Author Archives: Michael Kigel

§1. »Weltlosigkeit.« The Term, and the Riddle of Heidegger’s Silence Concerning Auschwitz.

Rembrandt Balaam 1


In a note penned sometime in 1938 or 1939, Martin Heidegger explains why he perceives Judaism as a kind of ‘worldlessness.’ It is the fifth note in Überlegungen VIII from the recently published Black Notebooks.

One of the most hidden forms of the gigantic, and perhaps the oldest, is the stiff-necked cleverness of computing and shoving along and intermixing through which the worldlessness of Judaism is founded.

What the ‘gigantic’ (das Riesige) signifies for Heidegger, and how exactly this specific notion from his reflections on technology concerns Judaism of all things, and how Judaism’s worldlessness is founded through the ‘gigantic,’ are questions that need to be taken up in due course. Even without undelayed comment on this, nevertheless, the use of the term ‘worldlessness,’ Weltlosigkeit, even just by itself and considered out of context, simply as a characterization of Judaism, indeed precisely as a phrase the meaning of which is more or less obvious—die Weltlosigkeit des Judentums—is enough to give pause to any consideration of Heidegger’s position on the ‘Jewish Question.’ It is enough, and even more than enough, that is to say, for anyone who has even a cursory and dilletantish awareness of the executive position held by the term ‘world’ in Being and Time and of the canonical position of Being and Time in the Heideggerian corpus.

What does ‘the wordlessness of Judaism’ mean for Heidegger? In the immediately preceding note from the Überlegungen, he seems to elucide what he has in mind by this phrase in a description of what he takes to be the true, cosmic Kampf of the German people against the Jewish people, a Kampf that can achieve only a mock victory, the caricature of victory, by extraditing all the Jews living on German soil to Madagascar or elsewhere or even by exterminating them altogether from the face of the earth.

And perhaps what is ‘victorious’ in this ‘struggle [Kampf],’ in which merely purposelessness is struggled over and which can to that extent only be the caricature of the ‘struggle,’ is the greater groundlessness [die größere Bodenlosigkeit] that, bound to nothing, makes everything serviceable (Judaism).

This term too, Bodenlosigkeit, ‘groundlessness, lack of soil, lack of footing, lack of home turf,’ taken by itself, is enough and more than enough grist for the mill for anyone familiar with the significance that the rival notion of Bodenständigkeit, ‘groundedness, indigenousness, autochthony,’ had for Heidegger on the deepest personal level, a level where the very personality of the philosopher is inseparable from the work of philosophizing and the ad hominem element of this labour is not just its Achilles’ heel but also its Achilles arm. ‘The inner belongingness of my own work to the Black Forest and its people comes from a centuries-long and absolutely irreplaceable groundedness [Bodenständigkeit] in the Alemannian-Swabian soil.’ ‘. . . for I am convinced that there is no essential work of the spirit that does not have its root in an originary autochthony [in einer ursprünglichen Bodenständigkeit].’ In fact, in a letter of recommendation written in 1929, Heidegger had already demarcted the opposing camps of this great Kampf quite clearly in terms of the problem of ‘standing before the choice to again infuse our German spiritual life with genuine autochthonous forces and educators [echte bodenständige Kräfte und Erzieher], or to definitively hand it over to the growing Jewification [Verjudung] in both the broad and narrow sense.’

What is to be done with this one little islet-like instance of this term, ‘worldlessness’ as it appears in note 5 of Überlegungen VIII—and its corollarous term, ‘groundlessness’? It goes without saying that the question thus posed can only be of interest, if at all, to a handful of individuals who still lose some sleep over the ‘Heidegger Affair,’ and whose penny-ante insomnia has been freshly upped and aggravated with the publication of the Black Notebooks in 2014. It is possible that with a good reformulation, though, the question may prove to be of a slightly wider interest.

By the same token, it should also go without saying that the executive position held by the term ‘world’ in Being and Time, and its enduring authority under later titles such as the term ‘dwelling’ (Wohnen), would not be adequate grounds for losing any sleep at all over this isolated instance of the term ‘worldlessness’ applied to Judaism. It is hardly clear if even in general the publication of the Notebooks with its intermittent notes regarding Jews and Judaism adds anything to the Heidegger dossier beyond one or two more solid corroborations of prior suspicions. To compound this general lack of clarity with the hermeneutic expectation of settling on a key term to open a decisive door to the problem may, for all we know, be a regression to the old preoccupation with a mot propre, a unique name, that sanguine espérance heideggerienne that is supposed to have been despaired of and left behind as a futile pursuit of wild geese and red herrings. Therefore, it must be stressed that it is due, and due only, to a recognition among some philosophers, shared by this study, of the apocalyptic dimensions of Heidegger’s silence concerning Auschwitz that this one little instance in the notebooks of the word ‘worldlessness’ can be taken out of the category that includes tangential, trivial, inconsequential, passing, obiter dicta and Nachlass floatsam, basically harmless stray-donkey remarks, and into the catgeory of the truly thought-worthy, and maybe even, who knows, das Bedenklichste. It is the overwhelming silence that, like a sound-proof chamber, makes the dropping of this frail little pin audible.

A methodological principle is thus automatically assumed. Modelled on Freud’s notion of parapraxis (Fehlleistung), we make the assumption that when a keyword which has operated as a defined term in a fully developed, highly terminological discourse (such as Being and Time and its later variations on the same theme) shows up in an region that is instead pervaded by a thinker’s taciturnness, rather than the usual relaxed discursivity, or, what is not far from his laconic code, a thinker’s notebooks, where we see him with his shoes off, in his pyjamas, and hear him ‘just shootin’ the breeze’—then such a keyword must function as a veritable key to open a door of interpreation. Until 2014, the ‘scandal’ of Heidegger’s silence was a question. The invaluable advantage of the Black Notebooks is that it has considerably simplified the problem by reducing the question down to a mere riddle. Our thesis is that, by recognizing the term ‘worldlessness’ as the key to the riddle, we unlock the meaning of the silence, which means the meaning of the silence for Heidegger’s thinking as a whole. For the meaning of Heidegger’s silence concerning Auschwitz is not to be found in the term itself, nor does the silence have any significance as such. A parapraxis is not the actual neurosis to be treated; it is a key to the neurosis. Likewise the lonely instance of the word ‘worldlessness’ is nothing more than that of a key, serendipitously chanced upon, under a spell of archive fever, under a pile of papers, to open the door to a storehouse. The meaning of Heidegger’s silence concerning Auschwitz is to be found in the totality of the Heideggerian corpus, above all in its most cherished and honoured terms (Denken, Wohnen, Ereignis, Technik, etc.), a storehouse opened with this key, which can now been seen as a rich corpus that ‘is faschist right down to its innermost cellular parts.’

In sum, there are four distinct phenomena, or moments, in Heidegger’s thinking that need to be carefully distinguished, and carefully weighed each according to its own type of hermeneutic value, before the interconnections can be appreciated:

  1. Heidegger’s silence concerning Auschwitz.
  2. Heidegger’s general disinterest in the question concerning Auschwitz.
  3. Heidegger’s occasional comment or lapsus linguae regarding Judaism.
  4. Heidegger’s thought in its innermost cellular parts.

The first phenomenon, Heidegger’s silence, is ambivalent. To a large extent, it is simply rooted in the second phenomenon. Perhaps from a certain desire to perceive a great tragic flaw in his thought, a ‘scandalous inadequacy’ in his thinking, such as in his Bremer lecture comparison of the ‘motorized food industry’ with the ‘production of corpses in the gas chambers,’ this silence is interpreted as a Machivellian sin of omission. There is almost something flattering to Judaism in the assumption that Heidegger would make such a heroic effort to be silent about Auschwitz. The more likely humdrum reality is that Heidegger couldn’t be bothered to give so much thought to Auschwitz, any more than an average German citizen in 1943 could be bothered with the issue. It is along the same lines that Daniel Goldhagen’s question is badly positioned, even before there is any attempt to answer it based on historical evidence. The question whether ‘all’ or ‘most’ German citizens in Hitler’s Germany were willing executioners is really secondary to the question of how such a national culture could produce even a handful of individuals who could organize such an impressive bureaucratic machine. The questions regarding the active complicity of the whole Volk, or the passive sin of omission in the silence of the great majority, or the banality of the bureaucracy—all take second place to how a truly magnificent culture like that of the Germans could end up seating fifteen perfectly sane and highly educated men, eight of them with doctorates, at a table in Wannsee to plan the construction of Auschwitz; and another small well-organized group of sane, capable, well-meaning individuals to run the extermination camp.

The real value of the first two phenomena is thus to be found in the third one. Just as the ‘guilt’ of the German people as a whole must be sought in the actions of the very few, the eccentrics, so too must the value of Heidegger’s silence be sought in the desultory lapsus linguae regarding the Jews. Auschwitz was like a parapraxis that revealed what Germany real was, the truth of Germany. Being highly articulate people, the Germans until then had made a strong collective statement about who they were. But the truth of Germany, the essence of Germany, was not Germany itself or what Germany thought of itself. The truth was concealed and had to be revealed in nervous twitches and ticks that took the lives of millions of Jews. Likewise the truth and essence of Heidegger’s thought is something that yet needs to be revealed.

It is only the fourth phenomenon, therefore, that is of real concern in this essay. Nothing less than the innermost cellular parts of Heidegger’s thought are at stake. The silence and indifference and parapraxes are all merely symptomatic indicators to be examined, analyzed and deciphered for the purpose of disclosing the ‘inner greatness and truth’ of Heidegger’s thought as something that corresponds to the ‘inner greatness and truth’ of Auschwitz itself.

unsuccess | ביטול




The itch deep in the core of one’s being to be a ‘somebody’ is something that needs to be scratched out. But how to scratch it out without scratching it, the itch, and thus making it worse, itchier—this is a problem for delicate fingers.

This sin of petty hubris—its prosaic character is audible in the humble choice of the word ‘somebody’ over the more poetic hubris of a Greek hero who desires to be a god; this petty hubris is an American fleur du mal and horticultural export known as ‘Success’—is somewhat like a mistake that stands in need of correction, a trespassing onto a property that is not one’s own. The true owner of the property has suffered a violation of his rights, and now these rights need to be officially confirmed and reinstated by a judgement and a punishment. The violence of hubris, in any case, cannot be conceived as some kind of damage inflicted by oneself on oneself. It is essentially an offense to someone else, and as such it constitutes a guilt. One needs to be ashamed, publicly, of one’s hubris.

This very shame, of course, pays a surreptitious tribute to the secret power of petty hubris and augments its power. The furnace in the engine of petty hubris is the all but inextinguishable promise, told to the self by those things on most intimate terms with the self, that something can be achieved. The promise that is the encouragement of the self to dwell on an extraordinary possibility, the possibility of extraordinariness.

That there is such a thing, such a possibility, as ‘being a somebody’—this conviction is the secret eternal flame of petty hubris. The angry forces that come along to curtail and subdue this conviction thus serve to fan its flames. Hubris is fired up by mythology. The angrier Zeus gets, the more the human ego feels an inborn need to rise up against him in revolt and to scream blasphemies.

And what of the Hassidic teaching of bitul? Is that ‘self-cancellation’ not basically the same mythological doctrine of hubris-crushing, the Hebraic counterpart of the catharsis procedure found in Attic tragedy? Is not the ‘Bible’ the original art of making oneself sick through herd morality (Nietzsche) and civilization (Freud)?

In exile, the Torah is almost everywhere submitted to a kind of mythological reading that would transform the Holy One, blessed be He, into a Zeus (Heaven forbid!)—and hence Adam into a Prometheus. This idolatrous syncretism thereby reduces the teaching of bitul into a doctrine of self-humiliation, self-mortification, catharsis, etc..

Bitul, genuine bitul, however, has little to do with this glorious mythological theme. Bitul does not correct a mistaken trespass onto anyone’s property. No property rights are violated. How could they be? The Infinite One is kone hakol, the ‘owner of everything,’ and therefore it is quite impossible to steal anything from Him, fire, fruit or anything else. It is impossible to actually offend Him or threaten Him, in the manner that the not-quite-infinite gods can be offended and threatened. In truth, there is no hubris. The ‘cancellation’ involved in bitul is consequently not an invasive surgery. It sounds like nothing more than a simple, ‘Excuse me, can I get by?’ addressed to oneself.

What bitul cancels is designated in Hassidic teaching as ‘existence’ (yeshus). There is no ‘ego’ to serve as the bull’s eye of bitul. The entirety of Creation, the fact of Creation as such, if anything, is at fault. Whence no one is at fault. The myth of the arrogant ‘ego’ is part and parcel of the hubris myth and an assimilation to Hellenistic ways of thinking. Creation, existence, hence my existence, simply has no secret power of self-affirmation. My existence has no promise to give itself regarding any extraordinary possibility to be achieved. I am truly and simple a nobody. I did not make myself. I barely know myself. The circle of my life is a set of electrons spinning around a molecular nucleus. I have my family, my acquaintances. Nothing more. I am often abysmally alone. Some people like me, some don’t. Fame is a mirage. I will probably never be a hero. And even if I manage to be a hero, so what? My life will probably never be on the screen. And even if it will be on a screen, next week will have a new feature. In any case, I will eventually get sick and lie dumbly in the earth.

And regarding this, the teaching of bitul says, very simply, that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. If anything, grasped correctly, there is reason to rejoice.



Interpreting Doc. 8 | 10

[ (b.) The Logic of Credo quia Auschwitz ]




Midrash proffers a remarkably apropos allegorical precedent which, not surprisingly, belongs together with the same original case of a man who argued with God, namely Abraham. The midrash essentially functions as an explication of the background of the case. The precedent is developed as an exegetical interrogation of the verse with which the world-historical career of Abraham begins: ‘Now the Lord said unto Abram: Get thee out of thy country, etc.’ (Gen. 12:1).

Rabbi Isaac unlocked [the meaning of this verse, Gen. 12:1, using another scriptural verse as a key]: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house’ (Ps. 45:11) This may be allegorically compared to a man who used to move around from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He said, ‘Do you mean to say that this palace is without a superintendent?’ The landlord of the palace looked out at him and said, ‘I am the landlord of the palace.’ Similarly, because our father Abraham said, ‘Do you mean to say that the world is without a superintendent?’ the Holy One, blessed be He, looked out at him and said to him, ‘I am the Landlord of the world.’ ‘So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty, for he is thy lord’ (v. 12): so shall the king greatly desire thy beauty to beautify you in the world. ‘And worship thou him’ (ibid.) Hence: ‘the Lord said unto Abram.’

This midrash compares Abraham to a nomad who must have seen all kinds of habitational structures during his wanderings and sojourns: tents, houses, buildings, etc.. At some point in his life, relates the midrash, this nomad finds himself approaching a magnificent edifice engulfed in flames. Is this the first time he has seen such a thing? If not the first time he has seen a habitation damage by fire, probably the first time he has come across a conflagration of such proportions. ‘A man used to move around from place to place when he saw a palace in flames.’ It is not only the fire that is of great proportions, but also the palace. Dumbfounded in his tracks by the uncommon spectacle, the man speaks. ‘He said, ‘Do you mean to say …?’’ —To whom does he says this? And who means to say anything by the spectacular sight? Does he speak to himself? Are his words a spontaneous ejaculation meant for no one in particular, just something said out loud? After all, can he actually expect anyone, other bystanders, his contemporaries, to understand his question? The question itself is odd. Or is the question, however spontaneous, also a result of thoughtful deliberation? And directed at an addressee? ‘Do you mean to say that this palace is without a superintendent?’ Whereupon, quite miraculously—for it cannot be explained otherwise—the master of the house pops his face out—from where?—and says, ‘I am the landlord of the palace.’ A landlord who is very peculiar in that, besides being a fire-proof wizard with a bizarre sense of humour, he is evidently also a teacher of some sort, and a philanthropic one at that, who cares what this nomad has to say about the pyrotechnic display. And this entire surreal scenario is compared to the experience of the father of the ‘believers sons of believers,’ to Abraham, who is supposed to have asked, although of course there is no scriptural mention of this:—’Do you mean to say that the world is without a superintendent?’ The question is provocative enough. It provokes a response from God. ‘I am the Landlord of the world,’ says God. —And? Is that enough? Is Abram satisfied with the sheer theophanic appearance, in the way that Buber believed Job to have found some satisfaction at the end of his perosnal tribulations, exclaiming ‘Now I see Thee!’ (Job 42:5), on account of the sheer experience of the ‘nearness’ of his heavenly tormentor which in itself proved to be such a consolation that no actual explanation of his sufferings, no articulate content to fill out the form of the encounter, was necessary? From the emptiness of God’s response to Abram regarding the causes of the fire, we retroactively note the feebleness of Abram’s question. Surely, had he stood in front of the hot ovens of Auschwitz, he would have lost his mind and vomited out howls like: ‘Where the hell is the superintendent of the world?! Let him step forth right now and explain himself!’ Or are we to imagine that this what Abram means with his question? Yet if he does mean this, if his question does imply this in a rhetorical manner, the Landlord of the world, in any case, ignores a request for such an explanation. True, He does show up. Which is worth something. But He explains nothing. As if to say: ‘Silence! Thus it arises ….’ And what is this parable supposed to explain? According to Rabbi Isaac, it explains the special daughter-like beauty of Abraham, for which he deserved to be summoned by God to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia and his father’s house and to venture forth.

In order to make it clear, first of all, what this midrash does not say, it is necessary to juxtapose it with the more often cited midrashic legends about Abraham’s gradual awakening to the reality of the true God amid the soporifically incense-scented air of idolatry that filled his father’s home in Ur Kasdim. Those more popular midrashim are basically precursors of the theological argument from design, an argument once illustrated by Rabbi Akiva with the example of a garment and its weaver. William Paley, whose name is most often associated with the argument, preferred the example of a pocket watch that is discovered by chance during a stroll on the heath; ‘the inference, we think, is inevitable,’ says Paley, ‘that the watch must have a maker.’ How much more so, then, the infinitely more complex and infinitely more wonderful mechanism of the universe at large! Can we suppose such an exquisite marvel of engineering to be the concoction of some divine chimpanzee at play in a workshop? And yet we may wonder, along the lines of Hume’s criticism of the argument, what other inference Paley might have arrived at had he continued his stroll on the heath into Poland and as far as Auschwitz. Abraham, in any event, the midrash tells us, did arrive at another inference when he came across a burning palace. (Was it, too, full of burning human bodies, like Auschwitz? The midrash does not say.) Yet, oddly enough, this inference of Abraham’s arrived at essentially the same conclusion as the earlier inference that he had drawn from the majestic parade of the starry heavens above. ‘The palace must have a superintendent.’ Why must it? Because there is a fire? That’s just stupid; it doesn’t mean anything; whereas the folly we are after is a complex folly, it means something. Somehow, the palace must have a superintendent despite the fact of the fire. The ‘must’ that refers to the necessity of a superintendent’s whereabouts comes from somewhere other than the fire. And yet this same fire, despite its wholly destructive effects, and in spite of which the nomad suspects the whereabouts of a superintendent, somehow provides the needed stimulus to excite and embolden and enflame the nomad’s initial suspicion into a full pious conviction. It is certainly true that the energy of a fire has an purposeless entropic momentum that leads only to destruction and death. Yet by provoking a life-embracing response from the nomad, the same brute momentum is harnessed by the nomad and turned around in the direction of life. Death contains a secret and deep source of vitality that life, left to its own resources, would never discover by itself and could never reach into except for death’s terrible provocation. In Lurianic and hence Ḥabad nomenclature: the most luminant luminance draws its powers from wellsprings of the darkest darkness. Because the fire is destroying the palace and wreaks a deadly havoc everywhere, therefore the nomad, thrown back upon his precious life, is transcendentally provoked to access a stronger connection with the innermost secret of life and to realize a stronger confidence in the covenant between his life and the Tree of Life that the Maker of the universe fixed at the vital centre of His cherished garden, in other words, at the epicentre of His universe.

It should be evident that the transcendental provocation of such trust in God, while its impetus and intent evidently comes from the outside, watches its final result unfold deep within the interior of trust. Putting it in terms of the midrash again, we might say: it stands to reason that the palace must have a superintendent simply because it is a palace. Palaces, like good pocket watches, are carefully constructed and, generally speaking, carefully owned. One might ask: But is this particular superintendent not a careless one? Not necessarily. The fact that the palace is burning down is not proof of neglect. First of all, there may be extenuating circumstances. Perhaps someone has outsmarted the superintendent’s fire-regulations and provisions for such an emergency, some embittered servant of the landlord who has worked out a painstaking vengeful plan of arson, or some enemy of the landlord in possession of a powerful incendiary weapon. But even beyond such extenuating possibilities and excuses, if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the superintendent is not lacking in adequate resources or know-how to ensure the complete safety and security of the palace from any fire hazard (an assumption in keeping, after all, with the allegorical role that the superintendent plays in representing the infinitely resourceful Caretaker of the world), then the suggestion that some neglect might be afoot (the only remaining possibility) is difficult to reconcile with the fact of the palace itself, that is, with the august palatial countenance of the building, discernible through, and now even gruesomely highlighted by, the consuming flames, a countenance that by definition implies a landlord who must have originally dictated his intentions for this stately pleasure-dome to a talented architect (i.e. cosmic design) and thereafter entrusted its care to this perfectly capable and resourceful superintendent (i.e. providence). Why the palace is engulfed in flames is certainly a mystery. But this dark mystery has no authority to erect a permanent question mark over the concern, and more, over the affection that the landlord must have for the palace and in view of which he appointed his trustworthy superintendent. This affection is not a mystery. It is plain to see, albeit through the flames, in the beautiful construction of the palace in which the king must have invested so much personal concern and in the good maintenance that the palace must have enjoyed right up until the unhappy hour wherein it was overtaken by the conflagration. ‘The palace must have a good landlord,’ is what the nomad means when he infers that it must have a landlord. Then why is it on fire? —This of course is the overwhelming evidence that threatens to weaken the inference. Whence this is where we feel the full epistemic impact of the folly that is mobilized and rallied for the protection of the inference.

In this short and still superficial approach to the unusual logic and epistemic framework of this midrash, of course, a number of assumptions have been imported from the European philosophical tradition. Most notably, an empiricist notion of evidence determines the approach. Evidence is implicitly acknowledged to be the decisive epistemic counter-force to folly. It was for this reason that Kant insisted on empirical evidence as the only force that holds reason back from its desire for boyish flights of fancy into ‘transcendental illusion’ (folly). Assuming evidence to be such a force, it might well be said of our midrashic allegory that the destructive fire in it is an example (hence also a symbol) of the hard evidence that contradicts the foolish inference that the palace must have a good landlord. The inference flouts the evidence, foolishly so. The goodness of the landlord inferred from the goodly countenance of the palace somehow promises its goodness to the nomad, telling him not to trust the evidence, as if promising a immanent victory over the facts. Because of this promise, and against the evidence, the nomad thus, foolishly, becomes partisan to the landlord. He joins his cause. He pledges his allegiance to the landlord’s eternal and inflammable aspirations for his palace. He identifies with the landlord’s vision of what the palace ‘really is,’ despite all appearances. And this partisanship, with folly and trust on its side, and evidence against it, very quickly and naturally, as soon as it senses its situation in the arc of time amid the realities of promise, aspiration, and impatience, translates its situatedness into temporal terms that appropriate to it a sharp, cutting eschatological vision of a destiny that lies bone-deep underneath the clear and distinct tissues of the evidence given with the data and the fatality of fate. The nomad is convinced that the affection and care with which the landlord must hold his palace dear is more decisive in establishing the palace’s destiny than any evidence that points to its clear fate. Because the palace is burning, the trust in God that foolishly denies this evident fate the right to be confused with the palace’s true destiny must therefore grow even stronger. The trust in God must attain a degree of strength intense enough to be able to confront and defeat the power of evidence, a terrible power that evidence receives from fate. A simple fool, of course, is also someone who lives against the evidence, with his eyes shut tightly and his palms pressing hard on his ears. To evidence and argument of any sort, the simple fool prefers a raw statement of theory. He is given over to fixated obsession. But while a simple fool’s obsession is simply something he suffers, tragically, pathologically, not something he chooses for himself, a holy fool is enraptured by his idée fixe as a matter of active and even pro-active commitment, with ears pealed, with eyes wide open, in a vigilant and, wherever possible, scientific awareness of the weight of the evidence against his commitment. His folly, again, is a complex thing.

To be sure, the above distinction between fate and destiny is not always easy to maintain in weekday vernacular. The language in which the commitment of holy folly is to be expressed tends to slide back into tragic idiom, as if language itself had a natural inner fatalistic tendency. We see this tendency at work in a critical moment in the conversation between Wiesel and the Rebbe, where an attempt by the Rebbe to suggest the logic of trust after Auschwitz, a logic that swims with vigorous strokes, upstream, against the current of fate, is interpreted by Wiesel in a more relaxed manner that allows it to drift down a more mainstream fatalism.

Supporting Docs | 9

[ (a.) The Epistemic of Holy Folly ]

 ….Picture 2

Bosi LeGani

Bosi LeGani (1950), the hasidic discourse of the Rebbe’s Rebbe and father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, a discourse that came to serve as a kind of manifesto defining the general platform of the Rebbe’s career as teacher, recommends holy folly (shtut d’kdusha) as an epistemic doctrine to explain how the basic job of human beings, which may be described as the business of sacrificing the vital energy of our animal existence and availing it to transformation into a higher energy, is something that cannot be accomplished on the basis of intelligence alone. For when a blameworthy ‘spirit of folly,’ a foolishness of the pedestrian and profane type, overtakes the individual and leads him astray into any of the varieties of ‘adultery,’ be it of the literal or of the metaphorical variety, i.e. when foolishness leads to sin, its tyranny over the individual cannot be broken by an intellect left to its our resources.

For this spirit [of profane folly] covers over the truth. The spirit of folly is the spirit of the Peal [klipa] and Other Side [sitra aḥara], and is called ‘folly’ along the lines of ‘old and senile king’ (Qoh. 4:13). And these cover over Light and Revelation. For Divinity is truth and life, as it is written: ‘The Lord is the true God, He is God of life’ [Jer. 10:10]. Whence [folly] is called by the appellation of ‘Peal’. For as the peal covers the fruit, so too does the spirit of folly cover over, obfuscate, and conceal the Light of the Divine Revelation.

Since the intellect is readily defeated in the onslaught of such irresistible forces, the individual who possesses this intellect, if he interested in victory, is obliged to seek recourse in another faculty which is also in his possession, namely a faculty of folly which can match the ‘Other Side’ in sheer fire-power of berserkness but which bears the additional advantage that it falls on the side of holiness.

Thus, just as there is deviation below knowledge, which is called ‘Folly of the Peal’, so too there is a kind of deviation above knowledge, which is ‘Folly of Holiness.’ […] The elucidation of this matter is as follows. There is the ‘Infinite Light’ [or en-sof] that ‘no thinking can grasp at all’ [Tikunei Zohar 17a], which is above the parameters of conceptualization. For all conceptualization, even the most sublime, remains within the parameters of conceptual thinking notwithstanding. But that which is not enclosed within conceptual thinking cannot be grasped by concepts at all.

This teaching regarding holy folly, which originates under this specific rubric with Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson’s father, has its locus classicus in the eighteenth chapter of the foundational text of abad epistemics, the Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. There it is explained how the most rudimentary gesture associable with cognition, for which he reserves the term okhmah in its specially Zoharic inflection (which term, otherwise, in its prosaic, exoteric sense is not incorrectly translated as ‘wisdom’), is something that, in its most pristine moment, does not yet partake of cognition proper as it is the gesture wherein cognition finds its transcendental and transcendent source. As a matter of provisional philosophical convenience, we may here translate okhmah, in this pristine sense of the phenomenon, by the term ‘wonder’—the name for that proto-cognitive event that Plato and Aristotle characterize as the origin of all philosophizing.

Wonder [okhmah] is the source of the intellect and understanding; it is higher than the understanding, which is an understanding done by the intellect and by its conceptualization. Wonder is above understanding and conceptualization, being their source. Whence okhmah [חכמה] can be [rearranged into the notarikon]: koa mah [כ׳׳ח מ׳׳ה], ‘the ability of What,’ for this is a ‘what’ that is not conceivable or understandable and is not yet grasped by conceptual thinking. For this reason, the Infinite Light, blessed be He, Whom no thinking can grasp at all, garbs Himself with this wonder.

Since God in His infinite inscrutability is prior to the manifestation in Creation of this power of wonder with which He invests Himself like a garment in order to be ultimately available to finite human cognition, to understanding and conceptualization, the human being, prior to such cognitive gestures, equipped with nothing but open-ended wonder and the ability to pose the question ‘What …?’, has access to this revelation via sheer trust in God. Such access exists because trust in God is something that takes place above knowledge and conceptualization. Of course, ‘a fool believes everything, but the clever man understands etc.’ [Prov. 14:15] But vis-à-vis the Holy One, blessed be He, Who is above intelligence and knowledge, and Whom no thinking can grasp at all, all are like fools before Him, may He be blessed.’ Under the exegetical inclinations of the author of the Tanya, the verse from Proverbs thus assumes new meaning: cleverness follows folly not as its nemesis and its better but as its consummation, because, as the verse says, cleverness is a matter of understanding (binah), and the faculty of understanding is subsequent to the faculty of wonder (okhmah) in the order of the Concatenation of Sefirot. In this admittedly odd-sounding re-configuration of terms, okhmah, which is typically held to mean ‘wisdom,’ is actually closer to what is usually taken to be wisdom’s opposite, namely folly. Since the specific type of giddiness peculiar to okhmah in its pristine state is the giddiness of wonder, the folly embodied in okhmah is a natural, constitutive folly that belongs to the human condition simply on account of the latter’s finitude. It is an essential folly, of which the folly of sinners is an accidental derivative. Yet a similarity does remain. By the same token that essential folly all too easily becomes a gullibility that ‘believes everything’ like a fool or a child and hence facilitates wantonness and sinfulness, it also contains the possibility of the most vital connection to God, a kind of umbilicus of the soul with life-giving physiological functions of trust, reliance, confidence, fidelity.

Now in installing this epistemological framework behind the discussion at hand, especially in the background to such a serious subject as Auschwitz where the promotion of any kind of folly must seem like so much inappropriate levity, it is important to specify the need for folly with a little more precision. In its more minimal moment, the epistemic professes de docta ignorantia, what we find in the via negativa of Maimonides for example; which says: the Infinite is inscrutable. In its less cautious moment this epistemic sings in laudem stultitiam, opening the very door that it just shut; which says: the Infinite, if not open to scrutiny, is somehow available to foolishness. How so? In so far as Auschwitz presents one problem among several problems within theology (viz. the problem of theodicy), the possibility of wrapping our minds around this problem are ruled out automatically because, as the Rebbe writes, ‘that the entire process of posing the problem and of wishing to understand with the intellect that which is higher than the intellect, is something that cannot take place.’ As such, the problem is solved, or at least addressed, by a ‘despite’ and a ‘nevertheless’: despite our ignorance, we believe nevertheless. In insisting on venturing into the second moment of the epistemic, a ‘because’ that charges against windmills, thus re-opening a foolish approach to the problem after every approach has been barred, the Rebbe seems to signal, first of all, the sui generis nature of the problem. Auschwitz, and theodicy in general, is not one problem among others in theology, not even the ‘first objection’ confronting ‘belief in God’s existence.’ The Rebbe, as we just read, alludes to a midrash of radical, deep-reaching implications regarding the Torah and Auschwitz. The Torah was given to Moses. Then Moses gave us the Torah. Moses’s entire being was submerged under and saturated by nothing but the Torah. In the face-to-face with God which stands above all others in its passionate desire for intimacy with (‘knowledge of’) the Giver of the Torah, Moses implores: ‘Please, make Your ways known to me!—so I will know You. In order to find grace in Your eyes. And look—for this nation is Your people!’ (Exod. 33:13) It is the highest, most difficult question put by a man to God—and by no ordinary man at that, indeed, by the least ordinary man (Num. 12:3). What is the content of this question? Rabbi Yoḥanan, speaking in the name of Rabbi Yose, tells us that Moses’s request was the question: ‘Master of the Universe, why is there such a thing a righteous man who prosper and there is a righteous man who suffers, there is a wicked man who suffers and a wicked man who prospers?’ The fact that this was the specific issue at stake in the question concerning the Divine ‘ways’ of is indicated by what God says the ensuing verse (v. 19): ‘I will be indulgent to whom I will be indulgent, and will be compassionate to whom I will be compassionate.’ Which Rabbi Meir, on the same talmudic page, interprets to mean that God did not at all provide an answer to Moses’ question, simply because such an answer would be tantamount to nothing less than seeing God’s face; ‘and He said, you cannot see My face. For a man cannot see My face and live’ (v. 20). The fact that the man who asked this specific and impossible question was ‘none other than our teacher Moses’ hinges the significance of the entire Torah around the ‘problem of evil’ in such a radical and copernican fashion that, not only is this one more attestation to the fact that the Torah has very little to do with theology, but it also shows that the problem that the theological tradition came to designate as ‘theodicy’ has just as little to do with the Torah, inasmuch as any theological theodicy, as the etyma indicate, must be an attempt to arrive at a logos of the diké of God, be it an actually logical account of the God’s justice or, in any case, something more reasonable than an expression of utterly unnegotiable folly. Spelling out the implications of Wiesel’s extemporaneous suggestion that Auschwitz be regarded as ‘Anti-Sinai,’ we might say that this appellation which serves to hint at the revelatory voice of Auschwitz thereby also serves retroactively to excavate the apocalyptic dimensions of Sinai, whence it is possible to read the equation in its symmetrical quality and to speak of Sinai as Anti-Auschwitz. It remains to be seen how messianic mania in particular brings the meaning of this equation to full expression.

We are hard pressed not to consider one final issue besetting any epistemic of folly before we go through the foolish transcendental logic of the ‘Because Auschwitz’ argument; notwithstanding the complexity of the issue, which here can only be touched upon with a perfunctory gesture. If it is in fact granted that an epistemic of folly will probably have more success than a rational approach in taking us into the heart of the madness of Auschwitz, by the same token, precisely because this would lure us into the darkest and most quixotic recesses of the mind, behind the civility of logic, deep into that jungle where psychological forces are freer at play than logical ones, how in such a journey can we ever be sure that folly, howbeit holy, will indeed provide us with a viable epistemic or meta-epistemic methodology, and not merely something like a dose of good old fashioned nuttiness? ‘Folly,’ after all, is a romantic word. It resonates all too well, for instance, with the romanticist proclivities of the specifically German type which found its ultimate literary hero in a self-appointed bare-headed human lightning rod like Hölderlin. Is the hasidic epistemic to hide behind a similar romantic bravado? What if we were to translate shtut dik’dushah in more prosaic clinical terms, such as ‘holy hypomania,’ or ‘holy bipolar disorder,’ or ‘holy psychosis’? What kind of perverse psychic collusion might there be lurking behind a putative ‘logic’ that would derive a justification for the strengthening of religious feelings and of faith from a first-hand experience of institutional cruelty which systematically destroyed every possible evidence for God’s interest in human welfare? If we may limit our line of inquiry to one perversion, in fact, we may ask whether there is not enough reason to suspect that a type of masochism must be operative here somewhere in the basement. Freud smartly observed how the demands of conscience are ‘all the more strict and distrustful the more virtuous the person is, so that in the end it is precisely those people who have carried it farthest into saintliness who impute the worst sinfulness to themselves.’ There is certainly good reason to worry that the ‘Because Auschwitz’ type of religious faith is an excellent example of what Freud called ‘moral masochism,’ the religious condition par excellance wherein the ego’s twisted desire to be tormented by guilt feelings and to be punished conjures forth the sadism of the super-ego, and thus shows itself to be the exquisitely cultivated blossom, sweet to the smell but also with a putrid air about it, of the death-drive. Is this the dirty secret of the holy psychosis under consideration?

A cherished example of holy folly given in same chapter from the Tanya quoted above is that of a Jewish fool who is no ordinary fool but is ‘the most featherbrained among the featherbrains and sin-mongers of Israel.’ Even such spiritually frivolous delinquents, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, have been known to climb into the flames of an auto-da-fé upon being invited to betray the God of their fathers.

… and even when they are boors and ignoramuses and do not know of the greatness of the Lord; and even the little they do know they never contemplate, and they do not sacrifice their lives on account of knowledge and contemplation of the Lord. Rather, without any knowledge or contemplation whatsoever, [they suffer martyrdom] simply as if it this is something that is altogether impossible, namely to forsake the one Lord; doing so without any reason or argument or dialectic whatsoever. This is because the one Lord illuminates and animates every soul by means of investing it in its fabric of wonder that is above a knowledge and intelligence that is conceptual and understandable.

And yet what would deter the psychoanalyst from reading this beloved proof of the extraordinary power of foolish wonder as the most extreme case of masochism? This example of martyrdom, it is true, shows how inconsequential intelligence and erudition, or even a fanaticism based on a rudimentary literacy, are for the foundation of the trust in God. Jewish identity runs deeper than life itself. But even such a powerful subterranean sense of identity can be explained in terms of an all-but-ineradicable Oedipal feeling of guilt and indebtedness to the ancestors delighting masochistically in their apotheosis. Even without digging so deeply into the psyche, the powerful feelings of debt to one’s ancestors can be ascribed to the uneasy prospect that our deepest sense of identity is just a terrible mistake. The descendents and heirs of a faith, says Nietzsche, have convinced themselves that if an ancestor had ‘sincerely believed in something and had fought for his belief and was killed, it would be all too unfair if he had been inspired by a mere error. Such an occurrence seems to contradict eternal justice.’ And the axiom that psychology, along with the entire epistemic of lucid scientific thinking, and, perhaps most importantly, along with the plain evidence of Auschwitz and its like, permits itself the harsh freedom to assume that history is littered with the corpses of fools who gave up their lives by mistake, for the sake of a mistake; ‘for there is no eternal justice.’

How can such cutting psychological suspicions regarding ‘holy folly’ be deflected? They cannot be. To begin with, on grounds of a principle of health that can be derived from the Torah itself we should probably be slow to even seek out any such deflection. The incisive analytic business of cutting around and removing specious forms of pious conviction founded on guilt feelings of the Oedipal type and concomitant cockamamie proverbial theories of hereditary sin was one of the regular surgical tasks of the prophets. It was also a concern of the talmudic Sages. Psychology is very much a Jewish science, as Freud himself was prepared to concede, not despite its critique of religion, but precisely because this critique is an absolutely vital iconoclastic chore entailed in the second item of the Decalogue. If a deflection of the psychological critique is any way desirable, it is only in so far as such a critique presumes to accomplish a comprehensive reduction of all actions and passions that are called ‘holy’ to a the admittedly unsavoury and unholy complex of psychic waltzes and tangos so popular everywhere. And even here there is no place for a deflection of psychological critique. What there is room for, instead, is a peripatetic stroll around the critique which takes stock of the epistemic neighbourhood and the methodological axioms behind the psychological reduction. How does this reduction work? What does it presume to accomplish? Basically, it operates as a successful translation, a displacement and transportation, of an observable constellation of key phenomena which present themselves in their ‘religious’ interpretation (e.g. reverence, penance, ritual) into, or onto, an alternative hermeneutic schema where the same phenomena are now interpreted as forming a neurotic complex (e.g. masochism, guilt feelings, obsessive-compulsive behaviour). The translation works somewhat like a mirror in which everything that is observable remains unchanged—but the ‘inner’ reality finds new significance, much as a given constellation of stars can serve an astronomer and an astrologer alike with an equally useful point of reference on the night sky yet with profoundly irreconcilable receptacles of meaning. There is no way to refute a psychological (or sociological, or political, etc.) approach to a phenomenon such as ‘holy folly’ and its reduction to a form of neurosis or psychosis—precisely because such a reduction, operating within its own tightly woven axiomatology, leaves no loose ends. What the reduction misses, in other words, is the possibility of a counter-mirroring or counter-reduction whereby the neurosis complex is affirmed—again, axiomatically, beyond proof—as possessing an inner meaning that is simply not accessible to observation. When the Jew capitulates to and suffers through a folly that he calls holy, the pre-intellectual discovery of the depths of his own a priori commitment to the Torah which opens up in this experience, and in such a way that the commitment is now deepened even further for no ‘reason’ that can be justified, cannot be falsified by the mere option of an alternative commitment. Again, the one who would attain to a healthy and authentic holy folly must always be prepared to submit his folly to a trial of fire in the purgative temperatures of psychoanalytic scrutiny, an awesome and terrible process for which the Hebrew calendar has reserved a ten-day period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. But to immolate the entire year in such a process, to cauterize every experience of mania from the body of holy life, may well amount to a paradoxical destruction of the life-source that infuses vitality into the very psychological examination of mania, namely the promotion of better health and a life lived a little closer to the truth. No doubt Nietzsche has put his finger on the anxieties that make us cower before the terrible prospect that ‘there is no eternal justice,’ and the heroic responsibility that would be required to face such a bleak prospect. But is there any less trembling or responsibility, any less freedom, any less need for innermost joy, for mad joy, before the differently awesome prospect that there may well be such a thing as eternal justice? And is it not possible to apply Nietzsche’s own praise of madness as the divine source of trust against this renewed neopagan and by now humdrum secular convention of belief, renewed by man himself, the belief that ‘there is no eternal justice,’ and, precisely by another madness, to passionately embrace an old confidence in eternal justice, by a demonstrative madness raging against the fashionable long robes and smoking thuribles of secularism, raging and proving that this old confidence is not a subjective spontaneity but is a gift granted from a source altogether external to and above established conventions?

With these last questions we close our praise of folly. We return to the application of this folly as it pertains to Auschwitz, to the mad flip of a ‘despite’ into a ‘because.’ How is it accomplished? Are there any precedents for such a thing?

