Book review: Elie Wiesel’s “The Trial of God”

I feel that I am treading on holy ground when I approach the depth of suffering and horror that the Jewish people endured during the Holocaust, and that I have little right to express any thought on the matter at all; I would rather listen, listen to what they have to say and to teach us. The U.S. school system does a good job and introducing young students to the matter. I have read “Number the Stars” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as well as a few others. I am glad that as a society, we are still engaging with it, still wrestling with it, and seeking out answers.

“The Trial of God” was written by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. I put the book on my to-read list after encountering another book dealing with human suffering, “Re-Reading Job” by Michael Austin. “Trial” at its very center is the story of Job re-told in the context of the Holocaust and thet Jewish pogroms of the 12th and 13th centuries.



“The Trial” is very interesting, in that it is a story within a story. While Wiesel was in a concentration camp, some rabbis with whom he was acquainted held a mock trial of God. Wiesel wanted to write about this experience later, but it just wouldn’t come out– as a memoir, an essay, a reflection. Instead, he chose to write it as a play set in 13th century Poland. It’s a story within a story.

The two characters that clash in the third act are Berish, the prosecutor of God who has witnessed the rape, pillage, and murder of his people at the hands of Christians; and Sam, the defender of God whom no one seems to no who he is, but they all feel that he looks vaguely familiar. Sam makes many of the arguments for God in the face of suffering that seem superficial and do not comfort; we do not know God’s ways, we can’t see the bigger picture, can we really compare ourselves to God’s suffering or the suffering of others, etc. These are the arguments that Job’s comforters make in the book of Job as well. There is a twist at the end though, but I can’t spoil it for you. Sam is mysterious for a reason.

I am impressed with how much Wiesel is able to pack into these characters in so little time. The three minstrels, the Christian woman Marie, the outraged Berish, his suffering daughter Hannah, and the cold Sam. It is a book that asks the tough questions, and perhaps challenges your faith. It isn’t godless; but Berish demands justice from God when justice doesn’t seem to be present. Men of faith too ask why there is such suffering in the world. There is no simple answer, and we should avoid giving them, because rather than comforting, we cause affliction.


Quotes from the text:

That you are God’s whip, that is quite possible. But don’t be so proud of it. God is closer to the Just struck by the whip than to the whip. God may punish the Just whom He loves, but despise the instrument of punishment; He throws it in the garbage, whereas the Just will find his way to the sanctuary.

I lived as a Jew, and it is as a Jew that I shall die—and it is as a Jew that, with my last breath, I shall shout my protest to God. And because the end is near, I shall shout louder! Because the end is near, I’ll tell Him that He’s more guilty than ever!

So what? Must one be thirsty to drink? Do birds fly only when they have someplace to go? They fly because they love freedom and the blue sky. We drink the way they fly.

Love was invented as an excuse for everything that goes wrong. You beat up someone and you say, “But it’s because I love you.” You cheat someone and again you say, “But it’s because I love you.” You mention the word love and everything is forgiven. Well, I do not forgive!

Don’t talk to me of His suffering—leave that to the priest. If I am given the choice of feeling sorry for Him or for human beings, I choose the latter anytime. He is big enough, strong enough to take care of Himself; man is not.

“You are not even awed? You feel nothing?” Sam responds: “I dislike emotions. I prefer facts and cool logic.”

I don’t want a minor, secondary justice, a poor man’s justice! I want no part of a justice that escapes me, diminishes me and makes a mockery out of mine! Justice is here for men and women—I therefore want it to be human, or let Him keep it!… Why shouldn’t the victims of injustice take part in a debate over justice?



Consolation is no answer. It heightens the problem rather than resolving it. It may have a place within the Jewish tradition, but one cannot remain passive in the face of evil. So what shall we do? Rather than passivity, a dedicated aggressiveness is demanded. We are invited by another part of the Jewish tradition not to bury our concerns but to hold them up, to confront God with them, sometimes in anger. This is the manner of Jeremiah, who challenges God: “Why do the wicked prosper, and the treacherous all live at ease?”

We are permitted to question God, to challenge God, to demand an accounting from God. And this, rather than diminishing God is truly to take God seriously. As Wiesel has frequently remarked, “I do not have any answers, but I have some very good questions.”

Satan sounds oh so theologically correct and logical. He could get a job in most academic theological institutions today. Beware of theologians and excessive rationalizations, Wiesel is warning. Rightly so. For theology too easily strays into the lap of the left brain, too far from the guts where injustice as well as compassion are felt and where wonder and amazement are tasted.

Meister Eckhart, a mystic and prophetic figure of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century who supported oppressed peasants and women in his day, used to say, “I pray God to rid me of God.” In many ways that is what I heard echoed in this trial of God: it was a trial to finally rid ourselves of a God who is too small, who does not live up to the divine nature of compassion and justice, who has not penetrated the lives of his/her followers, who allows the Godself to be used for programs and pogroms of racism, injustice, genocide, hatred, murder, and ignorance. Religious fanatics are prophets with no love, prophets with no mystical soul. They are false prophets, therefore, and corrupters of true religion. While those who dissent are often the true prophets.

Maybe growing up religiously means moving from an exclusively interventionist theology of redemption to a coresponsibility theology of redemption. In the former we are taught to await salvation from the outside (much like the men in the play, who kept looking for Sam to deliver them right up to the end). Such a theology presumes a theistic world view; that is, that the God of creation and liberation is outside of things. In a coresponsibility theology of redemption God is not seen theistically or outside of things but panentheistically or within things and with things within God. Redemption in this context would be less about outside interventions than about humans waking up to their own responsibility and power as communities, as individuals, and as a species, to stand up and say “No!”

We humans are still incredulous when we hear how much responsibility we bear for our own fate and that of others. Is it God we don’t believe in, or ourselves as images of God? If we believed in the latter, our ways would have to change.

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