Soul on Fire: Appreciating Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel departed this world at the age of eighty seven. He has had a tremendous influence on my life, though I never met or corresponded with him. His books were always in the house when I was growing up, and I remember my mother retelling for me the plot of Dawn, but I cannot remember how old I was. Perhaps I was nine. The details have faded but the memory remains and comes to mind quite often. Honestly, it was sobering and a bit frightening to realize that no one is exempt from life’s horrors, that even I might be forced at some point to choose between two ugly outcomes. I still hope that I never will, but it was Elie Wiesel who forced me to acknowledge the possibility that it could happen.

I have not rushed to post on Wiesel’s death because I have been picking up his works again and pondering his life. He deserves as much. I confess that it has been at least a year since I last read something of his. Wiesel himself resisted tidy conclusions. Still, something that I have noticed while following  media coverage is just how much is misunderstood about Wiesel. He had his flaws and failings, of course, and valid criticisms can (or is it should) be leveled at him. There were even survivors with more compelling views on the universality of the Holocaust than his own, and Wiesel sometimes clashed with them, but he was a powerful voice for good nonetheless. Then there was the disgraceful spectacle of people like Max Blumenthal, who possess the moral stature of a Chihuahua, publishing tweet after tweet vilifying Wiesel not long after his death was announced.

Something that I can see even in many valid criticisms is that Wiesel is being judged by our own image of a Holocaust survivor and champion of human rights should be rather than by what Wiesel actually was. To understand Wiesel we must set aside such grand images as citizen of the world and its conscience, and start with the Elie Wiesel who was deported to the kingdom of night, as he would put it. A shy but ardent Hasidic youth who viewed everything through a spiritual lens. His parents had to force him to set some time aside for secular studies, such was his religious fervor. Then came the Holocaust, an outburst of the forces of evil so intense that it destroyed his ability to believe as he once did. Wiesel always wanted to recover that simple faith, but could not. This is the thread running throughout his works, the source of the enigmatic laughter and silences that fill his stories.

Night is a powerful novel. Really needs no introduction. Dawn is not as well known, but as noted above, perhaps more compelling and troubling because it deals with the internal struggle of a Holocaust survivor faced with making an awful choice. If Night is about surviving in a kingdom where God does not act, Dawn looks at the choices one must make when acting in history instead of God. Night will make you weep, and Dawn will chill you, but if you want to get at the man behind Wiesel’s public persona then read Souls on FireSouls is a collection of sayings, stories, and character sketches of several 18th-19th century Hasidic masters, leaders of a Jewish revivalist movement in Eastern Europe. Wiesel has written quite a bit on this or that Hasidic master. It is a prominent topic in his writings, and though I have never bothered to quantify this, I would not be surprised if he has written more frequently and directly about Hasidism than he has about the Holocaust, but everything that he wrote eventually touched upon his experience in the camps.

The Hasidic master, or Rebbe, acts as bridge between his followers, the Hasidim, and God. The Rebbe was central to how they approached the world, so telling stories about these masters practically became a sacred duty. These were stories about hidden saints and holy beggars, miracles and prophecies, uplifting the poor and downtrodden, intense longing for the Messiah as if he were due any minute, putting God on trial for neglecting his children, and a host of other colorful episodes, but most of all about the soul and how to mend it. Sometimes cryptic and paradoxical, they all share a love of truth. These stories were used to draw man closer to God rather than simply entertain. Wiesel did that, too. “I don’t believe the aim of literature is to entertain, to distract, to amuse.”

Hasidism, then, was the world of Wiesel’s innocence, where God was close, always ready to intervene on behalf of those who loved him, a world filled with warm memories of conversations with his grandfather the devout Hasid. It was he who taught Wiesel his first stories and embodied their virtues. Hasidism was about faith. Not mental affirmation, but an attitude of trust and devotion.

