The Celebrity Archetype in Jewish Prayer: A chapter from my book "God's Favorite Prayers"

A chapter from my book.

The Celebrity’s Prayers


(Hebrew: עָלֵינוּ, “upon us”) or Aleinu leshabei'ach (“[it is] upon us to praise [God]”), meaning “it is upon us or it is our obligation or duty to praise God.” A Jewish prayer recited at the end of each of the three daily services. It is also recited following the New Moon blessing and after a circumcision is performed.

—Wikipedia, Aleinu



y quest for perfect prayer and for spiritual insights evolved, not just at synagogues on the ground but also one time during my davening on a jumbo jet flight at an altitude of 39,000 feet and a speed of 565 miles per hour. That is where, by happenstance on an airplane in 1982, I met Rabbi Meir Kahane, an American-Israeli Orthodox rabbi, an ultra-nationalist writer and political figure and, later, a member of the Israeli Knesset.

I recognized Kahane right away when I saw him on the flight. He was a famous New York Jew. In the 1960s and 70s, Kahane had organized the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Its goal was to protect Jews in New York City's high-crime neighborhoods and to instill Jewish pride. Kahane also was active in the struggle for the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate from Russia and to immigrate to Israel. By 1969, he was proposing emergency Jewish mass-immigration to Israel because of the imminent threat he saw of a second Holocaust in an anti-Semitic United States. He argued that Israel be made into a state modeled on Jewish religious law, that it annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that it urge all Arabs to voluntarily leave Israel or to be ejected by force.

It was then, by coincidence, that I traveled with Kahane on a long Tower Air flight to Israel. As was common on flights to Israel, a few hours after takeoff, Jewish men gathered at the back of the plane. As the sun became visible in the Eastern sky, they formed a minyan, kind of an ad hoc synagogue. In this unusual and somewhat mystical setting, I prayed the morning services with the rabbi and others at the back of the jumbo jet.

After that service, I introduced myself and, during the continuation of the flight, engaged him in conversation, politely challenging Kahane at length about his radical political views. After meeting him on the plane, I followed his political career with some interest.

Kahane was a hardened nationalist. In 1984, he became a member of the Knesset representing his Kach party. In 1988, the Israeli government banned Kach as racist. On November 5, 1990, at age 58, after delivering a speech that warned American Jews to emigrate to Israel before it was too late, Kahane was assassinated in Manhattan by an Arab gunman. In 1994, Kach was outlawed in Israel and listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

Bearing all of this in mind, in my discussion of the celebrity-monotheist archetype of the synagogue, I call my illustrative character Rabbi Meir.

Let me introduce you to Rabbi Meir, the celebrity-monotheist. First, let me tell you how he differs from my five other synagogue friends.

Rabbi Meir is not much of a scribe. He is not happy just to sit at his desk with his books, to keep track of his texts and accounts. He is a man in motion, expecting change in the world at large, provoking it where he can and watching for it all the time.

Rabbi Meir is not much of priest, either. He cares, but not a lot, for the priestly content, the values we associate with the Temple, the precincts of the sacred or the profane, the lineages and classifications of the kosher and treif. But he does cast himself very much like the priest in one respect: He visualizes his role as a designated high profile leader of his people with a clearly specified public mission.

Rabbi Meir is not a meditative type of person anchored in the immediate textures of this world of ours, here in the synagogue building. He is not much of a mystic either, seeking flights of ascent to know the intimacies of heaven.

Rabbi Meir is not a well-rounded mythic thinker, either. He doesn’t consider it paramount to relive the past epochs of the Israelite dramas. Okay, then, where does that leave him?

Meir would rather participate in a coming drama—to lead the charge in the next and final chapter of Jewish history. He sees himself as a team captain of the Jews. He will carry out his leadership roles on the field of battle and in the theater of confrontation, struggle and war. In the dramatic unfolding of time, as he sees the world, we are in the metaphoric fourth quarter and the clock is running down. Rabbi Meir is out there to lead the forces of the one God of the Jewish people as they celebrate their deserved victory when the time runs off the clock.

And Rabbi Meir fully expects his team, the Jews, to win the game, the ultimate Super Bowl. That victory will trigger not just a celebration but a new epoch. The team calls it the Age of the Messiah, that distant galaxy of wish and fantasy where kingdoms are restored and created.

