Elie Wiesel, Sages & Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Portraits and Legends
Summit Books, 1991
This work concludes Wiesel’s collections of portraits and legends of the figures from the Judaic tradition who have helped him reckon with his history: both the delights of the past now recovered, his own hermeneutics of retrieval, and the traumas of the past, which inform his own hermeneutics of suspicion. Wiesel holds these two hermeneutics in tension, that of trust (tinged with nostalgia) and suspicion (if not toward the tradition, then toward God, but from within faith, not outside faith; criticism of God on behalf of man). This collection thus follows Souls on Fire, Four Hasidic Masters, Messengers of God, Somewhere a Master, and Five Biblical portraits. What’s new in this assemblage is the inclusion of Talmudic sages, surely a product of Wiesel’s own studies with Saul Lieberman. The biblical personages treated include Noah, Jephthah and his daughter, Ruth, Solomon, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Esther. The Talmudic sages include The Houses of Shammai and Hillel, Hanina Ben Dossa, Eleazar ben Azaryah, Ishmael, Akiba, Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Elisha Ben Abouya, Hananiah Ben Teradyon, Meir and Brurya, Shimon Bar Yohai and his son, Zeira, and Rav & Shmuel. The Hasidic Masters he explores are the Shpoler Zeide, Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, Avraham the Angel, Kotzk and Izbitze, and the Ostrowtzer Rabbi.
Three keys to remember from this text. First, the adhering — despite the Holocaust — to the tradition, as the tradition helps to shed light on contemporary experiences. Next, Wiesel’s various trumps: yes, criticize God and tradition– but from within; yes, offer solidarity to others — but only as a Jew; if it’s a matter of choosing God or His suffering people, always choose the suffering people. Third, Wiesel’s own deviation from Orthodoxy — how, I suspect under the influence of Hitler and anti-Semites everywhere, he doesn’t privilege Judaism per se, but rather an all-inclusive Jewishness.
“From the wandering Maggidim of my childhood, I learned how to read and interpret a biblical text. Spellbound, I would listen as they juggled parables and quotations, verses and explanations, trying to extract a hidden meaning, a moral precept: a lesson. Then, after the war, in Paris, my strange teacher and master, Harav Shushani, guided me along the same path.” Read the rest of this entry »