Study Guide

Night Religion

By Elie Wiesel

Religion

Chapter 1
Eliezer

He [Moishe] told me what had happened to him and his companions. The train with the deportees had crossed the Hungarian border and, once in Polish territory, had been taken over by the Gestapo. The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There everybody was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns. This took place in the Galician forest, near Kolomay. How had he, Moishe the Beadle, been able to escape? By a miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead…

Day after day, night after night, he went from one Jewish house to the next, telling his story and that of Malka, the young girl who lay dying for three days, and that of Tobie, the tailor who begged to die before his sons were killed.

Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned either God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things. Others flatly said that he had gone mad. (1.29-31)

Moishe, a deeply religious man, no longer speaks of "God or Kabbalah" after he witnesses the massacre of Jews by the German Gestapo. This is only mentioned briefly, but are we to assume that, like Eliezer later, in the face of the horrors he sees, Moishe has lost his faith in God?

I looked at my house in which I had spent years seeking my God, fasting to hasten the coming of the Messiah, imagining what my life would be like later. Yet I felt little sadness. My mind was empty. (1.55)

Although his faith has not yet died, on leaving his home for transport to a concentration camp, Eliezer leaves some of his religious pursuits behind, along with his childhood home, and some of his innocence.

Chapter 3
Eliezer

Akiba Drummer said:

"God is testing us. He wants to see whether we are capable of overcoming our base instincts, of killing the Satan within ourselves. We have no right to despair. And if He punishes us mercilessly, it is a sign that He loves us that much more …"

Hersch Genud, well versed in the Kabbalah, spoke of the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah.

From time to time, in the middle of all that talk, a thought crossed my mind: Where is Mother right now … and Tzipora …

"Mother is still a young woman," my father once said. "She must be in a labor camp. And Tzipora, she is a big girl now. She too must be in a camp …"

How we would have liked to believe that. We pretended, for what if one of us still did believe? (3.176-181)

Eliezer compares the hope he and his father had that his mother and sister are alive (a false hope) with the hope that other Jews have in God; the comparison suggests that the religious hope is also false hope used for comfort in the same way Eliezer and his father look for comfort in the hope that their loved ones are alive.

Everybody around us was weeping. Someone began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.

"Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba … May His name be celebrated and sanctified …" whispered my father.

For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for? (3.61-63)

As they enter Birkenau and begin to realize the horrors that surround them, Eliezer begins to lose his unconditional devotion to God.

We continued our march. We were coming closer and closer to the pit, from which an infernal heat was rising. Twenty more steps. If I was going to kill myself, this was the time. Our column had only some fifteen steps to go. I bit my lips so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering. Ten more steps. Eight. Seven. We were walking slowly, as one follows a hearse, our own funeral procession. Only four more steps. Three. There it was now, very close to us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all that remained of my strength in order to throw myself onto the barbed wire. Deep down, I was saying good-bye to my father, to the whole universe, and against my will I found myself whispering the words: "Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba … May his name be exalted and sanctified …" My heart was about to burst. There, I was face to face with the Angel of Death … (3.64)

As Eliezer draws near to death for the first time in his life, he doubts; yet despite his doubts in God, he finds himself automatically reaching out to the comforting words of Jewish prayers.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never. (3.68-75)

Eliezer suffers not only because he sees his fellow Jews murdered before his eyes, but also because feels that his God was murdered. The concentration camp experience destroys his innocence and his belief in a just and loving God.

Some of the men spoke of God: His mysterious ways, the sins of the Jewish people, and the redemption to come. As for me, I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice. (3.175)

Eliezer has not become an atheist. When he said earlier that God was murdered, he referred to the God he knew when he was innocent. Eliezer doesn’t doubt that God exists, but this God has a different persona, possibly one indifferent to suffering, and a God that Eliezer does not want to praise.

Chapter 4
Eliezer

They quickly became my friends. Having once belonged to a Zionist youth organization, they knew countless Hebrew songs. And so we would sometimes hum melodies evoking the gentle waters of the Jordan River and the majestic sanctity of Jerusalem. We also spoke often about Palestine. Their parents, like mine, had not the courage to sell everything and emigrate while there was still time. We decided that if we were allowed to live until the Liberation, we would not stay another day in Europe. We would board the first ship to Haifa. (4.42)

Though no longer a firm believer in his religion, Eliezer still turns to thoughts of Jerusalem as future safe-haven.

