Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor of The New Republic, has written an intensely personal, intensely intellectual, and very readable memoir of his year saying kaddish for his father. Wieseltier was raised in an Orthodox home, but left the active practice of Judaism in his twenties. When he returned to shul to say kaddish, he found himself virtually ignorant about the ritual. So he spent the year studying the original rabbinic sources, from Talmudic to modern. Far from wallowing in sorrow, he used his father’s death as a catalyst to study the history and meaning of the kaddish in particular, and much more.
He began by asking when the kaddish became associated with mourning, and when the form known as the “Mourner’s Kaddish” developed.
Just what is the kaddish, anyway? A prayer for the dead? Popular opinion to this effect crytallized by the eleventh century, despite some rabbinic opposition.
There is a famous story of Rabbi Akiva teaching a boy to say kaddish in order to save the condemned soul of his deceased father. But the prayer doesn’t mention the dead at all, and, in fact, kaddish originated as means of marking off the significant sections of the prayer service or study. It appears to have become associated with mourning sometime between the seventh and ninth centuries.
The whole question of its meaning revolves around a Talmudic dictum that “sons acquit fathers; fathers do not acquit sons.” This statement gave rise to the idea that by saying kaddish, a son might affect the judgment of the Heavenly court on his father’s soul. Wieseltier, however, does not believe in an afterlife. So he takes the eschatalogical texts seriously but not literally, scouring them for applications to this world.
Most of the book is his effort to find a satisfactory interpretation of this sentence. The experience of mourning changes his perspective as the year goes on, and he rejects and embraces the same ideas at different points during his journey. His exploration is not linear. The texts lead him and us from one idea to another, then back to our main line of inquiry, So he discusses such side issues as revelation vs. tradition, the history of women saying kaddish vs. the tradition not to, and pluralism as embodied in varying traditions.
Wieseltier’s style is more literary than scholarly. We are often treated to long discussion of a given text, followed by successively shorter restatements that both clarify and extend the ideas involved. Sometimes these trail off into musings, but more often they form a satisfactory conclusion. One wonders if this was done with an eye towards being quoted, but a gift for metaphoe graces these summations. For example: “Nihilism is materialism in a bad mood” or “Ritual is the conversion of essences into acts.”
In the end, Kaddish is a surprisingly hopeful book. It is also a book of depth and insight. While the individual insights are not necessarily earth-shattering, they are skillfully and artfully combined to be most illuminating.