Elie Wiesel

The Proper Boundaries between Religion and Politics, Church and State

VTR Date: May 20, 1994

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: The Proper Boundaries between Religion and Politics, Church and State
VTR: 5/20/94

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 largest. 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 role of the intellectual in our lives, from the proper limits on extending life at its beginning and at its ending, to education for what, for whom? Today our dialogue will focus on the proper boundaries between religion and politics, church and state.

Elie, I was brought up to believe that one never talked about religion or politics, and even about money. But we can’t not do that. Your deep concerns for Israel, and for your adopted country, the United States; what do those concerns lead you to believe about the proper relationship between church and state, religion and politics? Different for Israel than for the United States?

WIESEL: In both cases, I would say there should be separation, total separation. It’s not good for religion to be involved in politics. It’s not good for politics to be involved with religion. Both lose. And the losers usually are the people.


WIESEL: Because the interests are not the same. In religion, there is not the concept of elections. Nobody’s elected. Moses wasn’t elected. There was no election campaign for Moses. He didn’t want to become the leader. The same thing throughout the ages; a rabbi is not elected, he’s ordained. We believe in democracy. People who speak for the community are elected by that community. And therefore the two don’t go together.

HEFFNER: But in a sense they have to go together, don’t they Elie?

WIESEL: No. Why do they?

HEFFNER: Well, because if there is to be comity, amity, if there is to be peace, mustn’t the ordained and the elected work hand in hand?

WIESEL: Hand in hand, yes. But one should not be dominated by the other. This means the politician should not issue religious rulings. And the religious leader should not give political advice.

HEFFNER: Well, suppose we accept that. That’s not difficult to accept. But then…

WIESEL: It is difficult. What do you mean? In many countries, here, there are here religious leaders who try to impose their will, and in Israel as well.

HEFFNER: Now, it’s interesting that you say religious leaders who try to impose their will, and in Israel too; and the other way around?

WIESEL: Political…? No.


WIESEL: They don’t really. What do they want? Politicians want one thing. They want votes, but not to impose their will. Do you think it’s important for the candidate whether I go to synagogue or not? What’s important is to get my vote.

HEFFNER: You mean, then, that in this country, for instance, when there is dispute between and among us about issues that can be considered religious issues, whether we’re talking about abortion or any of many, many other issues; that in these instances we are not talking about power, you’re saying we are simply talking about catering to votes?

WIESEL: No, no, no, wait, I think they are religious leaders there. They believe in what they say.

HEFFNER: No, no, no, I mean political leaders. And this is what we have found in our country.

WIESEL: Some political leaders are religious. And therefore, when they oppose or support abortion, they speak not because of their policy but because of their religious belief. Others simply believe politically; meaning, again the polis – polis means that the city, it means that the community – they believe that morally, they cannot oppose abortion. But when it becomes a political issue, per say, I think it’s dangerous.

HEFFNER: But if your principle, in life, that each decision we must make must be made from a moral perspective; how can we separate that? You wouldn’t really differentiate religious perception from moral perception, would you?

WIESEL: No. But, look, what is a moral perception in your eyes?

HEFFNER: The right thing.

WIESEL: My feeling is the moment we say moral perception, it means it involves the other. It’s not what’s good for me, but what’s good for you.

HEFFNER: The right thing is what’s good for others.

WIESEL: Others. Not for me. Therefore, a political candidate or a religious leader thinking about, let’s say the problem of abortion which is so important in this country, it’s explosive in this country, must think about what does it do to the mother, what does it do to the child, for the people around. And therefore, what I don’t like here in this debate is that it became so violent. It is the most explosive, the most violent issue. The most violence-provoked issue in the country is abortion. I don’t like the debate, I don’t like the hostility. There is hate, now, in the debate. But the debate is a proper one.

HEFFNER: But the debate perhaps focuses our attention on this question of the proper connection between the state and religion. There are those who say that religion has no role in this debate; that it is a governmental decision, the relationship between a woman and her body is the way that it is put. Can you accept that?

WIESEL: Not entirely. Not entirely, because who makes a decision? Do we allow every individual to make the decision for himself or herself? Or is the government the only body capable to make that decision? Or is it the religious group to which he or she belongs that makes a decision? But that is a moral way of considering the issue.

HEFFNER: Well, let me turn for a moment to Israel because I think that’s of very real interest in terms of this question. How is the answer given there to the question we have given to ourselves; what is the proper relationship between religion and the state, religion and politics?

WIESEL: Well, religion in Israel, because of its history, has unfortunately too much influence. They mix in politics, and it happens already that small religious parties impose their will on the future prime minister because of the political balance in parliament, and I don’t like that.

HEFFNER: But you’re a man of belief, you’re a man of religion, are you not?

WIESEL: I rarely speak about my religion, but yes I am. I go to synagogue and my upbringing was such that I believe.

HEFFNER: Your upbringing was such…

WIESEL: Upbringing was such and my inner motivation is such, and because of my tradition. My main goal is not to let that tradition die with me. And therefore I try to continue it.

HEFFNER: Simply to avoid its dying?

WIESEL: That’s enough.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “That’s enough?”

WIESEL: It’s enough. Because look, what does it mean to live? It means to continue life and to give it, in our words, a sacred dimension. Life is sacred. Life is always sacred. Mine or yours is sacred. When Moses was alive he was Moses, and that Moses was impure.

HEFFNER: Elie, does that mean that tradition is, for you, a thing in itself?

WIESEL: Oh no.

HEFFNER: Well you talk about making the tradition survive. You don’t distinguish between good traditions and bad traditions… forgive me for using good and bad, for traditions that have proven to be more divisive, more dangerous to our survival?

WIESEL: I’m sure there are traditions that do carry in them and with them violence and hatred. Of course I oppose them. But, then, my role as an educator is to show that some traditions are more human than others. But I would never say that mine is superior to any other.

HEFFNER: But you want to foster, you want to preserve the great traditions.

WIESEL: Dick, no other religious tradition has been as threatened as ours.

HEFFNER: As threatened?

WIESEL: As threatened, as assaulted, as endangered as ours. Show me one. We are the only, the only tradition of antiquity that survived antiquity.

HEFFNER: But there are those who say “my country, right or wrong.” Are you then saying “my religion, right or wrong?”

WIESEL: No, of course not. There are certain things in my religion that are wrong, that I try to fight.

HEFFNER: When you say “I try to fight,” I have to ask you how, why?

WIESEL: I’m not a rabbi. But in my writings, in my teaching, I that hope in my encounters, I try to see certain things that are not what I would like them to be and I don’t think they are what our ancestors would want them to be. So I do it, but the decision in religious matters belongs to religious leaders, meaning to the rabbis.

HEFFNER: And the rabbis and their relationship, the priests, the ministers and their relationship to government?

WIESEL: It depends when. In our history, we had three categories: the king, the prophet, and the priest. And they were always distinct. They all had their prerogatives. And they somehow never had the role, or the right to dominate the others. The priest was a priest, in the temple. The prophet was a prophet, everywhere. And the king was in his royal palace, conducting the daily affairs of the nation.

Today it’s different. Today, because we don’t have the temple anymore, so we have recourse to other expressions of our attachment to God and His law.

HEFFNER: More satisfactory?

WIESEL: Never satisfactory. But, again, we try to find a way. I was very religious when I was a child and an adolescent, very religious. I am not the same now. Of course not, how can one be after what we have seen? But I also know that because of that break, and breakdown in the 1940s, whatever I will do as an individual who prays, in my prayers, in my dreams, or in my work, will never be satisfactory. I am never satisfied. When I finish a book, and I have written, God knows, maybe too many, I am not satisfied. I always feel… a friend of mine named Piotr Rawicz, who wrote a marvelous book which disappeared, called “Blood from the Sky”; he told me once, in Paris, he said when he finished that great, great, great novel he felt “the taste of ashes” in his mouth. And so do I. It’s never satisfactory.

