Learning about the life and work of Elie Wiesel can truly be transformational. As a man, he was one of the most enlightening thinkers responding to and expressing moral outrage to those who would perpetuate human rights abuses the world over. As a writer, he captivated readers with his blunt, yet delicate, prose about the depths of human depravity. His insights into the nature of the Holocaust changed the perception of the event for millions of people who might not have known about it otherwise. His testimony to the horrors of fascism and dehumanization was always tempered by the outlook that humanity is better than its base instinct allows it to be. Tolerance, pluralism, truth: these were the qualities that most interested Wiesel, and the world is much poorer since his recent passing.
Yet, one aspect of Wiesel that is less tangible to grasp is who he was on an interpersonal level. While we have plenty of documentary evidence to show that he was a compassionate theorist and an extraordinary man of letters, the man behind the persona is less transparent. For all intents and purposes, by the end of his life, Wiesel was a public figure akin to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi. He was a soul whose ideas moved politicians, theologians, entertainers, and citizens alike. Yet, here was also a man who suffered through so much, who somehow had the strength to radiate light with every endeavor. How was this possible? For admirers and newcomers alike, this question is as intriguing as it is challenging; how much do we want to know personally about our heroes?
In Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger displays the side of Wiesel that he knew, the Wiesel that is recognized as a once-in-a-lifetime-scholar and a spiritual innovator. Burger, a compassionate heart, fiery soul, and sharp religious mind in his own right, presents a personal side of Wiesel that we normally didn’t see. This is the humane Wiesel, the Wiesel who nurtured students and who shook the foundations to demand more decency in society. On a personal level, I was thrilled to learn that Rabbi Burger wrote this book because I knew it would show the true Wiesel. And indeed, more important than anything I can say about Rabbi Burger, Elie Wiesel’s endorsement rings loud and clear:
“I [Elie Wiesel] have known Ariel for almost a quarter-century. He is gifted as a scholar, artist, humanist, and leader. I trust him and choose him to be my doctoral student and teaching fellow at Boston University, where he excelled in both roles. The blend of knowledge and natural teaching ability That he embodies is unique. Ariel’s distinctive presence, combining creativity, insight and sensitivity with clarity of thought, makes him a natural teacher and leader, one who can help continue my work.”
Besides these plaudits, the glowing quotes from luminaries like my teacher Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg and Dr. Parker Palmer only lend themselves to the deft and serious portrayal of Wiesel that Burger renders throughout the book.
And certainly, Rabbi Burger would know Wiesel better than most people. Rabbi Burger was a close student of Wiesel’s, even serving as his teaching assistant for five years at Boston University. The classroom was, perhaps, the most intimate platform for Wiesel’s brand of transformative leadership. Burger describes this access to Wiesel’s pedagogical deftness as “A rare thing… Over the years, I saw hundreds of students transformed.”
Consider this classroom interaction that Berger describes in a moving passage in the book:
“Professor, what kept you going after the Holocaust? How did you not give up?’ Professor Wiesel [answered]: ‘Learning. Before the war, I was studying a page of Talmud, and my studies were interrupted. After the war, when I arrived at the orphanage in France, my first request was for that same volume so that I could continue my studies from the same page, the same line, the same spot where I had left off. Learning saved me.”
Witness is not a book written from the perspective of a distant scholar: Indeed, Burger notes that, “This book is based on twenty-five years’ worth of journal entries, five years of classroom notes, and the interviews with Elie Wiesel’s students from all over the world.” This essential book allows readers to gain a closer look at Elie Wiesel as a scholar, a counselor, and a thinker. We all know Wiesel the Activist who spent his life working for people suffering everywhere to protest injustice and oppression and to bear “witness,” but there are other more personal dimensions to this story as well. Now we can see Wiesel the Soul. May we continue to be inspired by the life and teachings of Elie Wiesel. We owe Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger our gratitude for this special opportunity.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.
The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.