Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives

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Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, best known for his writings on the Holocaust, is also the accomplished author of novels, essays, tales, and plays as well as portraits of seminal figures in Jewish life and experience. In this volume, leading scholars in the fields of Biblical, Rabbinic, Hasidic, Holocaust, and literary studies offer fascinating and innovative analyses of Wiesel's texts as well as illuminating commentaries on his considerable influence as a teacher and as a moral voice for human rights. By exploring the varied aspects of Wiesel's multifaceted career-his texts on the Bible, the Talmud, and Hasidism as well as his literary works, his teaching, and his testimony-this thought-provoking volume adds depth to our understanding of the impact of this important man of letters and towering international figure.

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1. Alone with God: Wiesel's Writings on the Bible

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WIESEL'S WRITINGS ON THE BIBLE

JOEL ROSENBERG

BETWEEN 1976 AND 2004, Elie Wiesel published four books devoted partly or wholly to biblical retellings: Messengers of God in 1976, Five Biblical Portraits in 1981, Sages and Dreamers in 1991, and Wise Men and Their Tales in 2004.1 While, properly speaking, impossible to view in isolation from his other output of this period, this material in fact forms a meaningful chapter in the history of Jewish biblical interpretation, in addition to being writing that touches the soul. Around the time the last book was published, Wiesel, along with Harvard-based biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross Jr., participated in a joint interview for Biblical Archaeology Review conducted by its editor, Hershel Shanks.2 Cross was the quintessence of the historical-critical scholar, immersed in ancient Near Eastern epigraphy and Northwest Semitic pagan poetry, committed to archaeological research and scientific historical method. Here counterposed to him, as it were, was the Jewish storyteller, still bearing within himself the yeshiva bokher: the perspective of the Eastern European Jewish village—suspicious of “biblical criticism,” steeped in the rabbinic worldview, and cherishing the naive vision of childhood. (Wiesel's upbringing and education were in fact more complex than this profile implies, but I'll let this conception prevail for now.) “I'm interested,” said Wiesel in the interview, “in [the Bible's] layers of meaning, but my relation to it is much more an emotional one. It's been my passion almost from my youth. I want to go back to the child I used to be, and to read with the same naiveté.”3 Cross, for his part, spoke of the rabbinic realm, what he called “late Judaism,” as a place where “you can't even swing a cat without hitting three demons and two spirits.” (In this respect, I should add, he found it similar in outlook to the New Testament.)4

 

2. Wiesel as Interpreter of Biblical Narrative

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EVERETT FOX

THE HEBREW BIBLE does not exist in and of itself. As an anthology of ancient Israel's literature, as an account of ancient hearers’ past and present, its reality and coherence depend fully on its audience, be they a community or an individual. In that sense it resembles our experience of a work of art. There is no such thing as the Bible any more than there is such a thing, in an abstract sense, as a Beethoven symphony. In that instance, despite the existence and appearance of a musical score, there are only performances, some of them live, some of them recorded, and some of them imagined, that bring the master's creation into the human world of time. We can, to be sure, talk about musical structure, antecedents, tempo, and so on, but these remain in the realm of the analytical, not in the lived experience of the music. Similarly, I would argue, the Bible can be dissected, subject to historical, comparative, philological, and archaeological analysis, but in the end, it is the community of hearers and readers, whether in a liturgical setting, a study group, or the quiet solitude of a study, who put flesh on the bones of the text, and who blow into it the breath of life.

 

3. Wiesel and Rabbi Akiva

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JOSEPH POLAK

EARLY IN HIS ESSAY on Rabbi Akiva, Elie Wiesel asks:

Is it because of the striking similarity between his times and ours that Rabbi Akiva seems more present—more relevant—than most other Talmudic personalities?

As a survivor of the destruction of Jerusalem, he had to find a way of conferring meaning upon it; he had to learn—and teach—how to deal with its aftermath, how to explain and articulate what cannot—should not—be explained, what to tell…people who wondered why they should go on praying, or dreaming, or living as Jews in a world that seemed to have been drained of Jewishness.1

The essay on Akiva is magnificent; not a stone about him is left unturned, not a legend neglected. Every primary and secondary source on his life has been plumbed and sifted. And yet for all his admiration and admitted love for this hero, still, as befalls him so often, a question haunts Wiesel: why did Rabbi Akiva go so stoically to his martyr's death at the hands of the Romans; why was he so accepting of his sentence, why did he die apparently exalted by the fact that it offered him the privilege of martyrdom; why did he die teaching this? Didn't he know, he asks, how dangerous it is to exalt martyrdom, didn't Rabbi Akiva know that this would be modeling political passivity; wouldn't it—if I may put words in Wiesel's mouth that he himself would never use—teach Jews to go to their deaths like sheep to slaughter?