HEFFNER: Elie, at the end of the war, what was the taste that was left in your mouth in terms of your childhood devotion to religion and to religious tradition?

WIESEL: In 1945, when I came to France, to a children’s home, I re-became religious just as before. When I think about it now, I have it in my autobiography, I reevaluate my behavior, I don’t understand it. It was as if I wanted to close the parenthesis. I picked up the treaty of the Talmud, the treaties, and exactly at the page that I had left when I left it. I wanted to become, to re-become, exactly the same adolescent, even more religious.

HEFFNER: Did it work?

WIESEL: For a few years. I wanted so much because maybe I thought that if it was only parenthesis, all that happened didn’t, and I will wake up and my parents will be there and so forth, and my teachers, my friends. I re-became very religious. And then when I began studying philosophy, I found the tools for my questioning in philosophy. But the questions remain, and the quest remains. And I know that whatever I will do will ever be mutilated, always.

HEFFNER: What have you done with that parenthesis?

WIESEL: Oh I try to invoke it, again, in my writing. I’ve written a lot about Hassidism, about the Talmud, and the Bible, about Mysticism. I am a good student, a good disciple.

HEFFNER: Elie, I know this wasn’t my intention, and it may not be your intention in talking about this subject today. I have always been curious, what I meant by about the parenthesis, about how you dealt with the Holocaust, how you dealt with what happened to you, to your parents, to your family; how you dealt with it in terms of your religion and the question that you asked yourself, “Could there be a God?”

WIESEL: My dear Dick, you know very well that all the questions I had remained open. I found no answer. However, certain principles apply. I don’t believe that because I suffered I have the right to inflict suffering.

HEFFNER: What do you mean inflict suffering?

WIESEL: Meaning to make other people suffer, or to justify suffering.

HEFFNER: You mean by diminishing their institutions, their religious…

WIESEL: By diminishing, yes, or by opposing, or by hating, or by accepting other people’s suffering. I don’t. I don’t believe that because I went through certain experiences, it is the fault of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. I may have my problems, and I do, with the Master of the Universe. But why should I say that Rabbi Akiba is responsible for it?

So, therefore, I am profoundly involved in study. That has been my passion. What saved my sanity, not during but after the war, was my passion for study. The question is really not how we survived, but how did we survive mentally afterwards when we came out and we saw that life, business as usual, and people, very few people cared. That was the great disillusionment, it was not during. That we realized, when I realized for the first time that Roosevelt knew, I cannot tell you the despair that was mine, because we loved Roosevelt in our town. We speak about politics; in my little town we loved Roosevelt. He was the father of my people. We made prayers for him. When I found out later that he knew… (shakes head)

What kept us, therefore, was the study; this little book that we carried in heikhal, from one heikhal to another for two thousand years. We didn’t carry money, we had no treasures. We had a book. And out of this book came other books. So, therefore, of course grads were… they became so centered that the danger was in ignoring others, other traditions. I never knew what was going on in a church. There was a church in my street; I would change sidewalks because I was afraid of something I don’t even know what, of being kidnapped, of being converted by force, something. I was afraid. I changed sidewalks. And I was wrong. I was right, then, but I would be wrong if I did it now. On the contrary, now I’ve evolved with dialogues and I have friendships, the cardinal of Paris is one of my closest friends, the cardinal of New York is a good friend of mine. I know many priests, many serious, sincere, Catholic and Protestant thinkers, or Buddhist thinkers, or Muslim thinkers. I have no right to close my world simply because I came from it, and say, “This is my world and the other world doesn’t exist.”

HEFFNER: Elie, what is happening now? We talked together in 1954. What is happening fifty years after the end of the war, almost fifty years, to the people who came from the camps, and lived? What is happening to those who wanted memory, as you have stressed memory, and now who themselves must prepare to be no more?

