Scholars of religion have a term for the common practice of adherents to a religious tradition that do not always perfectly fit into the doctrinal teachings of that religion — folk religion. This is in contrast to the normative doctrinal teachings of a religion often dubbed “state religion.” This is most often noted in Jewish history as the drive by the ancient Jewish monarchy of the 6th century BCE to centralize worship in Jerusalem with an organized Temple worship and priesthood. The ‘folk religion’ of the time, however, preferred a sort of blending of local pagan customs and the normative priestly cult. If people were not worshiping idols or eating non-kosher food there would have been no need for the Torah to repeatedly warn against worshiping idols or eating non-kosher food. It’s as the old adage goes, society does not develop laws people are already following.
Since becoming an ordained rabbi, I have rarely been faced with needing to fulfill the role of mar d’atra (Aramaic for, literally, “master of the place”). In that role a rabbi acts as a posek (Hebrew for, literally, “arbiter”) and makes halakhic decisions for her or his community. However there is one topic about which I have been asked repeatedly by numerous people in my congregation — Mourners’ Kaddish. To contextualize this, let me say a few words about my congregation.
The average age in my community is probably around 65-70. I have regular attendees who are in their 90s and older. Needless to say, it is an aging congregation. To give you an idea, I recently buried three people in one week. My congregation is made up of many transplants — people who moved to this community from somewhere else. However, many of my congregants are 4th or 5th generation in this community. That being the case, almost everybody who is actually born and raised in this community is related to everybody else even if just as distant cousins. Even though halakhah dictates that people only say Kaddish for one one of the seven relatives whom they must mourn for — parents, children, siblings and spouses — people in my community will often come to shul to say Kaddish for their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Kaddish has become so important in this community that during daily prayer services the names of those who left the world that day throughout the 120+ year history of the synagogue are read aloud and if someone knows who the person was and their story, that story is shared. On Shabbat, the names of those for the entire coming week are read aloud. Most days, although we try, we do not make a minyan — unless someone is observing a yahrzeit. Kaddish is truly the ‘folk religion’ of this little community.
On more than one occasion, I have seen people come to shul to say Kaddish when it is not the actual day of the yahrzeit for whom they are saying Kaddish for — they may be unable to attend shul the actual day of the anniversary of the death of their loved one, or they may disagree with the synagogue’s recording of when the date of death was. In fact, I had a person telling me this very morning that their loved one left the world on the 30th of Heshvan, and despite my attempts to explain to this woman that Heshvan only has 29 days, she insisted that she would say Kaddish tomorrow (in her defense, the tombstone actually does read “ל’ חשון”). [editor's note -- Heshvan does, in fact, have 30 days some years]
I have regularly been posed the question along the lines of “if we can drive to shul, why can’t we say Kaddish without a minyan?” I sensitively explain that the practice of saying Kaddish as a memorial for a loved one who has died is a relatively recent custom in the Jewish people — dating, at the earliest, to the 13th century. That originally the practice of saying Kaddish, which itself is post-Talmudic, dating, at the latest, to the 10th century, was done by rabbis after learning or teaching. I explain to them that in the absence of a minyan we can recite El Malei Rahamim which is a prayer specifically written to be recited in the memory of a dead loved one (and I do recite this prayer at least once a week at daily minyan). In the short time I have served this community I have developed the practice when posed with this question or one similar to say, “the halakhic tradition says… there is a custom to… and if you decide to do something different you won’t find me stop you.” More than one person has told me they have the practice to say Kaddish in the name of their loved ones alone, in the privacy of their home, and it is often followed up with “is that wrong?” One person once asked, “is that a sin?” This has all led me to realize and recognize that no matter what the norms of the halakhic tradition are, people will continue to develop their own personal customs in relation to the recitation of Kaddish. I am sure each and every one of us has been encouraged to say Kaddish for “those who do not have someone to say Kaddish for them,” especially following the Shoah. This is why I have come to the conclusion that the Kaddish has become a symbol of ‘folk religion.’
Another proof, to me, that Kaddish has taken on the symbol par excellence of folk religion in contemporary normative Judaism is the role it has taken on in pop-culture. There is, of course, Alan Ginsberg’s famed narrative poem, Leon Westeltier’s memoir of mourning, Ofra Haza’s haunting song, apparently there was even an episode of the X-Files with the same title.
It fascinates me that this Aramaic prayer, the vernacular of Jews at the time the prayer was composed by Babylonian rabbis but now a language even more obscure and foreign to most contemporary Jews than Hebrew, has taken on such incredible importance. Most people, in my experience, are completely unaware of its history and origin and are often shocked to learn that, by Jewish standards, it is a relatively new prayer and the custom of saying it while mourning or on the anniversary of a death is even more new. It is a stark reminder, as a congregational rabbi, that the customs and needs of any given community vary drastically depending on the location and demographic of said community. It is also a stark reminder that the needs of an individual or community to express their spiritual and religious desires how they see fit will almost always override the proscriptions of doctrinal norms. There was a time when I may have felt that a practice such as saying Kaddish without a minyan or on a date other than the actual yahrzeit was somehow dangerous to normative practice. Now, however, when faced with real, live people facing the need to find comfort in an uncertain world and seeing that these people seek to express their need for that comfort from within their faith tradition brings me much hope and recognition that religion is not driven by clergy and practitioners, but by its adherents.