In the chapter entitled Disciples IV, Elie Wiesel relates a Hasidic legend of how Satan protested the birth of a particular Rebbe so holy that he would draw enough followers closer to God so as to destroy Satan’s kingdom effortlessly. The heavenly court recognized the unfairness of that scenario, and decided to send a rival – a counterfeit Rebbe – whom no one would suspect of serving God’s rival.

How is one to know? How does one recognize purity in a man? And how can one be sure? I remember putting this question to my grandfather. He chuckled and his eyes twinkled when he answered: “But one is never sure; nor should one be. Actually, it all depends on the Hasid; it is he who, in the final analysis, must justify the Rebbe.”

It is hard not to see this as really being about God, about Wiesel’s relationship with him. This answer to a childhood question, I think, lies behind the anger in Night, and behind the moral calculus in Dawn. Like the old chestnut, show me your friends and I will show you who you are. With Wiesel, though, there is never a simple affirmation of man’s moral superiority to God. That is a subtle nuance which even as fine a film as God on Trial (inspired by a Wiesel experience and story) misses. Man is responsible for affirming his devotion to truth through his actions and choices, perhaps even to transform his master through them. His failure to do so can have acute repercussions because God and man are inseparably linked.

“You’ll grow up, you’ll see,” my grandfather had said. “You’ll see that is more difficult, more rare to find a Hasid than a Rebbe. To induce others to believe is easier than to believe…”

Another story is shared of a Rebbe scolding God for keeping an old man like him waiting all his life for the messiah, then Wiesel’s own memory of his grandfather blessing him to see the messiah end evil, and how that caused him to tremble in Auschwitz for his grandfather. A story about a holy dance invites Wiesel to wonder how his grandfather died. For him, it is all connected. He expressed what he experienced in the camps in terms of these Hasidic tales and sayings.

One of Hasidism’s finest tales relates that the founder of Hasidism went to a certain spot in the woods to perform a ritual and utter a prayer to avert a disaster. His successor could not remember the ritual, but knew the spot and the prayer. The next Rebbe knows only the spot, and, finally, only the story remains. This must suffice, or can it? Wiesel suggests that we might be past that stage.

The proof is that the threat has not been averted. Perhaps we are no longer able to tell the story. Could all of us be guilty? Even the survivors? Especially the survivors?

That last question alone opens up a world of anguish that the trite and easy phrase survivor’s guilt can never fathom. It also lends urgency to the task of storytelling. There are no easy answers to any of these questions which occupied Wiesel his entire life.

Two sayings of Hasidic masters are given in the chapter with no commentary. “To pronounce useless words is to commit murder,” and, “Nothing and nobody down here frightens me… But the moaning of a beggar makes me shudder.” Both of these encapsulate Wiesel’s approach as author and witness. Waste no word on things that do not teach truth and fear nothing as much as another’s suffering.

There is much more that could be discussed. Instead, read Souls on Fire, especially the moving postscript describing why he wrote it. Your time will be greatly rewarded.

To end like I began, on a personal note: I was surprised to feel no sorrow at Wiesel’s passing. In fact, I almost felt happy. I typically get very emotional thinking about the Holocaust at any length. Why not now? In Jewish thought death is often considered a passage from the world of illusion to the world of truth. Wiesel loved truth but was haunted by it. He was truly a soul on fire, so perhaps now he will be able to see things as they really are, and meet with God to reconcile differences and finally have his questions answered. A chance, I feel, to regain his childhood faith.

The Jew Who Helped Invent the Modern Islamic State


Despite the misleading title, Tablet has an excellent essay by Shalom Goldman on Muhammad Asad, one of the most important Muslim thinkers of the 20th century. What makes Asad’s story particularly remarkable is that he was born Jewish, in what is now western Ukraine. After converting, Asad gained such proficiency in the Quran and other classical Muslim texts that lifelong Muslims such as the founders of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan sought his advice on how to run a modern state in harmony with religious values. The essay is not a blanket endorsement of Asad (and it only scratches the surface) but if you want to go beyond the headlines when it comes to Islam, sharia, and just politics and religion in general, this is a great place to start.

Four Mistakes to Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam


One of the best-written pieces in the aftermath of the Paris attacks has not received significant exposure so far. It is a pity, because Shai Held’s 4 Mistakes To Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam goes right to the heart of how public dialogue on religious extremism should be handled. As Held indicates, “the public conversation about radical Islam is often tedious at best, and downright toxic at worst,” because, predictably, each side cares more about defending its own worldview than engaging in nuanced consideration of the problem posed by radical Islam (or any other religious extremism, for that matter). Both sides become entrenched in their opinions, something which isn’t helped by the nature of social media. Those with a positive view of Islam and Muslims are understandably inclined to distance ISIS and other expressions of extremism from Islam as practiced by millions. On the other side of the debate are those who are legitimately concerned with violent acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, but wildly exaggerate its role in Islam. Each view feeds on the other. How do we step out of yet another vicious circle of partisan strife and find effective solutions to the problem posed by radical Islam?

In facing the current moment, there are four pitfalls we must avoid. The first two, the mistakes of misguided liberals, are (1) denying that Islam has anything to do with ISIS, and (2) refusing to admit that Islam is in unique crisis. The latter two, the mistakes of reactionary conservatives, are (3) declaring that Islam is irredeemably evil, and (4) painting all Muslims with the same brush. All four of these illusions are appealing to some, but all are false, and ultimately noxious.

I highly recommend reading the rest of Held’s piece, it is a reasoned and reasonable response to a controversial topic that does not dismiss legitimate concerns on either side. Something rare indeed.

Soviet Ray Bradbury Animations

Zdes Mogut Voditsya Tigry

I’m a fan of Soviet-era films and cartoons. The number of ham-handed, ideologically-driven films is not as great as one might think. There are plenty of faithful adaptations of western literature with high production values even on low budgets, and sensitivity to the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the stories. There also many comedies, and things like crudity and nudity are fairly rare. Plus, my wife grew up on many of these, so it has been a great way to bond. Yesterday I came across two animated shorts that I hadn’t seen before. Both are 1980s adaptations of Ray Bradbury stories (there are English subtitles). The plots are altered somewhat. Here There Be Tygers explores the beauty in life, and how our responses to that beauty reveal who we really are. Innocence and self-sacrifice are contrasted with destructive greed. There Will Come Soft Rains changes why the automated house is destroyed, introducing a darker, and more disturbing apocalyptic theme with a religious subtext. This is a good reminder that both animation and science fiction can be very serious art forms indeed, and definitely worth watching.

Thoughts on Obama’s Response to Garrett.


After watching the recent presidential news conference, I agree with Nathaniel that Garrett’s question was exploitative, and that the tone of president Obama’s response was effective and appropriate. I’ll even go so far as calling the response masterful. Garrett lost. That being said, I find the content of Obama’s response deeply problematic.

Obama knows only too well that the no ransom policy is not exactly straight-forward. In November of last year, Obama had the US policy on hostages reevaluated. In June of this year, it was announced that while the US government will continue its official no ransoms policy, family members may pay ransoms themselves. Not only that, the government will assist in communicating and negotiating with the captors. In other words, ransoms can be paid, and the leg work can be done by the US, but the ransoms cannot be paid by the state. This is because not paying ransoms does not actually prevent hostage taking. What it does is ensure the hostages’ deaths. Ransoms do provide an easy source of funding for terrorist organizations, which is where the real concern lays as far as counter-terrorism is concerned.

The US, though, has made exceptions to its policy, most notably in the case of Bowe Bergdahl. I personally think that Obama did the right thing in securing Bergdahl’s release. Soldiers need to have the confidence that everything will be done to bring them back. The deal itself, though, is a classic case of giving terrorists concessions. The Taliban received five of its men for one low-ranking US soldier. Of course they will leap at an opportunity to take more soldiers (and civilians) captive.