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing …

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

"For God’s sake, where is God?"

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

"Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …" (4.206-211)

Again we see that Eliezer feels that the Germans have murdered his God. With the destruction of Eliezer’s innocence, so died the God that Eliezer believed in as a boy and young man.

Still lost in his Kabbalistic dreams, Akiba Drumer had discovered a verse in the Bible which, translated into numbers, made it possible for him to predict Redemption in the weeks to come. (4.43)

That Eliezer says that Akiba is "lost" and uses the word "dreams" shows that Eliezer sees Akiba’s religiously based hope as a false hope. Eliezer no longer trusts in God’s justice, and therefore doesn’t trust that God will deliver the Jews from the concentration camps

Chapter 5
Eliezer

What are You, my God? I thought angrily. How do You compare to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean, Master of the Universe, in the face of all this cowardice, this decay, and this misery? Why do you go on troubling these poor people’s wounded minds, their ailing bodies?

[…]

Blessed be God’s name?

Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar? (5.4-11)

Again we see that Eliezer is not an atheist. Although the just and loving God he knew as a child is dead to him, Eliezer tries to find out what this new God he discovered is all about, asking, "What are You, my God?" But in the face of what Eliezer sees as God’s indifference to suffering, Eliezer seems to determine that God is not a being that he can praise.

Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. Should we fast? The question was hotly debated. To fast could mean a more certain, more rapid death. In this place, we were always fasting. It was Yom Kippur year-round. But there were those who said we should fast, precisely because it was dangerous to do so. We needed to show God that even here, locked in hell, we were capable of singing His praises.

I did not fast. First of all, to please my father, who had forbidden me to do so. And then, there was no longer any reason for me to fast. I no longer accepted God’s silence. As I swallowed my ration of soup, I turned that act into a symbol of rebellion, of protest against Him. (5.23-24)

The irony of fasting or not fasting in a concentration camp for religious fasting period does not escape Eliezer’s notice. Not fasting isn’t only an act of self-preservation, but a rebellion against God. Clearly Eliezer still believes God exists, because Eliezer is rebelling against Him, but Eliezer chooses not to accept God because God has not stopped the horrors Eliezer witnesses daily.

Akiba Drummer has left us, a victim of the selection. Lately, he had been wandering among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone how weak he was: "I can't go on ... It's over …" We tried to raise his spirits, but he wouldn’t listen to anything we said. He just kept repeating that it was all over for him, that he could no longer fight, he had no more strength, no more faith. His eyes would suddenly go blank, leaving two gaping wounds, two wells of terror.

He was not alone in having lost his faith during those days of selection. I knew a rabbi, from a small town in Poland. He was old and bent, his lips constantly trembling. He was always praying, in the block, at work, in the ranks. He recited entire pages from the Talmud, arguing with himself, asking and answering himself endless questions. One day, he said to me:

"It’s over. God is no longer with us."

And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in a broken voice, "I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?"

Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered this suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death. (5.105-109)

It isn’t only young Eliezer who loses his faith in the concentration camps, but other long-time believers as well. Akiba, who was the man who studied Kabbalah and used his numerology to determine that God would soon deliver them, has nothing to live for once he loses his faith. Even a rabbi can’t help but doubt God’s mercy.

And I, the former mystic, was thinking: Yes, man is stronger, greater than God. When Adam and Eve deceived You, You chased them from paradise. When you were displeased with Noah's generation, You brought down the Flood. When Sodom lost your favor, You caused the heavens to rain down fire and damnation. But look at these men whom You have betrayed, allowing them to be tortured, slaughtered, gasses, and burned, what do they do? They pray before You! The praise Your name!

"All of creation bears witness to the Greatness of God!"

In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers.

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger. (5.15-18)

Eliezer participates in the Rosh Hashanah service, but it means nothing to him as bitterness against God swells up inside him. God stands accused in his eyes.

Chapter 6
Eliezer

And in spite of myself, a prayer formed inside me, a prayer to this God in whom I no longer believed.

"Oh God, Master of the Universe, give me the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu’s son has done." (6.65-66)

Though Eliezer has lost his faith, he still prays for strength to keep himself from abandoning his father, the most important person in his life. It is as if he is saying a prayer asking for the strength to preserve his humanity, because in the prison camps, so many are reduced to their most basic, inhumane instincts which place self-preservation as the most important goal.