Keep in mind, as you get to know him, that Rabbi Meir is a total fan—a fanatic—of his side. A celebrity himself, he roots for the other celebrities on his team. He identifies with them and, when they win, it lifts his spirits. The dual actions of rooting and competing in the contest are primary to this personality. The outcome of the game is important, but secondary to Rabbi Meir, because he has no doubt that victory is at hand.

Our God is Number One


 call Rabbi Meir, the next person you meet in the synagogue, a celebrity because that is his self-proclaimed status. Performing on the world’s center stage, he lets us know that he is a star member of the cast of the Chosen People. He is a confident monotheist who has an exciting story. As he tells it, the gods now are engaged in a continual conflict and competition. And, then, at some point in the future, there will be a final match when idolatry will lose. The victory will go to the one true God over his false and worthless competitors.

Our celebrity-monotheist exhorts everyone in the synagogue simultaneously with both vivid and vague visions of a cosmic war in heaven and on Earth. Rabbi Meir tells us about the coming state of affairs for the Jewish people. Our destiny will be fulfilled at the end of time in a promised culmination.

All of this drama is simply stated in the first section of the Aleinu prayer (which we first cited above, in connection with the performer in the context of the Rosh Hashanah services):

It is our duty to praise the Lord of all things,
to ascribe greatness to him who formed the world in the beginning,
since he has not made us like the nations of other lands,
and has not placed us like other families of the earth,
since he has not assigned unto us a portion as unto them,
nor a lot as unto all their multitude.

For we bend the knee and offer worship and thanks before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he,
who stretched forth the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth,
the seat of whose glory is in the heavens above,
and the abode of whose might is in the loftiest heights.

He is our God; there is none else: in truth he is our King; there is none besides him;
as it is written in his Torah, “And you shall know this day, and lay it to your heart that the Lord he is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath: there is none else.” (Koren Siddur, p. 180)

Rabbi Meir cheers on, urging his values on others like that of a team coach or captain in a locker room before a crucial game. But, wait. There is another important vagary. This is not yet a real game. In his synagogue prayers, the celebrity-monotheist does not encourage and exhort his team of worshippers to go out and trample the identified competing teams. Rather, his call in his liturgy is figuratively to act out a competition—akin to participating in a fantasy religion league—to imagine that the ultimate showdown is nigh, to conjure a vision of the minutes ticking down at the close of the game. The end of time, the end to the struggle and the ultimate victory of the team of the one true God over the team of the false Gods is at hand. The conclusion of the Aleinu prayer finally and forcefully proclaims the details:

We therefore hope in you, O Lord our God,
that we may speedily behold the glory of your might,
when you will remove the abominations from the earth,
and the idols will be utterly cut off,
when the world will be perfected under the kingdom of the Almighty,
and all the children of flesh will call upon your name,
when you will turn unto yourself all the wicked of the earth.

Let all the inhabitants of the world perceive and know that unto you every knee must bow, every tongue must swear.

Before you, O Lord our God, let them bow and fall;
and unto thy glorious name let them give honor;
let them all accept the yoke of your kingdom,
and do you reign over them speedily, and forever and ever.

For the kingdom is yours, and to all eternity you will reign in glory;
as it is written in your Torah, “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.”

And it is said, “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall the Lord be One, and his name One.”

Let me measure the dimensions of this archetype. Like those of the mystic and meditator, he is a powerful personality type without any specific proclivity of status or profession. I could have called this archetype a “triumphalist.” That labeling bears a pejorative connotation when it is used by social scientists to describe a type of leader or his groups. So, rather than use that term, which is the best existing label, I chose to make up for him a new name without any baggage, that is, the celebrity-monotheist.

And, indeed, this is the most potentially controversial and even negative archetype of those ideal people whom you meet in the synagogue. He may turn out to be a forceful competitor with combative rhetoric. And there is the danger that his friends could hear his bellicose cheering and cross the line. They could potentially be cajoled into going beyond enthusiastically rooting for a hoped-for fantasy victory leading to a Messianic Age. They could be moved beyond argumentative rhetoric to take up antagonistic actions to bring about their hoped-for triumph.

Misdirected and misguided, religion in a triumphal mode can—and, sadly, often does—breed violence and terrorism.

In relation to the other archetypes of the synagogue, I associate this archetype in one respect with the priest, who is somewhat of a public and political personality. But the priests are entrenched in their world of present day discipline, their recollections of the Temple rites and all that attends to them—those notions that we spelled out in our previous chapter on the priest’s prayers. They do not care much for the way that Rabbi Meir tries to turn the attention of the synagogue to a distant dream of salvation. They offer a viable set of saving graces through acts of worship, religious institutions and the worldview that surrounds those core values. When they do reluctantly buy into the celebrity’s messianic message, it takes a recognizably priestly form. They accept a vision of the age of redemption that includes for them a complete package deal: the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the restoration of the sacrificial service.