The Argument | 7(B)

Picture 1

… For this reason I was surprised that you did not see the course of thought through to the end and bring out its conclusion. Why—as you know—was the answer to the complaint of Moses our teacher—according to the account of our Sages, of blessed memory upon his being shown how Rabbi Akiva’s flesh was ripped off with iron combs etc., so that Moses our teacher burst out: ‘This is Torah, and this is its reward?!’—why was the answer to this: ‘Silence! Thus it arises in the supernal Mind!’’?

We must remember that the complaint of Moses our teacher was not merely expressed verbally; its essential force was present in thought. Whence the answer ‘Silence!’ was not a bid to refrain from any discussion of the matter, but, beyond that, a bidding to not permit any thought about it.

And the only explanation was: ‘Thus it arises in the supernal Mind’—which is actually no explanation at all. Nevertheless this did not weaken the trust in God of Moses our teacher or of other authentic questioners and men. On the contrary, this only served to strengthen their trust, something to be found explicitly in the case of Job; likewise in the case of Abraham our father who not only stood fast by his trust but was also able to withstand every test; and likewise the other ‘rebels’ who remained deeply convinced individuals until the last day of their lives.

I think you will agree with me that it is no mere coincidence that all authentic questioners remained by their trust in God. For it could in no way be otherwise. Why so? If only the problem is meant with truth, and it is the expression and product of a true feeling of justice and uprightness, then it is logical [farshtendlekh] that such a deep feeling can only come from being convinced that true justice is the justice that stems from a super-human source, that is, from something higher than both human intellect and human feeling. Whence the problem touches not only emotion and intellect but also a person’s inwardness and the essence of his being.

But after the initial tempestuous assault, he has to see that the entire process of posing the problem and of wishing to understand with the intellect that which is higher than the intellect, is something that cannot take place. Moreover, he must—after a rattling outrage and a thorough grieving—ultimately come to the conclusion: Nevertheless I remain confident [ani maamin]. On the contrary—even more strongly.

What is upsetting about this argument, of course, or should be upsetting about it, is how it insists, without shutting its eyes or losing its footing as a rational argument, on being quite unreasonable at a critical point, notably the point where it says ‘on the contrary.’ Had the argument contented itself with the ‘nevertheless’ that is borrowed from the popular catechistic version of Maimonides’ thirteen-article credo, the worst fallout that might have needed further attention would have been that ‘stiff neck’ that is a hallmark of the Jewish people with its various unpleasant side-effects. Wiesel would have asked the Rebbe: ‘How can you believe in God after Auschwitz?’ And the Rebbe would have pulled out the citation that every good rabbi keeps handy in a little nutshell inside one of his pockets—‘Nevertheless I believe!’—and that would be that. The Rebbe, however, pulls out this citation by way of propaedeutic. The real answer, which immediately follows, is less reasonable. —Merely less reasonable? Not downright unreasonable? —Unreasonable? Not downright—foolish? This is the first of two formulas signaling such a disturbance in conventional epistemic and logical categories, that a commentary on it, as on the second formula, must occupy our analytic and ruminative attentions for the remainder of the present study: On the contrary—even more strongly! (Aderaba—nokh shtarker!) The problem with which we began our investigation concerned how the strength of Wiesel’s case against God was to be brought out. This is the Rebbe’s problem. What we see here is how, according to the Rebbe, the strength of the case must ultimately be drawn from the strength of Wiesel’s confidence in God. How is this to be brought about? Somehow, the same Auschwitz that constituted the strength of Wiesel’s case against God must now function as the source of strength for his confidence in God. Auschwitz, oddly enough, the power of Auschwitz, remains the source of strength. But by a contrary motion. ‘On the contrary!’ means that the hallmark ‘despite’ that would otherwise stubbornly push forward like an old iron locomotive against every attempt on the part of the architects of Auschwitz to ‘solve’ Ashkenaz as a problem must instead—on the contrary—let itself be pulled into a vertiginous ‘Because!’ pulling the heart and mind of the Jew—like a cattle car into Auschwitz? by some bizarre and perverse compromise with, or even conspiracy with, the gas chambers at the end of the line?—pulling the heart and mind of the Jew into a conclusion and into a state of trust in God (‘belief in God’!) with the mighty magnetic force of an ineluctable logic. It is a foolish conclusion by any standard.

But what this also means, of course, is that what needs to be carefully considered is the Rebbe’s standard. This careful consideration we propose to unfold in three steps, which we mark in parenthetical headings. First, we must recall (a.) the epistemic framework that is in place behind the Rebbe’s ‘Because!’ and is legible in this segment of the epistle, namely the abad doctrine of knowledge, particularly in its application to a kind of praiseworthy folly. Then we can consider (b.) the logic itself, the mad, foolish logic of the ‘Because!’ which will of course prove to be a kind of transcendental logic and no mere Quia absurdum est. Third in order of presentation but first in existential order, we may provide some indications, based on the Rebbe’s teachings, of what we propose to a call (c.) a scopics, which would be a way of seeings things, and of transporting one’s eyes in one’s head, as it were, so as to sustain, on a proto-epistemic or pre-epistemic level, an epistemic situation that would otherwise be unsustainable. With the presentation of such a scopics, which will involve an exercize in contrast with what we will call an ‘esperantic’ epistemic and will comprise the longest step in our considerations, our study of the Rebbe’s advocacy of Wiesel’s case against God will have have arrived at its final purpose and its conclusion.


The First Precedent | 8




The eighteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis is a key external document for our case. In a significant and explicitly thematized sense, this chapter from Genesis documents the beginning of Torah itself taken in its etymological sense. When God divulged to Abraham His impending plans to devastate the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, His faithful servant latter did not put his hand on his mouth and silently sit on an ash-heap in tormented by a desire to say something. ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ admits Abraham without hesitation, to be sure, yet—and should this yet not make our heads spin at as fast, if not faster, than Kierkegaard’s head spun during his virtiginous fascination with what takes place four chapters later in Genesis on the road to Mount Moriah?—‘I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord.’ (Gen. 18:27) Is there even any humility in Abraham’s recognition of himself as ‘but dust and ashes,’ as if it might have occurred to him, even for a moment, that he might be otherwise? Is any feat of resignation required for the recognition? And yet Abraham takes it upon himself to speak.

Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt Thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt Thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?’ (vv. 23-25)

Has the earth ever heard a louder protest against its Maker? Or a protest made in stronger terms? The rambunctiousness of the locution that Abraham lets slip (unintentionally?) from his mouth while making his protest, moreover, is almost impossible to capture in translation (‘That be far from Thee …’). alilah lekha …, says Abraham, at the beginning of his sentence and then a second time as the sentence’s exclamation mark, ḥalilah lekha! Literally: ‘A profanity for You …!’ The locution strains the nerves of the translator. One wonders why the ‘author’ of the text did not resort to some euphamistic device like the one used by Satan in Job 1:11, ‘But put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will bless Thee to thy face.’ After all, if there is one word, one adjective, in the whole lexicon of the Holy Tongue that is magnetically repulsed to the polar opposite of the adjective most proper to God, to the Holy One, blessed be He, it is the adjective that is the root of this word ḥalilah, namely ḥol, profane. Whence does Abraham muster such ḥutzpah? And we must careful not to draw parallels too quickly with Aeschylean tragedy. Prometheus is also known to have challenged Zeus, it is true, but Prometheus himself is no mere mortal composed of dust and ashes, and Zeus is a god in a manner that has dire little to do with comic justice; Prometheus’s whole complaint is that ‘Zeus maintains justice according to his private measure’. The justice of God, by contradistinction, is hardly supposed to be a subjective, idiosyncratic, fickle standard of some wanton divinity playing with this or that human life in the way that boys play with flies, plucking off their wings and squishing them for sport. God’s justice is supposed to be an objective standard for all the earth, and for all eternity, a standard established by the One who set Himself up as the earth’s Judge to begin with. In the language of Lurianic Kabbalah, we might say something like: As part of the great introverted self-contraction (tzimtzum) that God first underwent in His own person before, and in order to, create the world, God, in His unfathomable humility,’ established a universal standard of justice to which He Himself, for the sake of universality and general cogency, would be beholden. In the Lurianic system, especially as developed by R. Israel Sarug, the revelation of the Divine attribute of judgement (din) as the boundary-setting principle of cosmogony is an expression of the innermost Divine ‘pleasure.’ The constricted, finite, definite world of justice is where the Infinite can enjoy the company of the finite, even if only the pleasure of disagreement, which at least amounts to intercourse between the Infinite and the finite even if the relationship is having its bad day. It is the common little world of justice in which Abraham can be God’s ‘lover.’ Wiesel, as we see, refers to this in his article as ‘the laws of the Torah which, according to our sages, are equally binding on the Lord.’ In short, the entire protest of Abraham against God’s plans to transform Sodom into an broad brimstone crematorium is arranged as an appeal to God Himself as the protest’s own supreme authority, its one and only authority, God’s own justice, Divine Justice itself, being the precondition, transcendentally speaking, of the very possibility of this protest.

But protest is something that enjoys the protection of Divine Justice as the precondition of its own righteousness only to the extent that it itself actualizes this righteousness. The very authoritativeness of the divine authority depends—not as such, but in so far as it is the grounds for the human protest—on how the protest is carried out, namely with how much ‘faithfulness.’ And here the English language (i.e a Gospel language) becomes a stumbling block to a proper appreciation of the Rebbe’s account of how ‘faithfulness’ operates within the dynamics of protest. The word ‘faith,’ like the word ‘belief,’ not only fail to translate the Hebrew word emunah into English. These words actually actively interfere with the transfer. ‘Faith’ poses a particularly meddlesome obstruction with its suggestiveness (especially aggravated since Kierkegaard) of some type of extraordinary leap or somersault in the air so free of precedent and so absolutely original that there is no ground to speak of from which the impossible acrobatic maneuver can be said to have been made. Faith is an ovular phenomenon, a frustrated solipsism desperately trying to burst out of its egg; a desire to be born, to give birth to one’s world, to beget one’s own parents. Emunah, on the other hand, is a relationship; a relationship to someone parental. When one’s emunah is said to be ‘weak,’ this means the relationship is breaking up. But even if it could be broken beyond all repair, it would thereby not cease to be a relationship. In order to stress this relational character of emunah, a translation like ‘trust’ may therefore be more expedient here. Alternatively, to intimate its terra firma aspect, the ground on which it stands up and from which it steps forth or fails to step forth or stand up on, we may also translate emunah as ‘confidence.’ Usually, it is to reason that a gravity is attributed, an escape from the pull of which is then attributed to faith. But emunah makes a claim to no less gravity than does reason, perhaps even to much more gravity, albeit of a different type. Thus, where ‘faith’ refers to an altitude one might well fear of never reaching, the anxiety proper to emunah is one of not being able to return to once familiar ground. As the Rebbe says of the ‘faithful Jew until 1940, who was born in the 20th century and who was knowledgeable about Jewish history’: for this Jew, ‘the essential issue that there are those who permanently stand over us to destroy us is … for him nothing new. In any event, Hitler could not touch his confidence [emunah] in the Master of the Universe. Only he whose trust was weak even prior to that, and who sought a “foundation” for his rejection of the Master of the Universe, found such a foundation, as it were, in the Hitler era.’ With these translations at hand, we thus pick up at the point where we interrupted the Rebbe’s critique. It is in this segment of the epistle that the key transcendental twist of the critique takes place with maximum torque, necessarily leaving us—to the extent that we follow its movement without shutting our eyes—off balance.

Opening Statement | 7(A)


Picture 1


The epistle of the Rebbe is dated 24 Nissan 5725 (i.e. 26 April 1965). Evidently, no time was to be lost in responding to Wiesel’s article.

How does this epistle, written by an man of renowned orthodoxy, manage to step around the flagrantly heretical petition that buttons the article: ‘We are deserving of another kind of atheism, of another brand of apikorsim’? Actually, it does not step around it. It walks straight into it. When we recall that the Talmudic term apikoros may signify either the ancient Epicurean philosophy that makes pleasure the highest ethical category, or the freedom to take something that is ownerless (hephker), the suggestiveness of the term would seem to find its most disarming problematization at the beginning of the Rebbe’s commentary. Cutting right to the marrow of this atheism’s life-blood, the Rebbe exposes the simple contradiction in terms that arises from the association of such an Epicurean philosophy with an attitude of actual protest.

You write how, initially, you considered the assault of the doleful-celebrated (or tragic-comic) ‘rabbi’ against the Master of the universe as an expression of protest (against the lack of justice in the world). I concur that this is merely a bit of rhetoric, for, as you certainly know, someone who has become convinced of something during a seminar for some movement, the entire philosophy of which is tantamount to the contrary of fighting and rebelling and the intention of which is merely to make life lighter and more comfortable, does not live up to such a level of protest.

