Tuesday, June 15

In Memoriam — Elie Wiesel and Passing Judgment on God


Of all the things that impressed me about the late Elie Wiesel – how strange the prefix “the late” now sounds before his name! -- what always impressed me the most was his utter, unflinching, and uncompromising honesty.  There was apparently no question– about God or about human beings, about good or about evil, about war or about peace – which he considered unaskable.  Likewise, and for essentially the same reason, there was seemingly no chain of reasoning, no argument, no concatenation of inference that he shied away from following to its uttermost conclusion.  This moral and intellectual stamina even included such fraught issues as those impinging on the Problem of Evil, understandably a subject of more than more than merely academic importance to Elie Wiesel, given his status as a survivor of the death camps that were the culmination of over 500 years of, not only German, but European fascism. European Christendom simply has no comparable parallel to Wiesel’s unvarnished candor in both facing the question squarely and answering it with – simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically -- both skepticism and faith. Even those of us who cannot emulate him in the latter are no less admiring of his courage and consistency in at least entertaining the possibility of the former.


Consider, as arguably most salient example of this paradox, the matter of the Trial of God. One of the most persistent stories to emerge from World War II was that a small group of rabbis, inmates imprisoned in Auschwitz, had staged a Trial of God to determine God’s responsibility for the Shoah. Despite the persistence of stories about the Trial – we today would call it an “urban legend” – there seemed to be no incontrovertible proof that such a Trial had actually been convened … until, in September of 2008, at a dinner in London to raise funds for Holocaust education, Elie Wiesel flatly declared "I was there when God was put on trial. … It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty'. It means ‘[God] owes us something'. Then we went to pray." Wiesel even went on to recast this story as a novel, set during the pogroms of the mid-17th century, The Trial of God. I am aware of no better example of this paradox of faith and skepticism than pursuing what was essentially a criminal proceeding against God, finding God in some sense or other complicit in the crime … and then adjourning the court to pray to that same God. That Wiesel did both – render a verdict of chayav and then pray to the Convicted – constitutes what to me is the greatest imponderable of both his life and his work – and the greatest challenge, both to skeptics and to people of faith – because both responses require a degree of lucidity and honesty seldom equaled and never exceeded.

Now, to be sure, I have never read literally all the Christian literature about the Problem of Evil. There may, for all I know, be examples of Christian writers and theologians who struggle with the issue in a manner as unflinching as Wiesel’s treatment of the subject. But, despite having read voluminously on the Problem of Evil over several decades, both on my own and as part of theology classes, I have encountered nothing comparable. Least of all have I ever encountered anything like Wiesel's theodical texts on the level of popular theology. The closest I have come have been books like God in the Dock, a years-ago anthology of theodical essays compiled by C. S. Lewis, and Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God. (In British criminal trials, the “dock” is the telephone-booth-sized area in the courtroom, usually bounded by a rail, where the accused stands during the proceedings.) Both books were typical of their genre in that, despite avowing that their purpose was to present the case against God rigorously and impartially, almost from the first page, one could sense that the concluding verdict, in both cases, was foregone:  in the end, God would be exonerated, and, if anything, the prosecution would be indicted for having argued its case in the first place.  In the end, there would be no verdict of chayav, least of all “Guilty as charged”.  The Lewis anthology and Yancey’s book are also typical in that one gets the sense that they try ‘way, ‘way, ‘way too hard, and thereby set themselves up to be stationary, bull’s-eye-marked targets for Occam’s Razor, because both authors are racing their respective theodical engines to the red line in order to avoid a conclusion that would otherwise be immediately obvious:  that religious faith is “always already” culturally and historically – even linguistically -- conditioned, and lacking in any means of independent assessment.


