Translating Kaddish by Peter Levitt

Translating Kaddish by Peter Levitt
by

KADDISH

(Recited at Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat in various languages.)

 

May the Great Name whose Desire gave birth

to the universe Resound through the Creation

Now.

May this Great Presence rule your life and

your day and all lives of our World.

And say, Yes. Amen.

 

Throughout all Space, Bless, Bless this Great Name,

Throughout all Time.

 

Though we bless, we praise, we beautify,

we offer up your name,

Name That Is Holy, Blessed One,

still you remain beyond the reach of our praise, our song,

beyond the reach of all consolation. Beyond! Beyond!

And say, Yes. Amen.

 

Let God’s Name give birth to Great Peace and Life

for us and all people.

And say, Yes. Amen.

 

The One who has given a universe of Peace

gives peace to us, to All that is Israel.

And say, Yes. Amen.

 

A Midrash on Translating Kaddish

In Jewish tradition, it is said that when a word is articulated, the inherent attributes and meaning carried by the word are released into the world. In Judaic-Christian teachings, the most well known example of this is found in Genesis, where we are told that when God said, “Let there be light!” there was light. As spoken by the Creator, the word gave birth to the fact and reality of what it held within.

This teaching was very close to my heart when my dear friend Rabbi Don Singer and I sat down in my studio in Topanga California to make our translation of Kaddish, knowing that it would be used at the first Zen Peacemaker Order Auschwitz Retreat in November 1996, the very month and year my son would be born. After all, as a poet and translator, I too feel the yearning most writers experience in their effort to find some way for their word to become the thing itself in the hearts and minds of those who hear or read what they have written. I was comforted to know that Don was beside me. A true companion on such a mysterious journey is a good thing to have.

What follows, then, are some notions that Don and I traded across the table as we sought to embed into our translation—almost like secrets told in the dark—some of the mystical meanings of the original Kaddish. Needless to say, every error and mistaken intention belongs entirely to us. We embrace them with joy.

May the Great Name whose Desire gave birth

I remember how shocked I was to hear Don tell me that the original word could be translated as desire. “Does God have desire?” I asked. Don smiled. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?” “Well,” I said, thinking of my pregnant wife,” I suppose you’re right. After all, desire is often what comes before something or someone is born.” Don laughed, and I laughed with him. But, then something occurred to me. “Is God’s desire the same as ours?” Don got serious. “Now, that’s a serious question,” he said. “That could take some time. But, why wouldn’t it be? Aren’t we made in his image?” “Yes,” I said. “That’s what they tell us.” “So?” Don asked. “So?” I said. We were quiet for a moment. “Don,” I said, “What was God’s desire?” What, indeed?

Resound through the Creation

Now.

 God is called The Great Name in the first line of our version, and it could be asked whether or not the sound of this Great Name had a beginning, or has an end, or if it ever ceases to sound? Each articulation, each sounding of the Great Name, the Origin and Source of all things, carries the dual meaning of the word “original”: that which existed at the beginning, and that which has never existed before. To sound, then, is to resound. And, to resound, is to sound.

And, the only moment in which anything can make its sound, is the only moment there is or ever has been. It is the moment we call Now. We tried to indicate the singularity of what a moment is by giving the word its own line.

And say, Yes. Amen.

 One day, Don and I were talking about the fact that though there are many names of God, in Jewish tradition it is said we cannot know them, and so we refer to God in different ways. I asked Don, “Are none of God’s names known?” and he said, “Sure they are, but not by so many people. Although,” he continued, “actually, everyone knows them.” “What are some of them?” I asked. “Well,” Don said. “Now, that’s a question! But, I’ll tell you,” and he leaned toward me in the posture of someone about to reveal a gem. “One of God’s names is Yes!” And then he shouted it a second time, to make sure I knew what “Yes” could really mean. “And another one,” he told me, and this one he really shouted, “is Now!”

Throughout all Space, Bless, Bless this Great Name,

Throughout all Time.

 We repeated the word “throughout”, and we strung out the length of the line here to give the sense of what ‘throughout’ could mean. It means all the way through, one hundred percent, and beyond even that. If we think of the nature of undifferentiated space and time before the Creation, that is “throughout,” “space,” and “time.”

Name That Is Holy, Blessed One,

 “Name that is Holy” is another way of referring to God. It is like “Great Name” in the first line. But, “Blessed One” is not just like saying to someone, “You are blessed to me, you are my blessed one.” No. For the “Name that is Holy,” the name that is blessed, is One, is Oneness itself. And since it is Oneness, it is beyond all naming. Beyond even saying it is ‘beyond.” No word can say what Oneness truly is. And so we say “Beyond! Beyond!”

