Dear Cyber Rav,
I hope your weekend with the students was a great one. I have a question for you. Today my husband and son attended a Bar Mitzvah at a Reform synagogue on Long Island. I realize that the Temple is Reform and whenever I attend a Reform service I know that there will be a stark difference. But today was a bit unsettling. We sat through a service primarily composed of quick versions of a limited number of prayers, extremely short Torah and Haftorah portions, untold number of family speeches, an incredible amount of the service in English (the total service was one hour with one hour of family and Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches) and then the oddest request which resulted in the three of us looking at each other and being confused. We were asked to read the Mourner's Kaddish for all those who have died in our lives, and if we wished, for those who died in the Holocaust (this request is done each week apparently). We stood with the congregation but declined. Perhaps we were more sensitive because of a family medical crisis which has put us all on edge, but we were really uncomfortable. I know that this is not a usual practice because I have never heard of it before, but is it okay? I remember what you told us to say Kaddish only on Yarhzeits. Just wondering.
Konfused Over Kaddish
Dear Konfused Over Kaddish,
Thanks for writing. Every congregation is different, even when it comes to Orthodox synagogues. Each one does things a little bit differently, and what they do generally is the result of some process, one fully developed or hastily put together, which brings a congregation to a particular practice or ritual. My sense is that what each congregation does is right for that congregation. And when we are visitors in another congregation and feel uncomfortable with what is going on in that congregation, I would imagine that is as good an indication as any that we would never want to belong to that congregation. And that's okay too. That's why there are many different congregations--the Jewish people need variety.
Our community follows the time-honored Jewish idea that mourning should be limited to specific people and not shared by an entire congregation. The idea here is that if a congregation were to share in mourning all the individuals that deserve to be remembered, it would be forever in mourning. And as a result, we follow the Halakhah, Jewish Law, that seeks to limit mourning to only a father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, or spouse. In a community as upbeat and joyous as ours, I think this philosophy works. Then again, we are a Conservative congregation and the traditional standards of Halakhic ritual practice will hold greater sway here than in many of our sister congregations within the Reform Movement. I don't mean this last statement to be judgmental, but rather descriptive. In point of fact, the Jewish world is in need of Reform congregations that operate with a greater sense of freedom from traditional practices precisely because those practices may not speak to all Jews with equal power, or because some Jews feel alienated, or ignorant, or in some other way uncomfortable with the tradition. For some, the tradition conjures up some real demons from the past. Life is complicated. But it sounds as if the community you visited has found a way to say Kaddish in a meaningful way--and that is okay for their congregation. It is not, however, something we would do here on a day other than Kristallnacht or Yom HaShoah.
I'm glad that you stood up with everyone else so as not to be disrespectful. And I am glad that you remained silent during that Kaddish. You are following the traditions of your community, and that was a noble act on your part. Kol HaKavod—you deserve much honor!
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav