Elie Wiesel's Relationship with God
By Robert E. Douglas, Jr.
Sufficiency Course Sequence:

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements of
the Humanities Sufficiency Program
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, Massachusetts

Abstract:

The Holocaust presents one of the most disturbing theological dilemmas of the twentieth century. As a survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel has to reevaluate God in his world. He does so through is writings, in which he questions God and tells us of the answers, or lack of answers, that he receives.

Contents

Elie Wiesel's Relationship with God

Introduction

~ ~ Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Treblinka are just a few of the names which evoke nightmares of the Holocaust. The suffering and death at these and other concentration camps were greater than any before endured. The Holocaust created a void in the souls of many of those who survived. Elie Wiesel was one of those people. Before the Holocaust he had been one of the most devout Jewish children. Up until the end he waited for God to intervene in Biblical fashion. When that intervention was not forthcoming, he began to doubt in God and in His mercy. He began to accuse God of cruelty against his people. After the torture was over, he had to reevaluate the role of God in his life. He could be forgiving of God and allow Him another chance, as many he had seen had done. Or he could take on the role of God to himself and try to define his own destiny. To deal with this, Wiesel has to question God and himself. He does so through his writing. He receives many answers, though none are satisfactory.

Robert Brown writes of Wiesel, ``Contrary to much popular interpretation, Wiesel's indictment of God does not constitute a denial of God...if only one could deny and have it over and done with...at least the ground rules would be clear...'' ([Brown], 142) The denial of God would make all the questioning pointless, as there would be no reason to expect any reasonable answer. It might be a scary thought, but true nonetheless. It is in God's existence that the questions can be asked, but not necessarily answered. ``The survivors [of the Holocaust]...are aware of the fact that God's presence at Treblinka...poses a problem which will remain forever insoluble.'' ([Legends], 6) To ourselves we must reassess God's place in our world, and question the fact that God could watch as the horrors of the Holocaust were committed.

Before the Holocaust

~ ~ Wiesel thought of God before and during the Holocaust as both the protector and punisher of the Jewish people. Whatever had happened before, he had faith that it was for their good, or one of God's greater plans. Either way, he would accept God's will without questioning. When rumors of the Nazis' crimes first reached some of the outlying Jewish towns, like Wiesel's Sighet, no one believed them. ``The rabbis said: `Nothing will happen to us, for God needs us.' '' ([Legends], 124) The town felt that God was with them and would protect them from anything as horrible as what these rumors suggested. They felt safe and secure in their faith. ``And we, the Jews of Sighet, were waiting for better days, which would not be long in coming now.'' ([Night], 5) As Gregor said his final good-byes to Gavriel in The Gates of the Forest, his faith was with him, despite what he had learned from Gavriel. He thought,

~ ~ The sun was high in the sky, and it was growing warmer. All will be well; God sees to it that the harmony may not be destroyed, all will be well; history moves on, and men, after all, weren't created just to slaughter one another. ([Gates], 49)

He had only to wait to learn how wrong he was. Even though things continued to get worse, as Jews were abused in the streets, and the friendly townsfolk started showing deep-seeded hatred of their Jewish neighbors, the Jews still had faith. Wiesel notes, ``Our optimism remained unshakable. It was simply a question of holding out for a few days...Once again the God of Abraham would save his people, as always, at the last moment, when all seemed lost.'' ([Legends], 25) God did not save his people in time, and they were carted off to the concentration camps like cattle.

In the camps, Wiesel's faith was not shaken immediately, or even quickly. People around him took the evil as a punishment for some unknown crime the Jews as a people had committed before God. They said, ``I have faith in God...If God wants to see us suffer, it is because we deserve it. It is for our good.'' ([Six Days], 27) It was like a return to Pharaoh's Egypt. In the face of all the suffering Wiesel noted a feeling of guilt in those in his camps, because of which they did not protest and fight back as much as they might have. Wiesel writes:

~ ~ The feeling of guilt was...essentially a religious feeling. If I am here, it is because God is punishing me; I have sinned, and I am expiating my sins.I have deserved this punishment that I am suffering. ([Legends], 170-1)

Others who did not feel guilty believed that God at least had a good reason for punishing the Jews. They thought it must be a test. ``God is testing us. He wants to find out whether we can dominate our base instincts and kill the Satan within us. We have no right to despair. And if he punishes us relentlessly, it's a sign that he loves us all the more.'' ([Night], 42)

Faith delayed the revolution that might have erupted in the camps. The younger people felt it would be better to die fighting than to go like lambs to the slaughter. They had knives and a strong will. But their elders reminded them, ``You must never lose faith, even when the sword hangs over your head. That's the teaching of our sages...'' ([Night], 29) As long as the elders were willing to accept God's will, the younger people were willing to respect their faith. They listened to their teachers, when they spoke like this:

~ ~ I want you to know, such is the will of God. We must accept it with our eyes and minds wide open. We are going to die, and God alone knows why, on whose account and for what purpose; I do not know. But He demands our lives in sacrifice, which proves that He remembers us, He has not turned His face from us. And so it is with joy-pure, desperate, mad joy- that we shall say to Him: ``So be it. Thy will be done.'' Perhaps He needs our joy more than our tears, our deaths more than our deeds. Do not therefore beseech His pity. Stifle the cries welling up in your hearts. Be proud, instead, and let your pride explode, and I promise you, I your shepherd, to whom you owe obedience, I promise you that the angels in heaven will lower their heads in shame and will never again praise the Creator of man and his universe, never! ([Beggar], 71-2)

They still had faith that God had a greater purpose in mind, and though they opposed the idea of suffering, they would suffer with pride that they are part of God's plan. And so Wiesel and his town were indoctrinated without incident into the camps, believing that if their faith endured, they would be saved. Soon the delusions faded and Wiesel began to doubt God.

Signs of Doubt

~ ~ It was not easy for Wiesel to doubt in God, or he would not have held on to his faith with such tenacity. But sooner or later, the seeming meaninglessness of the suffering his people endured had to burst into the consciousness of his seemingly indomitable Jewish faith. In the face of the crematory pit, Elie Wiesel noted, ``For the first time I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?'' ([Night], 31) He awoke to the idea that he was ``alone-terribly alone in a world without God...'' ([Night], 65) Lack of faith turned quickly to despair. If God wouldn't save His children, who would? No one believed the rumors of peace and safety. In the hospital at Auschwitz, Wiesel met a man consumed with this kind of despair. He said, ``I've got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He's the only one who's kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.'' ([Night], 77) All around Wiesel, the number of faithful were dropping. As hard as they tried to hold on, Wiesel's people were finding it hard to believe in God and what He was allowing to happen.

No longer was Wiesel convinced that the Jews were all some part of a greater plan. Wiesel's mentor in the camp, Pinhas, came to this realization the day before Yom Kippur. He told Wiesel:

~ ~ Until now, I've accepted everything, without bitterness, without reservation. I have told myself: ``God knows what he is doing.'' I have submitted to his will. Now I have had enough, I have reached my limit. If he knows what he is doing, then it is serious; and it is not any less serious if he does not. Therefore, I have decided to tell him, ``It is enough.'' ([Legends], 34)

Wiesel could only agree. ``How could I argue with him? I was going through the same crisis. Every day I was moving a little further away from the God of my childhood. He has become a stranger to me; sometimes, I even thought he was my enemy.'' ([Legends], 34) Many, like Pinhas, died challenging God, waiting for an answer to this horror. Others, like Wiesel, were given the burden of carrying the questions with them, never to be answered. At the hanging of the angel-faced pipel, Wiesel had an answer, when someone asked, `` `Where is God now?' And I heard a voice within me answer him: `Where is He? Here He is-He is hanging here on this gallows...' '' ([Night], 62) God died for the child Wiesel then. The destruction of his faith in the God of his childhood was complete. No longer did his name bring cries of praise from Wiesel. God seemed unworthy in the face of His worshipers to accept their worship.

