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Good Grief

Kaddish

by Leon Wieseltier
Knopf, 585 pp., $10.01 (paper)

Magnified and sanctified
may His great name be
in the world that He created,
as He wills,
and may His kingdom come
in your lives and in your days
and in the lives of all the house of Israel,
swiftly and soon,
and say all amen!

Amen!
May His great Name be blessed
always and forever!

Blessed
and praised
and glorified
and raised
and exalted
and honored
and uplifted
and lauded
be the Name of the Holy One
(He is blessed!)
above all blessings
and hymns and praises and consolations
that are uttered in the world,
and say all amen!

May a great peace from heaven—
and life!—
be upon us and upon all Israel,
and say all amen!

May He who makes peace in His high places
make peace upon us and upon all Israel,
and say all amen!
—The Kaddish

Christian ignorance of Judaism, Leon Wieseltier says, is “one of the great tragicomedies of history” (as is, he implies elsewhere, Jewish-American ignorance of it). His long, dense, fascinating account of a year of Orthodox mourning for his father is therefore an education for this ex-Christian, for by the end of it—exhausted, as he was himself—one can feel that the essence of Judaism has somehow been crammed into the subject of just one tradition in its fullness.

Everything is there in fact for the reader of any, or no, religion: the quick and the dead, the spiritual and the material, passion and duty. Epistemology, theology, eschatology, theodicy. Great elaborations of Talmudic interpretation which Wieseltier himself calls “tournaments of esotericism.” Glimpses of beleaguered, devout communities in fourteenth-century Spain, seventeenth-century Ukraine, twentieth-century Odessa. Moral fables, ludicrous myths, piercing insights, transmitted by a committed but humorous and often exasperated twentieth-century American. He is also mystical, and a scholar.

Wieseltier declares, more than once, that he is an “unbeliever.” But what is it that he disbelieves in? Post-mortem existence, for his father or anyone else; he is definite about that, though the kaddish ceremony, in its earliest form, predicated an afterlife. (“I will not speak to my father, since he is dead,” he says. “In my mind, though, where he lives, I will speak to him endlessly.”) God? God’s name certainly does not occur as often as the names of certain historic rabbis and teachers. Literal truth in the old myths? For him they are just “philosophical fables”—though he often finds beauty in them nevertheless, or a hidden meaning.

He is evasive when a friend protests, “But I believe in God and you don’t!” and when another asks him how long he can go on saying words and not meaning them. “I am here because they believe,” he says of his fellow worshippers; and “I’m not praying and studying entirely for filial reasons. I am not only a son”; and “I am not here for therapy.” This is reminiscent of the Buddhist way of evoking Nirvana: “Not this…not that…” The point can only be defined by exclusion of what it is not. By the end of Wie-seltier’s book, when he has shot all round the target, we have an idea of what he believes, as well as disbelieves.

The kaddish printed above is a mourning ritual, a ceremonial prayer repeated in the synagogue twice a day for eleven months after a death. As well as tracing the ceremony’s origins and history, Wieseltier’s project means meditating on its purpose. Who is it for—his father, God, himself? Someone used to Christian traditions will think of prayers after a death as being about the welfare of the departed soul, and of the Catholic/Protestant argument whether this is appropriate. Clearly the mourner’s kaddish did start in this way. Wieseltier goes back to an early text in which God, hearing the sound of prayer rising from Gehenna, is moved to unlock its forty thousand gates and release the souls there from their torment. The angels Gabriel and Michael

seize every single one of them with their own hands and raise them up, like a man who rescues his friend from a pit by pulling him up with a rope. Then Gabriel and Michael make them clean and lovely, and they heal them of all the blows that they endured in hell, and they dress them in fine and beautiful clothes, and they take them with their hands and bring them, refreshed and dignified, before the Holy One…

And Simhah ben Samuel, in eleventh-century France, relates how the teacher Akiva released a soul from punishment by teaching his son to say the right prayer for him. Nevertheless the prayer that Wieseltier repeated every day is a magnification of God and does not mention the deceased; and hells are not a popular subject today. A rabbi tells him that the kaddish is for the living, not the dead—though Wieseltier rejects psychobabble about the therapeutic value of Jew-ish mourning rituals as not his concern. He is surprised that during his year,

it was not long before I understood that I would not succeed in insulating the rest of my existence from the impact of this obscure and arduous practice. The symbols were seeping into everything. A season of sorrow became a season of soul-renovation, for which I was not at all prepared.

