Elie Wiesel wrote: “Even if all his disciples, everywhere, were to begin speaking about him – and nobody else – we would not know more about who he really was, about what shadows he fled or sought, or the nature of his power and torment.”
Levinas says in an interview:
“I am extremely grateful for what I learned from him [Shoshani]. In a haggadic text of the treatise Pirke Avoth, there is this phrase: “The words of the sages are like glowing embers.” One can ask, why embers, why not flame? Because it only becomes a flame when one knows how to blow on it! I have hardly learned to blow. There are always great minds who contest this manner of blowing. They say, “You see, he draws out of the text what is not in the text. He forces a meaning into it.” But if one does it with Goethe, with Valery, with Corneille, the critics accept it. It appears more scandalous to them when one does it with regard to Scripture. And one has to have met Shoshani in order not to be convinced by these critical minds. Shoshani taught me: what is essential is that the meaning found merits, by its wisdom, the research that reveals it. That the text had suggested it to you.”
What about Rav Mordechai Shushani? Where did you and he meet?
We met in Paris and I stayed with him for several years. He was a strange man. A genius who looked like a bum, or a clown. He pushed me to the abyss. But he believed in that. One day I am going to write a monograph about him. His concept was to shock, to shake you up, to push you further and further. If you don’t succeed, too bad. But you must risk it. If I had stayed with him longer, I don’t know what would have happened.
Did he push anybody over the abyss?
He did. I heard stories later when I began picking up pieces looking for him. He did it with the best of intentions. Few people have had such an influence on my life as he did.
Who were the others?
Here and there a teacher, a friend. But he is probably the strongest. He’s the opposite of Professor Saul Lieberman, who is no longer alive, but whom I considered to be the greatest Jewish scholar of his day. One cannot study the Talmud without the help of his commentaries. He was my friend and my teacher. Shushani, on the other hand, was not my friend. Surely he possessed a certain strength and power; so did Professor Lieberman—but his was not frightening.
From Mister Shoshani Elie Wiesel learned that “Man is defined by what troubles him, not by what reassures him.”
Elie Wiesel a appris de Monsieur Chouchani que “l’homme se définie par ce qui l’inquiète, non pas par ce qui le rassure”.
Monsieur Chouchani (? – 1968), or “Shushani,” is the nickname of an otherwise anonymous and enigmatic Jewish teacher who taught a small number of distinguished students in post-World War II Europe and elsewhere, including Emmanuel Levinas and Elie Wiesel.
Not much is known about “M. Chouchani,” including his real name, a secret which he zealously guarded. His origins are completely unknown, and his gravestone (located in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he died in January 1968) reads, “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.” The text is by Elie Wiesel who paid for this gravestone. The name “Shushani,” which means “person from Shushan,” is most probably an allegorical reference, or possibly a pun. Elie Wiesel hypothesizes that Chouchani’s real name was Mordechai Rosenbaum, while Hebrew University professor Shalom Rosenberg asserts that Chouchani’s actual name was Hillel Perlmann.
Although there is no known body of works by Chouchani himself, there is a very strong intellectual legacy seen in the influence on his pupils. By all accounts, Chouchani had the appearance of a vagabond and yet was reputed to be a master of vast areas of human knowledge, including science, mathematics, philosophy and especially the Talmud. Most of the biographical details of Chouchani’s life are known from the works and interviews of his various students, as well as anecdotes of people whom he encountered during his lifetime.
Chouchani appeared in Paris after the Second World War, where he taught between the years of 1947 and 1952. He disappeared for a while after that, evidently spent some time in the newly-formed state of Israel, returned to Paris briefly, and then left for South America where he lived until his death.
Professor Shalom Rosenberg says about his Master Mister Shushani: “One can’t imagine how many published books were written only thanks to him”.
פרופסור שלום רוזנברג אומר על מורו מר שושני : “קשה לתפוס כמה ספרים שהוצאו לאור נכתבו אך ורק בזכותו”
His disciple Emmanuel Levinas says about Mister Shushani that he was not impressed at first sight by the man. But after this first meeting he said “I don’t know what this man knows, but what I do know is that everything that I know – he also knows it.”
Levinas admired Shushani for the rest of his life.
תלמידו עמנואל לווינס מספר שכשראהו לראשונה לא גםהתרשם ממראהו, אך לאחר פגישה זו אמר “איני יודע מה האיש הזה יודע, אבל מה שאני כן יודע : כל מה שאני יודע – הוא גם כן יודע”. לוינס העריץ את שושני עד סוף ימיו.
Son élève Emmanuel Levinas raconte que lorsqu’il l’a rencontré pour la première fois, il n’était à première vue pas très impressionné par le personnage.
Mais juste après cette rencontre il a dit “Je ne sais pas ce que cet homme sait, mais ce que je sais c’est : tout ce que je sais – il le sait aussi.”
Levinas a admiré Chouchani jusqu’à la fin de sa vie.