 

4. Wiesel and the Stories of the Rabbis

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REUVEN KIMELMAN

ELIE WIESEL IS OUR generation's teller of tales. He uses stories to keep alive Jewish memory. His retellings of tales are frequently better known than the original. More hasidic tales are probably known through his retelling than any since Martin Buber. Similarly, his recounting of biblical and talmudic narratives has done much to make them not only known but tellable. This essay focuses on his retelling of talmudic lore in his book Wise Men and Their Tales.1 There, he relates how much he was enamored of the intricacies of the Talmud, dazzled by the workings of its dialectics, flabbergasted by its ruthless honesty, piqued by its arcane tales, amazed at its pious yet flawed characters, and astonished at its incessant questioning. Identifying with its nonfinality, he is taken in by its open-endedness as well as taken aback by its strangeness. For him, the Talmud is the spine of Judaism, without which we would have gone limp long ago. It is what kept Jews upright, walking tall throughout their lachrymose history. Without it, the spiritual reality would have succumbed to the material one.

 

5. Wiesel in the Context of Neo-Hasidism

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ARTHUR GREEN

IN PLACING ELIE WIESEL'S work in the context of “neo-Hasidism,” I use that term in its very broadest sense.1 Neo-Hasidism here refers to the notion that Hasidism has a message wider than the borders of the traditional hasidic community, that Jews and others who do not live the lives of Hasidim and who have no intention of doing so might still be spiritually nourished by the stories, teachings, music of Hasidism—indeed by the telling of the narrative of hasidic history itself. In addition to the role the living hasidic community has played—and continues to play, far beyond onetime expectations—in the life of the Jewish people, there is a second influence of Hasidism that is relevant to us here. That is the story of the image of Hasidism and the tremendous role it has had in the religious, artistic, and intellectual creativity of non-hasidic Jews throughout the twentieth century, reflected in literature (one need only think of Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the two most important knowledgeably Jewish authors of the century), but also in religious thought, music, dance, theater, film, and painting. I take all of this as part of neo-Hasidism, that is to say, Hasidism for non-Hasidim.

 

6. Reflections on Wiesel's Hasidic Tales

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STEVEN T. KATZ

THE HASIDIC TALE IS both a central aspect of the history and spirituality of Hasidism and a feature of modern efforts to reinterpret traditional Judaism for modern men and women. Within the world of Hasidism, from the earliest period of the movement, tales have been a central method of communicating hasidic teachings to the Jewish masses. R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoyye, secretary to the founder of the movement, R. Israel Ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, already tells us in his Toldot Yaakov Yosef, the first hasidic book, published in 1781, twenty-one years after the death of the founder in 1760:

“And there are yihudim in all material speech and stories, and also, as I heard from my master [the Baal Shem Tov], he engaged in yihudim between himself and ahotah dematronita [the Divine Presence] by means of material [or: mundane] stories, and he explained the reason…. This rabbi also said that by speaking with the masses he draws himself closer to ahotah dematronita, by means of material stories, and he explained the reason…. This rabbi also said that by speaking with the masses he draws himself closer to them, and draws them closer to the Torah and the commandments.” And further: “There are people who engage in prayer even when [seemingly] speaking of material matters with their fellows.”1

 

7. Yearning for Sacred Place: Wiesel's Hasidic Tales and Postwar Hasidism

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WIESEL'S HASIDIC TALES AND POSTWAR HASIDISM

NEHEMIA POLEN

IN SOULS ON FIRE,1 Elie Wiesel begins his chapter on the School of Pshiskhe with the story of Eizik son of Yekel of Kraków, who dreams of treasure in Prague, but after his journey discovers that the treasure is really to be found in his own home.2 The point of the story is not, as is sometimes suggested, that since the treasure you seek is really already inside of you, you don't need to make the journey, nor even that you need to make the journey in order to discover that the truth is inside you. Recall that, as Wiesel writes, Rabbi Simha-Bunam of Pshiskhe would tell this story each time he accepted a new disciple.3 Rabbi Bunam did accept disciples; he did not send them all back home where they came from. Apparently Rabbi Bunam wanted precisely those disciples who realized that they didn't have to be there, who knew that their spiritual growth was in their own hands, not in those of the master they had sought out. The tale reflects on the School of Pshiskhe, its culture and values, the independence and boldness of spirit it sought to cultivate. In this understanding, the story and the journey, the tale of the rabbi of Pshiskhe and his disciples, each inform the other, reflect the other, interrogate the other, assist in defining the other.

