You don’t have to look far to find someone running for public office who exploits history for political advantage. When it comes to cutting through angry rhetoric, people of all religions and beliefs owe a debt to the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate and writer Elie Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel’s death in July and the recent Jewish holidays bring us to reflect on how his writing, speaking, and very presence broke a dark, anguished silence about the Nazi Holocaust’s horrors. His work also resonates in our current national situation, where public conversations are deeply marked by pitched controversy and incivility. His candor served as a model for discussing sometimes difficult issues with dignity—including abortion.
Above all, his respectful outspokenness came from his humanity and an unwavering, innate passion to speak his mind. After his death, his son, Elisha Wiesel said, “My father raised his voice to presidents and prime ministers when he felt the issues on the world stage demanded attention.”
Elie Wiesel spoke with similar candor to religious leaders, as when Cardinal John O’Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York from 1984 to 2000, referred to abortion as “precisely the same” as the murder of six million Jews. In an On the Issues interview with pro-choice activist and clinic owner Merle Hoffmann, Wiesel denounced the abortion-Holocaust comparison as “blasphemy” and demanded “much more understanding for the woman who chooses it.” He went on to say that those who speak of abortion “and relate it to the Holocaust prove that they do not know what the Holocaust was.”
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Many Holocaust survivors make the same distinction. That reaction reflects a perspective embraced by many Jewish authorities, which recognizes the difference between a pregnancy as a potential life and the well-being of the woman as an actual life. To be sure, a woman’s pregnancy has a moral standing, yet her moral standing as an individual is even higher. For many Jewish religious leaders, her exercise of conscience and her abilities to take religious teaching and come to her own conclusions take priority.
What is more, just as Wiesel spoke with respect for the woman and her lived experience, he also spoke from his experience as an eyewitness to the Holocaust. He was there with his loved ones. He lived through the Holocaust: saw it and rejected the idea that abortion is a Holocaust.
Wiesel also objected to a religious leader of another faith taking the Jewish experience to advance their own religious agenda, one that differs from the original Jewish understanding of what happened. Cardinal O’Connor was using the experience of those who witnessed and suffered as a pretext for imposing the Catholic hierarchy’s religious restrictions into the private, personal lives of women. Wiesel spoke out against this misinterpretation and misuse of Jewish history.
Finally, Elie Wiesel saw the urgent necessity for responsible dialogue: “I understand that there is a debate, but I don’t want this debate to become so hostile .… I would like to plead for comprehension on both sides and stop using certain words.” He would urge us to lower the tone of the rhetoric and have a real dialogue, hope, and wish that speaks to us today.
Wiesel used stories to help people appreciate history and its lessons. We—a minister and rabbi—come to stories as pastoral counselors, invited into the real-life stories of women, men, and families as they live them day to day. The lessons learned from the human experience can be a great teacher and guide. Any respectful conversation about abortion would also begin with stories—of the women, their loved ones, the lives they lead, and their dreams.
As clergy, we are well aware of that old piece of advice to “Never discuss religion, politics, or sex in polite company,” because these controversial matters inflame passions. Yet we also believe it is critical to have these conversations—candid and respectful—in a pluralistic and diverse society where faith teachings diverge even as we seek to live together. Elie Wiesel’s respectful candor models such conversation at a time when we need it.