KADDISH by Leon  Wieseltier


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A fervent and illuminating philosophical journel from the literary editor of the New Republic. Written during the year following the death of his father, when Wieseltier said the traditional prayer of kaddish, the volume begins as an inquiry into the origins of the custom of saying that prayer for the dead. This leads early on into the arcana of Jewish law (one town says kaddish on the new moon, another doesn—t). But the philosopher who persists will be rewarded, for the discussion of Jewish law becomes an entry point into important questions of all kinds: freedom and predetermination, life and death, ethics and metaphysics. The largest part of the journal coheres around questions of paternity and identity, stemming from the particular requirement for a son to say kaddish for a parent. How much of who he is, Wieseltier wonders, is the result of what he learned from his father, and how much is original with himself? To what extent does the parent live on in the child? This question is incarnated in the very act of saying kaddish, for Wieseltier has rejected much of religious tradition yet is determined to honor his father, an onerous duty that requires attending prayer services three times a day. The philosophical exploration—which also touches on questions of community, history, the role of Jewisih women, and Jewish suffering (his father was a Holocaust survivor)—is rambling rather than rigorous, but therein lies its charm. Wieseltier allows his curiosity to move from text to text, and he shifts from intense study to humorous contemplation of the men (and women) with whom he prays; he honestly relates his not always successful attempts to pray with conviction. A fascinating excursion into Jewish law and history, and into questions of one’s responsibility to one’s parents, to the past, and to the future.

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 1998
ISBN: 0-375-40389-2
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1998