Last night, May 22, I attended a lecture by Elie Wiesel at Snow College in Ephraim, UT. I thought that, perhaps, you all would be interested in a report.
The evening, for me, began with a family gathering at Eric and Juli’s where we were provided with Spaghetti and Babysitting to fortify us for the lecture. When we arrived at the hall, we were quickly guided into the overflow area, as the lecture hall itself was for those who had made reservations beforehand. We had arrived about 40 minutes before the lecture began and, already, the overflow was probably at least half full. On the big screen was a feed from the lecture hall proper, which was had a slide show going.
The slide show consisted of quote froms Prof. Wiesel and facts about his life. For instance, Night is condensation of a 900 page original work written in Yiddish that Wiesel wrote at the urging of friends. In fact, he had kept a 10 year vow of silence regarding what had happened at Auschwitz. Would you like a bunch of hastily scribbled Elie Wiesel slide-show quotes?
“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it is indifference”
“Always question those who are certain of what they are saying”
“Our lives no longer belong to us along, they belong to those who need us desparately”
“Sometimes we must interfere”
“There may be a time when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest injustice”
“an annihilation that only man can provoke, only man can prevent”
“I had anger, but never hate”
“I devoted myself to the dead. Anyone who doesn’t remember betrays them again”
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented”
“One person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death”
“I shouted because I wanted to change them. Now I know that I cannot, so I shout even louder so that they will not change me”
I would like to take a moment to thank my wife for helping me get these quotes down, at least until she was called back to Eric and Juli’s by a erroneously-reported, lightly-choking daughter (who is just fine, and, apparently, always was).
Shall I describe the crowd? The couple in front of me looked like they were dress to attend a local basketball game (he was wearing a jersey even). Prior to the event, people were talking lightly about coincidences in seating and recent and impending weddings. In my party, the talk turned to the dangers of MySpace and internet predation. It was an strange juxtiposition considering what was about to take place.
First on stage was Michael Benson, grandson of President Ezra Taft Benson and President of Snow College. He presented Prof. Wiesel with an honorary doctorate (from a college of 2500 whose highest degree offered is an Associates). He talked about how a student employee of his had been doing research on Prof. Wiesel and about how moved she had been by the quotes and biographies she had found. He commented on Prof. Wiesel’s love of teaching. When presenting the doctorate, Prof. Wiesel was on stage surrounded by three school officials, giant strapping sons of Scandanavia who towered over the Jew from Transylvania and awkwardly shuffled from side to side after presenting him with a ribbon and a plaque.
Prof Wiesel himself was then introduced by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a celebrity rabbi and a close friend of Michael Benson. He actually spent quite a bit of time praising Mike Benson for his vision and commitment to “a dream conceived by myself and Mike Benson 15 years ago”. They believed that their “respective communities could create a greater cohesiveness”. As a result, we now had the opportunity to hear from “the greatest living Jewish personality of all”. Rabbi Shmuley uses hyperbole the way most Americans use English.
To continue with his introduction, Rabbi Shmuley pitted religion and God against humanity over the course of the twentieth century. In the face of the barabarisms of fascism and communism, when humanity asked what God was having to do with all this, they were told “You have no right to challenge. ‘Where was God’? How dare you even ask! Of course you don’t matter.” In this atmosphere, Elie Wiesel made people matter. He said, I have a right to hold God accountable. When faced with the question of why good people suffer, Elie Wiesel said, “They shouldn’t! God has a lot of answering to do.” According to Rabbi Shmuley, by being the voice of those who have no voice, Elie Wiesel becomes our voice, too. He is “a true son of God, a brother of humanity, and the conscience of mankind.”
All of which lead us to Prof. Wiesel himself. He opened up by noting that Rabbis often exaggerate and then quickly got down business. He had been asked to speak on forgiveness. It wasn’t a topic that he choose, he was given it, but it was a challenging and appealing one so he thought he would talk about it anyway.
