Protest or Process: Theodicy Responses to Elie Wiesel's the Trial of God

Article excerpt

I lived as a Jew, and it is as a Jew that I shall die--and it is as a Jew that, with my last breath, I shall shout my protest to God! And because the end is near, I shall shout louder! Because the end is near, I'll tell Him that He's more guilty than ever!

--Berish, 156

We are immortal. And rich. The forest is ours. The rivers. The stars--they shine brighter. And life is calling us, as we call life. Nothing frightens us, nothing leaves us indifferent; we live at the center of the world; we are the center of the world.

--Hanna, 152

WHEREAS John Milton has his speaker in Paradise Lost attempt "to justify the ways of God to men" (1:26), Elie Wiesel, in The Trial of God, has the devil do so (161). As a result, Wiesel significantly thickens the theodicy discussion. The need to justify God, that is, the need to do theodicy (formed from the Greek theo meaning god and dike meaning justice), arises from the seeming imbalance of 1) God's goodness, 2) God's power, and 3) the reality of evil. Responses to this imbalance offer ways to modify traditional understandings of one (or more) of these tenets. But changing any of these tenets must be done delicately. If one doing theodicy contends that God is not perfectly good or that God is not all-powerful, she challenges believers' understandings of God. On the other hand, if she attempts to explain the necessity of evil (for human freedom or other reasons), she risks insulting victims of intense evils and perpetuating (now justified) evil.

It is likely in part due to these dangers that Wiesel avoids explicit theological discussions. "I don't like the word 'theologian,'" he explains; "I find it disturbing" (qtd. in Abrahamson 217). As such, Wiesel prefers to speak to God rather than about God; and so diverse, inconclusive perspectives characterize much of his literature. Lawrence Langer suggests that "Wiesel's literary work is a sustained dramatization of counterpositions, a long monologue disguised as a series of dialogues, revealing his own divided self" (40). The Trial of God is complex and contradictory; it provides no clear answers and raises nearly impossible questions, leaving readers with the responsibility of trying to answer those questions for themselves.

Set in the seventeenth-century Ukrainian village of Shamgorod after the murder of all but two Jews, The Trial of God tells the story of the two Jewish survivors, three visiting Jewish minstrels, a loyal Christian servant named Maria, an ineffective priest, and the devil. Berish, an innkeeper, and his daughter Hanna have survived a recent pogrom (the organized mass murder of Jews in the village) but have witnessed the murder of their family and friends and suffered terribly: Hanna was raped repeatedly while Berish was forced to watch helplessly. So when the minstrels Mendel, Avremel, and Yankel arrive to perform a cheerful play for the Jewish festival of Purim, Berish understandably recommends putting God on trial instead. Berish volunteers for the role of prosecutor and the minstrels agree to play judges, with Mendel, the wisest among them, acting as head judge. Sam, who eventually reveals himself as Satan, appears just in time to serve as an attorney for God's defense. But as Sam develops a nuanced theodicy, he intentionally opens the characters to a second pogrom.

David Blumenthal calls the play "a modern rereading of the Book of Job" (250), a book with varying theodicies and difficult conclusions. Robert McAfee Brown emphasizes the play's relationship to Wiesel's life. As a boy of fifteen in Auschwitz, during a trial conducted by three Jewish scholars, Wiesel witnessed the condemnation of God for crimes against humanity. After the trial, they said evening prayers (vii). Brown then calls Berish "a strange affirmer" of God, but he celebrates such affirmation when it leads to an ethical response to evil (xvi-xviii). Matthew Fox makes the need for an ethical response explicit in his essay "The Trial of God, The Trial of Us. …