Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectivesby Steven T. Katz
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… See more details below
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.
"Navigating deftly among Wiesel's varied scholarly and literary works, the authors view his writings from religious, social, political, and literary perspectives in highly accessible prose that will well serve a broad and diverse readership" —S. Lillian Kremer, author of Women's Holocaust Writing: Memory and Imagination
"Within this book, prominent scholars in the fields of Biblical, Rabbinic, Hasidic, Holocaust, and literary studies offer fascinating and innovative analyses of Wiesel's texts as well as enlightening 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." —Examiner.com
"There is no getting our minds entirely around this immense figure, but the editors come pretty close....This book is an absolute requirement for all university libraries and Jewish institutions; a pleasure for any educated reader." —Jewish Book World
"By exploring the varied aspects of Wiesel's multifaceted careerhis texts on the Bible, the Talmud, morality and Hasidism as well as his literary works, his teaching, and his testimonythis thought provoking volume adds considerable depth to our understanding of his impact." New York Journal of Books
"By exploring the varied aspects of Wiesel's multifaceted career—his texts on the Bible, the Talmud, morality and Hasidism as well as his literary works, his teaching, and his testimony—this thought provoking volume adds considerable depth to our understanding of his impact." —New York Journal of Books
Close, scholarly readings of a master storyteller's fiction, memoirs and essays suggest his uncommon breadth and depth. The 1986 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, memoirist and novelist Wiesel (Open Heart, 2012, etc.) has been a profound thinker and prolific writer whose work reflects his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. This collection encompasses "a broader range of critical perception," showing how his Hasidic faith, his biblical interpretations and his meditations on the silence and solitude of God illuminate the central focus of his work on the Holocaust--on which the author has written about so often while maintaining the impossibility of writing about it. Among the essays, titles such as "Alone with God: Wiesel's Writings on the Bible," "Wiesel in the Context of Neo-Hasidism" and "Wiesel's Contribution to a Christian Understanding of Judaism" reflect the variety of perspectives through which scholars approach his work, while the literary criticism of "The Trauma of History in The Gates of the Forest" attests to the multifaceted genius of his fiction. Since Wiesel has already been so widely written about and justly celebrated, this attempt to fill some of the cracks and broaden the discussion requires that readers already have a wide and deep familiarity with the author's work. "[Wiesel] has been able to place the questions before the public in his own narrative form, that of the teacher," writes Everett Fox (Judaic and Biblical Studies/Clark Univ.). "The model here is not the lecturer, nor the resident intellectual, nor the pedant. Rather, Wiesel brings his audience along with the flair of a storyteller, but a storyteller who knows how to go into the audience to pose the questions that are on, or should be on, everyone's mind." Criticism that enhances the appreciation of readers well-versed in the author's work.
Read an Excerpt
Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives
By Steven T. Katz, Alan Rosen
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Alone with God
Wiesel's Writings on the Bible
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
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. 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. 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." 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.)
What is surprising, however, is that historian Cross and storyteller Wiesel were often curiously in harmony on matters biblical and scholarly. Cross voiced respect for Wiesel's immersion in the history of biblical interpretation, and Wiesel, in turn, his respect for the historian's quest. Both voiced a sympathy with the human need to live in uncertainty and ambiguity. When Wiesel, quoting a certain modern philosopher, said, "Madness is not a consequence of uncertainty but of certainty," Cross warmly agreed. Cross later noted the wholly unprecedented presence in biblical tradition of the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and Wiesel said he regarded it as "the most important event in the Bible except for Sinai." Both of them affirmed their deep and life-sustaining love of the text.
I find in this meeting of scientific historian and traditional darshan a curious portrait of my own involvement in biblical studies, which has grown up under the influence of both. Like the archaeologist, I am fascinated with what comes out of the ground, as the partial imprint of both material and social history. Like the darshan, I am interested in the Hebrew Bible's history of interpretation and in the spiritual dimension of the biblical story—and, in this pursuit, I find in postbiblical commentary a continuity with the Bible's own pre-textual tradition history. In a sense, both the historian and thedarshan are approaching the same truth, albeit in strikingly opposed ways: one through skepticism, a state vital to human inquiry, and the other through faith, a state, one might say, vital to human survival. Skepticism holds truth to be hard-won and beheld in a state of ambiguity. Faith's own skepticism, as Wiesel helps us to see, holds truth to be the fruit of being alone with God and bearing witness to the ambiguity of Creation.
It is important to remember that Wiesel's approach to the Bible is deeply rooted in a sense of the text that has shaped modern Jewish academic study of the Bible as much as the literature of faith. Skepticism about nineteenth-century source criticism was registered on critical grounds by Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Benno Jacob, and Umberto Cassuto, among others, who gave greater weight to the pedagogical function of the biblical redactor as an orchestrator of key words and traditions, a perspective perhaps best embodied today in the work of Everett Fox. And Wiesel has, in common with such scholars as Nehama Leibowitz and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, an understanding of the importance of talmudic Aggadah, rabbinic Midrash, and medieval parshanut as guides to meaning in the biblical text. Rabbinic interpretation, as they have shown us, is not simply the free exercise of imagination but always in itself a kind of physiognomy of the biblical text, bearing the indelible imprint of the text's own peculiarities, its own word choices and narrative structures, its own sometimes hidden preoccupations and quandaries. In Wiesel's words, the parables of Midrash "reflect the dramatic demands of the [biblical] narrative. Through them, internal conflicts become tangible, visible." And the rabbis, after all, had a perspective the biblical authors lacked (except in the eyes of rabbinic tradition): the vantage point of a completed biblical tradition. This allowed for intrabiblical allusion to deepen the meaning of a biblical story in a manner unforeseen by the biblical writers themselves.
