Picture of two men looking at each other.
Elie Wiesel and Ariel Burger. Image courtesy of the author.

What Elie Wiesel Taught Me About the Book of Job

Elie Wiesel's relationship to the Book of Job was personal — and profound.

The Book of Job — dealing with the fundamental unfairness of the universe and the prospect of horrific undeserved suffering that has existed in every generation — has fascinated many thinkers over the years. One of the most recognizable of these was Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel who taught the book of decades and wrote about it extensively as well. Of his own experience with the book, he wrote this:

“For years, he [Job] would not leave me; he kept on haunting me. His file remained open, the questions unanswered.”

I had the privilege of knowing Professor Wiesel for 25 years and working alongside him for five. He was my teacher, mentor and friend. He knew undeserved suffering as thankfully few of us ever will. Here are some things he taught me about Job.

There Is No Answer to Suffering — But There Is Something Else

The suffering Job experiences at the hands of God and Satan (and, n.b. Wiesel holds God far more accountable than Satan for it — God is the one whose remark on Job’s piety provoked a response from Satan) is cruel and absurd. Yet Job never lapses into a nihilist ennui about the world. In fact, he does exactly the opposite. As soon as he is able, he stands taller, looks sharper, yells louder. He demands answers from no less than God himself. And, improbably, at the end of the book God appears in a whirlwind to Job and offers a blazing speech on divine power and the overwhelming nature of the cosmos:

Who is this who darkens counsel,

Speaking without knowledge?

Gird your loins like a man;

I will ask and you will inform Me.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?

Speak if you have understanding!

Job 38:2–4

God’s speech is overwhelming and it stuns Job into silence, but it doesn’t really answer Job’s charge.

Yet, for all that, it is a response. And a response goes a long way. This really mattered to Wiesel. There was no answer to the Holocaust. But it did deserve a response.

Why did God allow the destruction of 1.5 million Jewish children in the Holocaust? No one can answer that question. Some things just don’t have an answer. Nonetheless, the question can have a response: We can make sure it never happens to anyone else.

The Real Victims in Job

The Book of Job is wildly disturbing — and that is the point. Job’s suffering is enormous, and undeserved. It is the most radical form of unfairness. But Job isn’t even the person who suffers most in the book. Instead, it’s his children. Arguably even more innocent than their pious father, the children lose everything — they lose their lives. And unlike Job, they are not restored at the end of the book. They die simply to play a role in Satan’s bet with God that a righteous man will cease being righteous if his piety is not rewarded.

Elie Wiesel frequently connected the suffering of Job’s children with the suffering of all children in wars around the world. Job reminds us to heed the Bosnian children, Rwandan children, Kurdish children, Indonesian children, Arab and Israeli children, Somali children and countless others around the globe who have suffered in wars that were in no way of their own making.

Wiesel was also sensitive to the role of Job’s wife, a character often ridiculed and decried in Christian readings of the book. But she suffers just as much as he does, and she does it silently. His least favorite moment in the book was when Job rebuked his wife, who shared in his pain:

His wife said to him, “You still keep your integrity! Blaspheme God and die!”

But he said to her, “You talk as any shameless woman might talk! Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?” (Job 2:9–10)

After that rebuke, Job’s wife lapses into silence. We never hear of her again. Even at the end of the book, when Job’s wealth is restored and he is granted new children, we do not hear that he remarries. That’s because, says Wiesel, he is still married. She has been there all along, suffering alongside him and silent in the face of his brutal rebuke. She does not attack back. She keeps her own counsel. Wiesel writes of her: “…in a way, she is the only good person in the entire play.”

A Radical Book

The rabbis of the Talmud wondered if Job even existed. Some claimed he lived toward the beginning of time, in the days of the patriarchs or maybe Moses. But others thought he never existed at all. Poor Job, Elie Wiesel used to remark, so much suffering, and he’s not even real. 

Perhaps this timeless, once-upon-a-time atmosphere was necessary because the Book of Job challenges every teaching of the Bible — right from the beginning. God acts in ways we would never expect of the divine whose relationship with Israel is the primary theme of the Hebrew Bible. God is goaded into a bet with Satan. God looks on as Job is punished unfairly. Then, God comes down to earth to offer Job a longer conversation than is found with any other human being in the Bible. But perhaps the most radical part of the entire book comes at the very end:

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job.”

