Both Elie Wiesel and the Russian-born French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas considered themselves disciples of an enigmatic vagabond who went by the name Chouchani; so too did several esteemed figures in the field of Jewish studies. But Chouchani, whose real name was Hillel Perlman, published nothing, and most of what is known about his thought comes in the form of gnomic pronouncements quoted by his admirers. Now a large trove of Chouchani’s notebooks, after being carefully safeguarded by one disciple, have been made available for study. Yoel Finkelman writes:
His nomadic life apparently began in childhood, when his father tried to profit from him as a kind of intellectual circus freak, having him perform feats of memory in front of amazed crowds in Lithuania. In the years that followed, Chouchani memorized vast swaths of the Jewish canon—from the Bible to rabbinic literature to Jewish philosophy. He spoke an extraordinary number of languages fluently and, according to legend, would speak with the accent, intonation, and local dialect of whomever he happened to be speaking with.
Chouchani dressed poorly, paid little attention to his hygiene, and could be more than a little unkind to his students, often castigating them for their ignorance and leaving abruptly without saying goodbye. Stories told about him describe an enigmatic, manipulative, and belittling mentor. Could Wiesel, Levinas, [and others]—each a brilliant intellectual with wide experience and a deeply moral personality—have fallen for the manipulations of an abusive narcissist?
The most intriguing sections of Chouchani’s notebooks contain notes on talmudic passages and biblical verses. But these passages are nothing at all like essays, or even study notes, that one might sit down to read. . . . David Lang (the archivist at the National Library of Israel who cataloged the archive) and I spent weeks painstakingly transcribing, studying, and trying to unpack a section of fewer than 150 words. It contains implicit references to dozens of biblical verses and talmudic passages and has something to do with the metaphor of being a servant or slave of God and what it means to be such a servant in a fatalistic universe. . . .
The suggestion that human beings and the forces of nature do God’s will whether they are aware of it or not—and that consequently the world, even or especially the post-Holocaust world, contains God-induced suffering—is provocative, . . . but I do want to suggest caution. The enthusiasm of discovery can easily lead to overreading. We might confuse a half-developed sentence fragment for a fully developed thought. We might convince ourselves of the profundity of Chouchani’s writings before actually finding evidence of it.