This is a writing sample by “nycghostwriter,” AKA Barbara Finkelstein. It is “Soul on Fire,” a book review published in New York Newsday. You can get professional ghostwriting services from a published non-fiction writer. Email me or fill out the short form on my contact page.
NEW YORK NEWSDAY | October 1991
SAGES AND DREAMERS: Hasidic, Biblical and Talmudic Portraits and Legends by Elie Wiesel, Summit, 411 pp., $25
By Barbara Finkelstein
Ever since the publication of Night in 1969, many Jews have looked to Elie Wiesel as the “spiritual voice of the Holocaust.” A survivor of the Buchenwald death camp, Wiesel not only has contemplated his personal relationship with a post-Auschwitz God, but also has addressed the paradoxical bond between God and the Jewish nation. This moral investigation by the 1986 Nobel Peace laureate has introduced many secular Jews to the rabbinic debates about the existence of evil, the value of suffering, survival in a hostile environment and the meaning of history. In Sages and Dreamers, Wiesel once again attempts to reconcile a moral God with the less-than-choice destiny of the Jewish people. As with Wiesel’s best nonfiction, the book is provocative and humane.
Like the personalities portrayed in Souls on Fire, the characters in Sages and Dreamers lend themselves to the author’s obsession: the survival of the Jews. Tellingly, Wiesel discusses the biblical characters in Part I of his book from the standpoint of a Holocaust survivor: Noah is the first survivor of a collective tragedy; Naomi, who survives her husband and two sons, experiences “survivor guilt;’ Nehemiah, who fathoms the humiliation of the Jews in Persian-occupied Jerusalem, “wept and wept for days on end at the distress and shame of the survivors.” As a survivor, Elie Wiesel identifies with the Bible’s victims and scapegoats. Furthermore, he is rooted in the talmudic tradition of theological dissent. The believer may shake an angry fist at the heavens, demanding that God be accountable.
In “The Talmud: Part II” of Sages and Dreamers, the author looks to the early days of the Common Era for a historical analog to the Holocaust. (Two catastrophes — the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and Hadrian’s suppression of the nationalistic Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 C.E. — marked the end of the Jewish state in antiquity.) Wiesel begins this section with the two opposing schools of thought that grew out of the now stateless Jewish nation. The House of Shammai said life isn’t worth living; the House of Hillel said it is, in spite of human suffering. Wiesel, himself an admirer of existential philosophy, observes that pessimists and optimistic ultimately reached the same life-affirming conclusion: “It is not man’s privilege,” he writers, ‘to choose either the time or place of his birth, but it is his privilege to give his life a direction — and a justification . . . This applies particularly to my generation [of Holocaust survivors].” Most of the lectures in Part II try to comprehend the idea of faith — and understandable lapses — in light of God’s inscrutable distance during times of human suffering.
In Part III, “The Hasidic Tradition,” Wiesel is enchanted by the extremist behavior of and wonder-working legends about rabbis. As with Souls on Fire, this section asks the reader to suspend his or her rational judgment and accept the sentimental, fabulist Hasidic worldview. Upon reading, for example, that a rabbi’s prayers turned a philistine into a connoisseur of good music, or that Rabbi Mendel flew into fits of rage at his adherents, skeptics may, however, be tempted to respond, as novelist Robertson Davies once wrote, that fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt.
Indeed, the rationalism of the great medieval thinkers such as Maimonides is conspicuous by its absence in Sages and Dreamers. This is because Elie Wiesel’s God is personal, a partner in man’s quest for goodness. Having lived through the “night” of human reason, Wiesel himself could not rationally endorse Maimonides’ principle of plenitude, which suggests that the creation of the universe is good and therefore we are living in the best of all logically possible worlds.
Sages and Dreamers, always stimulating, is not without flaws. Initially delivered as lectures at the 92nd Street Y, these essays bear the mark of extemporaneous speech. At times they are disorganized. Each of the Biblical portraits, for example, would have profited by an explanatory opening paragraph. The warrior-judge Jephthah, after all, is not the household name that Noah is. And several controversial ideas — the parochialism of Jewish communal life vs. life in the wider world, to name one — are hinted at but not fully explored. In summary, however, Sages and Dreamers is an absorbing anthology of men and women who confronted, in the words of Martin Buber, “our cruel and merciful Lord.”
Barbara Finkelstein is the author of Summer Long-a-coming, a novel.