Ariel Burger: Judaism Unbound Episode 152 - Elie Wiesel's Classroom


Ariel Burger joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to discuss his book Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, winner of a 2018 National Jewish Book Award. [1]

Image Credit: Boston University

Image Credit: Boston University

(0:01 - 15:11): To begin the episode, Burger provides an overview of Elie Wiesel’s life and accomplishments. [2] He emphasizes that, in addition to being a writer and an internationally-recognized activist, he took pride in his work as a teacher (an element of Wiesel’s legacy that sometimes remains under the radar). Burger reflects on his own first impressions of Wiesel, along with how their teacher-student relationship evolved and grew over time. [3] He asks an important framing question — “How does a teacher create a space for transformation?” — and considers some of the answers embodied by Wiesel’s classroom.

(15:12 - 32:28): Burger looks at the context in which Wiesel taught — an American university. He explores how universities prioritize their work, and how professors prioritize the various elements of their jobs, arguing that teaching often is under-valued in favor of research. Continuing along that thread, Burger examines the distinction between “professor” and “teacher,” along with the powerful relationship that can come when “teacher” and “student” are understood as relational terms. In particular, he talks about Wiesel’s difficulties with being seen by students as a person to be revered. Burger also looks at how Wiesel understood the uniqueness of the Holocaust, [4] along with the broader question of how particularism and universalism relate to one another. [5]

(32:29 - 43:16): When looking at figures who are largely understood to have led heroic lives, there is always a danger of mythologizing them. Burger names the tension between the exercise of hagiography — telling only the positive about historical figures — and on the other hand, of refusing to see the sacred in individuals who really led commendable lives. He also explores Elie Wiesel’s approach to Israel and Palestine, [6] along with how those who differ staunchly with him on that issue could still attempt to learn from his legacy. To close the episode, Burger calls listeners to embrace Wiesel’s distinction between “a hope of quietism” and “an active hope that gets you off the couch.” [7] He cautions against despair, as each individual works to do their part to improve a broken world.

[1] Learn more about Ariel Burger by visiting ArielBurger.com, and purchase Witness by clicking here.

[2] For a wide variety of books written by Wiesel and available for purchase (including Night), click here.

[3] Burger mentions Yitz Greenberg as one of the key individuals that helped Wiesel first attain a job as a teacher at City College of New York. Hear Greenberg’s appearance on Judaism Unbound by listening to Episode 100: The Third Era - Yitz Greenberg.

[4] Burger cites Wiesel’s opposition to the “banalization” of the Holocaust. Wiesel’s concerns about how the Holocaust’s uniqueness might be trivialized are noted in the book Holocaust Images and Picturing Catastrophe, written by Angi Buettner and available for purchase here.

[5] Wiesel’s aphorism of “And yet” comes up here. For more on the importance of that phrase for him, see this obituary in The Economist.

[6] For two different perspectives on Elie Wiesel’s relationship to Israel and Palestine, see “On Palestinians, Elie Wiesel Had Nothing to Apologize For” (featured in Ha’aretz) and “Elie Wiesel’s Moral Imagination Never Reached Palestine” (featured in Foreign Policy")