Elie Wiesel on Memory, Prayer, Protest, Suffering, and God


Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered. New Year's Day, Rosh Hashana, is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory. On that day, the day of universal judgment, man appeals to God to remember: our salvation depends on it. If God wishes to remember our suffering, all will be well; if He refuses, all will be lost. Thus, the rejection of memory becomes a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars.
--Noble Lecture (1986)

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We remember the killers and we lose our faith in humanity.  But then we remember the victims and, though scarred, our faith is restored- it must be.  The fact that the Jewish victims never became executioners, that they never victimized others, that they remained Jewish to the end- human to the end- that inside ghettos and death camps, my God, inside gas chambers, they could speak of God, to God. They could say: S'hma Yisroal Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad- God is God and God is One and God is the Lord of Creation.  To say those words there on the threshold of death and oblivion must restore our faith in them and therefore in humankind.  We think of the victims and we learn that despair is not the solution. Despair is the question.  And that is why we gather year after year- to fight despair; and not only mine- ours.
--"Days of Remembrance" (1984)

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Jewish memory does not resist time, it transcends time. This is a small, but essential distinction.  I mean this: resisting time would mean ignoring time and the events that make up our time.  Transcending time means accepting it, taking it up, and passing beyond it in order to attain a comprehensive perspective on time. Jewish memory is something special. Human memory in general is something special, but as a Jew I speak of Jewish memory.  Memory wants to bear reality in mind, commemorate it, both the painful and the less painful.
--Interview in Hope Against Hope (1999)


We must remember the suffering of my people, as we must remember that of the Ethiopians, the Cambodians, the boat people, Palestinians, the Mesquite Indians, the Argentinian "desaparecidos" - the list seems endless.

Let us remember Job who, having lost everything - his children, his friends, his possessions, and even his argument with God - still found the strength to begin again, to rebuild his life. Job was determined not to repudiate the creation, however imperfect, that God had entrusted to him.

Job, our ancestor. Job, our contemporary. His ordeal concerns all humanity. Did he ever lose his faith? If so, he rediscovered it within his rebellion. He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair. The source of his hope was memory, as it must be ours. Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair. I remember the killers, I remember the victims, even as I struggle to invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.
--Noble Lecture (1986)

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Hunger and humiliation.   A hungry person experiences an overwhelming feeling of shame.  All desires, all aspirations, all dreams lose their lofty qualities and relate to food alone.  I may testify to something that I have witnessed, in certain places at certain times, those people who were reduced by hunger, diminished by hunger, they did not think about theology, nor did they think about God or philosophy or literature.  They thought of a piece of bread.  A piece of bread was, to them, God, because a piece of bread then filled one's universe.  Diminished by hunger, man's spirit is diminished as well.  His fantasy wanders in quest of bread.  His prayer rises toward a bowl of milk. Thus the shame. 
--"The Shame of Hunger" (1990)


Pray to God.
Against God,
For God . . . .
Ani maamin for him
In spite of him.
I believe in you,
Even against your will.
Even if you punish me
For believing in you.
--Ani Maamin: A Song Lost and Found Again

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Through prayer God becomes present. Better: God becomes presence. And everything becomes possible and meaningful: here the Supreme Judge, here the Father of humanity, leaves his celestial throne to live and move among His human creatures. And, in turn, here the soul transported by its prayer leaves its abode and rises to heaven. The substance of language, and the language of silence--that is what prayer is.
--Paroles d'etranger

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I no longer ask you for either happiness or paradise; all I ask of You is to listen and let me be aware of Your listening.

I no longer ask You to resolve my questions, only to receive them and make them part of You.

I no longer ask You for either rest or wisdom, I only ask You not to close me to gratitude, be it of the most trivial kind, or to surprise and friendship. Love? Love is not Yours to give.

As for my enemies, I do not ask You to punish them or even to enlighten them; I only ask You not to lend them Your mask and Your powers. If You must relinquish one or the other, give them Your powers. But not Your countenance.

They are modest, my requests, and humble. I ask You what I might ask a stranger met by chance at twilight in a barren land.

