Commentary Magazine


Saying Kaddish by Anita Diamant; Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier

Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew
by Anita Diamant
Schocken. 265 pp. $23.00

Kaddish
by Leon Wieseltier
Knopf. 588 pp. $27.50

The kaddish, a prayer now associated with mourning and the commemoration of the departed, maintains a grip on the Jewish psyche that one would not have expected on the basis of its relative unimportance in the classical rabbinic liturgy. But beginning in the early Middle Ages, the kaddish—whose text makes no mention of death whatsoever, but rather is devoted to magnifying and sanctifying the name of God—increasingly assumed a career of its own, accumulating a rich store of theological notions about the dead and the obligations of the living to them. Later on, a large body of halakhic (legal) discussion developed, precisely regulating when, how, by whom, and for whom the kaddish was to be recited. The history of this deceptively simple doxology thus sheds light on major facets of Jewish belief, practice, and folklore.

Anita Diamant’s and Leon Wieseltier’s books arose out of the same event—the death of the author’s father. The two volumes, however, are exceedingly different. As its subtitle indicates, Diamant’s (to begin there) is a “how-to” book on death and mourning from a Jewish perspective. Her approach is primarily psychological, and her focus is less on the demands of Jewish tradition than on the personal needs of the contemporary Jew.

Diamant goes out of her way to underline that her book is directed to those “non-Orthodox Jews—Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and unaffiliated—who tend to view halakhah as reference point and guide rather than mandate.” Unfortunately, at no point does she inquire into the difference between the values underlying halakhah and those underlying the religious calculus of the “non-Orthodox Jews” she wants to reach. As a result, although her book demonstrates admirable compassion and offers considerable assistance to those dealing with terminal illness and death, it does not challenge its readers to think deeply about their tradition or about what it might mean to act in accordance with it.

Not that Diamant neglects altogether to indicate what the classical norms prescribe. Rather, she is unable to provide criteria as to when they should be followed and when overridden, leaving the impression that the decision between Jewish religious law and secular convention is strictly a matter of personal preference:

Listening to music during shiva [the first and most intense week of mourning] is prohibited by Jewish law because music is associated with happiness or used for distraction. But many people use music to focus on their grief. Listening to a loved one’s favorite song or symphony can be comforting, or painful, or both.

“Prohibited,” “comforting,” “painful,” “comforting” and “painful”—what is a Jew to do?

Diamant’s theology is equally squishy. “There is not now, nor has there ever been, one unified doctrinal Jewish view of the afterlife,” she writes. “Jews have embraced the gamut of beliefs about what happens to human beings after they die.” This is true enough in a way, but what “Jews have embraced” and what Judaism demands are two very different things; Jews have embraced idol worship, too. From Diamant’s wording, one would never guess that belief in the resurrection of the dead was a mandatory and defining tenet of the Pharisaic and rabbinic traditions from which modern Judaism descends, and a major affirmation of the traditional liturgy. Once again, the contemporary Jew is left to choose for himself, with only the dubious consolation that, whatever he chooses, other Jews may have already chosen it as well. Surely the rabbinic tradition, even if it is to be “a reference point and guide rather than mandate,” offers more than this.

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In contrast to Anita Diamant, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, focuses on the history, theology, and halakhah surrounding the kaddish. But his book, erudite and rich in historical reference, is not a scholarly inquiry. It is, rather, a journal, full of meditations and aphorisms, of the eleven months of mourning during which Wieseltier recited the doxology at each of the three daily services, just as the tradition requires. As for the aphorisms, they can at times be striking—“In religious life, habit is essential. In spiritual life, habit is shameful”—but the cryptic style and the overheated prose in which they are couched often leave the impression of mere posturing or a reaching for effect.

Despite its autobiographical and discontinuous format, Kaddish, the work of an author who is himself the product of an Orthodox childhood and education, sheds considerable light on the legacy of classical Judaism and on the existential issues raised by traditional understandings of the kaddish. Wieseltier chronicles the stages by which the prayer became most closely associated with mourning and, more importantly, investigates the meaning not only of mourning but of death and afterlife in the Jewish context. Finally, he considers the nature of tradition itself and its enduring, if problematic, claim on modern man.

Here, however, is the rub. For Anita Diamant, Judaism’s proper partner in dialogue—and the source of the most intense challenge to its precepts—is modern psychology. Wieseltier will have none of this. Things that are “emotionally true,” he writes, do not interest him: “truth is not an emotion.” For him, it is not psychology but philosophy—the “most beautiful word in the language”—that must be Judaism’s partner in dialogue.

Yet the actual content of philosophy in Wieseltier’s parlance remains vague. Does the “most beautiful word in the language” refer to philosophy in the medieval sense, complete with the assumption that religious tradition has its origin in divine revelation and is thus possessed of a continuing normative status? Or is it more like philosophy in the Enlightenment sense, eager to found itself upon universal reason alone and skeptical of all claims of historical revelation and of the authority of sacred books and tradition?

If the former, then philosophy and religion are, as Wieseltier himself briefly reflects, natural allies. But if the latter, then philosophy is anything but the ally of religion. For as is well known, philosophy in the Enlightenment sense has devoted itself largely to debunking traditional beliefs as well as the rituals that are sustained by those beliefs and that sustain them in turn. Given Weseltier’s daily attendance in synagogue during the year of mourning for his father, one might expect him to be reclaiming and reasserting the medieval understanding of philosophy. In fact, he is highly ambivalent about the philosophical defense of traditional religion, and this ambivalence robs his arguments of the depth they seem to promise.

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Unlike Diamant, who is satisfied to interpret Jewish mourning rituals in terms of their effects on the living, Wieseltier struggles throughout his book with the unpalatable reality that rabbinic tradition has often seen these rituals as benefiting the dead, by diminishing the severity and duration of their punishment in Gehenna (the netherworld). In his more respectful moments, he turns his passion for philosophy to uncovering the truth that resides in myth:

It occurs to me today . . . that the rabbinical doctrines about death and the afterlife have the consequence of preempting any idea of predestination. In this way, they protect the fiction of the ethical life. In the absence of all these posthumous ordeals, reward and punishment would be utterly mechanical: goodness moves up, badness moves down, all with a monstrous inexorability. But goodness and badness are almost never unmixed, since the heart is hungry and the will is free. It is human complexity for which the myth of judgment allows.

At other times, however, his skeptical streak coming to the fore, he categorically denies the central rabbinic doctrines of the afterlife on which so much of the theology and folklore of the kaddish depend, and even brands the very idea of a prayer for the dead “a pious absurdity”: “The dead are dead. They will not wake.” At these moments one feels the intractable anguish of a highly knowledgeable Jew resolved to honor his father as his Orthodox upbringing requires but unable to affirm the theology associated with the rites that, as he says elsewhere, he is “bound by love and by duty to follow.”

And so he vacillates. “What about the mourner who has a secret sympathy for the preacher [i.e., the author of the book of Ecclesiastes], the mourner . . . for whom death is oblivion?” Wieseltier asks, going on to say, portentously, “I am such a mourner.” For that mourner, he has an answer of his own: “I cannot be sure that my kaddish for my father is proof of his immortality. I can be sure that it is proof of his posterity.” For “[p]osterity is the version of immortality that reason can accept, that tradition can count on.”

But to the classical Jewish sources, including the philosophical sources, immortality is not, in fact, an offense to reason. It would be interesting—it would be exceedingly fruitful—to ask, why not? But Wieseltier does not pause to consider the unspoken tenets of his own skepticism about the afterlife, or to consider why the premodern tradition does not adhere to them. This is all the odder coming from one who repeatedly delivers himself of ringing denunciations of philosophical materialism, physicalism, and scientism—all deeply implicated in modern skepticism about immortality. One expects a writer in love with philosophy to examine his presuppositions critically: Wieseltier’s failure in this regard makes it seem that behind the confessional and aphoristic mode he is hiding from serious interrogation of his own thoughts.

During his year of synagogue attendance, Wieseltier did exemplary service in the role of a dutiful son honoring the memory of his father in a manner consonant with the father’s own identity as a traditional East European Jew. But whatever the relationship of the two men may have been in life—and at this, Wieseltier only hints—his family’s religious tradition and his own Orthodox education seem to weigh on him so heavily that at times he comes across more as their victim than as their beneficiary: “I will never be free of the framework. Never.” Looking to justify his anomalous stance, he resorts to arguments that sound as if lifted verbatim from some still-running transcript of adolescent rebellion: “If you do not accept the legacy, the ones who come after you cannot resent it, tinker with it, reject it. By what right do you rob them of the pleasures that you enjoyed?” Or, again: “If you deny the authority of heaven, then why are you shaking your fist at it?” The unresolved pathos of the Jew for whom “philosophy” (in the modern sense) is the most beautiful word in the language has seldom been better stated.

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