Leon Wieseltier’s “Kaddish” is a book well worth the time to read. It was published in 1998. It chronicles his commitment to his father and his orthodox roots to pray the Kaddish for his father following his father’s death. Leon is the editor of “The New Republic” so he would be adding three prayer sessions a day to his schedule for 11 months. On top of that, being true to his station in life, he took up the task of studying out the origins and the formulation of the rituals surrounding the Kaddish that he would pray. He was doing this out of duty and honor for his father, not faith, so it is a very unusual look into his thinking about God, eternity, life and death. Everything that follows are random quotes from the book. I will try and clarify when he is quoting sources.

I said the prayer known as the mourner’s kaddish three times daily, during the morning service, the afternoon service, and the evening service, in a synagogue in Washington and, when I was away from home, in synagogues elsewhere. It was my duty…

A season of sorrow became a season of soul-renovation, for which I was not at all prepared.

Talmud: one must honor him in life and one must honor him in death.

Talmud: I am the atonement for where he rest.

Rabbis: “May his memory be a blessing for life in the world to come.” Modern Jews have abridged this locution of piety. They speak of their dead and say “May his memory be a blessing.” And they mean a blessing here, upon us. But the rabbis mean a blessing there, upon him. It is a beautiful proposition, and an outrageous one. I can believe that the memory of our dead is a blessing here, upon us. Can I believe that it is a blessing there, upon them? This ws the argument of my father’s kaddish, and the subject of these investigations by his diligent and doubting son.

Nahmanides: What, then, is there for poor, tempted man to do, when he comes before the king, except to justify the judgment and to verify the verdict?”

Nahmadides: It was the destiny of man to live forever, but as a consequence of that ancient sin, human beings have gone down to the slaughter. Therefore they tremble, because they are being separated from their true nature.

Mourning is the proper response to the fate of those who die in sin.

Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman: Love is strong as death, because at the hour of a man’s death the parting of the soul from the body is difficult, for there is no love and no attachment and no mixture like that of the soul and the body; and jealousy is cruel as the grave, because there is no jealousy in the world like that of the man who goes to his grave and sees that the world still lives.

Nahmanides: May the Lord…show us soon the restoration of the Temple, and fulfill in us and in lour company the verse that declares, “He will swallow up death in victory, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the rebuke of his people shall He take away from off all the earth.

For the prophet, (Isaiah) and for the medieval commentator, death is a rebuke.

The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva: “he has the key to Gehenna, for it is written ‘Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in’” Where is the hell in this verse? In a pun “Which keepeth the truth,” in the Hebrew…it looks very much like the plural form of amen, so that the verse may be read as: Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the amens may enter in.”…For it is for the sake of a single amen that the wicked utter in hell that they are raised from hell.

The Lord of the Universe is persuaded by a Talmudic pun to interfere with the justice of the universe.

Their children, who will inherit an ignorance of Jewish tradition unprecedented in Jewish history?

A cousin suggested to my mother that the fate of my father’s soul lis too precious to be left to his errant son, and that she ought to retain a man in shul to recite the kaddish for the duration of the year.

Rabbi: …the kaddish. It lifts up not only the soul of the deceased, but also the soul of him who recites it.

Rashi: Is it really mercy that He renders to every man according to his work?

What death really says is: think.

Goodness is the goal of moral life; but innocence is the condition of those who are disqualified from moral life, such as children. Goodness marks the end of innocence.

I have begun to notice that my prayers are refreshing my life with language. Three times a day, Hebrew music.

The rabbis follow you into your closet.

When I leave the teahouse the day’s study is over, but the day’s thinking has just begun.

You can disprove a theory, but you cannot disprove a practice. A custom does not require proof. It requires understanding. And a custodial feeling; think any thoughts you want, but do not overthrow the customs that have made it all the way to you. This sounds like a mindless behaviorism, but it is not.

Ritual is the conversion of essences into acts.

I study the old texts because I hope to be infected by their dimensions, to attain the size of what I read.

