Hold It All

Tag: Albert Camus

An Introduction to Simone Weil: Concentration Is Consecration–Spring Class 2019

Humanity is divided into two categories—the people who count for something and the people who count for nothing.

To believe in God is not a decision that we can make. All we can do is to decide not to give our love to false gods.

Today it is not nearly enough to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.


French philosopher Simone Weil has been described variously as a “utopian pessimist,” a “mystic of passion and compassion,” a “cross between Pascal and Orwell,” a “Catholic Jewess,” and, by French writer Albert Camus, “the only great spirit of our time.”

In this spring class, we will learn about Weil’s life and work, and let these interrogate our own. We will explore selections from Weil’s classics books, Waiting for God and Gravity and Grace, which will serve as promptings for examining our own spiritual path through journaling and correspondence.

Simone Weil, Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us
Notebook and pen
Curiosity, attention, openness Read the rest of this entry »


“I’ll Never Know, in the Silence You Don’t Know, You Must Go On, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On”

Working on a kind of sequel to Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, I am imagining a character named Bella Levenshteyn, who in her twenties devotes herself to learning Yiddish, the language of her ancestors.  At one point, she confides to Perry that she once went on a  five-week reading binge of the essays, poems, articles, and reviews by  Yankev Glatshteyn, the foremost U.S.Yiddish writer in the middle of the 20th century.

I’ve been reading several recent works of scholarship on that period, and found some stimulating provocations in Anita Norich’s work, Discovering Exile:  Yiddish and Jewish American Culture during the Holocaust.

The following  passages may inform, or work themselves—somehow— into my story.


People are quite familiar with the conventional label for the Nazi genocide of the Jews, “the Holocaust.”  Norich considers the period well before that word assumed its ascendancy: “Under increasing pressure of news from the war front and silence from home, Yiddish writers re-imagined modernism, the Enlightenment, political engagement, literary conventions, and symbolic language.  The destruction of European Jewry was called by its Yiddish name, khurbn, before it was known as the Holocaust, before the numbers of dead were revealed, even before the concentration camps were built. What Yiddish-speaking Jews meant by khurbn … was a long history of disasters into which the rise of Hitler, the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and a host of other disastrous events could fit.  The particularities of Nazism’s rise were not, at the time, perceived as unique, unparalleled, or apocalyptic by the people against whom they were directed.” Read the rest of this entry »

On Susan Sontag, Trip to Hanoi

Journal, July 2005

Susan Sontag spent two weeks in North Vietnam in 1968, and wrote 90 pages about her experiences. (Perhaps I will cull from those notebooks I kept in Gaza and the West Bank to feed my imagination as to what the truth is about Palestine.   Would it be a long essay? Would it be something that I work into a novel, with all my students mixed up together? Will it be a series of short articles that I post at CTSA?)  I wonder if Sontag didn’t just brainstorm a list of questions and then primed her pump thereby, so that her notes responded to  her questions.  Ah, to have her Surplus Attention Disorder, her “moral appetitiveness and lust for variety,” her “intense, uncomplicatedly attentive concentration.” I don’t think this is the same thing as Mindfulness, though.

Sontag is “a stubbornly unspecialized writer who has so far been largely unable to incorporate into either novels or essays my evolving radical political convictions and sense of moral dilemma at being a citizen of the American empire.”   And  she admits she is “one more volunteer in the armchair army of bourgeois intellectuals with radical sympathies in the head.”  Still, she went where she was not supposed to go, even though it appears that she could not get out of her head for very long. Read the rest of this entry »

Elie Wiesel and the Question of Palestine

This essay was first published in Tikkun, November-December 2002.

In his 1986 Nobel lecture, Elie Wiesel spoke with characteristic gravity on any attempt to reckon with the Holocaust: “There are no theological answers, there are no psychological answers, there are no literary answers, there are no philosophical answers, there are no religious answers. The only conceivable answer is a moral answer.” The moral themes of silence and being a bystander before atrocity have been central to Wiesel’s work as a public intellectual in his adopted homeland of the United States over the last four decades. Winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1985, confidant of and advisor to American presidents, author of over forty books, Wiesel has acted as a Jewish guardian of memory and as an international conscience. In his many interventions for human rights, Wiesel has drawn upon his own bitter experience during the Nazi years. He once confessed, “I am obsessed with silence because of the silence of the world. Where were the humanists, the leaders, the liberals, the spokesmen for mankind? The victims needed them. If they had spoken up, the slaughterer would not have succeeded in his task.” Over the decades, the European Christian churches, the American Jewish community, and even the pre-War Zionists have come in for Wiesel’s critical questioning because of their silence, prudence, faintheartedness, or interest in priorities other than saving European Jewish lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Prudence & Parrhesia

A library I once spent time in
Is named in honor of Pope Pius XII

He was nothing if not prudent
And prudence is a virtue much of the time

In 1948
When talking with members of the Dominican order

Albert Camus admitted that the anti-Fascist resistance
Had waited for a clear voice to speak out of Rome Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Mark

Dear Mark,

Here is my reflection of Dear Layla, I thought at first that I should apologize for the scatter-brained style of writing I’m sure this letter will take. Then I thought, he probably doesn’t mind. So here it is, as it is, in my head.

When you sent me the pdf of Dear Layla I could not wait to read it. After reading The Book of Mev, hearing you speak, drinking coffee with you. I knew it was going to be good. Little thoughts here and there, ideas from different points in time, people met at different places. Somehow beautifully put together to create this one incredible story.

