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By Leon Wieseltier
1998, Alfred A. Knopf

The Mourner's Kaddish

Magnified and sanctified May his great name be In the world that he created, As he wills, And may his kingdom come In your lives and in your days And in the lives of all the house of israel, Swiftly and soon, And say all amen!

May his great name be blessed
Always and forever!

And praised
And glorified
And raised
And exalted
And honored
And uplifted
And lauded
Be the name of the holy one
(He is blessed!)
Above all blessings
And hymns and praises and consolations
That are uttered in the world,
And say all amen!

May a great peace from heaven--
And life!--
Be upon us and upon all israel,
And say all amen!

May he who makes peace in his high places
Make peace upon us and upon all israel,
And say all amen!

verything struck hard. The door slamming behind me in the black car. The shovel stabbing the mound of soil. The wooden box hitting the floor of the pit. I stood and I swayed and I said what I was told to say. I was presented with the words that justify the judgment, and I justified the judgment. "He is the Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are judgment..." I was presented with the words of the kaddish, the long one for the funeral, the one about the world that will be made new, the one that I had never said before, and I uttered it. "Magnified and sanctified may His great Name be..." "Magnified and sanctified..." Sounds, not words. Words that were nothing but sounds. The words spilled into the pit and smashed upon my father's coffin. I watched the words disperse across the surface of the wood like the clods of dirt that were falling upon it. I saw them there, the shattering words. I saw the letters and their shades. Finally they vanished into the earth. They were buried with him. "He is the Rock." And the Rock struck hard. And I struck hard against the Rock. Justify the judgment, but judge the judgment, too. Bring the judgment to judgment! Out of tears, thoughts. Magnified and sanctified... Magnified and sanctified ... Magnified and sanctified... Sorrow, feed me. May His great Name be blessed... May His great Name beblessed... May His great Name be blessed...


It is in the hall of study that we pray. The beauty of the room is owed to its homeliness. It is decorated only with books. When I stand by the wall of books, I feel as if I am standing on the shore of> an immensity. The spines of books. Books and spines. Bcked, and He makes everything right in its time. And in His ways there are hidden secrets (as the few have agreed, for the many will never be wise), things that are too exalted for creaturely knowledge, such as the distant future and the deep past. 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?."

But I do not wish to justify the judgment and to verify the verdict! Count me, then, among the many who will never be wise. (Or try me another time.)

Help me, Nahmanides. Help me.
And this brings Nahmanides to the matter of mourning. More precisely, to the absurdity of mourning. "I want now to say what my heart believes and what my mind has proven." And what is that? He begins with a perplexity: "Since man is destined to die, and deserves to lie down in the shadow of death, why should we torture ourselves over somebody's death, and weep for the dead, and bemoan him? After all, the living know that they will die. It is puzzling that those who know what will come to pass should then mourn, and call others to lamentation." Nahmanides is describing a collision of the heart and the mind. (No wonder he began with "what my heart believes and what my mind has proven.") He is suggesting that what one knows must have an effect upon what one feels. This seems perfectly true. Did I expect my father not to die? Of course not! But still I wail. What good is philosophy, if there is pain? Yet Nahmanides does not believe that mourning is absurd. He has answers to his question. This is his first answer: "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." Nahmanides is referring to the sin in paradise, to the consequences of Eve's apple. He is proposing that we do not mourn over death, we mourn over mortality. This is an interesting idea, though it has little to do with the real mourning of real people, who do not have their heads in their hands because they know that they will not live forever. And Nahmanides continues: "Moreover, I have searched and I have reflected, and in the entire Torah there is no prohibition against mourning and there is no commandment to be consoled. All that was prohibited [in Deuteronomy] was that mourners should cut themselves or shave their foreheads for the dead. But do not put off weeping and do not loathe sighing." Thus Nahmanides has established the Scriptural legitimacy of sorrow. Indeed, mourning is a primary religious activity: "It is important for us to understand that mourning is a service of the Lord, which enables us in grief and in belief to contemplate our true end and to know the location of our true home. In accordance with this, it is written [in Ecclesiastes] that `it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart.'"