So he began his investigation into the history of the ritual, which is at the same time an investigation into himself.

Jewish tradition and practice, as he says, is “replete with doctrines and memories and arguments and dreams,” talks of past, present, and future, and is inexhaustible in its powers of description and prescription. It concerns itself with eggs, phylacteries, broken hearts, sin, forgiveness, responsibility. Wieseltier’s love of digging into it is a passion. Even for the early traditions of the kaddish as a hook to save the damned he has a wry respect: “Behind the garishness of these rabbinical hallucinations, I can recognize their decency. They are the grotesqueries of conscience.” These apart, writings that bear upon the kaddish ritual proliferate in all directions in his hands. Is it, to start with, better to have been born than not? The school of Shammai said no, the school of Hillel yes, and the compromise was that since man is born, his way of living must be closely examined. “Look at the world,” glosses Wieseltier, who values his own lucidity; “Do you see suffering? Then you will not wish to add to it. In this sense, lucidity is a condition of morality.” (He approves when he sees two little earlocked boys giggling over a kabbalistic prayer book in the synagogue: “Early signs of critical intelligence.”)

Man needs must be born, then, but has he any free will? Akiva dodges the unanswerable in one way, Maimonides in another. Moral choices are not objects of scientific understanding, Wieseltier adds. There is only paradox:

Everything is foreseen and freedom is granted. You are determined by those who preceded you and you are at liberty to escape their determinations. You are known and you are not known. You come at the end and you come at the beginning.

In that direction, there is no further to go. Wieseltier’s more urgent aim is to discover what the history of kaddish can tell him about familial love, familial grief, familial obligation. In the authorities he consults, family duties, and hence community duties, are absolutely taken for granted—though there is the occasional mention of the errant son or the unworthy father. Through the centuries of writings Wieseltier peruses, he pursues the questions: Is the son responsible for the father, or vice versa? Is the son’s nature conditioned by the father’s? May a son repudiate a father? (About his father’s actual nature he says little, except that he was a difficult man.)

A son must still honor his father even if he was conceived illegitimately, Maimonides says, while in fourteenth-century Spain, Jacob ben Asher opposes the judgment. From century to century, the arguments continue. For the influence of father over son, Wieseltier finds determinist opinions in the books he consults, but also contrary ones that argue for free will—which is what he really wants. As for the notion of the son saving the father’s soul, which stands behind the ceremony, he gives it a twentieth-century cast: “When you were alive, I could not save you; but now I can save you. Or so the kaddish claims. Myself, I do not believe that I can save you. But I am your son and I will persevere.” Finally, “I can change the fate of my father’s soul because my father’s soul lives in me, as the cause lives in the effect. No more, no less.”

So if the long ceremony is not for the saving of a loved soul, why mourn publicly at all? Wieseltier is pleased with his own rabbi’s Talmudic quotation: “The mourner has fallen under a bad sign, and so the demon taunts him.” The demon—yes, he likes that. Also that Nachmanides of Gerona has said that there is no commandment to be consoled: “Do not put off weeping and do not loathe sighing.” Other voices tell him that mourning is a blow against selfishness, a reinstatement of religion. But what he denies is that the prayer is said either for or through the absent one, whose life now is only in the son’s mind. In this sudden displacement of roles, he finds a pathos. When he visits his father’s own synagogue in Brooklyn and sits in his father’s seat, he trembles.