 

8. The Hasidic Spark and the Holocaust

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GERSHON GREENBERG

ELIE WIESEL HAS identified himself with hasidic Judaism: “When asked about my Jewish affiliation, I define myself as a Hasid. Hasid I was, Hasid I remain…. Hasidism brings me back to the world of my childhood. In that time the Jewish heart was not broken. Its song was raised and raised me as a rampart against the melancholy and the anguish that, in exile, seeks to hold it back, if not to put it in chains. What would I be without it?”1 The particular form of Hasidism? As a youth Wiesel frequented many rebbes,2 “ready to catch fire wherever the spark may be found.”3 Although especially devoted to the Viznitzer rebbe, he considered himself a disciple of Menahem Mendl of Kotsk.4 In the end, the form of Wiesel's Hasidism was his own. Deeply knowledgeable of the sources, drawing from the classical texts of Hasidism and his own memories, infusing all with literary imagination, he created his own universe of hasidic life and thought. I will remain within his unique parameters in my attempt to understand the connection between his Hasidism and his response to the Holocaust.

 

9. Lot's Wife and “A Plea for the Dead”: Commemoration, Memory, and Shame

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COMMEMORATION, MEMORY, AND SHAME

NANCY HARROWITZ

THE BIBLICAL CHARACTER of Lot's wife, paralyzed into a pillar of salt, has fascinated readers, theologians, artists and critics alike for millennia. Her story has had very long legs indeed, as her fate has repeatedly been used as a cautionary tale, especially in Christian literature, to warn women against defiance and to promote the idea of obedience and compliance. The reason for her forbidden glance back at the destruction of Sodom has been attributed, often with strange and entirely unwarranted certitude, to various conflicting motives, such as a need to look back to where her sons in law were perishing, nostalgia for her happy family life in Sodom, disobedience for its own sake, and so on.1 As Martin Harries has remarked:

Her punishment suggests the potentially self-destructive nature of retrospection, as if looking backward posed dangers to the self, as if to look backward were in itself a form of masochism. This opaque narrative simply passes over the question of motive, and that very opacity, it seems has inspired speculations about her motives. Some of this speculation, in its dogmatic certainty, does not even recognize that it is speculation.2

 

10. The Storyteller in History: Shoah Memory and the Idea of the Novel

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SHOAH MEMORY AND THE IDEA OF THE NOVEL

SARA R. HOROWITZ

IN HIS MEMOIR And the Sea Is Never Full, reflecting on the unlikely circumstances that led to a long and complicated friendship with French president François Mitterrand, Elie Wiesel reflected that “what we imagine in fairytales comes to pass.”1 If we think of fairy tales not as the sweet children's stories of recent vintage, but as part of an older, more serious tradition of storytelling, this quotation can serve as an epigram for the place of the storyteller in mediating the memory of the Shoah for those who come later. Storytelling, the telling and retelling of wondrous, but also terrible and terrifying, stories, has evolved over time to negotiate profound issues, such as hardship and radical loss, homecoming and exile, spiritual ecstasy and spiritual despair. Mother to the contemporary novel, storytelling also has a deep place in shaping the memory of a people. For this reason, storytelling offers a fruitful place to being to explore the idea of the novel in Holocaust memory.

 

11. Wiesel's Post-Auschwitz Shema Yisrael

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ALAN L. BERGER

A WRITER, ATTESTS ELIE WIESEL, is “Someone who can say no to the system, no to the surroundings, sometimes even no to God.”1 After a statement such as this, it is fitting to pause and follow with the Nobel Prize winner's favorite phrase, and yet his “No to God” is simultaneously a questioning of the deity. It is more fitting to substitute the word “why” for “no,” since for Wiesel the Holocaust is “the question of questions. It is both man's way of questioning God and God's way of questioning man. And there is no answer coming from either side.”2 I shall return to the issue of questioning shortly. Beginning with his classic memoir Night, which is central to all of his work—the rest is commentary—Wiesel poses endless questions to a God who is apparently unable or unwilling to listen. He employs irony to underscore this preoccupation, viewing traditional theological claims through a Holocaust lens. Therefore the Shema Yisrael prayer, Judaism's central confession, bears special scrutiny in Wiesel's oeuvre.