I ask you, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to enable me to pronounce these words without betraying the child that transmitted them to me: God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, enable me to forgive You and enable the child I once was to forgive me too.

I no longer ask You for the life of that child, nor even for his faith. I only beg You to listen to him and act in such a way that You and I can listen to him together.
--One Generation After (1971)


What I try to do is speak to God.  Even when I speak against God, I speak to God. And even if I am angry at God, I try to show God my anger. But even that is a profession, not a denial of God. . . . . I have never abandoned God.  I had tremendous problems with God, and still do.  Therefore I protest against God.  Sometimes I bring God before the bench.  Nevertheless, everything I do is done from within faith and not from outside.  If one believes in God one can say anything to God.  One can be angry at God, one can praise God, one can demand things of God.  Above all, one can demand justice of God.
--Interview in Hope Against Hope (1999)

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If He insists upon going on with His methods, let Him -- but I won't say Amen.  Let Him crush me, I won't say Kaddish.  Let Him kill me, let Him kills us all, I shall shout and shout that it's His fault.  I'll use my last energy to make my protest known.  Whether I live or die, I submit to Him no longer…And they kept quiet?  Too bad -- then I'll speak for them.  For them, too, I'll demand justice…To you, judges, I'll shout, "Tell Him what He should not have done; tell Him to stop the bloodshed now…"  I lived as a Jew, and it is as a Jew that I die -- and it is as a Jew that, with my last breath, I shall shout my protest to God!  And because the end is near, I shall shout louder! Because the end is near, I'll tell Him that He's more guilty than ever!
--Berish in The Trial of God, A Play (1979)


The Midrash tells us that when Pharaoh ordered that Jewish children be walled in alive in the pyramids, the Angel Michael seized one of them and held it up to the heavenly court. When God saw the frightened child, he was moved to such compassion that he decided then and there to bring the exile to an end.

I loved to read this Midrashic tale. I was as proud of the angel because he cared as of God because He acted. I now reread the tale and desperately try to understand. One Jewish child succeeded in moving God, but one million Jewish children did not. I try to understand—and I cannot.
--A Jew Today

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There can be no theology after Auschwitz and no theology whatsoever about Auschwitz . For whatever we do we are lost; whatever we say is inadequate. One can never understand the event with God; one cannot understand the event without God.  Theology? The logos of God? Who am I to explain God? Some people try.  I think they fail. Nonetheless, it is their right to attempt it.  After Auschwitz everything is an attempt.  God and the death camps.  I will never understand that.

Whatever God does happens by intention; God acts intentionally, and even God's will is wrapped in silence.  An old Jewish poet and philosopher, Rabbi Elieser Kalir, once said: "God is not silent. God is silence."  Yet God's silence is not that of a passive onlooker.  It is a completely different silence.  The silence of God is deep and full of meaning. 
--Interview in Hope Against Hope (1999)

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Is this to say that I have reconciliated myself with God? I continue to protest against His apparent indifference with regard to the injustices that ravage his creation.  With the messiah, perhaps?  He ought to have revealed himself earlier, much earlier.  Maybe Kafka is right: the Savior will not come on the last day, but on the day after that.  And my faith in all of this? Certainly, I could abandon it.  I would have the right to do so.  I could invoke many reasons, six million reasons to justify my decision.  But I do not do so.  I feel myself incapable of distancing myself from the road traced by my predecessors. Without this faith in God, that of my ancestors and of my father, my faith in Israel and in humanity would be diminished, weakened.  I choose to maintain this faith which, in the past, gave wings to my soul.  I would not be the man that I am, the Jew that I am, if I betrayed the child in me, the one who thought he had to live in God, if not for God.  In truth, faith in God, I have never abandoned it.  I affirm it, and I reaffirm it, for I feel the necessity [to do so.]  I had to clarify this point before, I return to it. Even in the heart of the Kingdom of Night, I continued to pray.  Certainly my faith was wounded, over whelmed, and it still is today.  There was an explosion, but not a rupture. 
--And the Sea is Never Full: Memoirs 2 (1996)


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding