Like most American Jewish youth of my time we heard about Wiesel. He was the iconic Holocaust survivor. I knew he was a man to be respected, but, I did not connect with his writings as a young adult. My process of discovering my connection to Wiesel began when he gave his speech accepting the most important medal a civilian can in America from President Reagan. His speech appealing to Mr. Reagan to skip the invitation to lay a wreath at Bitburg cemetery was unforgettable. When he said, "Mr. President your place is with the victims and not with the SS," I felt chills down my spine.
Yet it was not until four years later after I had arrived in Champaign, Illinois to take my pulpit that I would go on a journey to learn about Elie Wiesel. I credit that journey to Rabbi Isaac Neuman, the rabbi emeritus of the congregation, a Holocaust survivor himself and a friend of Wiesel. We talked about Wiesel and Isaac slowly picked out books by Wiesel for me to read. They were not books strictly on the Holocaust per se but his works on Talmudic and Hasidic teachers. His essays and his articles were part of my education as well. I felt drawn into his world and by studying the sages and his theological writings I saw the broad scope of his vision about humanity as well as his grief for his family and the entire Jewish people. I can honestly say that Elie Wiesel has been one of the most important thinkers that have influenced me in my overarching view of Judaism.
I believe no other Jewish scholar has excelled in revealing and teaching Jewish texts, rejuvenating our imagination to memory of the Jewish past and been a beacon of light towards social justice and respect for human life. When it comes to God, Wiesel opened up a door to engaging God despite the torrent of views from within the Jewish community who denied the existence of God after Auschwitz. He never gave up on God even though he questioned and challenged God. It was always from a position of trying to ask questions even though he never received the answers he sought out in his quest to understand the mystery of evil.
Wiesel said, "Questions are more important than answers because we all can share the questions of good and evil." For me Wiesel taught me to probe, test, and challenge assumptions but from within a faith perspective. That was the genius of Wiesel. I can say that I have tried to do do the same in my own way when I read a text from the Bible or from the Hasidic masters or from the Kabbalah. He taught me how to bring their stories into my spiritual bloodstream. For that I will forever be indebted to him.
Finally, he taught us all by example that our role as Jews was to be a witness to the Holocaust and to injustice around the world. God said to Israel, "You are my witnesses. Know me therefore and put your trust in me." That is what I have tried to do and it is because of Wiesel that I embarked upon that journey.
I will be writing and speaking about him throughout the upcoming year and he deserves that tribute. Jewry owes Elie Wiesel a debt of gratitude for all the good he accomplished and for the man he was.
May his memory be for blessing.
Rabbi Brad Bloom