Years ago I had a mentor who happened to serve as a chaplain at the local university. Upon retiring after a long and distinguished career, he bestowed upon me a huge portion of his personal library. Among the assorted books of Church history, Liberation Theology, classical literature and the like was a first edition of Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. Although I found his slim memoir Night incredibly powerful and his Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Mastersa joy to read (not to mention I thought his short biography Rashi was pretty darn good), my vintage copy of Souls on Fire sat ignored and unread in my personal library for years. Then one day, it happened to catch my eye so I began reading it. Finally, after taking forever to work my way through it, I finished it.
Published in 1972, the book is based on a series of lectures that Wiesel gave on the origins of Hasidism. Founded in 18th century Poland, Hasidism is a Jewish mystical movement which stresses personal spirituality and ecstatic forms of worship. It’s also seen as a reaction against both modern secularism and mainstream Rabbinical Judaism. In his book, Wiesel describes the movement’s first hundred years, starting with its founding by the great sage Baal Shem Tov. Since much of Souls of Fire contains miraculous legends, powerful proverbs and wise teachings the book does not feel like a history text. With Wiesel at the helm nor does it read like devotional material. With it’s almost ethereal tone, Souls on Fire seems to exist somewhere in the middle.
As I’m typing these words I can see Wiesel’s 1973 novel The Oath sitting on a shelf across from me. This vintage paperback was also given to me by my mentor years ago. Maybe its high time I read this one too.