In June 2011, Elie Wiesel underwent emergency heart surgery. In his book Open Heart, he recounts the pain and emotions he felt as well as the memories and existential questions that surfaced during his ordeal.
And God in all that?
Am I asking myself that terrible question to chase away my anxiety and my pain?
Now that I am confined to the hospital bed, that question arises again, obsesses me as it haunts all I have written. And, lover of insoluble philosophical problems that I am, I remain frustrated.
A great journalist, a friend, in a televised conversation asked me what I would say to God as I stood before Him. I answered with one word: “Why?”
And God’s answer? If, in His kindness, as we say, He actually communicated His answer, I don’t recall it.
The Talmud tells me: Moses is present as Rabbi Akiba gives a lecture on the Bible. And Moses asks God, “Since this master is so erudite, why did You give the Law to me rather than to him?” And God answers harshly: “Be quiet. For such is my will!” Some time later, Moses is present at Rabbi Akiba’s terrible torture and death at the hands of Roman soldiers. And he cries out, “Lord, is this Your reward to one who lived his entire life celebrating Your Law?” And God repeats His answer with the same harshness:
“Be quiet. For such is my will!”
What will His answer be now, to make me be quiet?
And where shall I find the audacity and the strength to not accept it?
And yet, once I have left the antechamber of death, I ponder the question again. Why this illness? These pains, why did I deserve them? Even the possible success of the surgery leads me to inquire: “And God in all this?” Merciful God—as we say—did He not, after all, intervene and lend a hand to the surgeon? But again why, for what purpose?
When I was a child, I situated God exclusively in all that is Good. In all that is sacred. In all that makes man worthy of salvation. Could it be that for God, Evil represents just another path leading to Good?
In truth, for the Jew that I am, Auschwitz is not only a human tragedy but also—and most of all—a theological scandal. For me, it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God. But then how is one to understand His silence?
As I try to explain God’s presence in Evil, I suffer. And search for reasons that would allow me to denounce it. Thoughts I expressed already in Night, in particular in the passage that describes a Rosh Hashana service in Buna:
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
But a few lines later I describe how during the same service I recite the traditional prayers and litanies, and proclaim my faith in Him, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob….
I confess to having rebelled against the Lord, but I have never repudiated Him.
Having studied the sublime, enchanting texts of the prophets, I make mine Jeremiah’s Lamentations, evoking the destruction of the first Temple of Jerusalem:
“You have killed [Your children] without mercy!”
“You have assassinated [Your people] without compassion!”
What? God, assassin? True, some of us protested against the divine silence. But none of us had the audacity to call God “Assassin”!
On the third day, I feel the need to say my daily prayers. I ask [my wife] Marion to bring me my talit and tefilin.
To thank Him? To explain to God that I believe in Him in spite of Himself? My thoughts are still too nebulous to formulate a valid response on the subject of the Almighty.
I do, however, find a response, more personal perhaps: namely, that my commitment is an affirmation of my fidelity to the religious practice of my parents and theirs. If I observe the laws of the Torah by putting on the tefilin, it is because my father and grandfather, and theirs, did so. I refuse to be the last in a line going back very far in my memory and that of my people.
I know this answer is in no way satisfactory, or perhaps not even valid. But it is the only one.
All my life, until today, I have been content to ask questions. All the while knowing that the real questions, those that concern the Creator and His creation, have no answers. I’ll go even further and say that there is a level at which only the questions are eternal; the answers never are.
And so, the patient that I am, more charitable, repeats, “Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers.”
Excerpted from Open Heart by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2012 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Carl David says
The idea that one remains “observant” in spite of the fact that the evil of the world persists resonates with me, as I’ve argued often that “dropping the ball” of being Jewish would be a terrible thing to do. I can not, as does Wiesel, look back at my father and grandfather to justify binding tfillin, since neither of them did that. In fact my father’s father was an atheist, and my father was little better. But my grandfather perished in Hamburg in 1942 as a Jew, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery, although without a grave marker (he lies next to my grandmother, who died a few days before at her own hand prior to deportation to a camp. Who buried them I do not know.).
