Elie Wiesel and Theodicy
A reflection paper turned in to Professor Thompson
By Kate Huffman (Mary Kathryn Gough) / REL 131 4/12/04
This paper will respond to Elie Wiesel’s Night, The Trial of God, and his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea, probing into why evil is allowed to exist in the world and whether we have the right to blame God for it—or at least whether we have to right to blame Him for not intervening. It will examine various methods of justifying God’s ways in this matter, as set forth by several of the characters in Wiesel’s works (most notably Berish, Mendel, Sam, and the Priest.) Finally, the paper will point out where Wiesel seems to settle, which appears to be where I settle as well, and challenges us to remember the Thou in our dialogue, not forgetting that we are in relationship with God and that our stance toward Him (whatever it is) ought to hold in heart the knowledge that it is intimate in character: a family member’s tie.
Night is the stunning account of a fifteen year old boy who tows us back in time to witness the hell of the Holocaust through his own eyes. Elie Wiesel’s powerful writing strikes terror, sorrow, remorse, and compassion by turn in readers as they encounter the unimaginably cruel and inhumane things he was forced to endure during World War II. I was as blown away by this story as I always was before; I’ve read it three or four times now, and every time it leaves me breathlessly racing with heart-felt thought. Babies thrown carelessly—even laughingly—into scorching flames, bodies of all sizes piled sky-high, crematories scattering the ashes of former friends and family like rain, cruel beatings and passionless killings without number . . . what are we to make of evil made so solidly manifest we can barely keep our food down or remember to desire Life? This terrible sickness drains me, sucks me dry somehow, and I truly feel the need to find real sackcloth and ashes to cry out to God in mourning. Obviously to mourn these horrors is not enough. But my first instinct is to shed tears of revolt and helplessness against the evil and plead with God that it be different. Brought to witness horrors like these, I find myself ever more desperately wanting to know why they are allowed to exist in a universe ruled by a supremely good and all-powerful Being!!! What is the explanation for suffering such as this? How can a supremely good ruler look it in the face and remain whole and Holy?
Theodicy is coined from a Greek word meaning ‘justice’, as well as from the word for God, and was thus originally used to designate attempts to justify God’s ways, or goodness. Now it is more common to see it used when directly speaking of evil and ways of trying to explain our undeniable experiences of it. Theodicies abound as they always have; all religions have one form or another, whether pantheistic, monotheistic, or what-have-you. This is because most everyone accedes that perceived evils must find an ordered place on the shelves of the belief system. Everyone seems to feel that they experience evil, so it must either be explained away or fit into the desired structure. Mostly it is safe to say no one fully succeeds. Christianity has a very complete picture in the end, if not entirely so, and we’ll see why even Elie Wiesel appears to allude to the key it contains for all this thought later.
In his works, Wiesel considers various common theodicies from several points of view and ends up rejecting them for one reason and another in favor of a theodicy pieced together from his past, in view of his present, and looking toward the entirely unknowable future, in which he makes room for the mysterious Being of God within his own memory-full existence while still allowing himself to wade through everything that his experience hands him. In Night, the protagonist initially wonders if all of the suffering is because of committed sins, and then alternately sees the whole experience as something which must be submitted to or as a test although he’s sort of in limbo about the whole thing by then. Near the end of his imprisonment the boy rebels inside, and what broke in him that first day when God died, comes back together with the rest of his being in deliberate defiance and protest. Many in the camps see the suffering as a test, but most of those lose heart and strength—like the one with the deep, heart-breaking voice who (essentially) volunteered for death. In The Trial of God, Berish is most definitely the central character of protest, and probably the one to whom Wiesel feels the most definitively drawn. Mendel the beggar seems to advocate a theodicy of suffering as a test/soul-making—and yet he is strongly drawn to many aspects of the theodicy of submission to the mystery of God’s sovereignty as well (which Sam will endorse, minus the awe and feeling that properly go along with such a response). This is how Mendel is brought to idolatry; his internal drive for knowledge overcomes the heart that has been growing in him, the heart Sam so easily deceives him into thinking that he possesses as well. Mendel falls into the comparative ease of rationalism, finally declaring, “Your love of God: I wish I had one measure of it. Your piety: I wish it were mine. Your faith: mine is less profound, less intact than yours. Who are you?” (p. 158, 168). In this way Mendel loses himself to the stranger, who still refuses to tell him who he is. We find in the end that the stranger is ‘intact’ because all he does is talk, and he feels no qualms about lying with truths. The Priest, on the other hand, has a very traditional (and lamentably very fallen) take on suffering as punishment for sin. Unfortunately this in no way causes him to wish to sin any less. He drinks too much, and he wants to sleep with Maria. He talks about hell, he says, because he always does, and because it’s easy to talk about (TToG, p.93). It is often to his advantage to do so as well. He seems to be internally rifling though a hand of cards every time we see him, desperately searching for the one that will help him win. A very uncourageous soul (but aren’t we all just a bit like that… isn’t it a fair representation of the Church, in a way?).
It is frightening, but easily understandable that in Night, the protagonist’s young faith, innocence and love are aborted in the midst of the shockingly personal suffering and death in the concentration camps. The scars that remain in the man to this day are obvious in his memoirs. And yet, somehow this tested faith—a faith that has wrestled with God and continually comes through still firmly opposing God’s enemies and affirming His all-powerful existence (as Wiesel attests in his memoirs, All Rivers Run To The Sea)—is fuller, deeper, and wider than most. He is faithful in as many senses of the word as one can think of, acknowledging and keeping a hold of all the things he’s experienced, not ignoring anything, and struggling to remain whole in the center of it all. It is his acceptance of two propositions especially that make this a possible quest for him: That it is alright to be angry at God, and that God is to be looked upon with compassion and pity.
The first proposition is that it is alright to be angry at God—it is, in fact, our duty to confidently protest who we think He is within the context of our relationship to Him. As Wiesel says,
But if Nietsche could cry out to the old man in the forest that God is dead, the Jew in me cannot. I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it. . . Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak of Berdichev teach us that it is permissible for man to accuse God, provided it is done in the name of faith in God” (ARRttS, p.84).
We must always remember to address the real God in our defiance, however. No matter how hot the burning fire within us is, first we have to know exactly why we are angry and realize that we are defending something— standing up to God for His own creation, which he has given into our care. Then we have to purposefully extinguish our puny, limited caricatures of Who He is, to the best of our ability, and acknowledge the Unknown reaches of the mind of God. (Who has known the mind of the Lord?…) C. S. Lewis wrote a poem expressing the underlying, foundational posture we ought to adopt, acknowledging that “Where God is concerned, all is mystery” (ARRttS, p. 104).
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
We’re all in the same boat, really: without the mercy of God our voices would never be directed properly… but it’s true that we must be faithful witnesses to what we’ve been given. We have to work with the whole of our lives, because that’s what he’s given us. Sometimes that calls for keening and wailing, sometimes it calls for gritted teeth and strength, and sometimes (yes) it calls for the fiery anger and defiance of Wiesel’s innkeeper Berish from The Trial of God.
In that same play, Sam (the unknown character whom everyone seems to have seen before in places of tragedy and who turns out to be Satan in the end) asks the judges of the Purimschpiel court who are putting God on trial if they will judge without preconceived ideas. They respond in the positive. Will they judge without prejudice? Yes, they reply again. And without passion? Thoughtful Mendel immediately says “No. With passion” (TToG, p.136). I think this is extremely significant in separating one of the things that sets Sam apart from the rest of the cast. As Maria says when she first denounces him as evil, “He has no heart, no soul, no feeling! He’s Satan, I’m telling you!” (TToG, p. 116). Passion, evidently, is important to a human response to God. This is another part of what legitimates our being angry towards God.
The second proposition Wiesel accepts that allows him to strive at keeping the faith is that God is to be looked upon with compassion and pity, as the father of countless children who war with each other and sin against one another constantly. God sheds tears at the suffering of his children; He shares in their pain and grief. This seems to be something extremely significant that Christianity and Judaism have in common. Wiesel is right when he references the Zohar—“No space is devoid of God. God is everywhere, even in suffering and in the very heart of punishment” (ARRttS, p.103). Right and true, but how exactly is God present in every space? As Himself. As Life-giver, Love-source, Powerful Redeemer, and so many many other things. “Israel’s sadness,” Wiesel states, “is bound to that of the divine presence, the She’hina: together they await deliverance. The waiting of the one constitutes the other’s secret dimension. Just as the distress of the She’hina seems unbearable to the children of Israel, so Israel’s torments rend the heart of the She’hina” (ARRttS, p.103). This sounds strikingly similar to Christian thought on the matter where we are, together with God, suffering and awaiting deliverance:
“God’s work to release himself from his sufferings is his work to deliver the world from its agony; our struggle for joy and justice is out struggle to relieve God’s sorrow. . . Until justice and peace embrace, God’s dance of joy is delayed. The bells for the feast of divine joy are the bells for the shalom of the world” (LfaS, p. 91).
Christ blesses mourners in the Sermon on the Mount, saying that they will be comforted. We must realize that our anger at and protest against a seemingly disengaged, impotent, or merciless, unjust God are actually mourning which lacks a foundation to rest on, which looks Mystery in the face, sees nothing recognizable, and loses its faith that dialogue is happening. Assuming that a Mystery characterized by love would not communicate with us is just that: an assumption. From what we are given to know, God does dialogue with us, and we must rest in that with confidence—when we mourn and when we are angry (or when we communicate with Him in any other way).
Who are the mourners, really? Nicholas Wolterstorff addresses this in his moving book, Lament for a Son.
“The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. . . mourners are aching visionaries. . . The stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony” (LfaS, p.85-86).
And why does Jesus say this? Because He Himself was open in just this way: because through Christ’s suffering on Earth, our God mourns with us! Again Wolterstorff expresses this admirably, saying “To those who mourn the absence of that day is disclosed already the heart of God. Upon entering the company of the suffering, they discern the anguish of God. . . they hear the sobs and see the tears of God. By these they are consoled” (LfaS, p.88, emphasis added).
Wiesel seems to point to Christianity in a forgiving and positive manner in several places in his writing. For example, when the Priest is dumping on the Jewish faith, Mendel says an amazing thing. He says, “I speak not of Christ, but of those who betray Him. They invoke His teaching to justify their murderous deeds. His true disciples would behave differently; there are no more around. There are no more Christians in this Christian land” (TToG, p.99). The Priest responds, “Is it His fault? Why blame Him? If what you say is true, then feel sorry for Him. If Christ is alone and abandoned—then it’s up to you, His brethren, to comfort Him” (TToG, p.99). Mendel assures Him that one day they would.
In the foreword to Night, Wiesel speaks of another young man with hopeless eyes full of death and torment who comes to visit him, wanting to share asking for an answer to it all. Wiesel says,
“And I, who believe that God is love,… what did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Jew, his brother, who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? … We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to Him. This is what I should have told this Jewish child. But I could only embrace him, weeping” (Night, p.x-xi).
God has actually done both these things for us. Sadly, we miss them all too often.
Let your heart bleed for God. Recall in faith that we suffer with Him.
c. Mary Kathryn Gough, 2004