Elie Wiesel

Making Ourselves Over … In Whose Image?

VTR Date: June 3, 1993

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Making Ourselves Over…In Whose Image?”
VTR: 6/3/93

Whatever paths nations follow or overarching choices mankind makes about issues that universally claim our attention, surely it is instead whatever individual men and women you and we, decide and then do about these issues much closer to home and hearth that truly looms larger. So that whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms.

I’m Richard Heffner. My friend and colleague is Elie Wiesel, distinguished writer, novelist, teacher, much-honored Nobel Peace Prize winner. Together our dialogues will examine what may be considered the moral responsibility of the private person in dealing with each of many issues facing us today. Those ranging from capital punishment to the proper boundaries between religion and politics, church and state. From the proper limits on extending life at its beginning and at its end, to education for what, for whom. Well, today our dialogue will focus on the extraordinary implications for mankind of the giant strides forward, if you will, that contemporary microbiology and genetics take every day, in further and further identifying the very stuff of human inheritance. We’re learning so fast now what we are made of. Indeed, seemingly we so soon will be able to make of ourselves what we will. Yet one wonders, in whose image. And about this new kind of creationism, I would ask my friend Elie Wiesel if it all feels to him akin to blasphemy, this making ourselves over.

WIESEL: Can we, first of all? Is it possible at all for a human being to be more than human? Is it possible not to be human? Whatever we do must be measured in human terms. We are not God.

HEFFNER: Elie, you say, “We are not God.” But are we not playing God as we manipulate the genetic stuff of which we’re made?

WIESEL: Well, that is a danger. I think it’s temptation. I speak to scientists, and they like it. They like the idea that they can do things that have never been done before. Now, I am a great admirer of medical science. What they are doing today is beautiful. The science has made such progress in the last 30 years or so. But today, you know, heart conditions are no longer mortal. Cancer is not vanquished yet, but some cancers can be cured. And people have more hope because of doctors, because of the research being done in laboratories under medical supervision. Ethically, of course, they are correct. It is the great commandment for any human being to help another human being live longer, better, acquire health. But from there to go to genetic experiments is a giant step.

HEFFNER: Giant steps. You’ve made giant steps in your life. What is your objection to the concept of giant steps?

WIESEL: Oh, wait. My giant steps, if they were giant at all, they were small steps perhaps, involved only myself. Maybe some of my students. Maybe some of my readers. But it’s a matter of education, nothing else. I never forced anyone, I never created a condition, a situation in which people had to do what I wanted them to do. I tried to tell a few stories and repeat a few lessons that I received from my teachers.

HEFFNER: That’s we were talking before about power, something you would move away from.

WIESEL: I don’t like power.

HEFFNER: Why not?

WIESEL: Oh, it’s too dangerous really. Who am I to say that I know more than anyone else or someone, that I have more right to have the power? Because that’s it. If you have power that means that you believe that you are different, therefore superior. And therefore you may use that situation which is yours, and that condition which is yours, and you use that power. I don’t think I’m superior. I don’t think I’m inferior. That’s not my prerogative. Nor is it my preoccupation.

HEFFNER: But as you ask questions – and I know that you are, par excellence, the question asked – aren’t you in that way dealing with what you know about the nature of human nature, and aren’t you trying to move, trying to move mankind or individual men and women in one direction or another?

WIESEL: One person. It’s always one person. I won’t move more. I have studied, as a child, and I am still studying. And to me the prophet is a great symbol. In the Jewish tradition, it is illustrated by its prophets really. The others had oracles, and so forth. We had prophets, which is only Jewish.

HEFFNER: What’s the difference?

WIESEL: Oh, the prophet is a mortal being. The prophet always takes the side of the weak, always of the poor. The prophet always speaks truth to power. As I tried once to teach a president of the United States during the Bitbury affair. I said, “We are commanded to speak truth to power.” This is the prophet. The prophet was never elected. There were no elections. He was not even appointed except by God, which means by a voice that came to him or a vision that he had at night. But the prophet, nevertheless, would come to the king and say to the king, “You shall not do that or you’ll be punished.” And he told the king things that a king didn’t want to hear. In any other civilization the prophet would be killed right away. Not there, because the prophet had a status.

Now, what is the prophet there for? The prophet is there to defend those who are defenseless. The sick the underprivileged, we call them today. Those who need defense from anyone, even from God. The prophet at times had to take the side of the people. But if he didn’t, he was punished. Most prophets, if at all, were punished at the end of their lives. That fact that none of them had a natural death, except Moses. Why? Because they were too harsh with their people. That isn’t fair. God told them to be harsh. And they were harsh. And therefore they were punished.

