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Interview Excerpt: Elie Wiesel Book Discussion (Part 3)

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 third and final excerpt from a recent video discussion moderated by Postdoctoral Fellow Jacob Kildoo (full interview here; Part 1 of this series here, Part 2 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: Ariel, in your introduction to Five Biblical Portraits, you spend a little bit of time discussing what you call [Elie Wiesel’s] “humanitarian” or his “ethical” approach to interpreting Biblical texts. And you give us a really really interesting quotation of his—I think you mention he says this in the classroom at one point—he would say, “One life is worth more than all of the pages that have been written about life.” What do you suppose he meant by that?

AB: Well, on the one hand, he sometimes said, “I would give all the awards and all the recognition and all the books I’ve written for a single life to have bene saved during the Holocaust.” That clarity of values never left him; he never became confused about what’s really, ultimately important.

And in our world, we seem to forget the most basic moral and ethical principles.  We get caught up in ideas. We forget that ideas can cause harm—even great ideas about the world, about history, about our place in it. Ideas have been used as foundations for oppression and genocide and war, as we know. The Nazis were intoxicated by an idea of purity, and I remember Professor Wiesel talking about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia who wanted to restart history. They were hypnotized by an idea that you can start the world again with completely new rules, even of nature. And religious fanatics want to see the triumph of theocracy. And so, ideas can be dangerous, but even good ideas can fail us. Actually, in this regard, I think of something Rav Yitz wrote years ago that’s very central in my work and for a lot of people I know—this is a very central criterion, particularly for theological statements, but really for any [kind of] statement. Rav Yitz, you wrote something like, “any theological statement—after the Holocaust, any theological statement—that cannot be pronounced in the presence of a burning child is not credible.” I’m paraphrasing here. And so, any theology that can’t be spoken in the face of actual human suffering is not credible, it’s not good theology. And the test of any idea and the test of any work of art or any project is, Does it humanize us? Does it make us more sensitive? Does it advance the fundamental value of human life? Does it make us more or less likely to ignore suffering? And that’s our test.

And so, “One life is worth all that’s been written about human life” is a reminder of what’s really important in a world where we celebrate creativity—sometimes as we should—we celebrate great authors, great works of art, but we disconnect those works from the ultimate test and the ultimate criterion of their value, which is—which has to be, in Professor Wiesel’s estimation—a human one.

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