A Shameful Attack on Elie Wiesel
Quite a few questions arise from Ron Rosenbaum’s twisted and shameful attack on Elie Wiesel in Tablet magazine.
Firstly, what was the motive of the magazine’s editors in publishing the piece? It would be one thing if the column was of high literary quality and rhetorical merit. But endless repetition alone demonstrates how this was a thoughtless hit piece, designed to disparage Wiesel in the most degrading way possible.
How many times must we hear Rosenbaum’s description of Wiesel as “a golem of grief,” a man with “eyes circled in gloomy Dantean darkness,” “the Man in Black, the Johnny Cash of the death camps,” or read about Wiesel’s endless “cloud of gloom.” We get it Ron. You believe that one of the most revered personalities of the 20th century and the man whom President Obama called the “conscience of the world,” was a charlatan who utilized a melancholic affectation to increase his stature. And my, aren’t you clever with all your colorful descriptions.
The second question is why Rosenbaum decided to even write his piece, given how much he insists that Wiesel doesn’t matter. Rosenbaum’s column hammers home how much Wiesel “had passed his moment of real relevance,” claiming that “fewer paid attention to his stoic mien.” According to Rosenbaum, Wiesel was no Simon Wiesenthal.”
As for Wiesel being the recipient of the world’s most illustrious peace award, that didn’t matter much either, since it was “a guilt-tinged Nobel Peace Prize.” And rather than view Wiesel as the global figure he was, admired by presidents and prime ministers, Rosenbaum sells him instead as worthy only of daytime TV, albeit only on a “’very special episode’ of Oprah’s Book Club.”
The third question is whether Rosenbaum ever read Wiesel at all. The thesis of Rosenbaum’s confusing rant is that Wiesel was in reality an angry, vengeful man, as evidenced by an early version of Night that came to light two months before Wiesel’s death.
Rosenbaum says that Wiesel changed his public persona to be more marketable: “He made it possible to think we could make peace with [a weak God], to still say the prayers, to not think too deeply about what that meant; he symbolically saved us the trouble, erased the angst, allowed us to pretend we had forgotten the quarrel, to go back to worshipping the nebbish.”
In addition, Rosenbaum alleges that Wiesel was further sanitized through his capitulation to French Catholic existentialist François Mauriac, who agreed to help get Wiesel published if he portrayed the Jewish people in a Jesus-like light, being slaughtered by a loving God as an act of redemption to the world.
Seriously? The inanity of this bizarre and incoherent argument is apparent to anyone who has read any of Wiesel’s books.
I had the great honor of knowing Professor Wiesel for 30 years. His theology was one of spiritual defiance, insisting on mankind’s right to shake the foundations of the heavens and challenge God in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice, especially the Holocaust.
Like Abraham who said to God, “Will the judge of the entire earth not practice justice,” and like Moses, who asked the Almighty, “Why have you behaved wickedly with this people,” Professor Wiesel restored to the Jewish people the right to protest and respond to their Creator.
This theology of objection is best captured in Wiesel’s incredible book The Town Beyond the Wall, with its indictment of the silent “Other,” who watches passively as innocents suffer. The same themes mark Wiesel’s play, The Trial of God.
How Rosenbaum even came up with an acquiescent, complacent Elie Wiesel — when he is well aware of Wiesel publicly challenging Ronald Reagan not to visit Bitburg and calling on Bill Clinton to take action in Bosnia — can only be the product of incredible ignorance or a willful desire to distort.
This brings us to the final question of Rosenbaum’s hit piece — which is the most relevant of all. If Rosenbaum was not Jewish, would his attack on Wiesel be seen as antisemitic? Wiesel’s Night is the most famous Holocaust memoir ever written, and serves as the introduction for untold numbers of high school students as they study the slaughter of six million Jews. But Rosenbaum comes awfully close to insinuating that Wiesel is not always authentic and changed parts of his memoir to suit different audiences. That is a dangerous, almost libelous assertion — especially given that Wiesel is not alive to defend himself.
And what is Rosenbaum’s proof? While Wiesel had four different language versions of the Night manuscript, with the earliest written in Yiddish — Rosenbaum exclusively cites this one, in which Wiesel comes across far more angry.
Every author can tell you that a manuscript goes through multiple revisions as an author seeks to set his or her most authentic emotions down for permanence. And if Wiesel originally felt a bit more vengeful toward the perpetrators and later decided to focus more on the suffering of the victims, that is his right — as an author and human being.
In life, Elie Wiesel was one of the great lights of the Jewish people to the world. In death, he continues to be the face of the six million martyrs of the Holocaust, in a world where mass murder continues unabated. His legacy is more important now than ever — a point that Jewish publications ought to consider before publishing weakly-argued, hate-filled drivel.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is the founder of the World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including, “The Fed-Up Man of Faith.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.