As I note, Rabbi Meir shares few values with Rav Aharon the scribe or with the ideal type of Deborah the meditator. Neither of these personalities particularly wants to divert the focus from his or her day-to-day religious habits, conceptions and values and turn instead to primarily await the messiah and the end of days. When those archetypes do accept elements of a vision of the transformation at the end of time, it takes a specific shape; they see it as an era of peace and not war, a tame time of tranquility when the predator will befriend the prey. The priest’s vision of political and religious triumph, and the rebuilding of the Temple, takes a back seat to their notions that the redeemer will change the natural order of things and bestow a universal peace upon the land. Rather, it will be the perfect future age in which the scribe and meditator can practice their way of life based on the Torah—just as they do in the present—but, finally, in the new age, they can do all that without fears or disruptions.

In our ideal synagogue, the celebrity articulates his agenda of a dramatic public and political Messianic Age and the priests, scribes and meditators hear a different model. The celebrity’s message of the end of days comes to wider expression in multiple layers of narrative. The other archetypes attach what they want onto the articulation of the universal recognition of our one God. They append onto the vision of the celebrity their expectations of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the city and the Temple, of the change of the natural order and, also, of the mystical resurrection of the dead.

As I get know the celebrity Rabbi Meir better, I understand that his core formative principles coincide with the essence of a generic warrior archetype—a character who, in fact, is mainly absent as an attendee at the synagogue. As I said earlier, in the synagogue’s incarnation, the combatant does not do any actual fighting. An imagined mythic conflict is conducted on his behalf by a god who will vanquish the enemy idols at the end of days. “Our God will be number one” is the signature cheer of the essential narrative of this archetype.

In sum, the celebrity-monotheist shows confidence and derives pride from his sense of being one of the chosen and in his certainty in ultimate triumph. He speaks boldly of the moment of his group’s inevitable victory, couched as his faith in his God’s ascendancy and superiority. And, as I showed above, the Aleinu serves as a pristine liturgical case in point for this archetype.

Not surprising, in speaking about that prayer in a roundabout way, some rabbinic interpreters tried to tell us this. They explained the prayer’s origin in history instead of enlightening us more fully about how this prayer promises us a future conflict and conquest. The rabbis suggested that the victorious biblical warrior-prophet Joshua composed the Aleinu in the distant past during one of his triumphs, either when he crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land or after his victory at the battle of Jericho. [See Arugat ha-Bosem, ed. by E. E. Urbach, 3 1962, 468–71.] The spectrum of time merges for the rabbis as they talk about their theory of the origins of the prayer so as to shed light on what this celebrity-monotheist’s prayer tells us about his expectations for the future.

The stories referenced in the celebrity-monotheist’s prayers—the hints and suggestions in the synagogue about the messianic redemption—are not only about confrontation, conflict and victory. There are alternatives in the prayers of the synagogue that touch on the messianic theme in a more peaceful manner, one more acceptable to the scribes and the meditators.

To help make this clear, I introduce you briefly to Beruryah—a hybrid variety of celebrity-monotheist combined with elements of other archetypes. While Beruryah is equally certain of the starring role of the Jews and of their God in the script of world history, she is more irenic, more peaceful in her visions of the future, of the final act of the drama.

In the Talmud, there are a few stories about a morally admirable woman named Beruryah, who was the wife of an ancient Rabbi Meir. She stands out as a rare woman-scholar in the male-dominated rabbinic culture. To give you a flavor for what the Talmudic Beruryah stood for, here is one of the traditions about her from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhot 10a:

Certain brigands who were in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir used to trouble him greatly. He prayed that they die. Beruryah his wife said to him, “Why do you pray this way?

“Because it is written (in Psalms 104:35), ‘Let sins cease...?’ Is ‘sinners’ written? Rather ‘sins’ is written.

“Furthermore, cast your eyes to the end of the verse, ‘And they are wicked no more.’ Since sins will cease, the sinners will be wicked no more.

“So pray that they repent and be wicked no more.”

He prayed for them, and they repented.

