Should we say a Kaddish for the Kaddish?

By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a shivah minyan at the home of a friend who had just lost his father. My friend, a typical southern born Jew, had gone to a nominally Christian private school during the day and received a minimal Jewish education at his Reform Temple one afternoon a week. So when it came time for him to read the kaddish, he could recite the prayer pretty well, but had no idea what it said.

Afterwards he came up to me and said: “In the next week, I’m going to study this prayer and see if I can figure out what it means.”

Unless you are one of the few folks who has actually read through Leon Weiseltier’s Kaddish — and I’ve only met one person who has actually read the book cover to cover-then the question “Why do we bother with this long, archaic and utterly theo-centric prayer?” may very well be on your mind.

You can read about ten different translations of the kaddish and still come to the conclusion that the kaddish is simply about making the mourner praise God with as many adjectives as possible. What is the difference between exalted, upraised, lauded and extolled anyway?

The stereotypical line when teaching the kaddish is “The prayer never mentions death.” The kaddish is often explained as being life affirming, a “look on the bright side” declaration after a loss. But is that what a mourner needs, a purple pill of praises to ease one’s pain?

The standard translations and interpretations have always troubled me. So, my Aramaic dictionary in hand, I returned to the prayer and tried to translate it myself. Below is what I came up with. The translation that I am presenting here is an attempt to put the kaddish into plain English – colloquial, slang, street, to translate it the way it might be spoken. In translating it this way, I hope to capture the desperation and heartbreak, and the hopes for peace and restored order, that I see reflected in its words. Do I think that we should say kaddish for the kaddish? Returning to the Aramaic, I can now make a good case for keeping it above ground.

A Kaddish

Make the God-name big.

Big and holy.

Do it in this world,

This creation sprung from consciousness,

And bring some order to this.

Do it fast, soon, in our lives, in the days ahead, in the life of the people we call home.

Everybody join with me: May the name be blessed forever and ever!

Yes, blessed.

Blessed, whispered, sung out, shouted, honored, this holy name.

The name is beyond any song, poem, or comforting words we could ever speak.

Eveybody say: That’s the truth!

May a big peace descend from the heavens, a life-giving peace for all of us, for our beloved people,

Let everybody say: May it be true!

Make that peace in the heavens, great peacemaker, great One who brings wholeness to our people.

Stop.

Everybody pray:

May it be true.

Three Dips Before the Wedding: Men and Mikvah

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

At a conference on a ridiculously sunny spring day at NYU I met a Jewish guy in his thirties planning on getting hitched this summer. When he heard that I was the director of a project focused on the lives of boys and men in the Jewish community, he expressed his frustration that he could not find anything out there on men and pre-nuptial mikvah. I remember having the same experience – Eighteen years ago, when I was getting ready for my own wedding, I couldn’t find anything to guide me. I think I found a section in an out-of-print Aryeh Kaplan book about it and since I had studied the basic laws of mikvah in rabbinical school I started to wonder: How might the mikvah play a role in the spiritual preparation for marriage?

Before my wedding, I got together a group of my closest guy friends and one night, after we shared a few drinks and played cards, we headed out into the woods by the Wissahikon Creek in Philadelphia. The paths and the creek were lit by a nearly full moon.

While I didn’t say this aloud at the time, what I really wanted to do with the mikvah ritual was to symbolically cleanse myself of various sexual encounters that I had in the years before I had met by beloved. Not that I saw these encounters as inherently impure, but I wanted to start anew. I had read the teaching in Mishneh Berurah (606:21) related to mikvah on the high holidays that “Some say that the reason for immersion is for teshuvah, according to which one should immerse three times” and I wanted my skin to be cleansed, and in some way I wanted whatever it is that I saw at the time as my spirit or soul or inner being to feel that the cleanse was authentic, life-changing, and holy.

I wasn’t really sure how the ritual would go, so one of my friends suggested that I go down to the bank of the creek and that guys would come down, one at a time, to give me some wisdom or blessing.

I sat on a large rock, and, one by one, my guy friends (some of whom had already been under a chupah, some not) sat beside me and gave me the gifts of their words. I wish I could say that I still remember the words they said, but they long slipped out of my memory. What I do recall is the emotional connection – the sense that I was supported as I took on the awesome responsibility of being someone’s life partner.

I took off my clothes and walked out into the water. The water was pretty cold, which somehow seemed like the right thing for the ritual. I closed my eyes, squatted down, dipped fully into the water three times, stood up, said the bracha “al t’vilah” and looked up towards the sky.