 

12. Dreams and Dialogues: Wiesel's Holocaust Memories

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WIESEL'S HOLOCAUST MEMORIES

ELLEN S. FINE

I WILL BEGIN MY reflections about Wiesel's memories by recounting some early memories of him. A few summers ago I had an interview with an extraordinary eighty-five-year-old woman, Gaby Cohen, a French woman of Alsatian origin who lives in Paris.1 We see each other every year when I go to Paris. She is a close friend of Wiesel's and has become a dear friend of mine as well. She was known to Wiesel right after the war as Niny Wolf. Niny was what was called an éducatrice, an educator and counselor in charge of the boys at the maisons d'enfants, homes or orphanages in France to which surviving children from the camps as well as hidden children who had lost their parents were sent in June 1945. These homes were set up by l'Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (l'OSE), a Jewish rescue organization originally founded in Russia, and established in France in the 1930s to help refugees and specifically children.

 

13. The Trauma of History in the Gates of the Forest

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THE GATES OF THE FOREST

VICTORIA AARONS

Names…still hovering, like memories…and they will return to haunt their dreams.

The Gates of the Forest

IN THE OPENING SCENE of Elie Wiesel's stunning novel The Gates of the Forest, a boy, in hiding from the Nazis, fortuitously meets another Jew, “like himself, fleeing from fate,” seeking refuge in the forests of Transylvania.1 Left in the sanctuary of the forest by his father, the seventeen-year-old Gregor finds himself sequestered in a profound isolation, all the more searing because of the sure knowledge that his family has perished. Terribly alone, hunted by the Hungarian police, who, with attack dogs, seek his precarious refuge in one of the many caves in the forest, Gregor finds himself living “outside time,” isolated not only from the compassionate embrace of others, but from the benevolent intercession of a world beyond him.2 Cloistered in the cave, Gregor is conditionally safe, but the interior of the cave also functions metaphorically as a temporary, projected defense of his traumatized subjectivity. In his isolated, contained location, hidden precariously from those who hunt him, Gregor is both a victim of history and “bypassed by history,” unnoticed by the world beyond the ravages of Nazi terror and destruction, a devastation unleashed within the ruins of Europe and within the geopolitical instability that motivates war and its depredations.3

 

14. Victims, Executioners, and the Ethics of Political Violence: A Levinasian Reading of Dawn

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A LEVINASIAN READING OF DAWN

JONATHAN DRUKER

I AM STRUCK BY THE coherence of Elie Wiesel's life and work over many decades, by his unwavering conviction that, in all human affairs, questions are more valuable to us than answers, especially in the matter of ethics. In the following pages, I will discuss Wiesel's first novel, Dawn, initially published in 1960 in France, which is about the ethical uncertainty entailed in any attempt to achieve political aims through terrorist violence, a theme that is as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago.1 I wish to show how Dawn uses a variety of literary techniques and imaginative devices to encounter the complex entwinement of ethics and politics. Furthermore, I will suggest that the novel explores ethical questions with imagery and ideas that often resemble those used by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. If the Levinasian “face of the Other” offers a powerful key for reading Dawn, the novel also offers a means of illustrating what Levinasian ethics really mean. That is to say, the novel and Levinas's concept of the “face” shed light on each other. My discussion will also illustrate a broader point: that literature, in both content and style, helps us explore ethical questions in ways not open to traditional philosophical discourse.2

 

15. Dialectic Living and Thinking: Wiesel as Storyteller and Interpreter of the Shoah

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WIESEL AS STORYTELLER AND INTERPRETER OF THE SHOAH

IRVING GREENBERG

DURING AN EXTRAORDINARY career that spans six decades, Elie Wiesel has done many things well. He has been a journalist and a prolific creative writer. In that role, he attained unique stature as a witness to the Holocaust and a representative of the conscience of the survivors. He has also served as an academic and an interpreter/commentator of the Jewish tradition. Wiesel has vigorously pursued the role of engaged public intellectual and moral activist. He has played this role with great intensity in order to increase human solidarity and responsibility on an international scale. Yet notwithstanding those accomplishments, in this essay I argue that his most lasting legacy will prove to be as a storyteller of the Shoah and as teacher/transmitter of the covenant of redemption.