Wiesel's own sources span an impressive range within Jewish tradition: the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Avot de Rabbi Natan, Mishnah, Midrash Rabbah, Midrash Tanhuma, Midrash Tehillim, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, medieval commentators such as Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides; the Zohar; the sixteenth-century collection Divrei ha-Yamim shel Moshe Rabbenu; hasidic writings, including those of Shneur Zalman of Ladi, the Gerer Rebbe, and the Kotzker Rebbe, as well as modern scholars such as Louis Ginzberg, Shalom Spiegel, David Daiches, Nahum Glatzer, Ephraim Urbach, and André Neher. The sources are used fluently, conversationally, and as the need dictates. One important precedent for the use of postbiblical Jewish tradition is the work of the aforementioned Louis Ginzberg, who strung together, end-to-end, rabbinic lore on the Bible, to create a continuous narrative and running commentary on Scripture in the order of Scripture. But Ginzberg's voice was always that of the compiler, what I would call the traditionist. Wiesel's, by contrast, bears the rhythms of the storyteller, albeit intercut with the voice of commentator—a distinctive kind of pedagogical voice, somewhere midway between narrative and exegesis, casually mixing into his exposition rabbinic and later lore as he talks us through the biblical story.
Apocryphal, rabbinic, and later Jewish lore afford him, for example, the procession of angels and seraphim that accompanies the funeral of Adam; Noah's disbelief in the reality of the impending Flood until the water was lapping about his ankles; the presence of Satan in precipitating the sacrifice of Isaac; the river that Satan turned into to prevent Abraham's ascent to Mt. Moriah; Isaac's authoring of the Mincha service; the Torah academies of Shem and Ever, where Jacob studied upon leaving home; Moses's unsuccessful pleading with heaven and earth for the right to enter the Promised Land before his death; Joshua's forgetting three hundred commandments and acquiring seven hundred doubts, in his grief and uncertainty after the death of Moses; Jephthah's grisly death by losing his limbs, one by one, among the cities of Gilead, in punishment for sacrificing his daughter. Perhaps most poignantly, rabbinic lore provides Elijah's transformation from our most stern, unyielding, and zealous prophet to become, in Wiesel's words "the friend and companion to all who lack friendship, comfort, and hope," appearing in many guises through postbiblical Jewish history, watching over the people Israel and the individual Jew, visiting the Passover seder, and presiding over the ceremony of berit milah and the entrance of the convert to the faith. According to Midrash, Samson was the prototype of the Messiah. Saul was pure and innocent. Isaiah and Jeremiah were born circumcised. Jeremiah beheld Mother Zion as an old woman in mourning, dressed in black. Jonah's entry into the belly of a giant fish was like a person standing at the entrance to a synagogue (a notion that surely had resonance for a congregation reciting Jonah's story on Yom Kippur). In Midrash, Abraham in his old age twice visited his estranged son Ishmael and, finding him absent, interacted with Ishmael's wife—once unhappily, in the case of the Moabite wife Aissa, and once happily, in the case of the Egyptian wife Fatima. The biblical world thus richly embellished from the rabbinic universe turns into a web of celestial causality and intrabiblical reverberation.
Direct and indirect reference to modern experience, and especially the Shoah, is present here, as well, of course, though perhaps less than one might expect. Cain's murder of Abel is, at any rate, not just the first murder, nor the first relationship of assassin and victim, or executioner and victim, but also the first genocide—a wiping out of half the human race of Cain's generation. Noah's building an altar as his first act after the Flood reminds Wiesel of the surviving inmates of Buchenwald gathering, upon the camp's liberation, to daven and say Kaddish; Isaac, for his part, is the survivor of near immolation, Jacob is afflicted with the burdens of a survivor's child, and Job is the survivor of multiple catastrophes. Here, in fact, we move far beyond a conception of the Bible through the naive vision of childhood. It is a world of human cruelty, concealed crimes, blood that cries out from the ground. Reflecting on Cain's famously defiant question that he does not know where his brother Abel is—"I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?"—Wiesel recasts it as an utterance more modest and self-searching, spoken in wonderment: "I didn't know I was supposed to be my brother's keeper." In this primordial world, biblical figures stumble through their history, the violence of their lives being the signature of the post-Edenic state. And always, behind it all, the problematics of divine justice. Every murder, every enslavement, every disaster is a silent question, even an accusation, to a divinity that permits injustice in the world, permits the righteous to suffer, or the favoring of one child over another, or the dispossession of kin and of whole nations—a deity restlessly juggling the fortunes of individuals and peoples with much the same apparent arbitrariness God had exhibited, according to Midrash, in creating and destroying many worlds before deciding on our own.