"There is no commandment to be consoled," said the giant of Gerona. I will remember that. Magnified and sanctified... May His great Name be blessed... Magnified and sanctified... May His great Name be blessed... And Nahmanides has a second answer to his question. Why mourn, if we know that we will die? "So that we may grieve for the sins of one who has died before his time. Or if a terrible thing befell him in one of his children, it is fitting to weep and to wail over this." Mourning is the proper response to the fate of those who die in sin. Nahmanides offers a reading (which is, again, a partial pastiche) of some verses from the third chapter of Lamentations. "If you repent, and you seek God out, then He will have compassion, according to the multitude of His mercies. For God does not wish to torment men, and He does not desire to bring them grief; nor to crush under His feet all the prisoners of the earth, to show that they are His prisoners and He has dominion over them; nor to turn aside the right of a man or to subvert a man in his cause--that is, when they are sinners before Him. Of all this He does not approve. But since He does not will such a wrong to come to pass, He also said: Do not believe that the many sufferings that befall you are accidental and do not come from Him, for who is he that saith and cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not? Everything comes from Him. He commanded and all the deeds were created, and there is nothing evil or good that does not proceed from Him .... And if everything proceeds from His mouth and from Him, and He has no desire to see evil done, since He acts justly, then wherefore doth a living man mourn and complain? It is for his own sins that he must mourn and complain." Nahmanides concludes, concretely: "Therefore, if a man dies earlier than most people die, or if a man's child dies, it is fitting that he, and those who love him, grieve and mourn--but their mourning must be such that it is a service of the Lord, in the sense that they mourn over the sins that were the cause of their suffering, and repent of the sins of which they are aware, and atone for the sins of which they are not aware. For the individual in pain to fortify himself with despair and to harden his heart in this regard--that is absolutely wrong."



A primeval glow in the city at dawn. As I drove to shul, everything was chaste. In the old, old light the buildings paled, the monuments dissolved. The city slipped back into the soil. I drove down to the river, where I observed the fading of human purposes. I saw the light of ancient Washington. A morning without civilization.

Nahmanides appreciates that an acquaintance with death can ruin an appetite for life. And so he seeks to secure the mourner against such ruin--to describe an ideal of mourning that is not despair, that honors the encounter with death but does not succumb to it. The rabbi wishes to harness the power of morbidity, to turn it to good use. I wish him luck. So the mourner must not think metaphysically about death, says Nahmanides. The mourner must think morally about it. Death is not terrible. Sin is terrible. The death of my father was not a tragedy. It was a criticism. My father died, so I must improve myself? I cannot follow the rabbi into this. The moralistic interpretation of death repels me. Death, a reproach?

--He is guilty.
--No, he is dead.

It is ridiculous to suggest that death should not be a reason for despair. Death is moralized because it is feared. But the moralist does not have the decency to admit that he is afraid. The fear of death may be mastered, of course. But mastered by good works? I do not comprehend this. What has ethics to do with extinction? The inevitability of extinction lends a certain urgency to ethics, I guess. It is a boon to earnestness. (Live every day as if it is your last, and so on.) Still, a good man will die as surely as a bad man. Death is amoral, indifferent, mechanical; chop, chop, chop. It is a fact, and a value cannot unmake a fact. God is just, but death is neutral. I do not intend to be inconsolable, but I do not intend to be deceived.



