'Kaddish': Nessa Rapoport on Leon Wieseltier's Astonishing Elegy

Nessa Rapoport is the author of "A Woman's Book of Grieving," among other works

"Kaddish" is a remarkable book, groundbreaking in American letters. It is at once a son's philosophical reflections on the "mourner's kaddish" he recites in the year following his father's death and a stunning journey into the heart of the Jewish literary tradition by an urbane and knowledgeable guide. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic and a public intellectual fully acculturated in American life, is also--by birth and education--fluent in a culture either entirely unknown or viewed as arcane by most Americans and many American Jews.

Deliberately, without apology, Wieseltier plunges us into the sea of rabbinical sources in which he swims with astounding cultural confidence. Soon, his sense of duty and ours transmute into fascination as the son's seemingly simple quest becomes a detective story of the spirit. The rabbis contradict each other over details of ritual practice on which, it turns out, this world and the next rely. Writer and readers enter the great conversation of Judaism, conducted in the present tense across centuries.

Why does it matter? Wieseltier is not afraid to ask that question. In the book's preface, he speaks about employing "the texts of Judaism as supports for contemplation." Indeed, his year of saying kaddish and of exploring the law and legends that surround the prayer do serve as a scrim onto which he can project his own passion for and exasperation with the Jewish tradition as it asserts its powerful claim upon him.

More surprising is its challenge to us. We emerge from the experience of following him astonished by the complexity and drama of the quest. At its center are the most important questions about the nature and exercise of freedom, about whether aristocracy can be earned, about the obligations of love. It is the book's foundational assumption that the particular is the reverse of parochial: What interests Wieseltier is the paradox that deep knowledge of one path may be the truest road to the encompassing wisdom any thoughtful person struggles to discern.

Thus, the universal questions are necessarily couched in the most specific context. Is the kaddish recited for the sake of the mourner or to benefit the soul of the departed one? Is it an expression of God's infinite steadfastness before our mutability, or does it reveal the brokenness at the heart of all worlds, not only ours but God's? Is the mourner a representative of community or a necessary exception to it? Is the mourner's ritual of going to shul three times a day to say kaddish a constraint on freedom or that which makes freedom possible?

All the while, Wieseltier moves through the seasons of his grief and through his city, living a work life seen only faintly, carting the commentaries he orders from bookstores in Brooklyn and Jerusalem to his study, to shul, to the teahouse, where he sits in the interstices of his life, between sacred and daily responsibilities, leaving behind contemporary Washington to resume the circuitous journey he is determined to undertake.

As a narrative of grief, "Kaddish" is a bracing corrective to the "recovery" literature in which Americans are happily splashing. Composed with elegant clarity and wit, the book nevertheless offers its readers the often forgotten satisfaction of working for their insight. Rather than the revelations to which we have grown accustomed, "Kaddish" tells us little directly about its writer and even less about the father being mourned. In its reticence, the son's anguish is all the more eloquent.

The book is also shocking in its utter lack of concession to current literary norms. Instead of attempting to trim the rabbis to today's fashion, Wieseltier takes them seriously enough to let them speak for themselves. Just as they did not use the historical agonies of the Jewish people as an excuse to slacken the pursuit of justice resulting from their explication and observance of the law, so he does not offer 20th century sensibility as an exemption for himself or for us.

On the contrary, by Page 6 he is telling us that "[t]he most influential work on dying and mourning in the Jewish tradition was composed by Nahmanides, the religious genius of Spanish Jewry in the thirteenth century." Immediately, we are thrown into the legal-homiletic tradition, one that considers everything from philosophical questions such as, "Why mourn, if we know that we will die?" to adjudications about the precise way to tear the mourner's garments or to decide who has priority in reciting the kaddish before the community--a stranger in the first, most intense week of mourning or a town's resident in the later months of grief?

Wieseltier is uncompromising in asking his readers to build a bridge between such legalistic texts and "the gifts of the Jews," the transforming ideas--monotheism, covenantal justice, the Sabbath--that have made Judaism the informing tradition of Christianity and Islam. Not until the book's conclusion does he even acknowledge the chasm in sensibility between a modern secular reader and the rabbis who wrote and studied these texts because the worthiness of their lives was at stake.