Eighteen years later I can say that it still feels like that pre-wedding triple dip worked. It re-oriented me, cleansed me, and readied me. These days, when I officiate a wedding, I highly recommend mikvah. Sometimes the couples I work with choose an actual mikvah built for the purpose of collecting rainwater to soak in and sometimes they jump in oceans, lakes, or creeks. Either way, I hope that they experience the chills that I got on that moonlit night by the Wissahikon.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner is leading a national effort through Moving Traditions (www.movingtraditions.org) to train a cadre of educators and mentors who can connect the ethical insights of Jewish life to the challenges facing today’s teen boys. Brenner’s commentaries have been featured in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Jerusalem Post, Forward, Jewish Week and on the NPR show The Infinite Mind. In 2009, he was named by Newsweek Magazine as one of America’s most influential rabbis.

Becoming a Man

What Does “Today I Am a Man” Mean Today?

Published on RitualWell www.ritualwell.org

By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

In the 1990s, when my beloved was dissertating about race in American theater, I was introduced to a theory on Jewish masculinity from the late Berkeley professor Michael Rogin. His argument, in sum, was that the large Eastern European immigrant generation of Jewish men looked to two different models of men to determine how to “be a man” in America. The first model was the American cowboy. The cowboy was defined as stoic, tough, hardworking, independent, quiet and strong. The other model was the American Negro–also strong, but more sensual and artistic. Rogin connects the popularity of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to Jewish men’s desire to emulate the coolness of Black men in their quests to become American men. Later, Daniel Boyarin, another Berkeley professor, added a mournful refrain to Rogin’s thesis. Boyarin argued that these Jewish men striving to be Americans were abandoning the “sweetness” of the Yeshivah man to become tough and emotionally distant guys.

What does it mean for our Jewish boys to become men in contemporary America?

Do they have to be tough? Cool? Athletic? Powerful? Shrewd? Independent? How sensual, artistic and emotional can they be without being labeled feminine? Do we hope that our Jewish boys will successfully compete with men who assert the dominant gender codes or do we put forth an alternative model of manhood as a form of resistance?

As bar and bat mitzvah morphed into “b’nai” mitzvah and become more gender neutral in the process, these questions about pre-teens and their gender identities are often lost in the shuffle. But as much as university-educated folks are gradually embracing a more fluid understanding of gender, we still live in a world in which a dominant code about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman is broadcast on screens large and small. And those codes are enacted daily in middle schools in the form of dress, posture, gesture, and speech—a performance of masculinity and femininity (and at times queer non-conformity)—that often feels confining, competitive, and suffocating.

So what do we say to the tens of thousands of Jewish boys on the verge of bar mitzvah about what it means to be a man in the world and what it means to be a Jewish man in America?

For the last two years I have worked on a national effort to address the needs of teen boys in the Jewish community (Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, a program of Moving Traditions) and I’ve also had the pleasure of watching two sons become bar mitzvah.

Here are a few of my thoughts for parents and educators of tween boys:

Bar mitzvah may be a good time to meet different kinds of men who have different takes on what it means to be a man. One rabbi I know gathered a circle of men to bless the bar mitzvah boy the night before the celebration. It was a diverse group of guys that included family members and friends of the family, and they all spoke about what they have learned from life about what it means to be a man.

My sons volunteered in a men’s homeless shelter during the year of their bar mitzvah. They have volunteered in family shelters, but being in a men’s shelter opened up questions about the incarceration of men, veteran’s issues, and men and mental illness. Their learning experiences were powerful.

Part of the process of becoming a man should be learning about the influence of feminist and other social movements on gender codes. Many tween boys see feminism as a theory that simply blames society’s problems on men. The bar mitzvah provides a good opportunity for boys to think about what guys have to gain from a world that is not restricted by rigid gender expectations and judgments.

As part of bar mitzvah training, boys should brush up against some of the “traditional” values that have defined Jewish men—a love of communal learning and debate, an understanding of the powerful role that comedy plays in coping with oppression, a responsibility to bury one another and to mourn together. Even in egalitarian communities, there are times when men benefit specifically from the support of other men.

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner serves as the chief of education and program for Moving Traditions

Every Sperm Is Sacred? Jewish Perspectives on Contraception

Should Catholic hospitals that receive federal dollars be required to provide their employees with contraceptives?

