BOOK REVIEW : A Passion for Words of Judaism : IN SPEECH AND IN SILENCE, The Jewish Quest for God <i> by David J. Wolpe</i> ; Holt; $19.95, 192 pages


“The letters of the Jews as strict as flames / Or little terrible flowers lean,” goes the poem by Karl Shapiro, “Stubbornly upwards through the perfect ages / Singing through solid stone the sacred names . . . .”

The same flame--a passion for language that is kindled in the here-and-now and soars into clouds of mystery--seems to burn in the head and the heart of a young rabbi named David J. Wolpe, who contemplates the power and the glory of human expression in “In Speech and in Silence.”

“There is something preternaturally alive about the words of Judaism,” Wolpe writes. “They shimmer, move, sparkle. They are not merely ink. They are fire.”

Wolpe, to be sure, recognizes the universality of language: “To be human, in whatever variety or remote clime, is to use language,” he observes. “The very breath of life pours into us this magic elixir; through language we become living souls.”

But Wolpe, a member of the faculty at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and author of “The Healer of Shattered Hearts,” is very much preoccupied with the function of language in Judaism. Torah, Talmud and Midrash are his sources, and Moses, David and the Prophets are his exemplars.


“The Jewish tradition is a tradition of words,” he explains. “Perhaps no other system, religious or secular, invests such enormous power and importance in the spoken and written word.”

Wolpe explores the colorful and sometimes curious traditions that have attached themselves to language in Jewish Scripture, ritual and doctrine. The very name of God may not be uttered out loud; a holy book may not be destroyed and must be accorded a kind of sanctified burial; Jewish mystics hold that God created the world with “letters and boundaries,” and that every letter of the Torah is infused with mysterious meanings.

“Jews did not create the soaring or solid monuments of other cultures,” Wolpe explains. “Songs, stories, parables, and prayers formed the lasting culture, which was, paradoxically, the invisible culture.”

Wolpe was moved to contemplate on the innermost uses and meanings of language when a stroke erased most of his mother’s ability to speak. He devotes a long chapter to her stroke--"the narrative of what had happened to my mother became as elaborate and well-rehearsed as any tribal tale"--and it becomes a kind of ghost that haunts the whole proceeding.

As a result of his confrontation with his mother’s affliction, Wolpe is moved to consider not only speech but other forms of expression: prayer, song, tears, and even silence. He is especially drawn to the story of Moses, a powerful but poignant figure who was “heavy of tongue” and yet spoke directly with the Almighty. And he comes to the conclusion that “speech and silence together form the path that leads to the presence of God.”

“For words are ultimately the bridge to an understanding that passes beyond words,” he sums up, “and after we have managed to say all we can, there can be a certain salvation in silence.”

Wolpe is a gifted writer, and his book is strung with melodic and lyrical phrasings. Only rarely does he lapse into the bland rhetoric of the pulpit. But what gives his book its cutting edge and its winning candor is the ache in the author’s soul as he wrestles with the demons that have tormented his own family and tested his own faith.

Indeed, Rabbi Wolpe does not shrink from the most troubling silence of all: “No silence is more powerful, more potent, than God’s,” he concedes. “In a world that cries out at times for a guiding word, the heavens are mute.”

In one sense, Wolpe’s new book is “a task of personal archeology,” as the author himself puts it. But his work transcends the concerns of one family and taps into a rich vein of history and culture.

That’s why Wolpe has emerged as an engaging and persuasive interpreter of the Jewish tradition to the secular reader, and that’s why his book fairly shines with what he calls “the ever glowing ember of God’s word.”