HEFFNER: Sounds like a discussion we once had about Job.

WIESEL: Exactly. Now, I am on the side of Job, always. And I am on the side of the victim always. And sometimes we are victims of God, so I am on the side of the victim.

HEFFNER: But Elie, the first thing you mentioned about was the sick, and you then said the poor, those who are possessionless. First thing you mentioned was the sick. Now, the medical researcher who is concerned with the potentially sick, what is your sense of what he’s doing by way of attempting to avoid sickness with the manipulation of genetic materials? That’s all that he’s doing?

WIESEL: Most of all what he is doing is opening a door. And who knows what lies behind that door? What he is doing with genetic manipulations, what I heard lately, and that of course gave me food for thought, that in cancer research genetic manipulation will play an important role. How can you be against it? I cannot be against that, of course. I would simply say that the researchers there should be very careful not to go too far. That is what I would say. It means setting the limits. Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not humiliate. Thou shall not lie. That means, who can live really without ever lying?

HEFFNER: But these scientists who are opening up, in many peoples’ estimation, Pandora’s box, are exploring power, are developing power, are making use of power to what end? To the end that mankind will be less ill, less poverty stricken. For all these good purposes. Now, you say they may open doors that we do not want walked through. But would you stop them from…

WIESEL: No. Dick, don’t misunderstand. I’m not against it.

HEFFNER: You’re asking questions.

WIESEL: I’m asking questions. I would like them to ask themselves the same questions. I am not against it. I didn’t really, I don’t have enough knowledge about science. And we mustn’t give up science. I’m ignorant in matters of scientific research, really. I don’t even know how to use a computer. But I would like them simply to not to be so sure of themselves. That’s all. Not to be so sure. To be able to help, I am convinced that every scientist wants to help humankind. But not to be so sure that that is the way. Now, in cancer, if that helps cancer, I would say go ahead.

HEFFNER: Why do you point in the direction of cancer? Why is this the…

WIESEL: Because I heard that they can do something with genetic manipulations to cure cancer. I didn’t hear it about heart disease. If I heard I would say do the same thing. But be careful.

HEFFNER: It’s certainly malformations, certainly diseases or human conditions, physical conditions that are a function of genetic makeup. Certainly those can be…Perhaps we shouldn’t use the word “manipulate”, because it has overtones that we don’t like. But changed, worked with, developed. Whatever you might say, to alleviate human suffering.

WIESEL: For instance?

HEFFNER: For instance, the many, many, many things we know now where certain human defects, a child is born without a full, functioning heart or liver or kidney or what-have-you, as a factor in genetics, the genetic makeup of the child. I few can identify where the gene needs to be changed – I’ll try to avoid the word “manipulate” –

WIESEL: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: — we’re becoming godlike, I grant, but would you really ask the question of that scientist in a way that might lead her or him to stop the work they’re into?

WIESEL: No. No. I wouldn’t stop. But what I would say to the scientist, “Go ahead.” But I would like simply the scientist to see every case as a unique case and not to say, “Because I succeeded here, next time, even if I’m not so sure, I can do it anyway”.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Elie, you talked before about going through this door. Certainly you and I would agree that that will not happen, that in fact what we know about the nature of human nature and of human endeavors is that once you start down a path you don’t examine every case by itself. So what would you opt for?

WIESEL: Well, I would still say you should examine every case as itself. It’s like we spoke once about the death penalty and so forth, about abortion. And every case is a unique case. Every human being is a unique human being irrespective of color or ethnic origin or religious belief. It’s a unique human being. That is the beauty of human existence, in addition to everything else. Therefore, I would like the scientists, because I respect and I admire what the scientist is doing, to see in the human being…Look, a surgeon who is operating on his or her patient, if for that surgeon that patient is not the most important person in the world at that moment, that surgeon should not be there. The same should be true of the scientist. And if a scientist comes and says, “Look, this child is going to be born with a malfunction and so forth, and therefore we can do something, let’s do it”, I would say, “Speak to the parents.” The parents should ask, maybe, their spiritual leader. Who knows what. But it should not be simply a matter of push buttons. You push a button and you have a genetic change or metamorphosis. That would lead, even if that scientist would be a good person, I’m sure he would b a good person, the next generations of scientists will take it like a normal thing like taking a cup of coffee.

HEFFNER: Now, when I take you out of the ask-questions mode – and that’s difficult to do – and put you in the role as prophet, prophesier…

WIESEL: Oh, no.


WIESEL: No. I don’t want to be that.

HEFFNER: Well, I know you don’t want to be.

WIESEL: But I’m a reader, a student of prophets, but not a prophet. I am a student of philosophy, but not a philosopher.

HEFFNER: Now, that’s not true.

