Saturday, September 8, 2012

The cult of kaddish?

More and more people seem to be writing about their experiences saying kaddish. There are books by E.M. Bronner, Leon Wieseltier, and Ari Goldman, and I'm sure others. There are many articles on the Internet.  Here's another one I just found from a woman's perspective: The blogosphere also seems to be filling up with kaddish blogs. (google kaddish and blog)

All these people write about how saying kaddish provided them with solace and meaning after the death of a parent. No question it's a meaningful experience. I have written about how the obligation to say kaddish provides an anchor that grounds the mourning process by providing a meaningful, repetitive and concrete activity focusing the mourner on his or her loss. (see and I have also written about how people who usually do not attend shul on regular basis seem to make sure to do so on the Yarhzeit (anniversary) of a parent's death in order to say kaddish. (see

It should be noted, however, that saying kaddish is not a mitzvah. It is not one of the 613 commandments that are traditionally listed as requirements of Orthodox life. It is not on the same level as biblical laws such as keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath. It is not on the level of laws that the Rabbis have interpreted as deriving from the Torah such as saying the Shma or not mixing meat and milk. It is not even on the level of purely rabbinic decrees such as lighting Chanuka candles.

It is, in essence, a custom, whose origin dates from the Middle Ages. From the earliest sources that mention the kaddish, it is clear "that mourner's kaddish developed as a custom of practice and is not an obligatory commandment" (Berkovits, A Daughter's Recitation of Kaddish, p. 8). It is one of those customs whose observance has become so widespread and entrenched that it has taken on the force of a religious obligation (for men at least, and increasingly so for women).

Is it possible that kaddish has taken on a unwarranted significance in proportion to its religious status? Is it the only proper way to mourn for a parent's loss? Are there other or perhaps better ways of doing so? Even more, is it possible that kaddish has developed into a fetish of sorts that has become so devalued that the obligation actually gets in the way of true mourning? By saying kaddish, the mourner can say to himself or herself, "I have mourned." But really? Doesn't mourning go deeper than just uttering the same words day after day? Isn't there an internal process involved that goes beyond speech? Isn't there a private and deeply personal aspect to mourning that cannot be captured in the public recitation of kaddish?

In A Daughter's Recitation of Kaddish, there is a footnote (page 57, note 186) from a responsa by Rabbi Yosef Eliyanu Henkin, one of the leading Poseks (religious decisors) of 20th century America. Rabbi Henkin offers a scathing critique of what I call the cult of kaddish. He writes that kaddish has little meaning if is not connected to "teshuva, tephila v'ma'asim tovim (repentance, prayer and good deeds)." Kaddish is secondary to doing good deeds, study and charity, and it more worthwhile to spend one's time in these activities than saying kaddish over and over. One kaddish a day suffices to fulfill one's obligation, he writes, even on a Yahrzeit. Not only that, he continues, the repetition of many kaddishes is a distraction when said without the proper understanding or intention.

I do find the obsession over saying kaddish somewhat strange and off-putting, but, as one actively engaged in that obsession, what what can I say? Like most rituals, kaddish can be done by rote. And like most rituals, rote is often the norm. My goal is to use the kaddish to strive for those few occasions when the ritual points the way toward some goal, the end of which I know not, but whose path provides me with meaning and spiritual uplift.

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