This was the heated debate on talk radio as I drove up the New Jersey Turnpike recently. I tuned in because I was one of the many people who had seen the photo of the all-male congressional panel on contraception making its way around Facebook. One of these men, Rabbi Meir Soloveichek, had contributed two prominent pieces for the Wall Street Journal and Jewish Ideas Daily. But after having read them both, I noticed something odd — he never once mentioned the Jewish position on contraception.

I scratched my head and thought: Why didn’t he bring up Jewish ideas about contraception in an essay about the contraception debate written for a webzine specifically called Jewish Ideas Daily? Isn’t that the idea?

Soloveichek was linking arms with Catholic and Evangelical leaders to share his opinions about the church-state issue. But while I applaud his support of religious liberty, I could not help but wonder: Doesn’t it depend on whose religious liberty we want preserved?

Here’s my point: According to Jewish religious law, there is a moral obligation, in certain cases, to provide contraception to women. These cases are clearly outlined in greater detail in the Talmud and in subsequent sources, but they all are in relation to a contraceptive device known as the mokh.

What is a mokh? This is a small wool plug soaked in liquid worn near the cervix that was used to block sperm from reaching eggs, a sort of pre-modern diaphragm. Two thousand years ago, all women who were concerned for reasons of their own health that a pregnancy would be life threatening to them or to their nursing infant were religiously required to wear a mokh. In other words, every sperm was not sacred — and sperm that ended up caught in the mokh was properly disposed of. (Condoms, by the way, were not developed until 1,500 years later, and were not approved by the rabbinic authorities for other reasons.)

The pro-contraception position for women in the Jewish tradition is connected to an underlying principle: Life is always favored over potential life. Since using contraceptive devices kept woman healthier, it was determined that this was ultimately the best way to promote life. Similarly, if a woman is at risk of dying due to a complicated pregnancy or birth, we are commanded to save the life of the woman over the life of the baby.

And this is what, I believe, is really behind the debate stirring underneath what is being dubbed the “contraception mandate.” I know that for many Catholics it is a troubling idea that we would choose to save the life of the mother by terminating the life inside her. And I’ve heard from discussion with Catholic friends in the past the question: “If it is the woman’s time to die, shouldn’t we let her pass on and have the baby live?”

But life is, tragically, not so simple. A recent case at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Phoenix reminds us of the complex realities that thousands of women face. A 27-year-old mother of four was pregnant and seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension. She was bedridden and it was clear that her pregnancy would lead to the death of both her and her potential fifth child. Sensing that this was an extreme case, and that death was highly likely if she did not terminate the pregnancy, Sister Margaret McBride decided to speak with the woman. The woman wanted to terminate her pregnancy and Sister McBride allowed for an abortion to proceed. The procedure saved the life of the mother. Sister McBride was excommunicated from the church.

I will leave it to Catholics to debate the morality of this case, but it does point to the profound difference between the Catholic position and the Jewish position on life.

Whose morality (and religious liberty) should be favored then in laws concerning health care — that of the employee or of the employer? Should Catholics working at Jewish hospitals only be able to receive coverage for what is seen as ethical care according to rabbinic authorities? Should Jews working at Catholic hospitals be restricted to coverage for papal-approved care? These scenarios seem like an ill fit for an America where both Catholics and Jews are minorities and there are also various Protestant associated hospitals of different denominations.

The questions that exist around reproductive health care and religious ethics are profound and challenging and are faced by thousands of families and individuals every day. Yet, some of the loudest voices in the media are labeling contraception coverage an attack on religious liberty. It is clear that Rabbi Soloveichik and the men that he joined on that congressional panel were successful in pitching America one side of the story. I trust that most folks are smart enough to see that real concerns about religious liberty are on both sides. But I also sense that it will take many more people speaking up about their religious and ethical decisions regarding health care, women and men, to help Americans to appreciate the complexity of medical issues that touch on both the fragility and the sanctity of life.

Who Has the Right to Pray at the Western Wall?

I have a new piece published in the Huffington Post today about the recent arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall. The piece can be accessed here. 

Who Has the Right to Pray at the Western Wall?

