Had I had a premonition? asked the Hasidic rabbi last Saturday night, on the eve of the wedding of his congregant and my student, when we were overtaken by news of Elie Wiesel’s death.
Only an hour before, in the twilight of the Sabbath, when the day’s holiness is prolonged into the weekdays that follow, I had discoursed on the Torah reading of the week, Numbers 13-14, the story of the scouts sent to evaluate the land of Canaan, who report that the land is very good but the challenge of its inhabitants is overwhelming. I had spoken of the confidence required by every generation to persevere, and how difficult it was for Jews after the Holocaust—who had lost their families in a furnace more fiery than Egypt’s, only to be cast into the religious wilderness of America, battered, penniless, without English, and summoned to rebuild their lives and communities—to take wives and bear children, to set up a “faithful house in Israel,” as we bless our newlyweds. When we thought of this battle against despair, it was impossible not to think of Wiesel.
What had he given those who wage this battle—Holocaust survivors, down through today's religious Jews? In my youth, I saw witnesses all around me, men and women, rabbis and laity, whose evident fortitude of faith, whether in God or in the vitality of the Jewish people, made doubt inconceivable in their presence. True, they were less fluent than Wiesel, and their commitment was exhibited in everyday life rather than from the podium. But this in no way diminished their authenticity. Was it right, then, to view Elie Wiesel primarily as an apostle to the Gentiles and the assimilated or unversed, who taught “them” about the Holocaust? Or was there something essential to learn from him that I could not have gained anywhere else?
For many, Wiesel was a great Jewish scholar and philosopher, a sage and an oracle. For me, and for those who think like me, his importance must be more narrowly delineated. His writings on the Bible and especially Hasidism were a window into Judaism for multitudes. For the most part, however, traditional students found that his readings of Biblical stories and his reconstructions of rabbinic biography bore too much of the imprint of his own preoccupations to provide an authoritative guide. Likewise Wiesel’s fiction, with its furious alternations of negation, affirmation, and ambivalence, aroused some from dogmatic slumber, while others discovered little that was not more rigorously and accurately stated elsewhere.
One book that spoke to all of us and for all of us was his 1966 The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry. In our minds, this rallying cry roused young American Jews from indifference and resignation, and eventually awakened the American public to the plight of Soviet Jewry. The book came out at the right time, but its power lay in Wiesel's ability to give voice to those whose voices had not been heard, who were thought to be forever mute. This achievement, which was an integral part of Wiesel's life’s work, more than justified his Nobel Prize for Peace.
It used to be said that until the late 1960s, the Holocaust was a taboo subject for anxious American Jews. That view is currently disputed, and it surely cannot be attributed routinely to robustly Jewish circles. At the same time, there was so much to do, so much to rebuild, and the regnant American and Israeli zeitgeist allowed so little room for melancholy or lack of confidence.
I wrote above of the Orthodox Jews and the secular Zionists and the others who rebuilt their lives, their families, and their nation. I wrote of their indomitable faith and commitment. And yet, could even those who encountered these people day in, day out grasp how much effort their faith and commitment entailed? Wiesel was not their spokesman: His theological music was not theirs; his doubts had no impact on their goals in life. And these too were Jews of silence, Jews whose voices were not heard. But if Wiesel was not their mouth, perhaps he gave us ears to hear what they did not say. Without his dramatic utterances, we might have overlooked the overwhelming difficulty of their fate. Wiesel helped redeem their voices, as surely as he did his Soviet brethren’s.
Two items from Wiesel’s biography, neither of them intellectual or theological in the usual sense of the term, may provide useful illustration. In his memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel details his anguish at being a stateless person—and neglects to mention that there was a country ready to grant him citizenship. In another chapter, he acknowledges that Golda Meir, who showed personal kindness to Wiesel before he became famous, chided him for declining Israeli citizenship, even as he made his living as a journalist for an Israeli daily. From a classic Zionist perspective, Wiesel, like Moses’s scouts, was turning his back on the challenge of Jewish peoplehood in the land of Israel. He shows the vulnerability of the traumatized refugee, who may prefer the protection of a foreign homeland over the burdens of his own.
Though Wiesel married, he candidly admits that the choice to cast his lot and that of his posterity with a failed world was a grave crisis for him. Hence, when I think of the generation of survivors—not only of the horror they endured during the Holocaust and its recollection, not only of the nobility or heroism many of them achieved, but of the virtually impossible small and great steps they were compelled to make to rehabilitate their lives and ours—it is Wiesel’s voice that underlies and often amplifies theirs.
From the handful of occasions on which I interacted with Wiesel, I recall the eagerness and warmth with which he endeavored to put the company at ease, as if he were a celebrity forever loyal to the precocious, shy small town boy he once was. This too was a part of who he was. May his memory be a blessing.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal sponsored by Rabbinical Council of America.