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, 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” “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.”
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,” 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.
 Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: Avon Books, 1966), 6–9.
 Ibid., 208.
 Ibid., 223.
 Elie Wiesel, The Town beyond the Wall, trans. Steven Becker (New York: Avon Books, 1970), 190.
 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.