To protest is to fight. Whom does this atheist fight—but inflatable dummies and scarecrows? When Nietzsche’s madman declares in the marketplace that ‘We have killed God—you and I,’ he is immediately stricken with self-reproach for his untimely words. The people in the marketplace, the very ‘atheists’ whose hands are still warm with the blood from the murder stare at the madman in dumb incognizance of their own crime. ‘I come too early,’ says the madman, ‘the monstrous event is still underway … the light from the stars requires time … This deed is ever more distant than the most distant star—and yet this is something they have done!’ Nietzsche’s madman thus seems to be both the first and the last man to fully grasp the blundering innanity motivating the ‘theocidal’ crime, and the cheap pessimism whereby the witless criminals afterwards kicked around the sand to cover up the evidence, above all from themselves, ‘as if nothing happened.’ For Nietzsche, the ‘murder of God’ at the epicentre of European civilization is an act of the weakest sort, a symptom of weariness with life, a chronic spiritual fatigue, a nihilism. Regarding sleepy atheists, the Rebbe wholly concurs with Nietzsche. The would-be protestor, like the pulpit-thumper from Detroit, resembles the heated football fan who quickly becomes agitated and red-faced in his living room, amid a storm of potato chips and beer, namely by way of an Epicurean bravado designed to dissemble his decided reluctance to step onto an actual playing field and play some ball. Such atheism is basically a spectatorial effort. Moreover, we must not assume that there is no difference in the spectatorship achieved by a Christian and the spectatorship achieved by a Jew, as if the destination ‘Atheism’ were the only thing that mattered, while the differences in the forms of pilgrimage were irrelevant. In the case of a Christian would-be ‘protestor,’ for example, the laziness and fatigue is comparatively difficult to diagnose as Christianity itself suffers from this condition in its essential aversion to ‘works,’ its preference for passion over action, beginning with Paul’s allergy to the ‘Law’ and reaching high noon with Luther’s sola fide doctrine. In the case of a Jewish would-be ‘protestor,’ by comparison, the diagnosis is fairly easy to establish because Judaism is all about works. It is well-known how the Rebbe’s motto was a paraphrase of the saying from Avot 1:17 by Rabbi Shimon ben Rabban Gamliel: ha-maase hu ha-ikar, ‘The deed is the key thing!’ Psychologically if not chronologically, the first symptom of Jewish ‘atheism’ is a general weariness with deeds, or in any case some correlative Epicurean decadence. When Rav Yehudah, speaking in Rav’s name, explains the true motives behind idolatry, and hence assimilation, for instance, he refers to the pleasure-principle’s favorite form of expression: ‘The Israelites knew well there is nothing actually there in idol-worship, and they engaged in idolatry only in order to give themselves free sexual license publicly.’ Idolatry is rooted in an Epicurean interest in jouissance. The same soil extends under the roots of Christianity, and hence of the Enlightenment, the Jewish offshoot of which, the Haskalah, eventually found in Auschwitz, not one more argument for its reasonable cause, but one more alibi for the laziness that is its red loam.

In an epistle of 5727 (1967), the Rebbe writes: ‘… everyone who would justify his or her ‘insurrection’ against the Master of the Worlds (may the Merciful One save us!) because of the Shoah and so on has no basis or logic or reason for this.’ Lacking basis, logic or reason, in other words, it is nothing but a justification.

In describing the Rebbe’s observation as an incision into the marrow and life-source of ‘atheism,’ what we have in mind is its compliment, that penetrating epistemic vantage-point attained by German thought in its climactic hours, particularly in the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger. These two men, these two Germans—and what Germans!—have done more than any other philosopher to dissect the most basic organs and gestures of European thought (logic, representation, objectivity, doubt, proof, etc.) and expose what is really happening on the inside. Nietzsche: thought as a form of life ever seeking to increase its vital power under the guise of ‘truth’; or as he says in his ironic style: ‘Truth is the kind of error without which a certain kind of living being could not live.’ Heidegger: thought in its ‘practical’ (‘ontic’ rather than ‘ontological’) existential element from which theoretical thinking is derived; or as he says later, poiesis as the ‘building’ that accommodates a ‘dwelling’ within the truth of Being. This is not the place to read these subtle philosophies. But it is useful to mention them in context of the Rebbe’s epistle for two interwoven reasons. (1) The Rebbe’s fundamental epistemic principle, which he receives from the Alter Rebbe and thence from the talmudic tradition, is that any knowledge that is not merely theoretical but pertains to human existence cannot be at odds, if it is true knowledge, with the quotidian life and actions of the thinker himself. This epistemic is not an heirloom of a hoary dogma; it presupposes an understanding of truth that is epochally prior to the Platonic one, and to which Western philosophy finally became sensitized as it approached and then as it unfolded during the century of Auschwitz. The unhappy coincidence of this timing suggests that by the same token:— (2) This particular affinity between the okhmah-binah-daat epistemic and that of the Lebensdenken epistemic, precisely because they find themselves occupying the same field of truth as praxis, can be in total disagreement about how praxis actually attains to truth, and are in fact in a situation of total war against each other. For Nietzsche and Heidegger, praxis means life as naturalism, music, tragic heroism, amor fati, passion for power, poetry, immanentism, pious attendance to the call of Being; for the okhmah-binah-daat doctrine and for rabbinic teaching in general, praxis means life as a supernatural phenomenon, prophecy rather than music, rejection of all tragic moods, transcendence of fate and of mazal in a radical responsibility, gratitude for the gift of powers that are never one’s own, distrust of poetry unconnected to clear thinking and Torah, acosmism, listening and learning to the voice of God as embodied in the Torah given at Sinai. One might have wished that the difference in outlook between these two approaches were sufficiently extreme that they would not have to meet, and perhaps not even be able to meet, on a shared battlefield. One might have wished that it would be enough to yell out Le’havdil! and to protect this exclamation with some philosophical elucidation of the absolute incommensurability of the hermeneutic registers of these two outlooks and hence their mutual illegibility. But in any case the Rebbe does not see things that way. Nor does Wiesel. For them, conflict, and therefore fury, are unavoidable. The third and last section of the Rebbe’s epistle to Wiesel, which begins, ‘And now I permit myself a personal comment that is connected to our chat when we met in my chambers,’ must remain unintelligible, or seem merely like a homiletical ‘personal note’ and epistolary denouement, if we do not grasp the loud and urgent call to arms that resounds in this section. Nor is this call to arms a mere practical application of the two prior theoretical sections, as if to say, ‘Well, after all, something tangible must come out of all this ivory tower banter.’ If anything, on the contrary, this concluding bit of ‘advice’ contains the essential truth of the (we may henceforth use the acronym—) abad epistemic. Whence the Rebbe underlines the fact that he wishes here, finally here, to speak ‘with full force’ (mit der gantzer shtarkeit):

To commemorate and not to forget—as the Torah says, ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ [Deut. 25:17]—is obviously a positive matter. In the terminology of our Sages, it is a ‘positive commandment.’ Particularly when one notes the growing tendency and the effort to forget and to make forget.

But in the final analysis, commemoration is only one part of the task imposed upon us. The other, possibly more important, part is to actively work and to effectuate something against the so-called ‘final solution’ that Hitler, exactly as Haman before him, had in mind.

The counter-force must express itself through deeds in the spirit of ‘the more they multiplied, the more they spread out’ [Exod. 1:12]. […]

And permit me to say with full force that, notwithstanding how important it is to relate to the present generation what happened to us, and however difficult it is to free ourselves from those memories and experiences [iberlebungen], the first task is nonetheless, to my mind, to accomplish the feat of ‘against your will you live’ (Avot 4:22), with the emphasis on ‘you live,’ i.e., with an eye to vivacity [lebedikeit]. In other words: you must presently make every effort to tear yourself away from those experiences, and to immerse yourself in a regimen of life, a married life, to establish a Jewish home and a Jewish family. This will certainly contribute to Hitler’s defeat, as he will not have managed to diminish a Vizhnitzer hosid. On the contrary, you will raise children and grandchildren, Vizhnitzer hasidim, until the end of generations.

It is interesting to see how closely the Rebbe anticipates the basis of that blackball idea in the history of Western philosophy, already cited above: the career-long meditation of Emil Fackenheim, begun two years later, on his ‘614th commandment’ against ‘handing Hitler yet another, posthumous victory.’ As Fackenheim understood with so much anguish and sobriety, the new warfront on which the Jew finds himself since his total defeat in Ashkenaz is the home in which he must decide how, and worse, whether, to raise children.

The more than one million Jewish children murdered in the Nazi holocaust … were murdered because of the Jewish faith of their grandparents. … Like Abraham of old, European Jews some time in the mid-nineteenth century offered a human sacrifice, by the mere minimal commitment to the Jewish faith of bringing up Jewish children. … What if they had known? Could they then have remained faithful? Should they? And what of us who know, when we consider the possibility of a second Auschwitz three generations hence. … Yet for us to cease to be Jews (and to cease bringing up Jewish children) would be to abandon our millennial post as witnesses to the God of history.

Fackenheim’s word, as was already mentioned, is ‘resistance.’ For Fackenheim as for the Rebbe, again, Hitler’s assault on the Jews necessitates the adoption of martial language for a proper articulation of the task. (We might also recall how the Rebbe was not afraid to use military language in the education of children, notably in his Tzivos HaShem campaign begun in 1980.) But if the most spiritual and sublime expression of this resistance belongs to the quotidian business of child-rearing, it also defines the fundamental character that a abad epistemic (in the strict acronymistic sense) must take up, and in which must discipline itself, in order to be able to confront the general epistemic situation that German philosophy established in Europe over the two centuries leading to Auschwitz, a situation that has hardly been overthrown since the literal military defeat of Germany in 1945. In the middle section of his epistle, the Rebbe describes the situation as he experienced it first-hand during his student days in Berlin. But his description is not meant merely as a historical commentary on an intellectual and cultural scene that is thankfully extinct. The fact that, since 1945, French and American philosophers have been busy cross-examining German philosophy (as if by way of a philosophical extension of the Nurenberg trials), without pulling their punches, and hardly even embarrassed to flog the carcasses of German minds well after their last breath was taken (e.g. Heidegger’s poor horse), does not mean that they have pushed back, or even begun to confront, the most significant and abiding conquest achieved by German thought over the Western mind during the 18th century, with Kant, Fichte et al, namely what Fackenheim in his penetrating studies in German Idealism has described as ‘the God Within,’ the immanentization of the Divine within the limits of autonomous reason and the concomittent shutting out of biblical revelation. Albeit without the scholarly and close familiarity with German Idealism of someone like Fackenheim, the Rebbe arrives at the same general conclusion.

The Hitler episode did indeed introduce a novelty … in the domain of human development, culture and civilization.

In particular, many had believed in the arguments of the so-called maskilim that in the 20th century, having attained such a level of civilization, with various ‘higher’ philosophical systems, with a broad and high education, with such scholarship and so many universities, with such a high ethics and elegant manners; that in such a century there could not happen what happened in the ‘dark middle ages.’ … This was intended to repudiate the ‘superannuated’ method of the Tanakh, for ‘sin is a reproach to any people’ [Prov. 14:34], and, as Rashbi says, ‘it is a well-known halakha that Esau hates Jacob’ [Sifrei, Beha’alotekha 69]. Suddenly the great crash arrived, and the whole culture and civilization of the 20th century collapsed. It thereby became manifest that it is no contradiction for someone to be a philosopher or a poet, with elegant manners, who enjoys higher society in a Berlin salon, while this same man then arrives in Treblinka or its like and does everything that was done in those places. […]

If the Hitler episode should have touched any part of faith [emunah], it should not only have touched upon, but clearly demonstrated, the fact that human feelings of justice and uprightness cannot be relied upon, even when the man has a higher education and a university degree and is also the son of an accredited academic.

What is a lamentable shame here is that a person can be afraid to arrive at this conspicuous conclusion, having been already dissuaded from accepting the logical consequences to which the conclusion regarding everyday life should lead. This unpardonable reluctance can also be found among religious voices, unfortunately, and even among those who have seen with their own eyes what human beings can do when they are given over to their own authority. And this, as mentioned above, is because one seeks to make one’s life easier and more comfortable and one can sleep better; because one can get along with the world in a lighter manner—although this is the same world that was silent—and for the most part one can also achieve some peace of mind.

How is this lethargic condition, already invoked as the cause of the ‘atheist’ bluff, also the cause of the reluctance to denounce as unreliable a concept of justice derived by human intelligence alone? And if the same lethargy is behind both gestures, how could the very sense of justice swelling with indignation in the breast of this ‘atheist’ be a viable sense of justice altogether? Is that sublime idea of justice achieved for our ongoing historical situation, some time around the French Revolution, les droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the same idea of justice subsequently imported by Kant via Rousseau into German philosophy and, following him, spread over Western mind like a cozy blanket; an idea, moreover, to be found at the definition of the core of Ashkenazi decadence as exposited in Mendelssohn’s essay über religiöse Macht und Judentum, in which this Judentum is measured against a frustration with the political dimension of religion; is this secularized idea of justice a product of softness, lethargy, and a fear of protest or of any form of confrontation (as in fact Nietzsche argued)?

With this question we finally arrive at the substance of the Rebbe’s transcendental critique of Wiesel’s righteous fury, which is contained in the first part, the first third, of his epistle. The substance is dense. We take it as our task to unpack and stretch out its density, and even to make explicit certain ideas that are only implied; and to do this partly by indulging in philosophical methods foreign to the Rebbe’s native terms and context but, it is hoped, not antipathetic to his intent and wider purpose. The Rebbe’s entire critique of Wiesel, to repeat, stands on the most solid agreement with him.

I agree with you, of course, that the complaint ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?’ [Gen. 18:25] can be authentic and can have its proper force only when it breaks forth from the pain-filled heart of a deep believer [maamin]. Moreover we find that indeed the first one who ever expressed this complaint was Abraham our father, the biggest believer and the father of ‘believers, sons of believers’ [Shabbat 97a]. We are also told by the Sages that the first to have posed the question of ‘the righteous one who suffers, the wicked one who prospers’ was none other than our teacher Moses [Berakhot 7a], the same one who explicated to the Jews, and to the entire world, the idea of ‘I am the Lord your God’ and ‘you shall have no other gods’ [Exod. 20:2], where the category of ‘other gods’ includes the human intellect and understanding when one makes these into idols and supreme authorities.

For this reason I was surprised that you did not see the course of thought through to the end and bring out its conclusion. […]

The Rebbe says he agrees with Wiesel. He agrees that a ‘deep believer’ can authentically raise the complaint, ‘Did the Judge of all the earth do justice in Auschwitz?’ Would he go so far as to say with Wiesel, ‘I maintain that the death of six million human beings poses a question to which no answer will ever be produced’; that ‘nothing justifies Auschwitz’? Could the Rebbe simply overlook the traditional justification for suffering given again and again in the Torah itself, namely that human suffering somehow correlates to human sin, even if the correlation must remain mysterious? In a hasidic discourse of 5751 (1990), in the context of a general rejection of any fire-and-brimestone pedagogics of the Mussar type, the Rebbe nails his own protest on the gates of such blithe orthodoxy.

