Wiesel's storytelling is, of course, much more than an act of transmission. It is an act of love and of lesson-giving. ''Wise Men and Their Tales'' continues the series he began years ago of intimate snapshots from the ancient world of the Bible and the Hasidic world of the shtetl, this time adding Talmudic personalities, rabbis of the third to sixth centuries A.D. who expounded upon biblical law and lore. Just as, for Wiesel, biblical stories are not events of bygone times but paradigmatic tales of complex human beings navigating complex relationships, Talmudic masters are not disembodied rabbis debating obscurities but brilliant and flawed men struggling to make sense of God's will and God's world. And Hasidic life, in all of its glory and all of its difficulty, is his lost world, as present to him as the present.
The book begins with the exuberant proclamation ''I love Rashi,'' the medieval Jewish commentator. Thereafter, Wiesel is very eager -- indeed, a little too eager -- to tell us whom else he loves. He loves Gideon the prophet ''because he was not afraid to doubt certainties.'' He loves Rabbi Tarfon because he was humble; in fact, he loves ''all of the sages in the Talmud, even those who lose.'' He likes the Hasidic rabbis of Zanz and Sadigur a great deal, though they hated each other. And he really loves speaking Yiddish. His enthusiasm lies somewhere between engaging adoration and irritating obsequiousness.
And yet, ''Wise Men and Their Tales'' is not saccharine. It is a soft but also a demanding book, as Wiesel insists upon justice for both the characters traditional Jewish interpretation favors and those it maligns.
Saturday, December 20, 2003
ELIE WIESEL'S BOOK Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters is reviewed by Erin Leib in the New York Times. Excerpt: