Elie Wiesel’s Secret

Ron Rosenbaum in Tablet:

ImagesSometimes I’d see him at Jewish events; the most recent was a few years ago, at a panel at the YIVO Institute at which Philip Roth unexpectedly announced his retirement from writing. An event that raised Primo Levi questions, in part because it was Roth who brought Levi to the attention of Jewish intellectuals, and it was Roth who had sustained a provocative relationship with the argument over the Holocaust. Over which Jewish reaction was appropriate. How much more bitter, how much longer was it appropriate to remain enraged. The kind of inner debate Wiesel rarely aroused anymore. That night, I thought back to the shock of recognition I felt in Jerusalem in the Hebrew University office of Yehuda Bauer, the great Israeli historian of the Holocaust. Bauer said something so heretical it slapped aside the line of theodicy peddled by mediocre rabbinical sermonizers in America whose philosophy—if you could even call it that—was best represented by Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The line most used was one Kushner seemed to have cribbed from Irving Greenberg’s influential essay “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire,” which argued for a “God in Struggle,” a God not all-powerful, but one who needed us, needed our help in his wrestling with evil in the universe and thus silently sat by during the slaughter. (This was, Norman Mailer told me once, “the one big idea” behind his fiction and nonfiction as well. He puts it in the mouth of every one of his protagonists from the fictional Sergius O’Shaughnessy to the real-life Gary Gilmore: God is weak and needs our help to hold off the devil. It is the groundwork of the entire literary movement now called “black humor.”)

In any case, Yehuda Bauer would have none of that temporizing. What do all the prayers say? God will reach out his mighty hand to save the Jews, not God will reach out his trembling, sclerotic limbs and wave goodbye to the six million dead.

You either had a God who was all-powerful and all-knowing or loving, Bauer told me. If he was all-powerful, the traditional God of the Seder prayers who always stepped in to save the Jews, and all-knowing, if he knew what was being done to “his” people and did nothing to stop the murder of a million—or was it a million and a half?—Jewish children—then he was not loving. “He was Satan,” Bauer said. If, on the other hand, he was loving but impotent, not powerful enough to save his people, Bauer said, he was “just a nebbish.” “I don’t need such a god,” he said, contempt dripping from his voice.

“Just a nebbish”! There was no mistaking the dismissive Jewish rage subsumed in that remark.

But now, decades later, it almost seems as though the lease has run out on the justifiability of such anger—and in no small part because of Wiesel. He made it possible to think we could make peace with such a God, to still say the prayers, to not think too deeply about what that meant; he symbolically saved us the trouble, erased the angst, allowed us to pretend we had forgotten the quarrel, to go back to worshipping the nebbish.

More here.