For a while, I attended a gym (no longer convenient to me) with an interesting regimen. I worked out twice a week for about twenty minutes at a time. During that time, I rotated among a few machines for very slow intensive muscle work. The notion was to exhaust the muscle in two minutes or so.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I investigated it thoroughly. The literature may or may not have had strong scientific grounding, but it changed my theology of Jewish law.
The founder of this program asked a basic question: how do you build muscle strength? His answer was: by breaking down the muscle tissue and allowing it to rebuild. That, he said, was best effected by slow and intense repetitions, not by rapid repetitive motions. He formulated it in an intriguing way. If the goal was to work the muscle, use his method. If the goal was to work the exercise machine, go for quantity over quality.
As a rabbi, of course I look for a sermon in everything. And here was one about Jewish law. I thought of a lesson I learned one day while waiting for the tenth man for a minyan at an orthodox synagogue. The rabbi discussed the change in liturgy that occurs at the end of Sukkot (Tabernacles). In the central prayer, words reminding God to cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall are added as the fall festivals conclude. But what happens if an inattentive worshiper, used to omitting those words during the summer, can’t remember if they were recited? In certain cases, the entire central prayer must be repeated. However, if it had been thirty days, it was assumed that the worshiper was habituated to it. Now, during thirty days, a pious worshiper would recite that prayer about 97 times (trust me). And so, said the rabbi giving the lesson, it became the custom of some seminary students to gather on the night the holiday concluded and chant those words 97 times. (Take one down and pass it around…)
I remember laughing (to the disapproval of the rabbi) at the absurdity. The notion was one of habituation, not literally repeating the words in rapid succession to tick them off a list!
But all those years later, here I was reading about the purpose of exercise and realizing I might very well have been doing the same thing…both on the bicep curl machine and in the performance of my religious duties. It wasn’t about speed and facility – that was just working the machine. If I wanted to strengthen my muscles and my soul, slow and intense was better.
This idea, of course, goes against everything I believed about Jewish law. It is comprehensive, made up primarily of mitzvot (commandments) meant to address every aspect of life. Mediterranean Jewish culture even commends reciting one hundred distinct blessings a day. There are grand expectations (compassionate behavior, formal garb for prayer, immersion in sacred literature) and small expectations (hand-washing, head-covering, pleasant greetings). Being a devoted Jew can be a full-time endeavor.
But the kind of rapid-fire devotion that goes for quantity over quality works the system, not the soul. The younger version of me, enamored as I was of my increasing immersion in Jewish life, collected observances like baseball cards. That sounds more frivolous than I mean it, but any kid who collects baseball cards will tell you it's very serious business.
The struggle over the years was to recapture the meaning that these practices held when they were new. Like the liturgical addition about wind and rain, initially I had to pay attention to be sure I got it right. After a while, when I became habituated, I could just presume I did it because I always did it.
Recapturing the elevating aspects of a traditional Jewish life has come to mean, ironically, doing less. Never mind what I have given up – don't worry that I am somehow no longer devoted or traditionally observant. But appreciating what makes Jewish law "work" for me means slower, fewer, more intense. It means mindfulness. It means being aware of God rather than just doing what (we have decided) God wants.
My dear friend Rabbi Irwin Kula has embarked on an audacious study of whether the commandments are achieving their purposes; can we develop metrics to determine if observance "X" makes you a better person, a wiser person, a more spiritually sophisticated person. I am anxiously awaiting the results that will make Jewish wisdom more readily available to a world in desperate need of it. But I know the answer for myself.
When I perform any mitzvah with heart, soul and might, that is, with intention, attention and intensity, it strengthens me in ways 97 mindless actions, even if those actions are what a God wants, simply cannot equal.
Early in my career, I served as the rabbi of a small congregation. How small was it? Small enough that I used to joke that our minyan was five people and a mirror. But actually, this small but dedicated community supported an almost-daily minyan and boasted an admirable attendance on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
The only time we had trouble gathering even the minimum of ten was when the festivals landed on weekdays. I learned to expect that most of those days would be spent with a couple of close friends in a mostly empty sanctuary.
The only exception was on the last day of the festivals when we conducted Yizkor, the memorial service. Then I had a (relative) crowd – sometimes thirty adults. Once I wised up, I moved Yizkor to the next-to-last day (the Biblically mandated final day). That’s when the crowd came. And many of them were delighted because there was an orthodox service nearby that had Yizkor the next day, so they got to double dip.
Now I belong to a much larger congregation which tries valiantly to sustain a twice-daily minyan. But it is hard. 7:30 am and 7:50 pm are perhaps less inconvenient than other times, but they are tough nonetheless for people who commute, have children at home or engage in evening activities. Each week, an announcement is made at the end of Shabbat services pleading with people to set aside a morning or an evening once or twice a month “so that people can say kaddish.”
Maybe the best and worst gift of our past suffering has been the institution of the practice of reciting the prayer called kaddish in memory of the dead. The prayer, which is in Aramaic, not Hebrew, dates back 2000 years or so and bears a suspicious resemblance to the Lord’s Prayer from the Book of Matthew (“Our Father who art in heaven…”). (Argue among yourselves as to who had it first.) It appears in various forms throughout worship services and in traditional study halls. It has no mention of death and nothing to do with death.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, kaddish became a memorial prayer. You can learn more about it here. My purpose is not an exposition of its history, but of what the custom of a “mourners’ kaddish” tapped into then and now. Older colleagues of mine, equally frustrated, have referred to the custom as ancestor worship or necrophilia. The terms are harsh, but they make the point. Our prayers, including kaddish, are about life and living. The only direct mention of death is in a blessing that acknowledges God as capable of bringing life to the dead, keeping the faith with “those who sleep in the dust.”
The memory of our deceased relatives drags us to synagogue, even if they themselves attended as infrequently as so many of us. And as a result, for that so many of us, the practice and discipline of prayer has become associated with death. How awful!
When I was in seminary, the hot book among many of my classmates was Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. In it, Becker contends that human civilization exists to avoid confronting mortality, the knowledge of which is the downside of consciousness. I leave it to you to decide whether our focus on death in our worship is part of that conspiracy or a repudiation of the theory, but I will propose that the fixation is not healthy. I do not blame our ancestors for including a moment of sacred remembrance in the context of worship, but I decry the contemporary result. Our modern skepticism has washed away the sense that prayer can be sufficiently efficacious to stand on its own merits and allowed the dark residue of bereavement to justify the continuation of the endeavor. And that, I believe, is a losing proposition.
Do I have a solution? It won’t be popular. First of all, I would eliminate all recitations of mourners’ kaddish except one, at the end of each service. I would de-emphasize the Yizkor service on festivals by encouraging rabbis not to give a “Yizkor sermon” and to set a context for private reflection for a few minutes rather than a ceremony that is decidedly not in the spirit of the Torah’s command to be “only happy” on those days (Deuteronomy 16:15). In fact, the Sephardic tradition does not include this service at all except on Yom Kippur.
But it is not enough to remove the pall of death from daily prayer. If we are going to sustain prayer, we need to find a better reason for people to engage in it. The inclusion of a memorial moment is one of a collection of sociological, psychological and anthropological overlays that have saturated our conduct of prayer. Rediscovering the inherent value of the practice of prayer (see my earlier columns below) is the essential ingredient. Otherwise, Yizkor days will be as sparsely attended as the others.