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.

Muslims in WWII and the Holocaust



The Washington Post has recently published an article by Michael Wolfe entitled “Meet the Muslims who sacrificed themselves to save Jews and fight Nazis in World War II.”

I’m glad that the article tries to present a forgotten side of Jewish-Muslim relations and the positive role of Muslims in Western society, but after reading it I have some concerns.

First, Wolfe somewhat blurs the distinction between rescuing Jews and being involved in the Allied war effort.

Noor Inayat Khan was certainly remarkable, and deserves her own article. Her fiancé had been Jewish, and the Nazi treatment of Jews was one of the factors leading to her involvement in the war effort. She found Nazism “fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she had been brought up with by her father.” Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was fond of an old Sufi proverb, “Be the follower of love, and forget all distinctions.” This is a beautiful example of how religious spirituality (in this case, Muslim), however, Noor Inayat Khan was not directly involved in the rescue of Jews, and her motivation was universalist.

It is unlikely that the majority of Senegalese Tirailleurs- conscripts- were motivated by a desire to assist Jews, let alone sacrifice themselves for that cause. There was growing resentment of France for the distinctive uniforms they wore (“slave’s clothing”), and for the insensitive treatment by their officers, so when they helped liberate French towns and discovered that not everyone was fighting in the resistance, they were understandably outraged. This is not to denigrate the Senegalese in any way. They fought bravely, loyally, and often suffered more than other troops. All it means is that they were human, and did not necessarily respond enthusiastically to sacrificing themselves for what they considered a stranger’s cause.

Second, Wolfe presents an entirely rosy view of Muslim efforts to rescue Jews.

The Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari comes across as genuinely good, a dedicated servant of his country. However, the claim that he issued Iranian passports to 500 French Jews is unsubstantiated, appearing only in a statement made by his nephew many years after Sardari’s death. Sardari himself never mentioned it. The actual story involves the Jugutis- a community of crypto-Jews whose ancestors had been forcibly converted to Islam in Meshed in 1839. They lived outwardly as Muslims whilst secretly adhering to Judaism. Several of them resided in France, alongside Jews from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran. One of their leaders, Dr. Atchildi, came up with a plan to save his community by claiming that Jugutis were religiously Jewish, but ethnically Aryan. Sardari helped him achieve legal recognition exempting Jugutis from anti-Jewish laws, and then requested that he place Iranian Jews on the list of Jugutis as well. Sardari’s chief concern was to help his compatriots, which is not a bad thing at all.

The other diplomatic examples in the article pale in comparison. Corry Guttstadt extensively researched Turkey’s role in the Holocaust, and her findings exploded the myth of Turkish rescue. Some consuls, it is true, did save Jews, but the documented cases do not reach thousands of people saved, and the motivations were rarely very noble (though on this score many diplomats of other nations also fare rather poorly). Rescue was often the result only of sexual and monetary exchanges. Lives were saved, which is a good thing, but it hardly does credit to those diplomats who primarily benefited themselves. The Neçdet Kent story of the train seems very moving and inspiring, but is pure fabrication. Kent is the only source of the story, no survivor testimony corroborates it, and it is contradicted by material evidence.

Wolfe’s other Turkish example is even uglier. Not only did Behiç Erkin not issue Turkish passports to thousands of Jews with only distant connections to Turkey, he actually stopped the one individual on his staff- a French national- who did. Beginning in 1942, the Nazis had Jewish nationals of neutral countries deported. The passage to Turkey was neither funded nor organized by Turkey. Individuals either had to pay from their own pocket, or receive funding from a Jewish relief organization. Turkey, in fact, was not only slow to save its Jewish citizens, it even rescinded the citizenship of many Turkish Jews, leaving them stranded and vulnerable.

