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Rabbi Ariel Burger: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom: Teaching and Witnessing

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Nuggets From Rabbi Ariel Burger's Call

Pavi and I had the privilege of hosting a video dialogue with Rabbi Ariel Burger and several of us from the ecosystem. ServiceSpace friend Parker Palmer introduced us to Rabbi Burger's remarkable work. A devoted protégé and friend of one of the world’s great thinkers, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Ariel Burger is the founding director and senior scholar of The Witness Institute. The Institute is a new project to empower emerging leaders, inspired by the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel, to become morally empowered people who will influence their communities. Rabbi Burger is an author, artist, and teacher whose work integrates spirituality, the arts, and strategies for social change.

A full video and audio recording of the dialogue is posted, but below are some of the nuggets from the call:

  • Current times of pandemic: Faith is very connected to mystery; there are depths upon depth beyond what you can perceive – that's almost a definition of faith. What's on the surface is not all there is. In times of isolation (like the current time of pandemic), there is a lot of mystery in how things unfold – compassion and tenderness – it's not always comfortable.
  • Meeting Wiesel, Learning to Ask and Hold Questions, "Responding to" versus "Answering" Questions: I met Elie Wiesel when I was 15, in 1990 (4 years after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, so he was well known) – he spoke at my high school. I'd read some of his books and I was very intimidated. I met him after a big lecture – I was invited into the back where people were meeting him. He held his hand out to me and said his name, as if I had no idea who he was -- with tremendous modesty, which I would learn was typical for him. I saw something in his eyes – a kind of presence, a willingness to really listen; to make room for you, to invite you in. He said to me, "Come and see me and bring a question." I was very surprised by that – this was a very busy man. Took me time to build "holy chutzpah" (courage/brazenness) to take him up on that offer. I started to bring many questions to him, and had many, many questions to ask him as time went on. ... Elie was such a great listener. I noticed rather quickly that he was never answering my questions – that was rather surprising to me, but then I realized he was doing something else -- he was responding to, not answering, my questions with his own quesitons. That taught me something about the difference between an answer and a response. I thought I was looking for answers but I wasn't, really. I was looking for connection. I was looking for dialog, putting my questions in proximity to someone else's questions in a way that I din't feel so alone. I brought questions to him every time we met until he died.
  • Learning as Wiesel's source of joy: For him a big question was how to come to a place of joy after the Holocaust and the loss of his mother, sister, father, community, etc. – how not to become a bitter person, one giving up on religious tradition. When people asked him how he became a person of joy, wonder, hopefulness – he loved chocolate, funny stories… and had a real intensity, too – he would answer, 'it was learning that saved me, that gave me sanity and hope.' At the end, in Buchenwald, American soldiers met with young students, and they asked what they could give the often-starving children. Wiesel said that one young woman asked for chocolate – a childhood memory for her – she wanted to see if it tasted as she remembered. A boy asked for a sweater as it was bitter cold. Elie Wiesel asked for the same volume of Talmud he'd read as a younger boy so he could pick up his reading and studies uninterrupted. "That is what saved my hope and sanity," he said. "So much to learn; so many people around the world who deal with big questions – you're not alone. That can bring hope to anyone."
  • Education is not Learning: We know the worst perpetrators were highly educated persons – very acculturated: Beethoven, Goethe, etc, but that did not keep them from perpetuating [horror]. ... There's a previous step you have to take: "awakening the sense of wonder" – the belief that what you know can get in the way of learning. Cultivate "radical openness" – as if you don't know anything. There's a story of a Talmud scholar who fasted for 100 days to forget everything he'd every learned. It's a shocking text in our tradition that so values study. But we need "radical openness". Important to let go what you think you know. Elie Wiesel taught that. Elie Wiesel was brought up with the Hebrew Bible. But then he would read it anew, as if he knew nothing. ... It begins with memory – that is his first principle in transformative education. The power of stories, bearing witness of other people's stories.
  • Power of Being a Witness: Right before Elie Wiesel passed away we had a "cosmic" conversation. What does it mean to be his student? To bear witness. I called the book "Witness" because memory is transmittable – you can pass it to others. It's sticky. Listening to a witness makes you a witness. We still have some precious few people who can still tell their stories. So how to preserve that memory and the implications? What do we do when we confront radical evil? You can claim the stories of others. In a broader sense we all have people giving us wisdom. How do we share them? Witness is also a verb – so the book became a call to action. Who can you listen to – whose stories do you carry?"
  • Struggle with God and faith and doubt: There's a tradition of arguing with God on behalf of humanity, and in the ethics of communication. What happens when I look into sacred texts that have led to harm in the world? The beautiful material in Torah? ... In Rwanda, the author describes a Belgium missionary 's radio program spouting racist theories. He quotes the Noah story to supporting racial discrimination – which was commonly done elsewhere in the world over time. This idea conflated genocide in Rwanda. I was shocked and went to Elie Wiesel to ask how our beautiful Torah can be used in such a harmful way? I was naïve, shocked. EW said this is an old question – pointed to old text – Torah can be the elixir of life or a poison; it's dangerous. We have to be careful. That kicked off a whole process for me – an ethic of interpretation; a way to maintain fidelity to text but finding ways to interpret the text to include ethics. I discovered the old Jewish behaviour of arguing with God in personal prayer (e.g. Abraham arguing for Sodom). In Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel saw rabbis putting God on trial for betraying the Covenant. Witnesses were brought and discussions went on for 3 days. God was found guilty. After the verdict they said, "now it's time to pray the evening prayer". This taught Elie Wiesel that it's possible to be for God and with God but still quarrel. Like a lover's quarrel. It doesn't have to be resolved. EW said, "when I go to heaven I'll have one question: 'Why?'" I imagine him still asking those questions.