In the years before the Crusades, there was no mourner’s kaddish. In the years after the Crusades, the mourner’s kaddish makes its appearance. This cannot have been a coincidence. The Crusades provoked the first major attempt to exterminate an entire Jewry in Europe. It failed, but it left many, many mourners in its wake.

Well, well. The kaddish turns out to have played a role in the development of what is perhaps the most defining characteristic of Judaism in exile: the charisma of learning…a distinction between scholars and other members of the community…They were proclaiming the supremacy of the mind.

The prospect of clarity makes me delirious, so the joke is on me.

The Perfumer: The judgment is justified during the afternoon service on the Sabbath because on the Sabbath the dead are relieved of the judgment of hell. On that afternoon the souls are made to stand by a gleaming fountain of water that flows at the entrance to the garden, and they rinse themselves in the water to cool their bodies from the fire.

Zedekiah the Physician: When an individual drinks water at twilight, it is as if he were stealing the water from his dead.

The dream-inquiry was an esoteric avenue of last resort for rabbis in perplexity.

The method of seeking a Divine Voice in a serendipitous Biblical verse is as old as the Talmud.

“God’s hell.” What an admission! But it is the truth. If there is a hell, it is God’s.

Rome, helpless before the Sabbath!

Gaon of Vilna: On the Sababth, however, judgment leaves the world, and the wicked in Gehenna have a rest and the angels of subversion do not govern them.

The Sabbath in hell must be the sweetest Sabbath in the universe.

So show me something like the soul, something that does not live like the body and does not die like the body. Easy. I will show you reason.

When Nietzsche lost his faith, he concluded that God is dead. This is not critical thinking. This is narcissism. I understand the idea that if God exist, then you must believe in Him. I do not understand the idea that if you do not believe in Him, then God must not exist.

Rabbi Akiva and the condemned man, the founding myth of the mourner’s kaddish…

The themes of the story? That the dead are in need of spiritual rescue; and that the agent of spiritual rescue is the son; and that the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, notably the kaddish.

I have a gift for being cheerful in cheerless circumstances, but my gift is failing me.

The preference for justice needs no explanation. It is entirely consistent with the system of rewards and punishments. But the preference for mercy seems to thwart the system. Explanations must be found for God’s interference with the consequences of our action. Grateful explanations.

“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” The rabbis said that this was addressed not to God’s measure of justice, but to God’s measure of mercy.

It’s that my everyday experience makes it plain to me that human behavior cannot entirely explain itself, or be entirely explained by the physical or pragmatic. There is something in human behavior that outlives the physical—not in heaven or hell, but in the understanding…My father sickened and died when his body failed him, but the manner of his dying—the resistance that he mounted against his illness, and then the decision that he made (I am certain that he made such a decision, a day or two before he died) to start on his way out of the world—cannot be reduced to his body and its renal realities.

I detest the condescension of the materialist. It is he who has the easy task. Intellectually speaking, the materialist is a man of leisure.

Abraham bar Hiyya: Let it not occur to you that you may repent after you die, for if you regret in the next world a thousand regrets for the evil deeds that you did in this world, it will avail you nothing…And so, too, he who thinks that he will profit from all the deeds that his children and his people do for him after his death, and all the prayers that they pray for him is thinking foolish thoughts. In the eyes of all the sages and all the philosophers, this is a vain hope…We have not found a passage in the Torah from which we may conclude that the actions of the living in this world acquit the dead…

Prayer for the dead, in his view, constitutes an interference in the workings of justice.

So the man with the kaddish has a mission. He speaks up against darkness, against nothingness. This, too, is humanism, with or without God.

The struggle against evil is a greater struggle than the struggle against God.

He was not a very musical man, but he loved the violin. No surprise there: it is the instrument that tugs the best.

I have sighted Akiva among the Christians! He was spotted in Jacques Benigne Bossuet, bishop of Meaux, the great preacher of the Counter-Reformation and defender of French Catholicism in the seventeenth century. Bossuet tells the story of Akiva and the condemned man in the middle of an apology for the prayer for the dead.

