אנא ה‘ הושיעה נא
אנא ה‘ הצליחה נא
OSHIA NA !
In Hiver, ‘Winter,’ the fourth chapter of Les portes de la forêt, Elie Wiesel recounts how he came to Brooklyn to make the acquaintance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
‘My first visit to his court,’ Wiesel would recall in his memoirs of thirty years later, ‘lasted almost the entire night.’1
The two men conversed in their mother tongue, Yiddish. The topic was Auschwitz. And the conversation, for the most part, stuck to one manner of speaking. Except for the last turn, it stayed within an old discursive mannerism that gave the meeting the peculiar character of a legal consultation. According to talmudic tradition,2 it is the genre that was introduced into literature by no one less than Moses when he penned his other book, the Book of Job.
Was the consultant in this session, the Rebbe, expected to be a prosecuting attorney, or a defense attorney, or perhaps a judge? The answer to this question is not simple. In future annals of Jewish history, Elie Wiesel may well come to be known as the last Ashkenazi, that is, if Ashkenaz may be defined as that long and mostly uncomfortable rental arrangement in Europe wherein Jews lived within walls constructed both with brick and mortar and with the intellectual and literary materials of Christendom. During the earliest days of this epoch when the Church Fathers laboured to generate these material conditions, the old biblical mannerism in which the case of Job was configured as a legal case came to be narrowed down to one aspect of litigation, namely the task of defense. This was the birth of the theological genre known as apologetics, which Milton succinctly defined as to ‘justifie the wayes of God to men,’ and which definition Leibniz neatly condensed into the single word théodicée. This restriction evidently took place under a general preoccupation with, and panic in the face of, heresy. Theodicy would operate as Adversus Haereses. Now Wiesel came to the Rebbe without fear of heresy. He came, that is to say, as a Jew. Yet, as an Ashkenazi Jew, he spoke as if nevertheless confined by the walls of the apologetic European tradition within a ghetto of theological intelligibility. He came to the Rebbe to present his case against Heaven. To prosecute God for being an accomplice in the crime of Auschwitz. In this respect, in short, he came with the expectation that the Rebbe would play defense attorney to his prosecution. He came to hear the Rebbe justify the ways of God. To hear the Rebbe fail to justify the ways of God. But he also came to the Rebbe–and this is where the old Mosaic freedom evident in the Book of Job breaks through the ghetto walls of Wiesel’s motivations, not to mention the Rebbe’s response–to see to what extent he might be able to actually turn the Rebbe to his cause and enlist his services as an advocate of his case, a heretical advocacy.
Because, moreover, for Wiesel, the prosecution of God was no mere exercise in theological speculation; because he came with a full-blooded, bleeding recognition of the Accused as the Supreme Judge of the world, the ‘Judge of all the earth’ (Gen. 18:25), Wiesel also insisted on the ‘political’ implications of the litigation, which made his proposed prosecution of God a kind of hyperbolic variation on Saint-Just’s prosecution of Louis XVI. Nietzsche’s madman had claimed that ‘God is dead’; Wiesel’s madman said, no, God is alive, and now needs to be escorted to the guillotine. The key words repeatedly employed by Wiesel himself are ‘protest’ and ‘revolt.’ In Auschwitz the regime of the Melekh HaOlam, the King of Everything, proved itself to be corrupt and unsustainable. Was anything accomplished that night in Brooklyn? Did anything revolutionary take place? Was a new cosmic order proclaimed?
Short of the last turn in the conversation, during the long stretch that the Rebbe went along with Wiesel and maintained himself, responsively, within the bounds of the theologico-apologetico-political genre of discourse, nothing was said that might be called revolutionary. To be sure, radical things were said. Most notably, the Rebbe was pushed by Wiesel’s fierce argument to the limit of these bounds and crossed the line from apologetics into heresy. Wiesel recollects how he had succeeded in egging on the hasidic master to the point of losing his composure and screaming out words that were uncharacteristic of the Rebbe.3
So be it! He is guilty! Do you really think I don’t know that? That I shut my eyes and cover up my ears? That my heart does not bleed, does not revolt? That I don’t want to smash my head against the wall and scream like a madman, to give free rein to my pain, to my disappointment? Yes, He is guilty. Yes, He became the ally of evil, of death, of murder.
