Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Saying a prayer I don't believe in

Like countless Jews before me, I am saying Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. Three times a day, wherever I am in the world, I strive to find a minyan (quorum) so I can recite these ancient Aramaic verses as a last measure of devotion to my father.

At each service, I repeat the mantra: “Magnified and sanctified be His [God’s] great name in the world He has created according to His will.” To which my coreligionists respond with great force: “Let His great name be forever blessed for all eternity.”

I say those words and hear that refrain three times daily. The strange thing is that I’m not sure I really believe them.

The Kaddish is probably the most famous of all Jewish prayers...Yet, the Kaddish is an odd prayer to have become the centerpiece of mourning. Despite its association with death and dying, it does not mention the word death. Instead, it is an endlessly repetitive celebration of the glory of God.

The Kaddish’s origin, and its adoption by Jews as the signal act of mourning, is not entirely clear. The first words of the prayer are adapted from a verse in the Book of Ezekiel. And there are opaque references to the dominant refrain of the Kaddish — “Let His Great Name be forever blessed for all eternity” — in a commentary on the Bible written in Talmudic times.

But it appears that the custom of reciting the Kaddish for a deceased parent did not develop until the Middle Ages. Many scholars believe it to have been a Jewish response to the massacres of Jews of the Rhineland during the Crusades. Others have posited, based on a story about Rabbi Akiva, a leading second-century scholar, that the Kaddish was a response to the Christian concept of purgatory, and is intended as a plea to God to mitigate the eternal punishment of the deceased.

Whatever its origins, the text of the prayer leaves me cold. Each day as I say the Kaddish, I struggle with the fact that I am praising a God who, according to Jewish tradition, created the world “according to His Will.” Does God really will that the world endure the cruelty and suffering we see so often? And, on a more personal level, did God will that my father, an intellectual who suffered from dementia, would lose the ability to communicate and have the mental faculties of a 5-year-old during his last 18 months on earth?

The Kaddish is hardly the only prayer that troubles me. Take the 145th Psalm, which I say every day as an observant Jew. It proclaims that “God protects all those who love God, but will destroy all the wicked?” Really? Do I honestly believe that’s a true reflection of God or our universe?

Unlike some people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who take great comfort in communicating with God, I am not confident that God even listens to our prayers. Yet I have reoriented my life to accommodate my obligation to say Kaddish. And I do so cheerfully because it links me to Jews across generations and continents. It defines me as a member of the tribe. My tribe.

That is the essential gift of the Kaddish. It fosters community for a person who has just suffered a searing loss of a parent or sibling, spouse or child, even when we find ourselves far from home.

Even if the words themselves offer little comfort, I take great satisfaction in this communal act of prayer; of hearing the voices of others respond to my own prayers; and of being welcomed and enveloped by a larger and transcendent community. And in that experience, I honor and reconnect with my father.

i) It's useful to have a point of contrast so that Christian self-reflection doesn't become too insular. It's a pity that the author secularizes prayer, reducing it to a sense of psychological solidarity with other Jews. Collapsing the vertical dimension of prayer to the horizontal. Unfortunately, his Jewish background leaves him without sufficient resources to adequately cope with the death of his father. It leaves him estranged from the once-familiar world. 

ii) Ps 145 is false if that's a promise about this life. And that's another problem with modern Judaism, which is so often this-worldly rather than other-worldly. 

iii) However, the article raises another issue. Is it hypocritical to say a prayer you don't believe in? It can be hypocritical to maintain pious appearances when faith is absent. However, his case is different. He wants the prayer to be true. He hopes the prayer is true. He yearns for a world that's really like that. Desperate wishful-thinking, yet that's the paradox of prayer: desperation is the seedbed of prayer. 

Christians struggle with prayer, when they're not sure it makes any difference. When, to all appearances, prayer often makes no discernible difference. When, to all appearances, the outcome is just the same whether or not they prayed. If they hadn't prayed at all, things would have turned out exactly the same–because they turned out contrary to what the Christian fervently prayed for. And, of course, if things were going to turn out that way all along, then it was pointless to pray about it. Or so it seems. You'd get the same dismal result without prayer. 

Yet many Christians continue to pray because…what's the alternative? Uncertainty is better than bleak certainty. Suppose a kidnapper gives the hostage a choice: "I will kill you–or I will spare your life if you throw sixes three times in a row." Of course, the odds are very low that throwing dice will yield three sixes in a row, but given that the grim, hopeless alternative is a sure thing, it's better to roll the dice. Even a shaft of sunlight through the barred window of a dungeon is better than black despair. 

iv) Did God will his father's dementia? Let's take a comparison–a Christian comparison: did God will the cross? The atonement is a part of God's eternal plan. Yet the crucifixion requires some human agents to act sinfully. Judas, Pilate, the Sanhedrin, the lynch mob. To will the end, God must will the means. In that sense, God wills evil. Not evil for evil's sake. But even sin can have instrumental value. 

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