The Vanity of Bernard-Henri Lévy
Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Genius of Judaism (New York: Random House, 2017), 256 pp., $28.00.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY has been the recipient of vast quantities of acclaim, a copious dose of scorn and even a handful of projectile pies. This likely would have been the destiny of any semiprominent ex-Marxist French intellectual who openly (and practically unilaterally) turned against the European Left, calling it out for its complicity in secular totalitarianism. This was almost inevitably the destiny of a person who is brilliant, who inherited a massive fortune, who has been involved in a number of high-profile dalliances and marriages, and who has spent forty years in the international spotlight as a philosopher, filmmaker, war correspondent, playwright, columnist and human-rights activist. Lévy claims on his résumé, among other achievements, more than thirty books—including works of philosophy, fiction and biography—countless articles and multiple lifetimes’ worth of harrowing foreign adventures. He’s been hailed in the pages of the world’s leading publications as “a star,” “a phenomenon,” “a commanding figure,” “a fearless intellectual risk-taker,” even “Superman.” Perhaps the greatest proof of his stature is that he’s widely known simply as “BHL.”
Lévy returns to his roots in his latest book. Born in 1948 in the iron ore shipping port Béni Saf to affluent Jewish Algerians, his family moved to Paris a few months after his birth. He became a Zionist in 1967. His timing was propitious. Arriving in Israel days following the Six-Day War, he found “the most unexpected of inner homelands.” Yet for much of his life, he remained uninformed of his religious inheritance. His family embraced the adage of the atrabilious and haunted nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine that Judaism “was a source of ‘insults and pain’ that one would not wish on one’s worst enemy.” He’s since discarded that chilly sentiment and embraced an “affirmative” rapport with his faith. After much deliberation, he decrees that “the genius of Judaism” is that Judaism is actually a religion without borders.
Contrary to other religions, Lévy contends, Judaism’s “first commandment” is “the commandment of universalism,” “responsibility for the world,” the ethical directive to expose oneself “to the shadow of the outside world, the shadow of the Other, even the radically other,” a directive anyone, anywhere, anytime can promptly embrace. To be sure, this isn’t the thrust of Judaism; it’s the religion’s totality. All of Torah’s other duties “shrivel and become dead letters” in comparison. Torah-observant Jews won’t read The Genius of Judaism, for a number of sociological reasons. If they were to, they would certainly take umbrage at its conclusion. Mainstream Jews—particularly of the Reform denomination, by far the largest denomination in America—will read it, and they’ll constitute the majority of its readership in the United States. And while they’ll celebrate its conclusion, they will still be taken aback by Lévy’s inconsistency in reaching it.
TO GRASP the impetus behind Lévy’s latest effusion, one must first recognize that Lévy is a disillusioned radical soulfully seeking atonement. The book is part of a very personal and protracted effort to construct and disseminate an outlook, a disposition, an anti-ideology capable of defeating the dogmas that deceived him during his youth. Lévy was educated at the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris in the 1960s, “the bastion of the aristocracy of the revolutionary movement known as Maoism.” There in the French capital, in that topsy-turvy era, the leviathans of poststructuralism nourished his mind. Ginned up, he along with many of his classmates rallied behind the Khmer Rouge, the chic insurgency du jour, because the regime’s leaders had studied at the Sorbonne. Steeped in the theories of Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Georges Canguilhem, the Khmer Rouge (purportedly) uniquely possessed the innovative knowledge needed to finally extinguish the oppressive quality of language, erase fascism from culture and fashion “the new man.” It would triumph because it would elude all the pitfalls that had derailed all previous Marxist enterprises. “We were sure,” Lévy writes, “that we were at the apogee of the age in which God had died. It had been beautiful. It had been huge.”
Needless to say, they were wrong. The Khmer Rouge carried out a genocide, murdering in four years around two million people, close to a quarter of the Cambodian population. History had repeated itself, for human nature had proven itself, once again, insufficiently malleable for Communism. Dazed and eager for reorientation, Lévy met and befriended philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and Catholic literary critic René Girard. Through them, he discovered the academic study of Torah. He also connected with philosopher André Glucksmann and founded Les Nouveaux Philosophes, a group that proceeded to blast progressivism driven by devotion to reason and inevitable progress. In 1977, he broke out with La barbarie a visage humain (Barbarism with a Human Face), in which he lamented, while examining the prevailing intellectual currents of the continent, that “Hitler did not die in Berlin” and “Stalin did not die in Moscow nor at the Twentieth Congress.” The following year, shortly before Pol Pot and his homicidal comrades fled to the jungles, Lévy produced Le testament de Dieu (The Testament of God), a polemic in favor of Mosaic Law over the utopian and secular “cult of the Political.”
Nearly four decades later, he has penned the volume’s next chapter, The Genius of Judaism, a translation of L’esprit du judaisme (The Spirit of Judaism). The title pays homage to the landmark nineteenth-century book by diplomat-historian François-René de Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity, which was meant to remind fellow Catholics of their religion’s former glory. Not insignificantly, Lévy’s book was intended for French readers. This is apparent, not least because France is referred to as “our country.” He also declares, for example, there are “not too many people” who “believe that the war on faith is an urgent matter.” This won’t raise alarms in France, whose foundation, after all, is state-sanctioned secularism in the public square. Yet it will sound odd to American readers, given their country’s long-running culture war. And the absence of a translator’s note, let alone the lack of initiative to tailor language, is strikingly parochial for a book whose lesson is about pluralism.