WIESEL: It is, really. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. Plato was a philosopher, and Spinoza was a philosopher. Marx was a philosopher. I, a philosopher? I’m a storyteller.

HEFFNER: Now, they too, many people identified as philosophers have told stories. But you all tell stories with a point.

WIESEL: Tell me, are you a philosopher?

HEFFNER: (Laughter) That’s fair. A fair question. And no, I don’t think of myself as that, but I think of my friend Elie Wiesel as a philosopher.

WIESEL: Well, I could say the same thing. I think of my friend Dick Heffner as a philosopher.

HEFFNER: Well, Elie, I’m not going to pursue this, because I know I can’t.

WIESEL: In questions I am good.

HEFFNER: Well, all right. Then the question you would have a scientist put to herself or himself has to do with the morality, appropriateness of the act about to be taken.

WIESEL: And the next step. Don’t forget that. And the next. What will happen then? Once it becomes routine, I’m afraid of the routine.

HEFFNER: But then aren’t you saying that’s not sufficient, asking that question of myself as a scientist in relation to this particular person, this particular disease? I must be so frightened of the potential of the misuse of what I am developing that doesn’t that lead to saying, “Stop the scientific procedure?”

WIESEL: I am afraid of something else. I am afraid that the scientist one day, in the year 2051, may say…

HEFFNER: Not too long from now.

WIESEL: …may say, “Actually, we can change the genes so as the person will be not only healthier, but a better person.” Which means that person will make choices in the sense of what you want them to make, meaning moral persons. That I’m afraid of. I don’t want, there you say in the divine image, in whose image? Who is making the image? That is really the person’s choice. I don’t want the person to lose what makes a human being noble.

HEFFNER: Including evil?

WIESEL: Even evil. Even his capacity for evil. I don’t want the person to lose his ability to choose. We can choose. Everybody chooses. We are all making choices. I don’t want the scientist to prevent or to deprive me of that choice of that ability. But in the year 2051 maybe one scientist will say, “Look, there is an area in the brain, and this is really the moral area.” Just as we know that there is an area for music, an area for this. “A moral area. Let me do it.” Then we will have good people. They won’t kill. They won’t make war.

HEFFNER: Elie, for crying out loud, why are you putting it so far In the future? You make it sound as though you’re talking about 50 years or so. Don’t you think that that’s almost upon us, the capacity to make those changes?

WIESEL: I am afraid that you are right there. I simply wanted to give an illustration. Even if it happens only in the year 2051, I will be afraid of that.

HEFFNER: We don’t talk much about the Holocaust, you and I, not in this context…

WIESEL: We can’t really talk about it.

HEFFNER: But if the manipulation of genetic materials could have prevented that manifestation of evil undreamed of, would not this be a step and direction…

WIESEL: Look, if I know that one child would be saved simply because of a move by a scientist, of course I would say, “Yes, go ahead.” Naturally. You are asking me a question which is a painful question because you know the answer. The life of one child is more important than anything else. And all the theories in the world, and all the experiments in the world…I would say, “Yes, go ahead.”

HEFFNER: Of course these people are, these scientists we address ourselves to, they are doing just that, trying to save one life, many lives.

WIESEL: Yes, but let them think. I would like them to think, I’m sure they do. Let me turn it around. Let me ask you a question. During the war, during the Holocaust, very important experiments were made in the camps by cruel, brutal, inhuman, Nazi doctors. Maybe they have discovered certain good things for human beings. Should we use them?

HEFFNER: That’s a question that really has come up, hasn’t it? A number of times.

WIESEL: Uh huh. Should we use them?

HEFFNER: And what I would do, of course, is do what my friend Elie Wiesel would do.

WIESEL: As a question.

HEFFNER: Ask you the question.

WIESEL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: When that was very much a public issue. What were your sentiments? What were your feelings?

WIESEL: My feelings were not to use them.

HEFFNER: Not to use them.

WIESEL: I simply feel that we today, science today really has made such progress that our own scientists can make the same discoveries. But there is something so, so ugly, so inhuman, and so dark about what those Nazi doctors did that we shouldn’t even benefit from it. There could be no benefit derived from that period, from that tragedy. I remember somebody told me that the pill is also somehow linked to the experiments made during the war.

HEFFNER: You mean the fertility, anti-fertility?

WIESEL: Anti-fertility. But luckily it was discovered by our own scientists later on in a different way. There my feeling is that not to accept anything from them.

HEFFNER: But Elie, I do want to press you further on this because I appreciate what you said a moment ago about, “If one child, if one human being should be saved, should be helped.” The theories would have to be moved out of the way. How do you reconcile that feeling on your part, that moral conviction with the hatefulness of the idea of making use of what Mengele and the others…

WIESEL: Well, first of all, they didn’t really until now. What I hear – I’m asking a hypothetical question –

HEFFNER: Uh huh.