In shul this Sabbath, we read the Song of Songs. There were gazelles in Georgetown. "For love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave ...." Those words! They mark the discovery of finitude in the experience of desire. But in shul I took down from the shelves an edition of the Song of Songs that comes with the commentary of Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, the scholar and ascetic in Lithuania in the eighteenth century who has inspired more awe than any rabbi in modernity; and the Gaon glosses those words much less abstractly: "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." The Gaon's gloss cuts me. It takes me back to the final days in the hospital when my father knew that the world still lived, and he was jealous. I told a friend that I had returned to shul. So the circle is unbroken, he said. Maybe a little too unbroken, I thought. I like broken circles. I break circles. Magnified and sanctified... May His great Name be blessed... Magnified and sanctified... May His great Name be blessed... Back to Nahmanides. He concludes the introduction to his work on death with an admonition to his son. "My son! If sinners entice thee, consent thou not. For you will discover many sayings of the Greek philosophers and those who think as they do, sayings that harden the heart and stiffen the mind. They rejoice in a thing of nought, and are miserable comforters. They deny the future and they despair of the past. Who chooses them is an abomination--and a heretic. For Socrates, one of their wise men, is recorded as having decreed: `They asked me, "Why have we never seen you sad?" And I replied, "Because I have nothing whose loss would make me sad."' He also said: `He who knows the world will not rejoice over his good fortune and will not sorrow over his bad fortune.' They also said: `The unhappy man is the man who cares.' They also said: `He is deceived, who knows that he is on his way out of the world but seeks to cultivate it.' He and his friends the philosophers said many such things." I expect Nahmanides to denounce these Greeks and their philosophy of detachment, but he has a more intricate temper. "To be sure," he writes, "it is appropriate for them, and for all thinkers, to regard all the activities of the world as less than nothing, as vain, as devoid of purpose." Indeed, there is no need to stray among the Greeks for this wisdom. "After all, King Solomon exceeded them all [in Ecclesiastes] when, inspired by the holy spirit, he compared everything to vanity and declared that man hath no preeminence above a beast." Yet there was a difference between the alienation of Solomon and the alienation of Socrates. "Still, Solomon gave good heed and inquired strictly, and distinguished between good and bad, and between true and false. And so he instructed that in the day of prosperity be joyful but in the day of adversity shed a tear, that there is a time to weep and a time to mourn." That is to say, there is also a time not to weep and a time not to mourn. I see what Nahmanides is up to. He is conceding the truth of pessimism, and then circumscribing it. Thus he proceeds to an ancient reading of God's observation, in the first chapter of the Bible, that the work of the sixth day of creation was "very good." According to the rabbis, "good" refers to the good impulse in man's nature, and "very" refers to the evil impulse in man's nature. "But is the evil impulse really very good? Only insofar as a man, in the absence of the evil impulse, would not build a house and take a wife and sire sons and daughters." Those are the deep, disabused words of the ancient rabbis. Nahmanides enlarges on their point: "They penetrated far into the matter, and when they rendered the cultivation of the world null and vain, it was because the cultivation of the world cannot be sustained by anything except the service of the Creator, and in this way the world is indeed very good to those that be good and upright in their hearts. For it is a part of the service of the Lord to attend to the affairs of the world, and to the survival of all the species, so that God will forever look with favor upon His creation of us .... It is beyond doubt and it goes without saying that, from the standpoint of the mind, it is sheer idiocy to be angry or astonished at anything that happens; and it is also a sin and an iniquity, from the standpoint of God's justice, against which such individuals have revolted. Consider Job, and the story of his great and awful tribulations. How did he respond to what befell him? He rent his garments, and wept, and observed all the practices of mourning, and blessed his judge, saying: `The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the Name of the Lord!' And this should be the rule, concerning the future and the past: fury and fear lead to foolishness and falsehood. If one surrenders to despair and in this way finds solace, or if one's heart is not keen and one attributes what befalls one to accident or to custom--then one will drive wildly [and not mourn properly]." And Nahmanides concludes with a consoling peroration: "May the Lord whose fury we fear, but whose will is our shield and our buckler, show us soon the restoration of the Temple, and fulfill in us and in our 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 Lord hath spoken it.'" Look again at that verse. "He will swallow up death in victory... and the rebuke of his people shall He take away from off all the earth." Isaiah could not have been clearer. For the prophet, and for the medieval commentator, death is a rebuke. "It is a part of the service of the Lord to attend to the affairs of the world." A splendid sentence. Yet Nahmanides' affirmation is a complicated one. He wants to bite into the bitter fruit and to not taste the bitterness. To work in the world and to have no love for the world.



Nahmanides' quarrel is with Stoicism. {It is the Stoic version of Socrates that he presents, I think.) He does not believe that Stoicism is completely false. He admires its disdain for the material world, its ideal of inner freedom, its composure, its disenchantment. The Stoic's analysis of the world is right; but he does not grasp what is beyond the world, the remainder of reality. He is like a man who has backed out of a room but will not turn around. And behind his back is God. God is what stands between Stoicism and despair, says the rabbi. (He is unfair to Stoicism, which is a theory of courage.) The medieval Jew agrees with the ancient Greek that virtue is happiness. The difference is that the Greek will settle for less happiness than the Jew. (Or so the Jew thinks.) Socrates, improved by Solomon. Stoicism, improved by Judaism. The Stoic gives up on the world because it is an unjust world. But the unjust world and the just world are the same world. It is the unjust world that must be made the just world. For this reason, one must not secede from the world. In the ideal of indifference, spirituality comes into contradiction with morality. (A spiritual victory is sometimes a moral defeat.) Duty is a kind of passion, isn't it? A joyless kind. Stoicism in the service of God, or an enchanted disenchantment. "One will drive wildly." Nahmanides refers to the avenging Jehu, the son of Jehoshaphat, who overthrew the evil kings of Israel and Judah in an orgy of blood in the ninth century B.C.E. (He destroyed the House of Ahab and himself trampled Jezebel to death.) The Bible reports that Jehu was known for driving his chariot wildly, thoughtlessly, in a disordered state. He did the Lord's work, but he was a prince of instability. And what Nahmanides seeks for the mourner is stability, an unextreme attitude toward extremity. Such wisdom is surely to be wished. But this mourner wants to drive his chariot wildly. Unphilosophically, unreligiously, wildly. Magnified and sanctified ... May His great Name be blessed ... Magnified and sanctified ... May His great Name be blessed ... I have to give a speech at the Holocaust Museum. A speech in the evening, which means that I cannot make it to shul. Yet I must do my duty; and so my friends arrange a prayer quorum for me, in the vestibule outside the auditorium. There I lead the worship, and there I say the kaddish for my father, who cherished this place. He sat in the rain with my mother on the day that the museum opened, marveling that it had risen. Now the words of his kaddish float high into the concentrationary ether of the atrium, and fly past the glass on which the name of his burned birthplace in Poland is carved, and drift into the halls that show the pictures of what was done to his world; and the syllables of my father's kaddish cling to those images like spit.