Posted: 10/23/2012 5:50 pm


After I posted an article on Facebook about Anat Hoffman, the Israeli woman arrested last week for praying in a tallit at the Western Wall, a friend and colleague, who happens to be an Orthodox rabbi, messaged me on Google chat to ask why I was bothered by the incident. He argued that she knew that she was violating a court order and she nonetheless decided to barge into an “Orthodox synagogue.” His core question to me was this: If someone trespassed into a liberal synagogue and did something labeled by the people there as offensive, wouldn’t you want to have the trespasser arrested?
Hearing his perspective raised new questions. Why should Jews like me, who are not actively seeking to rebuild the Third Temple, care so much about the Wall? Why not just recognize the Wall as an Orthodox synagogue? To whom does the Wall belong?
Before Jews were expelled from the Old City in 1948, the Western Wall was a sacred site of Jewish pilgrimage. In defiance of a British ban on public prayer at the site, Jews blasted the shofar at the foot of the wall. When Israeli forces entered the Old City during the 1967 war, the Wall became a potent symbol of return and reconnection to this shrine for Israelis and for Jews worldwide. My parents stood in at the Wall in ’67, something that they never imagined that they would be able to do. As a teenager, I stood at the Wall and prayed for the Jewish people with a purity and conviction that I will hold with me for the rest of my life.
In recent decades, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (particularly young people on Taglit-Birthright Israel) have made their first visits. At the same time, the various ramps and security barriers have been added, the area in the men’s section expanded and the women’s section shrunk, yeshivot have placed large signs on the back of the plaza, and the Wall’s state-appointed guardian, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, has taken an oppositional stance to women’s prayer groups that wish to read Torah or wear tallitat the Wall. Tensions have mounted in Jerusalem, and the current lines are drawn between a growing and relatively impoverished Haredi community and a largely Anglo and comfortable liberal community. Both see the Wall as a sacred pilgrimage and prayer site.
One of the chief differences between these communities is the way that they view gender in Israeli society. The following headlines illustrate the growing culture clash: 
  • Women are told to ride in the back of the bus on select routes
  • Ultra-Orthodox men spit on Modern Orthodox girls in Bet Shemesh
  • Female soldier is called a prostitute when she refuses to move to the back of a public bus
  • Hilary Clinton’s face is erased from a group photo of world leaders in the newspaper

Haredi leaders might point out another set of headlines: 

  • Government support for large families has been reduced
  • Funds for haredi schools have been blocked due to policy disputes
  • Growing pressure on ultra-Orthodox men to serve alongside secular Israelis in the nation’s military

The arrest last week at the Wall cannot be properly understood outside of the context of this culture clash. Modern Jerusalem, built by the late Mayor Teddy Kollek into a vibrant and multicultural city, has become more deeply divided as the Haredi population has grown to more than 20 percent of the city.

So, should those of us who hope for a Jewish state that allows for a diversity of Jewish religious practices give up on the idea of creating a shared space at the Western Wall? If so, are we willing to see the day when all public spaces with rich Jewish history where people gather to pray, Masada, for example, are classified as “Orthodox synagogues”?
Two years ago, Dan Meridor, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, the man who signed the original law banning religious observances that are not “in accordance” with the current rabbinic authorities, called for the Wall to be recognized as a national Jewish shrine instead of a synagogue. Establishing the site as a shrine would require a government effort to bring together representatives of the various Jewish streams in Israel and to create new guidelines regarding the use of the plaza and clear directives to enforce these new policies. These policies would protect the rights of those Orthodox who wish to pray at the Wall in the current fashion and ensure that other Jewish groups, both Modern Orthodox and Liberal, have the ability to pray in their custom. With such an effort, women would be able to read Torah and to wear tallit and to raise their voices in prayer without fear.
Can a society respect various religious minorities and uphold religious freedom in such a large public space? My answer to the questions posed by my Orthodox colleague is that the Wall is big enough for both those who desire distinct gendered roles in prayer and those who are more egalitarian. The responsibility of the State of Israel at this hour is to preserve religious freedom for both the segment of the Orthodox world that desires to worship at the Western Wall in the current fashion and for the millions of other Jews — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and “just Jewish” — who seek to approach the Wall in prayer.
May the outcry over the arrest of Anat Hoffman help awaken Israel’s political and religious leaders to the need for a new vision of freedom and coexistence within Jerusalem’s walls.

Ten Years Ago: 9/11, Corned Beef Sandwiches and the Red Cross

I wrote this piece a week after 9/11. Hard to believe that we are approaching the tenth anniversary. But it has, indeed, been a decade — My daughter, born in January of 2001, is now a fifth grader. The day still haunts me, this city, and beyond. My heart is with all the families who are headed to memorials this week. 

