Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The functions of kaddish

In her book Saying Kaddish, Anita Diamant writes, "The mystery of Kaddish is revealed every time it is spoken aloud with others.  The truth is that the sounds of the words are more important than their definitions.  The text is secondary to the emotional experience of its recitation.  The meaning only becomes clear when given communal voice" (Saying Kaddish, p. 14).

While Diamant goes on to say that the words are "not insignificant," (ibid.), she has a good point: the actual recitation of the kaddish seems to transcend the words themselves.  It's not that the words aren't nice, they are, especially the ending prayer for peace.  But the longer I say kaddish, the more I believe that its basic functions go much beyond the text of the prayer.

There is the metaphysical function of the kaddish and its supposed efficacious effect on the soul of the deceased.  (The idea is that the kaddish elevates the soul from Gehenom (hell) to its intended destination in heaven; see my post at http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/05/efficacy-of-kaddish.html)  I have no way of knowing if this is the case; even if it is, the the kaddish has two major practical functions in the here and now.

The first is that it gets you out of the house at least twice a day.  You have to pray and say kaddish with a minyan (a quorum of ten). You may like some of the other shul goers, you may not care for others.  It doesn't matter.  You got up, got out of your home, walked or drove to shul at a specific time and entered a synagogue.  You are others who have done the same thing.  You discover that some of them are nice.  Not only that, some are sympathetic to you, having had the same experience as you.  The communities with whom I pray community most don't care about my own inner experience.  Most of them are there to fulfill their own obligations to pray.  Some of them are also there to say kaddish.  I am with them.  That's the fact.

The other practical function of kaddish is that it gives you something to do.  It's a task, and it's doable. The Mourner's Kaddish is not that long.  11 lines.  It doesn't take that much effort to say.  Yes it's in Aramaic, which which is more difficult than Hebrew, but the reason it's in Aramaic is that Aramaic used to be the vernacular and easier to say than Hebrew. Even now, most shul goers have heard it so often that, by the time you say it as a mourner, you're already fairly familiar with the words.  Once you've said kaddish on a regular basis, it begins to roll off the tongue. Sure, the Kaddish D'rabanan has five more lines for a total of sixteen, but even that after a while becomes fairly easy to recite fluently.

It's okay if I often feel like I'm a kaddish wind up doll.  During Alyenu and other prayers that immediately precede kaddish, your spring gets wound up.  The prayer ends and the words of kaddish come out.  It's okay.  Every day I have a small sense of accomplishment.  I went to shul.  I said kaddish.  I'm doing this because my mother died.  That's enough.  Not always.  But often.

My mother was a strong believer in the power of behavior and goals to effect positive change.  She edited a book called "Couples Therapy."  (see http://www.amazon.com/Treating-Couples-Jossey-Bass-Clinical-Technique/dp/0787902055/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341941252&sr=8-1&keywords=hilda+kessler)  In it, she contrasts feelings with behavior.  She writes about what she saw as "the current overemphasis on feelings as a guide to therapeutic behavior.  Feelings, like children, are delightful, but also erratic, uncontrollable, and often excessive."  (Couples Therapy, pp. xvii-xviii.) In her therapy, she held that giving couples "simple and doable" tasks in which they had to work cooperatively could often diffuse areas of conflict between them and provide the key to positive change in the relationship.  (pp. 26-27)

Kaddish works in a similar way. The tradition gives you task. Get up, get out of  your home, get to shul and say kaddish for 11 months. That's it. It doesn't take away the pain of loss. It doesn't provide a full measure of comfort. But it does peg your mourning to a specific and definable task that you can accomplish. I'm about three-quarters of the way toward that goal.

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