Elie Wiesel's new work explores Rabbinic lore

March 22, 1992|By Arnold Ages

SAGES AND DREAMERS:

BIBLICAL, TALMUDIC, AND

HASIDIC PORTRAITS

AND LEGENDS.

Elie Wiesel.

Summit.

443 pages. $25.

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate, stands in the distinguished tradition of Jewish scholars ready to share their learning with the masses. His current volume -- a compendium of Rabbinic lore on Biblical, Talmudic (post-Biblical) and Hasidic (Jewish mystics) material -- is an encyclopedic survey of personalities, movements and theological ideas spanning more than 2,000 years of Jewish history.

The work is divided into three sections. In the first, Mr. Wiesel focuses on Noah, Jephtah and his daughter, Ruth, Solomon, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. In the second part, he delineates the careers of 13 Rabbinic sages from the Talmudic period. In the third, he analyzes the contributions of five Hasidic "rebbes," (the affectionate term used to describe pious rabbis) who flourished in Eastern Europe in the modern age.

In each section, Mr. Wiesel employs a consistent method. First, he presents the traditional exegesis of specific verses, then proceeds to ask provocative questions promoted by Talmudic and Midrashic (sermonic) interpretations. These questions are accompanied by intensely personal commentaries on issues raised by the biblical matrix. Mr. Wiesel's experience as a survivor of one of the Nazis' death camps is frequently adduced to add a certain contemporary note to his text. What is impressive is his ability to make the reader aware of the flow of discourse and commentary in the Talmud and Midrash about biblical figures.

Thus, in his inquiry on Noah, Mr. Wiesel rehearses the habitual arguments about his merits or demerits, then offers the striking observation that after the flood Noah no longer was referred to as "tzadik" and "tamim" -- righteous and perfect -- and that the man of the ark was the benefactor of the working class who got busy after the flood to initiate agricultural and viniculture projects. Summing up Noah's career profile, Mr. Wiesel reminds us that the name he was left with in the Hebraic tradition, "Noah Labriot" (Noah the sociable), is a term used to describe someone who gets along with everyone -- "something a Just Man rarely does."

The same candor informs Mr. Wiesel's comments on Jephtah, the man in the Book of Judges who makes an obscene oath and who is required to sacrifice his daughter in order to fulfill it. Instead of concentrating on the ugliness of this act, Mr. Wiesel wisely shifts the focus to the individual truly responsible -- the High Priest, Pinhas, who had the knowledge and the power to relieve Jephtah of his vow.

In his discussion of Ruth, Solomon, the prophets and Esther, the author always has important materials to add about conversion, nationalism, warfare and human nature. A section on the problems of child rearing is especially instructive, as Mr. Wiesel talks about the pervasive tensions between brothers in Scripture: Cain and Abel, Nadav and Avihu (Aaron's sons), Samuel's sons, Saul's children and David's offspring.

When he reaches the Talmudic sages, Mr. Wiesel displays the same steady hands in explicating their uniqueness and greatness. He does not hesitate, moreover, to offer critical judgments. He suggests that the case of the much-venerated Rabbi Akiba, the martyr par excellence, may contain some elements of near-masochism -- indeed, a desire for martyrdom that is disquieting.

With regard to the Hasidic sages described in the latter part of this volume, there is one tantalizing episode in which Mr. Wiesel describes an encounter that he had with a great rebbe when he was still a child, a few years before the beginning of World War II. He sat with this rebbe in his Transylvania for hours, and the two talked of many things. Then his mother went in and spoke to the same rebbe.

But when she emerged, she was in tears and inconsolable -- and refused to divulge what she had learned from that saintly teacher. Mr. Wiesel indicates that he did not learn what his mother had been told until many years later, when an uncle asked him for a blessing before undergoing surgery. Mr. Wiesel says he will hold back this message for his memoirs!

That is the only thing Elie Wiesel hold backs from his readers in this beautiful, deeply absorbing visitation he has arranged for the reader with his distillation of the best in Hebraic lore and commentary.

Dr. Ages, a professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, is a specialist in modern intellectual thought.

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