The single most serious threat to Jewish continuity in America is not intermarriage but Jewish illiteracy, according to Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic and author of the recent, highly acclaimed book, “Kaddish.”
Speaking to about 250 people Tuesday morning at Park Avenue Synagogue, at a breakfast forum sponsored by The Jewish Week and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, Wieseltier asserted that the American Jewish community is the first in the history of the diaspora “that thinks it can transmit Jewish tradition without Jewish language. It shocks me,” he said, adding, “You can’t teach children what to believe but you can teach them competence.”
Knowledge of the Hebrew language, he said, “is the key,” allowing one to “go to the shelves and open the texts.”
In a dialogue with Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, Wieseltier said that he wrote “Kaddish,” following the death of his father in March 1996, as an attempt “to give readers a certain corner of Jewish tradition, in all its thickness and turgidity,” and as a response to the growing “dumbing down” in American Jewish culture.
The 588-page book on the origins of the 12th or 13th century Aramaic prayer also deals with the author’s observations about the minyan he prayed with each day and his reflections as a mourner. It has received luminous reviews and made several best-seller lists, a fact that Wieseltier calls “shocking,” particularly because “it is as much not a memoir as possible.”
Asked why he chose to reveal so little of his or his father’s personal life in the book, Wieseltier, a 46-year-old native of Brooklyn, said he did not want to give his readers a way of “dodging the actual scholarly and religious material in the book.”
Ideas in our exhibitionist society today are “reduced to motives, and I wanted to avoid that,” he said.
But Wieseltier, a product of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, Columbia, Harvard and Oxford – “the usual route,” Rosenblatt observed wryly” – does note in the book that he no longer practices Orthodoxy, and describes himself as “a diligent and doubting son.” After the year of mourning, how had he changed? “I am just as doubting and a little more diligent today,” he responded, noting that after reading one well-meaning reviewer refer to him as a ba’al teshuvah, or returnee to the faith, “it gave me hives.”
Wieseltier distinguished between one’s religious faith and duty, suggesting that “doubts are not a good enough excuse for not being in shul,” a place he called “not only the arena of faith but the arena of doubt.
“Just because you have trouble with tradition doesn’t mean you can abandon it,” he said. “It is the air we should be living and breathing.”
Wieseltier suggested that the Kaddish prayer is so well known in part because of its centrality as “a link to mortality and mourning,” and partly because “our Jewishness has become more morbid. At times it seems like it is one big commemoration.”
Asked his reaction to the experience of reciting Kaddish for 11 months, Wieseltier said he found the ritual to be “psychologically brilliant in the beginning but not at the end. You’ve lived a year in limbo. But at the end I was beginning to panic. I had been spending all of my days reflecting on my father’s absence, which was a way of living with him, and now I had to go back to living in the world.”
He noted that Jewish tradition wisely places strict limits on mourning, and that those restrictions helped him at the end of the process by giving him the feeling that he had done his filial duty, and without guilt.
Wieseltier often returned to the theme of the importance of the Hebrew language, asserting that if he were in charge of the Board of Jewish Education he would launch “a mass emergency relief program in the study and knowledge of Hebrew.” He said history will deal harshly with the current American Jewish community for its “arrogance” in believing it can transmit Jewish identity without Jewish languages.
On other topics of the day, Wieseltier said the religious-secular rift in Israel is even more serious than the political divide over the Palestinians. He called for the abolishment of the chief rabbinate, charging that it creates more problems than it solves and has “no spiritual status of any kind.”
The only solution to the pluralism debate is to work through problems, rather than avoid them, he said, noting that Jewish tradition is rich in its ability to innovate and improvise. “There is no going backward,” he said, and while Orthodoxy may be the elite of Jewish life, it is no longer the norm.
Despite an emphasis on “erasing parts of our tradition,” Wieseltier said there are some positive signs of renewal, chiefly in the growing attention to the status of women in all the denominations.
“Why doesn’t some of this energy go into Jewish learning?” he wondered aloud.