And the reason they have to try that hard – and I think the source of their dissimilarity with Elie Wiesel – is because Lewis, Yancey, & Co., on the one hand, and Wiesel, on the other, are doing generically different things.  The former are doing Christian apologetics:  for reasons, one suspects, having to do with a more or less implicit belief that the specifically Christian revelation is, in some sense, uniquely truthful, they are irrevocably committed to a certain fairly specific body of doctrines about Jesus, about human history, about life and death, etc., etc. Note, then, that Christian apologetics is always defensive. Certain doctrines, certain teachings, certain values, certain priorities, certain ideas need defending, because those doctrines, teachings, ideas, etc. – i.e., that specifically Christian doctrines, teachings, and ideas -- are inevitably threatened by the existence of alternatives.  Elie Wiesel was no less committed to defending certain no-less-specific doctrines, teachings, and ideas that are no less susceptible to being threatened.  But the doctrines, teachings, and ideas that Wiesel was committed to defending were doctrines, teachings, and ideas that were universal in the sense of cutting across all lines of culture, class, ethnicity, ideology, and religion:  the dignity of all humans, the value of compassion, respect for the viewpoints of those who are different, and a willingness to sound an alarm when any of those values are threatened by authoritarian religious and political structures. Of course, C. S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, et al., are no less committed to these values and principles, but they insist that, at the end of the day, the defining terms have to be phrased in the conceptual idiom of Christian theology and eschatology. But Elie Wiesel, even though no less a Jew than Lewis and Yancey were Christians, did not allow his religious heritage to monopolize the definitions of the terms that were his primary and defining commitment. Elie Wiesel was both a religiously committed man and a humanist, rather in the tradition of Gandhi:  no less one for being the other.

At the end of the day, I think Wiesel's moral, intellectual, and artistic greatness -- no other word will do -- consists in the confluence of Wiesel's personal integrity, with the willingness of the Jewish tradition itself to accommodate the kind of intimately personal struggle, the agon in the archaic Greek sense, that accompanies that deep integrity.  Wiesel did not flinch from accusing, railing against, ranting against his God, the Hebrew God when such was warranted by either that God's actions or that God's lack thereof:

Blessed be God's name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because he kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar? (from Night)

3583201973_3ec175ddca_bThis attitude escapes the charge of hubristic arrogance only because (1) it is mirrored in a willingness to question and to critique oneself

The night lifted, leaving behind it a grayish light the color of stagnant water. Soon there was only a tattered fragment of darkness, hanging in mid-air, the other side of the window. Fear caught my throat. The tattered fragment of darkness had a face. The face was my own. (from Dawn)

and (2) because of the precedent set in the Tanakh and Talmudic literature by characters of no less stature than Moses and Abraham and Rabbi Akiva all of whom themselves had the audacity to question God ... in a certain nuanced sense as an Equal. (This audacity of questioning God as, in a way, an Equal is also a strand of Jewish discourse that has become especially prominent since the Shoah:  the tradition of "protest theology".  Doing justice to this tradition would distract us from the subject at hand.  So suffice to say that I recommend reading Jewish "protest" theologians like David Blumenthal, Richard Rubenstein, Eliezer Berkovits, and Zachary Braiterman. Again, there is no Christian equivalent.) Perhaps without intending to, Wiesel captured this uniquely and radically transactional and -- I think it's safe to say -- Judaic relationship with God at one point in the great novel The Gates of the Forest.

What is a friend? Someone who for the first time makes you aware of your loneliness and his, and helps you to escape so you in turn can help him. Thanks to him who you can hold your tongue without shame and talk freely without risk. That's it.

That is indeed "it":  to Moses, Abraham, Rabbi Akiva, the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel -- Elie Wiesel -- and all the great tzaddikim of the Jewish tradition, God is indeed a Friend in this deep, mature, and fully articulated sense. Job's wife advised her husband "Curse God and die". They testify that one can do the former, yet without incurring the latter. There is nothing -- I say this without qualification -- nothing comparable in the Christian tradition.  So, e.g., C. S. Lewis and Philip Yancey say to God "Thy will be done".  (Think of the conclusion of Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.) But, in addition, with Judaism, Abraham and Elie Wiesel can, without stepping outside the historic stream of Judaism, also say "Thy will be changed".  That Wiesel did so, and did so with such virtuosity and consistency, is a tribute to both his faithfulness toward the Tradition and to the Tradition's faithfulness toward him.

So my concluding benediction to Elie Wiesel is the same as the words which conclude Miguel De Unamuno's book The Tragic Sense of Life:  "May God deny you peace but give you glory".

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Wiesel's birthplace in Sighet, Romania ... public domain
Barbed wire ... Tyler Burrus ... 31 May 2009 ... public domain
Elie Wiesel ... David Shankbone ... 24 April 2012 ... public domain
Auschwitz ... Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0

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