From Evil and Exile (Philippe-Michaël de Saint-Cheron is a French journalist)
Philippe-Michaël de Saint-Cheron: How do you reconcile the ideas of providence and silence, or what Buber called the eclipse of God? Do you feel that providence died during the Shoah [holocaust]? What possible meaning can it have today, when it is clearly so sorely lacking?
Elie Wiesel: There are some paradoxes that I have to accept. I simply have no choice. That particular one is essential, and it is equally essential to face it, though I have found no way to resolve it. I do not understand it now, and I never will. I first asked this question more than forty years ago, and it is as valid today as ever. My only answer is that I would not like to see any one point of view prevail over the others. On the contrary, this must remain an open question, a conflict.
You would not argue that theodicy died in Auschwitz or that providence no longer exists?
I certainly do not agree with those who say: faith alone exists, faith stands above all else. That would amount to saying: have faith, and that’s that. But neither would I agree with the claim that theodicy is dead. The moment an answer is given, I get suspicious; as a question, I accept it.
Isn’t it true that every human being’s life is dominated by the accident of having been born in one place and not in the other?
On the contrary, in the Jewish tradition we believe that there is divine intervention, almost a divine choice. God foreordains each soul before its birth; each soul is his treasure, and he watches over it personally. There are no guardian angels. It is the Lord himself who takes charge of his souls. In the midrashic legend, there is a sort of image depicting God giving life to a soul. It is he who wanted you to be born in one place and I in another. That is why I like to think that in this instance chance is not involve at all.
But consider the death of so many thousands of children, in places like Ethiopia and Somalia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Doesn’t that attest to the absolute meaninglessness, the fundamental absurdity, of the human condition, after what you call the Event? How can you reconcile this basic absurdity with the meaning of Jewish faith?
Yes, it is absurd, tragically absurd. It shows that our world has learned nothing. Perhaps there is nothing to learn; perhaps it is so far beyond our understanding that we cannot draw any conclusions. But we have to make the effort, and today even that is lacking. The fact that there is still so much suffering and so much agony, so many deaths and so many victims, shows that we – and all our contemporaries – have failed to bring man’s deeds into line with his capacities.
Isn’t this a terrible failure of human thought, and perhaps also of religion?
In this case the issue is not religion, but thought. The failure of religions came earlier, during the Whirlwind. It was then that we realized religion was no longer an effective pillar or source of strength or truth. For the most part, the killers had been baptized. They had been reared under Christianity, and some of them even went to church, to mass, and probably to confession. Yet still they killed. That showed that there was no barrier in Christianity preventing the killers from doing their evil. What we are seeing today, on the other hand, is a failure of humanity, perhaps a failure of rationalism, but certainly a failure of politics and commitment, a failure of all systems, of philosophy, and of art.
Can this meaninglessness be reconciled with the meaning of religious faith?
My view is that faith must be tested. If is is unbroken, then it is not whole. “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart,” Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav once said. But in our epoch, I would say, there is nothing so whole as broken faith. Faith must be tested. But it must not remain severed or sundered. We must press on, facing up to what happened in the past and what is happening in the world today. We can no longer simply accept faith as such. We must first pass through a period of anguish, then one of respite, ultimately recovering and rediscovering the faith of our masters. Because without faith we could not survive. Without faith our world would be empty.
In the terrifying twenty-sixth chapter of Vayikra (Leviticus), the word queri occurs seven times in succession. Most translations render it as “defiance,” or “with harshness, stubbornness.” But Rabbi Ben Ouziel in the Talmud, Maimonides in his epistle to Yemen, and André Neher (among others) have translated this word as chance. Neher, for instance, translates: “If you choose the covenant, I will be with you in the covenant. If you choose chance, I will yet be with you in chance.” How do you interpret this duality, this counterposition between Obedience and Chance, between the choice of Covenant and the choice of Chance?
I agree. In my view, this is the only meaning: queri means chance. On another level, it also connotes chaos, which is the enemy of everything the Jewish religion holds dear. Chaos is worse than chance, worse than anything, because if there is chaos, then Good is not good and Evil is boundless. It is the original tohu va bohu [Let there be light/shapeless and formless]. Queri is therefore chance, and with chance anything is possible. Covenant, on the contrary, is a response to chance. We have a choice between Covenant and Chance, and it is incumbent upon us to formulate that choice, to accept it, and to make it. Moreover, it is a choice that must be made daily. Each and every day we have the power, the privilege, of saying to ourselves: today either I partake of Covenant or I am here by chance.
Isn’t this the first question we ask ourselves within faith itself?
Except that within faith we must sometimes take our stand against chance, but never against Covenant. In other words, I can protest against God within the Covenant, but not outside it.
Recently you said, “it is my faith, my confidence in God and his promises, that has been shaken.” On the other hand, you have also said that although you are sometimes for God and often against him, you are never without him.
That is exactly how I would describe my relationship to my faith. I have never forsaken it, and it has never forsaken me. Whatever has been shaken has been shaken within faith, for faith has always been present. The question was: what is happening in the world, why is it happening, according to what design? So yes, there is a shaking of faith, but there is also faith, and there is protest against faith precisely because it has been shaken.
Have you ever found it impossible to say certain prayers?
Not any more, but it used to happen to me often. Today I know that heartbreak exists, and that prayer is tied to heartbreak. In the morning prayer, for instance, there is a phrase that says Ashrenu ma-tov ‘helkenu,’: “Happy are we with our destiny! How pleasant is our fate! How precious is our heritage!” When I think that I recited that prayer in the camp, along with hundreds of my comrades, that we said it again and again! How could we have said such a prayer? Yet we did. So I tell myself that if we said it in the camp, what right do I have to stop saying it today?
Yet there are dreadful – perhaps even dreadfully unutterable – prayers in the Rosh Hashana [New Year] ritual, in which we say that on Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement] the book of God records the fate of those who will live and those who will die in the course of the year, whether by illness or famine, war or fire, flood or epidemic. How can we recite such prayers?
Nevertheless, I accept them.
But shouldn’t they be understood metaphorically and allegorically rather than literally?
Of course they should be understood metaphorically. Which simply means: I believe that there is some connection between what we do and what happens to us.
But what is the connection between these prayers and the thousands of starving people of Africa and elsewhere? Could they prevent famine by doing something different, by believing in something else?
It is our duty to see to it that these thousands of people suffer less, and that fewer of them – or none at all – die of famine. Which simply means that in one way or another, we are responsible for their fate.
In the darkest and most terrible moments of doubt and despair, what was your response to the summons in Davarim (Deuteronomy): “Choose life that you may live”? In particular, what meaning do you attach to the second clause of the verse: that you may live? Why the repetition? Could one choose life that one might not live?
One could choose life so as not to live and one could live life so as to proclaim the end of life. Nietzscheans and the philosophers of the absurd speak of life against life. What the Torah is saying is that one must choose life in order to live, and to sanctify life. In my view, we must first of all say, “choose life.” And second: “choose the living.” A single living being is more important than all the dead who have gone before.
In this sense, your memory and your work are for the living?
I write for the living, but I would also like to reconcile them to the dead, for in our century a terrible breach has opened between the living and the dead. It may be that the two are also divided by a terrible rage, and that’s why I think it is high time to try to reconcile them.