Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 91 (March 1999): 56-58.
Kaddish. By Leon Wieseltier. Knopf. 588 pp. $27.50.
Reviewed by David Novak
Probably the most important cultural phenomenon in contemporary Jewry is the rise of what some have called the "ba’al teshuvah movement." This is the return to traditional Judaism by a number of young Jews who had heretofore been estranged from it. These young Jews have brought a renewed passion and energy to traditional Jewish life and community, even to those Jews who themselves never left the tradition. However, in the literal sense, almost all of these returning young (and not so young) Jews are not really "returning" to something they themselves have lost. Instead, much more often than not, they are retrieving a Judaism that their parents, or grandparents, or in some cases even their great–grandparents willingly left behind. In fact, some Jewish teachers have actually placed these "returnees" in the talmudic category of the "child kidnaped in infancy" (tinoq she–nishbah), who is someone almost like a convert, thus needing to be gradually introduced to what is essentially new to his or her individual experience.
These returnees have belied the belief (common in my youth) that the most to which traditional Judaism could look forward is a decent burial. Nevertheless, they have also created some serious problems. Coming with virtually no Jewish knowledge, yet eager for instant and authentic Jewish experience, they frequently make gigantic leaps of faith, often leading them into the most mindless forms of traditional Judaism, be it belief in the messiahhood of a now dead hasidic rebbe from Brooklyn, or to belief that the configuration of the letters in the currently accepted version of the text of the Pentateuch can be read as "codes" to predict future events in the world. Moreover, having little or no real experience of traditional Jewish life and learning, they often create for themselves a romantic view of a totally pious Jewish past that never was nor could have been. Added to these problems is the fact that teachers of traditional Judaism have been so flattered by the renewed attention they have been receiving from these people, often persons of intelligence and accomplishment, that they have been afraid to dispel their illusions. Not to mince words, they have pandered to them, and in the process have "dumbed down" much of the tradition’s splendid rationality. Indeed, some of these teachers have themselves created a large—and lucrative—literature, most of which makes anyone who has gone through the rigors of a good talmudic education cringe.
All of the above needs to be kept in mind in order to understand
the historical location of Leon Wieseltier’s remarkable book, Kaddish. For Wieseltier is very much a ba’al teshuvah, a returnee to the Jewish tradition—but with a fundamental difference from those discussed above. He is returning to a tradition that really once was his own home, and that return has been occasioned by his mourning the death of his father, who first brought him up in that home. The most important part of the process of mourning is regularly reciting kaddish in a synagogue. Kaddish is a doxology, which Jewish tradition has mandated children to recite daily in a synagogue during the year of mourning for a deceased parent and then on the anniversary of his or her death thereafter. Wieseltier’s return is not just a return to traditional forms; it is also a return to the literary sources of the Jewish tradition, particularly as they pertain to his current kaddish practice. It is most of all a highly intelligent retrieval of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, for which Wieseltier has been well prepared by his education in Judaism, from elementary yeshiva to graduate work in Jewish studies at Harvard. At long last, at least in contemporary American literature, we have a real ba’al teshuvah in the person of Leon Wieseltier who, I think, has upped the ante for all the other returnees by analogy.
There are two texts, not just one, interwoven in this book; and which is the main text and which the subtext depends on who the reader is. The bulk of the book is devoted to lengthy discussions of many classical Jewish sources (especially classical legal, or halakhic, sources) on mourning in general and kaddish, its forms and occasions, in particular. Wieseltier handles these sources with great skill; indeed, his felicitous translations of them and pointed comments on them alone would be well worth the price of the book.
Although Wieseltier’s own thoughts, which are more meditative than anecdotal, comprise less of the quantity of the book, they are nonetheless what give it its true quality. Many readers will probably concentrate on them and skim over the many learned passages as interludes. That is quite understandable, but even these more general readers should be aware that without these learned discussions, the book could easily give the impression of a kind of "armchair" philosophy rather than Leon Wieseltier’s hard–won understanding seeking faith (to invert Anselm’s famous "faith seeking understanding").
The book consists, in significant part, of quasi–Nietzschean aphorisms, making it difficult to explain in a review. We can, though, examine Kaddish through the lens of how Wieseltier addresses the following question about his own life: Isn’t this book the machinations of a complicated mind struggling to resolve conflicts long unresolved, to finally get them behind you and so be able to get on with the nontraditional life (in the Jewish sense) you have long been leading—and enjoying? Are you not projecting onto the Jewish tradition your own hangups? Isn’t it easier to deal with your admittedly difficult father—a Holocaust survivor—through the tradition and its community rather than directly facing him in your memory?
All of this, Wieseltier shoots back, comes from the widely held secularist notion that religion is only an epiphenomenon, one better explained by the authentic phenomenon of one’s own psyche. He expresses his impatience with "psychology tricked out as religion," so common in the type of religion as therapy that he thinks began in the 1960s (although it goes back at least to the 1940s best–seller, Peace of Mind, by the Reform rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman). This type of thinking basically tries to argue that of course religion is essentially subjective, only that it is better for you than Freud and others would have had us believe. Speaking of his synagogue in Washington, Wieseltier bluntly states, "I am not here for therapy," even suggesting that Judaism might be "psychologically useless."