The thrust of his work and the main purpose of his life has been an attempt to carry on in the chain of Jewish teachers who have passed on the tradition from the beginning toward what they hoped would be a redemptive (actually a messianic) end. Like the Jewish teachers before him, Wiesel is still convinced that it is important to pass on the tradition because the hope and deliverance of all humanity hang on that message. Most importantly, he has shown how to live and credibly teach the wracking, tormenting contradictories of redemption and destruction without scanting either. In the process, he has instructed us how to slouch toward tikkun in a world that is profoundly broken.

 

16. Wiesel's Aggadic Outcry

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DAVID PATTERSON

ANYONE WHO WISHES to attain some understanding of Elie Wiesel's fiction must approach his work in the contexts of Jewish teaching and tradition. At every turn Wiesel rushes into a Temple aflame to retrieve the Torah scrolls that at every turn the Nazis consigned to an inferno. Broadly speaking, the sacred teaching and tradition defined by Torah is divided into two categories: Halachah and Aggadah. Halachah consists of an immense body of argument and commentary on the meaning and enactment of the laws of the Written Torah. Aggadah is part of the Oral Torah, which, according to the sages, was given at Mount Sinai at the time of the revelation of the Written Torah. It consists of tales intended to sound the depths of the Written Torah, tales that delve not just into the words of Torah but into the silence between the words, the silence of God Himself.

And yet, as a rebbe from one of Wiesel's novels, The Time of the Uprooted, says, “God is not silent, although He is the God of Silence. He does call out. It is by His silence that He calls to you. Are you answering Him?”1 Aggadah is not only about exploring God's silence—it is a response to it. Wiesel hints at this aggadic aspect of his storytelling when he refers to a teaching from the thirteenth-century Hebrew poet Eleazar Rokeah, who maintained that God is not silent—He is Silence. “It is to this silence that I would like to direct my words,” says Wiesel.2 And: “I have tried to link [my work] to…the silence of Sinai.”3 Haunting the silence of Sinai is the silence of the Shoah. Made of tales within tales, Wiesel's fiction not only draws upon the aggadic tradition that penetrates this revelatory silence—he penetrates it, expands it, and pushes it to unprecedented limits.

 

17. Whose Testimony? The Confusion of Fiction with Fact

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LAWRENCE L. LANGER

THROUGHOUT MOST OF his life Primo Levi insisted that his first book, Se questo é un uomo (If This Is a Man, published in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz), was not the work of a writer but simply a compilation of stories he had been telling to friends and strangers since his return from Auschwitz in October 1945. He had, he said repeatedly, no interest in producing a literary work but only a desire—indeed, a compelling need—to inform the world about his experience in Auschwitz, and in so doing to make a contribution to the history rather than to the literature of the Holocaust. He began work on the book soon after his return and finished it at the end of 1946. As is well known, he then submitted the manuscript without success to some of Italy's major publishers until a minor independent house agreed to issue a small edition of 2,000 in October 1947. It received little attention, sold 1,500 copies, and was quickly forgotten.

 

18. Wiesel's Testament

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OREN BARUCH STIER

I WOULD LIKE TO BEGIN on a personal note: when I was graduating from college everyone had the opportunity to insert a quotation or two into a space next to our yearbook photographs. One of the quotations I chose was from the epigraph to Elie Wiesel's novel, The Gates of the Forest, which, as already cited by several contributors to this volume, recounts the tale of a Jewish mystical technique utilized by a succession of hasidic leaders for averting a divine decree of harsh judgment against the Jewish community, despite the progressively fading memory of the actual technique: in the end, the story alone is enough. The parable concludes, we will recall, “God made man because He loves stories.”1 That last sentence is the passage I chose for my yearbook statement; I selected it because I was enamored of the redemptive vision of the tale, and for the implication of a lonely and bereft divine universe had humans either never existed or, perhaps worse, existed without the ability to tell tales. Now, in revisiting that epigraph, I am struck both by the threat of divine judgment hovering in the background and by the testimonial aspect of the story—and the story within the story—told not just to entertain God, but to defend Jews—always, as it were, in a cosmic courtroom.

 

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