THE BLOG
07/28/2016 04:59 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2017

"Soul On Fire": In Memoriam Elie Wiesel

Like most of his admirers, I knew Elie Wiesel (z"l) through his public persona and his books. We crossed paths briefly at Jewish conferences or events, and I once looked on in awe as he held a campus auditorium spellbound through the power of his person, his witness, and his message: a plea that the students never remain silent in the face of genocide. But it was the dignity and courage of the man that aroused and held my respect over the years—that and the consistent quality of his writings. What Elie Wiesel said was always worth hearing—and what he did not say evinced wisdom and restraint. The man had a voice that was utterly unique, inside and beyond the Jewish world, and he used it to great purpose. The voice was Jewish in a way never heard before. We will likely never hear another quite like it again.

One book especially stands out in my mind as we mark the shloshim of Wiesel's passing: Souls on Fire (1972), which bears the subtitle, "Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters." The first page—at once dedication, confession, memorial and statement of theme—offers us these words: "My father, an enlightened spirit, believed in man. My grandfather, a fervent Hasid, believed in God. The one taught me to speak, the other to sing. Both loved stories. And when I tell mine, I hear their voices. Whispering from beyond the silenced storm, they are what links the survivor to their memory." Wiesel found his voice, as a storyteller, after the murder of his father and so many other souls precious to him. He took into himself the cultural patrimony he had inherited and passed it on, despite the destruction of the communities that had brought the tales to life. It becomes clear, as one makes one's way through the stories and the memories, that Wiesel at some points shares the faith of the Hasidic masters to whom he introduces us, even identifies with them to some extent. At other times he cannot share that faith because of all that has intervened in the meantime. There are moments, too, when we are not sure where exactly Wiesel stands after "the storm," so paradoxical is the message he delivers, so halting is his whisper.

Take, as an example of shared commitment, the assertion (based on a remark by Wiesel's grandfather) that "the Baal Shem's call was a call to subjectivity, to passionate involvement; the tales he told and those told about him appeal to the imagination rather than to reason. They try to prove that man is more than he appears to be and that he is capable of giving more than he appears to possess." (Souls on Fire, 7)

Wiesel too writes in order to summon us, rather than to entertain; he too places little trust in the self-sufficiency of reason, having seen the role played by science and philosophy in serving the Nazi death machine. Yet he never entirely gives up on the human capacity to learn from our own inhumanity and do better. Like the Maggid of Mezeritch, Wiesel understood the need to "train spiritual leaders for the many isolated and neglected [Jewish] communities" of the world. (Souls on Fire, 77) Like the king in one of Nahman of Bratzlav's parables, he knows he must travel the world, "telling tales, ours—and. . . will shout with all [his] might: Good people, do not forget! What is at stake is your life, your survival! Do not forget! Do not forget!" (Souls on Fire, 202)

Wiesel could not share one element of Hasidism that he considered basic to its worldview. After the suffering he had witnessed and endured, he could not affirm that "the link between man and his Creator, between the individual act and its repercussions in the celestial spheres" (Souls on Fire, 5) remained unbroken. Wiesel confesses that once, as a child, he thought he understood Nahman's stories. That was no longer the case. A "zone of silence. . . of darkness" divided them, one he would "never pierce. Never will I retrace the steps leading back to the teller." (Souls on Fire, 180) Wiesel, like Nahman, turns again and again to paradox—but the faith to which Nahman seems to have clung, despite everything, is not one that he can share. It is striking to me that Wiesel respected the faith held by others, never said a word in criticism of it, and did all he could, for as long as he could, to strengthen the Jewish people (including the State of Israel) and its attachment to Jewish tradition. He never let go of the Jews or, in this sense at least, of Judaism. But faith was something else again.

Nowhere in my reading of modern Jewish thought do we find better theological use made of Wiesel's complex stance than in the works of Emil Fackenheim, particularly in his influential essay, God's Presence in History (1970). Wiesel becomes the primary contemporary example of what Fackenheim shows to be an age-old strategy of belief and survival, affirmation and protest, which he calls "the logic of midrashic stubbornness." A madman bursts into a Jewish prayer service in Nazi-occupied Europe and says, "Shh, Jews! Do not pray so loud! God will hear you. Then He will know that there are still some Jews left alive in Europe!" (God's Presence in History, 67) The irony is bitter—but it confers a certain logic on the act of prayer, then and now. Fackenheim goes on to observe that Wiesel's best-known novel, Night, depicts a child hung on the gallows by a brutal SS commandant. "Where is God?" someone asks. "I hear a voice within me answer, Here he is—He is hanging on these gallows." (God's Presence in History, 77)

Fackenheim correctly notes at once that if this midrash were to stand as truth—rather than protest—it would mean that "God suffers literal and radical powerlessness. i.e. actual death. . . A Jew, in short, would have to become a Christian." This Wiesel would never advocate. He had no interest in being a "Holocaust theologian," or any kind of theologian. Nor did he seek to practice "Holocaust literature." Rather he told stories, and in so doing kept alive the project of Judaism, the hope in humanity.

I think that Wiesel described himself as well as the Baal Shem when he wrote, "The Jew. . . knows that for man in exile, hope can become the most excruciating of tortures, the most cruel of dangers. To remain steadfast, one must know how to wait, how to be patient; to last, one must bend and follow the narrow but familiar paths and reject the call of the unknown." (Souls on Fire, 23) I also hear Wiesel speaking of himself, perhaps to himself, when he describes Nahman's awareness of just how awful the world can be, just how much it is given over to the sway of death—and then reports Nahman's belief that "A Rebbe owed it to himself to appear strong and stable, sure of himself and his powers. A Master owed it to himself to be a solid support, readily accessible to any follower in distress." (Souls on Fire,192)

Elie Wiesel was that to many millions of souls in distress, survivors and children of survivors, Jews and Gentiles, people of all ages wondering whether and how a world of genocide and terror can ever be redeemed. He was a "soul on fire" who knew that he could not cure what ailed humanity but who hoped against hope that he might help us to hope as he did, in spite of everything. "Whether or not the Messiah comes doesn't matter," he wrote on the very last page of The Gates of the Forest (1964). "We'll manage without him." (The Gates of the Forest, 223) That was task enough for one lifetime. It may remain all the hope that our generation can muster.