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Creating Space for Conversation

Notre Dame Press 5+1 post-doc Jake Kildoo writes about the experience of facilitating conversation between two prominent Elie Wiesel scholars for an NDP “Books for Better Understanding” video focused on new, expanded releases of Wiesel’s Four Hasidic Masters and Five Biblical Portraits.

At Notre Dame Press, we believe strongly in the importance of facilitating meaningful conversation—giving our authors a chance to #SpeakUP about the subjects that are close to their hearts. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Ariel Burger, two prominent Jewish intellectuals with intimate personal connections to the late Elie Wiesel. We met to discuss Notre Dame Press’s new editions of Wiesel’s Four Hasidic Masters and Five Biblical Portraits, for which Yitz and Ariel, respectively, wrote insightful introductions. (The full interview can be viewed here.)

As we spoke, I was quickly caught up in a cascade of reminiscences and moving theological meditations. We discussed Wiesel’s life and career, his distinctive approach to the Bible, the problem of faith after the Holocaust, and much more. In retrospect, it’s clear that the conversation that unfolded was more of a shared exercise in contemplation than a straightforward Q & A. At risk of aggrandizing the occasion, I might even call it a semi-religious experience.

It’s not just that Yitz and Ariel are thoughtful and articulate (they are, of course). What’s more remarkable is their ability to channel their experiences learning from Wiesel into a kind of second-hand witness. At one point, I asked them what it means to make Elie Wiesel’s legacy available to the next generation. In reply, Ariel spoke about Wiesel’s unwavering insistence on “facing the darkness of the world, and yet insisting on hope.”

This phrase captures a crucial aspect of Wiesel’s thought.

While it might initially sound like a kind of naïve optimism, the demeanor that Ariel meant to pick out is far more complex. Beyond a stubborn insistence on “looking on the bright side,” this outlook requires us to inhabit a constant state of tension. On one hand, we must take seriously the reality of grave atrocities—events like the Holocaust. On the other hand, we cannot simply give in to despair. We must hope for and even demand more.

Through our discussion, I learned that an important piece of this outlook is to recognize that faith and doubt can coexist. This paradoxical position is part and parcel of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. As Yitz beautifully put it, Elie Wiesel teaches us that “the [simultaneous] presence of God and absence of God is legitimate.” In fact, it is precisely through doubt and questioning that a person of faith can come to grips with God’s apparent absence in moments of extreme human suffering.

Ultimately, our conversation showed me that to learn from Wiesel’s legacy means far more than simply remembering the details of his story. It means to embody a demeanor of seemingly impossible hope; to hold faith and doubt in creative tension; and most importantly, to resist despair and strive for a better and more humane world.

Yitz and Ariel both embody this paradoxical demeanor in their witness to Elie Wiesel’s life. Through the course of our discussion, I found myself in the position of a witness: not just to a sort of second-hand Wiesel, but to something even more direct. A very real and tangible piece of his legacy.

If Wiesel shows us that the simultaneous presence and absence of God is legitimate, then Yitz and Ariel teach us that towering literary figures like Wiesel can likewise be both present and absent. Elie Wiesel is no longer with us, but his legacy is very much alive: in books, in ideas, and in the witness of remarkable individuals like these two.

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