A Theology of Meaning: Hasidism and Deconstruction in Elie Wiesel's Souls on Fire

Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 28, pp 41-45.

 By Lauren Barlow

Elie Wiesel's Souls on Fire, released in 1972, is a personal retelling of the lives and legends of the early Hasidic masters of Eastern Europe. The novel begins with the movement's founder, the Baal Shem, and chronicles the rise and development of the movement through the teachings and lives of those who followed him. Although these lives are filled with fantasy, paradox, and contradiction, Wiesel's account has one constant message: in the suffering of exile, every Jew can speak for God. When Souls on Fire was released, Victor Malka asked Elie Wiesel, "What is, for you, the greatest Hasidic saying?" and Wiesel replied, "There is much to choose from. Without doubt, one that I find beautiful and like very much is the saying of this master: 'I have always sought to discover what man is, and finally I have understood. He is the language of God'" (Malka 37). And this is the message that Wiesel explores in Souls on Fire as he presents the words of Hasidic masters who taught that, despite God's absence, every Jew can give meaning to existence and provide comfort in suffering through word and deed. Stated more simply, Wiesel's Hasidism teaches that through speech and action, man can become the language of God. For this paper, I would like to explore in Souls on Fire how it is that man is the language of God. And in exploring this question, I would also like to illustrate the resonances between this aspect of Jewish theology and deconstruction, by drawing from Derrida's "Edmond Jab├ęs and The Question of the Book." For, the correspondence between these two illustrates that in the absence of God and all that He symbolizes, writing can be a form of prayer that can begin to redeem both man and God.

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