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.
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!
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.
May it be true.