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June 22, 2018 3:26 pm

Kaddish for Gaza

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Palestinians riot on the Israel-Gaza Strip border, May 14, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

A few weeks ago, a group of Jews gathered in front of Parliament in London to say Kaddish for those Gazans killed on the border in what was described as a peaceful demonstration. Was saying Kaddish appropriate?

It is part of our religious tradition “not to rejoice when our enemies fall” (Proverbs 24:17). We reduce our pleasure at the Passover Seder by pouring out wine to regret the loss of Egyptian lives in the Exodus. And on six days of Passover services, we only say part of the joyful hall prayer — because the Midrash imagines God being sad over the loss of Egyptian life.

But I do not know of any basis for saying Kaddish or a memorial prayer for people who have sought to destroy us. Should we say Kaddish over Nazis who lost their lives defending the Reich?

I mourn the loss of life. I regret the needless waste and tragedy intentionally orchestrated to gratify Hamas’ political agenda. But let me refer to a current term — cultural appropriation — to explain why saying Kaddish in this context is so offensive and objectionable.

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Cultural appropriation is a concept that applies to the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. Some thing or ceremony that has deep and specific meaning and function in one culture is used out of context or inappropriately –and often derisorily — by another.

The Kaddish is not a memorial prayer, as such. For that we have the prayer El Maleh Rahamim, “God full of mercy.” Instead, the Kaddish has two functions. Initially, it was simply a marker between different sections of the services held in synagogues to distinguish important sections of prayer and study from each other. Whereas most prayers are in Hebrew, the Kaddish is in Aramaic, which was the dominant language of the Persian and Middle Eastern countries 2,000 years ago. Most Jews at the time were unfamiliar with Hebrew, but comfortable with Aramaic. As a result, the Kaddish became the most repeated and well known part of the liturgy. 

When a person died, there was an obligation to try to compensate the community for the loss by reinforcing the tradition as a tribute and in memory of the deceased, either by study or attendance at communal prayers. Ideally, one would conduct a service. But if one could not, saying Kaddish in the daily services was a way that mourners could show their devotion to keeping the tradition alive, and paying tribute to their parents for bringing them up in the tradition.

This was how the Kaddish came to be associated with mourners. It is not a memorial prayer. It simply praises God and accepts divine authority as the guiding power of the universe. It is a prayer that seeks to reinforce Jewish identity and those who support its continuity. As such, it has no relevance beyond the rituals of Jewish life specifically. 

But it has become a cliché — a Hollywood token for referring to Jews or Judaism in one short sound bite.

If one wishes to mourn the loss of life beyond the Jewish community or regret the sad state of world affairs or one’s favorite personality or pet, there are other more appropriate ways of doing that than by taking a religious prayer out of context.

It makes no sense to take a prayer calling for God to strengthen Judaism, and apply it to Gazans who certainly have no such agenda.

Another example of cultural appropriation is Tikun Olam — a phrase used in the Aleynu liturgy and mysticism to mean correcting the mystical imbalance of the universe by intensifying one’s connection with God and traditional ritual. It is true that — in the Talmud — it is also used in the context of enabling society to function according to a specific set of rules that enable our world to run smoothly. But it does not mean “be nice.” For that we have “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” Nowadays it is used as a way of saying that one is being a good Jew every time one helps someone else.

Being a good person does not necessarily involve any religious element. We should all aspire to being good people. Being a good Jew is when you do something that is specifically Jewish. We should want to be both — good, committed people to our own communities and religions, as well as good citizens of the world. By all means, let’s mourn the losses on all sides. But leave Kaddish out of it.

This whole issue shows how dangerous identity politics is, because it lumps every group together, for better and for worse, as if they were homogeneous.

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