Elie Wiesel’s death, like his writing, is unassimilable. It resists any attempt to summarize his significance, his purpose or his meaning. We know that the world is less beautiful and less humane since this man of peace has died, but to summarize the lessons he imparted is a fraught task, particularly for Christians.
When I teach Elie Wiesel’s book Night to my undergraduate students, I invariably receive essays about Wiesel’s “loss of faith” at the end of his book. Such students are almost all Christian, and, in spite of their sympathy for Wiesel the narrator, they nevertheless fault him for not “keeping the faith.” To them, his concluding paragraph must be supplanted by some resolution that would substitute the faith of protest for the faith of meaningful suffering:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
My students long for a resolution other than this. They want Wiesel to come to terms with his suffering. We long for him to forget the unimaginable pain that he lived through. Most of all—and this is a particularly Christian fantasy—we want his suffering and the suffering of others he recounted to be given over to meaning and purpose. We long for its purposeful redemption.
Wiesel refuses any such fantasies. There is no theodicy that can make sense of the singularity or the scale of suffering he witnessed. There is no atoning sacrifice ever that can be produced from those sorrowful and final wreaths of smoke. The children’s faces and bodies, Wiesel’s dreams, and the God who safeguards Israel have all turned to dust.
Many years after the publication of Night, Wiesel imparts the same stark lesson during his television interview with Oprah Winfrey at Auschwitz. During that interview, Winfrey, like my students, sought a higher teleology. At one particularly painful moment in the episode, Winfrey and Wiesel arrive at a display case of babies’ clothing. Wiesel tells Winfrey that the babies who arrived at Auschwitz had no chance—they were immediately sent to their deaths. Their mothers, who refused to be separated from them, were also immediately killed. And so they waited, mothers with babes in arms, in long lines, gathered before the gas chambers, not yet knowing their fates.
And in a supremely telling moment, Oprah opines: “There is some grace in that, don’t you think?”
Wiesel pauses, sighs, and replies: “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Oprah tries to explain, desperately seeking some assurance that the universe was taking care of those women and babies by shielding them in divine ignorance. Gently, Wiesel corrects her: “Yes, but at one point they knew.”
Perhaps it was Oprah’s Christian background that looked for “some grace” in the grotesque horror of babies and mothers on their way to their agonizing, suffocating deaths. Perhaps it is her own version of new age spirituality, her glossy litanies of “what I know for sure,” that compel her to find a hidden meaning beneath the surface of unimaginable suffering. Or perhaps it is both. Whatever it is, Wiesel’s witness, it seems to me, speaks a gentle yet resolute “I really don’t know,” which puts a halt to cheap grace, and to all efforts to let God or humanity or the universe off the hook.
The problem of interpreting Wiesel is not, alas, the domain only of undergraduate students and self-help icons. Even the great theologian Jürgen Moltmann was determined to “find meaning” in the suffering that Wiesel describes, and the meaning that he found was a means to support his theology of the crucified God.
Implausibly, he finds in one of the central accounts of suffering in Night “a shattering example of the theologia crucis”(The Crucified God). Wiesel describes a young boy who is being hanged next to two men, and whose small and emaciated frame prolongs unbearably his dying. Among the prisoners who are forced to watch, one cries out:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
To this, Moltmann offers his theology of the cross, positing as the answer to the question of suffering, the crucified God, Jesus Christ:
Any other answer [to the problem of suffering] would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn men to indifference. (The Crucified God).
One wonders at this point, why must there be a Christian answer at all? Does Moltmann’s reflection here not resemble (yet) another knowing supersessionism, where the problems of Israel are answered in Jesus Christ? There is a world of difference, it seems to me, between a “Christian answer” and a response that is attentive and faithful to the narrative that Wiesel has told, as he has told it. Perhaps a better response to the question of theodicy is Wiesel’s own: “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Wiesel’s account of the youth’s dying and his equation of the youth with God represents the death of all divine sovereignty and power, even (especially?) the sovereign power of the cross to set things right. Such a God is as incapacitated as the youth writhing and tortured–he writhes and flails and is now dead. There is no consolation to be found. There is only witness.
One of the great witnesses to human suffering and atrocity is now gone. If there is hope in his legacy and his witness it is to be found in his relentless and unflinching remembering of the suffering of the victims. Only here can we escape indifference. Only on this basis can we rightly praise. Only thus can we refuse theodicy.
He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel. (from the Mourner’s Kaddish).