However, God did not die that day. He is not dead, as the prophet Elijah told Gavriel. God accepts Wiesel's anger, but He has not died to it. As Elijah had said:

~ ~ God's final victory, my son, lies in man's inability to reject Him. You think you're cursing Him, but your curse is praise; you think you're fighting Him; but all you do is open yourself to Him; you think you're crying out your hatred and rebellion, but all you're doing is telling Him how much you need His support and forgiveness. ([Gates], 33)

Wiesel cannot deny God His due. If anything he can question it and feel angry about it. He can even try to change it, by reevaluating God's role in the world. That is what many of those he encountered did once they got over the initial anger.

Cruelty of God

~ ~ Seen during the Holocaust, God appears cruel. He allowed the pain to continue for His own cruel purposes. This cruel God is the object of Wiesel's anger. The energy once spent in worship of God was transferred to accusing God, denouncing God, and demanding an explanation from God. Wiesel writes autobiographically in the words of Elisha in Dawn: ``In the concentration camp I had cried out in sorrow and anger against God and also against man, who seemed to have inherited only the cruelty of his creator.'' ([Dawn], 12) God played a cruel game, and it destroyed the importance Wiesel had felt about the Jewish role in God's world. Wiesel asks, ``What is man? Ally of God or simply his toy?'' ([Legends], 97) He feels like he was in the hands of a spoiled and cruel child, rather than an omnipotent, loving, merciful God who should be saving the Jews instead of watching them die at the hands of his other creations. It was as if God didn't care what happened anymore. The holiness of the Sabbath was destroyed by this lack of concern. David the beggar had to explain, ``The seventh day is no longer a symbol of the Creator's interest in His creation.'' ([Beggar], 21) He does not prevent pain, suffering, and death. God was either ignoring what was happening or approving of it.

A father explains this to his son, ``If gratuitous suffering exists, it is ordained by divine will. Whoever kills, becomes God. Whoever kills, kills God. Each murder is a suicide, with the Eternal eternally the victim.'' ([Beggar], 208) This implies not cruelty, but madness on God's part. In which case, there can be no searching for reasons behind the Holocaust, for there are none, as Wiesel discovered. He states:

~ ~ The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God's name. At Auschwitz, the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none. Numbers have their own importance; they prove, according to Piotr Rawicz, that God has gone mad. ([Legends], 183)

The answers to be explored are numerous. Each person has his own reactions and accusations. That God is mad is just one.

Gavriel, symbolic of those who escaped long enough to warn others, accuses God of actually having helped the executioners:

~ ~ ``You won't forget the calls to prayer and the prayers of my companions when they were face to face with their impassive executioner?''

~ ~ ``I won't forget.''

~ ~ ``They looked him straight in the eye, you know, without flinching. They might have thrown themselves at his feet and tried to win his pity. That is what others would have done, but not they. A pride that came down to them from an earlier age preventing them from bowing down even before God, who was there behind the executioner.'' ([Gates], 21)

Gregor later accused God, before the famous Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz, of having helped the murderers commit their crimes. Gregor told him a story:

~ ~ In a concentration camp, one evening after work, a rabbi called together three of his colleagues and convoked a special court. Standing with his head held high before them, he spoke as follows: ``I intend to convict God of murder, for he is destroying his people and the law he gave them from Mount Sinai. I have irrefutable proof in my hands. Judge without fear or sorrow or prejudice. Whatever you have to lose has long since been taken away.'' The trial proceeded in due legal form, with witnesses for both sides with pleas and deliberations. The unanimous verdict: ``Guilty.''...

~ ~ [But] after all, He had the last word. On the day after the trial, He turned the sentence against his judges and accusers. They, too, were taken off to the slaughter. And I tell you this: if their death has no meaning, then it's an insult, and if it does have a meaning, it's even more so. ([Gates], 197)

Gregor wanted confirmation that he had not misjudged God. He wanted the Rebbe to tell him God was as cruel as He seemed. The Rebbe danced around answering him, until finally, he burst out:

~ ~ He's guilty; do you think I don't know it? That I have no eyes to see, no ears to hear? That my heart doesn't revolt? That I have no desire to beat my head against the wall and shout like a madman, to give rein to my sorrow and disappointment? Yes, He is guilty. He has become the ally of evil, of death, of murder, but the problem is still not solved. I ask you a question and dare you answer: ``What is there left for us to do?'' ([Gates], 199)

Even though he admits God's cruelty to His creation, the Rebbe doesn't give up on religion. He is still stuck.