His first point was that doubt is a gift. Certainty is dangerous in his mind, in fact he called madness a consequence of certainty, not of doubt. Instead, doubt offers the opportunity, or rather the quest, to learn. We define our selves by our quest. As someone who primarily considered himself a teacher, his passion is the passion for study. Our deepest thoughts, if not expressed in words, cannot be communicated. Yet there are things for which there are no words. In some cases, the enemy succeeds in pushing cruelty beyond the limits of language. In those cases, it may be tempting to remain silent, being unable to express the pain and sorrow experienced. But that is not really an option. In saying this, Dr. Wiesel notes that suffering itself conveys no special privileges (except, perhaps, in the case of children). We cannot use suffering to fuel our own self-pity. Rather, we must use our suffering as means to help others.
While being free is good, is essential, to give freedom to those who have no freedom is a greater gift. How can anyone live quietly, peacefully, when others need someone to help them. Even if you cannot do anything directly, you can let them know they are not forgotten, that they are not alone. There is no feeling worse than the feeling of being abandoned. God alone is alone. I am defined by any of you much more than by myself.
This is a new century. On Dec 31, 1999, we celebrated not so much the coming of a new era, but the departure of the old one. Yet our promising new century has already disappointed us. Medieval fanaticism has replaced totalitarianism as the current ideology to be feared and we have become conditioned to accept it. 10 years ago, I would have protested if my luggage was searched. Now, if there is not search, I am worried. Young students, it is your century. There is an old story of a man lost in a forest. He wanders for one day, two days, three days alone. On the third day, he sees another man, runs to him, and says, “I am so happy to see you. I am lost; can you show me the way out?” The other man replies, “I am lost, too. All I can say is don’t go there! I just came from there.”
Since the topic is forgiveness, we should go to the Bible for our study. Everything about anything is in that book. Has God forgiven Adam and Eve? Has God forgiven Cain? Has God forgiven the people of the Flood? The themes of forgiveness, sin and punishment, and exile and redemption are constant in the Bible.
Who has the authority to forgive? The judge or the victim? Are there sins beyond forgiveness? Cain committed genocide (he killed 1/2 of humanity). He became a wanderer and a builder of cities. Is this fitting? The sign was given to protect Cain, but he was deserving of capital punishment. Why did the Almighty introduce humans? Why did he give people the power to choose to disobey? Why did God need us? All that God created was for his glory, but whose? God’s or humanity’s? Has Esau forgiven Jacob? Has Joseph forgiven his brothers?
The idea of forgiveness is deeply imbedded in Jewish tradition. Yom Kippurim is the Day of Atonements. The Talmudic sages devote a whole tractate to yom kippurim. On that day, the High Priest was washed, anointed, and then quizzed and harassed so that the purity of his heart would be known and maintained. His accusers and harassers asked forgiveness, saying that they were doing it for his own sake and for the sake of God. The High Priest would enter the holy of holies and utter the name of God. There was a second, who could utter it if the High Priest was unable, but who, after the High Priest uttered it, immediately forgot it. Judaism is an audacious religion. The name is no longer known. If we have forgotten God’s name, who knows what else we’ll forget. Anyhoo, the High Priest asked forgiveness for himself, his family, and Israel (which, in Wiesel’s mind, is all of humanity). However, there is one kind of sin that God cannot forgive.
God cannot forgive sins committed against another. That is why there is a public prayer on yom kippurim in which the petitioner says to all whom he knows “forgive me if I have, consciously or unconciously, humiliated or hurt any who know. And I forgive all you have humiliated or harmed me.” You are to ask others for forgiveness and, if they refuse three times, they then must ask you to forgive them for not forgiving you.
But what if collective judgment goes unpardoned? Who then passes judgment? God may, as he did in the cases of the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. There is a midrash of the Flood. Afterward, after the waters had receded, Noah took a look around and said, “Why God? Why did you have to kill them all? Why did you have to kill even the children?” God then says to Noah, “Now you are asking?” The Destruction of the temples in Jerusalem is a result of God’s anger, not at what people did to him, but at what they did to others. One of Prof Wiesel’s teachers once asked him who the most pathetic person in the Bible was. The answer was God, who had created a good world and then looks down and thinks, “What are they doing?”
