Elie Wiesel’s Stories: Still the Dialogue by Carol P. Christ


Elie Weisel is interviewed by Bob Edwards in New York, Wednesday, June 20, 2007. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Elie Weisel is interviewed by Bob Edwards in New York, Wednesday, June 20, 2007. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

This blog is dedicated to Elie Wiesel, September 30, 1928-July 2, 2016

During the summer following my second year [as a graduate student] at Yale, I read Elie Wiesel’s The Gates of the Forest[1], which someone had recommended as a book in theology and literature. Elie Wiesel was not well-known, and I had not heard of him. I was totally unprepared to enter into his world. I had heard about the concentration camps and had read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, but I had not faced the reality that was the Holocaust, nor had I connected what happened to the Jews to my belief in the God of the Old Testament.

Reading The Gates of the Forest challenged my theology to the core. I believed God was powerful, loving, and good, and I believed that He had a special relationship with the Jews. For me, Christianity did not change the covenant; it only added new people to it. Wiesel’s story affected me deeply, because, like his character Gregor, I believed that God would never abandon His chosen people. Yet it seemed that He had. Wiesel’s anger at God seemed perfectly justified, and his questioning of God followed a pattern established in the Old Testament that felt right to me.

Wiesel also wrote about how the performance of the Christian Easter story in annual passion plays provoked violence against the Jews for killing Christ. I loved the Easter rituals, and I knew that the Jews were blamed in most of them—including the Roman Catholic mass I attended. Both my belief in God and my religious community were called into question.

Something in Wiesel’s story also provoked a profound release of all the emotions that had built up in me during my first two years at Yale. Wiesel’s character Gregor was haunted by the laughter of a man called Gavriel—a laughter that arose from the absurdity of trying to understand the Holocaust, a laughter that refused to be defeated by overwhelming sadness. During the days when I was reading The Gates of the Forest for the first time, Gavriel’s laughter overtook me. I laughed at everything that had made me cry during my first two years at Yale and gained power over my suffering.

When I tried to speak to my professors about the theological questions Wiesel had raised for me, I was silenced again. “I would have thought the crucifixion of Christ answered that,” was the answer I received in a tone that indicated “no further discussion necessary.” For me the question was by no means resolved, and I became increasingly sensitive to anti-Judaism in worship and theology

[Several years later, I decided to write my dissertation on Elie Wiesel’s stories. Although I had read and reread Elie Wiesel’s books, and ideas were swirling in my mind about God and the Holocaust, I had a hard time beginning] . . . to write my dissertation. Wiesel spoke of the failure of words in the face of great evil. I too felt paralyzed. Would my words be up to the task I had chosen for myself, or would I betray the millions whose lives had been lost? If even Wiesel feared to write, how could I dare put pen to paper? Every time I thought about writing, I was confronted with Elie Wiesel’s question: Where was God? In part because I could not answer it for myself, I could not begin my dissertation.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Wiesel, as I have said, is because, on my first reading of his book, I “tuned in” to the laughter of Gavriel and used it to distance myself from my own suffering. In the process of writing about Wiesel, I went back and forth between his questions and my own. Sometimes I was the young boy in the concentration camps who watched his father die and wondered why God had abandoned him. Sometimes I was with those who were humiliated while God watched. Sometimes I wondered if I would have been one of the good citizens who stood by while their neighbors were loaded onto cattle cars. Sometimes I was a young American woman who had never suffered as Wiesel had, asking how God could have abandoned His chosen people and how I could believe in Him after that. Sometimes, I felt I was like the last rabbi who tried to intervene with God, saying, “I am unable to light the fire and I do not even know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”[2] In the words of the mystics, I went through my own dark night, confronting the evil in the world and my inability to explain it. Yet I felt that it was important to continue this journey with God.

