Judaism, Language and Memory

I had the immense honour of hearing Professor Elie Weisel speak last night, and while I cannot hope to do justice to what he said, I will share a few of my personal highlights.

Above all, I was enthralled by the fact that Judaism, and the Jewish textual tradition, infused everything Weisel said.  For example, in talking about how hard he is on himself when it comes to the quality of his writing, he gave an example from the Talmud showing how he follows the school of Shammai when it comes to himself, but the school of Hillel when it comes to relationships with others.  What came through to me, loud and clear, was one of the most tragic elements of the Holocaust, which I had not reflected on before: it robbed the world of the peak of Jewish scholarship in such a way that it still may not have recovered.  I am not claiming that, had the world not seen such a tragedy, everyone who was educated Jewishly today would have a comparable intellect to Elie Weisel, but the inescapable conclusion from the evening was that he was more deeply Jewishly educated by the time he went to Auschwitz at the age of 15 than most people ever are.

Weisel also expressed a strong opinion about universalism and Judaism.  He stated (I paraphrase): “I cannot understand people who feel that they need to reject or demote their Judaism in order to pursue universal human rights.  Why begin that process by an act of betrayal?  We must first be true to ourselves, as authentic Jews — or Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Atheists [though I do not see those as mutually exclusive categories] — and only then can we go out into the world as humans caring for the well-being of all other human beings.”

Throughout the course of his speaking, Weisel laid bare just how fundamental writing is to his life, now and always.  He shared a remarkable story about how, decades after the fact, his sister’s son found a manuscript of Weisel’s that his sister had kept from before the Holocaust.  It was a forty page paper, written around the time Weisel was 13 (give or take), on the topic of Nezirut, which Weisel translated as ‘asceticism’ but is the practice whereby Jews would abstain from grape products, cutting their hair, and other personal vows (the most famous example being Samson).  It was a telling story of just how early Weisel found writing to be the best way to express himself.

Finally, Weisel spoke about memory — a theme that he stresses in his writing.  He shared how crucial it is to reflect on our memories, as we are little more than the memories we have.  This is all the more true in the case of the Holocaust.  His is one of the loudest voices in the world today describing what it was like to live through the Holocaust, and while he expressed some ambivalence about having written all that he has on the subject, it was clear to me that, given his passion for writing and his experiences, he had little choice in confronting the most harrowing period of his life but to write about it.  He recounted the Eichmann trials, which he covered as a journalist, and the surprise he felt at seeing Eichmann as a human being — and not literally some sort of monster — and a resourceful, contented human being at that.  He spoke of evoking memories of that time as an active struggle that he still pursues, stating that one never knows when another sliver of memory may emerge.

This tied in to a sense of profound respect I felt at the way the Jewish community assembled at the event responded to publicly remembering the Holocaust.  For those of us who identify on the left of the political spectrum, it often feels like there is nothing humanity is doing that is worth feeling good about.  However, seeing the way in which so many people publicly remember the most horrific time in recent Jewish memory, I was inspired.  It is clear to me that this focus garnered by the Holocaust can and should be used to motivate us to be better people, as one of the other speakers last night implied was Elie Weisel’s legacy to all of us.

Professor Weisel ended the night with a cliche that has rightfully earned it place as such, by stressing that life is short, measured in moments and not years, and that we should all try to “think higher, and feel deeper” along the way.

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