Zalman, or the Madness of God

By Elie Wiesel


The Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel experienced the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Then in 1965 he visited Russia and saw the persecution of Jews, their utter despair, the anguish of the rabbi of the community that he visited, and realized that the world was silent again. This prompted him to write this tale of a very pious, old, seemingly naïve rabbi in a very small Russian town in the 1950s.

The rabbi is, as is all the Jews of his town, afraid to act, to stand up for himself and his people, for the past and for the future. He believes that all decisions and all acts should be left for God. Zalman is the rabbi’s sexton who pushes the rabbi to act. The term “madness” is the description he and his town people would give for actions against the government and for the behavior of God. We would opt for the word “truth.”

The government officials hear that some foreigners will visit the rabbi’s synagogue for the Yom Kippur service. They tell the Jews not to speak to the foreigners, not to reveal their difficulties, their complaints. Informers are placed in the synagogue to assure compliance and the foreigners are also segregated from the congregants.

Can the frail rabbi sever his emotional chains, break his silence, do battle with the communists and with God, and become “mad” during the holiday services? Can he regain the courage of his youth to reveal that the Jewish soul is dying in Russia, that the spark of three millennia is being extinguished, that the Torah is being destroyed, that they may be the last generation of Jews in Russia?

If he talks, will his words make any difference, will his fellow Jews support him, would people of other religions listen? Can the rabbi count on anyone? Will any person see his madness as sanity, as truth, as a call to action? Should the rabbi be pitied? Should we be pitied?

This play is well written, disturbing, thought-provoking, moving, and excellent.