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May the Kaddish Recited at Shimon Peres’ Funeral Serve as a Wakeup Call

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Tsvia Walden, the daughter of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, speaks at his funeral at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery on September 30, 2016.
Tsvia Walden, the daughter of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, speaks at his funeral at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery on September 30, 2016.Credit: Nicholas Kamm, AFP

Shimon Peres’ life was so powerfully anchored in Jewish values and this land and state he loved with every fiber of his being. But his life was also intertwined with people all over the world, as exemplified by the scores of world leaders gathered on Friday to pay their respects.  

How fitting that, as we laid the former Israeli president to his eternal rest on Friday in Jerusalem, his two sons, Chemi and Yoni, and his daughter, Prof. Tsvia Walden, recited the traditional words of Kaddish together with a very important addition. The last line of the Kaddish is the familiar prayer of peace sung in synagogues and Jewish gatherings all over the globe: “Oseh Shalom Bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael. – May the One who makes peace in the heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel.” Tsvia added the words: “v’al kol bnai adam – upon all humankind.” 

Many Israelis were surprised by the Kaddish they heard on Friday. And, they were especially surprised by the fact that Tsvia joined her two brothers in saying Kaddish for their beloved father. Too many secular Israelis don’t realize that our Jewish tradition can and must change. And too many traditionally observant Jews insist that the tradition must never change. Thankfully, Reform Judaism is premised on the belief that the Jewish tradition has never stopped evolving. For us, Judaism adapts to new challenges and life as we live it. Some of these changes express our deep egalitarian commitments. Women can say Kaddish, they can read from the Torah and yes, they can be rabbis and Talmudic scholars.  

The liturgical change in the Kaddish is inspired by our commitment to stretch Jewish particularism to reach for the universal dimension of our faith, especially when we remember our loved ones and pray for peace. Tsvia Walden and her husband Dr. Rafi Walden are used to the expanded version of the Kaddish because that is what is prayed at their Reform congregation in Tel Aviv, Beit Daniel. They are both leaders of our Israeli Reform Movement where they participate in our egalitarian form of prayer and recite our prayers laced in expressions of hope for all peoples, not just for Jews. That is how the prayer is written in the Israeli Reform Siddur, Avodah She’balev. In North America the Reform Movement’s prayer book, Mishkan Tefillah, Oseh Shalom includes the words “v’al kol yoshvei teivel – upon all who dwell on earth.” The liturgical innovation is the same, but with slightly different wording. 

President Peres taught all of us about not only dreaming of a better world but just as importantly, having the courage to lead dramatic change. Loving the Jewish people should not mean that there isn’t room to love God’s other children. On Friday, at a state funeral for Israel’s longest serving and one of its most beloved leaders, as the Kaddish was emotionally recited, many were awakened to the possibility that there is more than one way to live serious Jewish commitment.  

On the eve of the New Year 5777, as we look ahead, inspired by the life and legacy of Shimon Peres, it is hard not to be hopeful. Peres’ life is a testament to the courage, imagination and resilience of the Jewish people. From across the political spectrum, from all over the world, thousands of us came to President Peres’ funeral because we loved and admired his leadership. In Jewish communities all over the world we will recite Kaddish in memory of our inspiring Shimon Peres, and perhaps more of us will consider adding a few words to this foundational prayer so that we just might train ourselves to feel more responsible and connected to those who are not just like us.  

As we continue to ponder the inspiring words of remembrance offered about the remarkable shifts and changes in Shimon’s long life, from ensuring Israel’s military security to his determination to make a secure, just and lasting peace with the Palestinian people, we cannot doubt that people grow and change. So should Judaism.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism (www.URJ.org), the largest and most diverse movement in North American Jewish life and affiliated with the Israeli Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism (www.impj.org.il).

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