Martin S. Cohen
When Allen Ginsberg famously began his idiosyncratic eulogy of his mother by asking the reader to imagine him “up all night, talking, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles,” he did not pause to explain what exactly this thing called Kaddish was or why he would have been reading it aloud in his mother’s memory. Nor did he need to: there is no Jewish prayer better known to the non-Jewish world than Kaddish, and the concept of saying Kaddish “for” someone has entered the American lexicon of cultural phrases known to all and used freely without the need to translate or explain. Neither Imre Kertesz’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child nor Leon Wieseltier’s 1998 bestseller Kaddish provides a translation or explanation on the dustjacket, for example, the assumption being that anyone cultured enough to want to read either book—and surely not only Jewish readers—would know what the word means and what its use as the title implies about the book’s content. Nor did Leonard Bernstein seem to feel the need for any explanation when he named his third symphony “Kaddish,” and left it at that.
And yet, for all that everybody “knows” what Kaddish is, the truth is that it remains—even for those well-versed in Jewish prayer—mysterious in many ways. There are, for example, several different version of Kaddish, each assigned its particular place in the larger liturgical world of traditional Judaism, but the specific relationship of all these versions remains obscure: it is even unknown whether the shorter versions are abridgements of the longer ones, or if the longer ones are elaborations of the shorter texts. Another riddle has to do with the language of the Kaddish: why is it primarily composed in Aramaic, the street language of Roman Palestine, rather than Hebrew, the regular language for Jewish prayer? (And it is unclear as well why its author would have used a hodge-podge of Aramaic and Hebrew, when the prayer could easily have been written solely in one language or the other.) Nor do we know the precise relationship between the Kaddish and the text presented in the New Testament and later known to Christians as the “Lord’s Prayer”—despite the obvious similarities in vocabulary, grammar, and meaning between the two prayers. The Kaddish, in each of its versions, has eschatological overtones—but what specifically the prayer means to suggest about the messianic future, and how that vision interfaces with other related rabbinic concepts (including the resurrection of the dead, the redemption of the world, the kingdom of God on earth, and the sanctification of God’s name as the salvific trigger of redemption) is unclear…as is the place or prominence of Kaddish in Jewish worship during the first centuries of the Common Era. We do not even know with certainty the date of the Kaddish.
In its own category of obscurity is the use of Kaddish as the memorial prayer for the dead par excellence—a role so widely understood that the expression “to have Kaddish for someone” will be easily unpacked by even the casual Jewish listener to mean that the speaker has lost a parent, sibling, spouse, or child, that the anniversary of that relative’s death is coming up, and that the speaker intends to attend synagogue services on that day in order to recite the Kaddish in memory of that deceased individual. But what it means precisely to say Kaddish “for” someone—that is another matter entirely, and a far more obscure one. Do the dead derive some posthumous benefit when someone says Kaddish “for” them? If not, in what sense is it “for” them at all? But if the departed themselves do not derive any benefit at all from the recitation of the prayer, then who does benefit from its recitation? And in what specific way?
These questions, and many, many others, are addressed by the authors who have contributed to this volume. They come from a wide range of backgrounds: some are congregational rabbis, while others are teachers and academics, and still others work in the Jewish world in different capacities. They are a diverse group, our authors: men and women, older and younger, staunchly traditionalist and more liberally oriented, Israeli and diaspora-based. Yet, for all that they are different, they are also united by the common belief that the written word, and particularly in the form of the short essay, is a medium in which readers may meaningfully explore Judaism and Jewishness itself.
This is not a book solely for Jews of any particular spiritual orientation; nor, for that matter, is it a book solely for Jewish readers. Rather, my hope is that this anthology of essays may open a door for all who possess of the kind of curiosity regarding Jewish religion and culture that cannot be dealt with by platitudes, or even heartfelt op-ed pieces, but solely with thoughtful, text-based studies intended to inform, persuade, and convince. The authors in this volume invite readers along on an investigative journey that will lead, if successful, to a deeper appreciation of the larger Jewish enterprise through the informed contemplation of a single one of its myriad parts. I feel privileged to present the work of these authors to the reading public for its—for your—contemplation, and I hope our readers come to feel as I do that this is a remarkable collection of essays by an equally remarkable group of authors.
Unless otherwise indicated, all translationshere are the authors’ own work. Biblical citations footnoted to the NJPS derive from the complete translation of Scripture first published under the title Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia in 1985.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the other senior editors of the Mesorah Matrix series, David Birnbaum and Benjamin Blech, as well as Saul J. Berman, our associate editor. They and our able staff have all supported me as I’ve labored to bring this volume to fruition and I am grateful to them all.
As always, I must also express my gratitude to the men and women, and particularly to the lay leadership, of the synagogue I serve as rabbi, the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York. Possessed of the unwavering conviction that their rabbi’s book projects are part and parcel of his service to them—and, through them, to the larger community of those interested in learning about Judaism through the medium of the well-written word—they are remarkably supportive of my literary efforts as author and editor. I am in their debt, and I am pleased to acknowledge that debt formally here and whenever I publish my own work or the work of others.
Martin S. Cohen
Roslyn, New York
June 21, 2015/4 Tammuz 5775