Sages And Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudid, and Hasidic Portraits and Legends, by Elie Wiesel
Reading a book like this is simultaneously illuminating and alienating. To be sure, the author probably wrote this book for a Jewish audience, to better acquaint them with their own lengthy history and some of the more intriguing and thought-provoking aspects of that complex culture. Even more specifically, the book was probably written for the descendents of Hasidim, because the author has some unkind things to say about mitdagdim that would make this book less than pleasant for someone who opposed Hasidic Judaism, and the book is certainly not written in a way that is likely to appeal to even those Christians who are generally knowledgeable about and at least somewhat sympathetic to Judaism. Again, therefore, as is often the case, I read this book as someone who is not part of the book’s intended audience, and as the author did not write for me, he makes no concessions or even shows any awareness of my own particular worldview, and in a book like this, that matters a lot. It is illuminating to read a book like this one where the author shows his own interpretations and perspective, but this is not a book that was enjoyable to read in terms of its content or approach.
The book is a bit less than 450 pages long, and is divided into three sections. The first part of the book contains the author’s commentary on various stories of the Bible, including Noah, Jephthah and his daughter, Ruth, Solomon, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Esther. This is the best part of the book, without a doubt, but even here the author sees the Bible through the dubious (at best) point of view of the Midrash as well as the point of view of the Zohar and the Talmud, which is even less to be trusted. And if this part of the book is dubious, the rest is far more so, as the bulk of the book contains discussions of various Talmudic tales about Shammai and Hillel, various rabbis famous (Akiba, Ishmael) and obscure (Meir and his wife Brurya), all of which presupposes that the reader has any interest in talmudic reasoning or in the bogus and illegitimate approach that these “sages” had to the scriptures. The last part of the book contains the author’s discussion of various Hasidic sages, which was of very little interest to me because my own family’s Jewish background does not include any Hasidim, but only Dutch and Sephardic Jews who left Europe in the 1700’s before the Hasidic movement even got started.
This book, therefore, was not of particular use to me, except in understanding how it is that Jews and Christians, even those Christians who take the Hebrew scriptures seriously, are divided in part by a common text and even more so by wildly different rules of interpretation. Wiesel is of the misguided belief that those who oppose the Talmud do so because they fear it, while he views those who oppose Hasidic thinking as being antisocial intellectuals. Wiesel, for someone who opposed prejudice, appears to be a highly prejudiced person here, against anyone who would oppose his own narrow and partisan interpretation of what is legitimate. Perhaps this book was not meant to be read by those outside of his own identity, and it makes for an unpleasant read for those who are opposed to the author’s occult interest in esoteric texts like the Zohar and who do not share his particular identity as a descendant of various decadent hasidic dynasties. Still, fortunately for him, few people like myself are likely to be pick up a book like this, much less get through it.