Friday, February 02, 2007

Considering Kaddish

I haven't posted in a week because, frankly, I've found it difficult to post on anything other than the contemplations on death that I promised last Friday and yet equally hard to address those issues at all. This waiting period and the difficulty in transitioning to non-morbid topics put me in mind of the stages of mourning. In Judaism, mourners go through several stages, during which they have different requirements and considerations.

The first seven days of mourning, the immediate family sits shiva ( the Hebrew noun meaning "sit," but it sounds awfully like the word for "seven"), during which they literally sit on hard, low chairs, wear sackcloth (or in this day and age, a torn ribbon; except in more observant communities, where they rend their clothing), and are visited by family and friends.

The first thirty days, the sh'loshim, the mourners get off their low chairs and can put on whole clothes again, but mourners don't shave, don't listen to live music or attend parties, and cover their mirrors.

During the first year of mourning, mourners can shave, but still cannot listen to live music or attend some types of parties, and some people hold that mourners should lead services because their obligation is stronger.

During this entire period, mourners say Kaddish, the Prayer for Mourning. After the first year, mourners say Kaddish on their loved one's yortzeit (the anniversary of their death) and during Yisgor, the Service of Remembrance.

Recently, I've been to several services with traditions surrounding Kaddish with which I vehemently disagree. Two years ago, at a Conservative shul* in Westchester, the rabbi had people rise according to the length of time they had been mourning: "If you are sitting shiva, please rise. If you are in the first thirty days of mourning, please rise. If you are in the first year of mourning, please rise. If you are observing yortzeit, please rise." I was pretty outraged in response, but this tradition was far less appalling than the one I observed at a Reform shul* last Rosh Hashana. The rabbi called out the name of people who had died and ask people to rise if they were mourning for that person (in order of how recently a person had passed). I was stunned, outraged, disgusted, and nauseated. My response may seem to be an over-reaction. Walking back from shul that afternoon, I had a lengthy discussion with a friend of mine whose shul follows that tradition. She argued that it made sense to recognize the recency of the loss and also alerted people to a person's stage of grief. I argued, admittedly from an extremely emotional vantage point, that it's difficult enough to stand up for kaddish without everyone knowing precisely how long you've been mourning. Announcing the stages implies that time correlates neatly with emotional impact or "level" of grief, when that couldn't be further from the truth.

Grief comes in fits and spurts, it's illogical and regardless of how we map it, we can never understand it. Even having had experience with grief hardly prepares you for the course healing will take in reaction to a new loss: a different person, a different relationship, a different reaction. In a tight-knit community, the announcement would be superfluous because the community would already know that a person is in mourning. In a diffuse community, that announcement feels like an intrusion. And to what end? Jewish tradition forbids going up to a person and drawing them out to speak while they are in mourning; we sit in silence until the mourners speak. So what's the purpose of call "fresh" mourners to rise in turn, based on how long they've been mourning?

I have not been able to find justification for this practice in Jewish law or tradition. If anyone knows where this tradition arose, I would like to hear how it developed. Suffice to say, I think it's a horrible, detrimental tradition that unjustifiably causes pain to those already suffering.

It's difficult to be sensitive to the needs of mourners because they are so varied, both from person-to-person and often from minute-to-minute for a single person. The solution is not to call them out, but to ensure that your community is supportive and open before a tragedy occurs. Religions were constructed for a variety of reasons, but in large part to create a supportive social network for the purpose of ensuring that members of that community survive pain and loss and are able to continue to be active, productive members. To the extent that religions work, they provide ritual in which people find solace and regain control, ritual that, in Judaism, requires an entire community (or at least a quorum of 10) to be present.

The cliquishness and exclusivity of some religious communities undermine their ability to be a supportive community. Not only does it preclude new members from joining and feeling comfortable, but it creates an atmosphere where people feel uncomfortable expressing vulnerability, exasperating the feeling of marginalization that results from losing someone (we'll talk about death euphemisms soon, trust me-- I mean, who thought up "losing someone," as if they've been momentarily misplaced or you weren't vigilant enough in keeping track of them).