Sons, sons: what about daughters, most readers will long have been asking? Little for our comfort. Wieseltier is of course troubled that Jewish tradition is so harsh. He does find a seventeenth-century writer who relates “an unusual thing” that happened in Amsterdam. A man, dying without leaving a son, left a request that his daughter say kaddish for him in the usual presence of ten men, but in his own house rather than in the synagogue. He got his request; Wieseltier is pleased. But the commentator, alas, condemns the innovation, for if such breaks with tradition are allowed, “the force of the customs of Israel, which are also Torah, will be weakened, and everybody will build his own altar on the basis of his own thinking.”

Since it is weakening of custom, rather than a daughter’s inferiority, that is cited, Wieseltier surprisingly finds this encouraging. “Take heart, daughters of Israel,” he urges. Some of them do: he sees a woman—one!—attending synagogue to say kaddish in the women’s section, behind a glass screen, for her father. She is not unwelcome there, he remarks, but her presence is “a challenge, an act of contention.” Better a grandson, say the old commentators, than a daughter. From nineteenth-century Galicia: “A married woman [is] prohibited from making her voice heard in public, heaven forfend, in the saying of the kaddish” (though she may listen and say “amen”) and “Only her lips should move, but her voice should not be heard. Otherwise the man who hears her may be aroused to an evil thought.” From 1906: “For she will certainly want to sound lovely… and…the others will hit a stumbling-block.” Woman “must be very careful that she is not responsible for the failure of men,” says another—poor, tender men. Worst of all, Wieseltier finds that a text of 1909 stating that “the father is not without recourse if he has a daughter” has, in a reprint of 1993, had the sentence removed. There were some communities where daughters could say kaddish; but Wieseltier is hard put to it to find loopholes in the tradition, though he wants to.

Over his year of prayer, Wieseltier finds himself changing. He makes no bones about his shifting moods and the heaviness of the task: “Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth: sometimes I felt not like the tradition’s heir but like the tradition’s puppet.” Or the tradition’s robot—“And where does it say that the laws of Moses fall also upon a robot?” But: “I won’t stop. I will not abandon my duty in the name of my duty. That is one of the classical excuses of modern Judaism, I mean in its cheaper forms.” One of these cheaper forms particularly appals him: the hiring of a substitute to do the year’s ritual (“Call Toll-Free to see if we can help you”). A cousin in fact suggests to his mother that he is not the man for this job: “Hire somebody,” he urges. For this obnoxious adviser, Wieseltier emphasizes his commitment by an act of rabbinical quotation: the kaddish “lifts up not only the soul of the deceased, but the soul of him who recites it. It brings him to the bosom of Israel, and in the days of his mourning he learns to recognize his people and his father in Heaven.” Those who hire a stranger to say it for them “do not grasp that it was precisely for the mourner that the kaddish was established, so that he may learn a chapter in Judaism.”

Is it just for himself, then, after all, that he is doing this? Quite early during his mourning year, he gives a cut-and-dried answer to a friend who asks the obvious question:

Because it is my duty to my father. Because it is my duty to my religion. (These are the strong reasons; the nonutilitarian, nontherapeutic reasons.) Because it would be harder for me not to say kaddish. (I would despise myself.) Because the fulfillment of my duty leaves my thoughts about my father unimpeded by regret and undistorted by guilt.

But during the year, this sensible summing-up spreads over its boundaries. “Duty to my religion” comes to mean a great many things to him. It was because he found prayer so futile that he dropped out of religious practice, he says—and here he is praying three times a day! After pondering on prayer, he finds a sudden clarity:

This morning in shul I was assaulted by meanings. As I led the prayers, I understood certain words and phrases very sharply, with a startling force. Sometimes the sleep really does pass from one’s eyes before prayer. And my wakefulness must have showed, because a few people remarked upon it.

