Wednesday, 29 April 2009

A prayer by Elie Wiesel

In response to my recent post A Christian response to an image by Elie Wiesel?, I was informed in the comments that Wiesel is not, in fact, an atheist. I repent in dust an ashes (though I should point out that is was not really relevant to the point of the post, which was about the image he used) and have been inspired to seek out more material by this profound man.

I was given a helping hand in this direction by a kind commentator who contacted me offline and shared this prayer, written by Wiesel in 1997 in an op-ed piece in the New York Times at the time of the High Holidays. [She informs me she got it from the blog Mystical Politics, the author of which also provides the closing comments below]. I love it, and hope you will too.

What about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?

I now realize I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don't know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those one reserves for the Sabbath, and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh ha-Shanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz. Was it because the prayers remained a link to the vanished world of my childhood?

But my faith was no longer pure. How could it be? It was filled with anguish rather than fervor, with perplexity more than piety. In the kingdom of eternal night, on the Days of Awe, which are the Days of Judgment, my traditional prayers were directed to you as well as against you, Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: your absence or your silence?

In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy. I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being. Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children? Why were they abandoned by your Creation? These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty. Their established culpability is irrelevant to my "problem" with you, Master of the Universe. In my childhood I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from you.

Where were you, God of kindness, in Auschwitz? What was going on in heaven, at the celestial tribunal, while your children were marked for humiliation, isolation and death only because they were Jewish?

These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades. You have vocal defenders, you know. Many theological answers were given me, such as: "God is God. He alone knows what He is doing. One has no right to question Him or His ways." Or: "Auschwitz was a punishment for European Jewry's sins of assimilation and/or Zionism." And: "Isn't Israel the solution? Without Auschwitz, there would have been no Israel."

I reject all these answers. Auschwitz must and will forever remain a question mark only: it can be conceived neither with God nor without God. At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men. And their aim was to destroy not only us but you as well. Ought we not to think of your pain, too? Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven't you also suffered?

The author of Mystical Politics comments on this prayer:

With this essay, Wiesel was rethinking what he wrote in Night. I think we need to consider seriously what he has written - both originally, and in his rethinking fifty years later.

For another prayer of his, equally moving, go here.
For a Times article on the man, go here.


Bob MacDonald said...

Stunning, and so true to the reality of Job as teacher. God is addressed - every question is permitted.

Brad East said...

I'm late to commenting, but thank you so much for posting this. When I read the earlier post calling Wiesel an atheist, I was confused, but this is the Wiesel I know. What a profound prayer, from the lips of a man who literally embodies integrity and ethos in speech.