The present generation, the remnant escaped from the Desolation [Shoah] in which six million Jews were killed in sanctification of God’s Name [al kidush HaShem], may the Lord avenge their blood, belongs to the category of ‘a brand plucked from the fire’ [Zach. 3:2], a brand plucked from a conflagration—and Heaven forfend that they should be submitted to any prosecution! […]

There is such a thing as something undesirable that does not come as a matter of punishment, but rather comes as something that the Holy One, blessed be He, has decreed [gazar] without any reason or explanation whatsoever that is either rational or based on Torah wisdom. In the words of the Sages (regarding the killing of Rabbi Akiva, who was flayed with iron combs, and likewise each of the Ten Martyrs): ‘Silence! Thus it arises in the supernal Mind!’ [Menaot 29b], and ‘It is a decree [gzerah] before Me’ [Yom Kippur liturgy] (and it is not said about this, ‘Is the Holy One, blessed be He, suspect of executing justice without justice?’ [Berakhot 5b]). And the archetypical case: the decree of the ‘covenant between the parts,’ about which it is written: ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years’ [Gen. 15:13]—something that was not the consequence of sins [since the potential sinners were not yet born] but simply what the Holy One, blessed be He, decreed to be so.

In our own times, the destruction of six million Jews that took place with such great and terrible cruelty—a tremendous desolation the likes of which never was (and never will be, may the Merciful One save us!) throughout all generations—cannot be considered a matter of punishment for transgressions, for even the Satan himself could not configure a calculus of transgressions for that generation which could justify—Heaven forbid!—a punishment so severe.

There is no rational explanation and no elucidation (based on Torah wisdom) whatsoever for the Devastation, nothing but the knowledge that ‘thus it arises in My Mind!’ and ‘It is a decree before Me’ (although certainly not in the sense of desire—innermost will—Heaven forbid!—as it says in Torah, ‘When man suffers, what does the Shekhinah say? “My head is too heavy for me, etc.”’ [Sanhedrin 46a], for it is ‘for a small moment have I forsaken thee’ [Is. 54:7]), and certainly certainly [ubevadai ubevadai] there is no explanation in terms of punishment for sins.

On the contrary: all those who were killed in the Desolation are called kedoshim [‘holy ones’] (this is their appelation in the mouth of every Jew) because they were killed in sanctification of God’s Name (on account of being Jews) […].

The Rebbe agrees with Wiesel. The Shekhinah Herself agrees with Wiesel, according to the Rebbe’s reading of the statement by R. Meir which he cites: faced with human suffering, Her head is rendered ‘too heavy for her’ to engage in contemplation and to explain the meaning of this suffering. Human suffering is incomprehensible to God Herself, in other words; that is, in so far as God is present in our world, as Shekhinah, as ‘feminine’ Divine Indwelling immanent in the world. Is there anything like a comprehension of human suffering beyond our world, then, in the transcendent Mind of the Godhead? Or is comprehension itself transcended in that beyond? According to the midrash discussed above, in which God tells Jeremiah to summon the Patriarchs and Moses to come weep for His children, God first gives Himself over to weeping. He weeps for the Shekhinah, for that ‘feminine’ part of ‘Himself’ that ‘He’ was compelled to recall from dwelling in Jerusalem among His children. The archangel Metatron then steps forward, falls on his face, and begs God to let him do the divine weeping in His stead. God’s apparent inability to maintain His transcendence is too much to bear for the archangel. An abyss of cosmic embarrassment opens up under his seraphic feet. And God responds: ‘If you do not let Me weep now, I will enter a place you have no permission to enter, and I will weep there!’ In Jeremiah’s words: ‘But if ye will not hear it,
 my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride.’ In order to preserve the secret that belongs to the immanence of the Shekhinah, God retreats into an even more transcendent hidding place, beyond the reach of the archangels, in which inconceivably remote place God in His inconceivable divine solitude is still unable to justify to Himself the suffering of His children. This is what the Midrash says. And the Rebbe’s repeated reference to the notion of a gzera, a decree from Heaven beyond all earthly intelligibility, stands fully behind this midrashic teaching. For the Rebbe, the entire question of how catastrophes like the Ḥurban or Auschwitz are to be brought under the aegis of the justifiable, explicable and comprehensible, is placed on permanent hold this side of Heaven.

Now to what conclusion this critique of reason leads we have yet to see. First we need to simply notice that a transcendental deduction is underway. When the Rebbe writes, ‘For this reason I was surprised …,’ the ‘reason’ in question is that ‘I agree with you, of course …’ The Rebbe does not ‘criticize’ Wiesel in the colloquial sense of the word, by way of disagreement, rejection, refutation and so on, to say nothing of deprecation. His critique, rather, is transcendental, in the classical Kantian sense, in that it seeks to bring into our purview the preconditions which have been present all along behind, on the horizon, and underneath Wiesel’s argument, and which are upholding and making this very argument possible to begin with. Wiesel’s atheism is not wrong, according to the Rebbe. The only thing that is wrong in the situation is that Wiesel does not know how right he is, and, just as importantly, how he is right. In his article, Wiesel mentions the prophets Jeremiah, Jonah and Job as good examples of God’s loyal opposition. The Rebbe pulls the problem even more squarely into the heart of the Torah. Abraham and Moses are his examples, two men whose standing as prophets is overshadowed by far greater distinctions in the Torah. These men are none other than our Father and our Teacher. What is implied in the appeal to such bedrock precedents?

Rebbe letter

The Fury | 1(B)

Picture 2




It is the same pyromania that Wiesel had brought to his first meeting with the Rebbe. In his account, we see it come down to the same crisis point, amid hysterical violence, as in the Shamgorod play, with the word:— coupable.

Their attitudes seemed irreconcilable. Suddenly the Rebbe became silent, leaned his head forward and his voice became harsher.

‘What do you expect of me?’

‘Nothing,’ said Gregor, ‘nothing at all. From God likewise.’

The Rebbe, motionless, continued to gaze at him without uttering a word.

‘Yes,’ Gregor resumed, ‘I expect from you that you will leave your armchair and sit down on the ground, your forehead covered with ashes. For you everything appears simple and this simplicity wounds me; for you every word transmits a spark of the truth that is eternal, every gesture corresponds to an inner conviction that is well defined, well cloistered; the totality of these words, these gestures you connect to God, depositary of all truths, of all convictions. And so, what I expect from you is that you raise your arms to heaven and cry out: No, I’ll go along no longer! I’ll accept it no longer! That’s what I’m expecting from you.’

The Rebbe suffered the attack without flinch­ing. His darkened eye pierced Gregor who experienced a pain spreading to his hands, his legs, his head.

‘And of yourself?’ asked the Rebbe calmly, ‘What do you expect of yourself?’

‘Very little. Almost nothing. I have but one aim, just one: not to cause suffering. You see, my dream, my ideal is a modest one; almost perfunctory, commonplace if not banal. I no longer seek to save the human race, to measur­e myself against destiny. I’m content with little: to help a single being is sufficient for me.’

‘You call that little? To help a human being is not nothing. To save him from despair! Is that not to submit destiny to the idea that you have fashioned of humanity?’

He began to smile, and the young man experienced a rupture in the ground of his being; he would have preferred to see the Rebbe angry.


‘I will tell you a story,’ said Gregor, trembling. ‘It’s short and simple. In a concentration camp, a rabbi convened, one evening after work, three of his colleagues, talmudic scholars of renown, and created a state-of-emergency tribunal. Standing up straight, his head held high, he adressed them in the following terms: ‘I wish to convict God of murder …

Thus far we have been unexacting in our use of the term ‘fury.’ As we make our transition from an appraisal of the emotionally charged and explosive power of Wiesel’s plaint to the actual formal advocacy of his case, it is now important to take note of the technical meaning of the term which has been all the while operative in the background. Furiæ is what the Romans called the Erinyes, the chthonic avenging deities, older than the Olympians, who skulk in the dark hunting down and avenging unfilial behaviour, betrayal, homicide, and, in general, any breach in the moral order of the universe. The greatest literary presentation of the Furies is of course Aeschylus’ Eumenides. But this play is much more than a dramatic masterpiece. It is a thoughtful, albeit pre-philosophical, exposition of what the Furies are in their essence, and, moreover, of how the sublimation of this essence took place at the beginning of European civilization as part of its very civility. The plot, typical of the extremely dysfunctional family of Attic tragedy, revolves around matricide. Orestes has killed his mother in revenge for her killing his father. While his hands are still warm with Clytaemnestra’s blood, the Furies appear to torment him. Their physical appearance reflects their personality and function. They are said to look like gorgons, wrapped in black robes and serpents, like bloodhounds, their eyes dripping with blood, like children who look like wrinkled old women. Their charge, as they see it, is nothing less the ‘House of Justice.’ And hence their sacred commission is ‘to execute justice upon this man,’ to hunt him down and to execute him. Orestes runs until he finds refuge in Athena’s temple. Wise Athena offers to listen to both parties, giving due respect to both the supplicant in her temple and the ferocious forces that have him cornered. She presides as judge, but invites the citizens of her fair polis, Athens, to serve as jury members. Apollo acts for the defence. The argument whereby Apollo manages to win over the jury, as well as Athena, and to win the case for his defendant is a striking revelation of the secret upon which ‘the political’ is founded; it is too bizarre to be worth mentioning here. What is of critical importance for our purposes is the way that Athena is obliged to mollify the Furies, who have not accepted their defeat in the agreed-upon trial with sportive grace, and who threaten to let all Hell loose upon humanity henceforth, letting morality collapse under a chaos of unpunished human violence. Athena pleads with the Furies not too be insulted by the verdict. And she makes them an offer that will not only restore their honour but will guarantee them a permanent and stable place of honour, at which they may sit on ‘shining thrones,’ beside Erechtheus himself, the founding father of Athens, where they will be regularly approached by the Athenian citizenry with pious and grateful devotions. This offer is in fact considerably more than any restoration they might have imagined. It is nothing less than a transformation of the very savagery that, until then, has defined the Furies in their divine function since the beginnning of time. They themselves are shocked, most pleasantly shocked, at the grand offer that ‘no household will prosper without their consent’. The basic building block of civilization itself, the œconomic unit, will not have a license to endure without permission from the powers of punitive vengeance. The Furies are thus domesticated and civilized, absorbed into the political system. How exactly the administration of their new power is to take place Aeschylus does not spell out. We might imagine that this high office bestowed upon the Furies is tantamount that of crown prosecution in Athens—Athena herself concludes her offer by crowning Fury a queen—or at least that whoever henceforth comes to act in this capacity, and perhaps in any capacity as prosecutor in a civilized court of law, speaks under the implicit divine aegis of the Furies. But however they might continue to manifest their chracateristic power of vengence and punition, under whatever new guise sanctioned by the state, the key to their transformation has already taken place, almost without their knowing it, under Aeshchylus’ pen. For, as Athena points out, the only counterforce to the natural and wild force of fury to which the Erinyes will have had to concede some room, as the price for their new office, is the force of Persuation (Peithô), a divinity with her own proper sacred space. This is the counterforce that the Furies will have to concede to if they are to enjoy their own sacred precinct in the city, but it is also the force that they have already conceded to during the dramatized trial. ‘I do like Persuasion’s eye,’ says Athena, ‘that aimed my tongue and mouth at these savage recalcitrant ones.’ Prosecution, in a word, the civilized art of speech practised in the courtroom as one of the sublimest applications of the power of persuasion, is exactly what the Furies have shown themselves to be capable of doing for the greater part of the Eumendies, and Athena’s only contribution toward their domestication is to introduce them to the power of Persuasion, who will be not a master who breaks their will, but a hostess who will accommodate their special talents and inclinations.

Do we find a comparable process in Scripture wherein fury is tamed into prosecution? It is not easy to find, as one might guess, precisely because the process of litigation is a given in the giving of the ‘Law’ itself. Thus, for example, when Jeremiah says, ‘I am full of the fury of the Lord’, he has a right to this fury because it is not his property at all, it belongs to the Lord. Like that vengance that is the Lord’s, this fury, it must be assumed as a biblical a priori, does not bubble forth like the tohu vavohu of Creation or the primordial Leviathan that is tamed by the Almighty and All-sane. The Furies can only exist in a polytheistic scheme. Likewise the ‘Satan’ in the prologue of the Book of Job is nothing like the psychopath that Dante or Milton turn him into but is rather a respectable gentleman in Heaven’s employ who fulfills his duties as diligently as he can. Perhaps the closest thing in the Bible to a properly furious personage is Jonah, who wallows in his bitterness over the sins of Nineveh under the castor oil plant, his kikayon. But the lesson that Jonah learns from the ‘dark secret love’ of the worm that destroys his precious kikayon that has protected him from the heat of the sun is how to turn his bitterness into compassion. God asks him, ‘Thou hast had pity on the kikayon, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow … and should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons?’ And while the transformation of a hardened heart into a softer one is certainly no small achievement in itself, what Jonah does not learn, simply because it is not the lesson of the hour, is how to transform a morbid and melancholy bitterness into an active and vital bitterness, a destructive fury into a constructive fury, a hard heart into a sturdy tool.

It is on the model of Athena’s offer in the Eumenides, therefore, that we can best understand what the Rebbe proposes to do for Wiesel’s case. In his epistle, as we will see, the Rebbe speaks of what comes ‘after the initial tempestuous assault,’ ‘after a rattling outrage and a thorough grieving.’ Just as halakha recognizes the legitimacy and necessity of mourning in the face of loss, of sitting (shivah) and wallowing in mourning, and does not expect the mourner to celebrate the entry into Heaven of the soul of his dearly departed, even as the angels may conduct such a celebration from the other side of death, the Rebbe acknowledges that there is a time for wild and destructive fury; ‘a time to kill, and a time to heal, 
a time to break down, and a time to build up’ (Ecc. 3:3). As Wiesel’s advocate, then, the Rebbe’s main job concerns what comes after the fury.

In the final analysis, Elie Wiesel is not a deep thinker. But he is very much a deep feeler. We should not hesitate to call him an emotional genius. As a ḥagas hosid, a Vizhnitzer, his turning to higher sources, sephirotically speaking, to seek guidance for his fury (gevurah) is a smart move.

The Ad | 6



This short article that Wiesel wrote for the 15 April 1965 issue of the Boston-based (and rather serendipitously named, given the present context) newspaper The Jewish Advocate, functioned, as far as our dossier is concerned, as a kind of open letter advertising a request for legal representation for his case.

