Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, by Ariel Burger
As I immersed myself in the pages of this book, I couldn’t help constantly thinking that this is exactly the right book for the present moment. Both for all of us together and for me personally, the lessons contained within are urgent ones.
Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom is a series of recollections shared by rabbi and educator Ariel Burger, who first met Elie Wiesel, z”l, as a teenager and later served as his teaching assistant while working toward a Ph.D. at Boston University. Witness weaves conversations between students and teacher with stories from philosophical and Jewish literature, personal reflections with memories of world events.
I felt as if I got to know both subject and author in this memoir. Witness offers an especially intimate window into the person Wiesel was, underneath his status as a moral icon. I particularly enjoyed learning of his love for coffee and chocolate, loves to which I can relate. And I became a fellow traveler with Burger through his memories, asking his questions as my own.
But it’s the lessons themselves that are sorely needed today. Burger frames seven themes for Wiesel’s teachings (memory, otherness, faith and doubt, madness and rebellion, activism, beyond words, and witness), and each contains truths for right now. Specifically, I write this review in the wake of two back-to-back gun-violence massacres, as well as in the midst of a crisis surrounding the treatment of immigrants––not to mention the domestic and worldwide intensification of nativism, of racist violence, of climate collapse, and of a general breakdown in human solidarity.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and disillusioned (I often do), but Wiesel’s lessons give us both solace and a charge: we must bear witness to suffering, we must speak out, we must hold our language accountable, and we must act on behalf of our neighbors. We must call out evil when we see it.
“As we have seen, to turn away from reality, to pretend that evil is not evil, has one result: to empower evil. And yet, if we always look into the abyss, we will be tempted by despair. Hope is a choice, and it is a gift we give to one another. It can be absurd. It does not rely on facts. It is simply a choice. Once you make that choice, to create hope, then you can look at evil without flinching, without falling. And this is the first step to fighting it, to protesting it.”
Dave [a student] says, “What should we tell the others, those outside this classroom?”
Professor Wiesel opens his hands in a pensive gesture. “Tell them we can do so much more. And since we can, we must.”
As for me, I am encountering Witness at precisely the time I am wrestling personally with many of the questions Burger asks of himself in the book. What is my role in all this, as a Jew, as a rabbi, as a citizen, as a human being? Can education really change the world? Do I have to be marching on the frontlines to be an activist? How will I practice what I literally preach? Entering alongside Burger into these struggles is comforting and empowering. I will return often.
If I had to pick one thing to critique negatively, it’s that some of the anecdotes appear in multiple spots. This made the book feel somewhat repetitive at times––but, then again, revisiting these moments through varying lenses offers new insight and new questions. In no way should this dissuade anyone from reading.
Witness is not a book to be read quickly, but one to engage deliberately and reflectively. And it is indeed worthy of all our deliberation and reflection. I cannot recommend Witness highly enough. Its lessons are the lessons for now.
Shameless plug time…
For those in the New York area, Ariel Burger will be speaking and signing copies of Witness at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington at 7:30pm on Thursday, November 7, 2019. Mark your calendars now; registration via the synagogue website will open in October.
Gratitude to the Jewish Book Council for their partnership on this event, as well as for introducing me to Witness and to Ariel Burger.