Books: The pulse of mourning

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by Leon Wieseltier

Picador pounds 20

When Leon Wieseltier's father died, Wieseltier felt obliged to mourn him in the traditional Jewish way. So for nearly a year he went to synagogue, at least twice and sometimes three times a day, and said a prayer called the kaddish. And out of that repetitive routine this American journalist created a turgid book.

At first I wasn't quite sure what Wieseltier intended. isn't really a memoir, since he is so reluctant to provide the sort of personal detail that might bring himself or his father alive. The reader falls hungrily on those personal details that are given. We hear that Wieseltier's father, alone of his family, escaped from the Nazi murderers to come to America. But details of that escape and arrival are not given. Wieseltier's mother and sister make occasional intrusions into the text, but never with enough accretions to make them more than ciphers of grief. Rather than any narrative drive Wieseltier puts in just the occasional, rather banal incursion of the everyday world: "A crow outside my window won't stop squawking ... I have been summoned to prayer by a bird."

Essentially, the book is just a display of erudition on Wieseltier's part, since most of it is taken up with explanations of and quotations from various Jewish authorities on the kaddish. How much you enjoy all this will depend on your tolerance for the glosses on Maimonides by Meir Ha'Cohen of Rothenburg, the late 13th-century scholar, or apercus by Hai Gaon, a 10th-century Babylonian, and other writers who are not exactly distinguished by their smart wit or surprising philosophy. Yet Wieseltier laps them all up and regurgitates them all uncritically.

He has a curious predilection for details that place his religion in a rather poor light. He quotes at length, for example, those strictures that various rabbis from the 13th century onwards placed on drinking water on the Sabbath because that is the only time when dead souls in hell are allowed to drink water, and so "we would be stealing it from the dead." As Wieseltier says, "No water on Sabbath afternoons? It seems odd, impractical, silly." And yet when he finds the scholar who says the prohibition only applies to drinking from a river, not from tap water, Wieseltier is approving. "This is sensible ... A river in this world may flow to or from a fountain in the next world." Similarly, I read rather more than I needed to about why mourners are given eggs and lentils to eat ("Just as the lentil is round, so mourning comes round to all the inhabitants of the world"), and whether female mourners should tear their clothes, or whether that would be a touch too daring.

It may be unfair to say it about a man in mourning, but Wieseltier sounds like a bore. Banter between congregants in his regular shul drives him to seek out another synagogue, but there the laxness of the service, the "pseudo-hasidic hootenanny", disgusts him, and so he goes back again. You can see that he loves all the religious etiquette - he is the Emily Post of the synagogue - but he leaves the reader desperate for some rationale for the whole caboodle. The sudden flurries of portentous aphorisms that he shoves in between the rabbinical commentary don't quite do the trick for me: "For many years I have lived without religion. But I could not have lived without the possibility of religion." "The notion that I am essentially spirit may be preposterous, but the notion that I am essentially flesh is more preposterous." Good for you, Leon.

Wieseltier has no real interest in any philosophical or moral justification of his ritual. You will end this book in the dark even as to whether he actually believes in God or the afterlife or heaven. When a friend asks him how long he can go on saying the words and not meaning them, Wieseltier shuffles away from the question, observing that he likes to lead the prayers rather than saying them alone, since "my chore crowds out my doubt". Prayer as a substitute for thought - it may often be that, but it is not a very compelling description, ethically or intellectually.

In fact, despite his smug displays of erudition, Wieseltier is resolutely anti- intellectual. Just as in the present-day Church of England, he posits explanations for ritual that force one to lay aside both the strictures of personal faith and the strictures of rational justification. Instead, ritual is to be honoured for its own sake, just because it is there, and it feels good. Or, as Wieseltier puts it in his pompous way: "Custom ... asserts the reality of practices against the ideality of principles." So Wieseltier's most deeply felt explanation for saying the kaddish is that it isn't he who chose it, it was his father. "He taught me to be here, and here I am. It is the dead who are responsible for the kaddish of the dead."

This abrogation of responsibility is echoed in his other most often repeated reason for ritual, which is all about the legacy of the Holocaust. One evening Wieseltier calls his sister, who is putting her children to bed. "She wants me to hear what her little boy has learned in school. She gives him the phone and I hear a tiny, eager voice reciting, syllable by syllable, the prayer before bedtime. These are my nephew's first Hebrew words. What do you think? my sister asks. I think that Hitler lost, I reply."

To me, this must be one of the worst justifications that can be given for religious observance. If you refuse to let yourself be critical of your tradition, simply because of the evils of the past, you are binding

yourself to previous disasters. We may feel constrained to remember the past because of what Hitler did. We have no need to be smothered by him to this day, to suspend our critical faculties and our free thought because of his actions. And, of course, such a justification gets the Holocaust wrong in a rather basic way. Hitler and his willing executioners were as eager to kill atheist Jews and converted Jews as they were to kill observant Jews; they didn't only smash synagogues and kill rabbis, they also smashed Jewish businesses and forbade Jews to trade or study or enter restaurants. To see prayer as the quintessential resistance to the Holocaust is thus flawed; it was not a massacre directed at Judaism, but at Jews.