Saturday, December 25, 2010

Elie Weisel and Faith

I've been in lecture mode all day long. I'm not sure why that is, I'm not normally a lecture-y person unless I'm talking about writing. Just try to get me to shut up once I've started. Maybe it's the introspection I'm happily all caught up in. Maybe it's just Wednesday. I have no idea what day it is. At any rate, I read an essay by Elie Weizel (eelee vi-zehl) today. "Yom Kippur: The Day Without Forgiveness."

It's set in Auschwitz and it's a true story. Or as true as memory makes things. Once you get past the horror of the holocaust and actually read the message, it makes you think. This isn't about how horrible concentration camps were, this is about how beautiful and how horrible faith is. Here's a man in the midst of hell, fifteen years old at the time, learning what faith truly is. Weisel was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 where his mother and sister were killed. He was moved to Buchenwald with his father where they worked as slaves under conditions that eventually killed his father.

His faith in God was tested in ways most people can't even begin to imagine. During such testing people do one of three things, get angry with God, deny God, or get closer to God. There really aren't any other options.

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement. The day where Jews fast and pray. Legend has it that the dead will rise from their graves and pray with living on Yom Kippur. Before this Yom Kippur, Weisel's friend Pinhas, a rabbi teacher before the Nazis came, was strong in his faith in God as loving and just. His faith gave him strength. The day before he decided that he would not fast on Yom Kippur, to defy God--deny God. In the end he fasted, not from obedience, but from defiance. He died a few weeks later, selected for it by the Nazis. He asked Weisel to say the Kaddish after his death, not to praise, by to defy.

He took the tone he always used when he explained a passage in the Talmud to me: "You do not see the heart of the matter. Here and now, the only way to accuse him is by praising him." And he went, laughing, to his death. This sums up the essay, or at least what it means, I think.

Pinhas never lost his belief in God, his faith that God was there and was, well, God. He lost his faith that God was just. He defied God's righteousness, question his justice. He didn't ask where God was, he asked where his mercy was.

Something I've heard is that there are no atheists on the battlefield. When a person is faced with a moment of trauma, a time of life and death where circumstances beyond personal control decides fate, that person will turn to a deity for succor. Or so the saying goes. Battles, unlike the concentration camps, are not endless despair. There is reprieve and there is the opportunity to fight back with a measure of success. The enemy may take you down, but you won't go alone. In the camps there is no fighting because to fight is to die without cost to the enemy beyond the negligible price of a bullet. It's funny how the value of living completely changes when one becomes a combatant in a war. Maybe it's not the value of living so much as the value of dying goes up.

In moments of crisis, or moments of need--fleeting moments--we have the faith in whatever to move mountains. We believe that God will do whatever it is we believe that God does. But what happens when we roll these moments together until their endless and we can't tell one from another? If one reads the book of Job in the bible, it paints a different picture of faith. A man is tested sorely, beyond reason, and still he clings to his love of God, not merely his faith in God's justice and love, but to his love of God. Pinhas--and Weisel himself--are tested as sorely. Pinhas clings to his love of God for a long time, and then it became too much. Some would deny that God exists in this moment. Pinhas never did that, he never really lost his faith, but it changed into something different. He didn't use his faith and his praise to glorify his God, he used it to indict his God.

The ultimate irony, from that standpoint, is that he went to his death praising God with full obedience, and he did so to defy God. See, God, I praise you and I keep your law, and this is what your justice is, death in a gas chamber after years of slavery and starvation.

"Yes, I fasted. Like the others. But not for the same reasons. Not out of obedience, but out of defiance. Before the war, you see, some Jews rebelled agains the divine will by going to restaurants on the Day of Atonement; here, it is by observing the fast that we can make our indignation heard."

I think of my own faith or lack thereof and the dispair that I've felt. It's nothing like the suffering Weisel went through, but someplace inside I was touched in a way. I was born a Christian to a Catholic and an atheist. It didn't really change other than a catholic conversion to protestantism. But I was never really a Christain, not like Weisel was a Jew. The belief was there because it was something that I should believe, not because of any particular strength of conviction on my part.

When I went through my suffering, I questioned God as well. I begged and pleaded, crying out to a Savior to have mercy. To do something. Weisel's Pinhas didn't believe that God was deaf or blind to suffering. I did, I believed the savior was a farce, after all, there was no salvation, no justice, no mercy. I was tested, or rather my faith was. For me, this notion of a Christian God and all of the trappings is just that, a notion. Pinhas used his obedience to indict God's righteousness. I could no longer deny the rationality available in the Bible: God is a fairy tale.

So I have to think now, about faith and what it is. Where this belief comes from and why it's sometimes stronger than other times. Deny, defy, or love? With another person, someone you can theoretically reason with, it's easy to see the right path. With a deity, though? You can't reason with something that does not reason back, you can't see the right path because the paths all exist entirely from belief.

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