WIESEL: I have rarely spoken about this. I have written little about it because, again, I don’t believe you can say, with words, whatever happened. What happened will never be told, because we don’t know how. When I wrote “Night” ten years after the war, my goal was to reach the survivors because I knew that they, like me, didn’t know how to say it. And yet I believe that every one of them has a unique story to tell which is invaluable to mankind. And therefore I want them to know, look, it’s possible to try at least. Now we feel that, it’s true, it’s the end of an era, the end of our generation. In the beginning, I used to say in the beginning we went to weddings, then to circumcision ceremonies, and then to other weddings, to the children’s weddings; now we go to funerals. And the community is shrinking. We are an endangered species. What do we do? We try to build a sanctuary within that memory, and to give our passion to it, our life to it. How do we succeed? I don’t know.

But, by the way, I do not believe that the danger now is forgetting because it’s impossible to forget. So many documents, pictures, writings; no event in history has been as documented as this one. I’m afraid of trivialization, of cheapening, of commercialization of something to which I believe to be sacred. So, we help now more and more survivors write their memoirs, speak, and they go to schools speaking to children. We are very far away from politics, as we say, and church, and synagogue, and so forth. Not really. We believe – I believe, why should I speak for them, I believe that if we remember what has been done, the greatest crime in history, the greatest crime in history may become a shield to save many human beings from becoming inhuman.

HEFFNER: Trivialization, Elie, this is a discussion we’ve had, not on the air but between and among ourselves. Do you feel less intense now or even more so, that there is danger in trying to describe something that is indescribable?

WIESEL: More so.


WIESEL: Because it’s becoming acceptable now. It’s being accepted, things that, say, that twenty years ago would not have been accepted, not only by us, by the community, are now accepted. We have crossed certain thresholds.

HEFFNER: You mean accepted in terms of becoming… the unthinkable has become thinkable?

WIESEL: Become thinkable? No, but representable. Now people believe that it can be shown. It can be dealt with. It can be coped with. I think we cannot. It’s a unique event.

HEFFNER: I’ve never understood why you think that the representation means that the artist who represent, or tries to represent the Holocaust, believes that he or she is dealing with it, is coping with it.

WIESEL: How can anyone who wasn’t there imagine himself or herself being there?

HEFFNER: But Elie, that question, which I admit is not answerable satisfactorily, would seem to imply that we must then, forget, when you are gone and the other survivors are gone, there seemingly will be nothing left if you maintain that position.

WIESEL: No, really, there are so many biographies, autobiographies, documents in the hundreds of thousands; they remain. I am not criticizing, by the way, any theatric production here or any film. There are some that are very good, and very important, very effective. They are speaking from general principles, general terms. But the main thing is really what was written by the dead. They are the most important documents. And whoever will read them, they will remember.

HEFFNER: For the first time I went to the Holocaust Museum, my wife and I, and friends, the other week. And those shoes, I don’t know why, the shoes stay in my mind, other than so many other things. They cannot be eradicated.

WIESEL: Of course not.

HEFFNER: The thing that fascinated me was that there were so many people who would otherwise never have felt, or dealt with this. And you feel the same thing cannot be true of fiction, or film?

WIESEL: No, can you imagine shoes that came from the store, would you feel the same way?

HEFFNER: No, no. No.

WIESEL: So if it’s true about shoes, what about people?

HEFFNER: But there are a quarter of a billion people plus in this country, Elie. A fraction will see what I saw the other week, the representations that you feel uneasy about – less so about some, more so about others – are the only way in which a large enough proportion, whatever that means….

WIESEL: I give in. I know, we speak in numbers, and what can I say? However I still believe. I belong to a minority of course, but I want that minority to have the right to speak. And fifty years from now, when neither you nor I will be here, maybe you will be… our children and grandchildren will be here, and then I want them to see, or at least to realize that the real story has not been told because it cannot be told. Which means, something happened in history; that something was done by the murderers to their victims which will never be expressed, because it was beyond human understanding.

HEFFNER: Elie, thank you for joining me today.

WIESEL: Thank you.