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, 1 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.2
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,’3 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.4 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.5
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.’6 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!’