Opinions | Literary giants can save illiterate Jewish community

Jewish literary giants Jacob Neusner and Elie Wiesel were the master burglars of breaking and entering the Jewish library. They invited those of us who were re-engaging with Jewish life in the ’60s and ’70s outside of the yeshivas and graduate programs into the richness of rabbinic and Hasidic thought.

We fell in love with Jewish texts and life and were inspired to share that passion in classrooms, summer camps and touring buses, here and in Israel. We carried in our backpacks, stacked on our desks and lined our shelves with the books of Wiesel and Neusner. Their books opened our minds and hearts and brought us into previously inaccessible worlds. And unlike the gold-lettered tomes filling the shelves of most Orthodox rabbis and scholars of Jewish tradition at the time, these books were in English.

Different as night and day, both Wiesel and Neusner died this year, Wiesel, 87, on July 2, in the quiet of the summer, and Neusner, 84, on Oct. 8, in the commotion between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They were born worlds apart — Wiesel in Sighet, Romania, in 1928; Neusner in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1932.

Wiesel is well known to the public; Neusner is well known within the academic world. Wiesel was beloved; Neusner, respected.

Young Elie learned Torah, Hasidism and humanism in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Hungarian, and Romanian. He survived Auschwitz (his younger sister Tzipora, mother Sarah and father Shlomo did not). He went to Paris where he learned French and studied literature, philosophy and psychology at the Sorbonne.

Young Jacob grew up assimilated, Jewishly unread and without any connection to Europe, Israel or the Holocaust. His awakening happened at Harvard when he encountered professor Harry Wolfson and religious philosophy. He later studied with Saul Lieberman, Salo Baron and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Elie Wiesel, working quietly as a journalist, emerged to become the Wiesel we know after the French author Francois Mauriac urged him to write his memoir. Jacob Neusner’s father was in the newspaper business, and he began writing for local newspapers as a teen. They were prolific writers; Wiesel published over 50 works of various genres and Neusner, at last count, over 900 books — “the most published person in human history,” according to the New York Times.

Wiesel broke my heart and dragged me through an echo of the Holocaust in “Night,” “Dawn” and “Day.” He awakened my consciousness to the plight of Soviet Jewry in “The Jews of Silence.” I first went to Israel with “A Beggar in Jerusalem.” In 1972, when I was just 18, he launched me to the pursuit of mindful, joyous and meaningful Judaism with “Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters.”

My gratitude to Neusner is similarly deep. Without his analytical translations of rabbinic literature I would never have had the courage or audacity to pursue these texts in the original. Through him I met “A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai,” thumbed though chapters of “The Mishnah,” and was able to navigate the rabbinic literature of Sifre, Sifra and Pesikta deRav Kahana.

Neusner explained it all in “Invitation to the Talmud” and “Translating the Classics of Judaism: In Theory and in Practice.” He moved these texts from ethnic and religious studies to the humanities (not without controversy). Simply put, he put the texts into their contexts. He freed the literature from sanctimony.

As a longtime teacher of Jewish families I believe that when it comes to the Holocaust, a seventh-grader can read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” However, ninth-graders and adults need to read Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” I carried “Souls On Fire” on every tour I have led through Poland and read it over again to teens and adults so that we could imagine repopulating the landscape with the living Jewish People.

If Jacob Neusner and Elie Wiesel broke down barriers for the American Jewish and non-Jewish reader of Jewish books, then they opened the doors wider for such works as Daniel Matt’s translation of the Zohar, as well as the Koren edition of the Talmud with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

There has never been a vital and enduring illiterate Jewish community. Ignorance is not Jewish bliss. The gifts of Wiesel and Neusner, Matt and Steinsaltz, David Hartman and Moshe Halbertal, Robert Alter and Chana Bloch, as transmitters of primary texts, place before us, in print or on screens, the capacity for the American Jewish community to evolve into a literate, thriving, inventive, confident, argumentative and activist community.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
is the chief program officer and senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].