Pity the man who can explain everything, says Leon Wieseltier. That's a startling remark from someone who earns his living as a professional explainer. Wieseltier edits the book pages of The New Republic, which persistently reflect a supple intelligence -- even when the rest of the magazine loses both its sense of purpose and its nerve, as is now the case. Recently, Wieseltier published James Wood's superb review of A Man in Full,which applied Tom Wolfe's own criteria to his novel and left that smug, overstuffed, self-important book lying in tiny pieces on the floor.
A heavily armoured intellectual, Wieseltier flourishes in the world of irony and anger. But in Kaddish (Knopf, 588 pages, $38.50), he admits he's standing on a rickety spiritual platform. His subject is the way Jewish tradition deals with death and mourning, matters he cannot entirely comprehend. They are wrapped in an essential mystery, and would mean far less if entirely understood. As Wieseltier says, "What is tradition without confusion?"
Confused or not, tradition deserves our attention. In the modern city we live with shards of forgotten traditions, symbols that have been uncoupled from meaning. Especially at this time of year, unconsidered religion fills the air. Wieseltier's self-assigned task is to chase down one set of ancient symbols, those surrounding the mourner's prayer.
When his father died, in March, 1996, he decided to say kaddish, which means to recite the mourner's prayer at a synagogue, three times a day for 11 months. Wieseltier's book is the wordy and self-indulgent but often appealing journal he kept during that period, as he studied the tradition he was enacting.
He became, as he says, an amateur Talmudist. Jewish learning is based on the writings of rabbis who have interpreted the Hebrew Bible and evolving Jewish law. Beginning with the first collection of their commentaries in the sixth century BC, they have created a literature so vast that you could spend a lifetime trying to know it (many do). A major compilation, the Babylonian Talmud, fills 34 volumes.
Wieseltier was raised as an observant Jew, but he stopped living by Jewish law more than 20 years ago: "I cannot say that my reasons were purely philosophical. I was governed also by my appetites." Now, in the course of obeying an explicit command, he moves into the complexities of Talmudic law. For some readers, Kaddish will function as an agreeable introduction to Talmud. Wieseltier's tone is familiar, his energy prodigious, his excitement attractive (he's in "a delirium of study. . . . drugged by books"). But his avoidance of scholarly apparatus makes Kaddish less useful than it should be: He omits both index and (worse) bibliography. For all the reader knows, Wieseltier could be reading ancient manuscripts or rare editions; in fact, much of what he quotes is widely available.
He sometimes wonders why he's saying kaddish. A friend, performing the same ritual, remarks that he's now getting up at the crack of dawn to say kaddish even though he never made that kind of effort to see his father when he was alive. Wieseltier replies, "Our fathers did not have the authority to ask this of us, but our religion does." He's also saying kaddish because he would despise himself if he didn't, and, "Because the fulfilment of my duty leaves my thoughts about my father unimpeded by regret and undisputed by guilt."
Yet he resists the idea of kaddish as therapy. He doesn't want to psychologize this duty, make it (as how-to books on grieving sometimes do) a mere cure for grief. But he's writing a journal, and journals have a way of betraying their authors to careful readers. As the kaddish period ends, Wieseltier realizes he doesn't want it to be over. It has organized his life around his father, keeping him partially alive. Wieseltier has been shielded from a fatherless world by a practice focused on his father. "The Jewish way of mourning has turned an absence into a presence." It sounds a lot like therapy.
Wieseltier is serious but not solemn. He understands that a comic element hides behind most forms of piety, ready to be revealed by a little nudge. One day Wieseltier's mother receives a Rosh Hoshanah card from friends -- "Dear Stella: We are thinking of you and wish you a Happy New Year. We, as many others, will be missing Jack in the synagogue this year." Actually, the father's name was Mark. Wieseltier, his mother and his sister collapse, laughing. "The grip of grief is broken."