Eleven days later, the Rebbe responded to Wiesel’s ‘request,’ responded positively, with a plan for an internal critique of Wiesel’s plaint which would be necessary for the preparation of its formal advocacy. This correspondence, as we have already indicated, dates to about a year or two after the original face-to-face lucubration in the Rebbe’s chambers which was subsequently reproduced in ‘Winter.’ And it will prove to be a tricky task to read these ten pages in light of the Rebbe’s epistle. For Wiesel’s recollection and transcription of the Rebbe’s words from that long noche oscura del alma in Brooklyn, however faithful or even verbatim, may well fall short of what the Rebbe was actually getting at during that conversation. Yet to attempt such a reading is necessary because, while Wiesel assures us that he and the Rebbe ‘continued our exchange over the years’ thereafter,  there seem to have been no new decisive moves that might have taken place in later installments of the exchange, at least no moves worth mentioning, regarding the plaint concerning Auschwitz. As far as available documentation goes, the Rebbe’s epistle of Nissan 5725 (April 1965) seems to be the second and final exchange on the subject. And from his later memoirs, as we will see, we may conclude that Wiesel was satisfied with their first exchange, and hence with the account in ‘Winter,’ as his own final stance on the subject. But was there ever a question of changing or shifting this stance, as far as the Rebbe was concerned? This poised stance of revolt (‘against Him as well’), which is Wiesel’s first and final stance, is, after all, precisely what caused the Rebbe to be ‘intrigued’ by the article, as he writes in his epistle, using the same English word in scare quotes that Wiesel uses to describe his own reaction to a then current newsworthy curio that had then popped up in the Jewish community of Detroit. Wiesel’s article is here reproduced with as little editing as possible.

I frankly confess that when I read the first press reports about an atheist rabbi in Detroit, my initial reaction was not one of anger but of sympathy.

The idea of a spiritual leader declaring war on the ribono shel olam, on God, out of a clear sky and from the pulpit of a synagogue to boot, rather intrigued me. Now finally the wrath of our generation has also penetrated religious precincts, I thought. There had arisen many tormented writers, angry poets and agonized artists; only an angry rabbi was lacking and now the rabbi from Detroit would be the one. […]

For to quarrel with the ribono shel olam is entirely Jewish, just as it is truly Jewish to accept the Divine gzar din, the decree of pain and agony and of punishment.

Neither Jeremiah the prophet, nor Jonah nor Job feared to come to grievances against the Almighty. Nor Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. Still later there were to be pious Jews who dared to sit in judgement over the Judge of all judges.

It has been told that three Jewish sages in one of the Nazi concentration camps once decided to form themselves into a Beth Din, court of law, and summon the Almighty to a Din Torah, to trial, where he could defend himself for permitting so many of his children to perish on the akaida, the sacrificial alter. The strange Beth Din took testimony from witnesses pro and con and listened in full gravity to the summations of the prosecution and the defense. The trial was conducted in full conformity with the laws of the Torah which, according to our sages, are equally binding on the Lord. The judges then announced the verdict.

It is not important what the verdict was or whether it was carried out. What is important is that in the very shadow of the flames there had been God-fearing Jews who demanded an answer from God with broken hearts.

I thought that the young defiant, rebellious rabbi from Detroit was striving to go in their footsteps, and I was prepared to applaud him for it. […]

However, when I read more detailed reports of his revolt, I was disappointed. His revolt was no uprising at all—merely a play on words. […]

Had the rabbi of Detroit cried out in the synagogue that ‘the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob is also the God of Auschwitz and Treblinka and I can no longer praise nor serve him, many hearts would have shaken in tremor. And his anger and his questioning would have sounded genuinely authentic, for they would have issued from a tormented soul.

Instead, he chose another way, a non-Jewish way. He lost his faith not because of Auschwitz but, in his own words, as a result of unripe so-called philosophical motivations. Because he could find no proof that God existed, he no longer believes in him. Should he discover the proof tomorrow, he will believe anew. He seemed to forget that this approach is now antiquated. To a person of this generation the question of God’s existence is no longer a theological but purely moral problem. […]

The rabbi’s atheism is infantile. […] His anti ani-maamin (article of faith) has no relevance to the sense of protest every believing Jew and non-Jew must carry inside of himself like an open wound.

We are deserving of another kind of atheism, of another brand of apikorsim.

The article affords a good opportunity (a gelegenheit that the Rebbe reads as a providential synchronicity inviting his epistolary commentary) for calibrating our hermeneutic apparatus to the unique demands made by Wiesel’s work. There is even a virtue in its journalistic character, that is, in the fact that it was probably composed fairly quickly, with minimal revision, under a low word-count ceiling, as a knee-jerk reaction to vague reports from somewhere in Detroit. Stylistically, we might think of it as a counterpart of J’accuse!, a production that presumably few literary critics would take to be Zola at his best, but also just as few historians would underestimate as a political document of real consequence.

As a newspaper article, moreover, the style had to be kept fairly civil. The maximum that Wiesel could dare to offer within such parameters is a ‘scathing criticism’ of what when down in Detroit. The tone is sarcastic and bitter. In order to bring out the fury that is the real emotion behind the amaritude, which is essential to understanding in the litigious significance that the article assumes in the context of Wiesel’s conversation and correspondence with the Rebbe, it may therefore be useful to take note of the ‘story’ of the ‘strange Bet Din’ mentioned in the article and which we ourselves already mentioned above. The story is particularly significant because it is recalled in ‘Winter’; and before we turn to the Rebbe’s epistle, we will reproduce this passage. In fact, a proper treatment of its importance would require a reading of Wiesel’s fullest telling of the story in his 1979 play, Le procès de Shamgorod tel qu’il se déroula le 25 février 1649. Here we must forego such a treatment. Partly because the play is a piece of literature that should never have left the writer’s desk drawer, but mostly because it adds nothing conceptually to the problem at hand. For our purposes, there is only one moment in it, and possibly a phrase or two, worth mentioning.

The moment of fury is worth mentioning. The play is badly written—maudlin, hysterical, sophomoric, silly, none of which can be masked over by classifying it a Purim shpiel or a ‘farce,’ which would, after all, require it to be funny, funny and subtle. It is a bad play because it implodes under the weight of its own fury. But for this very reason it is also interesting to observe how the playwright tries to deal with this problem here and there in the play’s composition. It explains why, when the Rebbe offers his services as advocate to the case, like Wiesel’s favorite hasidic advocate of the Jewish people, Reb Levi Yitzkhok of Berditchev, named in the newspaper article above together with Jeremiah, this service is something Wiesel has great difficulty accepting: not because of the rarity and strangeness of this kind of lawsuit (he was ‘there,’ after all; he knows that it is possible, howbeit strange, to frame such a lawsuit), but because Wiesel cannot imagine the full range of his fury being contained in a courtroom argument. Much better than the play is Wiesel’s account of the incident in a 1980 lecture.

The Trial of God [as the Shamgorod play is called in English] has a story, as everything has a story. In 1944 I was still young, and I was ‘there.’ It so happened that a great rosh yeshivah from Poland was my work companion. […] One day he said, ‘Tonight don’t go to your place. Stay with me.’ So I stayed next to him. I did not know why, but I soon found out. He and two colleagues—also great masters in Talmud, in Halakhah, in Jewish jurisprudence—had convened a rabbinic court of law to indict the Almighty. He wanted me to witness it, to be there, to see it. And I remember every word, I remember every phase of that trial. It lasted for several nights. Witnesses were summoned. Arguments were heard, always in a whisper, in order not to arouse suspicion and punishment from the others. […] At the end, after due deliberation, the tribunal issued its verdict, and my teacher, my friend, was the one to pronounce it: Guilty. There was a silence then that probably permeated the entire camp and the entire world, a silence that could be compared only to Mattan Torah at Sinai, which the Talmud describes as a special silence. Then after a minute or an infinity of silence he shook himself, smiled sadly, and said, ‘And now let us pray Maariv.’

I did not know what to do with that event for many years. I hinted at it in some of my books. But I knew it deserved a full treatment. But I did not know how. First I wrote a novel. I put it in my drawer. I wrote a play. I put it in my drawer. I wrote a cantata. Again into my drawer. […] Finally I understood what was wrong with it: I could not make literature out of it. I could not reduce it to a drama. I had no right to make this event into theater. Then I had an idea. I would push it back in history—back to the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648-49. And I turned it into a Purim shpiel.

The fundamental problem of turning the incident into drama is dramatized within the play itself in the second act of the play, in which each of the characters refuse to play God’s attorney. The immediate problem within the drama itself, of course, is that no one is willing to take God’s side. But the deeper problem is that of ‘making literature,’ as Wiesel says, out of the inarticulate, hysterical fury which the appointed prosecutor in the trial, the innkeeper Berish, the protagonist (the ‘Gregor’) of the play, announces as his official line of legal argumentation. The activity of legal prosecution having just been defined in jest as ‘the right to be nasty [méchant],’ Berish yelps, without jesting at all: ‘That’s what I’ll be!’ Nasty with whom? ‘With the entire world. And more.’ Nasty to what end? ‘Satisfaction, there you go. That will be enough for me. I will be able to thunder more loudly than anyone. To accuse, to insult, to denounce, to terrorize.’ To terrorize the entire world—i.e. the world that was silent—and more. Actually, the ‘and more,’ as an allusion to the defendant on trial, is understandable: God is on trial. It is the ambiguity of the phrase is disturbing. And what is even more disturbing than the ‘and more’ is what precedes it, namely, the entire world. In other words, the hysteria to which the prosecutor is explicitly, excitedly and officially committed is to be so absolute that even the identity of the defendant, in this case God, is not necessarily relevant to the ‘argument’ of fury, and therefore the defendant’s guilt does not necessarily restrict the bounds of who it is that deserves to be accused, reprimanded, indicted and, if possible, punished. The hysteria (the ‘satisfaction’—which is to say, the comfort) is to be absolute, meaning, an absolutely egocentric pyromania. ‘Ardeo ergo … I burn, therefore let the whole damned world burn down with me!’



A Precedent | 5


The little book by Jeremiah named—by the Latin church fathers with an appelation that is both inevitable and inadequate—Lamentations (cf. thrênoi) is the oldest and strongest precedent-ideal to Wiesel’s literary style, or code—‘the code of Jeremiah is my code,’ he once boldly declared—even while other precedents, to which we will turn below, are probably closer in terms of content. Something that has not gone unnoticed, even by Wiesel’s first readers, is the elective affinity and audible resemblance that his voice bears to the voice of the ‘weeping prophet’. There is more than one point of comparison that can be made between Wiesel and Jeremiah. The critical point that pertains to our question, the question of the function of the maudlin principle, is the literary quality of this weeping, weeping not as an accompaniment to the lead voice of the written word or as a musical score to a script but as a weeping word.

It is in such terms precisely that Wiesel is able to decipher the message of an odd midrash (Lam. Rabbah, Intro. 24) that sees Jeremiah running around desperately in world of the departed in seach of a patriarch who can shed tears for Jerusalem in its third-degree burns and desolation. In the uncontrolable weeping that permeates the biblical text of Lamentations, not to mention the Book of Jeremiah, the midrashic hermeneutic, looking deeper than, or deeper into, the plain literal meaning (pshat) of the text, reads precisely an utter inability to weep on Jeremiah’s part.

[The Midrash] tells us that God said to Jeremiah, ‘Go and wake up Abraham and Isaac and Jacob because they know how to cry’—meaning Jeremiah did not know how to cry. Is it conceivable that Jeremiah, the man who wrote Lamentations, the most tragic of our prophets, did not know how to cry? It is. There comes a moment when you do not cry, because you are your own crying.

What does this perplexing explanation of this perplexing midrash mean? (Could anyone but Wiesel have given the explanation?) To begin with, it means that a stricter understanding of the trademark specialty of the ‘weeping prophet’ recognizes this term ‘weeping’ in his case as possessing a primarily metaphorical or metonymic sense. Jeremiah ‘does not know how to cry,’ to cry in the conventional sense, because crying is not enough, it is only an action done with one’s being rather than an ontological crying to which one’s entire being is entirely given over, beyond every range of audibility or recognizable display of emotion.

Which would certainly explain the extreme elliptical language that Jeremiah employs in crying over his own crying. ‘Mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water!’ (Lam. 1:16). Designedly avoiding simile, and relying on the resonance of ellipsis, what he makes run down his cheeks is, not his tears, but his eye. ‘Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people. Mine eye trickleth down’ (Lam. 3:48-49). And since the prophet’s eye is not doing the crying but is the aqueous entity being cried out, then, logically, as he ‘cries his eyes out,’ out of what are his eyes being cried if not out of his head? ‘O that my head were waters,’ he says in his bigger book, ‘and mine eyes a fountain of tears!’ (Jer. 8:23) And after the head has been rendered an aqueous thing, other bodily organs must follow suit and be liquified as well: ‘pour out thine heart like water before the face of the Lord’ (Lam. 2:19), ‘my liver is poured upon the earth’ (Lam. 2:11). The prophet experiences his entire body as a lacrymosal mass ready and wanting to rupture. This particular metonym is so essential to the prophet who is known for his weeping because it identifies the natural current out out of which and back into which an artifical channel has been dug out in the realm of words. Like his eye, Jeremiah’s word runs down his cheeks. The word is not uttered, it is cried. His language is a catharsis, but also a cathexis, of tears. Which does not mean that inarticulate crying is sublimated to a level of articulation. Rather, the word humbles and even humiliates itself in public, as Jeremiah does when he walks into the court of Zedekiah wearing a yoke on his neck (Jer. 27:12). Stepping back and down from that glorious achievement in which the adult takes so much pride—language!—the word lets go of the eloquent reins by which it steered the tongue in combination of eloquent manouevers toward a clean victory in favour of the lower bullish force of the throat that charges toward wanton destruction. The word cries as word, not as cry. It remains word, for it does not cry in utter despair, into the abyss of a yellow sky, but with the perfectly naïve directionality and sense of certainty whereby the baby cries out to its mother. Unlike the more dignified voice of the plaintiff who casts his deposition on the courtroom counter and waits for the judge or jury to pick it up at their leisure, the weeping word reaches out for the reader’s collar, and if the collar is already out of reach, then for a sleeve. It is not embarrassed to irritate the reader, to make the reader embarrassed for the writer. Jeremiah has no more use for shame. He does not mind if we find Homer’s verses more elegant. Something more important than literature is at stake.

