“I want my kids to say Kaddish for me after I die, but I can’t explain to them why, or what Kaddish means to me. I’ve looked at the translation—but that’s not what the Kaddish means to me; and if that is what it means, my kids will never say it.”
As a rabbi, I have heard versions of this predicament many times from American Jews who have inherited the western, secular, intellectual culture that is the primary source of meaning in their lives. But the people who speak to me about such matters also feel the pull of their Jewish legacy, The Jewish inheritance of deepest concern to them consists of customs, symbols, and words addressing mortality, love, faith, frailty, and future. Each of these a theme beyond expression gathered into a prayer that words can barely contain.
It’s easy to get lost in the ravine between the prayer book’s facing pages—the mysterious and resonant vocabulary of Jewish religious imagination on one side, and what is often the thin sound of translation on the other. The multiple meanings of the Kaddish are deeply held but not easily explained and are perhaps incapable of being understood by way of translation.
“How do I tell myself what the Kaddish means?” my questioner implicitly asks. Equally implicit and moving: “How do I share that meaning to make it understood by—maybe even compelling to—my children?”
In earlier generations, the authority of traditional practice likely subdued such questions. But now, in an environment where individual articulation and self-understanding are prized, the authority of tradition is less important than the personal inspiration that those traditions might offer. And yet, articulation is trapped between the blessings of communal tradition and the depths of personal meaning.
Modern Jewish poets reflecting on the Kaddish might especially inspire those who struggle to express personal meaning. Poets test the limits of language; whereas, most of us are reluctant to speak an untested word – a word that could press on a sensitive spot in one who relies on the reasonable and the rational. Exacting, literal translations do not satisfy. But the poets might free us from such tired literalism, and from an unsatisfying crossing of the ravine between the prayer book’s pages.
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai animated the first two words of the Kaddish, commending a lost friend to their vigilant care: “Two giants, yit-gadal and yit-kadash watch over your death.” These first words of the Aramaic Kaddish are unchanged in Amichai’s modern Hebrew. Their mysterious power overwhelms literal meaning. Any translation misses the drama of words come-to-life, as giants taking upon their enormous shoulders the task of protecting the dead. To recite the Kaddish is to call these giants once more to their task and to enter the mysterious dynamic of keeping the images that keep us.
In his poem “Kaddish,” a memorial to his mother, the great Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg recounts being “up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph, the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—and read Adonai’s last triumphant stanzas aloud.”
Meaning and mourning are alive in the sound, in the sway of the Kaddish; in “the rhythm the rhythm” of sounds remembered and recited: “yit-barach, v’yish-tabach, v’yit-pa’ar, v’yit-romam v-yit-nasei, v’yit-hadar, v’yit-aleh, v’yit-halal…” Meaning carried by rhythm and blues is, in the very words of the Kaddish, “l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata – beyond all blessings and poems;” meaning that is deeply understood when the “blues shout blind.”
Both for Amichai and Ginsberg, the Kaddish offers a personal meaning for personal mourning against the backdrop of the ancient communal prayer. Amichai summons his powerful image of the Kaddish in an unnamed poem of eleven lines about a lost childhood friend. Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” names the ancient mourning rite as the framework for his individualistic, idiosyncratic, mourning that spans fifty pages.
For the contemporary American poet, Marge Piercy, the Kaddish does more than name her into an ancient tradition of mourning. Rather, her poem makes of the Kaddish a meaningful contemporary response to loss, in a work that blurs the distinction between poem and prayer. Refusing to let the Kaddish rest in the mysterious peace of its own ancient power and pull, Piercy transposes the Kaddish into a modern English liturgy. She names her poem, “Kaddish,” as did Ginsberg. The name, “Kaddish,” is a testament for Piercy to a communal tradition both revered and renewed. Her project prompts me to produce the poem in full:
Look around us, search above us, below, behind.
We stand in a great web of being joined together.
Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us is the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let’s say amen.
Time flows through us like water.
The past and the dead speak through us.
We breathe out our children’s children, blessing.
Blessed is the earth from which we grow,
blessed the life we are lent,
blessed the ones who teach us,
blessed the ones we teach,
blessed is the word that cannot say the glory
that shines through us and remains to shine
flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.
Let’s say amen.
Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,
but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let’s say amen.
Peace that bears joy into the world,
peace that enables love, peace over Israel
everywhere, blessed and holy is peace, let’s say amen.
Piercy begins by enjoining all to acknowledge the “great web of being.” Thus, does she replace the theology of the ancient Kaddish which begins by enjoining all to “Magnify (yit-gadal) and sanctify (yit-kadash) the Great Name.” Amichai’s giants have no power; praise of the “Great Name” of God is nowhere to be found. Piercy does not call for a life of praise, but a praise of life; not unending life under divine sovereignty, but life that is its own end, and unending; combining and surpassing the span and vitality of an individual’s years.
Piercy’s “Kaddish” elaborates the importance of community. In her first stanza, it is “we” who twice extol life. Five times in that stanza, Piercy reminds “us” that life is to be loved and praised. This set of five is followed by one more “us” contracted into “let’s say amen,” an informal inflection of the final exhortation concluding the short prayers for life and peace that conclude the Kaddish; the two prayers that Allen Ginsberg calls, “Adonai’s last triumphant stanzas.”
Piercy concludes four stanzas of her “Kaddish” in this manner, finally expanding the ancient prayer’s concluding plea for peace; a plea to which, with softened authority, she invites all to say, “amen.”
Against the backdrop of new meaning, Piercy refocuses old language. Words such as “praise,” “blessing,” “holy,” “amen,” “forever,” and “Kaddish,” resonate with meaning larger than the poet who meant them; demonstrating anew the durable and enduring vocabulary of Jewish religious imagination that transcends translation. As Piercy renews religious language, she also celebrates its limits; standing at the edge of her words to “bless the word that cannot say the glory that shines through us.”
Perhaps these three poets will inspire us to trust our own imaginations as we search for what cannot easily be said—or read—from the translation across the ravine of facing Hebrew and English pages. As with the poets who inspire us, perhaps there is something deeply known—not new—that we will liberate from silence. On the other hand, perhaps the inspired search for meaning will lead us to a deep and meaningful silence that we can finally, unapologetically, liberate from words.
May we—in addition to our words—discover an informed and eloquent silence in which the unsayable is not an awkward failure of speech, but rather an occasion of hushed reverence for what is beyond all blessings and poems. And let’s say amen.
Hi Rabbi Sager:
Thank you for sharing this stirring post.
Did you receive the quote by James Baldwin I sent
Thank you for this. I read every word and it is so beautiful, I read it again.
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