Magnified and sanctified ... Magnified and sanctified ... Magnified and sanctified ... Or, the problem of repetition. It quickens. It dulls. Years ago, when I stopped praying, the disappearance of the religious structure seemed to bring with it the promise of possibility: every day would begin differently. The adventure of self-creation! But really, was every day begun differently? I did not create myself. I merely acceded to other platitudes and other habits. It is not only religion that lives by repetition. Every morning, a few minutes before seven o'clock, a yellow school bus passes me as I turn onto Massachusetts Avenue on my way to shul. Bless the sameness of the days! In shul, on a swampy morning. A young man in shorts wants to know whether a certain prayer is said with a blessing or without a blessing. "With pants," he is told. A friend calls to see if I have on my shelf the writings of Elijah Capsali of Crete, the sixteenth-century rabbi and historian. Capsali's chronicles of his time are among the most vivacious Jewish writings that I know, and I do have them, and I am glad to check a reference for my friend. Especially glad because I bump into an account of the death of the great rabbi Judah Minz in Padua in 1506, and the election of his son Abraham Minz to succeed him as head of the academy. The narrative includes this detail: "From the day of the death of his father, our teacher Rabbi Judah Minz, may his memory be a blessing, would lead the prayers in the synagogue, evening, morning, and afternoon, and he was wrapped in a black prayer shawl." A black prayer shawl! Where can I find one? It sounds exquisite. The garment was, no doubt, a version of the crepe that the Italians hung in their own hours of mourning; but lamentation, too, has a sumptuary aspect, and this Italianate indulgence would not deflect me from my spiritual purpose, I promise. Capsali notes also that "it was his intention to pray in this manner for a full year after his father's death, but he was expelled from his home." Abraham Minz was banished from Padua by the Venetian authorities because he presented a gift to the conquering German army. He fled for his life to Ferrara. I wonder if he left his black shawl behind. Friday night. The Sabbath arrives in splendor. The rabbi introduces me to two men. They are brothers and they buried their father this morning. They have come to say kaddish, but they are not familiar with the words and the customs of the prayer. They are helpless. The rabbi asks me to help. At the moment in the worship when the mourners are supposed to be brought in, I bring the mourners in. (The unblind leading the unblind.) As soon as the brothers enter, the congregation breaks into a melancholy greeting: "May He who is everywhere console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem!" Soon it is time to recite the kaddish. The brothers rise with me. They read a transliteration of the prayer. "We're the dunces," one of them says. "No," I reply, "the dunces are the ones who don't try." I didn't like the sound of what I said, exactly; it reminded me of the smugness in which I was schooled. Yet what I said was right. As I watched the brothers struggle with the transliterated prayer, I admired them. The sounds that they uttered made no sense to them. But there was so much fidelity, so much humility, in their gibberish. The golden bricks of the shul in the light of the summer morning. I arrived early and was filled with love for the sight. The shul is losing its strangeness for me. This worries me. In a strange place, solitariness is possible. Sociability poses a threat to spirituality. Now I'm coming to know my fellow petitioners. They are no longer strangers, they are becoming friends. How do you pray with friends? How do you pray with anybody?. Prayer is a throb of individuation, at least for me. And yet the congregation is one of the conditions of my kaddish. I used to stay away from shul in part because I was too easily influenced by it. I wanted so much to be like the people with whom I prayed. This troubled me. One should not wish to be influenced. One should wish to be convinced. It is more than twenty years since I stopped living according to Jewish law--since I threw off the yoke of the commandments, as the rabbis would say. Alas, I cannot say that my reasons were purely philosophical. I was governed also by my appetites. But one of the reasons for my failure was my experience of prayer. It was a disaster. Thinkingly and unthinkingly, in shuls and in schools and in forests and in fields, I had been praying for decades, and not once in those decades, not once, did I ever have the confidence that the cosmos in which I prayed was like the cosmos that my prayer described. I never had an intimation of objectivity. My prayers were increasingly frantic exertions of subjectivity, nothing more; and I could not persuade myself that the intensity of my feeling about what I said had any bearing upon its truth. It was not within my power to provide the proof. Indeed, any proof that I provided would not be proof. The proof had to come from outside. I was sick of interiority. I dreamed of exteriority; of its certainty and its majesty. But I never found it. And so I came to consider my prayer a desolating and debasing form of utterance, and I stopped. And here I am, praying morning, noon, and night. The gorgeous, familiar, impotent words are tripping off my tongue. What am I doing?. Do not deny the invisible, but do not address it. The invisible may be inquired into, but it may not be importuned.