Is this ontological weeping of Jeremiah the ‘code’ of which Wiesel speaks? Is his weeping word the basic stylistic unit of the maudlin principle? But then how does Jeremiah, for all his verbal-ontological lachrymosity, seem to stay afloat his own deluge and still provide high biblical poetry, whereas Wiesel, for his part, all but drowns in his own invisible tears? Moreover, how does Jeremiah manage to cry in the conventional manner as well as in the ontological one, despite what the midrash says? Or must we overlook the rule that ‘Scripture does not depart from its plain meaning’? ‘Mine eyes do fail with tears’ (Lam. 2:11). Even supposing the real tears on his cheeks were only a prophet’s generous affectation for the sake of effective communication with the people, how does he make the necessary ‘movement of finitude’ back from infinite resignation? A closer comparison is in order.

Jeremiah is his own crying. This premise must be taken, on Wiesel’s authority, as incontrovertible. While the same explanation of the midrash might have come down to us from almost any talented scholar as an interesting exegetical suggestion, from Wiesel we must receive it as a datum, simply because he knows what he is talking about. Wiesel recognizes Jeremiah’s condition so expertly because he recognizes himself in Jeremiah. And this gives us the point of strongest comparison between them: just like Jeremiah, Wiesel is his own crying. And this, as he confesses on more than one occasion, was the most difficult thing to bear, such as on the day his father died. ‘But I did not cry, and this is what cause me the most grief: this inability to cry. The heart had petrified, the fountainhead of tears had dried up.’ Likewise in his prefatory note on the genesis of his Shamgorod play, to which we will return momentarily, Wiesel remarks: ‘in the realm of night, I assisted in a trial that was most strange. Three rabbis, all erudite and pious, had decided one winter night to judge God for the massacre of His children. I remember: I was there and I wanted to cry. Only, there, no one cried.’

Thus far the comparison between Jeremiah and Jérémie manqué is not for us to question. Our question, the question concerning what might be ‘missing’ in the later case, begins at the limit of ontological crying in Lamentations, where the ingenuous simplicity of the biblical text—‘For these things I weep’ (1:16)—points to something other than crying. For Wiesel, the midrash requires us to see Jeremiah’s weeping strictly as a metaphor. But behind this hermeneutic limitation there seems to be a psychological restriction, or a metaphysical prohibition (correlative to the ‘a’ in ‘atheism’) against letting literal, conventional crying mix in and and possibly dillute the purity of the ontological crying. The strictly metaphorical, purely ontological crying is absolute. It leaves no room for lesser manifestations of personal decrepitude. Or, conversely, because conventional tears are prohibited, everything must be drowned in metaphysical tears. We hear how the same logic of sublimation and absolutization applies to the kaddish that Eliezer ben Shlomo could never say for his father. ‘There was no minyan for saying kaddish. … My kaddish became—and would be—all the words that I would ever say, that I would ever hear.’Language itself becomes kaddish.

This is where Jeremiah stands apart from his would-be doppelganger. Jeremiah can cry and does cry—out loud, with visible tears. And his Book of Lamentations is more than a kaddish, indeed, more than—lamentations. And therefore we have to say that his ontological weeping, brought out from its half-hidden state in the biblical text by the Midrash, is tethered metynomically to his literal weeping, as a higher-order weeping to accompany his weeping here below in the sight of men, rather than simply metaphorically as the only weeping he does, privately, supernally. His ontological weeping is in fact not absolute. While Wiesel’s ontological weeping leaves no room for conventional tears, because it is a weeping that does not let go, a constipated weeping, as it were, a maudlin lamentation, Jeremiah can and does makes room for conventional tears because his weeping does in fact let go—of the tears themselves, of the weeping itself, and, most vitally, of the fury at the fountainhead of the weeping. It is perhaps not unessential, after all, that tears are effluvia, as if their substance needed to be ejected by the organism as a potential toxicant. Jeremiah does not count his tears like a miser, does not resent their power over him, does not argue or bargain with them, does not idolize them, does not give them too much thought. His simply gives them room and gives them up. This is why Jeremiah at no point cuts a maudlin figure.

How does Jeremiah give room to his tears? The convention of tears is predicated for him on the prior fact that he finds room within the ontological itself for something else of a higher order other than higher-order weeping. Room for what? Our answer to this question must be partial for now. For the fuller answer to this question, which will specify the sound (‘format’) of that which is other-than-weeping in Jeremiah’s so-called ‘lament,’ we must wait to read the Rebbe’s response to Wiesel’s imploration, ‘Make me able to cry!’ (There is no need to keep it as a secret that the sound is that of singing, but what that means cannot be unpacked without a prolegomenon.) In order to understand that response (‘Sing!’), which, without commentary, comes across as a bit hollow, even silly, probably even insulting, and in any case not so surprising, the aspect to which must first turn our attention in that which is other-than-weeping in Jeremiah’s voice is something that is no longer part of his plaint, although it is certainly litigious in nature.

We turn our attention to this, incidentally, not by leaving Wiesel behind. For Wiesel himself is the first to grope around for this aspect of Jeremiah’s voice. If Wiesel cannot make room for something other than crying because he is his crying, this is not due to some cantankerous refusal to acknowledge the existence or the need for something besides crying. The hidden sublimity of the maudlin principle, on the contrary, is that its inability to surrender to conventional weeping is rooted in a positive recognition of the fact that there is something else that needs to be done with one’s entire being, another ontological gesture, more poignant, profound and apropos than crying. This is the secret to Wiesel’s word, its positive failure. By comparison with the semantic distinctiveness of Jeremiah’s tear-shaped word, the semantic force of Wiesel’s word surges up as a vouloir-pleurer, i.e. a wanting-to-weep, a unique semantic quality to be understood along parallel lines to vouloir-dire, i.e. meaning, as a quality of words. Where meaning, according to this telling French locution, is that which one wants to say and would say if only one could, vouloir-pleurer designates a kind of weeping semantic unit that cannot achieve open expression. Behind the retentive gesture of the maudlin principle is the paralyzing dread and panic that to cry with tears in a conventional manner over the murder of six million Jewish souls would be to give up hope that a more adequate ontological gesture can be found. To cry out loud would be to reduce Auschwitz to a tragedy, something Wiesel rightly refuses to do. But the price he plays for speaking and writing about Auschwitz without being able to find this other gesture, without even knowing what it is, is a total subjugation to the maudlin principle. For the maudlin, for all its sublimity as ontological crying, sounds in the spoken and written word like fake crying, constipated crying, stifled crying, like petulant fury. When he begs the Rebbe, ‘Make me able to cry!’, even if he is not fully aware of it, Wiesel is asking for help to remove the impediment that blocks his way to this other gesture.

Now to the prolegomenal question of what it is that Jeremiah makes room for in the ontological dimension: Room for what? Jeremiah tells us how, even as he weeps for Israel, he also weeps because of Israel, and indeed with a weeping that is not seen or heard. ‘Hear ye, and give ear; be not proud: for the Lord hath spoken. … But if ye will not hear it, my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride; and mine eye shall weep sore, and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock is carried away captive.’ (Jer. 13:17) Jeremiah makes room for within his ontological weeping ‘in secret places’ is his prosecution of Israel before the Heavenly Court. The prophetic vocation puts at his disposal as word-wright an extraordinary authority that is simply not available to most writers, indeed altogether unavailable to anyone for more than two millennia. Jeremiah is granted a right, and is obliged to execute this right, to criticize, to prosecute and even to pass judgement on his fellow sufferers, a right that would not be warranted on the basis of his personal soul-searching alone (‘Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.’ [Lam. 3:19-20]), but requires Divine injunction: ‘Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord. … We have transgressed and have rebelled’ (vv. 39-42). Who can imagine possessing the authority to include a description of mothers cooking the cadavers of their own children for food—and this soup is no metaphor!—within a discourse that, in calling men to repentance, thereby also justifies the ways of God to man? ‘The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people. The Lord hath accomplished his fury.’ (4:10-11) This kind of authority is withheld categorically from Eliezer Wiesel who, again, is not a prophet. Indeed, would Wiesel not be the last man on earth to accept such a prophetic authority even were it offered to him, in all seriousness and with all the concomitant responsibilities, by Divine dispensation? Is Wiesel’s literary vocation not fundamentally premised and rooted in the most stubborn systematic refusal of such an authority?

In the final analysis, I will never cease to revolt against those who made or permitted Auschwitz. Against God as well? Against Him as well. The questions I used to ask myself about God’s silence remain open. If there is an answer, I do not know it. Better still: I refuse to know it. But I maintain that the death of six million human beings poses a question to which no answer will ever be produced.


Nothing justifies Auschwitz. If the Lord Himself were to proffer me a justification, I think I would reject it.

What is likewise altogether absent and conscientiously suppressed by Wiesel from his discourse is the characteristic call to repentance that defines prophetic discourse in its core. ‘Righteous is the Lord!,’ declaims Jeremiah, ‘It is I who rebelled against His mouth!’ (Lam. 1:18), ‘We have transgressed and have rebelled!’ (3:42). Such pronouncements would be hard pressed to find a page in Wiesel’s text on which to alight.

Is this the point of failure in his text, this heretical protocol of ‘I will never cease to revolt’? To be sure, this intransigent, unnegotiable fidelity to the memory of six million Jews, or better still, of one million Jewish children in Auschwitz whose moral innocence is zealously guarded from any possibility of reproach or explanation, is the positive point of failure in Wiesel’s text. If a prophet like Jeremiah derives his authority to pass judgement on the people, to find them guilty and upbraid them and to call them to repentance, from an extraordinary capacity not just to identify with his people in absolute commiseration but to absorb the life and destiny of his entire people into his own ‘generic soul’ (neshama klalit), because his sui generis soul has in fact thoroughly emptied itself and expanded far beyond the ordinary capacity of souls; if this special height is what a prophet achieves, then Wiesel, for his part, refuses to part with his comparatively low and prosaic capacity to commiserate on an all-too-human level with his fellow man, and not for any pusillanimity of soul but precisely for the sake of a correspondingly limited, perhaps even atomically diminutive, but by the same token atomically indestructible role as key witness and outspoken lead plaintiff in the class action of the Jewish people ‘… against Him as well.’ If there is a shortcoming in Wiesel’s writing, in other words, it would have to be found not in any point of heresy, but, on the contrary, in some compromise of his very appointment as witness and plaintiff, in some reluctance to be heretical enough.

By way of anticipating the critique of this shortcoming as it was adumbrated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the comparison with Jeremiah and his litigious responsibilities as a prophet must be extended still one level deeper. Wiesel assumes a prerogative to file a plaint on behalf of his siblings, the Jewish people, against their Father in heaven. It is a special prerogative of the littlest brother in Israel which no one disputes. To this prerogative would correspond a point in Jeremiah’s vocation as the biggest brother in Israel in his day and hence as crown prosecutor responsible for honestly raising charges on God’s behalf against God’s children. This point would not be Jeremiah’s actual authority as prophet, which after all has no corresponding point in Wiesel’s vocation, but would rather constitute a fundamental precondition of his prophetic authority. To be precise, logically prior to the prophet’s accusations and his calls to repentance, prior to repentance itself, as that which logically makes repentance possible and call-able to begin with, we find in Jeremiah’s voice a pervasive unspoken confidence in the entire legal process and in the prospect of the final verdict that the Judge has promised to articulate, an eschatological prospect of a full explanation of His final judgement and hence also of His original appointment of the prophet to the role of crown prosecutor. As in the case of Job, who continually pleads for due process of law (e.g. Job 23:4: ‘I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments’), Jeremiah’s self-constraining certainty that he and his people must be wrong and therefore in need of repentance is predicated upon a deeper confidence in a simple right possessed by God’s children: our right to be proven wrong, our right to have our sins explained to us. ‘Judge Thou my cause’ (Lam. 3:59), pleads Jeremiah; ‘unto Thee have I opened my cause’ (Jer. 20:12). Jeremiah, in other words, would have the wrong-doer repent by way of being in the right as well as by way of being in the wrong. Repentance is predicated on a privilege as well as on a responsibility. In an accidental and oblique manner, this privilege overflows and overrules the order of the entire process in desultory ejaculations appealing to the Judge’s tender mercies, as if these were part of the same privilege. ‘It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.’ (Lam. 3:22) ‘But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.’ (Lam. 3:32) But even such accidental expressions of our privilege before a Judge who is also our Father are grounded in the essence of this privilege: our right to a transparent revelation of our sins in an eschatological vision wherein we will be reconciled, retroactively, to the full meaning of our repentance.

It is in such a reluctance to reach out toward this confident core of repentance that grips Wiesel, as he disputes a priori any possible claim to the rightness of a prophetic accusation like Jeremiah’s and hence to any need to repent, and keeps him within the orbit of the maudlin principle. But at this threshold, where the atmospheric integrity of literature already dissolves into the endless aether surrounding it, it is just as meaningful, if not more meaningful, to say that Wiesel comes short of being maudlin enough. He shies away from letting the deep impulse that naturally expresses itself in a maudlin mannerism to express itself even more immediately, less artfully, yet more furiously. Of course, it is nothing less than the fact of literature itself, the necessity of telling a story, that is the cause of this limitation. The essence of the maudlin principle finds artless expression, pure expression, only outside literature—in clamorous revolt. Within the medium of language, for the most part, only Hebrew embodies a sufficiently radical self-separation (kedusha) from artfulness, from a linguistically intrinsic eloquence and musicality (perhaps even a physiological distance from the tongue itself), to contain the furious, vicious, uncouth energy of revolt and to accommodate its partial reintegration into literature (witness Psalms, for example). Precisely because Hebrew is the least literary language. In any event, it was the task taken up by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to bring this to fuller expression in Wiesel’s life and work. To bring into literature something of the quintessential element above it. In a word, to advocate his case.