my marriage. So yes, I’ve let go of more than I intended.

But: my marriage was on a course of its own. My marriage lived apart from the grief of all those deaths.

This process, if anything, enabled my marriage to last a little longer, in that it provided a focal point for my energy and a release for some of my grief—because undoubtedly part of the unraveling of a relationship is grieving the loss of the joy and hope that drove us to join hands. I think we need to acknowledge and grieve the loss of joy and hope in myriad daily, small ways before we can even begin to recognize the larger sense of loss that could drive a revitalization of the relationship or that might lead us eventually to drop hands and go our separate ways. I knew I was channeling grief over a number of deaths into our work, but perhaps I was also finding a release for this other kind of grief, and in so doing, I was able to maintain an emotional equilibrium of sorts.

However, in writing the above, I bumped into something else. I have been learning more about my emotional landscape through this project. The daily encounter with the emotional messages emerging from my horn—which you always seem to hear, even when I haven’t yet written up anything about what I thought those messages were—have focused my attention on a part of myself that I am usually quite comfortable to ignore: my emotions.

Yes, Reb Deb, I just said that out loud: I ignore my emotions a lot of the time. Or maybe I don’t ignore them so much as I don’t hear them, or I don’t notice what I’m hearing when I do hear them.

So. More attention to my emotions. I suppose that could have accelerated the dissolution of my marriage, being more aware of my feelings about it. Or having a release channel for my grief could have decelerated it.

Or maybe I had it right the first time: my marriage was on a course of its own, that lived apart from the grieving of death that underlies “kaddish in two-part harmony.”

In other words, I don’t know. Ask me again in a year. Our project is eight months along; it has a maturity of sorts. My divorce is in its first throes; its pain is still young.

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