Even in Tragedy, A Little Humor

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

On the Thursday after the attacks, I went to serve as a volunteer chaplain at the Armory on Lexington Avenue, where the city had set up a center for families of the missing. Walking up the steps to the entrance, I couldn’t help but remember the last time that I was there. It was at a contemporary art show packed with sculptures made with sardine cans and inflatable cows, all being hawked by stylish gallery people from places like Helsinki or Zurich. Now the massive hall was occupied by folding table after folding table of police officers, assisting families as they completed a seven-page form and stapled on dental records.

Like the other clergy who were volunteering to staff the site, I felt overcome by the anguish I found there. I had sat with families in grief and loss when I worked in a Philadelphia Hospital as a chaplain, but the scene in the Armory was a thousand times more desperate. In the hospital we always had a body, sometimes a vital sign, doctors to explain the situation, information; here I spoke with family after family only to say, “We don’t know yet. You are doing everything you can. My heart is with you.” Some family members approached me to ask: “What happens if they don’t find any bodies?” Coming up with an answer felt unbearably grim.

After a few hours spent absorbing the tremendous tension and sorrow in the main hall, some of the chaplains were called downstairs to the basement, where the police were setting up more tables. Now would come the most difficult of tasks – bringing families in to see the list of confirmed dead. On a long wooden bench along the wall sat priests, ministers, and an Imam. I squeezed in next to a Catholic priest and a young Episcopalian minister with a “Hello, my name is Christopher” name tag, feeling like we had just been drafted for a dreadful and hopeless task. Then the Red Cross Spiritual Care Coordinator spoke. “OK, guys, listen up!” She was an amazingly energetic minister from California who conveyed a mix of pep and compassion: “I’m gonna make this brief because we don’t have much time before those families come in here and I’m assuming you all know what to do. I’ve seen this before. This is like what I saw in Oklahoma City—we need to be there and show God’s love—but I want to remind you that this is not a time to proselytize. This is ecumenical. No praying in the name of Jesus. Just be a spiritual presence. Show God’s love for them. Do what you do best. Remember, no praying in the name of Jesus!”

I raised my hand and she nodded at me. “Yes, Rabbi, what is it?”

“Is it all right if I pray in the name of Jesus?”

The laughter from the other clergy filled the room. This was the only joke I cracked the entire week, which, you might imagine, is an all-time low for a rabbi.

It is hard to relate anything other than grief in connection with this tragedy, but there were some precious moments when something else—some recognition of the shared sense of absurdity that this chaos has wrought—broke through.  

On Wednesday morning, the day before my experience at the Armory, I was among a group of rabbis who were down at the Chelsea Piers, which had been set up hastily as a triage area, but ended up serving as a spot for families to fill out the missing persons report. This was not my first visit to the Piers, either; I had once enjoyed the driving range with some old college friends on a summer night, smacking golf balls into a large net over the Hudson. Now I was organizing a clergy table with the help of a Catholic priest from 135th Street, Episcopalian ministers from the seminary two blocks away, a Buddhist teacher from the Upper West Side, and an Ethical Culture minister from Riverdale. We prayed silently with one another as we began our work.

Mainly, we escorted the families as they filed through to the tables to fill out the reports. We offered them water, directed them to the bathroom, and tried our best to speak with them in a calm, understanding way. Some of the ministers and priests were taking families over to get food that had been set out along one wall. One of the rabbis, David Sable, realized there was nothing kosher. He made a tactical decision to call Mendy’s Deli, home of classic pickles, pastrami, corned beef and tongue that some people insist is New York’s best. Soon after, a donated platter of cold cut sandwiches arrived, and much potato salad.

A few hours later, I was with a Jewish family as they looked for an uncle in a tireless search. After they filled out their forms, I told them that we had some kosher food, and asked if they wanted anything. They looked exhausted, and I guessed that they had not eaten since the attack. “No, thank you, we’re alright,” they responded. I pushed. “Do you like Mendy’s?” I asked. On hearing this, they brightened just a bit, and answered in that quintessentially Jewish way which answers a question with a question: “Mendy’s?” We laughed.

 

I’ve never seen such comfort from a corned beef sandwich. 

 

Such life-affirming moments could not come close to consoling the thousands of families in enormous grief. But as all the solemn declarations about tragedy are being made, it should be remembered that even in tragedy, New Yorkers did not lose their sense of humor.

 

In fact, New Yorkers retained their character. This city, which can harden even the most laid back soul, has always thrived on unexpected kindness, the quick joke from a stranger, and a shared sense that there is astounding beauty in a world that trucks along just a notch above chaos. So while the attacks have changed the lives of thousands, the subway map, and the skyline, I am proud to report that they haven’t drained the sweetness from the Big Apple.