Critical Essays The Theme of Faith


From the beginning, Elie Wiesel's work details the threshold of his adult awareness of Judaism, its history, and its significance to the devout. His emotional response to stories of past persecution contributes to his faith, which he values as a belief system rich with tradition and unique in its philosophy. A divisive issue between young Elie and Chlomo is the study of supernatural lore, a subset of Judaic wisdom that lies outside the realm of Chlomo's pragmatism. To Chlomo, the good Jew attends services, prays, rears a family according to biblical dictates, celebrates religious festivals, and reaches out to the needy, whatever their faith.

From age twelve onward, Elie deviates from his father's path by remaining in the synagogue after the others leave and conducting with Moshe the Beadle an intense questioning of the truths within a small segment of mystic lore. The emotional gravity of Elie's study unites with the early adolescent penchant for obsession, particularly of a topic as entrancing as the history of the Spanish Inquisition or the Babylonian Captivity. Moshe's mutterings strike a respondent chord in Elie as he ponders prophecy of the Messiah, "such snatches as you could hear told of the suffering of the divinity, of the Exile of Providence, who, according to the cabbala, awaits his deliverance in that of man." It comes as no surprise that Elie's personal test jars his youthful faith with demands and temptations to doubt because he lacks experience with evil.

When Moshe returns from his own testing in the Galician forest, his story seems incredible to Sighet's Jews, including Elie. Later, the test of faith that undermines Elie's belief in a merciful God is the first night at Birkenau and the immolation of infants in a fiery trench. The internal battlefield of Elie's conscience gives him no peace as atrocities become commonplace, including hangings before breakfast. The author's admission of weakness casts no doubt on his uprightness; rather, the back-and-forth debate that empties the core of faith from his heart proves his sincerity toward God, whom he perpetually reaches toward with fearful hands. The extreme realism of Elie's test of faith at Auschwitz portrays in miniature the widespread question of suffering that afflicts Europe's Jews during an era when no one is safe and no one can count on tomorrow. Although Elie omits fasting and forgets to say Kaddish for Akiba Drumer, the fact that Elie incubates the book for a decade and writes an original text of 800 pages proves that the explanation of faith and undeserved suffering is a subject that a teenage boy is poorly equipped to tackle.