Job 42:7

Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, had advised Job that he must have sinned to deserve such punishment. In doing so, they upheld a typical biblical doctrine, that sin is punished in accordance with the sin. They were clearly purveyors of the doctrines of the Book of Deuteronomy. Yet here God calls them out for upholding orthodox biblical theology, and states that Job — who railed against God — was in fact right. In effect, what God is saying is this: Even if you quote the Bible, you’re wrong. It’s completely subversive, and necessary.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg explains Job this way: Traditional theology about reward and punishment for good and bad deeds is right most of the time, but not always. Just as Newtonian mechanics is right at moderate speeds, but not as we approach the speed of light, Job’s expression of Jewish theology is also right in times of extreme suffering. At those times, regular theology doesn’t cut it. And by canonizing the book, and in particular this line, the Bible authorizes such radical theological reversals.

Here is what Elie Wiesel wrote: “It is possible that Job kept his faith—and rebelled against it—at the same time. It is possible that, having reached the height of his despair and torment, he achieved something new: he showed us that faith is necessary to rebellion and, also, tha rebellion is possible within faith. There exists a time when the two are intertwined so as to strengthen one another instead of negating one another.”

Elie Wiesel’s Identification with Job

Professor Wiesel relates that right after the war, at liberation from Buchenwald, the American military and international aid agencies asked the orphans what they could get for them. He remembers that one girl asked for chocolate because she hadn’t had chocolate for three years and wanted to see if she remembered it correctly. Another boy asked for a sweater because he hadn’t been warm. And Elie Wiesel himself asked for a volume of Talmud, so he could return to his Jewish learning. Like Job, he had suffered, but he was not about to turn away from God — he expected answers.

Wiesel’s view of Job was radically changed in the years following the war when he was living at an orphanage in France, standing outside and teaching the book to some of the other children. A mysterious wandering scholar, who looked much like a vagabond and always kept his true name a secret, paused to listen and then interrupted the lecture, saying Wiesel was getting it all wrong. Eventually, this mysterious figure, a genius and expert on everything from mathematics to Talmud, who was known only to his pupils (including also Emmanuel Levinas) as Shushani (meaning “person from Shushan”), became his teacher and mentor. 

From there, Elie Wiesel didn’t study Job just with Shushani, but also through the lens of all the greats who have commented on the book over the centuries. He read it with and through the eyes of the talmudic rabbis, Hasidic masters, Christian liberation theologians, the Bhagavad Gita. He struggled with it always. It was probably the text he struggled with most except for one — the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.

Indeed, Wiesel drew a powerful parallel between Isaac, the beloved son that Abraham would have willingly slaughtered at God’s command, and Job. Both of them lived a long life, but both of them ended their lives zaken usva yamim, old and saturated with years. Both, Wiesel writes, had had enough: “When death came, they allowed it to carry them without regret.”

Like Job, Wiesel never stopped seeking answers. Never stopped writing. Never stopped speaking. I think, too, there is something of Elie Wiesel’s own life experience when he writes that Job is not about unjust suffering, but rather about the emotional response to that suffering. He says: “it is a story—a powerful story—about fear and anguish.” Emotions he knew all too well.

Job Offers No Simple answers

The Book of Job solves no problems. It gives no answers. It is a one long, poetic attempt to grapple with what ails many of us — all of us. As Wiesel writes:

“The conclusion of the story leaves us dissatisfied. Our thirst has not been quenched. After reading the book, we know as much about Job as we did before—but nothing more. We understand God’s ways as much—or as little—as before: no less but no more. We still fail to comprehend the behavior of any of the character in the cast: God’s apparent indifference to job’s [sic] suffering, Job’s apparent resignation when he yields to God’s logic, his friends’ deceptive compassion for his trials… What is this book about? Suffering? Faith? Rebellion? Justice? The perversion of ideas? The decline of families?”

There are no definitive answers to these questions, Wiesel firmly believed. But it is imperative to grapple with them anyway — indeed, especially for that reason. That is why he taught the book over and over again. That is why he read it with other great works of literature, and with generations of students. That is why he kept it by his side. Because the only real answer to Job is to keep wrestling with him.

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