Today I thought that the best thing would be to throw myself into this completely, to have nothing but this. Let the tradition take it all! To surrender everything except the fathers: a terrible thought. I feel like a copy. (Like an imperfect copy; and my imperfection is my salvation.) I see the honor in withdrawing from the world. But to mourn? This morning in shul I was assaulted by meanings. As I led the prayers, I understood certain words and phrases very sharply, with a startling force. Sometimes the sleep really does pass from one's eyes before prayer. And my wakefulness must have showed, because a few people remarked upon it. I found a rip in my phylacteries. Hath heaven no more thunderbolts? A man in our company rose to recite the kaddish. For whom, I wondered. When I asked him, he told me that he is a doctor, and he is saying the kaddish for a patient who died and left no children to say it for him. I woke in the middle of the night and did not know where I was. A purple rash ran over my white walls. I felt a burning sensation in my throat. I worried about stifling myself. I was afraid. If only I can get to shul, I told myself, everything will be all right. I will tie myself to myself with my phylacteries, and the day will not harm me. At daybreak, I rushed to Georgetown. There are days when there are just too many words in the liturgy. These are the skinless days. On such days I need to go slowly through the prayers. But I can't go slowly, because I'm the leader. I must get the entire company through this, to the kaddish and away. I must be spiritually efficient. In Chicago. Kaddish on the road. A lovely little shul near the lake, with the separation of the women from the men cleverly accomplished by a row of plants. I say the kaddish and stroll along the silver shore. I am delighted to have done my duty. Tonight the fulfillment of my obligation does not oppress me, it refreshes me. It occurs to me that delinquency is such a waste of time: all those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty. In the morning I walked on Michigan Avenue and saw nothing but my father, who never set foot there. In Brooklyn. On the afternoon of the Sabbath, the rabbi is discoursing about the blessing of the New Moon. He cites a law: "The blind are required to bless the moon." The blind, even though it is the sighting of the moon that is the occasion for the blessing. I think to myself: This is exactly the predicament of the mourner. He must bless what is wonderful even though he cannot see it. The knowledge of a thing is more decisive than the sight of it. A friend points me toward the modern career of the mourner's kaddish. In 1947, S. Y. Agnon composed a prayer to be said at military funerals, "as one follows the coffins of the fallen of the land of Israel." It is a preface to the mourner's kaddish. "When a king of flesh and blood goes to war against his enemies, he sends his soldiers to kill and to be killed. He may love his soldiers or he may not love them. He may have regard for them or he may not have regard for them. Even if he has regard for them, however, he regards them as dead, for the angel of death is close upon the heels of a man who goes to war, and accompanies him to kill him. When he is cut down and slain by an arrow or a sword or any of the other instruments of destruction, another man is put in his place. The king does not feel that someone is missing. After all, the nations are many and their troops are many. If one of them is killed, the king has many replacements. But our King, the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, wants life and loves peace and pursues peace and loves His people Israel. He chose us, and not because we are a large nation, for we are one of the smallest of nations. We are few, and owing to the love with which He loves us, each one of us is, for Him, an entire legion. He does not have many replacements for us. If one of us is missing, heaven forfend, then the king's forces are diminished, with the consequence that His kingdom is weakened, as it were. One of His legions is gone and His greatness is lessened. For this reason, it is our custom to recite the kaddish when a Jew dies." Agnon then proceeds to give a short commentary on the text of the mourner's kaddish, according to which God's Name will be "magnified in its power, so that there will be no loss of strength before Him... and sanctified so that we need not fear for ourselves, but only for the splendor and the pride of His holiness." But Agnon was not composing a general meditation on the mourner's kaddish. He was writing in Jerusalem when the city was under fire, and so he turns to address the harsh historical circumstances. "If this is what we pray and what we say for every individual who dies, how much more shall we pray it and say it for our brothers and our sisters, the lovely and pleasant and dear children of Zion who were slain for the land of Israel, whose blood was spilled for the honor of His blessed Name, for His people and His land and His heritage! Indeed, everyone who dwells in the land of Israel is one of the legions of the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, whom the King has appointed a watchman over His palace. When one of them is killed, He is bereft of others to put in his place. And so my brothers in the house of Israel, all of you who mourn in this mourning, let us direct our hearts to our Father in Heaven, the King of Israel and its Redeemer, and pray for ourselves and for Him, as it were: `Magnified and sanctified may His great Name be...'" It is a beautiful composition. It is also a little repugnant. The army of God: the metaphor has brought so much misery to the world! Surely military life is the antithesis of spiritual life. Surely the service of the Lord is not a war. As for the survival of the Jews in the land of Israel, I am inclined to extol the Jews in the land of Israel for it; to admire the legions, not the king. In Brooklyn. A night with no sleep. I take a volume off the shelf in my old room and stumble upon the source of Agnon's interpretation of the mourner's kaddish. It is Simhah Bunim of Przysucha, a hasidic master in Poland in the early nineteenth century who preferred philosophy to mysticism, the rational to the magical. (He was a pharmacist.) "The saying of Rabbi Bunim of Przysucha about the reason for the mourner's kaddish is well known," I read. "In the ordinary world, when a small unit of a large army is lost, the loss is not felt, and it is not until an entire division is missing that the depletion must be corrected and the army must be reinforced. It is otherwise, however, in the army of God. If only a single Jew is missing, then there is already a lack in the greatness and the holiness of God. Therefore we pray that His Name may be `magnified and sanctified,' that is, that His blessed Name may be made complete for what it has lost with the disappearance of the deceased." And the passage concludes: "And in the instance of such a holy soul as Eliezer Abraham, may peace be upon him, it is especially true that such reinforcement is necessary." Eliezer Abraham was a young scholar who died in 1982, when he was twenty years old. He was my cousin. It was his father who cited the saint of Przysucha, in his introduction to a posthumous volume of his son's readings of Scripture that he published a few years later in Brooklyn. I did not know the son. The father taught me many things when I was a young man. I used to phone him whenever I was defeated by a discussion in the Talmud. I used to phone him often.


