Rabbi Max, why do you stay in your seat when you’re not leading Mourner’s Kaddish?
In short, because I’m not in mourning. I am blessed with two parents and two sisters who are all alive and well (may each one live to 120). I stay seated because I know that a day will come when I will be called to stand as a mourner.
At Temple Emanu-El we have a unique compromise—one that represents the very essence of Reform Jewish practice. We honor and respect those who are various stages of mourning by asking them to rise and remain standing so that our k’hillah kedosha, our sacred community, may recognize those who are in need of our love and support. After we call for the mourners in the first thirty days, those in the first eleven months, and those marking the yartzeit of a loved one, we invite anyone whose custom it is to rise to do so for Mourner’s Kaddish. In this way we give the opportunity for the mourners to be recognized, and we respect the decision of many to support the mourners by standing as well.
For as long as I can remember I have prayed in communities where the minhag hamakom, the custom of the place, was for all to rise together. This began in the Reform movement in the years following the Holocaust. Many rabbis asked their congregations to rise, whether they were in one of the periods of mourning or not, because six million died in the Holocaust, many of whom without living relatives to recite Mourner’s Kaddish on their behalf.
The altruism of standing for the victims of the Holocaust is worthy, and if that is what compels us to rise for Mourner’s Kaddish, then we should continue to do so. This was my practice up until recently, then I changed. I reevaluated my actions, and I asked myself what it means to stand for this prayer. Am I truly in mourning? Certainly I cry each year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we recount the stories of loss and horror, but I know that though I grieve and am in pain—I am not a mourner. My status of a mourner will be saved for the people who have raised me and stood by my side from my very first breath.
Each time we call for mourners to rise I am filled with empathy for their pain, and I am reassured by the supportive smiles, hugs, and hand holding that takes place throughout the Kaddish. What I treasure is the choice we give each other to rise or remain seated, both in respect for our mourners. This Shabbat, I will remain seated—as has been my custom for many months—but each time I am conscious and aware that I am making a decision to sit. I pray that each of us may make meaningful Jewish decisions that enhance our prayers, our Jewish identity, and our relationship with God.