Most of all, I shared Wiesel’s anger at God. As my own theology was biblical and informed by Buber’s stories of the Hasidim, I knew that Moses, the prophets, and later the rabbis spoke to God and that some of them even accused God of forgetting His people. I loved the raw anger born of faith and bewilderment in Wiesel’s early books, especially The Gates of the Forest. Wiesel wrote his own questions into these books while he was still struggling with them, and there always seemed to be an answer lurking just beyond words. I loved Gavriel’s response to the main character’s questions about God: “It’s so simple. Your uncertainties are what interest me.”[3] It has always seemed to me that after he wrote The Gates of the Forest, Wiesel found a kind of solace in Jewish tradition that lessened the intensity of the questioning of God that made his early books so powerful.

I was also fascinated by the fact that Wiesel chose to write theology in the form of stories. Gavriel echoed the words of the rabbi at the edge of the forest when he told Wiesel’s character, “You must go on with your story.”[4] God revealed Himself in the Bible in stories. The rabbis told stories. And in telling stories, Wiesel found a way back to life and perhaps to God. On the last page of Gates, Wiesel’s character was able to pray. “He prayed for the soul of his father and also for that of God.”[5] “And so they renewed the ancient dialogue whose words come to us in the night, tinged with hatred, with remorse, and most of all with infinite yearning.”[6]

At the end of my dissertation, I invoked the kabbalistic idea found in Wiesel’s writing that the prayers or moral goodness of human beings could have the power to turn God back, to reclaim the attention of a God who has lost interest in the world, or perhaps even to redeem a God who is no longer good. I had not resolved the problem of evil in my dissertation, but in invoking these ideas, I was moving toward the conclusion that the solution to it would be found in abandoning the idea of God’s omnipotence. As the title and subtitle of my dissertation, “Elie Wiesel’s Stories: Still the Dialogue,”[7] suggested, I also affirmed the storied nature of theology and the importance of continuing to journey with God. In the part of this story that was not included in the dissertation—my own questioning of God—my story with God took a new turn.

Elie Wiesel loved my dissertation, but I was too shy to ask him to help me to get it published.

[1]

[2] Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: Avon Books, 1966), 6–9.

[3] Ibid., 208.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 223.

[6] Elie Wiesel, The Town beyond the Wall, trans. Steven Becker (New York: Avon Books, 1970), 190.

[7] Carol P. Christ, “Elie Wiesel’s Stories: Still the Dialogue” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1974). Available through Proquest (University Microfilms).

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall. This blog is excerpted from Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, co-written with Judith Plaskow, which will be published on August 1 by Fortress Press. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.

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Categories: Evil, General, God

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27 replies

  1. Thank you for this tribute.

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  2. I have not read Elie Wiesel’s work although I have heard of him. One Jungian professor who was a mentor was deeply moved by this man’s work, and the questions Wiesel asked had certainly been my own. Before I left Christianity I personally struggled with the story of Job, and could never find a satisfactory reason for this kind of suffering.

    By the time I discovered Wiesel I was steeped in my own discovery of the feminine face of god…and had found solid ground in Nature. My relationship with Nature helped me understand that evil was a human construct, and that there was nothing I could do to change that reality, besides doing my best not to participate in it, while acknowledging my quills and thorns. I do not attribute evil to natural disasters, although I sense a kind of color attached to them that I can experience as great darkness I understand Nature to be empathetic, and present to human suffering and to human evil if only we can allow her in…When I was 23 my only brother a graduate from Harvard killed himself and my world collapsed. God as I understood “him” then became something of a monster that had shattered my world. As a young divorced mother of two sons I became afraid to leave my house…I entered the dead zone and lived there for eleven years. Intolerable. Eventually my childhood love of Nature that I shared with my brother helped me return from the underworld… What distresses me the most today is that few seem to be wrestling with the kinds of questions Wiesel was asking…it’s those questions that help us to develop as human beings. Thank you for this illuminating article. I look forward to these posts with great enthusiasm…always thought provoking.

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    • So sad about your suffering Sara. Some things do seem to hard to bear. And I certainly think saying they are the “will of God” is wrong.

      Wiesel took solace in the Judaism of his childhood and could not really understand the questions of women about the injustice towards women within it. He also took solace in the existence of the state of Israel and has been criticized for not being able to see injustice to Palestinians at the hands of the state of Israel.

      His work has been foundational for me, despite the fact that I am sorry that he could not see these two great injustices in the tradition he claimed.

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      • Thanks Carol.

