The presence and absence of god in literature and arts only became a matter of study beginning with the 20th century, when technology and science replaced the unquestionable authority of God, but also, when man got the power to hurt so deeply his fellow human that all pillars faith began to broke. The World War I and the World War II in particular, with all it meant, destroyed the idea that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and merciful in the souls of those who had to experience it. This is why writers and artists who lived through the wars excluded God from their works, or transmitted to their readers, the doubts and questions regarding God’s purpose and even His existence.
Particularly for writers of Jewish origins who survived the Holocaust, this question pervades their works because they had to come at odds with the shock that God did not help them during the time of terror, despite their faith and their obedience to His commands. One of the Jew writers who articulate in his works the problem of God’s absence is Elie Wiesel, whose award winning book Night represents a memoire of his experiences during the Holocaust as a teenager. Based on this book, and on critical reviews of it, as well as on other theoretical works on this topic, the present paper tries to demonstrate that, although, in face of atrocities such as the Holocaust, even the most religious people will turn away from God, their rejection does not mean loss of faith in God, but rather, it represents a rebellion against him and against His absence.
Even though contemporary literature and arts is ‘secularized’, in that it does not represent a testimony of the author’s faith any longer, God is not completely absent from works of art today, even though references to Him are mostly discrete and unconscious. Writers and artists’ belief in God is not completely absent, because, as George Steiner argues, “any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence”(3). In other words, the author does not believe that God exists in our culture because it remained anchored in our language but rather, that the capacity to create art and literature depends on the possibility of God’s existence. It is a ‘necessary possibility’, Steiner argues (4).
Therefore, literature and arts do question God, but in order to question Him, the possibility of His existence must be there. Even rejecting God means that one must first consider His existence, for if there would not be the possibility of God, there would not be any need to reject, to doubt, to declare His absence, or his presence. Much of the contemporary literature and arts deals with the presence and the absence of God, proving that God is still very much an actual subject, even though ‘God discourse’ has changed over the past centuries from a unanimous and unquestionable acceptance of his presence, to a rhetoric of doubt, rejection, rebellion or negation.
In most of such works, the result is already there, and the author, or the artist, only presents it to the readers, or let it transpire from his works. But, in Elie Wiesel’s Night, we have the chance to see the process developing before our eyes. Elie Wiesel’s novel is to a great extent, a memoir of his own experiences during the Holocaust, though he placed distance between himself and the events presented in the book by imagining Eliezer, a young boy who stuies the Torah and has a strong faith in God, but who will come to reject God due to the atrocities he has to endure. Eliezer first turns his head to God with hope, believing that he will help His people, but when no help comes, despite the fervent faith of the Jewish people, and when he sees innocents, much like himself and his father, being tormented beyond imagination, he begins to doubt God, finally rejecting him entirely. This is a long process which starts when Eliezer. He says, “For the first time I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?”(31). Thus, this point marks a turn in Eliezer’s life, a moment when he began to question the God he had taken for granted. Nevertheless, even though he rejects God, he does not reject His existence; he does no question whether or not he should believe in God, but rather, whether or not he should worship Him. This however does not mean that Eliezer gave up the Jewish faith either. Rather, it means that it came to a point where he needed to start putting questions.
The fact that Eliezer began questioning his religion means that he moved from the stage of passive acceptance of God’s presence to an active search of God. This is what separates the ordinary believer from the theologian and from the philosopher. Eliezer’s questioning is actually a search for a new identity, after the old one was destroyed by the Nazis because, as Ted Estess explains, “after the manner of Job, Eliezer seeks to understand himself by questioning God” (5). According to the author, Wiesel’s inability to find an answer outside leads him to turn to self. His need to find answers within is articulated from the beginning of the novel by his teacher (Wiesel 3) and is further accentuated by the fact that he remained “alone-terribly alone in a world without God and without man” (Wiesel 65). Therefore, for Eliezer, God has abandoned the world, so it is only natural that man is also entitled to abandon God. While he does not find the answers he seeks, Eliezer’s endless sufferings make him rebel against God. Rather than ceasing to believe in God, Eliezer becomes angry at him and for his cruelty and his absence.