Gavriel had his own answer to a cruel God. Nothing had changed by knowing how cruel God was, because God had always been cruel. He had lectured to Gregor:

~ ~ the difference between Christians and Jews was that for Christians everything that comes from God is good and everything evil bears the mark of man; the Jews, however, press their search further and more blasphemously, crediting God with evil as well as absolution. The first act of Abraham, the first Jew-his readiness to sacrifice his son-was an accusation against God and his injustice. After that Moses shattered the tables of the Law, in anger not only with his people but with the God of his people. The midrash contains a troubling legend along these same lines. Cain says to God: ``Why did you make me commit this crime? Why did it have to be me? You could have prevented it, but you didn't. Why not?'' The answer? evasive of course. All that is left to us of Cain is his curse. ([Gates], 94-5)

Nothing has changed for the Rebbe or those who takes his view. They say, yes, I've suffered, but when has a Jew not suffered? These people still give God another chance to prove he has not abandoned His people.

New Start: Another Chance for God's Plan

~ ~ One of the people who is willing to give God one more chance is a tzaddik who, during the Six Day War, ``locked himself up in his study, and addressed his plea to God:

~ ~ `I have never questioned Your justice, Your mercy, though their ways have often confounded me. I have submitted to everything, accepted everything, not with resignation but with love and gratitude. I have accepted punishments, absurdities, slaughters, I have even let pass under silence the death of one million children. In the shadow of the Holocaust's unbearable mystery, I have strangled the outcry, the anger, the desire to be finished with You and myself once and for all. I have chosen prayer, devotion. I have tried to transform into song the dagger You have so often plunged into my submissive heart. I did not strike my head against the wall, I did not tear my eyes out so as to see no more, nor my tongue so as to speak no more. I told myself: It is easy to die for You, easier than to live with You, for You, in this universe both blessed and cursed, in which malediction, like everything else, bears a link to You and also to myself...

~ ~ `But that's all over...Do you hear? It's all over, I tell You. I cannot go on. If this time again You desert Your people, if this time again You permit the slaughterer to murder Your children and besmirch their allegiance to the covenant, if this time You let Your promise become mockery, then know, O Master of all that breathes, know that you know longer deserve Your people's love and their passion to sanctify You, to justify You toward and against all, toward and against Yourself; if this time again the survivors are massacred and their deaths held up to ridicule, know that I shall resign my chair and all my functions as guide, I shall fall to the ground, my forehead covered with ashes, and I shall weep as I have never wept in my life, and before dying I shall shout as no victim has ever shouted, and know that each of my shouts will tarnish your glory, and each of my gestures will negate You and will negate me as You have negated me, as You will have negated Your servants in their dazzling and ephemeral truth.' '' ([Beggar], 116-7)

He hopes that the suffering is over, and is ready to forgive God for all that has gone before, but only if the suffering is really over, for if it is not, then God is obviously out to extinguish the Jews from the Earth. He can accept God's past cruelties only if they are to be tempered with some love also, as they have been in the past.

Wiesel's writings call for a new start for theology, along the lines of the way Gregor and the tzaddik were thinking. They were willing to accept all the pain and suffering that had been heaped on them and their families and friends, and forgive God; for He, hopefully, knows what He is doing. And even if He doesn't, He is still God, and it is not for mortals to judge His acts, though they may question His motives. Brown writes that Wiesel's works ``show how after the Holocaust any theology...needs a new starting point from which to retell the tale and keep the story alive.'' ([Brown], 161) Rebbe Pinchas had done his reevaluation, and offered to help others by telling them what he had found. His presence said:

~ ~ The hand of the Lord must not be forced; let him act when he will, choosing the hour and the instrument. We offer him only his freedom. If he exacts of his people a million children, it is because, in truth, he requires them to exalt his name (may it be blessed) and his power, for he is all of life as he is all of death. If he needs rivers of blood, let him be pitied for it is only that he lacks imagination. For man the infinite is God; for God the infinite is man. ([Gates], 190)