And deserting religion, he muses, is even more time-consuming than practicing it: “All those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty.” How much more delightful to cleave to the tradition, he feels, strolling after shul on a fine evening. Until once again—“Spirituality is declining…. I am worn and resentful.” But all the while the phrase “duty to religion” expands for him, into times of intellectual discovery and times of shattering quiet, with an eye opened to new imagery, with love for the delicious mustiness of a shop full of Judaic lore, and for the old patient faces that appear beside him every day. As the time for the ending of it all approaches, he becomes anxious. Looking back at the experience,

I was a pariah until I became a mourner. Well, not exactly. I was never expelled from the center; but for many years I expelled myself from the center, and lived richly in a periphery of my own devising. (The center is the shul. This is one of the elementary facts of Jewish history.) Then I was faced with a duty that I refused to shirk, and I was brought near. This has the ironic consequence that I cannot experience mourning as marginality, as it is supposed to be experienced. For me it has the aspect of a homecoming. An inevitable reunion with an unexpiring essence.

What he has rediscovered is nothing so obvious as a caring God or his vanished father. The word that keeps reappearing is tradition: ancient, ever-evolving tradition that almost takes on the attributes of a father or a God. When he has to carry the Torah at the festival of Sukkot, he hugs it to himself till he can hear the parchment crackle under its white velvet covers. The tradition sustains him, shelters him, frames and identifies him.

I sat at the teahouse and watched people rushing places, and I decided that nothing will ever destroy the world. The children of parents are the parents of children. The students of teachers are the teachers of students. It will not end. When I opened my book, a compilation of the customs of the medieval Jewish communities of Austria and Germany, I had the same sensation of indelibility. The tradition is like the world. It is larger than everything in it. There is not one of us that has the power to bring it all down. It exists to endure. We are born into a being that loathes non-being, and this is our comfort.

Though death has taken his father, and will take him and every other person, he has found indestructibility through the mourning tradition—even though he said it also for those who were murdered rather than, in the smooth modern phase, laid to rest. Some of these—his grandparents and aunts and uncles—were thrown to an obscene death in a ravine in Galicia; their names are to be added to his father’s gravestone as he requested. Behind Wieseltier’s triumph at the survival of his heritage—to which he himself contributes much in Kaddish—there is always an awareness of its near-destruction. But even at the worst, for the doomed the kaddish was a refuge. He finds an account of a certain Rabbi Yeruham, who addressed his community as follows when they came to Treblinka:

Our journey through life is at an end. We have been brought here for destruction, fathers and mothers and their children, not a soul will remain. And so I say to you: let us say for ourselves the kaddish that in normal times our sons and relatives would have said for us.

And later on, “The great kaddish was heard.” Wieseltier’s prayers must also have been said for a certain Yeruham ben Shlomo Ludmirer, who scrawled on the wall of a synagogue while waiting to be killed that he was “here on the fifth day of Tishrei, 1942. If any of my relatives survives, I request that they say kaddish for me.”

A friend once said to me that he was not sure what “spiritual” meant; to my dismay, I found that I was not as sure myself as I had thought. Kaddish reminds me: a time of spirituality is a time when the structure of things can be seen, when trivia fall away, when purposes are lucid and feelings freed. There was not a day in his kaddish year, Wieseltier says, when he was without a nontrivial thought.

Could Christianity, one has to wonder, provide a similar experience: a fixed period when the spiritual has a chance to grow, without dogmatic accretions? Perhaps not: most of the Christian sects are so lacking in the numinous, while still so attached to the central myth which is now being discarded, like those chipped, overthrown monuments littering Eastern Europe. And they are so scattered and various, too, lacking the fierce tribal pride that sustains this author. For a similar experience, disconsolate Westerners try out distant Zen retreats, or take dieting vows. For Judaism, Wieseltier shows, the man performing the kaddish has a crucial mission: “He speaks up against darkness, against nothingness.”

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