A Variety Of Perspectives On Elie Wiesel

Editor of Tikkun Magazine, Rabbi Michael Lerner comments on the life of Elie Wiesel.

Elie Wiesel was an important leader of the section of the Jewish world which believes that the highest, perhaps the only, commandment left to observe after the Holocaust is “don’t forget what happened to us Jews.”

He used his growing fame in good ways at times, bringing attention to the suffering of other peoples. His attention to the Holocaust and his ability to educate large numbers of people to the suffering of the Jewish people, was a valuable contribution–and helped make clear to people around the world that the Jewish people should never again be powerless to defend itself against those who choose to make our entire people into their enemies. Yet it is important to realize that there are good ways to protect our people and bad ways–and that was not a distinction Wiesel helped people make. He never asked why Jews should have a Holocaust museum on the national mall in D.C. before there was a museum about US enslavement of African or US genocide of Native Americans.

Indeed, Wiesel, though receiving universal fame and honors. was no prophet nor someone who really understood the Jewish prophetic tradition. A prophet doesn’t only challenge the errors of other peoples, s/he challenges the distortions and faults of their own people or nation. Wiesel was largely silent about the War in Vietnam, and more importantly, the oppression of the Palestinian people. He was originally a member of the editorial board of Tikkun Magazine, then resigned because, as he put it, “Jews should not publicly critique other Jews” (in our case, criticizing both the Jewish neo-cons at Commentary Magazine who supported defunding programs for the poor and blamed African Americans for their own oppression because of some alleged distorting culture of poverty” and the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (though we were also critical of those in the Palestinian world who launched terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians). He apparently never took seriously the Torah’s command to “love the stranger/the Other” when it came to his own people, the Jews, and our obligations to others. In this way, he severely tainted his legacy.

Yet there were many good things he did as well, e.g. in challenging publicly President Reagan’s decision to visit and honor the cemetery in Germany called Bitburg where Nazi fighters were buried, and in insisting that the world had some obligation to stop the blood bath in the Balkans in the 1990s. So we at Tikkun honor the good in him even as we reject the lionizing of him that accompanied him throughout his life, itself largely a reflection of the guilt the world felt at its own failures to stop the Holocaust and stand up soon enough against the racist fascists whose genocidal intentions were evident and broadcast to anyone who would listen.

Like many post-Holocaust writers, Elie Wiesel wrote eloquently about his inability to believe in God, even though in his later life he became a member of an orthodox synagogue. Many of these authors eventually became blind supporters of the policies of the State of Israel – believing that it would be a betrayal of the 6 million who died to cast doubt on the righteousness of the state that housed so many of the survivors. In my view, this attitude became the foundation for Jewish idolatry: the worship of the State of Israel that many Tikkun authors began to explicate in our earliest years as the voice of progressive Jews and our non-Jewish allies. Yet it is hard not to be moved by the pain of our people, though we are not the only people with a legacy of pain, and pain does not necessarily generate wisdom. But to understand more fully what is enduring and valuable in the legacy of Elie Wiesel, we strongly recommend a book by Michael Bernebaum: Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust and the Children of Israel published by Behrman House 1994.

We at Tikkun bless his memory, but also acknowledge his limitations (as you can see by reading the range of responses to his death (below). But who among us does not have limitations of various sorts? So it is appropriate to honor the good, even as we refuse to push out of our mind the limitations of the consciousness he helped popularize. —Rabbi Michael Lerner

Below is some of what others are writing about him. None of these articles appeared in Tikkun, and our editorial staff would have been unlikely to choose many of them for publication. But they give you some idea of the range of responses that have been made to Wiesel’s life and/or death.


  1. A conman.........What happened to his tattoo?

  2. I am surprised that you censored my comment on Wiesel.
    He was a proven conman.
    Google it.

  3. anyone who calls what happened here in the 1840s a famine, is a holocaust denier.