This new faith holds no anger toward God. What was done had to be done and that is all that has to be said. The greater plan no longer depends on the Jews, or any man. The Rebbe's faith is not unlike that before the Holocaust. But it is also very different. It is less blind. Gregor confronts this faith and finds it solid. First he asks him, `` `After what has happened to us, how can you believe in God?' With an understanding smile on his lips the Rebbe answered, `How can you not believe in God after what has happened?' '' ([Gates], 194) Gregor could not get the Rebbe to even consider that God did not exist, so he tried again:

~ ~ Gregor: ``Man's fall is an accusation against the Creator, who bears his share of responsibility for the betrayal.''

~ ~ Rebbe: ``All the more reason to choose faith and devotion. Be pure and God will be purified in you.''

~ ~ Gregor: ``Why? I owe God nothing. Quite the contrary.''

~ ~ Rebbe: ``That's not the question. He owes you nothing, either. You don't live his life and he doesn't live yours. You owe yourself something. What exactly, that's the question.'' ([Gates], 196)

In the Rebbe's new faith, God's place is not one which can be questioned, or over which one can become angry. There can be no anger toward God if He were never expected to do what He never did. The Rebbe also spoke of suffering in the light of this new faith:

~ ~ A man who is put to the trial, he said must give triple thanks to the Almighty: first for giving him strength to endure the trial, second for bringing the trial to an end, third for the trial itself. For suffering contains the secret of creation and its dimension of eternity; it can be pierced only from the inside. Suffering betters some people and transfigures others. At the end of suffering, of mystery, God awaits us... ([Gates], 201)

Wiesel is searching for this God at the end of suffering. In a book entitled The Six Days of Destruction, Wiesel writes a set of prayers centering on reaffirming the faith. They are followed by stories that we should never forget in the light of this return to faith.

New Start: Ignore God's Plan

~ ~ There is also a hint of another God. To this God, man says, I will take over for now. I will determine my fate. In Dawn, this is what the Jewish people are trying to do. Elisha says, ``Well, I said to myself, if in order to change the course of our history we have to become God, we shall become Him.'' ([Dawn], 27) This new approach to religion includes less passive waiting and more active searching for the Messiah, and the survival of the people Israel. To this end, they will try things they have never known before, even hate. Why will they try to hate? ``Because my people have never known how to hate. Their tragedy, throughout the centuries, has stemmed from their inability to hate those who have humiliated and from time to time exterminated them. Now our only chance lies in hating you, in learning the necessity and the art of hate. Otherwise...our future will only be an extension of the past, and the Messiah will wait indefinitely for his deliverance.'' ([Dawn], 98) Gavriel would support this policy of actively trying to bend God's will rather than passively waiting for it to be revealed. In a story, he tells of meeting the Messiah, in disguise, on Earth. The Messiah waits for God's will to be carried out, but Gavriel cries out, ``If this is God's will, then deny it! The time has come for you to impose your will upon His, to pin Him to the wall.'' ([Gates], 48) These two ideas for religion combine to form a good new starting point. While we have faith in God that He has a plan, and that whatever happens will be for the good of that plan, we also help to shape that plan by actively seeking to make things happen, and realizing the importance of doing so. Perhaps that is the lesson of the Holocaust. That though God's plans are beyond us all, we should not be so resigned to our faith in Him that we do not try to control our own destinies. But neither should we slap God in the face and say that we will no longer follow His rules because His plan did not fit in with ours.

