Among the thousands who were murdered by the Arab killers on September 11 there were of course many Jews. It is not customary in this country to count the victims by religion or to even mention religious affiliation in connection with a tragedy which affects all Americans equally and which was aimed at all of us.
Nevertheless, it is important for Jews to give some thought to how we deal with death in our tradition, particularly violent death inflicted by a malicious enemy.
Normal death, which comes to all of us, is not our concern. We are not here to contemplate death, we are here to live. The evident purpose of life is to work and to treat our fellow men kindly. That is the Jewish message, for Judaism has never been a death cult, as best seen by the manner in which we commemorate our departed.
We recite the “Kaddish”. Those Jews who seldom attend a Beth Hamidrash and know little Hebrew may believe that the so-called prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, is a sad recital of misery and fear. The truth is the opposite.
The words of the Kaddish do not mention death even once. There is no reference to “the world to come”. Instead the Kaddish is a doxology or a praise of Hashem. The Kaddish originated with the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E. when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and the inhabitants were driven into the Babylonian captivity. The legend concerning the “Lost Tribes of Israel” originated with that captivity, although we know now that the Israelites of that day were not lost at all but assimilated with other Asian nations, so that today Jewish customs are diffused throughout Asia from Iran to Japan.
The Kaddish includes a prayer for peace, a condition which has eluded mankind so far.
One of the most important functions of the Kaddish is its message of continuity of the generations. It constitutes a bridge in the endless chain of memory which links one generation to the other. Therefore, Jews would sometimes refer to their children as their “Kaddish”, meaning that on their passing their children and even grandchildren would say Kaddish for them and keep Judaism alive.
At one time, only Jewish sons recited the Kaddish for their parents. That restriction has generally been abandoned so that in this country daughters say Kaddish as well. Kaddish may be said, not only for parents, but also for relatives, friends and others whom we seek to remember.
This incudes the victims of the recent mass murders at the World Trade Center and the vicitms of Palestinian terror in Israel and the millions who were slaughtered in Europe for nearly 2000 years for being Jews. During those many years the Jewish response to persecution and murder was never more than the recital of the Kaddish because Jews had no means of defending themseves.
Since 1948 that has changed. Now Israel is defending itself because for once Jews have the power to do so. The world may still demand that we walk into their gas ovens while mumbling ancient prayers. The reality is otherwise. Self-defense has taken the place of recitation and the Jewish fighting spirit has replaced the mind of the fearful “ghetto” Jews who had no means of self-defense. For them and for all those who died without a chance of fighting for their lives, we say the Kaddish.
The Kaddish is no dirge. This is so because to Jews life and death are one or two sides of the same reality. Jews do not argue against death. Traditionally, Jews viewed death as a transition to another life. In the book of Job we read the sentence: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Believing Jews, then, had little to fear in death. In fact, the historian Josephus tells us that the Essenes viewed death with indifference, an attitude also taught by the Greek philosopher Epicurus.
However we look upon death, we need to avoid the hysteria which the secular world attaches to this inevitable outcome of life. We Jews need not hide death, as is commonly done in the mechanistic world we inhabit. We can once more read the words of the Kaddish, which seeks only to reaffirm our belief that “adonay lee velo iro” or “Hashem is with me, I shall not fear.”
We take that attitude also with reference to the recent mass murders in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania so that we can continue to be Jewish optimists amidst so much cruelty and say in the words of the Kaddish: “Ausse shalom bimromov, who yaase shalom, alaynoo v’al kol Yisroel” or “May He who makes peace in the universe bestow peace upon us and all Israel.”