The time has come to make the arrangements for my father's tombstone. In accordance with the mortuary practice of American Jewry, there will be a "family stone" that will loom over the entire plot, and a "footstone" that will mark my father's grave and give his particulars. Many years ago my father asked us to arrange for the names of his brother and his sister to appear on his grave. They were murdered in Europe and there were no exequies. When the time comes, my mother says, she wants the same for her martyrs, too. She suggests that the family stone, too, should bear a sign of the scar. In this way, the Jewish experience of my father and my mother will be distinguished from the Jewish experience of the American brethren in whose company they will forever lie. Memory, memory, memory. She is right: there is a gulf between the Jews who saw what Hitler did and the Jews who did not see. I propose to find an appropriate verse from Psalms to engrave on the rock: the psalmist is always escaping his enemies and giving thanks for his escape. The gentleman whom we have retained to create this little monument says that he will need the verse in a few months. Home after the morning prayers, a little before eight o'clock. A workman is standing outside the building. He smiles at me, with pity in his eyes. "Night shift, huh?" Well, yes. Often I have kindled to the imagination of confinement. A contraction of experience seemed like a condition of real work. And now a contraction has occurred. I cannot stray the way I used to stray. Finally I have a measure of confinement. What will I do with it? The evening prayer. It is almost sundown. I step up to the task. "Is it time?" I ask the young man in charge of the proceedings. He looks at his watch. "Another forty seconds," he replies. I have an antinomian fantasy. I will cause them all to sin! I will start in thirty seconds, and dupe my pious, hairsplitting comrades into praying a full ten seconds before the appointed hour! I resist the temptation, of course. I am here for them and they are here for me.


A friend asked why I am saying kaddish. A good question. These were my answers. Because it is my duty to my father. Because it is my duty to my religion. (These are the strong reasons; the nonutilitarian, nontherapeutic reasons.) Because it would be harder for me not to say kaddish. (I would despise myself.) Because the fulfillment of my duty leaves my thoughts about my father unimpeded by regret and undistorted by guilt. On the subject of fathers and sons, my chore may keep me clear. In Maimonides' code of law, a judgment: "Whoever does not mourn as the sages instructed is cruel." --He is absent for me. --Then he is present for you. I am standing in my phylacteries at dawn, and suddenly they feel different. They do not bind me, they gird me. They seem (I know this is a little ridiculous) gladiatorial. The arm on which they are wrapped feels strong. A Saturday night in July. The Sabbath ends irritatingly late. I feel as if I've been in shul all day. Driving around Dupont Circle, my senses amiably riot. Everything my eyes see is delicious. The cheesy marble fountain in the circle looks like a masterpiece of neoclassicism. There isn't a plain-looking woman on the street. In these months in shul, I sometimes fear for my senses. I remember a passage by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the master of my generation, its model of an intellectual in God. (But not my master or my model. I supped elsewhere.) It is a passage in a brilliant essay that has always bothered me. It gives Soloveitchik's account of the relation of "halakhic man," or the Jew who lives according to Jewish law, to the natural world. "There is no real phenomenon to which halakhic man does not possess a fixed relationship from the outset and a clear, definitive, a priori orientation," he wrote. When a religious Jew "comes across a spring bubbling quietly," he regards it for its fitness to serve as waters of expiation for a variety of human impurities. When he "looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn," he sees the obligations imposed by sunrise and sunset. When he "chances upon mighty mountains," he is put in mind of the legal measurements that determine, in the rabbinic law of torts, a private domain. And so on. I cannot accept this. It is dehumanizing. Surely the senses precede the commandments. If they do not, then the Jew is robbed not only of the pleasure in the physical world that is his or her natural right, but also of the opportunity to master that pleasure by infusing the physical world with metaphysical significance. Soloveitchik's analysis makes me want to bolt, to take back the physical world from its metaphysical significance. Anyway, no human being lives in a single domain. The choice between the physical and the metaphysical is the choice between air and water. The senses serve religion and the senses offer respite from religion. When I contemplate the dawn, I prefer not to think of my phylacteries. And if it all doesn't go together tidily, if there is a dissonance between the physical and the metaphysical, fine. I don't like what I'm seeing in myself lately. I swing between a new irritability and a new lassitude. I feel harassed by time, and rush about between the pressure of my morning commitment and the pressure of my evening commitment; or I feel indifferent to time, and my eyes want to close and my limbs to go idle. I am angry or I am drowsy. In recent weeks I have been often visited by the image of my father in his hospital bed, dying and knowing it. A shiny, breezy evening. Just as the prayers are starting, a troop of chubby, bratty boys from a yeshiva on the Jersey shore saunters in. The dust of a summer's day is upon them. I find myself a little annoyed at their rowdiness. (And a little embarrassed at my annoyance; when I was a boy I didn't like those old men who cared about nothing more than decorum.) Then it comes time for them to say amen, and they sing it out again and again; and with every little chorus I melt. It is almost impossible to think unsentimentally about continuity.


