I used to receive many phone calls from people looking for the source of some of Elie Wiesel’s Hasidic stories. Usually the source was Dostoevsky, Camus or some other French existentialist authors. I was also asked: “where does the Baal Shem Tov tell us to always remember the past?” The answer is that the Besht said to “always remember God”, in all your ways think of God. This becomes shortened to “Always remember” and then translated as always remember the past. I am working on an academic article on the: topic.
But now we have a new book from Wiesel Rashi, basically on on how Rashi survived the Holocaust. The answer is that he provides memory, wrote literature, provided solidarity, and offered hope. Once again Camus is offered as the Jewish tradition. For some reason, it bothers me less when done to Hasidic tales than when done to Rashi.
Most mid twentieth century scholars wanting to fit the models of Henri Pirenne on medieval cities, and depicted Rashi’s life as building community and democracy through self reliance and pragmatism. Here for Wiesel, Rashi bleeds history and suffering. Rashi is celebration of commentary, a celebration of memory, and of brotherhood too
Memory in Rashi is usually that one has to keep a memory of ones sins before one memory is sin, or one has to remember the mighty hand of God. Wiesel offers us the memory of his own study of Rashi from his youth where there used to be solidarity in the heder.
In chapter one, we have stories of Rashi’s life interspersed with Wiesel’s nostalgia and memories of his own childhood. We have legends and miracle tales of Rashi, with the message that the actual events do not matter, only the legends.
In Wiesels’ hands, Rashi, which was taught in cheder as reading the Rashi and then teitch into Yiddish, taught him how to craft literature.
He [Rashi] said to me, as if confidentially: look, my child; fear nothing, everything must be grasped and conveyed with simplicity. Strange words stand in the way like obstacles? Start all over again with me. It happened to me too. I started all over again. You just have to break through the shell of a word, a sentence, an expression. Everything is inside them. Everything is waiting for you.
Chapter 2 offers selections from Rashi’s Biblical commentary. In the chapter, we are told that he stove for truth and reaching for the exact meaning of the verse (I can except that), but also examples of where Rashi must have let his inability to face evil directly to overcome his approach.
Chapter 3 on Israel, the people and the land shows that Rashi’s moral dualism of Esau and goyim as bad and Jews as good shows that he understood Camus’ idea of solidarity.
Chapter 4 is on sadness and memory, where Rashi confronts the fear and hope of the Crusader period. It does not matter to Wiesel that almost all Rashi scholars do not see any influence of the crusades on his commentaries, only on his elegies.
To hedge his bets and to foreshadow contemporary politics of existential fear of Iran, we are reminded that when Rashi lived the crusaders were fighting the Shiites “where suicidal and murderous fanaticism is still alive today.”Crusaders and Shiites glorified death , while Rashi remains a celebration of human life. Or as Wiesel closed his recent speech at Buchenwald condemning Iran
A great man, Camus, wrote at the end of his marvelous novel, The Plague: “After all,” he said, “after the tragedy, never the rest…there is more in the human being to celebrate than to denigrate.”
As his own explanation of the volume: “This book, therefore, is a story for present and future exiles, but also a moving prayer in their memory to bring them closer to redemption.”
As the wrong complaint to end with, there is an old joke about two elderly Jews discussing a restaurant, one says “the food was terrible and OY! there was so little of it. The book is very short, at best the length of a single chapter in most of this other books. In seems he just added a little verbal padding to his Rashi chapter from a prior book to earn his Nextbook money.
So I will end with noting that the ever clueless Adam Kirsch used his review of Wiesel’s Rashi to discuss if Jews such as Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe are such good literary critics due to the culture of commentary created by Rashi.
(If any journal or newspaper wants an edited and more book review version of this, then let me know. I also have many more sedate paragraphs which I left out.)
Update The Forward also disliked the book: Rashi, Wiesel: Why, Why, Why?