An interview with Prof. Elie Wiesel, Honorary Chairman of the Tsfat Education Fund, and Rabbi Ephraim Kenig, on Faith in a Post-Holocaust Era.
In what ways have chassidic teachings shaped your work as a writer, teacher, thinker and Jew? Also, do you consider yourself a chassid in any way?
Elie Wiesel: The answer is yes, I am a chassid, because when I am asked what kind of Jew I am, there are so many different ways to be Jewish, so the easiest response is yes, I am a chassidic Jew. I grew up in Chassidut Vizhnitz, but I also became very close to the late, great, Lubavitcher Rebbe. Although I wasn’t his chassid, I was his friend. I also love Rebbe Nachman of Breslev. I grew up with other chassidic influences, but for me, it is like a love affair with Rebbe Nachman. He deals with love, which is seen through how he viewed the world and the way he told stories. If I could write in the way he wrote, I would probably be better off. I received much from Rebbe Nachman. But truthfully, I have also taken a lot from my Jewish learning. I learn gemara every single day because that’s who I am.
Naturally, I went through spiritual crises after the war, but I never abandoned my passion for study. Many have endured the same events and tragedies as I. People often ask, “How did you survive?” I don’t know how I survived. Believe me, I have no idea. My question, on the other hand, would be different. I would ask how did we remain normal in a world that was so inhuman? We came out of the war as defenseless, absolutely naked. What saved us?
I know what saved my sanity was Torah study. After the war, the moment I arrived at an orphanage in France, the first thing I asked for was a masechet from a Talmudic tractate I had brought with me when I entered the camps. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the influence of Rava and Abaye, Rabbi Akiva, Rebbe Yishmael and actually, also the Baal Shem Tov. I have never given up learning. So I am a chassid in the best sense of the word, despite the fact I don’t look like it. Perhaps if there had been no war, I would be wearing a shtreimel today together with Rav Ephraim—and I say this with nostalgia.