Much like the Talmudic figure of that name, my imaginary character Beruryah encapsulates a moral superiority. In addition, we attribute to her some of the prophet Isaiah’s anti-war visions of salvation at the end of days, which we judge to be a morally superior vision of the end-times. After some supernatural transformation of the nature of humankind, scripture reports in Isaiah chapter two, “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Although this model of the age of redemption is not spelled out unequivocally in the prayers, you do find echoes of such notions in several places, including the Kedushah for Shabbat in the Shaharit service, as follows:

Reader — We will sanctify your name in the world even as they sanctify it in the highest heavens, as it is written by the hand of your prophet: And they called one unto the other and said,

Cong. — Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

Reader — Then with a noise of great rushing, mighty and strong, they make their voices heard, and, upraising themselves toward the Seraphim, they exclaim over against them, Blessed.

Cong. — Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place.

Reader — From your place shine forth, O our King, and reign over us, for we wait for thee. When wilt thou reign in Zion? Speedily, even in our days, do thou dwell there, and forever. May you be magnified and sanctified in the midst of Jerusalem your city throughout all generations and to all eternity. O let our eyes behold your kingdom, according to the word that was spoken in the songs of your might by David, your righteous anointed:

Cong. — The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise you the Lord.

Reader — Unto all generations we will declare your greatness, and to all eternity we will proclaim your holiness, and your praise, O our God, shall not depart from our mouth forever, for thou art a great and holy God and King. Blessed art thou, O Lord, the holy God.

The liturgy does not negate directly the triumphal celebrity monotheist’s vision. What it does, however, is present a more morally balanced and less confrontational scenario by intermixing mystical concepts with messianic themes in formulating elements of the ultimate praise of God.

Another articulation in the synagogue of the celebrity’s views is the special Kaddish that is recited in the funeral service at a cemetery. This is the Kaddish that is said by the mourning children after the burial of their parents. This prayer has no explicit irenic intent. Rather, it’s an interesting amalgamation—an olio, if you will—of some messianic notions with the priestly images of Temple and Jerusalem, its city, along with the mystic’s idea of the resurrection of the dead at the end of days:

Mourners — May his great name be magnified and sanctified in the world that is to be created anew, where he will quicken the dead, and raise them up into life eternal; will rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and establish his temple in the midst thereof; and will uproot all alien worship from the earth and restore the worship of the true God. O may the Holy One, blessed be he, reign in his sovereignty and glory during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time, and say ye, Amen.

Cong. and Mourners — Let his great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

I find yet another instance of a messianic medley of expressions of the celebrity-monotheist in a passage from the beginning of the central part of the Musaf, the Additional Service Amidah for Rosh Hashanah:

Now, therefore, O Lord our God, impose your awe upon all your works, and your dread upon all that you have created, that all works may fear you and all creatures prostrate themselves before you, that they may all form a single band to do your will with a perfect heart, even as we know, O Lord our God, that dominion is yours, strength is in your hand, and might in your right hand, and that your name is to be feared above all that you have created.

Give then glory, O Lord, unto your people, praise to them that fear you, hope to them that seek you, and free speech to them that wait for you, joy to your land, gladness to your city, a flourishing horn unto David your servant, and a clear shining light unto the son of Jesse, your anointed, speedily in our days.

Then shall the just also see and be glad, and the upright shall exult, and the pious triumphantly rejoice, while iniquity shall close her mouth, and all wickedness shall be wholly consumed like smoke, when you make the dominion of arrogance to pass away from the earth.

And you, O Lord, shall reign, you alone over all your works on Mount Zion, the dwelling place of your glory, and in Jerusalem, your holy city, as it is written in your Holy Words, The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise be the Lord.

The prayer repeats the familiar themes and announces new sub-themes, namely that wickedness and arrogance will be banished at the end of days; gladness and a shining light will characterize the new era, an age that will be imposed with awe and dread.

The dour, even militant tenor of the last two examples, and the mainly peaceful tendency of the one that precedes it, show us that there are different flavors of the celebrity-monotheist visions.

These contrasts are more dramatically and bluntly juxtaposed in another illustration, in a ritual at the Seder meal. On Passover night, we hope and expect with joy that the prophet Elijah will visit the Seder at every Israelite house. And, so, we pour a cup of wine for the prophet, the herald of the coming of the end of days and of the transformation of conflict into peace.

During the Seder, right before the recitation of the psalms of the Hallel, when we open the door to greet Elijah, the precursor of the peaceful messiah, the instructions in the Haggadah prescribe, “The fourth cup is poured and the door is opened. Say the following”:

Pour out your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge you, and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord.

