Wise Men and Their Tales
(New York: Schocken Books, 2003) 337 pp., $26 (hardcover)
Elie Wiesel is older, his subjects have darker tones and his stories are more introspective. In this volume, a collection of portraits of biblical, talmudic and hasidic masters, his focus is on the midrashim, that vast body of little known, fascinating, sometimes bizarre, and frequently contradictory legends of the Hebrew Bible that were not included in the biblical canon—and for good reason. While the Bible usually offers a straightforward storyline, and its style has a professional writer’s finish, many midrashim read like first drafts—confusing and rough. Their combinations and recombinations of biblical personalities and episodes often strain credulity, and they reproduce the exaggerations and colorful hearsay of folktales, apparently without much checking of sources. At its best, the Bible is history and its principal characters are pulsing with life and offer verisimilitude. The reader can feel that he or she is right there, and the men and women are flesh and blood. However, when a midrash soars, it is usually a fantasy.
For instance, according to a midrash cited by Wiesel, Jethro is a friend of the Jews long before Moses escapes from Egypt to Midian and marries one of his daughters, Zipporah. Jethro served as an adviser to the Pharaoh, along with Balaam the magician and Job of multiple misfortune. Balaam suggested rejecting the Hebrews’ request to let them return to their Promised Land, and God punished him with death. Job kept silent, and thus earned the terrible fate the Bible described in detail. Only the righteous Jethro sided with the Hebrews, though he had to flee Egypt to save his life.
Wiesel delights in further complicating the midrashic tales he discusses along with parts of the biblical narrative. He expresses doubts about God’s wisdom and justice that wouldn’t be found in the Bible. He both defends and damns Esau, blames and forgives High Priest Aaron for his role in the episode with the Golden Calf, and understands and questions God for killing two of Aaron’s sons and deputies (Nadab and Abihu) for an obscure transgression. The tales Wiesel presents in this volume are freighted with contradictions and doubts, and their heroes come out looking flawed, even deeply flawed.
A traditional storyteller, Wiesel always offers a conclusion, even a punch line, and he is especially fond of quoting Rashi of Troyes, the 11th-century prince of Bible commentators, who was humble enough and honest enough to use the phrase “I don’t know” and who is Wiesel’s exemplar from the days when he was a student in a traditional cheder (a Hebrew school for young children) in the Carpathian mountains. “What does Rashi say?” his teachers, looking for a definitive answer, often asked in those days, and from time to time they had to make do with the sage’s uncertainty. Wiesel’s preface celebrating Rashi is perhaps the best portrait in the book. It combines the storyteller’s twists and turns with the classic clarity of thought that Rashi excelled in.
In this volume Wiesel proves himself a post-Joycean writer who is not afraid to get lost in his meandering streams of consciousness. The destination is uncertain and keeps changing along the way, but at the end of the day he rewards the weary traveler with a great story.
He gives glimpses of the time before the biblical redactors selected the legends for inclusion in the canon, set up the storyline, delineated the characters of their heroes and villains, and created a well-defined set of conclusions to instruct the reader. There is little that is didactic or moralistic about this latest volume on Wiesel’s interpretation of the three worlds—biblical, talmudic and hasidic—where he feels at home. Even his beloved hasidic rebbes (charismatic rabbis) quarrel needlessly and shamefully. After discoursing on the various ugly incidents in the war of words between the followers of the rebbe of Zanz and of the rebbe of Sadigur (Wiesel calls the two Eastern European communities “kingdoms”), Wiesel writes: “I prefer to remember Zanz not as a center of warfare but as a center of ahavat Yisrael [love of the people of Israel] and a source of purity.” A non sequitur? Yes, but that is our storyteller, at times slippery, at times devious, at times pious—and a master of the tale.
Wiesel surprises the reader by proposing 041to defend Ishmael and his nephew Esau, first characterizing them as from within “the family of Israel itself.” But after calling Sarah “a possible villain” for the banishment of Ishmael and identifying Rebecca as “responsible” for the deceit of her husband Isaac, Wiesel presents his reason why Ishmael and Esau were rightly rejected as standard-bearers of the new faith and the covenant with the One God: Their descendents rejected the Torah that the Almighty offered them; thus they rejected the chance to become full-fledged Jews. The people of Israel were the only ones that accepted the Torah. Wiesel also gives credence to Rashi’s seldom-cited suggestion that after Sarah’s death, Abraham remarried Hagar, mother of Ishmael and formerly Sarah’s servant, even though in the Bible that second wife is named Keturah.
Wiesel seems free of anger and reproach. He sees the power of compassion working through all the wrenching conflicts of the Jewish past, and he prescribes love as the basis for a solution for those of today. He does not insist that his versions of the three worlds he discusses are the truth and nothing but the truth. He thinks, rethinks and even changes his mind before reaching the conclusion that the reader is eagerly waiting for. Relying on his deep, lifelong study of the subject matter, he gives new, personal spins to stories we think we know and digs up obscure tales worth pondering. He writes about his cast of characters as if he had met each of them and heard them out. (A modest man, he does not make such a claim but his limpid prose conveys a high degree of familiarity, a tribute to his stylistic skills.) He instructs and entertains, interprets the biblical text in the manner of free association and constructs an alternative—sometimes plausible, sometimes not. The judgment of his truth is up to the reader to determine.
Wise Men and Their Tales