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

KADDISH.\o7 By Leon Wieseltier (Alfred A. Knopf: \f7 594\o7 pp., $\f7 27\o7 .\f7 50\o7 )\f7

September 27, 1998|NESSA RAPOPORT | 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?

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