Here, then, outside of the synagogue, in the Seder recited at home, a sentiment about the coming age is stated most strongly. The liturgist calls on God to confront his foes, to vent his indignation, wrath and anger, and to destroy those who do not recognize our God.

Prayer-jacking and Martyrs


hen you hijack a plane, you violently take control of the whole entity and fly it to the place you choose. When you hijack a liturgy, you try to do the same. The celebrity-monotheist tried to hijack the Unetanneh Tokef prayer, a liturgy of the scribe and mystic from the High Holy days that we discussed above. He tried to make it his own, by writing a story about its authorship and origin.

I’ve emphasized how I judge that, in all cases, prayer origins are secondary to their essences. Certainly, here, in the case of such a powerful poem, thinking about who was its ancient writer detracts from it and distracts us from the impact of the complex religious messages embedded in the prayer.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer summarized the strange authorship story of this liturgy. As we recall, it speaks dramatically about how God decides on Rosh Hashanah who shall live and who shall die. Hammer calls the origin account for this liturgy a “legend”:

It is little wonder that this poem gave birth to legend. It is said that it was recited by Rabbi Amnon (Mainz, c. eleventh century), who had failed to reject a proposal of apostasy immediately and instead asked for three days to consider it. When he did not agree to give up his faith, he was taken away and tortured brutally. It was Rosh Hashanah, and he asked his disciples to take him to the synagogue, where he interrupted the service and recited this prayer in order to sanctify the name of God. Upon completing the recitation, he died. Later, the legend continues, he appeared to Rabbi Kalonymus in a dream and asked that this prayer be recited each year. Moving as this legend is, it should not distract us from the piyyut itself, the subject of which is not martyrdom, but human responsibility and the possibility for change, as we face the judgment of our creator.

Sadly, in real Jewish history, martyrdom did occur many times. However, imposing a gory martyrdom background origin-story on this particular liturgy is a violent means of taking us away from the inherent mystical and scribal images of the prayer and its potent meanings.

The celebrity’s darker side comes to the forefront here. The description in the authorship legend is actually more graphic than what Rabbi Hammer recounts. In the full version of the legend, the Christian authorities dismembered the martyr and delivered him back to the synagogue without limbs. In his us-versus-them world, the celebrity archetype sometimes uses a gruesome means to stir his team’s emotions against his imagined enemy.

In fact, while we are on the subject, there is a poignant martyr’s prayer recited on Yom Kippur in the Musaf service. The prayer begins, “These I recall,” in Hebrew, Eilleh Ezkrah. It’s an old and venerable narrative account from the time of the Crusades in the Middle Ages. It tells us about the much earlier torture and killing of ten rabbis by the Romans in Israel after the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE.

At his death at the hands of the Romans, with his last breath, Rabbi Akiva recited the Shema. The scribe-martyrs of Eilleh Ezkrah chose to recite the Shema with their last breaths, to perish with their declaration of the love of God, his Torah and their loyalty to his commandments.

The martyrdom account of Rabbi Akiva mournfully describes, “As they scraped his skin with iron combs, he recited the Shema, accepting the yoke of the sovereignty of heaven… His soul left him as he uttered the word ‘One.’”

Other accounts of medieval martyrs have them reciting the Aleinu as their last utterances. In 1171, at Blois France during the Crusades, Barry Freundel (Why we Pray What we Pray, NY 2010, p. 228, citing Raphael Posner, et. al., ed., Jewish Liturgy: Prayer and Synagogue Service through the Ages, Jerusalem, 1975, p. 110) tells us the following:

…thirty-four Jewish men and seventeen Jewish women were burned at the stake because they refused to accept Baptism. The contemporaneous records of this act of martyrdom tell of these Jews singing Aleinu with a “soul-stirring” melody as they gave their lives to sanctify God’s name.

These were celebrity-martyrs, who elected to die proclaiming the ultimate triumph of one God. No doubt, the victims at Blois loved Torah and commandments. And, for certain, the rabbis tortured to death who recited the Shema were confident in the ultimate victory of God and in the coming of the Messianic Age of redemption for the Jews and all humankind. But, when you choose your dying words, that comes from the essence of your identity. The core of your being rules the priorities of your choices. The creators of martyr accounts formulate matters simply. When a Jew faces martyrdom, he chooses as his last prayer that which embodies the essence of his personality. A rabbi-scribe in Roman times will recite the Shema. A resisting-celebrity in the Crusades will recite the Aleinu.

Are the accounts of martyrdom accurate to what happened? We cannot know more than what the later narrators elect to tell us about our ancient and medieval martyrs.

