Book Note: Elie Wiesel’s “The Trial of God”

Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod) (New York: Shocken, 1979). (Amazon; Bookshop)

A few years ago, I watched a television play that had been shown on PBS titled “God on Trial”. It’s based on an experience that Elie Wiesel had in Auschwitz. He writes in his 1979 book The Trial of God, under the header “The Scene,” that the genesis of his book was “a strange trial. Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But there nobody cried.” It was Wiesel’s experience that provided the setting for the PBS special but the book itself isn’t about Auschwitz. Instead, Wiesel sets his play “in a lost village…1649, after a pogrom”.

In the Forward by Robert McAfee Brown (p. vii), he recounts the following about Wiesel’s response to the aforementioned trial in Auschwitz:

“For years Wiesel lived with the tension of dilemma of that memory, pondering how to communicate its despairing solemnity. Nothing ‘worked.’ It did not work as a novel, it did not work as a play, it did not work as a cantana. Each successive manuscript ended up in a desk drawer. (Wiesel admits to having a large desk drawer.) Finally, he took the event out of the present, resitutated it in the past, just after the widespread Chmielnicki pogroms in the years of 1648-1649, and turned it into a Purimschpiel (a play to be enacted on the feast of Purim), although one written in the style of a ‘tragic farce’.”

p. vii

In a sense, this play is about what Wiesel experienced in Auschwitz but it’s communicated through one of the many other horrific experiences of the Jews in Europe. The characters include three traveling minstrels named Mendel, Avremel, and Yankel; an innkeeper named Berish; Berish’s daughter, Hanna; a servant who works at the inn named Maria; an unnamed Russian Orthodox priest; and at the end a strange man named “Sam”.

It’s a play, so I won’t dive into the details. That could ruin the joy of it. I will say it’s an important book to read. (In fact, a student of mine is doing a research class with me, and he’ll be reading this book.) What I will say, is that the setting is brilliant, being connected to the events of Purim when the Jews celebrate the story of the Book of Esther wherein a Jewish queen of Persia (Esther) helped save her people from genocide. The traveling minstrels hoped to put on a performance for pay only to discover that the Jewish community where they found themselves had been decimated. When they should be celebrating the deliverance of the Jews by celebrating Purim, an eery cloud of dispair descends.

As the play progresses over the course of an evening in an inn where the minstrels find themselves, a trial (like the one remembered by Wiesel) takes place in response to the threat of more antisemitic violence that has been rumored to be about to take place that very evening. And here’s what really stood out to me—and here there’ll be a spoiler, so turn back now if you’d like—the problem is that the trial can’t go forward because no one is available to be god’s defense attorney. That is until a man named “Sam” arrives. Sam, like Job’s friends, gives a rich, theologically “sound” defense of god’s justice, placing the blame for violence against the Jews anywhere but on the deity. And here’s the brilliant part (and the spoiler): “Sam” is actually Satan. The best theologian to defend god is Satan himself.

I’ve been re-reading the Book of Job this week, and I think Wiesel’s decision to cast Satan as god’s defender in his play is brilliant. As you’re aware, Job’s friends are rebuked by god at the end, even as their arguments sound a lot like parts of the Jewish Wisdom tradition and Deuteronomist theology in the Tanakh. But theological apologetics, while trying to defend god, can be sinister. For Wiesel, like the author of the Book of Job, the most wicked thing one can do (my apologies to some Calvinists here) is defend divine justice in the face of human suffering. For Wiesel, the one who would master such an approach to addressing human suffering is none other than the devil himself.

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