        I recall this mentor of mine was unable to witness women’s injustice/suffering – this may well be the reason I never read Wiesel. I think it’s to your credit that his work remains foundational for you in spite of Wiesel’s inability to see his problem with women.

        As Plaskow points out acknowledging our individual capacity for evil would go a long way to correct what is wrong in western culture. I believe the concept of human projection needs to be taught in EVERY school….

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  3. Thanks, Carol. This is insightful amid the many commentaries this week. I, too, found NIGHT, DAWN, THE ACCIDENT formative. I struggle with the matter of Palestine, among other contradictions. My best guess is that since none of us are entirely consistent in our ethics it becomes imperative to understand ourselves communally so I, for example, might glean from your moral insights even if I can’t manage to embrace them myself. Perhaps…

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    • I agree with that Mary, but of course there are communities and communities. Few of us seek out communities that challenge us, do we? (sigghhh). Eastern European Judaism and its contemporary advocates (Orthodox/Hasidic) are/were communities, as is the large part of US Judaism that supports the state of Israel without question. Wiesel did not feel it necessary to criticize either of these groups.

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  4. Carol, Thanks so much for this memory of Elie Wiesel, a very great man indeed.

    Even Christ cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And those words come to mind regards Elie Wiesel’s question too regarding the Holocaust: “Where was God?” The answer seems to be that we are required to take responsibility for our own welfare. It is up to us to build a better world for ourselves, rather than just praying for a godly power to step in and save us at every turn.

    We face the same problem with the environment. We ourselves must work for the good of our planet on all levels here and now. I’ve mentioned the change in New York City — so many trees having been planted some years ago up and down all the streets,  and now the trees getting huge and thus creating wide canopies — I feel like I live in a forest, and you can even hear the birds chirping happily along, in all those new, wonderfully beautiful city trees.

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    • Thanks for the link, Carol, that’s so good.

      I linked my name here to a photo I took today from my window because I noticed a tree across the street had made contact with a tree on my side of the street, & their branches were now in touch with each other. Hard to believe this is going on in New York City, but it is.

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  5. I can hardly imagine the unbearable suffering that Elie Wiesel endured during the Holocaust. His books (stories) push us along, making us think. Rabbi Harold Kushner also wrestles with the broad question of “evil” in the world and wrote his best-selling book, WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE. (Kushner’s son died with progeria, a disease that causes the body to age prematurely.) Kushner experienced a crisis of faith when his son was diagnosed and subsequently died. His conclusion (in this book) is that God is not omnipotent. We can imagine God as loving, just, and powerful, he says, but God cannot be all three at the same time.

    http://www.gurus.org/dougdeb/Courses/bestsellers/Kushner/BTmain.htm

    “Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people? That depends on what we mean by ‘answer’. If we mean ‘Is there an explanation which will make sense of it all?’… then there probably is no satisfying answer. We can offer learned explanations, but in the end, when we have covered all the squares on the game board and are feeling very proud of our cleverness, the pain and the anguish and the sense of unfairness will still be there. But the word ‘answer’ can also mean ‘response’ as well as ‘explanation,’ and in that sense, there may well be a satisfying answer to the tragedies in our lives. The response would be Job’s response in MacLeish’s version of the biblical story—to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all.” [page 147]

    Thank you, Carol, for your tribute to Elie Wiesel.

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    • I agree with Kushner that Goddess cannot be loving, just, and powerful. My view, which is also the process view, is that Goddess is not omnipotent. When you accept this, the question “Where was Goddess” changes. Goddess feels the feelings of the world and responds with infinite love and understanding. In the process view, Goddess did not create the world, it is co-created through the evolutionary process, so Goddess can be forgiven only for not inspiring the other individuals in the world to co-create a better world. I do like that quote nonetheless.

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      • The process of view that goddess/god or nature or whatever is not omnipotent helps me make peace with myself and the world as it is. That book of yours Carol “She Who Changes” is one of the best philosophical books I have ever read. I just happen to be re -reading it now!

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  6. Thank you all for the post and comments. I believe that it is healthy to question our beliefs and not settle down into an unchangeable idea of the One we call “god”. Questioning is one of the most faith-full things happening today – and we’re not even being burned at the stake for doing so!