Sadly, we have had multitudes more tragedies in modern times. Official synagogue representation of the modern martyrs of the Holocaust, in text or ritual, has been rare. But, recently, American Conservative Judaism did choose to develop a Kaddish for death camps. Based, in part, on the last passages of Andre Schwarz-Bart’s novel, The Last of the Just (New York, 1960), this ritual and text was originally incorporated into the Yom Kippur Martyrology of the 1972 Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Jules Harlow, editor of the Mahzor, described the impetus for the innovation as follows:

The text of the Martyrology incorporates rabbinic narratives about some of the martyred rabbis as well as words from the Psalms and from modern authors, including Bialik, Hillel Bavli, Nelly Sachs, A.M. Klein and Soma Morgenstern. At the conclusion of the narrative recalling martyrs of various times, we wanted to articulate the tension between faith on the one hand and, on the other, the questioning doubt which arises out of our confrontation with even the recollection of the murder of those Jews. And we did not want to articulate that tension in an essay or in a footnote .  .  .

We chose the statement of faith par excellence in Jewish tradition, the Mourner’s Kaddish. After the death of a family member, when a Jew has perhaps the strongest reasons to question God, he or she is obliged to stand in public to utter words in praise of God.

Harlow explained to me the motives of the liturgy in a personal letter (March 2, 1989):

We interrupt these words, this statement of faith, with the names of places where Jews were slaughtered, places which therefore cause us to raise questions, to have doubts. The tension is resolved, liturgically, by the last four lines, whose words are uninterrupted by the names which give rise to questioning, thus concluding in a framework of faith.

Harlow added that there are intentionally seventeen places named, signifying that life, represented by the Hebrew Chai, numerically eighteen, “…can never be complete, can never be the same, after such slaughter.” This is not noted in the prayer book.

In the new Kaddish, the original Aramaic text alternates with a register of sites of extermination in this compound liturgy:

               We rise
       Sh'mei raba
       b'alma di v'ra khir'utei,
Babi Yar
       v'yamlikh malkhutei
       b'hayeikhon u-v'yomeikhon
       u-v'hayei d'khol beit yisrael,
       ba-agala u-vi-z'man kariv,
       v'imru amen.

       Y'hei sh'mei raba m'vorakh l'alam u-l'almei almaya.

       Yitbarakh v'yishtabah
       v'yitpa'ar v'yitromam
       v'yitnasei v'yit-hadar
       v'yit'aleh v'yit-halal
       sh'mei d'kudsha,
       brikh hu l'ela
       min kol birkhata v'shirata,
       tushb'hata v'nehemata
       da-amiran b'alma,
       v'imru amen.

       Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya v'hayim aleinu v'al kol yisrael,
       v'imru amen.
       Oseh shalom b-m'romav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yisrael,
       v'imru amen.

I cite here the Kaddish of the Siddur Sim Shalom (edited by Jules Harlow, 1985, pp. 841-843). The more extensive Kaddish of the Martyrology of the Day of Atonement is not limited to communities and camps where the Jews were killed during the Second World War. It includes Kishinev, Hebron, Mayence, Usha and Jerusalem, places where Jews were slaughtered in other historical eras.

The special Kaddish is an intermixed text with no narrative. It creates an intrusion into the set liturgy, thus wanting to depict the disruption of death within the static reality of the people. It is a violent representation. Names of locations of destruction, in language read from left to right, confront the doxology of praise, in the liturgy recited from right to left.

The new Kaddish confuses and traumatizes the soothing cadence of the expected traditional prayer. This unconventional form of the prayer breaks the somber beat of the chant of the Kaddish, one of the sure rhythms and universally recognized prayers of the synagogue.

It also mixes the main elements of a martyrology into a quintessential prayer of the mystic. Those tragic ideas and recollections are more comfortably situated in the prayers and personality of the celebrity.

Writing this prayer was a bold idea, a valiant try at getting recognition of the mythic meaning of the Holocaust into the standard service of the synagogue. But it failed, because it chose too freely to mix the notions of the celebrity archetype of prayer into the Kaddish, the doxology of the mystic. The current conservative Mahzor, Lev Shalem, published in 2010, omits the prayer from the service.

The celebrity-monotheist, as you easily can tell, is not my favorite among the archetypes I meet in the synagogue. He is, however, a legitimate, vocal and dramatically substantial member of our congregation. We do need to meet him, to know him, to respect the integrity of his messages and try to direct his powerful energies to positive spiritual and cultural goals.

No comments: