Exploring Kaddish: Some Resources and an Invitation

KaddishIs Kaddish — in its various forms — “prayer,” as in some combination of praise, request and/or submission to God? Or is it a recitation, more like the Shema? Is it a mystical device? Or punctuation, signaling a tone-shift in prayer services? None or all of the above? And where does “praying for the dead” figure? Explore.

Has this prayer, recited so often in Jewish services, become such a fixture that you no longer process its meaning? Were you, perhaps, taught to recite the ancient language without understanding the Aramaic words? Some creative translations and alternative readings can help break through the kaddish-trance.

Temple Micah’s lay-led Siddur Study group will be exploring the questions above and others on July 26.  Materials are here to whet the appetite and for those who cannot join us in person. No background in Hebrew or prayer is needed. No preparation required. All are welcome.

(Meetings generally begin roughly half an hour after morning services end, i.e., sometime between noon and 12:30 p.m. in the summertime.)

Join Siddur Study at Temple Micah in person, July 26.
If you’re not in our physical neighborhood,
join us virtually by posting comments or questions here.


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Opening and the Ark

What does it mean to open the Ark?

In my experience the Torah service exhibits more diversity than any other part of a Jewish service. Reading length varies across denominations. General approach ranges from informal circles embracing Torah to formal, long-standing choreography. And the Torah service is one spot where women’s absence on the bima, in congregations without egalitarian practice, is the most obvious. Moreover, it is one of the few moments where division of Jews into Kohen, Levite, and Yisrael is still obvious in Orthodox and Conservative congregations (where a kohen [priest] is called to the first aliyah ["going up" Torah honor] and a Levite to the second).

How much is shared across this variety? And what do the variations mean? — Are they matters of custom, preference, and leadership style, or theology? Which one(s) work for you and why?

The Torah service is not the only point when the Ark is open. But the beginning of the Torah service presents a prominent opportunity to contemplate what it means to us, individually and communally, to open the Ark… to approach Torah and have Torah brought into our midst.

Here is a prayer of my own, based on words commonly recited as the Ark is opened. Below that are links to the prayers that inspired mine — B’rich Shmei and Anim Zmirot — and more thoughts on opening the Ark.

What is your prayer for approaching the Torah?

To what are you opening?

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Juxtaposing Redemption and Prayer

Once, Rav Beruna “juxtaposed redemption and prayer” — i.e., managed his morning prayers in such a way that he completed the Redemption ["Mi Chamocha"] blessing, following the morning Shema, and moved on to the Amidah [Standing Prayer] just exactly at sunrise — and laughter [and joy] did not cease from his mouth for the entire day.
— Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 9b

We prayed with perfect timing…At the exact moment that we started the Amidah, the sun peeked over the horizon.
…God was happy that we showed up….
I’ve held onto that day as being among the most divine experiences in a largely faithless life….
– David Wolkin, “12 Awkward Boys,” at DC Sermon Slam.

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Tzipporah’s Eye View at the DC Sermon Slam

I have always lived among priests and prophets. I know that some divine encounters prove more terrifying than illuminating. And I believe there is much to be learned about Revelation by turning away from Sinai’s thunder and lightening.

Consider for a moment that time Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses and his black wife and God responded by covering Miriam with white scales. [Numbers 12:1ff. Tzipporah also appears in Exodus chapters 3, 4, and 18]…


…So, what does this incident tell you about Revelation?

Follow me for a moment on a “tzipporah-eye view,” looking two directions at once to see ahead. ["Tzipporah" = "bird"]

One bird’s eye focuses in on the siblings, without regard to gender. Here are three powerful individuals, all within spitting distance, shall we say, of divine Revelation. Genuine caring and concern between the siblings is evident, and each is deeply committed to community and the evolving Torah.

And yet, this story shows, understanding anyone else’s piece of Revelation – even the teaching of a prophet sibling, whom you love and respect – has always been hard. How much more so must non-siblings in your time work to understand each other’s perspectives!…

Recording from DC’s recent Sermon Slam, a project of Open Quorum. Background notes and sources.
Full text.