The Christian ignorance of Judaism is one of the great tragi-comedies of history. –But how many Jews, like the Catholic cleric, have read the Akiva story as the story of a prayer of the dead?

It has been argued that the idea of purgatory was a creation of the twelfth century, of the militant feudal world of the Crusades. One historian has dated the appearance of the term “purgatory” to the decade between 1170 and 1180. I have no way of knowing whether this is correct, but it does not escape my attention that the birth of purgatory may have occurred at the same time as the birth of the kaddish.

The terrible twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy…It is the most sadistic, dystopian passage in Scripture, and in shul it is read in a hushed tone and quickly.

“The Book of the Pious”…I have always loved this book and dreaded it. Its authors were still stunned by the Crusades, and its pages are shot through with death and the consequences of death.

I am living in the grid of obligation.

It is an unvirtuous world that needs virtue.

To aspire to goodness is to aspire to clarity.

Duty, or the art of unhappiness.

I am worn and resentful.

“In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other”

My absence from shul would not be more honorable than my alienation from it.

Immigrants, refugees: the differences notwithstanding, they share a quality. They are all strangers to decadence.

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.

Does prayer “work”? I know the answer, since I have just concluded an experiment. My father sickened. There were prayers for my father. My father died. So I have a result. Whatever prayer does, it does not “work.”

This morning there was not a single word of the prayers that held my attention. Not a single word. I left in disgust with myself…the Perfumer helped me out…”When you pray, stand in fear and reflect on whom you stand before and to whom you are speaking. If there is a worry in your heart, erase it from your mind at the hour of prayer…

Akiva: The father merits the son with beauty and strength and wealth and wisdom and years.

Tradition is never acquired, it is always being acquired. (Or it is always not being acquired: the world is full of Jews who are not Jewish, Christians who are not Christian, Muslims who are not Muslim.)

About Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters”, I adore this chapter. It is one of the great protests against determinism, against the reduction of the moral to the natural…a man’s actions are in his own hands…Maimonides’ warning against the explanatory power of astrology holds also for the explanatory power of science.

Indeed, historians will record that in America at the end of this century scientism enjoyed a revival, as Americans became so uncertain of themselves that they required for the formulation of their identities nothing less than the certainty of science or the certainty of religion.

Scientism is never content for science to be one of the things you need to know. It demands that science be the only thing you need to know.

What determines the course of a person’s life, then, is not “natural constitution.” What determines it is “great exertion.”

Moving along in Maimonides. His eighth chapter also makes a pragmatic point: that morality, and personal responsibility, and social justice, and religious obligation, and reward and punishment, would all be meaningless in a world of necessity. If man’s actions are compelled, then the commands and the prohibitions of the law would be annulled, and it would all be a big lie, since man would have no freedom in what he did.

…in Jewish society learning conferred status, and the inheritance of this status would have amounted to the creation of an aristocracy.

…that wisdom will come to anybody who works to be worthy of it.

The rabbis were determined to raise the life of the mind above the coils of social stratification.

I am especially edgy. We are commanded to serve the Lord with all our heart and all our soul and all our might, with everything we have. I am serving the Lord with all my nerves.

The Encompassing Intellect is an emanation from the Divine, a spiritual substance from which the human intellect, in its highest achievement, directly acquires truths that cannot be acquired empirically.

There are sweets to which one must come starving.

We are islands of freedom in seas of necessity.

Solomon ben Abraham Adret: The highest reward to which a man may aspire is that he leave something of himself in the physical world that serves the Lord.

So this is how I may understand the kaddish in Adret’s terms: The soul of the son is not the soul of the father His soul is his soul, my soul is my soul…I can change the fate of my father’s soul because my father’s soul lives in me, as the cause lives in the effect.

Do you believe in the soul? Then you are an individualist.