I admit that I have a personal bone to pick in writing this last observation. As I've observed a yortzeit for the last decade and a half, I've had the opportunity to witness a myriad of communities (I've found myself in some pretty odd places on the date in question and made do with some uncomfortable compromises). The worst experience yet (although admittedly, saying Kaddish is never a good experience), was my freshman year in college. I was attending a certain Ivy League institution with a notoriously insulated Orthodox community who, unfortunately, were the only people holding a maariv minyan** in the middle of the week. I went with a more traditionally observant friend, dressed appropriately, swallowed my convictions, and stood on my side of the mechitza (the barrier separating male and female sides of the room). We got there before the service started and we were clearly new to this scene, yet not one person introduced themselves or even made eye contact. That was fine; I wasn't there to make friends or socialize; I was there to honor my mother's memory. Imagine my surprise when the service ended without Kaddish. No one asked if anyone needed to say Kaddish, no one considered that the random new girls were there for that purpose, no one even paused. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know the rules when it came to Kaddish, only that I needed 10 people and it came during a service. I had never been to a service where they skipped Kaddish. Panicked, I did it alone, with everyone milling around the room chatting, hoping that the fact that the necessary number of people were still present, if not still praying, was enough. Tears ran down my face as I went through the motions. I had never felt so entirely alone.

Maybe I'm hyper-sensitive to having people rise according to where they are in their grief because there are days when the pain of loss feels so fresh, it could have happened yesterday, when I feel my heart breaking all over again. Maybe it's because you never really get over death, you just learn to think around it, the way our brains work to form new connections around scar tissue. Maybe, I'm reminded of how people would stare at me and my father, pitying us; and later, when I went to shul alone, questioning me, wondering whom I had lost and how, asking if I understood that you only stand for immediate family. The feeling of everyone's eyes on me when all I wanted to do was shrink into a chair, to be entirely alone with my pain, that feeling stays with me. I shudder at what others feel when reminded precisely how long they've been mourning, in a place that's supposed to be safe for them, in shul.


*NB: I do not attend Orthodox shuls for religious and philosophical reasons, so I've left them out of this post, but I by no means wish to imply that these two shuls were representative of the Conservative and Reform movements.
** Maariv is the evening service; minyan is the minimum 10 people needed for a quorum to recite certain parts of the service and to say Kaddish.

10 comments:

Annie said...

Harley- To be fair, while at a Shabbes meal I met a girl who love the "stand if you've been mourning this long" thing. Loves it. And she was very disappointed/upset when she couldn't find it here on the East coast.

Also, I know that we've talked about this before, and this is by no means to imply that you were at fault, but in a young community, kaddish is not necessary. If you had approached anyone and let them know that you were going to be saying kaddish, you would have been accomodated.

And also, the Orthodox community where you went to school is large. Lots of people don't know eachother, so two girls who were dressed "appropriately" were much less likely to engender comment and notice. If you had gone wearing jeans and a t-shirt, the chances are much higher that someone would have come to talk to you, and asked you why you were there.

Yes, the community has its issues, and I can go on about them 'till I'm blue in the face. But in this case it was more of an unfortunate misunderstanding rather than coldness, deliberate or otherwise.

That said, anytime you need to say kaddish, I'll happily approach a gabbai for you, no matter where we are. I can even try to arrange an egal minyan (I've thrown one together before).

Anonymous said...

Ok, I am not Jewish, so I don't have anything to say about Jewish death rituals (well, nothing I'll say on this forum anyway). But I can see both points of view when it comes to what Annie described as the "stand if you've been mourning this long" thing. On the one hand, I don't think that it's completely unreasonable to think that grief diminishes over time. On the other, it's presumptuous and, as Harley points out, who wants to stand up in front of a group of people when he or she is mourning?

-The Rooster

curlygirl said...

I am sorry for the loss of your mother. Your post is interesting. I grew up going to a "Traditional" (Conservadox?) synagogue where only mourners rose for Kaddish. Now, I go mostly to Orthodox shuls and there is a new, Ortho rabbi at my old Traditional synagogue. In both places, the entire congregation rises for Kaddish because, after all, it is a sanctification of G-d's name.

sh said...