Where shall I start, in my search for the mourner's kaddish? --My search for the mourner's kaddish? But it has found me! The search for what one already has found, or taking tradition seriously. Until now, the mourner's kaddish used to be the least important part of the prayer service. I mean, for me. It was the small print in the liturgy, a morbid recitation in the interstices of the worship. But no more. Now I inhabit the interstices. The mourner's kaddish is only one of the varieties of kaddish that are recited in the house of worship. There are the full kaddish, the half kaddish, the rabbis' kaddish. (The mourner's kaddish is a slight abridgment of the full kaddish.) They are ail variants of the same utterance, of the sort that scholars describe as a "doxology," or an expression of praise. But look at the language. The kaddish is not so much the praise of God as a prayer for the praise of God. It is a messianic supplication, except that the eschatological improvement is here imputed not only to the Jews, but also to the God of the Jews. (In the Sephardic rite, the messianism of the kaddish is explicit.) This is mysterious. In the liturgy, the kaddish plays an important formal role. It structures the worship, dividing major prayers from minor prayers, marking pauses between orders of prayer. And its spiritual role? It must be significant, judging by a famous statement in the Talmud that "the world is sustained in existence ... by [the utterance of] `May His great Name be blessed' at the conclusion of teaching and preaching." This passage gives a sense of the antiquity of the proclamation at the heart of the kaddish. (The origins of the congregational response about the divine name are Biblical.) The Talmudic statement also suggests the original function of the kaddish: it was an eschatological peroration to an academic discourse. After "teaching and preaching," these words were recited. And they continue to play this role in the Jewish liturgy in the form of the rabbis' kaddish, which adds a petition for the welfare of "Israel, and its teachers, and their students, and the students of their students, and everyone who is occupied with the study of Torah here and elsewhere." In a fragment of the kaddish from the eleventh century in Cairo, the names of the masters and the officials of the academy are mentioned; and Nahmanides reports that the Jews of Yemen expressed their gratitude to Maimonides for his spiritual and political assistance by adding his name to the kaddish: "In your lives and in your days and in the life of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon ..." (It would seem that the kaddish was a kind of intermezzo to which personal entreaties and contemporary allusions could be added.) In the twelfth century in Egypt, Maimonides himself provided a succinct description of the function of the kaddish in a responsum to the community of Aleppo. Asked whether the kaddish must be said at the conclusion of a prayer that was composed "for Sabbaths, festivals, and days of joy" by Sa'adia Gaon in the tenth century, Maimonides replied: "Under no circumstances is the kaddish to be recited except at the well-known points in the mandatory prayers or after an exposition of any matter of Torah, that is, after a discussion of laws, or after commentary, or even just an explanation of a single [Scriptural] verse, when the rabbis' kaddish should be said. I do not see any reason, however, that kaddish should be recited at the conclusion of these supplications that were composed by his eminence the Gaon." A similar rule appears in a compilation of the traditions of the French communities of the eleventh and twelfth centuries known as the prayerbook of Rashi, who was the other immeasurable figure of medieval Judaism. "Whenever the congregation recites verses from Scripture or passages from Talmud, it must follow them with the recitation of kaddish." Scripture and study: these were the original occasions for the kaddish. Not a word about mourning. Another important source for the early history of the kaddish, and this illumination I owe to the collapse of communism. "With the fall of the Iron Curtain that surrounded the eastern bloc for decades," writes the erudite editor of the trove known as Guenzberg 566 in the Russian State Library, formerly the Lenin State Library, in Moscow, "the manuscript treasures that are stored there are being brought to light, bit by bit." Guenzberg 566 includes a large collection of responsa by Abraham ben Isaac, a pioneering jurist in Provence in the twelfth century. Abraham was the head of the rabbinical court in Narbonne and the author of the first code of law produced by the Jews in Provence. One of his responsa turns out to be a brief review of the liturgical occasions of the kaddish. "As for the ritual of the kaddish about which you asked," he writes to his correspondent, "we do