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  7. Excellent blog! I think Wiesel was one of the greatest men who ever lived. A truth-teller who made us think and think and think and think.

    There are indeed no words adequate to describe the Holocaust. But there’s a 1999 film titled Moloch directed by Alexander Sokurov https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch_(film) that helps a little bit. The Wikipedia article says the film “humanizes” Hitler. Hah! It shows him as a narcissist surrounded by toadies (Mr. and Mrs. Goebbels, Martin Borman, a secretary who takes down every word, except when he’s told not to). It’s a day in the mountains with Eve Braun, and they’re all insane. They just seem to be…sort of…normal. Banal. Boring. I recommend the film.

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  8. Thank you for a post that addresses some of the issues that I read in Elie Weisel’s writing and I continue to pray with. They are such worthy questions, even more so as time goes on and yet it seems we keep grasping for answers and perhaps the questions are the response and the stories are the best carrier for the questions.
    Granted it is not easy to continue the dialogue- thank you for reminding us about it
    And for your tribute to Weisel.
    Sonia

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  9. Love this post Carol. Anyway to access your dissertation. I would love to read what you wrote at that time in your journey. Thank you for your faithfulness to your journey that often speaks to me in my journey.

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    • I agree with you Esther, Wiesel showed an appalling lack of empathy for the Palestinians. In my opinion, his answer to his own questions was a nostalgic attachment to the patriarchal Judaism of his childhood combined with an uncritical attachment to the state of Israel as emblematic of redemption.

      Michael Lerner says: “Elie Wiesel was an important leader of the section of the Jewish world which believes that the highest, perhaps the only, commandment left to observe after the Holocaust is “don’t forget what happened to us Jews.”

      http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/a-variety-of-perspectives-on-elie-wiesel

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  10. Great post, Carol. A wonderful tribute to an important thinker.

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  11. This is a lovely eulogy, tender and compassionate. I too read Wiesel when I was young and he confirmed in for me that my instinctive imperative to question was not crazy or rebellious or wrong, but in fact was a true lifeline and sounding board against which to test any preconception or concretized belief. That was a great and powerful gift.

    I think part of living mindfully is the understanding that wisdom does not demand a pure vessel through which to manifest.

    Thank you for sharing this.

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  12. Very heartfelt eulogy, Carol.
    As was brought up above however, the issue of Palestine, of Palestine…
    Obviously, I cannot speak for everyone, and cannot demand that everyone examines people only outside of the emotional response that was stirred into them, but, but, I cannot… I am just unable to value anyone whose moral leadership is erected upon speaking against the evil that men do to one another, that men did to his kin yet in the same breath and the same fervor justifies the same horrors upon another people.
    We can certainly attempt to acknowledge the various parts, the contradictions that make up the individual….Gandhi and his sexual dalliances with young women…Bill Cosby and his rape…MLK and his cheating…but, but none of those are of the fundamental nature of the greatest morality, of the realm of beaconhood… What is the moral value of a human being who justifies the evil wrought upon him when upon others? Is it mere blindsideness or selective, selfish humanism?
    I don’t know,…just feel that there is no one to better challenge on their morality than he whose suffering affords him moral gravitas to frame the suffering of others.

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    • I do not view Wiesel as “the moral conscience of the world” (Obama). I stopped reading him a few years after I finished my dissertation and certainly have disagreed with his politics. I support Jewish Voices for Peace and other Jewish groups that challenge the injustice of the state of Israel. Should I have added that to my blog? Perhaps I should have.

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      • I sensed that, Carol, that is why I didn’t reply to the post the first day. Reading the comments however spurred me to share my ambivalence about our (natural?) tendency to laud people (or denounce them for ) in spite of their fundamental contradictions, perhaps a symptom of these fragmented times.

