Ahavat Israel: Wiesel’s Hasids, Dreamers, and Sages

Elie Wiesel, Sages & Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Portraits and Legends
Summit Books, 1991

This work concludes Wiesel’s collections of portraits and legends of the figures from the Judaic tradition who have helped him reckon with his history:  both the delights of the past now recovered, his own hermeneutics of retrieval, and the traumas of the past, which inform his own hermeneutics of suspicion.  Wiesel holds these two hermeneutics in tension, that of trust (tinged with nostalgia) and suspicion (if not toward the tradition, then toward God, but from within faith, not outside faith; criticism of God on behalf of man).  This collection thus follows Souls on Fire, Four Hasidic Masters, Messengers of God, Somewhere a Master, and Five Biblical portraits.  What’s new in this assemblage is the inclusion of Talmudic sages, surely a product of Wiesel’s own studies with Saul Lieberman. The biblical personages treated include Noah, Jephthah and his daughter, Ruth, Solomon, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Esther.   The Talmudic sages include The Houses of Shammai and Hillel, Hanina Ben Dossa, Eleazar ben Azaryah, Ishmael, Akiba, Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Elisha Ben Abouya, Hananiah Ben Teradyon, Meir and Brurya, Shimon Bar Yohai and his son, Zeira, and Rav & Shmuel.  The Hasidic Masters  he explores are the Shpoler Zeide, Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, Avraham the Angel, Kotzk and Izbitze, and the Ostrowtzer Rabbi.

Three keys to remember from this text.  First,  the adhering — despite the Holocaust — to the tradition, as the tradition helps to shed light on contemporary experiences. Next, Wiesel’s various trumps:  yes, criticize God and tradition– but from within;  yes, offer solidarity to others  — but only as a Jew;  if it’s a matter of choosing God or His suffering people, always choose the suffering people. Third, Wiesel’s own deviation from Orthodoxy — how, I suspect under the influence of Hitler and anti-Semites everywhere, he doesn’t privilege Judaism per se, but rather an all-inclusive Jewishness. 

Five Passages…

“From the wandering Maggidim of my childhood, I learned how to read and interpret a biblical text.  Spellbound, I would listen as they juggled parables and quotations, verses and explanations, trying to extract a hidden meaning, a moral precept:  a lesson.  Then, after the war, in Paris, my strange teacher and master, Harav Shushani, guided me along the same path.” 

“But we all learn from the Midrash the essential lesson of human and social responsibility.  True, we are often too weak to stop injustices; but the least we can do is to protest against them.  True, we are too poor to eliminate hunger; but in feeding one child, we protest against hunger.  True, we are too timid and powerless to take on all the guards of all the political prisons in the world; but in offering our solidarity to one prisoner we denounce all the tormentors.  True, we are powerless against death; but as long as we help one man, one woman, one child live one hour longer in safety and dignity, we affirm man’s right to live.” 

“Some may argue that my attitude toward Hasidism is remarkably uncritical.  This may be true.  My approach to the Beshtian  movement is influenced by what I have taken from it, namely, the need and obligation to love the Jewish people, and, through it, all people who need compassion in a cold and cynical society.    Ahavat Israel is still to me the principle that characterizes a Hasid — and a Jew — and therefore a human being.”

“Whoever does not accept Jewish history in its entirety is not Jewish; whoever wishes to identify with only one period, one tradition, one burden, or one privilege cannot be  Jewish.  To accept Judaism means to accept oneself within the totality of Judaism:  each of us is but the conclusion of a story whose beginnings are in God’s memory.  And whoever is unwilling to accept it all stays outside.”

“There was a time when many of us — friends and anonymous, faceless, ageless Jews — declared that if, by a miracle, by the grace of the almighty God, we should be spared, we would dedicate our lives to telling the story of our agony and the agony of the human multitudes engulfed by the kingdom of night.  If we survive, we said to each other and to ourselves, we should make each day a monument and each night a prayer so that, upon the ruins of Creation, new hope would arise for future generations.  Now we ask ourselves:  Have we kept our promise?  In the grip of daily worries, locked into circumstances filled with temptations, with fears, with challenges, we do so many things — too many things — we find so many pretexts, so many reasons….Who among us can say that he or she has kept the pledge given to the dead?”

—August 1996

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