Elie Wiesel and the Hazards of Holocaust Theology

by Peter Manseau

Try to imagine the ideological gap that exists between those who struggle to find meaning in the Holocaust and those who deny its reality. Try to see the size of it: an A-Bomb crater, a city-shaped hole in the earth. On the one side we find survivors, clergy, scholars, and the simply concerned, engaged, whether they realize it or not, in a theology of destruction, taking measure of a darkness so vast it nearly looks like God. On the other we have the likes of David Irving, Michael Hoffman, Robert Faurisson—the kind of historians-on-the-side who assert that Zyklon B was merely a pesticide, that the number of Jews murdered was actually far less than is contended, that anyway they died of typhus, and that, really, nothing much happened at all.

"These are morally sick individuals," Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel has said of revisionists. "While I am able to fight against injustice, I have no idea how to go about fighting against ugliness." For their part, Faurrisson and company refer to Wiesel—a man the Washington Post once referred to as "a symbol, a banner, a beacon, perhaps the survivor of the Holocaust"—as the "Prominent False Witness," and, when good old-fashioned name-calling will do, "Elie Weasel." When it comes to the Holocaust, theologians and revisionists shout at each other from across the expanse, openly despising what the other represents.

Yet what is theology if not a kind of revisionism? In the landscape of human discourse, theology occupies the place between fiction and history, myth and memory. It is from this place that Wiesel has said, "Auschwitz is as important as Sinai." Insofar as the Holocaust has changed humanity's relationship with God every bit as much as the giving of the Law, there is no denying that this is true. It is similarly true that, like Moses, Wiesel has served as mediator of an ineffable Event. While he considers different responses to this Event in each of his books, throughout his work Wiesel treats the Holocaust first of all as a theological occurrence. As with God's word at Mount Sinai, as with God's test at Mount Moriah, the occasion of God's greatest silence exists for Wiesel outside of time. It is an Event of such magnitude it transcends history.

Transcending history, though, is a tricky business. Sinai need not be historical for it to have meaning. If Auschwitz is granted the same status, is it not at risk of sharing this implication? In making the Holocaust primarily a matter of theological concern, does Elie Wiesel, witness to the world, court a benign sort of revisionism? At a time when it has become commonplace for revisionists to snarl that the Holocaust is a religion and Wiesel its prophet, what are we to do with a theological Auschwitz?

Uncomfortable questions have uncomfortable answers. To the first: If you traffic in faith, doubt is inevitable. To the second: A writer revises, it's part of the job. And to the third? Think again of that gap between piety and denial. Now stand in the ditch. We are implicated even by asking.

"That the extermination of the Jews of Europe ought to arrest the attention of theologians seems obvious," the historian Amos Funkenstein once wrote. "That it has actually done so . . . is a fact." Yet the responses provided by Holocaust theologians are seldom parsed; rarely examined. Regardless of results, the willingness to struggle with the meaning of atrocity is often deemed noble enough to safeguard it from critique.

Naturally, there are exceptions. Funkenstein, for one, has identified three distinct varieties of theological response to the Holocaust, and he treats them all with disdain.

The first he names the direct theological response: it is the attempt "to salvage a theodicy from the rubble left by the eruption of evil as an apparently autonomous force." On the one hand this may mean religious Zionism: the phoenix Israel born of Diaspora's ashes. On the other, it is the rarely voiced hared-im we-told-you-so: European Jewry did not die because they were Jews, but rather because they had forgotten they were Jews. With the Holocaust, in other words, God reopened the floodgates. Those left alive to make such a claim have implicitly been rescued in an Ark of righteousness.

Funkenstein rightly regards this sort of theological response as offensive. He is only slightly less critical of the other options. The second possible response is the "polemical"—a strategy of blaming rival theologies for not holding true to their spirit; asking Christians why they do not act like Christ. Hypocrisy, says Funkenstein. Similarly, the third response, "the critical reflexive," the willingness to question theology itself in the face of catastrophe, he regards as honest but rarely honest enough.

Elie Wiesel's Holocaust theology does not fit neatly into any of Funkenstein's categories. This is not surprising, as the exact nature of his theology has been seldom addressed. Theological critique often becomes a kind of blasphemy, and this is especially true in the case of a doubly sacred survivor-theologian like Wiesel. While his religious voice remains much discussed, it is little dissected. For fear of the implications of approaching a witness critically, few have been willing even to make the attempt.

One who has is Naomi Seidman, a professor of Jewish Culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She tried recently to find answers to questions raised by Wiesel's theological understanding through textual analysis, and in the process learned first hand the hazards of Holocaust theology.

In the last months of 1996, the young Yiddish literary scholar published a paper greeted by some as heresy, by others as the long-awaited slaying of a sacred cow. By comparing Wiesel's Night to its earlier draft, Un di velt hot geshvign ("And the world remained silent") published in Yiddish in 1956, Seidman undertook the first genuine criticism of the much revered book, shedding light on its journey from a bare-bones accounting of events to the existentialist memoir that for many has come to typify the Holocaust. What she documented, essentially, is Wiesel's growth—his translation, perhaps— from survivor/witness to writer/theologian.

Using a method akin to biblical source criticism, Seidman's paper traced the text's development layer by layer, and predictably ruffled fundamentalist feathers. Letters written in response to the paper declared it a "futile and ugly performance." Critics railed against its author as "ill-informed," incompetent in the language of her scholarship, and worse: "Ms. Seidman's brand of Holocaust revisionism is more deadly than Holocaust denial," one of the letters said, "it is a corrosive poison that destroys from within." Even to research Holocaust theology, apparently, is to court revisionism—or, at least, to appear to do so.

Writing in Seidman's defense, Steven Zipperstein, the editor of Jewish Social Studies, in which the article appeared, knew what he was up against. The attack on Seidman, Zipperstein wrote, "conflates Mr. Wiesel with the Holocaust itself in its contention that his work cannot be interpreted critically without resorting to Holocaust revisionism."

Elsewhere Seidman was lionized as "foremost among our younger generation of scholars," and, with such support, ultimately she won the day. Rightly so: original, challenging, and crucial to reaching an understanding of Wiesel and the development of his thought, Seidman's paper is a careful and important piece of work. It will be discussed at some length. But first, a relevant aside: employed at the time by a Jewish cultural organization, moving in Yiddishist and Judaic Studies circles, I had heard about the paper and its mixed reception when it first was published. Yet I did not read it until recently. While trying to track down a copy of Un di velt hot geshvign, I remembered Professor Seidman had done work with it, and so did a Web search on her name. Along with her home page at GTU, up popped a link in blue letters: "Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage."

Pleased as I was to stumble across the storied essay, I was puzzled that the link was not to the Web site of Jewish Social Studies, but to that of a group called AAARGH: L’Association des Anciens Amateurs de Recits de Guerre et d'Holocauste. My French is far from fluent; it took me few minutes to realize exactly what I had found.

From AAARGH's introduction:

"Cet article décrit les premières phase du processus de formation d'un des plus grands imposteurs de notre temps . . . La littérature holo-caustique est le plus énorme formage de notre époque et Wiesel est son prophète.

["This article describes the first phases of the formation of one of the great impostors of our time . . . Holocaust literature is the largest construction of our era, and Wiesel is its prophet."]

Having survived one round of controversy, Naomi Seidman's careful, important piece of work happened upon another. It had found new life in a forum devoted to denying the Holocaust. It was an intellectual hijacking that had as much to do with her subject as her findings.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2006, Vol. 56,  No 3.