Ethics, Religion and Memory in Elie Wiesel's Night

By Frunza, Sandu | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Ethics, Religion and Memory in Elie Wiesel's Night


Frunza, Sandu, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Abstract: In this paper I show that, from a philosophical perspective, in Elie Wiesel's work in general and in Night in particular, the relation between ethics and religion is based on complementarity. In order to achieve this, I have analysed the way in which memory is shown as an invitation to participation in a common set of meanings, values and actions. What I deem most significant is the way in which the memory of the Holocaust is constituted as a medium of action and of communion among humans in an act of mutual responsibility. Through this, the memory of the Holocaust obliges us to assume an ethics of responsibility and of action that rules out the possibility of a contemporary repetition of the events that took place in the death camps. I use Night to show how this narrative reveals several points that are important for understanding certain aspects of the relation between ethics, religion and the memory of the Holocaust. One of these is the understanding of memory as a way to bring man and God together in a relation of mutual communication, beginning with the experience of suffering of dehumanization and of God's absence from the death camp. Another is that the religious and cultural memory represented by Israel is the main target of extermination as a manifestation of radical evil. A third is that Israel's suffering has a paradigmatic value, and therefore the memory of the Holocaust becomes a special power that may be used as a tool to diminish the power of evil through the elimination of indifference and the assumption of responsibility.

Key Words: ethics, memory, Holocaust, responsibility, evil, death camp, Night, Elie Wiesel

Philosophical ethics, religion and memory

One can seize the complex relations between ethical and religious aspects in limit situations. Such a situation can be illustrated using Elie Wiesel's reflections on the Holocaust. Reading Wiesel's Night one could be tempted to believe that, due to the life conditions in death camps, man is driven away from his faith - and, according to some authors, one could find there an early form of a theology of the death of God. However, in his subsequent works, Wiesel brings more and more arguments in favor of a normal relation between doubt of or even rebellion against divinity and the affirmation of faith in limit situations. One of Night's most important contributions consists in the fact that the ethical interrogation of faith and the deconstruction of religion are achieved using religious tools. Furthermore, in Night, Wiesel succeeds to establish an ethics of responsibility towards otherness, without minimizing the importance of God's presence in history. One can see that the human component is important from a religious point of view precisely because it involves an ethics that presupposes the responsibility of man towards the other man with whom he has a face-to-face relationship. In this respect one must understand Wiesel's contention that: "Remember, God of history, that You created man to remember".1 From the very first meeting with Elie Wiesel's texts, the reader will note the central place of the necessity of keeping alive the memory of the holocaust. Beginning with this, I will attempt to emphasize the way in which the memory of the Holocaust is constituted as a communication channel among humans and between man and God. At the same time, memory is more than a simple communication from past to future, it is also an ethical way of assuming responsibility for the horrors humankind experienced during the twentieth century.

I believe a good departure point is the fact that Wiesel assigns the memory a privileged status: the power of memory as Wiesel expresses it in Night has the capacity to pull victims out of the kingdom of death and integrate them into our present lives.2 By using Wiesel's own reflections and those of his interpreters, I show how the memory of the Holocaust might act as a moral duty of any human being, as a factor of interpersonal solidarity and of community cohesion.

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