“My first visit to his court lasted almost an entire night,” writes Elie Wiesel in his Memoirs regarding how he came to Brooklyn, sometime in the early ’60s,1 in order to make the acquaintance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The Rebbe had read some of my works in French, and asked me to explain why I was angry with G‑d. ‘Because I loved Him too much,’ I replied. ‘And now?’ he asked. ‘Now too. And because I love Him, I am angry with Him.’ The Rebbe disagreed: ‘To love G‑d is to accept that you do not understand Him.’ I asked whether one could love G‑d without having faith. He told me faith had to precede all the rest. ‘Rebbe,’ I asked, ‘how can you believe in G‑d after Auschwitz?’ He looked at me in silence for a long moment, his hands resting on the table. The he replied, in a soft, barely audible voice, ‘How can you not believe in G‑d after Auschwitz?’2

That initial, protracted yechidus with the Rebbe, climaxing with the Rebbe’s rhetorical question, made a permanent impression on Wiesel and an indelible effect on his writing. Wiesel would later go so far as to speak of it as a crisis, a pivotal moment in his literary career: “That was a turning point in my writing, that simple dialogue.”3

In 1964, Wiesel published his second novel, The Gates of the Forest, a story divided into four seasons, the last of which, “Winter,” is a vivid, detailed account of that meeting in the Rebbe’s quarters.4 The account is grueling, heartbreaking, painfully vulnerable, and at some points just shocking. Auschwitz, of course, is the pivotal question of the conversation. “How can you believe in G‑d after Auschwitz?” But as the conversation shifts from emotion to emotion, from argument to counter-argument, the Rebbe keeps pushing his visitor to reveal why he is really there, his deepest motivation for the visit. “What do you expect of me?” asks the Rebbe. To which the knee-jerk response is: “Nothing, absolutely nothing.” But the Rebbe is patient. By the end of the visit, the visitor will know why he came.

In the meantime, the room is mostly filled with the sound of fury. Wiesel is not afraid of G‑d. And therefore he is not afraid of the Rebbe. He speaks to the Rebbe as a plaintiff with a case against G‑d, addressing G‑d’s defense attorney. He expects the Rebbe to work at defending G‑d for the crime of Auschwitz, and it would seem that the satisfaction he seeks is to see the Rebbe fail in that task.

But the Rebbe leaves him unsatisfied. Wiesel is utterly unprepared for the Rebbe’s counter-proposal. Instead of playing the part of G‑d’s defense attorney, the Rebbe proposes to act as prosecutor, on Wiesel’s behalf. In Wiesel’s own account, this startling shift is marked by a controlled explosion of indignation on the Rebbe’s part: “. . . Do you think that I don’t know it? That I have no eyes to see, no ears to hear? That my heart doesn’t revolt?”

It is in this moment of Wiesel’s narrative that we sense a certain degree of oversimplification carried out for the sake of fiction. A novel is no place for detailed philosophical arguments. Fortunately, we have a long letter that the Rebbe wrote to Wiesel less than a year after The Gates of the Forest appeared in print, in which the Rebbe articulates his proposed prosecution of G‑d in great detail and with sharp force.5

I agree with you, of course, that the complaint “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” [Gen. 18:25] can be authentic and can have its proper force only when it breaks forth from the pain-filled heart of a deep believer. Moreover we find that indeed the first one who ever expressed this complaint was Abraham our father, the greatest believer and the father of “believers, sons of believers” [Shabbat 97a]. We are also told by the sages that the first to have posed the question of “the righteous one who suffers, the wicked one who prospers” was none other than our teacher Moses [Berachot 7a], the same one who explicated to the Jews, and to the entire world, the idea of “I am the L‑rd your G‑d” and “you shall have no other gods” [Exod. 20:2], where the category of “other gods” includes the human intellect and understanding, when one makes these into idols and supreme authorities.

For this reason I was surprised that you did not see the course of thought through to the end and bring out its conclusion. After all—as you know—the answer to the complaint of Moses our teacher—according to the account of our sages, of blessed memory, when shown how Rabbi Akiva’s flesh was ripped off with iron combs, etc., Moses our teacher burst out: “This is Torah, and this is its reward?!”—the answer to this was: “Silence! Thus it arises in the supernal Mind!”

[ . . . ] Nevertheless, this did not weaken the faith of Moses our teacher, nor that of other authentic questioners and men. On the contrary, this only served to strengthen their faith, something to be found explicitly in the case of Job; likewise in the case of Abraham our father, who not only stood fast by his faith but was also able to withstand every test; and likewise the other “rebels” who maintained a deep faith until the last day of their lives.

I think you will agree with me that it is no mere coincidence that all authentic questioners retained their trust in G‑d. Rather, it could in no way be otherwise. So long as the question is asked with integrity, it is logical that such a deep feeling can come only from the conviction that true justice is the justice that stems from a super-human source, that is, from something higher than both human intellect and human feeling. It is for this reason precisely that the question unsettles not only a person’s emotion and intellect, but also his interiority and the essence of his being.