WIESEL: They didn’t discover anything that would be of use to humanity. What I heard is that not a single discovery was made there.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you’re not given to hypotheticals.

WIESEL: Then I, I would be naïve and romantic. Let me be romantic and naïve for a minute and say…

HEFFNER: Please.

WIESEL: …that these people were so evil that nothing good could come out of them.

HEFFNER: I certainly cannot disagree with that, except one part of my head…

WIESEL: If, if. But maybe the fact is that evil does not always produce good.

HEFFNER: Well, evil, wouldn’t you say evil, you say, “Doesn’t always.” You really mean never will produce good. But can you mean that?

WIESEL: You know, dick, I think so. Except, you know, in mysticism we have certain theories that absolute evil can bring absolute good.

HEFFNER: Uh huh.

WIESEL: It’s a dangerous theory.

HEFFNER: Dangerous. So you would say, not put it out of bounds, and say, “Be careful”.

WIESEL: Be careful of it. Be careful of it. Yes.

HEFFNER: So your advice to the scientist is to be careful.

WIESEL: Be careful. Be careful.

HEFFNER: And your advice to, although you don’t like to be in the position of giving advice, or how would you formulate the question to the larger public which actually is making choices now in many of the governmental projects that are furthering the mapping out of our genetic content? You and I know some use will have been made of that. It is not pie in the sky, by and by. It is almost now. What would we say to ourselves as citizens as we…there’s a power we insist that we use as responsible citizens?

WIESEL: I think, hasn’t there been a moratorium on genetic experiments? I think…

HEFFNER: No, I think the genome work continues.

WIESEL: Is going to continue.

HEFFNER: Continues on.

WIESEL: Let me be romantic again. How about asking, really, before giving aid, financial aid or encouragement to anyone in any level of training, asking for some moral guarantees? I will not give it to someone who is immoral. He may be a genius; I wouldn’t give it to that person. How about, again, setting some rules?

HEFFNER: How shall we identify…

WIESEL: Who will be the moral person?

HEFFNER: Who would be the judge as to who is moral?

WIESEL: I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t there right at this moment be people watching us, listening to us, who would say, “What could be more immoral than to say that for a moment progress should not continue, scientific work should not be continued? Because we may alleviate pain and suffering.”

WIESEL: Maybe in medicine of course. But I would like then the viewer who is seeing you, who is listening to you, to think there are certain areas where even Dick Heffner and his friend have no answers. Just ask it. In truth, I don’t have any fixed idea about it. It is so complex. Because you…the Talmudic language is…on one hand it’s you know, on the other hand, yet on the third hand. I cannot really tell you with a perfect conviction that I know what to do. If I were president of the United States…


WIESEL: If I had to make decisions. I don’t know. Maybe I would organize, first of all, a kind of colloquium. You know I like colloquia. Of moral leaders, philosophers and thinkers and poets to the white House for the whole weekend and listen to them. I would like to listen more to the arguments.

HEFFNER: Elie, we just have a few minutes left here, a couple of minutes left. Do you find that we are moving closer and closer or further and further away from that kind of moral thinking, moral workout? It seems to me there’s less and less of that.

WIESEL: I think we’re oscillating. Dostoyevski said, “Man is not choosing,” said he, “between good and evil, but he oscillates between one and the other”. And we are oscillating between moral, between a quest for absolute morality and the fear of getting it or getting to it. And some people, I’m convinced, are morally dominated. They want to go to morality. Others are not.

HEFFNER: Do you respond well or poorly to the notion that in this effort to eliminate pain, suffering, evil, in whatever order, we are essentially denying the godhead?

WIESEL: No. I think, whatever you do, if you believe in God, whatever you do is God’s will. That’s, for a religious person there is no question. For a nonbeliever there’s no answer. But for a religious person it’s simply God is everywhere. God is in the question. Even in the denier of God, God is there. So, to help another person in the name of good principles, why not? God is there. And anyone who does anything can always find the words to say, “Oh, I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it for something good, something noble, something sacred.”

HEFFNER: But that isn’t a reason to put any obstacle – I don’t mean physical; I mean psychological even – in the way of such people?

WIESEL: But again, because some people may be helped. Again if one child is helped, how can you say no to that child? How can you say no to the father of the child? I really don’t know what to do there. But I would simply say, “Be careful.”

HEFFNER: Elie, that is probably as good a place to conclude this discussion, “Be careful.” Thank you for joining me again today.

WIESEL: Thank you.