Thus, part of the question that prompts the present considerations of that unusual conversation in Brooklyn is, how a hassidic rebbe, and indeed, ‘the most influential rabbi in modern history’ could have uttered such heretical words. (Or is Wiesel’s account just fiction? But as Wiesel once explained to his ‘own’ rebbe, the Vizhnitzer rebbe, the basic rule of truth in literature: ‘There are things that are true, which nevertheless didn’t happen; and other things that are not true, even though they did happen.’4) But this part of the question is only a point of departure. For the explicitly and radically heretical character of the indictment of God notwithstanding, the Rebbe cannot be said to have turned anything upside down with these hoarse words. Heretical language, in the final analysis, from a Jewish standpoint, is nothing more than an uncouth way of speaking. And while Hasidic masters generally have the finest manners, their hands are not tied by requirements of good etiquette.
The revolution—and it is the revolutionary character of the conversation alone that is under consideration, not issues of etiquette—happened only at the very end of the long consultation, as the Rebbe took the reins into his hands and turned the conversation away from its genre, still sticking to the same topic, but leading in another direction: he promised to give Wiesel singing lessons. These were the Rebbe’s words as Wiesel records them: Je vais t’apprendre à chanter.5 ‘I will teach you to sing.’
The question of the considerations to follow concerns the logic of this precipitous promise so incommensurable and out of joint at the conclusion of a night-long conversation about Auschwitz. How does singing follow upon Auschwitz, if only as a permissible possibility, but then all the more so as a conclusive logical necessity?
Within the progress of the conversation, the promise followed rather naturally, if ironically, upon Wiesel’s only explicit request from the Rebbe: ‘Make me able to cry!’
The Rebbe shook his head: ‘That’s not enough. I will teach you to sing.’
The Rebbe added that grown people don’t cry, beggars don’t cry, only children cry. ‘Have you remained a child? Is your life nothing but a child’s dream, or a beggar’s dream? No, crying serves no purpose. It’s necessary to sing.’6
But this only shifts the location of the question. The question remains unchanged in substance. How does singing follow upon weeping over Auschwitz, follow as a logical necessity?
Like that conversation in Brooklyn, the considerations to follow for the most part maintain themselves within the theologico-juridico-political genre of discourse. They come together as part of a dossier of documents from the writings of Wiesel and the Rebbe and an attempt to deal God’s ‘culpability’ with respect to Auschwitz and the theological problem of heresy after Auschwitz, or what amounts to the same, the problem of ‘faith’ after Auschwitz. But beneath the surface of this genre, the real task is to get to the transcendental root of the matter, the root of both heresy and faith, which root is neither heresy nor faith, where radical heresy is no longer heresy and ‘faith’ is irrelevant and theology is a tartuffery typical of the paranoid self-consciousness of idolaters. Where, at the transcendental root of the matter, there is a kind of song.
What kind of song? The rubric under which these considerations are to be carried out may be taken as a hint, a strictly formal and precocious indication, of the kind of voice act at stake. It finds an exemplary resonance in the little psalmodic term na, which for lack of better options is translated by a term like ‘now’ even as the term has little to do with temporality in its familiar inflections. Grammatically it is an interjection of entreaty, almost like ‘please’ or ‘for heaven’s sake!’ yet without the nuance of politeness.7 Conversely, it might be said to be a participle expressing ḥutzpah yet without the nuance of rude effrontery. Its most important place in the liturgy, usually marked by a large bold font, is in the Hallel psalmody: Ana hashem hoshiah na!, ‘Now, O Lord, save now! Now, O Lord, make us prosper now!’ (Ps. 118:25) Following the lead of the psalmist, the royal patriarch of the Messiah, what is to be considered is the revolutionary disrequiem that the Rebbe wished to teach Eliezer Wiesel in an Auschwitz Hosanna, a Hosanna evidently intended to punctuate the end of Ashkenaz and mark the inception of the next, and arguably the last, paragraph of Jewish history.