Book Review: The Trial Of God

The Trial Of God (As It was Held On February 25, 1649 In Shamgorod):  A Play In Three Acts, by Elie Wiesel

One can tell in looking at this book that the author is aiming at a play that hits much like the book of Job does in light of the horrors of the Holocaust, which are hinted at, at least in foreshadowing, in this tale of a dark night where a pogrom stalks the survivors of previous pogroms committed by Poles and Ukrainians in what later became the Pale of Russia who hated each other but ended up killing the (generally harmless) Jews who happened to be around.  It is easy to see what the author is intending to do, to use a historical conceit to properly frame his own passionate cri du coeur against God for his silence and absence during the Holocaust.  And yet this book is not the book of Job, nor does it have the same power, because the book lacks something that made the book of Job deep, and that is a hero who cries out in pain and anguish but keeps his faith and also having someone who makes a genuine defense of faith in the form of Elihu.  This book has the three worthless friends and a sufferer, along with a couple of other minor characters, and it even has Satan, but it has no Elihu and the Job is of the wrong kind, and that matters a lot.

The play here is three acts, and it is certainly a grim piece of theater work.  Act one introduces the play, where three Jewish minstrels happen upon a tavern in the town of Shamgorod, where the only Jewish father has lost in faith in light of the events of the previous Purim (one year before the present-day of the play) where every Jew in town was murdered except for him and his daughter, who was violently raped by a crowd of local goyim and who has gone more or less insane as a result.  The three discuss matters of faith and their own personal experiences before thinking of the brilliant idea to put God on trial.  The second act consists of their efforts to put God on trial and find people to serve the various necessary roles, and the action flags a bit here.  The third act, though, features a mysterious and malign presence named Sam who undertakes to speak on behalf of God even though he is Satan, and closes with the ominous approach of a group of angry Gentiles who seek to kill all of the Jews present who had survived previous pogroms.

There are a few major problems with the play as it is conceived.  For one, the characters in the play (and presumably Wiesel himself) think they have the standing to put God on trial and do not realize that they are on trial themselves by God.  The author seeks to stack the deck against God, though, not only by denying Him the chance to speak for Himself or have an able advocate who understands His scripture, but also by making it seem as if the people of Europe hated the Jews without a cause.  God is certainly big enough to take the libels he suffers here at the author’s hand, and the author seems unable or unwilling to discuss the variety of factors that made the Jews attractive targets, namely their helplessness and their tendency to divide and quarrel among themselves.  Still, although this play is not as powerful as the author would wish it to be, it certainly gives voice to the feelings of despair and isolation felt by survivors of the Holocaust who reflected upon the violent history of anti-Semitism in Europe.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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