The following originally appeared in my debut book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, ten years ago. With the news of Professor Wiesel’s passing today,
I wanted to share it with all of you here.
“What was he like?” a number of friends asked me after my first meeting with Professor Elie Wiesel at a Chicago synagogue a few weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It was like sitting with God,” I told them.
I’m not really sure what I meant, but I was certain of how it felt. I wasn’t being flip. At that moment in time, after God’s children once again had been so cruel to one another, I imagined God would be wearing the same mournful expression as the good professor. Woebegone and shrugging, with an inexplicable undercurrent of hope.
During that visit, Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, author of more than forty books, and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, had told me about how he was sitting in a cab in midtown Manhattan when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He could see the smoke from the doomed towers rising in the taxi’s rear window. His son worked in New York’s financial district, and it would be more than an hour—an excruciating wait—before the man who had survived Nazi concentration camps that claimed the lives of his mother, father, and younger sister would receive word that his only child was alive and well.
“The question that kept working itself through my mind was ‘What does it mean?’” Wiesel told me in 2001, the permanent furrow in his brow seeming to grow deeper as he talked. “What does it mean? Hours and hours, glued to the television. What does it mean? How could some man just do that? … Strangely, I had thought the twenty-first century was going to be a good century, better than the last that was so fraught with danger.” During our brief visit that day in Chicago, we talked about violence, terror, goodness, and God. We both had more questions than answers.
In the spring of 2005, I had the chance to visit with Wiesel again, this time in his study on New York’s Upper East Side. I wanted to know more about his spirituality, how he, of all people, had not lost faith in God or, for that matter, in humankind.
Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.
“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly. “The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”
And yet you continue to wrestle with God?
“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.
You could walk away.
“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not. But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe. Not because of myself, but because of those who were before me. It is my love for and fidelity to my parents, my grandparents, and theirs, and simply to stop, to be last in the chain, is wrong. It would humiliate them. They weren’t at fault. Why should I do it to them? I feel such a presence when I think about them and even when I don’t think about them. I want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to break the chain. And to choose what? Is it better to be agnostic or better to be an atheist? I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I accept having faith. I call it wounded faith, my faith is wounded. But I believe. A very great Hasidic master once said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ And I paraphrase it differently: No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”
When he was fifteen years old, on May 16, 1944, Wiesel and his family were forced from their home in Sighet, Transylvania, and deported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his mother, Sarah, and younger sister, Zipporah, were murdered by the Nazis. Young Elie and his father, Shlomo, endured one camp after another until his father succumbed to dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion just two weeks before their final destination, Buchenwald, was liberated by American troops in April 1945.
In his 1958 book, Night, which recounts in stark detail his experiences of torture and depravity as a Jewish prisoner in Nazi concentration camps alongside his father, Wiesel described how witnessing such inhumanity led him to abandon faith. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky … Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes,” he wrote.
Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.
“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly.
“The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”
And yet you continue to wrestle with God?
“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.
You could walk away.
“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not.
But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe.”
His transformation—from a religious teenager who spent hours praying and studying Jewish texts to a disillusioned young adult with no use for the God he felt had abandoned him—did not happen in the concentration camps themselves. Quite the opposite, actually. “My father and I continued to pray at Auschwitz,” he says. “Not begrudgingly. My father and I would get up early to pray, and not alone. There would be a hundred people with us at least. We stood in line in the barracks to pray because somebody bought a pair of phylacteries for ten portions of bread or something from a Pole who had managed to sneak them in. We still stood in a line to say prayers.
“If I could pray there, how can I say I cannot pray here?” Wiesel asks. “For a child, God is a loving God. Later on you realize that God can manifest himself not precisely in compassion but sometimes in punishment. There are two attitudes to have toward God. One of love for God and the other of fear of God. Both are powerful for the Jewish faith. God is to be feared, God is to be loved, and there should be a balance. Not too much of one, not too much of the other.”
After his release from Buchenwald, Wiesel went to live in an orphanage in France. “I tried to be as religious as I was before,” he says. “Later I had to ask myself, Why did I do that? In retrospect I understood why. I wanted to close the parentheses and say to the enemy, ‘You will not succeed. You succeeded in taking my parents away, my grandparents, everything else, even my childhood. One thing you did not take is my faith. It is still here.’ And then came the crisis.”
When Wiesel was about twenty years old, he began studying secular philosophy, trying to find answers to his esoteric questions apart from faith. “I felt that I would not be honest with myself if I did not visit other possibilities,” he says. “But there was never a question of whether God exists. I never doubted God’s existence. I doubted his justice, his presence, his kindness, his compassion, his love, all the attributes I loved. And after a few years what saved me not only from total despair but also from insanity was my passion for study. The moment I came to France, I asked the orphanage for a copy of the Talmud, the same one I had to leave behind at Auschwitz, to continue exactly and open it exactly to the same page where I was interrupted,” he says. “That passion sustains me to this day. I have a passion for study, not only for Jewish studies, which I do every day, but study in general. Plato or Euripides or Dostoyevsky. I love to study. That’s why I’m a teacher and why I have never given the same course in thirty-five years.” He has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University since 1976 and has also taught at the City University of New York and Yale University.
Wiesel says he continues to pray the ancient Jewish prayers he learned as a child. But I wonder if the quality of his prayer life is different from when he was young. “My prayers are the same, but I’ve turned them into arguments. I argue. I argue with God. I never stopped arguing,” he says.
“Basically the same question,” he says.
“How can you allow these things to be done? But I don’t have to go farther. In our tradition, the Jewish tradition, you can say that. The prophet Jeremiah goes much farther than I do. Jeremiah is the only one who predicted tragedy and survived tragedy to tell about it. He says, ‘You, God, killed without pity.’ I wouldn’t go that far. But he says it. ‘You killed without pity. You slaughtered without pity.’ There is no other religion in the world that allows such attitude toward God, such language with God. In the Middle Ages people would have been burned at the stake for less, much less,” Professor Wiesel says. He’s referring to a passage in the second chapter of the biblical book of Lamentations, which, according to tradition, was written by Jeremiah, in which the prophet says, “He has destroyed and had no pity, letting the enemy gloat over you and exalting the horn of your foes … You have slain on the day of your wrath, slaughtered without pity.”
Does God cause bad things to happen to people? Or does God simply allow the bad things to happen?
“I love Jeremiah too much to dispute him, but at the same time, I cannot repeat it in my own name,” Wiesel says. “I may quote him, but I cannot repeat it myself. I cannot go that far. I say maybe God is to be pitied. I had a teacher, a great teacher, who once asked me, ‘Who is the most tragic character in the Bible?’ I said Moses, because he was a solitary leader who had problems either with God or with the people. There was always somebody who didn’t like him. Or maybe Abraham, who was asked by God to bring his son to be sacrificed. Or maybe it was Isaac, who realized all of a sudden what his father was going to do. My teacher said no, no, no. I said, ‘Well, then, who is the most tragic character?’ And he said, ‘God.’”
What does the professor believe God was doing when he and millions of others were suffering at the hands of the Nazis?
“Look, God, by definition, is everywhere. That means he was there, too. So I have a choice to believe he was on the side of the perpetrators or on the side of the victims. I want to believe he was on the side of the victims. So therefore, the pathos of God, the sorrow of God, can move one to tears. Look what they have done, what the killers have done, not only to us, but to God,” he says.
“I am a person who has problems believing, and yet, in spite of them or perhaps because of them, I do believe,” Wiesel continues. “I think the right to doubt is one of the most important rights given to human beings. But I believe in God. In fact, I never stopped believing in God—that’s why I had the problem, the crisis of faith. If I had stopped believing, then I would have been much more at peace. It would have been okay to be disappointed in human beings. What else could you expect from a human being who is the object of seduction and all kinds of ambitions, right? It is easier if God doesn’t enter the equation. The moment you start to believe in God, then how can you accept the world? Do you then accept God’s absence? Do you accept God’s silence? God—why doesn’t he try to make people better, make them lead better lives and be kinder to each other? Why doesn’t he do it? A few times he gave up. But the floods were not a punishment for sins against God but for crimes against each other. What are they doing to themselves? God thought. So he brought the floods. And it didn’t help. I cannot understand two aspects of human nature: indifference and nastiness. I cannot understand. At my age, I should be able to understand. But I cannot. I do not understand. Indifference and nastiness on every level, on petty levels and on high levels.”
In the Jewish tradition, shaming someone publicly is the same as murdering them, Wiesel explains before revealing what he says is one of the great regrets of his life. “When I came here from France, I was very poor. I’ve said in my memoirs there were days when I had nothing to eat. My salary was $180 a month, including hotel, expenses, everything. There were days I had no money to buy bread, and I confess, I used to steal soap from the men’s room at the United Nations. In order for sustenance, I joined the Jewish daily Forward, which was at the time a large Yiddish-language paper. And I remember once I wrote a review of a Yiddish novelist. And it wasn’t very flattering because the book was silly. I regret it to this day. Why did I do that? Therefore, now, if I cannot praise a book, I do not review it.” Nastiness. He cannot abide it.
Nor can he tolerate indifference. He recalls a trip to he made back to Auschwitz. Walking through the town that housed the concentration camp, “I saw four men on the street, one of them a priest. I said, ‘Are you from here?’ And the priest said yes. I said, ‘Were you here during the war?’ And he said, ‘Of course.’ I asked him, ‘Where did you live?’ And he said, ‘That house, there.’ I asked him, ‘Where was the camp?’ He said, ‘There,’ twenty feet away. I said, ‘You could see it?’ He said, ‘Of course, through the window.’ I asked him to describe a typical day, and he gave a full description about the music and the marching. I said, ‘Could you sleep at night?’ And he said, ‘To be honest, in the beginning it was difficult. Then we got used to it.’”
My God. How chilling.
“Yes,” Wiesel says with a tone of resignation, as if to say And not much has changed. “Look at Darfur or Rwanda,” he says. “And suicide killings. The cult of death. They don’t realize that when they’re killing in God’s name, they’re turning God into a murderer.”
Believing is hardest for Wiesel when he thinks of those who did not make it through the Holocaust. Like his father, mother, little sister. And so many millions more.
“Some people speak about miracles. I don’t like them. If God made a miracle for me, God could have made a few more miracles for people worthier than I. It was just chance, luck. I was the wrong candidate for survival. I was always sick as a child, always. And how was I saved? I didn’t do anything. I never took any initiative. I was a coward. I did not want to be beaten. Who knows? And why not others? A million and a half Jewish children were murdered. How many great sages would have come out of there? How many Nobel Prize winners? How many poets, how many scientists, how many doctors? I know now that since I don’t find a meaning for my own survival, I must confer a meaning from it. That is why I teach, why I write. That is why I’m involved in all kinds of human rights activities. To justify my existence,” he says.
“No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”
~ Elie Wiesel
His legacy, he goes on, is his son, his grandchildren, and his writings.
“I hope my son and his children will live in a better world. Maybe to a small degree that will be because of the things that I’ve tried to do. Maybe strangers one day will be in a place and pick up a book because it is there on the table, and they’ll read a sentence, and that idea or desire may help them get through one more event or one more sadness,” he says.
Words are powerful and Wiesel understands that power.
When he was born, his given name was Eliezer. It is a biblical name, the name of Moses’ son by his wife Zipporah. But the Hungarian government, which had control over the area where he lived, would not accept biblical (i.e., Jewish) names. So his name was changed to Elie. “Biblical names are so beautiful and meaningful. Eliezer means ‘help of God,’ and Elie means ‘my God,’” Professor Wiesel says. “There is actually one thing I’ve tried to do; in all of my novels, the name of God is in the name of each of my main characters.”
Elhanan in The Forgotten. “Whom God has graciously bestowed.”
Gamaliel in The Time of the Uprooted. “Reward of God.”
Elisha in Dawn. “My God is salvation.”
Perhaps God is the main character? “He must be,” Professor Wiesel says, his pained stare lingering as he looks me straight in the eye, the silence between us indicating that we’re not talking about his novels anymore. “If not He, who?”
~ NOVEMBER 2001, APRIL 2005
Find a copy of The God Factor book HERE.
Jennifer Grant, my dear friend and co-editor of Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, and I are guests on our homesizzle The Rev. Dr. Steve Brown‘s radio show and podcast today.
By the by, Steve, who is (among many marvelous things) Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry at Reformed Theological Seminary, also has a marvelous chapter in Disquiet Time, called “A High Tolerance for Ambiguity,” where he writes in part:
If you’ve stood before God and haven’t been confused, you’re probably not worshiping God. You’re worshiping an idol. Not only that, but God’s ways are circuitous, and whatever you think God is doing, he probably isn’t. If you want to make God laugh, someone has said, tell him your plans. But even more relevant, if you want to make God really laugh, tell him what you think he told you.
Steve, are you leaving and becoming a Buddhist or something?
I’ve thought about it. Buddhists don’t seem to care about diets, and they’re always smiling ; but frankly, I’ve gone too far here to get out. Besides, I hate change, and I wonder who will forgive me and love me the way Jesus does. So I’m probably going to stay— bloodied and wounded sometimes, afraid and angry sometimes , sinful and rebellious sometimes, confused and lost sometimes… and always needy— because I don’t have any other place to go.
I’m just not as sure as my students. And I’m not as sure about God’s ways as I once was, either. Saint Paul asked a rhetorical question in Romans 11: 34: “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (ESV). The obvious answer is that I certainly don’t, and nobody else here does , either.
Disquiet Time is on sale at Amazon.com for 30% off if you use the promotional code HOLIDAY30 at checkout!
Listen in to Steve’s interview with Jen and Cath HERE or below.