  • Silence and Words: We are a verbal species. We think in words primarily; that's promulgated by our culture. If you can't articulate it, it doesn't exist. We don't have interpretative dances from 2000 years ago like we do language and text. But language is limited. How to express the ineffable? E.g., we can't capture dreams in words, or extreme experiences. So Elie Wiesel experienced a dilemma – he felt a responsibility to tell his story – but realized it was impossible to convey. Once when sitting with a childhood friend, Rabbi Menashe Klein, who was also in Buchenwald, E. said to him – "did it really happen?" Rabbi Klein said, "I was there with you and I don't know. How could it have happened?" So for 10 years Elie Wiesel was silent about the Holocaust. He studied psychology, travelled to India, ashrams, studying humans, other traditions. But after 10 years he started to write. He wrote the 800-page book and cut it to just over 100 pages. Why reduce so much, I asked? EW: in painting you add layers of paint. In sculpture you take away excess material: that is what writing is like for me. Me: why was Night written that way? EW: all those words are still there – you can feel them. And it's true – the book is so dense, you can feel its fullness. Jewish communities can feel this, all the dead walking among us. So you're not going to waste your life as much as you might otherwise have. Elie Wiesel answered with words and sometimes with long silences. Sometimes laughter. He talked about laughter: the cruel, the absurd, which is freeing; sometimes he answered with singing a wordless tune. So, he said, pay attention to how leaders use language. And how we use them. Avoid abstraction when talking about people (not just statistics). Humans cannot be summed up in language, either.
  • Darkness and Hope: There was a real emotional range in the classroom. We often discussed very important questions: prevent genocide, prevent suffering; cope with our own inadequacy in face of these things. We read serious books, one a week. One time the conversation was intense; we'd read Diary of Anne Frank: "I still believe that people are good at heart" she said – and Elie Wiesel told us that you have to keep in mind that the diary ends before Anne enters the camp. We have an account of her death. "It's very. difficult for me to believe," he said, "that she would have written that line later, after camp." It was a hard thing for class to hear that Frank would have lost her good hope. A student came to me later, crying – the Frank story so important – what to do. So next week she asked EW the same question. EW.: "we can't look away from these dark places. We do have a moral obligation to choose hope. It's the choice to stay engaged with other moral questions. Hope is the gift we give to each other." Student: "how do we do that?" EW: "Together." Just that one word. So I think that at the end of hope, that's when we turn to each other. We turn to each other to maintain connection – we maintain it together. For Elie Wiesel that kind of moment was simultaneously challenging (going into the dark places and being very real and grounded, not looking away – but not giving way to despair. Maintaining hope despite everything).
  • On his relationship to orthodoxy: God approaches Abraham and says, "Go on this journey to the land I will show you. Go. All the families of the world will be blest through you." He is saying that your tribe will have a particular identity – it has to be in the service of universalism – not inward looking. That wasn't the vision from the beginning. "My house will be the house for all the nations'. It's a thread that runs through our entire nation. We're called a nation of priests – whose job is to gather offerings and take the sparks from everyone and offer them to God. So it's not about looking inward. So I don't have to work hard or walk a tightrope with my orthodoxy. I feel it's simple and straightforward. Elie Wiesel modelled that powerfully by insisting that the Holocaust was unique, not comparable to other genocides – but the message was very universal: because we suffered, no one else should ever have to suffer like that. The more connected you are with your roots, the more empathetic you become. My own practice is very traditional. I always look to find ways of being inside of traditional practice that feed my soul – I read Hasidic teachings – they're mystical and existential teachings about how to make life filled with joy. That's the engine of my traditional practice.
  • Suffering as a doorway to connection: We know that suffering can cause us to build walls, become bitter and fearful, to compensate for the suffering – even become cruel. The choice that we face (over time, even lifetime): when we are suffering or aware of suffering (different than pain; suffering is the feeling that "this is wrong/injustice/betrayal/personal affront"), there is tremendous vulnerability. Take small steps, listen to another human being – a great tenderness comes from encounters that becomes precisely because I suffer, because I'm vulnerable. A rabbi is asked a story about Eden and the trees. The serpent's consequence is to crawl on its belly, eat dust, etc. So the rabbi asks, why is eating the dust of the earth a curse not a blessing – it will never be hungry? The answer: the worst curse in the world is to never be hungry; to be so self contained that there is not need for contact with another human being; to never look up to the sky and hope; to never have to ask for a favour. The places of suffering can become a doorway to connect with others – to listen to their own suffering. We can remember that suffering is a doorway.
  • On indifference v. response to evil: There's a mitzvah, a commandment, of rebuke – if the person will listen to you. If you feel they won't, then you shouldn't rebuke because it will be counterproductive. We can get creative and find ways, something to say to contact the person that transmits a kind of blessing. In situations that I felt would create a backlash (against a victim not me), I would find other ways to connect. I might ask, "Is this fennel?" just a reminder that someone else is there, a witness. It doesn't have to be frontal, always. A clear wrong, a big wrong, must be confronted, but how? By trying to join with them with dignity and compassion. It's difficult, an art. But the starting point is paying attention to the form and context.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!

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