But my grandparents died at least partly because they were Jewish, and my father grieved all his American life for their suffering. So for me to dishonor their memory by apostasy is unacceptable to me or to my son, who gave his son a bris.
Carrying on the tradition means recognizing and respecting your past, it does not mean accepting a god whose inscrutability allows anyone to claim acts on god’s behalf. Consider the families of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the fourth jet which crashed in Pennsylvania. On 9/11, I guess that they go into a quiet room and celebrate the heroism of their sons who died as martyrs in jihad against western culture. I am virtually certain that none of them mourn the thousands who died in America. For them, the act their children (or brothers) performed was an act acceptable to god, their god, Allah. For them, their children’s heroic acts should be imitated.
To argue that their Allah is the same as the Abrahamic god that the Jews worship seems to me to double think. It is perverse to accept illogical argumentation as acceptable discourse. If the same god allowed 9/11 and the shoah, then one can not wail about the shoah or condemn the Palestinians/Saudis. If one forsakes logic then there is no point in discussion, since then there is only faith, and all things are acceptable. Bring on the Wiccans.
Perhaps it’s naive, but as a Jew, I am compelled to see one God as wholly responsible for all moral and physical life – good and bad – regardless of culture. We share the same genetic fiber as those responsible for the Shoah, 9/11 and other tragedies, so it is incumbent on us to use these tragedies as an opportunity to learn, to help our future generations recognize, interact and change other groups who have desperate and hostile intentions.
For me, the random nature of fortune and tragedy makes it all palpable – and certainly endurable. For if innocent children were really forced to die painful, slow deaths as a result of their sins (or parent’s sins), what kind of short-sided and arbitrary God is the creator our universe? And to reflect on the question of ‘Where is God in all of this?” my thought is that we can’t have good, literally, without first-hand experiences of bad. We can’t have light without being frightened and lost in the dark, and we can’t appreciate the gift of life – at any age – without the profound loss of personal health and at worst, our loved ones. The lesson of unfair struggle and pain – heart surgery, 9/11 and the Shoah – isn’t to underscore God’s chaotic world, but to ensure that light, love and resolve of moral strength continue in future generations. That when our children and grandchildren make choices, they are guided by previous decisions perhaps made during a time of profound cruelty and/or despondency by their parents or grandparents. Religious observance of any type is an opportunity to reflect on these ideas with family, and in a common cultural community, and through structured prayer. The questions and answers are in our hearts and soul, where ‘God is in all of it’ – but we must have patience and presence of mind to bear through it as a lesson…to be passed on, and in the context of our collective moral imperfection.
Chaim Freedman says
I am haunted by Elie Wiesel’s article,”The America I love”, which was published nationwide (the USA) on July 4th, 2004. His concerns about God and his impending death (Elie Weisel’s) do not interest me. What does interest me is why he wrote the following incomprehensible words and I quote, “The day I received American citizenship was a turning point in my life. I had ceased to be stateless. Until then, unprotected by any government and unwanted by any society, the Jew in me was overcome by a feeling of pride mixed with gratitude.” It is now 3:21 am in the State of Israel. Two of my children are in the IDF. One of them is in basic training at the moment and undergoing severe emotional and physical distress.The training is hard as hell. As an Israeli who made Aliyah from Miami, Florida in 1981, served in the Israeli paratroopers , fought in the First Lebanese War, and did 18 years of reserve duty, the above mentioned article concerns me much more than Elie Weisel’s ailments. He knowingly misled readers into believing that the USA is the only place in the world for the Jew. I have tried a number of times over the last 10 years, since 2004, to receive some kind of reply from Elie Weisel and have been ignored. Perhaps Elie Weisel would be feeling better if he were to spend more time in Israel, the country he happened to forget about in his atrocious article. He should join us here in ישראל/Israel in one of our succot/סוכות instead of lying around in American hospital beds. Regarding “Divining Moments”, I’d like to know what “assassinated” is in the original text as expressed by ירמיה/Jeremiah in Hebrew. As an afterthought, I wonder how Jeremiah would relate to Elie Weisel’s concerns about his own mortality while ignoring the only state the Jews have in this sometimes Godforsaken world.