"Near the end of the chapter on mourning," Wieseltier says of Jacob ben Moses Ha'Levi Moellin's compilation of customs and responsa of the 15th century, "I find a very touching account of [Moellin's] wife's death in 1426." He cites a poignant story of the rabbi mourning for his wife and closes with the words, "And so [Moellin] instituted the practice that when somebody appears to say kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a father or a mother, and there are local mourners present, he says it only once. And if there are no other mourners present, he says it the full three times."

Then Wieseltier offers a crucial caution: "For the modern reader," he says, "the legalistic details with which this narrative concludes may seem extraneous to it, a casuistic anticlimax; but they are the climax. . . . The modern reader kindles to the human particulars in the text, but the human particulars are there for the sake of the ritual particulars, to explain their origins and to establish their occasions. . . . In writings such as these, the historical imagination is the unintended beneficiary of the ritual imagination."

By this point in the book, we have experienced scores of such dissonant moments. And yet, having accepted the invitation to accompany the writer, we develop the sensibility to perceive within the legalistic details the radiance of a divine tenderness. The language of the texts becomes a metaphor for the immense realities that are beyond all texts; the texts serve the writer, and his readers, as signposts in the nihilistic chaos of grief. At times Wieseltier wants to chuck it all--and so do we. But he is as bound by these Jewish books as he is by the phylacteries he straps upon his head and arm each weekday morning of a cosmopolitan American life.

In the intoxicated language of the writer--"the charisma of learning," "a delirium of study," "Talmud heaven"--a book about mourning becomes a doxology of love, like the kaddish itself, called "the Song of Songs" by one commentator. This is a narrative suffused with love: a man's love for the tradition bequeathed him by his father and shared with his mother and sister, a man's savoring of the beauty he was taught to uncover and his revealing it, proudly unadorned, to us; a man's heart naked through the layers of others' language, as the rabbis spar vibrantly and Wieseltier listens and renders, listens and disputes. In "Kaddish," the texts are not ornaments to inspire, enliven or add gravity to an argument; they are the essence, "language allegedly acting on cosmology."

Through the words of the kaddish, which do not mention death but instead exalt the great name of God, magnified and sanctified, the writer's love for his father and his ardor for language merge: "Words as spices, words as perfumes." The language of the law is the language of love--Judaism's core insight, so misconstrued by Christianity in its posing law and love as contrary. "The Christian ignorance of Judaism," Wieseltier observes, "is one of the great tragi-comedies of history."

But the chief ignorance he decries is that of his own contemporaries. "Lapsed" as he may name himself, Wieseltier is blunt in condemning the Jewish illiteracy of his people. Jews may be among the most educated citizens of America, but "[t]he great unlettered Jewish community of America could use a couple of million encounters with [Rabbi] Akiva. Or do they expect their children to save them? Their children, who will inherit an ignorance of Jewish tradition unprecedented in Jewish history?"

Later, he acknowledges, "[t]he history of Jewish literacy: now there is a delicate subject! It turns out that rabbis have been complaining for centuries that the book has too often been closed to the people of the book. But my brethren in America should take no comfort from the history of Jewish illiteracy," he concludes darkly. "They have broken all records."

Wieseltier's elegy is within a venerable tradition of learned Jews who bewail the illiteracy of their fellows. In 1948, the philosopher Simon Rawidowicz published an essay in Hebrew whose translated title, "The Ever-Dying People," embodies its contention that "there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora period which did not consider itself the final link in Israel's chain." To see oneself as the last of a people is a pedigreed Jewish tradition.

The kaddish itself is a response to that anxiety. From whom do we learn this? From Wieseltier himself, who has explained to us why the kaddish is written and still recited in Aramaic, once a Jewish vernacular but now known only to educated Jews. The text that functions today as a cornerstone of synagogue prayer was an add-on for the masses who were not literate in Hebrew, the sacred language of prayer. Now, ironically, the words of the kaddish are not immediately comprehensible, not only to most American Jews, but also to Israelis. When Yuval Rabin had to recite the kaddish publicly for his murdered father, he stumbled through the unfamiliar words.