Obama, then, can and has made exceptions when it comes to securing the release of US citizens held by terrorist organizations. He has made emotional appeals not to consider them abstractions, but to understand that they are real people who may never see their families again. The response to Garrett does not explain no exceptions were made in this case, or why the release of the Americans was not insisted upon for any of the major concessions Obama was willing to grant Iran. If Iran, China, and Russia were given the choice of either an Iran with American prisoners and no lifting of the conventional arms embargo, or an Iran with American prisoners and a continued embargo, it is hard to see why they would pick the latter when they stand to gain quite a bit more from the former.

Obama is also being a little disingenuous when it comes to employing the hostage logic. The four Americans (or at least the three whose whereabouts are known) are not being held hostage, they are prisoners. They have not been used by Iran as bargaining chips in the nuclear negotiations. Obama wants Iran to be considered a responsible state actor with whom other state actors can have normative relations. These states do not take hostages for the purpose of gaining concessions. If Iran is not such a state, then Obama has done far worse damage by granting Iran political legitimacy and lifting sanctions than any concessions in the prisoners matter would have done. He cannot have it both ways. Garrett’s trap backfired, but Obama’s response leaves too many big questions unanswered.

The Relevance of Shakespeare

It was deeply fascinating to watch how strikingly contemporary American audiences from coast to coast found Shakespeare’s Othello — painfully immediate in its unfolding of evil, innocence, passion, dignity and nobility, and contemporary in its overtones of a clash of cultures, of the partial acceptance of and consequent effect upon one of a minority group. Against this background, the jealousy of the protagonist becomes more credible, the blows to his pride more understandable, the final collapse of his personal, individual world more inevitable. But beyond the personal tragedy, the terrible agony of Othello, the irretrievability of his world, the complete destruction of all his trusted and sacred values — all these suggest the shattering of a universe.

I was reminded of these words after reading Dana Dusbiber’s post on why Shakespeare should not be taught. In a nutshell, he is difficult, white, and long dead. How could someone like that be relevant in today’s diverse classroom? The words at the top of the page were written not by any white academic in an ivory tower, but by Paul Robeson, the singer, athlete, actor, and black activist. Growing up, Paul Robeson was a hero to me. I always felt a little out of place, and though Robeson died before I was born, his story was inspiring. He had talent, courage, and conviction, speaking always with a profound dignity. Electrifying. The man was like a king. His lifelong struggle was to create a society in which all people were treated equally because he knew how awful the alternative was. Robeson was the first black actor in the twentieth century to play Othello, using the role to break down barriers against integration both on stage and off it. In the play, Othello is at the top of his profession. He is a key man in Venice, is wealthy, and has married into Venetian society. Despite all that, Othello feels insecure because he is an outsider, and his rivals use that insecurity to destroy him. Why wouldn’t such a play be relevant to “very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students?” Even if you share the majority’s skin pigmentation, why would Othello not have anything to say to the kid that never feels that he fits in, no matter his accomplishments? I was that kid. Let’s not hurry to dismiss Shakespeare just because he happens to be white and dead.

The Maximum of Hatred for a Minimum of Reason

In the spring of 1940, a young Jewish scholar disembarked in New York, and was deeply affected by what he saw- a black shoeshine. What was so shocking? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came to the United States as a refugee fleeing Hitler. His mother and his sister were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto , eventually perishing in the Holocaust. The worlds he knew were completely destroyed by racism. It is no cliché that for Heschel, America represented a new hope. One of the first things that he saw in his new home was a black man relegated to the demeaning job of kneeling to polish shoes. It was a painful reminder than one could not flee racism. It had to be eradicated. This one incident, though, is unlikely to have created Heschel’s lifelong commitment to the civil rights movement. While teaching at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Heschel befriended Larry D. Harris, the head-waiter, a proud deacon in a black church. This is how he learned of the realities of segregation, and his commitment to eradicating that evil would eventually lead to Selma. In light of the Charleston shooting, it is worth reading Heschel’s powerful 1963 denunciation of racism and the treatment of African Americans. What happened in Charleston is not about whiteness, blackness, or even privilege. These are manifestations of the root issue, a refusal to see each other as members of the same family, a refusal that can open a Pandora’s box of hatred, oppression, and murder. Sadly, Heschel’s words have not lost their relevance.