Still Questioning

~ ~ The result of all that has transpired is to leave Elie Wiesel still questioning. He knows that his relationship with God has changed significantly. He is still questioning, as himself and as his characters in his books. He declared that his whole reason for taking up philosophy initially is that ``so many questions obsessed me. Where is God to be found? In suffering or in rebellion? When is a man most truly a man? When he submits or when he refuses? Where does suffering lead him? To purification or to bestiality? Philosophy, I hoped, would give me an answer.'' ([Dawn], 12) After years of searching for answers, Wiesel comes to a conclusion: ``Answers: I say there are none.'' ([Legends], 182) He continues explaining this conclusion:

~ ~ For more than twenty years, I have been struggling with these questions. To find one answer or another, nothing is easier: language can mend anything. What the answers have in common is that they bear no relation to the questions. I cannot believe that an entire generation of fathers and sons could vanish into the abyss without creating, by their very disappearance, mystery which exceeds and overwhelms us. I still do not understand what happened, or how, or why. All the words in all the mouths of the philosophers and psychologists are not worth the silent tears of that child and his mother, who live their own death twice. What can be done? In my calculations, all the figures always add up to the same number: six million. ([Legends], 182)

No answers can be found, and no amount of questioning will bring out those answers. We may continue to ask, but as Brown notes, one thing Wiesel's writing suggests is ``that arguments justifying God in the face of evil are not only inadequate, they are diabolical.'' ([Brown], 154) Any answer cannot come from man, but from God himself. This is what Moshe the Beadle had tried to tell Wiesel when he was a young boy in Sighet, before the terrors of the Holocaust destroyed his life. Moshe said, ``Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him...That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don't understand His answers. We can't understand them. Because they come from the depths of the soul, and they stay there until death. You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself!'' ([Night], 2-3) There can be no end to the questioning, even if there are no answers. To expect answers is a mistake, as Wiesel learned from the Wandering Jew, who told him, ``When will you understand that you are living and searching in error, because God means movement and not explanation.'' ([Legends], 93) That is his final discovery. His relationship with God does not depend on answers. We pray to Him. He handles those prayers in His own way. We can agree or disagree with that way. It's all very simple. In one of his prayers in The Six Days of Destruction, Wiesel writes, ``We do not demand answers, God. But if this is the last page of the human chronicles, assure us that we had the right to ask.'' ([Six Days], 55) If we ask and accept God's answer, even if He answers in silence, then we will have reached the level of Elie Wiesel's relationship to God.

Conclusion

~ ~ In reading the works of Elie Wiesel, I had to ask God some of the same questions that he did. The storm of emotion followed the paths of anger and despair, and finally ended with the acceptance that Elie Wiesel finds. God is not easy to figure out, and he never will be. With all our knowledge, we cannot guess at his reasons for doing anything. I will never stop wondering what happened, and, more importantly, why, but I will sleep quietly, as long as when I wake I watch to see that there is not another Holocaust, and I pray to God that whatever the reasons for the first one, there never will be a second.

The Holocaust presented a call to people everywhere to reevaluate the role of God in their lives. The pain and suffering that we know took place is in dark contrast to what we would have thought possible in the presence of our God, and anyone who comes in contact with these horrors will be forever shaken in his present faith. Some have reacted with anger toward God, others with denial. Still others reacted with mistrust of all that God had meant before. But by asking questions, some have grown to learn that God never did things the way people expect Him to, and that fact becomes the cornerstone of the new start to their theology. God does not answer questions unless they suit His purposes. This is what we have learned from Auschwitz and from the writings of Elie Wiesel. We must continue to ask questions, continue to challenge God, until, one day, He Himself will give us the answers. And until then we should never feel so secure in faith as to think that Auschwitz could never happen again. We must make certain, through our actions, that it will never happen again.

Aaaaaaaa

Brown
Robert Brown. Elie Wiesel: Messenger to all Humanity. Notre Dame,Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Beggar
Elie Wiesel. A Beggar in Jerusalem. New York: Random House, 1970.

Dawn
Elie Wiesel. Dawn. United States: Bantam Books, 1982.

Gates
Elie Wiesel. The Gates of the Forest. Canada: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Inc., 1966.

Legends
Elie Wiesel. Legends of Our Time. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Inc., 1968.

Night
Elie Wiesel. Night. United States: Bantam Books, 1982.

Six Days
Elie Wiesel and Albert H. Friedlander. The Six Days of Destruction. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.

About this document ...

This document was written as part of the requirements for my Humanities Sufficiency at WPI


Rob Douglas, rdouglas@stsci.edu. Last updated - 08/3195.

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