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Interview Excerpt: Elie Wiesel Book Discussion (Part 2)

In observance of the 75th anniversary of Notre Dame Press, we want to take the opportunity to celebrate some of our most impactful and historic publications.

Today, we share the second of three excerpts from a recent video discussion moderated by Postdoctoral Fellow Jacob Kildoo (full interview here; Part 1 of this series here). Jacob had the opportunity to sit down with Ariel Burger and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, the introduction-writers for UNDP’s new editions of Elie Wiesel’s Five Biblical Portraits and Four Hasidic Masters. Check out this snippet of the conversation for a glimpse into the life of Nobel Prize-winner, Elie Wiesel!

JK: One theme that you each address in the introductions that you’ve written for these two books is the challenge of having faith in a post-Holocaust world, and how Wiesel teaches contemporary people of faith, and in particular Jewish folks, how to remain in touch with their tradition in a way that stands up to this challenge. Could you talk a bit about some of the lessons that Elie Wiesel teaches contemporary people of faith?

IG: I’ll make it very short—I think, by the way he’s of course a remarkable teacher of Jewishness and of Jewish religion and Jewish faith to Jews, but I feel his primary influence and message is far beyond the Jewish Community. Any person of religious seeking or search would, I think, be inspired or shaped by Wiesel’s thinking. I would summarize it very simply: Faith and doubt can coexist. The presence of God and the absence of God is legitimate—it’s a genuine experience. And he was honest and completely with integrity would tell of his experiences in the Holocaust. And of course that famous, extraordinary scene when they hang a child and the child is strangling slowly and he bursts out, as a prisoner, “There is God hanging” –in other words, he was completely honest about this [experience], and you see in one person a profound faith and sense of God’s presence, and profound doubt or the sense of God’s absence in the same person at the same moment, and it’s legitimate. And it’s richer than a simple faith or a simple denial.

Secondly, he taught us that arguing with God, which he does a lot of in his writing, is a legitimate and constructive relationship. And sometimes after the Holocaust, which cuts you off from God, maybe the only way in—or certainly one of the better ways in—is to argue with God. And then of course another thing which I feel is far beyond the Jewish community: that he told us the suffering should never be justified or explained as punishment. The Holocaust was not God’s punishment, despite what many traditional Jews try to argue, but rather in the suffering God is with us—s that’s very different than the notion that God is inflicting it us or punishing us. I’d say the last comment is, again having communicated the anguish and the total cruel, vicious being torn apart by suffering his, message is, “Stop it!” In other words, that the best response and the most powerful, authentic response [to suffering] is that humans have the responsibility to step in and end the suffering. And in a way he also subtly communicates that God is suffering too, and in ending human suffering we are also as it were liberating or helping God.

AB: That was a that was a masterclass table of contents in Professor Wiesel’s approach—not much to add, but I’ll just say that in the classroom this theme was very very central, both in Professor Wiesel’s choice of course topics and readings within each course. There were courses that he taught called “Faith and Destruction,” “Faith and Heresy in Ancient and Modern Literature,” the word faith appeared often and it was always accompanied by doubt. And in that context at Boston University, the students were from a variety of backgrounds, but I remember that the ministry students—particularly the Catholic and Protestant ministry students from BU and other colleges and seminaries in the area—were very moved by the idea—the surprising idea—that you can express your faith, as Rav. Yitz said, by arguing with God, by challenging God on behalf of humanity, and that there’s room for all of the questions within the tradition: that the tradition is flexible enough and credible enough and profound enough to hold all of those questions.

And in fact in Judaism, it’s rooted in the Biblical tradition itself, where you have Abraham arguing with God on behalf of humanity, and if you read that passage carefully you notice that God seems to be inviting that argument. God seems to be turning to the camera as it were, maybe turning to us the readers of the future, and saying “Am I going to hide from Abraham what I’m about to do? No, I’m going to tell Abraham exactly what I’m about to do: I’m about to destroy the wicked city of Sodom and Gomorrah, in order that Abraham will argue with me and will challenge me.” And we have the same the same trope repeated in different ways with Moses and of course the Book of Job, which was perhaps Professor Wiesel’s favorite book of the Bible. And the idea that you can challenge not only God, but religious authorities, political authorities—you can engage in protests and rebellion as an expression of your relationship with those people, those institutions, and even with God, and even with religious traditions, was very powerful.

And this showed up in our conversations in a much more personal way. When I was 18, 19 years old, I was wrestling with a lot of these questions of faith and doubt. I felt that all I had was questions. I didn’t have a single foundation for belief that I could really truly rest on—this is after reading about the Holocaust and other things—and he reassured me, especially in one conversation we had in in Jerusalem, in the lobby of the King David hotel, that faith with doubt is essential, it’s good, it’s healthy, and that doubt and questions can keep us from fanaticism. And that’s really important—it’s important to make sure that there’s a question mark somewhere within your faith, and that you can approach these difficult conversations and get even closer to God through those questions and become closer to the tradition through asking those questions and through shifting from the desire for immediate resolution and the desire for answers and becoming more comfortable with discomfort and becoming more comfortable with the idea that we may never have fully-formed answers, but we may be able to develop, as Rav. Yitz said, we may be able to develop responses where we take responsibility for the world around us as a result of our questions, where we channel our questions into some sort of positive behavior [or] positive action. That was very liberating for me as a young person, and I saw many other students—ministry students and others—activated by that, reassured by that, and given a path to walk where they don’t have to choose between a world of faith and a world of doubt, a world of the religious and the world of the secular. That bridging, I think, is an essential contribution.

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