        As for the “why God had abandoned him” question, I wonder if it is a specifically Jewish trait, and if so, is it a legacy of their former status as God’s chosen people?
        Perhaps I am wrong about it, but I do not identify such divine exceptionalism in any other religious faith, and I wonder if it due to the simple fact that Judaism is as much, if not more an ethnic trait, as a religious one.
        Islam, for example, stresses both the democratic nature of God’s love to the servant, but also the nature of the relationship as one of Lord and servant, same as I think it is in Christianity. Therefore, the servant has no legitimacy in questioning the will of his Lord as how He expresses His lordship upon the servant as He sees fit. The faith, it is taught, lays in the acceptance of the Will and the wisdom in the patience it demands.

        What I seem to see however, is that ethnic Judaism demands a say in God’s expression of His divinity in relation to those creatures of His. And it seems to me that the Holocaust is held to the face of God as His own failure to His people, and in that, I sense the creature’s anger and the guilt he demands God bear, and I feel that the whole of the world is held hostage by that dynamic.

        This seems supported by the fact that we have been seeing a separation of Judaism between the secular wing and the religious one, the former acting outside of the Torah and out of political concerns (including moving to Palestine) and oblivious to the structure of atonement that any fallen state demands, while the religious wing frames everything according to the Torah and the divine requirement of atonement (including not moving to Palestine until the signs are shown that the atonement has been acknowledged.)

        I always wondered why the issue of Palestinians divides the Jewish community so sharply, and often people with the same experience at the hands of the nazis held such opposite stance, and it seems to be solely that it is a matter how one seems himself in relation to the divine, grateful (thank you for guiding me and protecting me through these horrors) or anger towards the divine (why me)?
        Then again, that seems to apply to all of humanity, no matter the religious persuasion.

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      • It should be noted that Wiesel criticized Obama for the US policy of criticizing Israeli settlement of Palestinian land. I suspect that Obama did not view Wiesel as “the moral conscience of the world” in relation to that interchange. At least I hope not!!!

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  13. Thanks for your questions Po.

    In my opinion the tradition within Judaism of questioning God is a good thing. His questioning of God was one of the main reasons I chose to write on Wiesel.

    Moreover, in my own spiritual journey, questioning God about the oppression of women and Goddess about my own unhappiness, provoked important “revelations” and “turning points” in my understanding of the divine-human relationship. I wrote about part of that journey on FAR: https://feminismandreligion.com/2012/07/09/why-dont-feminists-express-anger-at-god-by-carol-p-christ/

    As I said in that essay God was transformed for me in that encounter from a dominating Other into a “fellow (sic) sufferer who understands.”

    This intimacy with Goddess is something I value. And yes, it is appropriate to ask “Why me?” This is a very human question. However, it is not appropriate to stay in that place, I would say.

    Just recently I critiqued the widespread tendency to conceive the divine-human relationship on the lines of master and servant. I believe this is a major theological error.

    https://feminismandreligion.com/2016/06/27/shall-i-be-a-servant-to-all-or-shall-i-love-the-world-ever-more-deeply-by-carol-p-christ/

    Finally, to what extent is Wiesel’s question shaped by his understanding of the Jews as God’s own special people? And therefore a particularly Jewish question?

    My friend Judith Plaskow rejects the notion of “chosenness” in Standing Again at Sinai. She also has written about coming to understand that Jews can be victimizers as well as victims. It does not seem that Wiesel seriously entertained these questions.

    Tikkun magazine published an editorial in which Michael Lerner stated that:

    His attention to the Holocaust and his ability to educate large numbers of people to the suffering of the Jewish people, was a valuable contribution–and helped make clear to people around the world that the Jewish people should never again be powerless to defend itself against those who choose to make our entire people into their enemies. Yet it is important to realize that there are good ways to protect our people and bad ways–and that was not a distinction Wiesel helped people make. He never asked why Jews should have a Holocaust museum on the national mall in D.C. before there was a museum about US enslavement of Africans or US genocide of Native Americans.

    Indeed, Wiesel, though receiving universal fame and honors, was no prophet nor someone who really understood the Jewish prophetic tradition. A prophet doesn’t only challenge the errors of other peoples, s/he challenges the distortions and faults of their own people or nation. Wiesel was largely silent about the War in Vietnam, and more importantly, the oppression of the Palestinian people.

    http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/a-variety-of-perspectives-on-elie-wiesel

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