A Witness of Life Through Death and the Virtue of a Broken Faith

Elie Wiesel, “In memoriam” (1928-2016)

Activist and writer Elie Wiesel, the World War Two death camp survivor who won a Nobel Peace Prize for becoming the life-long voice of millions of Holocaust victims, died on Saturday, July 2, at his home in New York City. He was 87. Wiesel was a philosopher, speaker, playwright and professor who also campaigned for the tyrannized and forgotten around the world. The Romanian-born Wiesel lived by the credo expressed in "Night," his landmark book-story of the Holocaust - "to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time." In awarding the Peace Prize in 1986, the Nobel Committee praised him as a "messenger to mankind" and "one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world." And he replied in the prize acceptance speech, "No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." While at the White House in 1985 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, he even rebuked U.S. President Ronald Reagan for planning to lay a wreath at a German cemetery where some of Hitler's notorious Waffen SS troops were buried. "Don't go to Bitburg," Wiesel said. "That place is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS." And he added, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

Wiesel was a hollow-eyed 16-year-old when he emerged from the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. He had been orphaned by the Nazis and their identification number, A-7713, was tattooed on his arm as a physical manifestation of his broken faith and the nightmares that would haunt him throughout his life. Wiesel and his family had first been taken by the Nazis from the village of Sighetu in the Transylvania region of Romania to Auschwitz, where his mother and one of his sisters died. Wiesel and his father, Shlomo, ended up in Buchenwald, where Shlomo died. In "Night" Wiesel wrote of his shame at lying silently in his bunk while his father was beaten nearby. After the war Wiesel made his way to France, studied at the Sorbonne and by 19 had become a journalist. He pondered suicide and never wrote of or discussed his Holocaust experience until 10 years after the war – as part of a vow to himself. He was 27 years old in 1955 when "Night" was published in Yiddish, and Wiesel would later rewrite it for a world audience. "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed ...," Wiesel wrote. "Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live."

He was often described as somber. An old friend, Chicago professor Irving Abrahamson, once said of him: "I've never seen Elie give a belly laugh. He'll chuckle, he'll smile, there'll be a twinkle in his eye. But never a laugh from within." This structural melancholic attitude was the visible sign of his deep and continuous distrust in the misleading flavor of restricted and excluding religious credos or ethnic short-sighted pride in all its forms and expressions. "No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them." (Interview with Parade Magazine, 1992)

All of Wiesel’s works reflect, in some manner, his experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust and his attempt to resolve the ethical torment of why the Holocaust happened and what it revealed about human nature. But Elie Wiesel's life experience is not just an example of human resiliency. It also has an enormous theological relevance that should positively provoke and help re-orient our Adventist identity and message. His witness is part of a larger Jewish contemporary cultural voice of resistance and criticism of the ambivalent and mechanical trend in today’s Western societies from which the Holocaust is just the visible peak. The 1944 book Dialectic of Enlightenment[1] explored the socio-psychological status quo that had been responsible for what the Frankfurt School[2] considered the ambivalence and failure of the Age of Enlightenment – so influential in our societies and Christian churches, including Adventism. Here the privileged categories are: practical rationality and organization, efficiency and linearity, technical symmetry, administrative coherence and quantitative growth. How strongly Adventist ecclesiology, missiology, education and administration remains influenced by these Enlightenment categories is easy to see. They emerge, for instance, in official discourses such as those ritualistically pronounced by the current GC presidency. And here our supposed anchorage in the “Bible only” doesn't help us to get the right picture of real Adventism today.

According to Jacob Taubes, what Greeks represent for Western Ontology (they gave humanity the category of “Being”), Jews represent for Western Eschatology (they gave humanity the category of “Future”)[3]. But, what kind of future did we really inherit from Judaism? How much is the Adventist-proclaimed future similar to that announced by Judaism? This is something that needs to be deeply considered. G. Marramao says that today’s Western societies are simply the expression of a secularized Christian Eschatology[4]. We are, in fact, future-oriented societies without God. This sounds plausible but what made the idea revolutionary biblical eschatology was not merely future or monotheism or God understood as Future, but understanding the possibility of a God-given future as a “broken future”. The biblical understanding of time can't be reduced to linearity. Biblical time is neither cyclical nor linear. It's a rhythmic time oriented to a freely-given future necessarily broken by the presence of suffering and unpredictable human beings and events. This is an accumulative understanding of time expressed, for instance, in the category of material or spiritual “Progress”.