I read Dear Layla in less than 24 hours. And by that I mean I started the moment it arrived in my facebook inbox, and kept reading until my eyes really couldn’t stay open anymore. Then I picked it up again the next day, and read until I was already a few minutes late to class and I remembered we’d be reviewing for our midterm so I should probably go. Then I ran home from class to make myself a sandwich before the next one, only to forget the bread in the toaster because I was too busy reading. Read the rest of this entry »

Activist, What Do You See in the Night?/2

During a recent theological conversation with a friend in Louisville, I mentioned several thinkers and writers who had been very influential on me over these years. That exchange led to this concise collage….


For a long time during those frightful years I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an unbeliever? Precisely. For I knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not utter a cry of condemnation when faced with force. It seems that the voice did speak up. But I assure you that millions of [men and women] like me did not hear it and that at that time believers and unbelievers alike shared a solitude that continued to spread as the days went by and the executions multiplied.

It has been explained to me since that the condemnation was indeed voiced. But that it was in the style of the encyclicals, which is not at all clear. The condemnation was voiced and it was not understood! Who could fail to feel where the true condemnation lies in this case and to see that this example by itself gives part of the reply, perhaps the whole reply, that you ask of me. What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest [man or woman]. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of [men and women] resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally.

Albert Camus


No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.

Irving Greenberg Read the rest of this entry »

Fear and Hatred in Postwar Poland

Review of Jan T. Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz. New York: Random House, 2006. 303 p. $25.95. Forthcoming in Shofar.

In Fear, historian Jan Gross explores a seemingly baffling phenomenon. How is it that there was aggressive anti-Semitism in Poland, after the Holocaust?

How is that even thinkable? After all, did not ethnic Poles and Polish Jews both suffer horrifically during the Nazi years? Did not Poles see much more intimately than other Europeans what the Nazi system of mass murder was like, since Poland was the site of so many death camps? Read the rest of this entry »


In April 2004 Marc Ellis invited Hedy Epstein and me to come to speak at Baylor University.  Marc had been my professor at Maryknoll and had supported my work on Elie Wiesel.  During a visit a couple of years before when I had him speak at St. Louis University, he met Hedy, a Holocaust survivor who made it out of Germany on the Kindertransport in 1939, after Kristallnacht.  [Although I may see if Hedy will let me use her world famous op ed, and ask her to clarify the writing of it…]  Marc wanted us to speak of our ISM experiences in Palestine and have Hedy speak for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

We had an intimate gathering at the Ellis home for our sharing on Palestine on Sunday night. Over the next couple of days, Hedy spoke in Marc’s Holocaust class, introduced a documentary, The Arms of Strangers, and spoke at a luncheon for Holocaust Remembrance Day. One young Jewish student came up to Hedy afterward and was weeping profusely and being so grateful Hedy had survived to tell her story about what happened in Germany and England, before she arrive din the United States. After Hedy’s sharing at the luncheon, Marc asked me to offer a reflection.


As I was listening today to Hedy’s powerful and haunting testimony of growing up in Germany, I thought of the French writer Albert Camus.  Meeting with a group of French Christians in 1948, the year Hedy arrived in the United States, Camus was dialoguing with these Christians about the still unnamed Holocaust that had taken place in Europe. Camus was troubled that the Pope had not  really addressed what was happening to the Jews – we heard it from Hedy – Jews forced out of schools and professions, Jews who were ridiculed, Jews whose property was stolen, Jews who were terrorized, Jews who were deported, Jews who were exterminated.

Camus acknowledges that some people said the Pope did speak out, but, Camus, claimed “it was in the language of the encyclicals.” That is to say, dense, dry, without passion.  Camus then shared with his Christian friends a simple challenge that remains true to us today:

What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest [man or woman]. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of [men and women] resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally.

Also, as Hedy was sharing her story, I thought of the work by famed Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg entitled, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders.  We can see clearly enough the innocent victims in Hedy’s stories, we can also easily identify the perpetrators, the Nazi officials and  the soldiers. But what of Hilberg’s third category, the bystanders?

This is troubling to us – or should be – because we realize that in Germany, so many of these bystanders – neighbors, coworkers, classmates, acquaintances – were Christians.  We may look at them and wonder, why weren’t they more Christian?

But consider, how many of these people – who saw their Jewish neighbors being deported – later went on to Mass or church services? How many read their Bibles? How many proclaimed their faith, while, week after week, the villages, their towns, their cities were systematically being emptied of Jews?

We try to imagine what went through their minds: How did they respond to the gossip and the putdowns of their Jewish neighbors?  Did they avert their eyes?  Did they say, with relief, “at least it’s not happening to my family”?  Did they want to say something but then thought the better of it, because they didn’t ant to elicit a suspicious look form a coworker or a soldier in the street?

Surely, many times during those years, a central passage of Matthew’s Gospel was proclaimed aloud in church buildings or read silently in homes, and yet, for very few did this passage penetrate the hearts and minds and bodies of the Christian churches in Germany:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous  will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 

Having known Hedy Epstein these past few years, I know that she has placed herself in harm’s way, standing with people who are maligned, despised, and brutalized.  She has called for justice for the Vietnamese, Central Americans, Palestinians, and Iraqis.  She has spoken out clearly and continues to pay up personally. The title of her memoir is Remembering is Not Enough.  We, too, as Christians, must remember the Holocaust and the Christian teachings of contempt that preceded it.  But there are many challenges for us in the present.  Will history books thirty years hence wonder about us “good Americans” who were bystanders while the innocent of today perish?

My friend Pat Geier, who, like Hedy and me, recently traveled to Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement, told me of a question that has haunted her since her youth.  “If you were accused of being a Christian, would there by enough evidence to convict you?”  It is not only Hedy’s testimony, it is her long practice of solidarity that instructs me on the exacting path ahead.