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 …

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