Such, at any rate, is the biblical world that emerges in Messengers of God, Wiesel's first and perhaps theologically most radical study of the Bible. His sympathies seem chiefly to rest with those who defend the innocent and the helpless against the powerful, but also with the guilty who are driven into crime under extenuating circumstances, and with those who search behind the masque of guilt and innocence for a scheme of divine justice that is in hiding. And so, the biblical heroes of this collection typically pick fights with God: Cain in response to the goading of God's discrimination and the absence of divine reassurance; Abraham in testing God's resolve by actually obeying the fearsome divine command to sacrifice his son, binding Isaac upon the altar and raising the knife. Jacob, in his turn, for being the most undistinguished patriarch, and bearing the burden, as well, of a survivor's child. And Job, perhaps most pugnaciously of all, in a quest for knowledge. In Wiesel's words: "He would gladly have sacrificed his soul for knowledge. What he demanded was neither happiness nor reparations, but an answer.... He defied [God, in order] to come closer to Him.... He preferred a cruel and unjust God to an indifferent God."
The biblical hero, in a sense, is most heroic when alone with God. And if there is a single characteristic most commonly shared among biblical heroes, in Wiesel's handling, it is their solitude. "In the beginning," Wiesel writes, "man is alone. Alone as God is alone." This theme runs throughout all four of Wiesel's books on the Bible. Adam is alone before becoming social, but alone perhaps most of all centuries after Eden, in not being able to explain his age, decrepitude, or advancing death to his own uncomprehending grandchildren. Cain is left alone by destroying almost half of humanity. Hagar, alone in the wilderness with her son after being dispossessed by Abraham and Sarah. Abraham, alone in being unable to share with either his wife or his child the reasons for the fearsome duty that draws him on to Mt. Moriah, and alone again after the narrowly averted task on the mountain shatters whatever he and his beloved son once had in common. Jacob is alone at the river Jabbok, before decisively engaging with the mysterious stranger who wrestles him amid the waters, and alone again after his son Joseph is taken from him. Joseph, alone in being cut off from kin and countrymen, a stranger in a strange land. Moses, alone with God atop the mountain while his people pursue the idolatry of the Golden Calf. Job, alone in being unable to explain his sufferings to his friends, or even to his wife and fellow-sufferer. Joshua is alone in apparently being unmarried and childless, and made further alone by his triumphs. Saul, in Wiesel's words, is "the most tragic and lonely of kings.... Betrayed by his allies, abandoned by his friends, rejected by God, where else could he turn?" Isaiah, our most urbane and worldly of prophets, is perhaps the most alone of all. In Wiesel's words, "He does not represent any political group, nor ... any social class. Typically, he is alone. Alone against kings, governments, the well-to-do, the notables, alone even against the entire nation.... He never flatters, never aims to please; he is an enemy to all complacency ... and nothing and no one can make him say what he doesn't want to say, or silence him. Should he fall silent, his silence itself bears witness." And of the prophet Jeremiah, Wiesel says: "Poor Jeremiah: opposed by the mighty, hated by the masses, and even deceived by God." Jonah, for his part, is alone in running from God amidst a story in which the entire world seems inexplicably, instantaneously ready to admit God into their lives.
In a moving essay called "The Solitude of God," found outside his books of biblical studies, Wiesel explores the kinship of solitude shared by human beings and God. "God alone," he writes, "is condemned to eternal solitude. Only God is truly and irreducibly alone," and for this, says Wiesel, God is pitied by the Hasidim and mystics. "[I]n opening their hearts," he writes, "to the disquieting and exalting mysteries of creation, [people] cannot help feeling pity, in the purest sense of the term, for the Creator." Pity for the sovereign of the world, "whose crown is so often dragged through the dust, whose word is ill-heard, misunderstood, misinterpreted." Further on, he writes:
As a child, in my little Jewish town buried in the Carpathians, I was afraid of solitude; for me, it meant abandonment. At the end of the day I would wait for my parents to come home, just as I had waited for my teachers and schoolmates to appear in the morning.... Vaguely, I knew that my one chance of survival was to belong to my family, my community: to live or survive outside seemed inconceivable to me. To put it another way: I accepted collective solitude but not individual solitude.
One thus finds a parallel here between the loneliness of the individual, the loneliness of God, and the loneliness of a people whose destiny is uncommon in this world. "The pagan prophet Bileam [Balaam]," he writes, "meant to curse us by consigning us to isolation; in fact, his malediction turned into a blessing. Then, in time, it turned back into a malediction. The term levadad yishkon ['in solitude, he shall dwell'] came to mean, no longer isolation, but exclusion. And at every level: exclusion from society, from history, and lastly, from humanity."
Excerpted from Elie Wiesel by Steven T. Katz, Alan Rosen. Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
Hi!! Who told u I was hear? Im locked out of th othr res
Mistress are you here?
She sucked on Kat's sl<_>it.