Standing for Kaddish

Rabbi Melanie Aron

Yom Kippur 5763 -- September 16, 2002

Shortly after World War II it became the custom in many American congregations for the whole community and not just those mourning the death of immediate family members, to rise for the recitation of the Kaddish. It was one way that a generation dealt with its trauma as witnesses to the almost complete annihilation of European Jewry. The killing machine of Nazi Germany made everyday a yarzheit, and standing together the community expressed its solidarity and its grief.

The question of whether only the person leading Kaddish stands or the whole congregation is an old one, and applies equally to the chazi kaddish, kaddish shalem and mourners kaddish.

The Rambam and the Shulchan Arukh, both classical codes, discuss this question in great detail. In the middle ages, Jews in different parts of the world recited the Kaddish in different ways. In some communities, for example, the Jews of Bohemia, everyone stood, while in other parts of Europe, including Poland, only the reader stood and the rest of the congregation remained seated.

At first the Kaddish was a praise of God recited by whoever was leading the davening. Overtime it became customary for mourners to lead Kaddish, as a way of showing respect, particularly for a deceased parent. Usually one mourner led the prayer, based on a system of precedence, a recent death took precedence over a yarzheit, a father took precedence over another relative; but in some communities the other mourners present repeated the words of the reader, and over time began to stand as well. Thus we have developed in the early modern period, what we identify with contemporary Orthodox and Conservative congregational practice today, the custom of having all the mourners rise and recite the Kaddish together while the rest of the congregation is seated.

The Reform custom of having the whole congregation stand for the Kaddish predates the Holocaust and may have come to the United States from parts of central Europe where the whole congregation stood for Kaddish. We know this was the custom in some American congregations already in the 19th century.

In some ways having everyone stand is very positive. It is an expression of peoplehood to recite Kaddish for those to whom one is not directly related. It also offers support for the mourners with whom we stand, and prepares each of us in some sense for the inevitable losses in our own lives.

Others argue that having everyone recite Kaddish every week diminishes the sense of personal obligation to go to services and recite Kaddish when one is a mourner or for yarzheit. Standing alone or as part of a small group for Kaddish, may be frightening or unwelcome to some, but it recognizes the special status and needs of the mourners. In a practical way it informs the congregation of who is in need of comfort. When people come and recite Kaddish regularly either daily or on Shabbat, it creates an immediate support group within the congregation.

This year as I prepared for Yizkor I found myself thinking of that duality, of reciting Kaddish for those we know and for those we have never met.

Michael's grandmother Beatrice Dine died last year on Rosh Hashanah just a few weeks short of her 99th birthday. I am not one of her immediate mourners, but she was my grandmother in law for 20 years and we got along pretty well. She was a strong woman and a leader in the Cincinnati Jewish community. She was an adaptable person who after years in a very traditionalist Conservative congregation in Cincinnati, moved to Hyannis where there was only a Reform Temple, and became the rabbi's best cheerleader. She had friends who were decades, quarter centuries, even half a century younger, often divorced women who were starting a new phase of their own lives and enjoyed her stimulating companionship as she remained a serious reader and competitive bridge player almost to the end of her life. When I think of yizkor this year, I think of the very particular and personal memories I have of Grandma Bea.

Many of you are here because you too lost someone close to you, someone you remember in vivid detail. Perhaps sitting here at services brings to mind holidays that you celebrated together. My guess is that on occasion you still think of things you would share, only to remember that he or she is no longer with you. Some relationships are complex or difficult, and it may be years later until you can feel that the traditional words of comfort, may his memory be a blessing, may her memory be a blessing, really ring true. Those we have loved and lost live on in a special way within our consciousness.

But this year I am especially aware of mourning those I did not know personally. As September 11th grew closer I heard from my colleagues on the East Coast, whose congregations and communities are still devastated by their losses. Again my imagination was inadequate to capture the impact of so many sudden and unexpected deaths concentrated in the small circles in which they fell. In Basking Ridge for example, a small suburb on the order of Monte Sereno, near the congregation I served for 4 years in Morristown New Jersey, there is a support group of 70 widows from the attack on the World Trade Center.

As we gather for yarzheit I think also of all those victims of terror in Israel, whose names we have been reading at services this year. As compared with Israeli casualties in past wars, they were disproportionately the very old and the very young, disproportionately female. They were urban and rural, left and right, rich and poor, Jewish and non-Jewish, born in Israel and in many different countries around the world. This being the Jewish community one could play Jewish geography and usually find less than seven degrees of separation. To some I feel a special tie, to someone who worked at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, to someone who studied with the teacher I studied with at Pardes this winter, to students who were on programs that I had participated in the past, to people who were places where Michael and Jeremy and Shifrah and I had been, a day earlier or later, during our trip to Israel.

A reporter who was at Temple last week asking about the Jewish response to 9-11, happened on a list I had of those killed in Israel. He was Japanese American and immediately the Asian names on the list of victims caught his eye. We talked about how terrorism makes no exceptions for non-combatants, for foreign workers whose families must be doubly grieved for their loss so far from home.

Though not as numerous as the victims of 9-11, the number of victims of terror is significant in Israel, a reminder that this intifada is not young teenagers throwing stones, it is a war, equally about Israel's survival as the other more straightforward wars that have been fought.

As we prepare to recite Yizkor we try to hold also in our hearts also the memories of those about whose deaths we might feel more ambivalent- the civilian casualties in Afganistan, a war we chose to fight but which in a real sense chose us, and the civilians of the West Bank and Gaza, some of whom were aiding the terrorist, but others were truly just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think of a colleague and friend, a Reform rabbi in Israel, who was sitting in the Kaffit coffee house in Jerusalem, at the moment a suicide bomber was apprehended. The margin of his life and death was the alertness of a staff person in the restaurant, yet he continues his dialogue work between Arabs and Jews. Sitting as we do in the relative safety of America, we must find a way to open our hearts so his work won't be in vain.

As I learned to say in Israel, oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom, aleinu, veal kol yisrael, veal kol yoshvei tevel, venomar amen. May God who makes peace in the Heavens above, bring peace to us, to all Israel, AND TO ALL WHO DWELL ON EARTH, as we say, amen.

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