But after the initial tempestuous assault, he has to realize that the entire approach on which the question is based, and of wishing to understand with the intellect that which is higher than the intellect, is something that cannot take place. Moreover, he must—after a rattling outrage and a thorough grieving—ultimately come to the conclusion: Nevertheless I believe [ani maamin]! On the contrary—even more strongly.

This is the subtext, the full content, of the Rebbe’s rhetorical response, “How can you not believe in G‑d after Auschwitz?”

One must read it over a few times, especially the last line, to appreciate the radical and revolutionary character of the Rebbe’s response to the question of Auschwitz. Whereas various writers on Holocaust theology have suggested in various ways that a Jew must continue to believe in G‑d despite Auschwitz, not a single voice has had the temerity, or the radical logic, to suggest that a Jew must continue to believe in G‑d because of Auschwitz. For the Rebbe, Auschwitz is not something that should weaken one’s belief and trust in G‑d. “On the contrary,” says the Rebbe, Auschwitz should bring one to place one’s faith in G‑d “even more strongly!”

The radical logic, the logic of holy chutzpah,6 seems to run as follows. Yes, we must prosecute G‑d for Auschwitz. Yes, we must demand from G‑d that He give us an explanation. (After all, we cannot explain it with our human intellect.) But in order to prosecute G‑d, we must believe that G‑d is there, and that G‑d is inherently benevolent. Without those two fundamental assumptions, the question cannot be asked at all. In the very demand for an explanation, we affirm our trust in G‑d and in His goodness. What the Rebbe wished to impress upon Wiesel was the already operative reality of the emunah, the faith and trust, upon which Wiesel’s own fury was premised in all his arguments against G‑d.

In light of this extraordinary epistle, those who are familiar with Wiesel’s writings can see how that long night in the Rebbe’s quarters in Brooklyn was indeed, as Wiesel says, “a turning point in my writing.” Wiesel not only went on to write many books on biblical, midrashic, talmudic and chassidic themes. In retrospect, he came to appreciate his entire corpus as an expression, howbeit gnarled and broken, of emunah. As he states in his Memoirs:

I have never renounced my faith in G‑d. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it. I admit that this is hardly an original position. It is part of Jewish tradition. [ . . . ] Abraham and Moses, Jeremiah and Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak of Berdichev teach us that it is permissible for man to accuse G‑d, provided it be done in the name of faith in G‑d. If that hurts, so be it. Sometimes we must accept the pain of faith so as not to lose it.7

By the end of the long soul-searching session with the Rebbe, Wiesel came to confess, or rather to discover, why he really came to see the Rebbe. “. . . You asked me what I expect of you, and I said I expect nothing. I was mistaken. Make me able to cry.”

In the original Yiddish version of the book that came to be called Night, Wiesel recalls how the death of his father in Buchenwald had traumatized his capacity for tears. The light of his world was extinguished, he writes. “But I did not cry, and this is what causes me the most grief: this inability to cry. The heart had petrified, the fountainhead of tears had dried up.”8 When Wiesel pleads with the Rebbe, “Make me able to cry!” we understand that this is not some incidental request blurted out during that yechidus, or some flourish added to a fictional novel for dramatic effect. The request is nothing less that Wiesel’s secret reason for coming to the Rebbe. He did not come expecting the Rebbe to change the past. And if he came in order to challenge the Rebbe and to hear him fail to defend G‑d, he was disappointed in this, as we have seen. Wiesel came to the Rebbe for the same reason that anyone ever went to Rebbe: he went to discover his true request. And so the face-to-face with the Rebbe, the being-seen by the Rebbe, allowed him to see his true self, and to articulate his deep-felt need to become transparent to himself. “Make me able to cry!”

And the Rebbe’s response? Did the Rebbe put his arms around the broken man and allow him to experience his long-awaited catharsis? Did he come forth with his famous paternal love, and allow Wiesel to weep on his shoulder and mourn for the father lost in Buchenwald?

Again the Rebbe responded in an unexpected manner. Yes, he did encourage Wiesel to find the needed catharsis for his grief. But not in weeping. Because weeping is not an adequate form of catharsis for the colossal suffering of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The Rebbe shook his head.

“That’s not enough. I shall teach you to sing.”

“Grown people don’t cry; beggars don’t cry.” The Rebbe added, “Crying is for children. Are you still a child, and is your life a child’s dream? No, crying is no use. You must sing.”9

In 1973, Wiesel composed a cantata titled, Ani Maamin: A Song Lost and Found Again. The song concludes with the following verses:

I believe in you,

Even against your will.

Even if you punish me

For believing in you.

Blessed are the fools

Who shout their faith.

Blessed are the fools

Who go on laughing.

Who mock the man who mocks the Jew,

Who help their brothers

Singing, over and over and over:

I believe.

I believe in the coming of the Messiah,

And though he tarries,

I wait daily for his coming.

I believe.