Wiesel, Levinas and Chouchani
By Herman (Jack) Jacobowitz
The figures of Elie Wiesel and Emanuel Levinas stand like giants hovering over the Jewish intellectual history of the 20th century. Wiesel is of course the better known, not only for winning the Nobel Prize for Peace but for his many popular novels, biographical writings, lectures and philosophic essays. To the general public, Levinas is largely an unknown figure. However, among professional philosophers, Levinas would probably be regarded as more likely to have a profound impact on history.
Levinas played multiple roles in his intellectual life. On one hand he was a classic French philosopher who had a major influence on European philosophy. Jean Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida and even Pope John Paul II acknowledged his significant impact. On the other hand he was also a director of a French Hebrew School, a teacher of Talmud and a writer of profoundly Jewish works on his unusual method of interpreting Gemara. As a philosopher, his unique approach was an insistence that the first principle of philosophy must be the responsibility of each man to every other person - without this nothing else matters to Levinas! It may help the reader to compare his approach to that of Descartes, who began with "I think, therefore I am". Levinas would say, "I am, therefore I am responsible for the other".
The third name in our title is the most obscure of all. He has written nothing. We know naught of his birth or early education. We are not even sure of his real name! All we know for certain is that he exerted an astonishing influence on both Wiesel and Levinas during the early post WWII years in Europe. When Wiesel lectured in Philadelphia a few years ago I asked him about Chouchani. He replied that Chouchani was the most profound teacher he had encountered and had made an enormous impact on his life, but he had no idea where he was or what had happened to him. Nevertheless he acknowledged Chouchani as his master! (glimpses of the intense relationship between the two are scattered throughout Wiesel's early writings.)
Levinas also regarded Chouchani as his Master and his encounter with him as a turning point in his life. Both Levinas and Wiesel describe Chouchani as unkempt, gruff, impatient and looking more like a tramp than a scholar! Wiesel met Chouchani in a French Synagogue where Chouchani expounded Torah with such mastery and command that it may have provided the impetus for Wiesel's eventual return to Torah after the disillusionment of the death camps and the murder of his entire family.
Wiesel tells a fascinating tale illustrating both Chouchani's brilliance and his arrogance. After the synagogue encounter they accidentally met again when Wiesel was taking a train to a part time assignment as a teacher. Chouchani decided to join him and on arrival at the school took over the class with complete aplomb. He taught the dumbfounded class any and every thing! From Torah to astrophysics - no subject or question was taboo and the class continued under his masterful control until the pupils were exhausted-but would not leave -such was the power of his teaching!
From that moment Wiesel became the pupil and Chouchani became his Master. For the next two years Chouchani appeared at Wiesel's apartment when he felt like (usually several times a week) and when he arrived taught Wiesel Torah and especially Talmud for many hours at a time. These were the days that Wiesel refers to when he declares "without Chouchani's teaching I would not be the man I am today". In characteristic fashion, one day the lessons stopped and Chouchani simply disappeared!
There is no record that Levinas and Wiesel ever met, yet they share so much in common! Both were Jewish, both survived Nazi concentration camps (although Levinas received much better treatment because he was a French Officer), both lived in France for many years although neither was born there and both learned Talmud after a period of rejecting it, although for very different reasons. Wiesel was born and raised in a devout Chasidic community, surrounded by Torah and Talmud. He was faced with a loss of faith after the horrors of the holocaust and his own cruel suffering in the Buchenwald death camp. On the verge of rejecting both Torah and Talmud, he only fully returned to Judaism after his encounter with Chouchani.
Levinas on the other hand had received a basic "modern liberal" Jewish education as a child. He had been exposed to the Bible but not the world of Talmud, which his family regarded as vaguely old fashioned. In addition both achieved their mastery of Talmud through the personal teachings of this mysterious Chouchani.
Levinas first encounter with Chouchani was much less dramatic than Wiesel's. A friend who had been his pupil for 20 years introduced him to Chouchani. For two years Levinas resisted the pleas of his friend that he meet with his mysterious teacher. Reluctantly, in 1947 a meeting was finally arranged. The two met alone, in the evening and talked all night! In the morning Levinas is said to have emerged with the possibly apocryphal remark "I don't know what this man knows. However, all I know is that he knows". With that Levinas began to study Talmud with Chouchani on a regular basis for the next 5 years! From these studies Levinas developed and extended Chouchani's unique approach to "reading Talmud" resulting in 5 volumes of unusual, deeply humanistic talmudic exegesis to stand with his dozens of critical philosophical writings.
Today Elie Wiesel is regarded by many as the embodiment of the voice that "speaks truth to power." Levinas died in 1995 but his impact on Philosophy continues to grow each year, in spite of the difficulty inherent in his complex, dense writings. The mystery of Chouchani
has never been fully solved. Everyone who came in contact with him testifies to his all-encompassing brilliance (and his crudity!). Among the unanswered questions are: What was his real name, his birthplace, his education, his life during the holocaust, his family, his other pupils, how he lived, what his goals were and all the other things which mark a normal life? All we know now is that he died in South America in 1968.
from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine