In One Generation After, Elie Wiesel – of blessed memory - tells a short story that is long on meaning. Every morning, the beadle of a synagogue rushed to the bimah – the reader’s platform – and shouted with pride and anger: “I have come to inform you, Master of the Universe, that we are here.” Massacre after massacre hit the village, but the beadle survived and kept up his daily pounding on the lectern: “You see, Lord, we are still here.” The last massacre left the beadle alone in the deserted synagogue. He came up to the Ark and “whispered in infinite gentleness: ‘You see? I am still here.’ He stopped briefly before continuing in his sad, almost toneless voice: ‘But You, where are You?’”
As we collectively mourn the loss of a great contemporary hero, much ink has been spilled on Elie Wiesel’s concern for humanity and memory, how he masterfully bore witness to tragedy and dignified the survivor, forcing the world into an uncomfortable look in the mirror at its complacency. Challenging us, he demanded that memory not only preserve and shape the past but that it also set a moral agenda for the future. Less has been written, however, about Wiesel’s theology, how despite anger at God, he maintained his own observance and his own wrestling with God, a continuous if not tormenting presence.
In answer to the question of his faith leaving him during the Holocaust, he deflected in a fictive conversation. “I said I refuse to speak about God, here in this place. To say yes would be to lie. To say no – also. If need be, I would confront Him with an angry shout, a gesture, a murmur. But to make of Him – here – a theological topic, that I won’t do! God – here – is the extra bowl of soup pushed at you or stolen from you, simply because the man ahead of you is either stronger or quicker than you. God – here – cannot be found in humble or grandiloquent phrases, but in a crust of bread…Which you have had or are about to have?...which you will never have (Dialogues I).
Wiesel found God guilty in his literary court but and still went to the synagogue to pray. He loved old Jewish melodies, and his own melodious speaking voice was hypnotizing whenever I heard him lecture. As I looked at the string of his books in our personal library, I noticed so many more were about Hasidic tales than about survivor fears, as if nostalgia gripped him and made him a storyteller for magical sects that he was not a part of after the war. The Hasidic tale also provides a framework for lived theology; it may have allowed him permission to fight God without walking away from God.
Wiesel has been likened to an ancient prophet and inspired me to open A. J. Heschel’s book, The Prophets, to seek in its pages something descriptive of this man. Heschel did not disappoint, with this description of a prophet’s worldview: “It is a divine attentiveness to humanity, an involvement in history, a divine vision of the world in which the prophet shares and which he tries to convey. And it’s God’s concern for man that is at the root of the prophet’s work to save the people.”
Today, many people valorize heresy as a sort of intellectual status symbol, suggesting that sophisticated people are beyond faith. Elie Wiesel helped us grieve the past with immense pride as a moral ambassador who was unabashedly Jewish. He also left a legacy of complicated faith that challenges us to reinvestigate what it means to live in relationship to God, not only through the tragedy of Auschwitz but also through the abundance of Jewish life after that horrible chapter closed.