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach? Race as a normative legal or political concept is capable of expanding to formidable dimensions. A mere thought, it extends to become a way of thinking, a highway of insolence, as well as a standard of values, overriding truth, justice, beauty. As a standard of values and behavior, race operates as a comprehensive doctrine, as racism. And racism is worse than idolatry. Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil. Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.

What I Saw of Shiloh: Honoring Memorial Day

Memorial Day originally commemorated the fallen of the American Civil War. While it was later expand to include all of the wars fought by the USA, it is good never to forget its roots. Ambrose Bierce is one of my favorite authors. He combined absolute mastery of the English language with dark, sardonic, and witty insights into human nature. Some of his finest work draws upon his experiences in the Civil War. Bierce fought through most of it, and it would be an understatement to say that the death, horror, courage, stupidity, and uselessness he saw deeply impacted him for the rest of his life. Nothing quite captures the horror of being trapped and isolated like his story, One of the Missing. Read it, and it will send chills down your spine. Even this doesn’t compare to the powerfully understated recollections he wrote of leading men into battle. Take a little time today to read What I Saw of Shiloh, I promise it will deeply move you and lend a little more meaning to this day.

Remembering a Forgotten Woman

There have been calls to replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the twenty dollar bill with that of a woman. It is a good idea, and Women On 20s recently announced their four finalists. Worthy, if predictable, choices. I know that you can’t choose everyone, but I have to wonder why a certain candidate never got as far as the primary round. It raises an important question. Why does a prominent female activist who believed in equality, crusaded against social evils oppressing women, and inspired people the world over not even make it to the final fifteen? As you have probably guessed from the picture, I have Carry A. Nation of saloon-smashing fame in mind. Nation was a strong, independent, and unconventional woman who tirelessly fought for equality. She was not afraid to oppose social and systemic evil. Born poor, Nation became an entrepreneur, a journalist, an educator, and a performer, possibly one of the most famous women of her day. Her example inspired women in other countries such as France. She suffered ridicule, humiliation, physical assaults, and escaped several attempts on her life. She seems to be exactly the kind of woman who should be celebrated as a quintessentially American hero, yet she is marginalized by men and women across the American political spectrum. Why? As her recent biographer explains,

Nowadays, however, no one wants to claim Carry Nation. Although she fought for women’s rights, feminists dismiss her because she was intensely religious and lambasted liquor. A puritanical killjoy, they say. One would think that the religious right would like her precisely for this reason, but they disparage her as a stereotypical domineering woman because she marched into the male sphere (with an axe!) and deserted her husband. Even the organization that helped to launch Nation’s career—the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—no longer claims her as their own (if they ever did).

Carry Nation is not polarizing, she is inconvenient. No one really knows what to do with her because she does not comfortably fit current political agendas, so she is written off as a loon. Twenty dollar bills or not, if you care about women’s history, reintroducing the marginalized like Carry Nation into the narrative is change you can make happen now.

Leonard Nimoy

I’m pretty sure that most everyone knows that “live long and prosper” is based on the Jewish priestly blessing. What seems less appreciated is just how fundamental Yiddish culture was to Leonard Nimoy’s identity as a person and as an actor. In 2013, Nimoy was interviewed for the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. It is a fascinating interview, even if you only watch the highlights version. Nimoy discusses his family, his life, and his love for a vanishing culture. Oh, and Hamlet’s soliloquy in Yiddish.