- Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters © 1972
- Touchstone: Simon & Schuster
- 277 pages
Every time I set this book down after reading a chapter or two I was filled with an odd sense of melancholy mixed with frustration, but above all, sadness.
Hasidic Judaism, one of the branches of Orthodox Judaism, began in 1700 with the birth of Israel Baal Shem Tov. In Souls on Fire, Wiesel paints biographic sketches of the major figures in Hasidism, filling the chapters with stories, parables, and larger-than-life personas.
My biggest surprise was the cavalier attitude that the Hasidic masters had towards God. Instead of approaching God in reverence, some of their attitudes were stunningly arrogant! Take Israel of Rizhin for example. On approaching God in prayer he said, “I am not a slave come to ask favors of the king. I come as a counselor to discuss matters of state” (158).
The thing that had the greatest impact on me was the constant longing and despair at the non-arrival of the Messiah. The pages are filled with Hasidic Masters stating how if only [insert condition here] then the Messiah would come. Their extreme boldness plays a role here, too. Some of the Masters believed they could make force the Messiah to arrive if only …
Perhaps because of this unfulfilled longing for the Messiah, “all [of the masters], to varying degrees, struggled against melancholy” (106). Instead of reading about the life of “Souls on Fire,” I learned about the lives of smoldering wicks trying to maintain hope in the face of an apparently uncaring deity. I’m unsure how much of this attitude is true of the Hasidic Masters themselves and how much is imposed by Wiesel—a man who has endured more than anyone’s fair share of suffering (see: Night).
In the end, my Christian narrative—that the Messiah has indeed arrived and was largely unrecognized by his own people—added a level of pathos that made the book difficult to read.