Ahmed Somia apparently was a dedicated resistance fighter, and the hospital did rescue many parachutists and members of the resistance, although everything that I have read accords Abdelhaffid Haffa- the hospital’s guardian- with a far bigger role than Somia. Haffa led the resistance activity, working secretly with a Jewish doctor. Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a religious leader of Paris’ Algerians and rector of the Grand Mosque, played a far more ambiguous role. Benghabrit saved some Jews, washed his hands of others (even as late as 1944), and generally pursued a range of actions from collaboration to resistance. In Benghabrit’s defense, we tend to approach WWII and the Holocaust with considerable hindsight. Things were usually not as clear to participants. Benghabrit pursued what he considered the best course for preserving his community. This did not always involve rescuing Jews.

By all means, Muslim assistance to Jews in the Holocaust should be highlighted, but romanticized myth-making does not build better bridges, and might make reconciliation and cooperation even harder.

“Generally, the myths historians interrogate are those that reinforce, rather than contradict, univocal narratives of conflict. In such cases, while the more complex truth may be painful, it can offer recognition to both sides, providing a more blended version of a disputed history and paving the way for possible reconciliation. By contrast, in the case of the Grand Mosque, the more mythical story does not seem to reinforce entrenched hatreds but rather to offer promise for reconciliation. Yet in so doing, it obscures a more complicated historical reality, and… reinforces a wider series of problematic perceptions that mar Jewish-Muslim understanding.”

In other words, we cannot have a meaningful discussion about Jewish-Muslim relations, or Muslims and the Holocaust, or the modern role of Muslims in Western society if we stick to myths. Even if the myth is positive, it obscures the real history and the real problems.

Of course, I also think that history matters, whether or not it leads to meaningful dialogue.

Still, I would like to end with a very positive example from Wolfe’s list. Albanian Muslims (and Catholics, too) were dedicated in saving Jews to an extent rarely found elsewhere. They were moved not only by besa– their code of honour- but also in many cases were influenced by the teachings of the Bektashi Sufi order.

Deirdre McCloskey & “Worship Through Corporeality”

A while back, I co-authored a couple posts with Allen Hansen over at Worlds Without End on an important thread running through Mormonism: the religious significance often attached to secular acts. Part one explored this phenomenon in light of similar traditions in Judaism, specifically Hasidism and its “worship through corporeality.” Part two added managerial perspectives and its connection to eternal progression.

Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has a Nov. 2013 piece that draws on Christian history to express the morality and theology of work and self-development. Readers of my posts with Allen will find that many of McCloskey’s ideas resonate with the idea of “worship through corporeality.”

Check it out.

Divine Feminine: Early Polytheist Israel Includes Goddess Worship

File:Hecht Museum, Israel – figurines 004-crop.JPGYahoo News posted on an interesting archaeological discovery in Israel that continues to add evidence that monotheism in Judaism was a late development in its Biblical history, and that one of its most prominent deities was the “wife” or consort of Yahweh. This prominent Jewish goddess was named Ashera, who also had a place in the pantheons of older cultures as well, dating back to the ancient Sumerian and Ugaritic myths.

For those familiar with the work of Margaret Barker and other similar Biblical scholars, this is not breaking news. The worship of multiple (including female) deities, pre-dating the first temple period has been researched and written about for a long time. But the additional evidence, of course, does make it increasingly hard for those who want to claim the root of the monotheistic, Judeo-Christian thought  reaches back to the dawn of time instead of the revisionary, Deuteronomist scribes in King Josiah’s day, will have difficulty contorting around this kind of information. As a Mormon who takes Joseph Smith’s teachings about a “Heavenly Mother” and his King Follett sermon seriously, this already synthesizes with my religious worldview.

Mormons…the new Jew?: Exploring the Jewish-Mormon Connection
BYU’s Jerusalem Center

Rabbi Perry Tirschwell wrote an interesting comparison of Mormons and Jews in the Jewish Press yesterday. Ever since Orson Hyde dedicated the Holy Land and prophesied about the Zionist movement, Mormons have had a vested interest in witnessing the restoration of the Jews’ place in the world. It should be clear, though, that Latter-day Saint Church leaders are on record in expressing love for towards both Jews and Muslims, lest people think we’re taking a side in certain Middle-East conflict. The late Mormon president/prophet Howard  W. Hunter said in his excellent 1979 address “All Are Alike Unto God”:

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