This article was originally published in the BIJ Bulletin March-April 2010 / Adar-Nisan 5770.
“When we speak the name of someone who has died, it’s like bringing a part of their soul back to life.”
I was surprised to hear this comment from a confirmation student whose theology is otherwise pretty eclectic, because his sentiments affirm those of many traditional Jewish commentators.
Every faith tradition memorializes their beloved deceased with practices that keep memories and spirits alive. In tribal communities, burial sites and cemeteries are visited in sacred pilgrimage. Long standing memorial practices and rituals connect individuals, families and communities with those who are no longer physically present in the world.
In this regard Jewish tradition is not unique. Many congregations, BIJ included, announce the names of the recently departed and read a yahrzeit list before reciting Kaddish. Mourners recite Kaddish for eleven months and annually at yahrzeit. We light memorial candles. We give tzedakah. We pray Yizkor on the festivals and on Yom Kippur. We host a Kiddush or oneg Shabbat and drink a bittersweet l’chaim. We gather to study a passage of Torah, Mishna, Talmud or other sacred text and enjoy a celebratory meal on the yahrzeit of great communal leaders and teachers.
While Judaism provides an elaborate structure of memorial practices, ours is not at all a culture of death. At its core, Jewish tradition is life affirming. The recitation of Kaddish may permit survivors a moment to remember their beloved deceased, but the prayer speaks of radical awe in this miraculous and eternal moment.
Furthermore, the underlying power of Kaddish is not merely in the instant of remembrance, but in the building and preservation of community. That a minyan is required to recite it is not a mere halakhic legalism. Minyan allows us to sustain and perpetuate community. It is as essential to the mourner as it is to the thirteen year old who becomes a bat or bar mitzvah. Minyan holds the collective social force of critical mass. In essence, minyan is synonymous with community. This is why so many Hassidic tales extol the virtue of being the tenth person and honor those who fulfill the mitzvah of ‘making minyan.’
Congregations are often identified by their rabbis but rabbis do not and cannot constitute a community. As our Cantorial soloist David Morgenstern recently reminded me, “Nine rabbis do not make a minyan, but ten ordinary Jews do!” Beyond the walls of the shtetl it is just short of impossible to find a Jew in the street to make a minyan. Since liberal Jews are less compelled to fulfill ritual mitzvot, the community must rely upon the individual Jew’s call to conscience.
In truth, our actions belie our values and beliefs. While Judaism’s focus on mitzvot makes it seem as if a higher value is placed on deed than creed, the two, in fact, work in tandem. Each time we respond to the spiritual imperative – each time we respond to the call by showing up and saying – Hineni, I am here – we affirm our community.
The Irish philosopher George Berkeley questioned whether something ceases to exist if nobody is around to perceive it. He was clearly on to something! The only way a name spoken before Kaddish will bring an aspect of that person’s soul to life is if we are present to hear it.