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Philly Rabbis Discuss Homeland Television Series

January 3, 2013 By:
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Saul Berenson, the CIA’s former Middle East division chief on the T.V. show Homeland. Showtime photo.

If you’re waiting to get through backlogged episodes of the latest season of Homeland, please read no further. I don't want to be held responsible for spoiling anything. But if you’ve already seen the season two finale of the Showtime series about the war on terrorism, this might interest you.

In the final scene, we see Saul Berenson, the CIA’s former Middle East division chief, in a large hall surrounded by the victims of a gruesome terrorist attack, white sheets draped over each body. Berenson looks forlorn as he gingerly starts to say the mourner’s Kaddish.

By my unscientific count, it was the second time he had said the prayer on the show. Both times he does so alone, which didn’t jive with the Jewish tradition I know, which requires forming a minyan to say the Kaddish. But I’m a journalist, not a rabbi, so I figured I would ask some people who know more than I do.

On a separate note, Mandy Patinkin is terrific as Berenson on the Emmy Award-winning show. I’m not sure whether it’s the gray in the beard or the furrowed brow, but the guy just sweats wisdom. If Patinkin looks familiar, it’s because he played Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, which includes this classic scene. Here’s hoping the Homeland writers find some way to work in the line “Hello, my name is Saul Berenson. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Now, back to the rabbis. Their responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Rabbi Eliott Perlstein of Ohev Shalom of Bucks County

At life's most momentous moments, joyful or sad, we do well in turning to our rich tradition for comfort and meaning.  When we access Judaism's ritual and wisdom, we may not be doing it exactly according to the letter of the law, and that's O.K. It's not always about doing it just right but about being enriched in our Jewish connections. That Saul, a Jew and a top-ranking CIA official, would turn to his Jewish sources at a time of terrible loss and emotional upheaval is to be applauded. I personally appreciate it. 

Saul clearly has a Jewish neshamah, or soul. He is a mensch in a world of deception.  His character represents the Jewish community well. While wondering whether the majority of America watching Homeland had any idea what Saul was saying, I was moved by the scene. With his rich Jewish background, Patamkin recited the Kaddish flawlessly. I believe non-Jews who understand that this top CIA official turns to his Jewish tradition for this prayer would think well of him and his religious tradition. 

Rabbi Fred Davidow, chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home in Philadelphia:

Sociologically there are two forms of religion: elite religion and folk religion. For Judaism, elite religion is what is prescribed by the rabbis halachah. Folk religion involves customs that people observe that do not always conform to the dictates of the elite religion.

The elite rules for reciting the Kaddish are:

1) The recitation of the Kaddish follows the burial of the body.  Thus the casket would be lowered and covered with earth first.

2) The recitation requires a minyan

3) Only the aveilim, or designated mourners — parents, siblings, spouse and children — recite the Kaddish. It is permitted for a convert to Judaism to recite Kaddish for his/her non-Jewish parents.

Folk customs related to the Kaddish are not guided by these elite rules.

In the show, Saul Berenson recites the Kaddish before the burials of the deceased. He is not an avel. And reciting Kaddish for non-Jews is not forbidden but is generally limited to those for whom one is obligated to mourn. But I personally have no issue with Berenson's recitation of the Kaddish.

The Kaddish has become a prayer so closely connected to memorialization that we believe its recitation is the proper way to vent our feelings of grief and mourning. At times of stress, we do not usually create spontaneous prayers but fall back on what our body of tradition associates with the event.

Let me give you a personal example that dates back to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968.  After hearing that King had been shot, I was agitated and could not fall asleep. I watched late night news reports and then sat at my desk in grief.  After some time it came to me to recite the Kaddish. I concluded its recitation with a statement I had memorized from the Reform prayer book: "He still lives on earth in the acts of goodness he performed and in the hearts of those who cherish his memory."

Using these forms of ritual, I felt that I had done what I could do to honor the memory of a great man, and I was comforted enough to be able to go to bed. Like the fictional Saul Berenson, I recited the Kaddish before burial, alone without a minyan, for a non-Jewish individual for whom I was not obligated to recite the Kaddish.  This event occurred before I went to rabbinical school, but years of hearing the Kaddish gave me a forum through which I could feel I had expressed honor for the deceased.

Another example: I once knew a Christian hospital chaplain in Atlanta who related to me the following anecdote. He was called to the room of a Jewish woman who had died. The nurse told him that the woman's son could not be coaxed out of the room.  He could not bear the thought of leaving his mother's side.  After some conversation, the chaplain suggested that they recite the Kaddish together. After they finished, the bereaved son was able to leave.

Here, the son was an avel, a designated mourner, but he recited the Kaddish without a minyan prior to burial and ironically was led to do so by a Christian chaplain.  Traditional forms of prayer and ritual can bring comfort at the time of death even when they are not performed according to halachah.

Rabbi Jeremy Gerber of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford:

I’m fascinated by your concern about the “correctness” of his ritual observance. I am certain that many people will agree with you, and will wonder how halachic it was for him to recite Kaddish alone, and recite it over a non-Jew. But to me, the recitation of Kaddish is an extremely personal and powerful ritual. Congregants often ask me if they can recite Kaddish while away on vacation if they cannot find a synagogue and it is the yahrzeit (memorial anniversary) of a loved one. In my opinion, it’s more important to say Kaddish, to connect to our beloved deceased relatives and our Jewish heritage, than to forego the ritual for lack of halachic stipulations.

As for Berenson, who is seemingly not a very observant Jew, this is obviously a meaningful connection to his heritage, and a way to show respect for the dead. When many others — Jews, Americans, whoever — would most likely not show reverence or respect for an enemy, I think it’s a quite powerful message to see Berenson be the bigger man, and I’m proud to hear the Kaddish recited in this context. In that moment, for me, halachah and correctness are simply not essential considerations. His values and his heart are in the right place.

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