Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

A Kaddish Contemplation

Originally posted on April 29, 2014

Kaddish is the name of the Jewish prayer said for those in mourning for those who have passed on, also known as a prayer for the dead. But in fact it’s not a prayer for the person who has died, it’s a prayer to re-align the living. Kaddish re-focuses the one praying; its words implicitly suggest, “What life and death is about is not about you—nor the one who has died! Rather, this prayer is a reminder of the big “what it’s all about”—i.e. what humans intuit as “God.”

As I begin to foresee my own passing some day—I’m going on 77—death indeed seems like a great mystery. Somehow I continue to be curious, to want to read; and I want to keep producing what I enjoy producing, which includes many aspects of life and also thinking and writing. I’m getting the sense that all this is for God, not me, at least partly. So the “kaddish” or prayer for the dead in Judaism begins to make more sense. It’s a deep commitment not to the loss but to re-focusing on the big picture, namely, God—that’s the English name—and there are Hebrew names—but I call it the Becoming Everything.

The kaddish celebrates God, praises God. The language of Hebrew and the transliteration seems stilted and obsolete to me—it doesn’t get me “down there” because I just haven’t built up a reservoir of thick cultural associations. But were I to translate it into words that I might use, it might go more like this:

To begin with, the orginal is in Hebrew, which distances it. I learned it “Yisgadal v’yitgadat shimay raboh.” This is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, the north-eastern European dialect of Hebrew. In the mid-1960s, though, seminaries began teaching the Israeli pronunciation, which has links to the Sefardic dialect, so some of the s’s are pronounced like t’s. So now it’s “Yitgadal v’yitgadat…” which sounds odd to my ear, but that’s a little hint to my kishkas, my guts, how language itself shifts over time. Which is another reason why I don’t care for the way language infuses spirituality. But for other people it makes it all work better, so each to his own.

Anyway, in translation the Kaddish prayer begins with this sentence: “Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan.” My comment: Okay, so the name is just the focusing—we’re talking about what we pray to, what it’s all about. What is at stake here is to exalt, to hallow, to align our minds with the mind-blowing-ness of the Becoming Everything. The Source. The Infusion of Trans-trans-Dimensional Beingness. I get behind that.

A minor quibble: I don’t think God had a specific “plan.” Maybe a general intent. I question even if we can dare anthropo-morphically transfer human consciousness onto God, though I tend to go along with the late James Hillman (a post-Jungian) who wrote in 1975 in a book titled Re-Visioning Psychology that it is in our instinctive heritage to do this to everything, to “personify.” Children draw a sun with a face. We talk about “Mister Wind.” Come on.

Anyway, it is natural to imagine God as having a personality like a human, to have wishes. I can not think otherwise, though I can know that it’s not so. I mean, I know that whatever we’re a part of that is the Everything Becoming is vastly more and different than what can be attained by any puny human mind—even the most brilliant or mystical among us. Accepting this, I dare improvise, engage, and I add new insights derived from psychology. From this, I imagine that God doesn’t just plan, but also gets surprised. I would not deny to God what is an aesthetic value to me, and I enjoy a measure of surprise. It often delights me, the becomingness of the moment. I enjoy—and I dare extend to God the enjoyment—of sometimes having no plan, of becoming in ever-novel ways! All this means again that it might be argued that it’s not according to plan.

The second sentence of the Kaddish goes, “May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.” I’d rephrase this: May we wake up, bit by bit, to the consciousness that apprehends even a glimmer, or maybe a peek at the edge of the glory of the Everything Becoming that we call God. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a hint while we’re alive. The other parts lose me a bit, impatient, and ethnocentric.

Then, “Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.” Okay, it’s sort of a double amen. This next part really gets me, though:

“Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.”

Now this is the heart of the Kaddish to me. I recited this after the death of my father just before and around the time of my Bar Mitzvah. Never got a hint of what it was—just words. You did it. You did what was expected of you. You obeyed. You went along with it. Okay, okay. I was a good kid, I did it. But it had no impact, and perhaps that betrayal, that lack of any meaning, made it more hollow.

Now at 76 I re-interpret the words. At a superficial level it seems like pusillanimous flattery and grovelling, the worst of religion. Re-thinking it now having opened my heart, perhaps it’s the best we can do for most people, re-direct them to something higher. As I consider my own death in the perhaps not-too-unforeseeably distant future, the message makes more sense: It’s not about me! It’s about God, it’s about the Everything Becoming, and it’s so amazingly glorious that the light of it obscures the shadows of my own grieving, and my empathizing with the grieving of all who might grieve for me.

Okay, then, that’s cool, but the real pay-off comes in turning towards—well, you can’t look at the brightness of the light, poetically—so you look off to the less bright and you still find whatever in the olden days got people not being able to say “blessed” and then stop. No, they have to go a little crazy: “Blessed, extolled, exalted…” and on and on. So I take some imaginary LSD, and I open my mind to what could evoke from me such a sequence?

What could be not just blessed, but extolled. And that’s not all! The blessed and extolled are also exalted, wrapped up in a package that’s honored, praised, and glorified. And that package of exclamations, wowee, whoopie, and super-cool, super-ultra-fab-cool-to-the-max stuff, is nothing. To the nth power! Adored and lauded. What other words can I say? Take me to the limit. Stretch my mind.

That is, if you needed to come up with the best, most beautiful, most divinely inspired, sweetest, most uplifting, mind-blowingly mind-exanded sensation, a “numinous” sensation, a feeling that it’s of supreme importance yet can’t be adequately expressed in words, use whatever poetic expressions work for you. The point is that contemplating the Everything Becoming, really getting mystically into it? That’s what is being hinted at in this sequence of words.

The name is not to be spoken, you understand. We use words to distance ourself, so humbly we must be. Lord, adonai. Ha-Shem, the name. But even the name is only a hint at the mind trying to reach up, not to grasp—it can’t be grasped! Get that! But to grasp at even the echo of the hint of the enlightening intuition that the Becoming Everything, any words or name we could ever dare imagine, is hardly a shadow of the truth. It’s that kind of thinking. Which in my mind fits what all other religions say about the Ultimate Transcendent which is paradoxically the full Immanent, also know as, as I said, everything becoming.

Whew. Then Kaddish winds down: “May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel, to which we say Amen.” I imagine the release and decrease in energy of the ultimate psychic orgasm, a child being so excited she leaps up and claps her hands, the whale leaping out of the water, breaching, and coming down with a splash, the sinking back into the water, ahhh. Wow. Ya gotta come back down from ecstasy—which means standing outside—you gotta come back in. Ah.

So then the Kaddish prayer finishes with a little nod of closure: “May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. To which we say Amen.”  Okay. Peace, brother. But don’t forget the middle part. Let it echo with meaning.

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