Wieseltier has first to face his earlier loss of faith, which for a Jew always involves dropping the practice of the commandments. He speaks of "years ago, when I stopped praying," and having also stopped living a traditional Jewish life for over twenty years (he is now in his forties). He speaks of "the adventure of self–creation!"—a powerfully Jewish statement, because atheism (being without God) is never a simple absence but, rather, a substitution of the true God with a false god. It is idolatry, in its modern form a monotheism in which the self is just as "jealous" a god as the Lord God of Israel. Wieseltier’s youthful departure is quintessentially modern, especially because it is a conscious first–generation rebellion. Happily, though, he spares us the autobiographical details (which today tend to the predictably lurid).
What seems to be the beginning of his "turning around" (the literal meaning of teshuvah) is the realization that his subjective loss does not necessarily imply an objective absence. As the Talmud puts it, "If there is emptiness, the emptiness is from you [not from the Torah]." As Wieseltier puts it, "When Nietzsche lost his faith, he concluded that God is dead. . . . This is narcissism. . . . I do not understand the idea that if you do not believe in Him, then God does not exist."
In another intriguing passage, Wieseltier quotes a friend who questions his synagogue attendance for kaddish by saying, "But I believe in God and you don’t!" It would seem that this friend can say this because heretofore the only Leon Wieseltier she has known has been the nonbeliever. He continues by noting, "If she means that I do not believe in the way she believes, then she is right. Still, I’m not praying and studying entirely for filial reasons. I am not only a son." For me, this is the key passage in the whole book, and merits analysis.
First, who is this friend? She is a woman, someone who seems to know the author quite well, although we are not informed of any romantic involvement. Is she a traditional Jewish woman? If she is, then he seems to be saying to and through her that his retrieval of the tradition and its God can never be the same as the uninterrupted piety of the consistently faithful. As the Talmud puts it, "Where the penitent stand, even the fully righteous cannot stand." It is simply a more hard–won faith; it has its unique rewards. However, if she is not a traditional Jewish woman, is not even Jewish, then Wieseltier might be saying that he is struggling with God as Jacob did. He cannot simply assume that there will always be a blessing for him in the way of Esau; like Jacob, he is coming out of this long encounter limping. This sort of encounter with God is anything but therapeutic by any worldly criterion.
Second, "I am not only a son" could mean that his father, Mark Wieseltier, is the transmitter of the tradition to his son, Leon. For that reason, Leon’s saying kaddish "for him" is what filial piety calls for here and now. Nevertheless, Mark Wieseltier is neither the source nor the end of the tradition. To make that mistake would be like the sin of ancestor worship. The source of the tradition is God’s revelation in the Torah; the end of the tradition is the final and complete eschatological reconciliation with God. In between, we have the transmission and its transmitters, whose transitional status must not be forgotten.
In reading this passage, I was reminded of a comment by the great commentator Nahmanides, whose work on mourning is the first major text Wieseltier tackles in this book. Nahmanides is curious as to why the commandment to "honor your father and your mother" is the transitional commandment in the Ten Commandments, ending the commandments on the first tablet, which are seen as being "between humans and God," and leading into the commandments on the second tablet, which are seen as being "between humans themselves." Nahmanides writes, "For God is our first father, and the one who sired us is our last father. So it is as if to say that when I command you about my honor, so do I command you about the honor of the one associated with Me in your creation."
As a ba’al teshuvah, Wieseltier ably confronts the talmudic teaching that "even though one has sinned, he is still a Jew." In the Talmud this teaching refers to the Jewish people corporately, but after Rashi and the crusades in the eleventh century with the apostasy they brought, it is taken to refer to each individual Jew. From this teaching, Wieseltier infers two things. Many modern Jews "fear oppressive Judaism . . . not oppressive Christianity." In other words, the teaching reminds these Jews that God makes demands upon them in the Torah and tradition, demands that are not of their own making. Indeed, one could say that an undemanding God (like the gods of so much "psychological religion") is no God at all. (Considering Wieseltier’s anti–Christian remarks in the past, this admission, plus another appreciation of similarity between Jewish and Christian piety, is striking.)
Furthermore, Judaism is not "the easy ethnicity in which [modern Jews] sooner or later seek refuge"; the teaching is not saying that to be a Jew one must acknowledge some vague Jewish "identity." Instead, the saying reminds Jews that even when one has not heard the call of the commandments addressed to all Israel, the call is still being addressed to you. No one can ever check out of the covenant, however long he or she is truant. Only a demanding God could possibly want to take you back however long it takes. Only by a demanding God could you possibly want to be forgiven. Demanding is an essential aspect of true care.
Let me close this review on a personal note. I received my review copy of the book on a Friday afternoon, the eve of the Sabbath. I always try to set aside reading material for the Sabbath that I hope will feed my soul, and avoid reading material that I am afraid will starve it. Having strongly disagreed with some of Leon Wieseltier’s writings in the past, I wondered whether or not I should read his Kaddish on the Sabbath. Thumbing through it, I decided to take a chance. It turned out to provide me with a rich Sabbath meal, filled with many new unexpected delicacies. In that sense, Leon Wieseltier has been my host at his Sabbath table. There is a Yiddish expression he probably heard at his own father’s table, vos iz tsu Gott tsu Gott, tsu leit tsu leit, which roughly translated means, "Thank God first and then don’t forget who helped Him feed you." Let this review be my fulfillment of that duty.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.