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David Cowles

Aug 24, 2023

“God is our fellow traveler. He suffers along with us; we are simpatico… like Bill Clinton, God feels our pain.”

It is a commentary on our times that entering ‘Kaddish’ in a search engine is more likely to deliver an Alan Ginsberg poem of the same name than the 2,500-year-old prayer on which Ginsburg’s poem is based. Not that I have anything against Ginsberg; after all, he was Bob Dylan’s John the Baptist. 

Ginsburg’s Kaddish is great, but so is the original! The Kaddish is a prayer that observant Jews recite at the death of one who is loved and/or a member of the House of Israel. Praying over the dead is certainly not a uniquely Jewish practice. Both in Pharaonic Egypt and in Buddhist Tibet, for example, it was customary to recite long prayers over the body of one dead or dying. These ancient funerary rites are preserved for us in each culture’s distinctive Book of the Dead

The stated purpose of such prayers was to guide the departed soul through the After World, to deliver it unscathed into ‘Objective Immortality’ (Whitehead’s term). Fast-forward, in many Christian churches today it is still customary to pray for the souls of the ‘dearly departed’, that they may ‘rest in peace’, and that their spirit may be ‘borne by flights of angels’ unto the ‘bosom of the Lord’.   

Kaddish is different! It is certainly meant to benefit the deceased, but it is also intended to benefit the mourners and, perhaps less expectedly, to benefit God. According to the underlying eschatology, every death rips a hole in the fabric of Being. As such, it causes the pain of loss which is felt by all those in the ‘society’ of the deceased, i.e., co-religionists, friends, relatives, and of course, that member of every society, i.e., God.

In Eastern cosmologies, the divine is ineffable and utterly transcendent (Nirvana); in Classical cosmology, we are effectively gods’ pets, sometimes loved but often mistreated. For the most part, the gods regard us as an inferior life form. There are no ‘civil rights’ on Mount Olympus.  

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, God is our fellow traveler. He suffers along with us; we are simpatico. God sees the suffering of his people in Egypt, so he acts to free them. In the New Testament, God suffers and dies on a cross for the sins of the world (pecata mundi)…our sins! 

We are God’s creatures, but we are also his co-conspirators. Our relationship is governed by a series of Covenants (cosmic constitutions). Torah should be read, not as an elaboration of the Ten Commandments but as ‘the Civil Rights Act of 1564 BCE’. 

We are responsible to and for God, as God is responsible to and for us. So, of course, it falls to us to comfort God in our moments of shared grief. In fact, these are the times when our role as God’s comrades may be most evident.

Kaddish means ‘holy prayer’ in Aramaic (the language of its composition). It begins, “May the great name be exalted and sanctified (kadash).” As in the Christian Lord’s Prayer, the Name of God is God’s presence in the world, his ‘role’ in society; it is to be ‘hallowed’. According to the Magid of Mezritch, we are ‘limbs of the Shekinah’ (God’s Presence); so, like Bill Clinton, God feels our pain. A Christian parallel is found in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Any death dims God’s light in the world. Reciting Kaddish restores it. According to Rabbi Dovber Pinson, “the function of Kaddish is to comfort the Divine Presence.” We are comforted as well. We have been basking in God’s light (Ohr), as reflected (Chozer) by our beloved; now we can experience that same light directly (Yashar).     

Every experience requires both Light (God) and Vessel (us). In the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead, this ‘Light’ corresponds to God’s Primordial Nature (the source of all values) while ‘Vessel’ points to God’s Consequent Nature (the objective immortality of all Events).

The alignment of Light and Vessel is Meaning. In other words, events (vessels) acquire meaning from the values (light) they manifest. Vessel without Light is Kelipa - concealment, division, separation, randomness, negativity, darkness, death, and void. Is that all ya got?

It is popular today to say that we don’t need God. Ok, maybe not, but Kelipa gives a sense of what the world would be like without Light, i.e., without God’s Presence. Genesis’ second verse describes such a world: “…Without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.” 

Reciting Kaddish rescues us from Kelipa (‘Deliver us from evil’) and it enables us to see the Great Name through the events of the day (‘our daily bread’). 

“May his Kingdom be established…and may his Anointed One (Messiah) come soon…May it happen in your lifetime and in your days…” This is undoubtedly a reference to Job (19: 25 - 27): “As for me, I know that my redeemer lives and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust…and from my flesh I will see God…my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him.”

“Amen. May his great name be blessed forever and for all eternity.” At this, the climax of the prayer, God is comforted, the wounded world is healed, and the gates of Gan Eden, the ultimate destination of all souls, have opened wide to greet our comrade. 

“May there be abundant peace (Shalom) from Heaven and…may he (God) make peace for us...Amen.” Shalom is one of the names of God, so when we pray for peace, we pray for God’s Presence. Roman Catholics celebrate shalom, “the peace that the world cannot give” every day in Eucharist.       

So a tip of the cap to Alan Ginsberg but an invitation to all of you to pray the Kaddish for me when my turn comes. Shalom!


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