not possess any clear information about it from our early sages [in the Talmud]. Later sages claimed that it is founded on this verse [in Leviticus]: `I will be sanctified among the children of Israel.' And from what our rabbis stated [in the Talmud] about this verse, that the kedushah may not be recited unless ten [men] are present, they concluded that anytime ten people are assembled for the fulfillment of an obligation of prayer or an obligation of study, they must sanctify the occasion [with a kaddish]." The kedushah is the recitation of the verse from Isaiah--"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts"--known as the trisagion, or "thrice holy": kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. And the word kaddish is itself another form of the word for "sanctity." The kaddish hallows. Abraham then surveys the liturgy, showing that the appearance of the kaddish at various points in the service is warranted by the rule that he has provided, since each of the liturgical units demarcated by the kaddish represents the fulfillment of a specific obligation of worship or learning that the kaddish marks and sanctifies. "There must also be a kaddish," he notes, "after every psalm or every chapter [of Scripture] or every Talmudic law or every Talmudic legend that it is the custom to read in some places at the conclusion of the service." Scripture and study: the kaddish attends the Divine Word, as it was told to the Jews and as the Jews tell it. In the Talmud, a few lines past the passage to which Abraham ben Isaac refers, it is reported that there were rabbis in Palestine who asserted that one may not interrupt one's recitation of the central prayer of the worship except to utter the response: "May His great Name be blessed!" Referring to Ezekiel's bustling vision of the celestial realities, these rabbis insist that "one may interrupt even one's study of the work of the chariot" to proclaim those words. The knowledge of the godhead must yield to the blessing of the godhead. But the rabbis in Babylonia disagreed with the rabbis in Palestine, and so "the law is not in accordance with their view." Abraham ben Isaac concludes his ruling with a brief discussion of the kaddish at the funeral. "The [recitation of the] Justification of the Judgment is an obligation that people are required to fulfill--as [the Talmud] states, the study of Torah is canceled for the sake of a funeral or a wedding--and so it must be sanctified [with a kaddish]." He hastens to add that kaddish is not recited at a wedding: "If you desire to know why kaddish is not said when the bride is brought to the wedding canopy--which is, of course, the fulfillment of an obligation in a quorum of ten--the answer is that this rule does not apply, because people come to a wedding only for the general purpose of honoring [the bride and the groom], and they do not utter any words at all, so what would a kaddish sanctify?. After all, the kaddish is not recited where there is no required utterance or psalm of praise." At a funeral, by contrast, there is a required utterance, and it is the Justification of the Judgment, which is a selection of verses from Scripture, and so the kaddish must be recited. This, again, is not the mourner's kaddish. Abraham also records a difference of opinion among the geonim, as the early medieval authorities in Babylonia were called. "Some geonim ruled that a kaddish is not to be said after the Justification of the Judgment until it can be said over something that is itself a ritual obligation, whereas other geonim ruled that it must be said at once, for the burial is itself a ritual obligation." All these sages seem to agree that the Justification of the Judgment itself is not a ritual obligation; but Abraham differs with them all. "And this concludes your inquiries into the reasons for the marvelous blessings," Abraham writes at the end of his responsum. "May our God open our hearts to His law and to the distinctions of those who extol His word, and may He succor us and take us under His wing, amen, amen, selah!" I conclude that the liturgical function of the kaddish has nothing to do with its content; and that the kaddish at the funeral has nothing to do with the mourner's kaddish; and that the mourner's kaddish has nothing to do with mourning. So what exactly is this exclamation whose servant I have become? Some friends have opened a teahouse nearby. Now my mornings will be perfect: from the shul to the teahouse, where I will sit tranquilly upstairs, in the corner by the window, and hunt for the history of the mourner's kaddish. (Teaism, the place is called. I have always found poetry in abstract nouns. And a friend remarks: from theism to teaism.)

Copyright © 1998 Leon Wieseltier.
Alfred A. Knopf
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-375-40389-2

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