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.