On the high kabbalah: I have never found a place for myself in the extravagant edifice. I think that it is artificial and airless, an almost Tantric decadence of symbols and allegories, in which occult entities are arbitrarily hypostatized and then enormous effort is expended in the mapping of relationships between them, in the utterly unsubstantiated belief that the structure of the godhead is being revealed. The whole system has always struck me as a holy game.

A man’s troubles make it hard for him to devote himself to the tranquil study of divine wisdom.

Aaron: It is already widely known that the kaddish has the power to extinguish the fire of Gehenna and to subdue the strange and hostile forces. With the power of the kaddish, the son rescues his father from the grip of the exteriorities and gets him into Eden…And with every kaddish he freezes hell for an hour and a half.

Every kaddish freezes hell for an hour and a half! This must be the most delicious observation ever uttered on the subject. Why an hour and a half?

Words as spices, words as perfumes.

A Jew called Durable!

Up at dawn. With no faith, to the house of faith.

The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake.

A weak or sloppy life is not to be confused with an evil life. But how often can one sin and still be only “sometimes” a sinner?

If you deny the authority of heaven, then why are you shaking your fist at it?

I enjoy it because it is forbidden. Then you do not enjoy it.

Sin is the ruin of pleasure.

Do you wish to remain a child? Then spend your life at war with a parent.

The hedonist, the slacker, the seeker after gain: they are not wicked, they are weak, and they must be regarded humanely. But the rebel, the blasphemer: they are not weak, they are wicked. The objective of their sin is subversion.

But who will deny that the rebel is in some respects an unfree man, ruled by angers and aspirations that he cannot control?

In this passage Maimonides is more sever. And the defecting Jew described in this passage is a strangely familiar figure. He is not the rebel, or the heretic, or the traitor. He is the one who wants to slip away, who never asked to be a Jew, who is captivated by the rest of the world. He does not wish to violate the commandments. He merely wishes not to fulfill them.

My library looked like a graveyard tonight, and every book looked like a grave. But one must open these graves and enter them. Inside these graves, there is life.

Paper is stronger than stone. The Jews knew this.

This is my favorite: “I have seen it written in the name of Rabbi Meir that in the twelve months of mourning for his father and his mother he may be the congregation’s emissary and lead the prayer. For what joy is there in prayer?” What joy, indeed? I will cherish that sentence always. It must be one of the great anti-hasidic pronouncements in the tradition.

As the rabbis taught, “it is better that a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate another man publicly.”

That is how this inextinguishable system works: distinctions are multiplied so as to preserve authorities. The acuity of the earlier rabbi is assumed by the later rabbi, who will try to maintain the integrity of both their opinions.

You do not come from nothing, you go to nothing. And you can get there before you die.

This evening again I couldn’t bear the prospect of leading the prayers. Instead of racing from the office to the shul, I sat at a bar and drank a glass of wine. I didn’t enjoy it almost at all, and I resented that, too.

Benjamin Zev: This kaddish is not based on kinship, it is based on the son’s righteousness, which is so great that the Name of Heaven may be sanctified by him, and in this manner the son acquits the father by demonstrating the merit of him who begat someone who sanctifies the Name of Heaven.”

What kind of father was your father? In rising to say the kaddish, you have given an answer: he was the kind of father who taught his son to do this.

Peace is a greater priority.

The dead are not sleeping. The dead are dead. They will not wake. Well, I have just denied the resurrection of the dead, and thereby forfeited my right to a kaddish of my own. I have thought heretically. But truly I do not expect to see my father again. If death is not final, then we are being made fools. Is this a seditious spirit? Too bad. It is the only spirit in which I can pray for, or about, my father, in which I can continue with his kaddish.

I am tired, I need a rest, or so I tell myself every morning after prayers. But it isn’t that simple. I am not tired. I am weak. I have a sabotaging spirit. The fatigue about which I complain is really an excuse for the attrition in my alertness. I am in a war with myself and I am falling back. I am looking for mercies. I must stay away from my bed.

