Wise Men And Their Tales: Portraits Of Biblical, Talmudic, And Hasidic Masters, by Elie Wiesel
It would seem from reading this book that the author has a great deal of fondness for the supposed Hasidic masters of Judaism, for though they take up only a small part of this work, the fact that they are present at all when there are no leaders among the mitnagdim who objected to Hasidism is quite suggestive, although it is possible that the author’s fondness for Hasidic thinkers is due to their populist touch. At any rate, this is a book that is both interesting and somewhat frustrating as a reader who comes to it without the perspective of the author and with a pronounced interest in favor of the biblical personages rather than those of the other areas. It is likely that readers will come to this book with their own perspectives and their own biases, and I found that I enjoyed greater pleasure in reading about those people in whom I had less interest because the aspect of perspective did not matter so greatly. The considerable importance I place on proper biblical interpretation (something scarcely to be found here) made my irritation more severe at those whom I regarded as the most important, while the comparative lack of importance I place in the Talmud and the struggles between various Hasidic dynasties or their opponents meant I was able to read these areas without offense.
This book is divided into three unequal parts. The author opens with a question of what Rashi says, a question that is practically meaningless for me but of considerable more importance for someone whose entry into midrashic and mishnaic interpretation came from him. The book begins, appropriately, with a look at people from the Bible, starting from Ishmael and Hagar, moving to Lot’s wife, the problematic nature of Aaron, Miriam the prophetess, Nadab and Abihu, Esau and Jethro as Gentiles in the Bible, Gideon, Samson, Saul, Samuel, Isaiah, and Hoshea. After this there there is a discussion of various figures in the Talmud, starting with Tarfon’s humility, Yehoshua ben Levi, the dialogue between Abbaye and Rava, the view of converts in the Talmud, and various sketches of other material to be found there. The author then closes this book with a brief discussion of Hasidic leaders like Zanz and Sadigur and the world of the shtel that was destroyed in the horrors of World War II. The author obviously does not intend here to make a board picture of Jewish life, because he doesn’t include the Jewish thinkers of the Middle East under Islamic domination, as important as those have been. There seems a marked Ashkenazi as opposed to a Sephardic approach here, but given the author’s own identity this is easy enough to understand.
In reading this book, I was reminded of the sad fact that the author does not appear to deal with the Bible straight on, but only through the glosses and speculations and interpretations of thousands of years of uninspired commentators. In many cases, the author asks reasonable and sometimes even obvious questions about the text in his attempts to understand the biblical perspective but his attempts to understand do not come from the Bible itself but from other authorities who often hinder the attempts of the author to come to grips with the Bible. Even the author himself is sometimes aware of it, for example, when he comments that for the bible the ger was the resident alien within Israel who was to be treated kindly and from whom exploitation was forbidden (something that would be worthwhile for contemporary people to recognize with regards to resident aliens among us) but for the talmudic thinkers the ger was the gentile convert to Judaism who was to be viewed highly, some of the times at least. It is a shame that the author has so many blinkers and filters from the talmudic and post-talmudic thinkers who mostly obscure rather than reveal biblical truth, though.