Dear Rabbi Controversy on Angels and Prayers

Here are this week's Dear Rabbi Responses and Discussions from the Jewish Standard.

Rabbi Zahavy’s response to my letter of May 23 ("Kaddish, Kedushah and Angels") concerning the efficacy of the Kaddish and the meaning of the Kedushah, is both confusing and incomplete. On the one hand he admits that our prayers, specifically the Kaddish, do not cause God to act regarding the souls of our departed and then immediately contradicts that by writing that God hears and answers his prayers (meaning the Kaddish and/or the El Maleh Rachamim) regarding the immortality of his parents' souls. He also completely ignores my question about why, in the Kedushah, does the Creator of the Universe need to hear words of praise from beings (angels who have no free will) who have no choice in the matter.

Perhaps Rabbi Zahavy can further clarify. Thank you.

Jeff Bernstein
New Milford

Jeff Bernstein, in his May 24 letter, asserts that “we are rewarded and/or punished for our own deeds and not for what anyone else does. My parents’ place in the World to Come does not depend in the least on what I or anyone does on their behalf.” In actuality, while Mr. Bernstein’s first sentence is accurate, his second sentence does not follow from the first, and is not correct.

When we conduct ourselves in a good and holy way, do good deeds, and yes, say Kaddish for our parents, we demonstrate that our parents were successful in passing Jewish ideals to their children. It is our demonstration of their merit that confirms and raises their place in the World to Come, not what we do on their behalf. In other words, the very fact of our desire to honor our parents by saying Kaddish for them is a sign of their good work in raising their children. And conversely, our neglect or unwillingness to say Kaddish would be a sign of their failure.

So yes, the place in Olam HaBah of Mr. Bernstein’s parents depends strictly on their own deeds; and Mr. Bernstein’s actions in this world are a clear demonstration of his parents’ deeds, at least in the area of child raising and fulfilling the mitzvah of teaching one’s children.

Leon Sutton
New York, NY

Dear Rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy, responds:

My intent in my column is to encourage an open, non-denominational and non-judgmental discussion of basic Judaic issues. So I am grateful for the Talmudic questions from Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Sutton. Both writers take prayers seriously and they raise legitimate concerns. 

I wish I could give Mr. Bernstein a clearer description of how prayer affects God’s decisions. Our great philosophers and theologians agree on the one hand that our prayer does not force God to act. Belief that prayer compels God would be a heresy that equates prayer with magic. Yet our great minds are equally sure that God hears our prayers and takes them into account in determining our fate. Note well that the members of our congregations may have personal beliefs on this matter that are not based on our official theology or philosophy but are to them equally valid and meaningful.

On the second question, the idea that angels sing praises to God is biblical, as for example in Psalm 148. I confess to a lack of further expertise in matters between God and his angels.

Mr. Sutton’s meaningful and personal theological explanations remind me once again that ordained Rabbis do not have an exclusive franchise on our theology. Members of the community at large can be a great source of creative insights.

Please continue to write in to Dear Rabbi and agree or disagree. I look forward to reading more of your questions, insights and challenges.

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