The One who has given a universe of Peace

gives peace to us, to All that is Israel.

 As long as we live in a dualistic way, based on dualistic thinking, the peace of living as oneness, as One, evades us. Every tradition speaks about this. Only when human beings return to one, to oneness, can our world repair itself and return to the original peace that is its birthright, its nature, its origin, its source. After all, the source of peace is Peace itself. The source of oneness is One. One and Peace are not two things.

We capitalized the A of All as a way of inserting into the Kaddish the sound of Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Why? Because the sound of Aleph is silence. It is the Great Silence from which all possible articulation derives. Out of this silence comes laughter, comes sounds of the pain of living, come blessings and prayer, come questions and confusion, comes praise. And out of the silence of Aleph comes our own silence, a silence of oneness shared, at the heart, by All. Is this not the sound of the Great Peace we seek?

The original Kaddish contains the word Israel, and so it is in our translation as well. But, what is Israel? Is it a geopolitical entity? A particular people? One of the mystical Judaic definitions of the word Israel that I love is, “one who struggles with God, or with their relationship with God.” I knew there would be controversy when our translation seemed to ask for peace for Israel. It could seem so divisive. And, when I was at the Auschwitz retreat a few years ago, I saw that my expectation was correct; someone heatedly told me that Don and I were “wrong to do it.”

But, that is why we said to All that is Israel, which places the Aleph of All in close proximity to Israel. After all, we knew this was a Kaddish to be said at Auschwitz. What better place to remind us of the pain in our hearts, the pain of the struggle all human beings suffer to understand the rigours and nature of reality just as it is. And, what better place to remind us, right there in the midst of that pain, of the ever-present potential for discovering the very oneness that defines the path of peace.

And say, Yes. Amen.

 

 

 

 

share

Comments

  1. Thank you so much dear Peter!

    It is so beautiful to hear Kaddish in so many languages at the place of Auschwitz, in French, Spanish, Portuguese,English, Polish, German, Arabic, Flamish and some more…..
    Sharing the suffering and the joy, in listening to each other, learning about diversity to say from the bottom of our hearts YES AMEN.

  2. Dear Peter, dear Bernie,
    Thank you so very much for your impeccable timing: publishing this translation and commentary on the Kaddish exactly now, as the family of my beloved, R’ Zalman, are gathering here in Boulder for the yohrzeit of his death.
    Blessings,
    Eve Ilsen

  3. Yes, I appreciate what you did there (and go on doing!)too, Peter, and am grateful for the e-mail exchange we had these days.
    …and thank you for offering this piece also to the “Pearls of Ash and Awe” book, gathering stories of not-knowing and bearing witness insights from 20 years of retreating at / plunge-ing into Auschwitz.

  4. Maria Scaros-Mercado : June 19, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Thank you so very much Peter. I recall having my Greek Orthodox Bishop translate the prayer into Greek so that I could recite it at Auschwitz when I was there in 1998. It was so very powerful and life changing for me.
    Because of the prayer and the overall experience I re examined my life.
    I became a clinical chaplain and work with the underserved and pray the word becomes manifest in the work I do each day.
    I hope to return to Auschwitz and to once again recite Kaddish in my native tongue.

  5. Yes
    Now
    Thank you
    « I » Рand much more beyond « I » Рam so deeply moved by reading all theses words which sound and resound in my body, my heart, the sentient being I am…they resonate with singing Kaddish all together in Auschwitz…and the Book will offer so many different words, feelings, experiences to share, all together…

  6. Dear Peter,

    I love this text,this special version of the Kaddish, so much! When we are chanting it, the letters, syllables, words are resonating, reverberating just as you try to describe it: When you, as a writer and poet, and your good friend, Don Singer, are getting one with every word, then, and only then it may happen,and it will happen,that the openhearted reader receives the sound of oneness fully and rejoices in it.
    So delighted by this prayer, which has not only helped me once to overcome – or should I say:to raise the situation into light – when I was chanting it alone!

    With a big YES!
    Monika Jion

  7. Mark Humbert : July 12, 2016 at 10:01 pm

    I treasure this Kaddish, and treasure its two translators, Sensei Singer and Sensei Levitt. And I agree with Sensei Barbara — it is wonderful to hear it recited in many languages as we stand in a circle around the Ash Pond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *