By Leon Wieseltier

Alfred A. Knopf

New York, 1998

588 pages

Reviewed by Rabbi Avraham J. Shmidman

Without question, no prayer in the whole of Jewish liturgy is as famous, and paradoxically, as unknown as the kaddish.  Often referred to as the mourner’s prayer, this sanctification of God’s Name does not speak of death, mourning or redemption of souls, as many erroneously believe.  These myths abound in spite of translated prayer books and numerous works analyzing the nature and chronicling the history of the kaddish.

Leon Wieseltier, the Brooklyn-born literary editor of the New Republic, provides a mini-tome to add to this burgeoning collection.  Simply titled, Kaddish is at once a quasi-scholarly presentation of the history of the kaddish, a straightforward journal of a mourner confronting the anguish and finality of death, and an emotional autobiographical account detailing one man’s turn to and sustained struggle with observant Judaism as a result of his father’s death.  Peppered with fleeting philosophical ponderings and creative literary diversions, the entanglement of information and insights stitched together to form Kaddish makes for an inspiring albeit choppy read.

The themes addressed in Wieseltier’s work are not new, but the emotional force behind them is reason enough to try to wade through it.  Motivated by his paucity of knowledge about the kaddish that he is obligated to recite in the wake of his father’s death, Wieseltier sets out in search of the history of kaddish (p.vii) and keeps a journal of these sources and the “speculations” (viii) they provoked.

Following a powerful description of the burial of his father and the kaddish he recites for him — “I watched the words disperse across the surface of the wood — like the clods of dirt that were falling upon it” (p. 4) — Wieseltier begins his journey with a look at Torat Ha’Adam, The Law of Man (a vast compilation of laws and customs dealing primarily with mourning, and concluding with a famous eschatological essay entitled “The Gate of Recompense”) by Nachmanides.  Wieseltier’s brazen irreverence of Ramban for stressing the importance of justifying God’s judgment and mourning over sin rather than death is, lamentably, not unexpected.  Many are the mourners who, in anger and anguish, lash out against the bearers of tradition.  To Wieseltier’s credit, despite his claims that he can’t “follow the rabbi” (p. 11) and doesn’t “intend to be deceived” (ibid), he continues to grapple sincerely with the attitudes to mourning in traditional Jewish literature.

The almost incessant flip-flopping between research into the history of kaddish and internal wrestling with the approaches and obligations of Judaism that ensues is often maddeningly disjointed, and at times confusing.  This, though, is precisely the book’s allure.  This dizzying see-saw ride accurately mirrors the odyssey of a mourner futilely attempting to balance emotional ragings with intellectual convictions.  The only constant is the thrice-daily saying of the kaddish.  Returning to shul to say kaddish at first proves to be uncomfortable for a man who wishes to “drive his chariot wildly” (p. 16).  He quickly realizes, though, that a life without a religious structure is still structured, just in different ways.  Even prayer which was once nothing more than “frantic exertions of subjectivity” (p. 19) is now a “throb of individuation” (ibid).  Throughout his year of mourning Wieseltier continues confronting many of the practices and attitudes of observant Judaism.  This in no way means he has reconciled all of his faiths and doubts; rather that he probes them as best as he can, a process difficult to accomplish, yet easily admired.

Wieseltier’s extensive research, which is the bulk of the book, delving into many sources of kaddish, leads ultimately to an analysis of many of the laws and practices of mourning.  An impressive and eclectic array of sources and scholars spanning two millennia are presented.  The author’s prefactory remarks forewarn us that a systematic study was not undertaken (p. viii).  We are also cautioned that Kaddish was hastily put together and no doubt has mistakes (p. ix).  Having absolved himself of responsibility for the majority of his book we cannot rightfully take Wieseltier to task for an undefined selective process that leaves us scattered tidbits of information.  Nor can we fairly express our frustration that the exposition of sources is less than cogent.  The result, however is a cutandpaste job which occasionally fascinates with obscure factoids and titillates with insightful commentary, but ultimately leaves the reader with a morass of muddled material from which he is unable to assemble a clear picture.

Wieseltier’s literary talent is showcased in his translation of sources; they are his, other than those from the King James Bible.  The ancient sources cited somehow seem injected with more relevance and melody than in their original forms.  Regrettably, they are not always accurate.  Even the assurance of relying on the King James version for scriptural translations is not kept.  The verse in Isaiah (25:8) hoping that God  “swallow up death forever” is mistranslated throughout the book to have God swallow up death in “Victory.”

Shortcomings aside, this is a thought-provoking tour de force worth reading not so much as a source book on kaddish or a philosophical essay on the meaning of life, but rather as a human interest story; a story of a doubting and diligent son whose mighty pen finds not only a cathartic voice in his literary output but a consoling one as well.

Rabbi Avraham J. Shmidman is the rabbi of Knesseth Israel Congregation in Birmingham, Alabama.

This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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