Eliezer’s rebellion against God is first and foremost determined by his failure to understand His reasons. Why would God torment His people this way, if He were a god of love and mercy? In analyzing Eliezer’s rebellion against God, Berenbaum (17) explains that Eliezer’s dilemma could not be solved by traditional Jewish theology, because none of the theological explanations for the Holocaust were believable: it is too hard to imagine that God would ever give such a horrible test to His people. This makes him turn away from traditional theology to religious rebellion, which is manifested, for example, when he decides to eat on Yom Kipur, a day when the Jews observe fasting, as an act of protest against God’s silence. However, what he feels is not satisfaction for having defied God, but rather, a void which, according to Berenbaum, signifies Eliezel’s separation with god, and the loneliness he subsequently feels. Thus, in the author’s words, “in a sense, the entire corpus of Wiesel’s writings is an attempt to confront absence, to describe the beauty that preceded it, the pain of separation, the yearning for return, and the failure of all efforts to return”(Berenbaum 20). Therefore, in the author’s opinion, this separation of God s painful for Wiesel, because it signifies the death of all hope. However, other researchers believe question the rhetoric of God’s absence in Wiesel’s works.
One scene which is both powerful and controversial is the one n which a little boy is hanged after having been accused of complotting against the Nazis. The boy did not die instantly, but suffered a slow death over a period of half an hour, while the prisoners were forced to watch him. At this point, Eliezel expresses his most powerful rejection of God, when, to the question “where is God” he answers: “here He is-He is hanging here on this gallows…” (Wiesel 62). This answer is most often and easiest interpreted as the moment when Eliezel’s rejection of God was completed: for him, god died together with that boy, and with his own boyish innocence. However, there are some scholars who have a different view of this passage, whch also changes entirely the way one interprets Eliezel’s religious transformation. Thus, according to Sandu Frunza(100), the answer signifies God’s presence rather than his absence, or the fact that God shares the suffering of the boy, and the sufferings of His people. Thus, as the author argues, Night is not a story about God’s death, his absence or his silence, but a story about the kind of evilness that people are capable of. The author concludes this argument by declaring that “where man as man is absent, neither God can be perceived as presence” ( Frunza 100). This means that, when the human being is dehumanized completely, his perception of God also disappears. In order for God to be present in the world, the man also must act ethically and responsibly towards his fellow men, and to be human. When the innocent boy died on the gallows that day, humanity died with him, and implicitly God.
Regardless of the way one interprets Wiesel’s work, what is clear is that he did not lose his interest in God, or that he still doubts whether he is present or not. His novels, as the novels and art of other artists who passed through a similar experience of having to confront God’s absence, are centered on God and are religious to a great extent. God may have lost the support of these artists, but they certainly continue to look for Him. According to Steiner, this is everything that literature and arts need. He argues that, “it is only when the question of the existence or non- existence if God will have lost all actuality….that we shall inhabit a scientific-secular world (230). Therefore, as long as writers and artists still doubt God, he is not absent from their souls, even though they might feel that he is absent from the world. And as long as they still think, write and produce artworks that only allude to God, or where God is felt in any form, He will not become obsolete.
- Berenbaum, Michael. Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel.2nd ed. West Orange, N.J.: Behram House. 1994. Print.
- Estess, Ted. “Elie Wiesel and the Drama of Interrogation”. Night-Elie Wiesel. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing. 2010. Web.
- Frunza, Sandu. “Ethics, Religion and Memory in Elie Wiesel’s Night”. Journal of Religions and Ideologies. 9.26 (2010):94-113.
- Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1991. Print. Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York” Bantam. 1982. Print.