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Stragglers on the Road Away from Bondage

Remarks before Mourners’ Kaddish, Temple Micah (DC)
Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath (March 13-16, 2014)

Hadiya Z. Pendleton lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, my hometown, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live. She liked Fig Newtons, my favorite snack when I was a teenager. She and I both visited Washington, DC, while still in high school — I was part of Washington Workshops Congressional Seminars, and she performed in Obama’s Inaugural parade. Both of us participated in local anti-crime initiatives: “Operation Whistle Stop” in my case; and a “Think Smart” anti-gang video in hers.

“Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her,” Michelle Obama said last April. “But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story….”

Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on January 29, 2013, shot to death in a public park because, from the back, she resembled someone associated with a gang. Hadiya never reached her 16th birthday, which would have been June 2, 2013.

While there are obvious differences between my life and both Hadiya Pendleton’s and Michelle Obama’s, my reaction to Hadiya’s death was similar to Mrs. Obama’s. She rightly points out how just a few urban blocks can mean the difference between a life rich in possibility and one circumscribed by need and loss. I would add that we cannot allow those few blocks – or even a few miles – to insulate us from our neighbors’ grief.

Since last January, the District of Columbia has lost ten teenagers to gunshots, but I do not usually hear their names read from this bima [podium]. I know many who mourn for young people killed on DC streets, but my own children graduated high school without losing an immediate friend to that plague, and neither child remembers the frequent gunshots of their toddler years, so they grew up without that fear. The relative segregation of our lives mean that many of us here today are not directly touched by the violence that robs too many of our neighbors of childhoods. But Judaism forbids us from standing idly by the blood of a sister. And Shabbat Zachor [Remember!], just before Purim, calls us to remember the threat of Amalek, who attacked the hungry, weary stragglers among the Israelites in the desert (Deut. 25:17-19).

In Chicago, DC, and other cities, whole neighborhoods like Hadiya’s have become stragglers on the road out of bondage, filled with youth who are hungry and weary and, all too often, vulnerable to attack. Until all teens like Hadiya can safely hang out in the local parks, we have failed to blot out the name of Amalek.

Hadiya’s life teaches how much can be packed into just a few years. Her death reminds us of the fragility of life at any age, but also of the duty of elders to protect our youth. So, last year, I acknowledged Hadiya Pendleton as my teacher and recited mourners’ kaddish for her. In consultation with Rabbi Lederman, I chose to speak about this Fig-Newton-loving, civic-minded young woman today (March 15), instead of on her yahrzeit which passed a few weeks ago. We thought that it would particularly honor her memory to speak her name on a Shabbat set aside for Gun Violence Prevention.

May the memory of Hadiya Pendleton be for a blessing, and may that blessing include a renewed commitment to make our cities safe places where all young people can thrive.

“Because of this…” (Blessing and attitude, continued)

A (very) previous post discussed the idea of being too grumpy for gratitude, with a focus on one humility-prompting passage from the morning blessings:

…Master of all worlds, we do not offer our supplications before You based on our righteousness, but rather based on Your great mercy. What are we? What are our lives?….Man barely rises above beast, for everything is worthless [hakol havel]….

Because of this, we are obliged to acknowledge and thank you…
– See “Is thanks ever simple? – part 2″

In that post, Ellen Frankel and Estelle Frankel (no relation as far as I know) are quoted on the concepts of “bittul/self-surrender” and a “healthy sense of entitlement.”

Admitting such truth is not simple. It requires that we abandon our grandiose childish sense of entitlement to God’s favor. We…are puny in God’s sight. Ultimately, we can only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

But is this abject humility an honest expression of how we feel? Must we really live our lives as though we are so worthless, as though hakol havel, “everything is worthless,” as Ecclesiastes lamented?
– Ellen Frankel, My Peoples Prayerbook
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