Paying WITNESS to Elie Wiesel
Posted on Monday, November 12, 2018 by Ariel Burger
The origin of Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom was tied to a conversation I had with Professor Wiesel about leadership. After yet another public moral failure by a well-known politician, I asked my teacher what it would look like to create a leadership institute based on his approach to ethics, deep learning and empathy. In his modest way, he demurred, but I found the holy chutzpah to raise the question several more times. This led to the beginnings of a plan for a fellowship for emerging leaders, the first step of which was to be a book that would inspire public conversations about ethical leadership, rooted in his approach to transformative teaching.
Later, I had the privilege of teaching for the Wexner Heritage Program, and getting to know inspiring, committed leaders from communities around the U.S. Among other things I explored with these participants was the question: Who gives you permission to lead? For me, that person was Elie Wiesel, and my mission now is to share his wisdom with new generations of leaders. We need his voice now more than ever.
About the Book
Elie Wiesel was a towering presence on the world stage—a Nobel laureate, activist, adviser to world leaders, and the author of more than forty books, including the Oprah’s Book Club selection Night. But when asked, Wiesel always said, “I am a teacher first.”
In fact, he taught at Boston University for nearly four decades, and with this book, Ariel Burger—devoted protégé, apprentice, and friend—takes us into the sacred space of Wiesel’s classroom. There, Wiesel challenged his students to explore moral complexity and to resist the dangerous lure of absolutes. In bringing together never-before-recounted moments between Wiesel and his students, Witness serves as a moral education in and of itself—a primer on educating against indifference, on the urgency of memory and individual responsibility, and on the role of literature, music, and art in making the world a more compassionate place.
Burger first met Wiesel at age fifteen; he became his student in his twenties, and his teaching assistant in his thirties. In this profoundly thought-provoking and inspiring book, Burger gives us a front-row seat to Wiesel’s remarkable exchanges in and out of the classroom, and chronicles the intimate conversations between these two men over the decades as Burger sought counsel on matters of intellect, spirituality, and faith, while navigating his own personal journey from boyhood to manhood, from student and assistant, to rabbi and, in time, teacher.
“Listening to a witness makes you a witness,” said Wiesel. My book is an invitation to every reader to become Wiesel’s student, and witness.
Ariel Burger is a writer, artist, teacher and rabbi whose work combines spirituality, creativity and strategies for social change. A lifelong student of Elie Wiesel, he spent years studying the great wisdom traditions, and now applies those teachings to urgent contemporary questions. When Ariel's not learning or teaching, he is creating music, art, and poetry. He lives outside of Boston with his family. Rabbi Burger can be reached here.