Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives
Publication Year: 2013
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.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Jewish Literature and Culture
Table of Contents
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a talmudic sage traditionally celebrated as the author of the Zohar, the central book of Jewish mysticism, was himself a refugee, forced to flee from the Romans and hide with his son for years in a cave. Their emergence from the cave came in stages, the first beset by fury, which only with time yielded to empathy...
Part 1. Bible and Talmud
1. Alone with God: Wiesel’s Writings on the Bible
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...
2. Wiesel as Interpreter of Biblical Narrative
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...
3. Wiesel and Rabbi Akiva
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...
4. Wiesel and the Stories of the Rabbis
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...
Part 2. Hasidism
5. Wiesel in the Context of Neo-Hasidism
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...
6. Reflections on Wiesel’s Hasidic Tales
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...
7. Yearning for Sacred Place: Wiesel’s Hasidic Tales and Postwar Hasidism
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...
8. The Hasidic Spark and the Holocaust
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...
Part 3. Belles Lettres
9. Lot’s Wife and “A Plea for the Dead}: Commemoration, Memory, and Shame
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...
10. The Storyteller in History: Shoah Memory and the Idea of the Novel
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...
11. Wiesel’s Post-Auschwitz Shema Yisrael
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...
12. Dreams and Dialogues: Wiesel’s Holocaust Memories
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...
13. The Trauma of History in 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...
14. Victims, Executioners, and the Ethics of Political Violence: A Levinasian Reading of Dawn
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...
Part 4. Testimony
15. Dialectic Living and Thinking: Wiesel as Storyteller and Interpreter of the Shoah
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...
16. Wiesel’s Aggadic Outcry
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...
17. Whose Testimony? The Confusion of Fiction with Fact
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...
18. Wiesel’s Testament
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...
19. Améry, Levi, Wiesel: The Futility of Holocaust Testimony
The obligation to record and remember is a constant in the literature of testimony and, more than anything else, defines its character and purpose. Jews suffering under the Nazi siege, lacking significant arms and allies, sought recourse in the only form of resistance available to most of them: the written word. They knew it would not save lives, but believed it would assure that those going to their deaths would not be forgotten...
Part 5. Legacies
20. With Shadows and With Song: Learning, Listening, Teaching
An early 1963 essay by Elie Wiesel is of a piece with most of those collected in his book Legends of Our Time. Titled “My Teachers,” it tells of key figures who made up life in Sighet, the author’s hometown.1 When the author wrote it, he was not a teacher but a writer. And it would be a decade before he embraced the path of teaching....
21. Teaching through Words, Teaching through Silence: Education after (and about) Auschwitz
Remembrance and education are closely related concepts. In some sense they are synonymous. If people have learned something they remember what others have told them or what they have read. After a process of learning students remember facts and stories, recollections of former events, tales of the past and historical incidents. In short, students have learned at least some aspects of “tradition,” meaning teachings and...
22. Toward a Methodology of Wonder
Rabbi Hanoch Henich of Alexander told the story of a man who was so forgetful that, when he awoke in the morning, he didn’t know what to do with the strange things he found in his room. Every morning saw him painstakingly trying to determine what each item of clothing was for, looking them up in research books, and finally putting them on correctly. One day he decided to label everything in his house...
23. Wiesel’s Contribution to a Christian Understanding of Judaism
The best of Elie Wiesel’s versatile writing includes the brief Holocaust-related dialogues that appear in his books from time to time. Spare and lean, they often consist of a few hundred words or less. These dialogues are distinctive not only for their minimalist quality but also because their apparent simplicity, their unidentified settings, unnamed characters, abrupt and open beginnings and endings raise...
Elie Wiesel has come to embody conscience, not only for Jews but for humanity as a whole. Indeed, when the Nobel Committee awarded Wiesel the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the choice was greeted with international acclaim, for it is difficult to imagine any citizen in the world who has so commanded the respect and attention of political leaders and the people themselves. One suspects that, if the Nobel Committee had...