Meanwhile, the millennium approaches. Despite the persecution and suffering well-documented in this book and despite the diminution of Jewish allegiance that is a consequence of America's unique hospitality, the Jews are still here, still making their distinct contribution to the cultures in which they dwell, a contribution rooted in the rigor and glory of this textual tradition, however displaced in the minds of its inheritors today. Side by side with deepening assimilation is a grass-roots resurgence of interest in Jewish learning that is crossing all denominational lines. In some ways, this book represents the possibilities of that renaissance. Issued by one of the most eminent trade publishers, "Kaddish" would have been unimaginable in the mainstream culture of 25 years ago.

Closer to home--for this book is a homecoming--Wieseltier does not acknowledge how unusually free he is to choose to engage in his quest. Many American Jews do not even know this vast literature exists. Others may partake of it but only in translation. How many have the access he has, deeded to him by parents who provided him with the training to study these texts in the original Hebrew and Aramaic? The author's Orthodox childhood may have been constraining in ways that resulted in his choice to be delinquent in his practices and convictions, but Wieseltier's parents endowed him with "the limitations that launched me." As a result, he was able to undertake this journey in solitude without a guide. How accountable can he hold American Jews, who cannot be said to be choosing the "incompetence" and "linguistic treason" he scorns? As a child, Wieseltier was given the education and commitment to master the languages and the hermeneutical knowledge that allow him to peel away the layers of difference and difficulty between these texts and our day. It is among the greatest of the debts owed by the son to his parents, a debt this book redeems in full.

Yet "Kaddish" is not a wrestling match between the obdurate tradition and the wayward son. The tradition, like the ritual, is inert and powerless without its interpreters. In contending with his library, Wieseltier releases the past from its silence and offers it to all of us with his commentary. Although the book may be published in English and may be featured prominently in our culture--as it warrants--it is deeply and deservedly a descendant of the Jewish books it honors. The simple opening line, "On March 24, 1996, which was Nisan 5, 5756, my father died," holds a universe of meaning. It tells us that the author dwells in two calendars, his Washington calendar and his Jewish one. It tell us that he is Jewishly literate, for it speaks in the language of Jewish time and text, even in English. It tells us that he is intentional in locating his book within the canon he is going to engage.

And so this book hints at a further gift. The Jews have inherited a canon of sacred texts that can be augmented or ignored but never supplanted. In the aftermath of the battle over the Western canon versus multiculturalism, the Jewish interpretive tradition proposes an alternative. Jews will not overturn their canon, whose apex is the Bible, the Talmud, the liturgy and, beneath them, an infinitely expanding commentary, but they are mandated to extend the interpretive tradition by entering the debate and contributing to it with their heart, soul and might. The result, even allowing for the fundamentalist distortions that take place within all cultures, is a norm of mediation with an inherited canon that can maintain the integrity of the old and still demand adaptation and invention.

Finally, and most powerful for being most oblique, this is a "yizkor book," a memorial. The mourning for one human being cannot be separated from the mourning for a people, not in the rabbis' discourse and not in Wieseltier's case. His parents' story is the story of the greatest Jewish catastrophe. As survivors of the Shoah, his father and mother envied their neighbors for their ability to visit the graves of their families. Both requested that their tombstones bear the names of murdered relatives who had no burial place. Thus, the writer's love for these texts as they are lived by the Jewish people is not only aesthetic but moral. The grandeur Wieseltier extols is always in implicit contrast to the degradation to which human beings can descend. "There is no ideal of innocence in Judaism," he says. "There is only an ideal of goodness."

That ideal--and the 6 million tragedies that reinforce its absolute value--subtly informs all his judgments, of others and of himself. The education is only as worthwhile as the life it conditions: the father's merit reflected in the deeds of the son.

Staunchly within the Jewish practice of striving with the Almighty, "Kaddish" is a book whose tart originality lingers to intrigue us long after we have turned its last page.

As for its metaphysical consequence:

"Working late at the office, I call my sister," Wieseltier recounts. "She is putting the children to bed and she wants me to hear what her little boy has learned in school. She gives him the phone and I hear a tiny, eager voice reciting, syllable by syllable, the prayer before bedtime. These are my nephew's first Hebrew words. 'What do you think?' my sister asks. 'I think that Hitler lost,' I reply."

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