Flying with Elie Wiesel

Flying with Elie Wiesel

Mormons and Jews have had a somewhat tortured relationship. Although the Mormon faith incorporates significant elements of Judaism — from the claim that Utah is the new Zion to prophecy and priesthood — the Jewish community has cried foul at Mormon proselytizing of Jews, as well as the Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims.

So it was the dream of both me and my dear friend Michael Benson, the president of Snow College, Utah, whose grandfather served until 1994 as the leader and prophet of the worldwide Mormon Church, to create closer ties between our respective communities, a vision that came closer to fruition with our joint hosting this week of Elie Wiesel for a lecture at Snow. Wiesel spoke to an overwhelmingly Mormon audience on the subject of forgiveness. I had hosted Wiesel twice at Oxford, but this time especially his speech was a mesmerizing tour de force, the world’s most famous survivor of humanity’s greatest tragedy, boldly and hauntingly tackling the appropriateness of pardoning one’s tormentors.

Elie Wiesel has been a hero of mine since I was a boy. Not because he was the world’s most famous or articulate Holocaust spokesperson, but because he restored to humanity an authentic relationship with God. Before Wiesel, many people of faith had a fake relationship with the Creator, one governed by humble resignation rather than bold affirmation. Whenever humans were faced with tragedy, they were expected to bow their heads in silent submission. God is just, even if He remains utterly passive as human beings are turned into pillars of smoke and piles of ash. If you suffered it was because you deserved it. God is always innocent, man forever guilty. Man’s sin, rather than God’s indifference, was always the cause of torment. Besides, people are so limited in their mortal comprehension, they are blind to the hidden blessings that is the silver lining behind suffering.

But through Wiesel was reborn the ancient — and lost — Jewish tradition of wrestling and sparring with God. When the Almighty told Abraham He would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham lifted his hands toward the heavens and proclaimed, "Shall the Judge of the entire earth not practice justice?" When God informed Moses that he would eradicate the Jews after the sin of the golden calf, Moses thundered, "If you do not forgive the people, erase my name, I beseech You, from the Torah that You have written." And when Elie Wiesel watched 6 million innocents incinerated in Hitler’s ovens, it kindled his anger at God and he wrote haunting books and made daring speeches that shook the heavens in protest. Humans were not cosmic chaff that had to simply accept God’s judgment. Wiesel responded audaciously to the Holocaust by implicating God and exonerating the victims.

Some, however, make the terrible mistake of believing that in his defiance Wiesel has abandoned God. Last year I even received an irate e-mail from a Christian evangelical correspondent who said that "Elie Wiesel is a heretic who dares to question God." But while our Christian brothers and sisters may be confused by the biblical tradition of challenging God, it is Wiesel’s insistence on the rightful place of the individual within the God-man relationship that allows for the possibility of intimacy within that relationship.

And I witnessed something on the plane ride home from Utah that perfectly captures the extent of Wiesel’s heavenly attachment. A senior producer of my TV show on TLC, "Shalom in the Home," who is a dear friend but utterly secular, accompanied us on the plane. Having never been bar mitzvahed, he agreed to put on tefillin for the first time. A brilliant former scientist who proudly affirms a Jewish identity but rejects Jewish ritual as "irrational," he smiled proudly as he thought of how he would one day tell his grandchildren that he had been bar mitzvahed, in the presence of Elie Wiesel, on a jet at 35,000 feet.

A short while later, we stopped in Toronto, where America’s No. 1 author was due to lecture at Hillel. A snag appeared in the schedule, since our pilots could not fly out of Toronto later than 9:30 p.m., but Wiesel’s lecture was to conclude only after 9. Through miraculous timing, Wiesel actually made the plane, rather than having to send us back to New York with his luggage. He rushed on smiling broadly, waited until we were up in the air, and then pulled my producer close. "Do you know why I was upset that I might miss the plane? It was because I would be separated from my tefillin, which are in my suitcase, and I never miss a day putting on my tefillin.

"In Auschwitz, there was a man in my block who traded in 10 portions of bread for a pair of tefillin that had been smuggled in. And we would all wake up at the crack of dawn to put on the tefillin. We didn’t even have time to say the Sh’ma, just the blessing itself. We knew we’d be beaten if we were caught. But we still never missed putting on the tefillin."

And as this great man told a story that sent shivers down both our spines, it suddenly occurred to me how the world Jewish community had always misunderstood its greatest living son. It treated Wiesel as a colossus because he was the voice of the six million dead, when really he was the flame of their living faith that not even the crematoria of Auschwitz could extinguish. Like the tefillin wrapped around his arm, Wiesel had tethered himself to God so tightly that not even SS truncheons could loosen the bond. He might be angry at God, but he could never live without Him.

On the Oprah show, where I appeared last week promoting "Shalom in the Home," the first question America’s most influential woman asked me was, "Do you know my friend Elie?" Yes, I knew her friend Elie, I told her. But aside from being our mutual friend, he was one of the few men I could honestly say enjoyed an intimate friendship with God.