Maybe this is just me and perhaps silly, but another thing that bothers me about the stand for kaddish method is what if someone has no children. In that case there may be no one to say kaddish for them when they pass on and each time this announcement is made it is a reminder to them that no one will say Kaddish for them. I agree that mourning is a private process and it should not be brought into an open forum by announcements being made.
Although I did not go to the college you attended, I both agree and disagree with annie as to how you were treated. While being dressed "appropriately" should make you fit in, there is still an aspect of being a new face and likely the people making up the minyan were somewhat regular attendees. THerefore, it would have been nice to have had someone approach you, but like annie said probably not a deliberate act of coldness. I do agree that being a young community there is less of a chance that someone needs to say kaddish. However, where I went to school, at every minyan following aleinu (the concluding prayer) someone would say kaddish, just in case. This does bring up a different question of whether one should say kaddish if both parents are alive, however, with some research it becomes apparent that if the parents give permission it is okay.
Harley, like you said, everyone grieves differently and goes through different stages at different times. This should be respected by allowing people to grieve privately without putting them into uncomfortable positions, particularly in a synagogue which is meant to be a safe place.

sh said...

A quick addendum:
I think it would be worthwhile for all synagogues to have someone who will always say kaddish aloud, because there are many people who want to say kaddish but don't feel comfortable with their command of hebrew. In the synagogue I go to most often now, there is someone who always leads the kaddish prayer. I think it's a really great thing to do.

Jack's Shack said...

Maybe it's because you never really get over death, you just learn to think around it, the way our brains work to form new connections around scar tissue.

Well said.

marisa elana said...

First of all, in all of my travels among reform/ conservative/ reconstructionist/ orthodox shuls, I have never encountered this phenomenon of having people rise for kaddish in order of how long they've been in mourning. But I don't particularly like the idea for similar reasons; putting grief in a timeline doesn't help anyone understand a mourner's grief more, and instead implies that certain mourners are given precedence over others, which is wrong. Certainly if a family is in shul saying kaddish for the first time publicly following a death, that should be acknowledged, but generally every shul I attend simply asks anyone in mourning to please stand, and in the more liberal congregations, anyone for whom it is their custom to stand. (this is how many people solve the problem of those who died without leaving any family to recite kaddish for them)

Secondly, no matter how "young" a congregation is, the rabbi/service leader/gabbaim should at the very least ASK the congregation if there is a need to recite kaddish, so there is no chance of an oversight. And I'm actually horrified that no one in the congregation thought to stand up and say something. If one of my minyanim blew through the service and skipped the kaddish I'd sure as hell stand up and politely insist that we make room for the kaddish and see if anyone required it.

Anyway, that's my two shekelim.

Anonymous said...

God listens to Slayer.

-The Rooster

wendy said...

Growing up, my mom supported my decision to do this, and I have done this ever since - any time Kaddish is said, I stand...I have not always had someone specific to mourn, but somewhere, a person has died that does not have anyone to stand and say Kaddish for them. So, I always stand and say Kaddish for those I don't know, who have noone to cherish their memory.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in an Orthodox community, where only those in mourning or marking a Yahrtzeit stood for the mourner's Kaddish. Those that stand, by the way, were also the only ones who recited the Kaddish, while the remainder of the kahal gave the appropriate responses.

When I entered the Liberal Jewish world, Reconstructionist to be exact, I found the custom of everyone standing bizarre. Eastern European immigrants, whose orthodox traditions were flavored with a healthy dose of superstition, heavily populated my childhood community. We did NOT tempt the Angel of Death by saying Kaddish when we didn't need to :-)
Eventually I came to enjoy the custom of my new community, where those in mourning rose first and then the rest of the congregation rose “in solidarity" and to say Kaddish for all those who had no one to say Kaddish for them.

Fast forward to the present - My father passed away in January and I have been extremely uncomfortable with the custom in my present Reform congregation where everyone stands and recites the Kaddish together. I miss the sense of comfort I received on the few instances that I have davvened elsewhere, in communities where I recited the Kaddish (along with others in mourning) and the congregation responded to us.
There was a power in that response, a sense of my own loss and vulnerable state being acknowledged and supported. I felt held and protected by those around me, assuming they would treat me a bit more sensitively and gently.
I believe our sages, z’l, in addition to having tremendous spiritual insight, were great psychologists, guided by that skill in their creation of many of our rituals. Our rites of mourning are a prime example.
I think one of the main purposes of our public recitation of the Kaddish for 11 months is to remind our community and ourselves that we are still raw, still tender and still need the love and care of our brothers and sisters. It helps to maintain our status as a holy People.