Are the Jews asked to forgive Nebuchadnezzar? or Titus? or the Crusaders? or the Inquisitors? Should they forgive regarding the Holocaust? Prof. Wiesel has often been asked if he has forgiven Germany for the Holocaust. He responds with a Hasidic story: Once, a famed Hasidic rabbi, Zusia (?), went on a train to see a friend. A merchant entered his compartment and mistook him for a beggar. The Jewish merchant was then abusive to him, physically and verbally, treating him like a servant. When they arrived at their destination, there was a crowd awaiting the arrival of the rabbi. The merchant realized who he was and ran to him begging forgiveness, promising half his fortune. The rabbi said nothing. The merchant pleaded again, promising all his fortune. The rabbi again said nothing. The merchant gave up and went to see the rabbi’s brother (another famous Hasidic rabbi, Abimelekh (?)), saying, ‘your brother is some rabbi. I apologized! Why won’t he accept it?’ Some time later, the two brothers met and the one asked the other why he didn’t forgive the merchant. The rabbi responded, ‘He didn’t insult me, he insulted in me some anonymous beggar. He needs to ask all the beggars for forgiveness instead.’ It simply isn’t Prof. Wiesel’s place to forgive Germany.
Can we live in a world without forgiveness and avoid war? Or should there be a law requiring forgiveness? Is reconciliation the most important thing? Well, that depends on the terms of the reconciliation. Often with forgiveness comes forgetfulness. Should some things be forgotten? Or should memory replace forgiveness? Can time heal memory? Can the conviction that we are all children of Adam help overcome our alienation from each other? This shows that importance of memory, that it is sovereign. It can enable or oppose forgiveness, because peace and reconciliation begin not with the other, but with ourselves. War begins with people who can’t live with themselves.
But, when forgiveness is mentioned, God is implicated as he is the Judge. Can God be judged? Can a creature of God presume that God be forced to show compassion to sinners? Can the creature create the force? Judaism, that audacious religion, says yes. Moses implored and threatened God at the time of the crisis regarding the Golden Calf. God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses threatened to abandon him if he did. Why is the term Day of Atonements? Because there are two atonements, God forgives us and we must forgive him. But what an impudent attitude! How dare people conceive that they can argue with God! God permits us to argue with him. He wants us to succeed. There is a Talmudic legend of a time that God took a side in a scholarly debate. One of the rabbis said, “if I am right, let the river flow backward” and so it did. His opponent said, “what does the river have to do with anything. Stay out of it river!” and so the river returned to its normal flow. After a couple more episodes like this, an observer asked the prophet Elijah what God’s reaction was to the opposing rabbi. Elijah said, “God smiled, saying, ‘My children have defeated me.'” God likes to be defeated by his children, so long as they remain his children. Late at night, in a death camp, there was a trial. The prosecutor demanded that the God of Israel be brought to justice for abandoning his children, for allowing their suffering and death. After a long deliberation, the jury gave the verdict, “Guilty as charged”. The judge accepted the verdict and and, after having read it, turned to the gathered crowd and said, “now, let’s go and pray”. We should pray to God; we should pray for God. After all, God too needs compassion. We show him compassion by following his way and being his companions. We may be victims of humanity, but I don’t want to be an orphan of God.
Regarding the holocaust, will the world be forgiven for its silence? It has been punished already. Think of all the lives lost who could have made our world better had they lived.
In Jerusalem, during the Eichmann trial, Prof. Wiesel recognized a man from Auschwitz. He was one who distributed soup, a German, riding on the bus now with Prof. Wiesel. Prof. Wiesel went up to him, asked him if he was from Germany, had been in Poland, in Auschwitz, in a particular block. The man shuddered with the recognition of what this meant. Prof. Wiesel had a few seconds to pass judgment on this man. He had beaten Prof. Wiesel, but he had not been particularly cruel. Prof. Wiesel told him not to worry. In all the time he had to judge, he did not.
I do not believe in collective guilt or punishment. Children of murderers are not murderers; they are children. I believe in the responsibility of each of us to maintain the dignity of each other.
Once he went to Germany and talked, gently, about what had happened to him. It was a New Germany, one that had gone a long way in seeking reconciliation with the Jews. Prof. Wiesel was talking with the German Prime Minister and acknowledged all the good that the Germans had done. He then asked, “You have never asked the Jewish people for forgivness. Why not?” A week later, the Prime Minister flew to Israel and did just that.
God is God and he judges. Sometimes my words carry. I thank you for being here tonight.
With that Prof. Wiesel closed. We went home and ate ice cream.