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,1 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 … 2
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.3 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.4 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,’5 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.6 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’.7 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 queen8—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.9 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.’10 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’,11 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.12 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?’13 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,14 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.