Wiesel: Yes, we really did put God on trial

By Jenni Frazer, September 19, 2008
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The story that rabbis in Auschwitz once decided to put God on trial - and found him guilty - has frequently been assumed to be apocryphal.

But on Monday night, the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel startled his audience at a Holocaust Educational Trust appeal dinner in London when he declared: "I was there when God was put on trial."

This week rabbis and academics raised questions over whether such an event ever actually happened - although many agreed that it had a high degree of plausibility.

But when the JC put their doubts to Mr Wiesel on Wednesday, he replied: "Why should they know what happened? I was the only one there. It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty'. It means ‘He owes us something'. Then we went to pray."

Two of those questioning the story, Rabbi Jonathan Romain and Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, were advisers to the recent BBC2 film God on Trial, which staged the philosophical debate in Auschwitz.

"I don't know that it ever happened," Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok said. "I always thought of it as a received story, and I certainly couldn't say definitively that it happened in the camps. But it could have, and it is such a moving story that I think it should have happened."

Rabbi Romain described the story as "a strong legend. We can't prove that it happened; but even if it isn't true, it has truth in it. It is an utterly plausible mystery."

Jerusalem scholar Esther Farbstein, author of Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust, was asked if there is any record of God being put on trial in Auschwitz. Mrs Farbstein said flatly: "No." But she added: "There is no question that individuals did put God on trial in their minds, so it is quite plausible that people did have this discussion. But I think it's a story, because I have never seen such a document testifying to such a trial."

Robert Jan Van Pelt, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who formed part of Professor Deborah Lipstadt's defence team in the libel case brought by David Irving, said the suggestion of a trial in Auschwitz was "a real problem. Historians ask for material and eye-witness evidence. In this case we have no material evidence whatsoever, but [the story] has become part of the lore of Auschwitz. And 95 per cent of witnesses from Auschwitz were killed, and of those who survived, very few are now alive.

"I think it could have happened. Why not? Besides, it doesn't matter what three people did in the corner of an Auschwitz barracks. What is important is the way the story resonates with us."

Mr Wiesel, 80, made the story the subject of a 1977 play, The Trial of God, although he did not set it during the Holocaust - his play takes place during Purim in 1649. The story is the subject of a famous midrash, or biblical commentary. Many people have assumed that the story was a way for those of faith to try to make sense of the Holocaust.

 

    Last updated: 9:53am, September 22 2008

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    Joe

    Thu, 09/18/2008 - 21:50

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    The story also occurs in 19th Century Russia, when Jews were starving because the trains bringing grain couldn't get through to certain areas. The Beth Din ruled that G-d had violated the covenant because these Jews were genuine believers and observers and yet they were being cast away. The story ends by the first train getting through and the people being saved.

    The concept of G-d as well as man being held accountable for keeping the terms of the covenant resonates throughout the millennia of difficulties.Should the Giver of the Law not perform justice?