Elie Wiesel, Still Teaching Us

November 21, 2018

Source: The Jewish Week 


Ariel Burger, who was a student in Elie Wiesel’s class at Boston University as an undergraduate and, in his 30s, served as his mentor’s teaching assistant for five years, has written “Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); the 288-page book is part memoir, part description of the courses — and the impact they had on a wide range of students for almost four decades — and entirely compelling.

While describing his own spiritual odyssey and philosophical struggles, juxtaposed with his long relationship with Wiesel, who guided him along the way, Burger brings us into the professor’s unique classroom and provides a master class in the art of grappling with life’s mysteries, contradictions and ultimate hope.

We learn as well, from Burger’s incisive observations and gentle prose, how Wiesel lived his life, standing up to injustice but keeping an open heart, treasuring relationships and valuing, in the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, every mother’s child.

Wiesel’s classes at Boston University, where he taught for almost 40 years, brought together about 120 undergraduates (in two classes) a semester, graduate and post-graduate students from all walks of life. Rather than Wiesel standing at the front of the class and lecturing, the classes were conducted in conversation with students via common and persistent themes including memory, otherness, faith and doubt, madness and rebellion and activism — each topic a chapter in “Witness.”

The students read a book or play a week for a written assignment and class discussion. The course work was “challenging,” Burger said, and the texts ranged from Socrates to Shakespeare to Russian novelists to chasidic tales. Each class began with a 10-minute presentation by a different student. Some were intimidated to speak in class. Burger recalled that when he first took Wiesel’s class as a sophomore in 1996, he was very shy and spoke only one word aloud the entire semester — and only because Wiesel, after asking the class a question, looked directly at him, awaiting an answer. “I said the word I’d been thinking, ‘authenticity,’ and he nodded at me and said, ‘Exactly.’”

Last Thursday evening at his book launch at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, amidst the chaotic snowstorm that paralyzed the city, Burger told those gathered that being in Wiesel’s classroom taught him “education can change our conversations, our policies, it can heal communities and bring people together across difference.” He said he learned “we must dig deeper, turn to enduring works of literature and philosophy and religion,” as Wiesel did in the classroom, telling students that “stories can help us to humanize politics and fate.”

In the book Burger describes Wiesel’s unique method in class of building on the comments of his students, making references to previous texts the class had read as well as bringing in contemporary events and somehow drawing connections between and among them. The approach was “spontaneous but intellectually rigorous,” Burger told me. “He depended on the students’ discussions — he himself always wanted to learn” — so no two classes were ever the same and Wiesel never repeated a course offering. And he valued questions more than answers as the path to healing. “Questions aren’t dangerous,” he would say. “Answers are.”

Read the entire review at The Jewish Week.

Updated: Dec. 02, 2018