The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence.

When a statement that is true is expressed beautifully, is it the truth of the statement that persuades or the beauty?

If God could be seen, we would do nothing but look. We would squander our lives on the contemplation of God.

The kaddish is not a prayer for the dead. It is an achievement of the dead.

A prayer for the dead is a pious absurdity.

The kaddish, a prayer of the dead? Of course not. Just look at it! There is not a single mention of the dead in it.

Redemption is accompanied by atrocity. The tradition calls it “the pangs of the messiah.” Speaking humanely, then, redemption is atrocity.

“May His kingdom come for those who are still alive”. The kaddish, post-1945.

The pangs of the messiah: the pangs always arrive, the messiah never arrives.

A revelation must not only be given, it must also be received.

God had spoken but the people had not hear! Or so the prophets thundered. But they enjoyed an unfair advantage: God had spoken to them. They did not appreciate the difference between revelation and a report of a revelation.

Israel’s guilt has not erased Israel’s identity, Israel’s sanctity. Sinning Jews are still Jews.

For modern Jews who are everywhere escaping, “even though he sinned, he is a Jew” does not sound like an instrument of compassion. It sounds like an instrument of enforcement. Modern Jews do not fear oppressive Christianity. The fear oppressive Judaism.

A Portuguese marrano: I showed a Christian face because I am fond of living.

So my father does not get the gift of another month of kaddish, he gets the gift of only a few more days of kaddish. Come to think of it, this is exactly the way it used to be. He wanted the most, and I gave him only more.

If the son’s study is preferable to the son’s prayer, then my father is headed for heaven. Anyway Kaddish is over. Study is all that remains for me. Hahn’s suggestion is perfectly timed.

The difference between study and prayer is the difference between thinking and feeling, between knowing and wanting, between what is within our power and what is beyond our power, between toil and arousal, between the life that does not pass and the life that passes.

“Amen.” The tiny Hebrew word denotes faith, hope, enthusiasm, finality, belonging, the answerability of man. In the Talmud they speak of an “orphaned amen.” An orphaned amen is an amen uttered after a blessing that you have not hear. An orphaned amen is forbidden.

I read: “In the second car of the train that was carrying them to the death camp, the philanthropist and communal leader Isaac Steinman took candles out of his pocket, and as he lit them he said: ‘Jews! Since nobody will be left behind to say kaddish for us, let us fulfill our final obligation and say kaddish for ourselves!’ They all jumped to their feet with burning tears and fathomless devotion said ‘Magnified and sanctified be His great Name…’”

Rabbi Moellin: You wives and women, help me mourn my wife, the crown that has fallen from my head.

Since neither of these customs is contradicted by the law, the proper attitude is tolerance.

Today I was estranged from everything.

Think a thought and you are a pilgrim.

Again and again I am bothered by the shallowness of my knowledge of Talmud. I should study it, I should study it, I should study it. But it is too late—not too late to study it, but too late to believe that the study of it is what finally matters.

This was the year of my life, the only year of my life, about which I can say with certainty that there was never a day without an untrivial moment.

What is happening to me now is nothing like what Americans call “Closure.” What a ludicrous notion of emotional efficiency! Americans really believe that the past is past. They do not care to know that the past soaks the present like the light of a distant star. Things that are over do not end. They come inside us, and seek sanctuary in subjectivity.

Then the rabbi instructed me to read another psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” I chose to sing it, in the sweet, sepulchral manner in which it is sung on Sabbath afternoons. I stepped closer to the grave and sang, and as I sang I broke away from my dread. I sang to the death of wailing. My song grew, as if to make room within it for all the true and punished people who gathered around it, to shield them with its splendor and to seal them with its peace. Lean on my time, lean on my heart, lean on my fire. I will not bend beneath your load, I will not bend. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.


What a read, I bolded “forever” just because we shall all live forever.


About hansston

Pastor a church in Sparta.
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