Some Jewish secular thinkers were already elaborating on this during the First World War, not by reading the Tanak (Old Testament) but by trying to read then current European history. That incomprehensible and unjustified “Great War” ravaged their hopes and illusions of a perfect humanist European society. Incredulously they observed the necrophilic enthusiasm for war that, in Germany, enthralled the best intellectuals, philosophers, scientists and poets. And this pushed them to revoke their investment in the “Enlightened” culture of the West. Bloch, Rosenzweig, Buber, Taubes and other leading secular Jewish thinkers forsook their cultural faith in progress and criticized its premise, the idea of time as a linear and mechanical – free of surprises. Elie Wiesel’s theological contribution lies, to my view, in his capacity of inscribing his personal experience into this larger cultural critical Jewish movement and to have given it narrative instead of a more philosophical form.

The apparent theological proximity between Adventism and Judaism is based in the common celebration of the Sabbath or the messianic expectation, and is more formal than substantial. For us the Sabbath has been deformed in an ecclesio-centric, individualist and pragmatic event while for them it’s lived as an anthropological, cultural and communitarian experience. The expectation of the future for Adventists has become linear and exclusive while for them, at least for these secular Jews, it's necessarily a broken and inclusive experience. But why should it be important for Adventists to consider the understanding of history and future of these Jewish secular thinkers – and Elie Wiesel's personal witness? Because their reflections put us in touch with two elements of human existence we Adventists easily overlook and resist seriously considering.

First, the validity and exceptionality of the particular. Adventists keep working with universal categories, theologically and administratively, that resist validity of exceptions and singular cases. Exceptions are not derogations to the validity of a rule or doctrine but signs of intrinsic limitation and insufficiency. We still want Adventists worldwide to study the same Sabbath school lesson. We still want to impose the same trans-cultural rule of not ordaining women to pastoral ministry – onto every culture. The exception is still, for us, a defeat and a failure. And this reflects our unhealthy trend to submit people's life to our religious schemes rather than the other way round. That is, to prove the validity of our religious schemes by facing them with people's real human experience. A linear understanding of time and history like ours tends to cancel the beneficial opacity only real people can introduce in life and history. Life and experiences are not interchangeable. Every life is unique and not replaceable by a pretended major benefit of the system as a whole. To say it in Kirkegaardian terms, it's the particular that assesses the universal because truth is related to concrete life.

Second, learn to live with irreversible loss. A young life can become anything but, as life continues, the possibilities are reduced and we must learn to accept life as it is and try to make sense of it. This is the tragic component of all human life. Forgetting this pushes individuals and religious communities to grandiose and megalomaniac efforts of looking for the impossible. Sociologically speaking we Adventist are no longer a young movement and, for this reason, we must not pretend to behave as such. The acceptance of our sociological age implies acceptance of some irreversible loss in unity, homogeneity, enthusiasm, ideals or religious claims. To give up all our ideals is certainly inappropriate but to pretend to keep all historic ideals intact is inhuman, perhaps even diabolic. History, family, marriage, profession, faith, religion or hope are always modified and modulated by the obstacles and vicissitudes we meet in life. To experience irreversible loss physically, emotionally and religiously doesn't disqualify either the human experience in itself or the individual. It introduces us in a different understanding of what a human experience is. Only humility, silence, patience and wisdom can teach us that a compromised and broken life, marked by irreversible loss, is still a good life, worthy of being lived fully – individually or as a community. This is the suffered and healing witness Elie Wiesel has left behind. Adventists would do well to reflect upon it.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7555

As always a thoughtful and thought provoking essay. Adventism as a human construct isa challenging thought and challenge to recent dogma coming out of SA. TZ


I was introduced to Elie Wiesel writings through my Jewish friends at the Synagogue where I have my opening Sabbath Vespers on Friday nights.
I enjoyed The Night Trilogy and The Testament.
Unfortunately, some of his writing is Autobigraphical. And as a young person, witnessed and experienced things no one should have to go through.
Thankfully, his mind did not end up in The Ovens. Would have been a great loss.

Edit-- Ralph
True Bible Religion is this–

  1. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ [and what He has done for you] and you will be saved.
  2. Jesus said, to do the “works that I do”.
  3. True Religion is taking care of the Widows and the Fatherless.
  4. Love God, Love your Neighbor, bring Justice and Mercy [Compassion] to your Neighbor, and according to Luke, you will Be Perfect.
  5. Cultivate Love, Joy, Peace, Long-suffering, Gentleness, Goodness. Kindness, Faithfulness, Self-control.
  6. Will allow the Holy Spirit to remove – Idolatry [putting temporal things before God], sorcery, hatred, contention, jealousy, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissension, heresies, envy, murder, drunkenness, revelries, and the like.
    ***** I notice Paul did NOT say, Do Not Drink Wine. Said do NOT get DRUNK.

Thank you Hans for as fine a tribute to this “voice” as I have read from an Adventist pen. Insightful, heartfelt and welcome!!


It is impossible to understand what Elie Wiesel went through in his lifetime but he was as worthy a human being as ever trod upon this Earth. I hope to see him in Heaven some day.

Thank-you, Hanz, for this article with some brilliant insights into what Adventism thinks and what it actually IS.

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What sort of nonsense is this? Do some people write words for the sake of writing them? Time is linear and irreversible. Biblical time is the same. The Bible describes what happened and what will happen.

Oh, and of course one religion is superior - the Biblical one, for it is the only one that is true and comes from God, and the SDA version is the closest one to the true biblical one that one can find.

How can one say that the SDA version is the nearest to the true Bible religion.Have you compared every religion there is and even if you did being a fallible human being at best you are expressing only an opinion not fact.

Like the blind men and the elephant we have only a vague grasp of the reality.


No one can truly understand what Jews went through in the Holocaust, and certainly it was an experience that would make them search for an answer. The thing that troubled me about his writings was that he, and other Jews, seem to find it impossible to forgive those who were so inhumane to them. Perhaps it’s because they do not accept Jesus and his forgiveness.

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Adventism is the antithesis of this life- view. Our hope continues to be in the future, never the blessed present. The hallmark hymn of Adventism is We Have This Hope - hope in a future event - an always FUTURE event. We count the signs and preach a race against time. At this point, generations have taken their last breath, personally experiencing the original great disappointment. Those left holding the torch, are becoming increasingly disillusioned because the urgency is gone, despite the earthquakes and “nations rising up against nations”. Those events have become the new normal in our age of instant, world-wide news coverage.

Without a tangeble sense of “God-within”, the Jews were given appointments with God, woven into their cultural calendars. The weekly Sabbaths were a guarantee of “God-with us”. When time was turned upside-down - when the appointments were taken away for Elie Wiesel, faith died.

Creation “week” read with a non-Jewish perspective, we find that God’s intention was never a hope for the future" - it was for a blessed “now”. The seventh day of creation has no sundown - an end to a blessed experience with God - a return to toil and lonely struggles. Jesus came to remind us of that, but the Jews of his day were not ready to listen to this “good news”.

Adventists still live by those appointments. We teach our kids to “meet with Jesus” weekly in his “house”. When the felts get packed away and we graduate to adulthood we still feel that God lives in a “building made with hands” and waits there to meet with us on Wednesday nights and Sabbaths.

We ignore the fact that time disappears when the rocket propels us into space; and the further we go from our local neighbourhood of sun, moon and stars, the less important time becomes. With God, there is no time, as we know it. Everything is a NOW. When God blessed the “seventh day” he blessed our “NOW”. Job learned that, eventually.