Lévy’s tract is dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the commandment of universalism. So what sources are cited to support his provocative interpretation of Judaism? He spends much of the book exalting the corpus of traditional Jewish thought. Rashi, Maimonides, Chaim of Volozhin and Nachman of Breslov, for instance, are singled out for praise. “The sage,” he insists, “is greater even than the prophet.” He further lauds the Talmud, whose very likeness subtly appears on the title page, as “the table of a house of study.” The Talmud, which means “learning,” is the body of Jewish ceremonial and civil law comprising the Mishnah; the oral Torah transmitted from God to Moses on Sinai and set down by Judah the Prince around 200 CE; and the Gemara, rabbinic elucidations of the Mishnah. Lévy avers that “the citizens of the treasured people have a duty to read it in a certain way: fervently, passionately, using all of their mind, all of their mental strength, and, sometimes, their life, too.” The Talmud, which comprises sixty-three shelf-warping tractates, is the backbone of yeshiva study in the observant Jewish community. It barely has a presence in “mainstream” Jewish denominations for two main reasons. First, most mainstream Jews, by virtue of being mainstream, dismiss the notion that God literally communicated with Moses. Second, few non-Torah-observant Jews know Tannaitic Hebrew and Babylonian Aramaic, the two ancient languages in which the Mishnah and Gemara are composed, respectively.
In a volte-face, though, Lévy asserts by sweeping aside the Talmud that the prophet is really greater than the sage. The commandment of universalism is not just the whole of Judaism, and it’s not merely found in the Book of Jonah; it reaches its “maximum intensity” in “that book of fire.” Jonah, due to the brevity of his exchange with God, is included among the Twelve Minor Prophets. But Lévy believes Jonah deserves to reign in perpetuity alongside Moses specifically because he was the first prophet to speak to the Other. Jonah, as the eighth-century BC story goes, is commanded by God to travel to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, a supremely sinful metropolis, and heal its wicked denizens so they might be spared heavenly wrath. The twist is that Nineveh is the sworn enemy of Israel. Jonah’s dilemma is whether “to be the instrument of his people’s loss, or to think first of his people and disobey the voice.” Jonah opts for the latter. He heads in the opposite direction of Nineveh and boards a ship in Jaffa for Tarshish. At sea, a typhoon arises, and he’s thrown overboard by the crew once it discovers he’s the cause of the misfortune. He’s swallowed by a sea creature and spends three days and nights in its belly. Jonah repents, he’s spat back onto shore, and he proceeds to obey God’s call to prophecy.
It’s obvious that Lévy is portraying the Book of Jonah as “the heart of Jewish thought” to justify his progressive politics. But why does he counsel a life of learning, discovery and growth if he’s going to rush the reader straight to the finish line? Why does he gladly offer the key of it all, especially when that key, universalism, neither typifies the Talmud (as if the limitless Talmud could be typified by any one particular idea) nor resembles the deductions reached for millennia by the sages he himself reveres? If there were some truth to this, then thousands of years of Jewish history would be replete with peripatetic social-justice warriors, not self-effacing scholars dedicated first and foremost to God, family and community.
Also confounding is that Lévy seems to believe he’s brought an earth-shattering tablet down from the summit. The notion that Judaism is about breaking down walls is not only a simple interpretation; it’s also an utterly conventional one in the modern era. Innumerable Jewish philosophers, writers and rabbis over the past two hundred years—Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Hermann Cohen, just to name a few—have avowed that the essence of Judaism is found within the Latter Prophets. The entire denomination of Reform Judaism, birthed by the Enlightenment in the nineteenth century, reranked the duties to man before those to God, replaced fear of heaven with individual solace, and substituted faith in otherworldly reward with this-worldly action. In fact, Reform Judaism is frequently referred to as “prophetic Judaism.”
While Lévy’s emphasis on Jonah is unique, his take is little more than the concept of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”), which draws upon the Major Prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and is ubiquitous within the mainstream Jewish-American community. In reality, tikkun olam translates to social justice and is the community’s equivalent of kumbaya—and it habitually has the acoustic guitars, to boot. From synagogues and temples in Boston to Miami to San Francisco, tikkun olam is preached from the bema (pulpit), imparted in Hebrew school, and plastered over social and traditional media. It’s exploited to validate every progressive cause, from increasing the minimum wage to fighting for women’s reproductive rights to switching to alternative energy sources.
Lévy actually complains that his coreligionists are “fussing about ‘the migrants’” and discounting that Muslims are their “brothers in Adam.” Has he been living under a rock? Jews on both sides of the Atlantic have carried the banner for Syrian resettlement in the West. As early as December 2015, the charitable organization HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) delivered to Congress a letter signed by more than 1,200 American rabbis, principally of the Reform denomination, proclaiming, “we take seriously the biblical mandate to ‘welcome the stranger.’” That the comprehensive Global 100 index of the Anti-Defamation League, the “world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism,” demonstrates the overwhelming majority of Middle Easterners are anti-Semitic seems immaterial to these rabbis. And that, arguably, “the stranger” who persecutes others forfeits the right to kindness because they are violating the spirit of the Noahide Laws, the seven imperatives given by God to all humanity, looks to be lost on them.
Lévy might not admit it, but he’s on well-trodden ground. Because Reform Judaism is by far the largest Jewish denomination in America, a bulk of the world’s Jewish population already reveres the teaching found within The Genius of Judaism. It’s one thing to postulate that the genius of Judaism promises an “adventure . . . inspired by moral rather than economic or political concerns.” It’s another to act as if the adventure won’t also end exclusively with economic and political concerns. Almost seventy years ago, Irving Kristol remarked that mainstream Judaism was guaranteeing the right to strike, “providing Holy Writ with the satisfaction of having paved the way for the National Labor Relations Act!” More recently, Reform Judaism has been labeled “the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in.”
LÉVY CONSEQUENTLY leaves the reader with the impression that the chronicle of Jewish thought ceased at the start of the French Revolution. This, apparently, isn’t the first time he’s neglected to identify precedents. When the American historian W. Warren Wagar reviewed Barbarism with a Human Face for the Washington Post thirty-eight years ago, he noted that the author failed to acknowledge he was echoing the quarrels of the intellectuals depicted in Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 roman à clef, The Mandarins. “He prefers to make heroes of Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn,” Wagar wrote. “But it is the mature Camus, and Sartre himself before his entanglement in Marxism, whom Lévy most closely resembles.” It now might be said that while he prefers to make a hero of Jonah, it is the mature Abraham Joshua Heschel before his entanglement with the Vietnam War whom Lévy most closely resembles.
For Lévy, to praise Judaism is to undercut its essential and distinguishing precepts. “Genius” is often defined as “an exceptional intellectual or creative power.” So it’s not just a distinct quality; it’s a rare one too. We revere genius in the arts, letters and professional disciplines precisely because it’s uncommon. If we are not either blessed with it at birth or fortunate enough to cultivate it through great effort later, genius still has the capacity to rouse us to betterment. For when we come into contact with it, we’re made aware of the upper reaches of the human spirit. But if the genius of Judaism is easily obtainable, it’s neither that splendid nor praiseworthy. And if it’s obtainable by all, the Jewish people aren’t “chosen”—for we’re all chosen—and they play no special role in history.
Furthermore, because in The Genius of Judaism the commandment of universalism is the first commandment, there is hardly any room left for what has for three thousand years been the first commandment: “I am the Lord thy God.” “No Jew,” Lévy attests on the final page, “from the most learned to the most ignorant, from the grandest (who is also the smallest) to the smallest (who is also the grandest), is required to ‘believe in God.’” By cutting out the ultimate moral arbiter, he is denying the worth of the Lord of the Hosts. He’s also being duplicitous. He’s fostering the same metaphysics that stirred and continue to stir his own adversaries. He’s pretending his values are not relativistic and, thus, denying they’re not also those of the Enlightenment, those that gave rise to the romantic postmodern mirages he strives to dispel: the ending of history, the speeding up of time and “the flooding of all things by an absolute light.” It’s not without irony that “prophet” in Hebrew—navi—means not someone who possesses the ability to foretell future events, but “spokesperson” for God. And while he acknowledges that the people of Nineveh didn’t know “their right from their left,” he’s indifferent that Joshua, who led the Israelite tribes out of the wilderness into the Promised Land, was charged not to deviate “right or left” from his instructions by God.
By bulldozing what’s considered literally sacred by many, Lévy is being intentionally audacious. As such, one would hope, given his chutzpah, not to mention his request for pluralism, he would at the least be keen to respectfully engage those who think differently. One would hope for naught. By mirroring the worldview of many mainstream Jews, he reserves special ire for Torah-observant Jews. In the pages of The Genius of Judaism, I can hear my own family members, who were raised in the Conservative and Reform denominations, griping, “They don’t consider us Jewish!” My family members, like most mainstream Jews, have rarely bothered to approach a Torah-observant Jew, let alone start a conversation about Judaism with them. As with their often-cautious attitude toward Christians, far more is revealed about themselves, specifically an insecurity—an uncomfortable awareness of their own lack of knowledge and faith.
Rather than refer to Jews who heed the commandments of Torah as “observant,” Lévy calls them “orthodox”—with ironic quotation marks. They are the radicals because, unlike him, they’re not willing to leave their families and friends to track down beheading terrorists among the alleyways of Pakistan and rally the disputatious masses in the squares of Libya. Yes, they are the radicals because they prefer a life of calm, custom and charity in their own community. The orthodox with their “sidelocks and caftans” deserve censure because they lock themselves in their “houses of study, in what is sometimes called ‘Jewish life,’” and “devote all of their time to endless dissection of individual verses of the Torah, to commentary on each verse, and to commentary on the existing commentary and so on, ad infinitum.” Lévy also fleetingly refers to two incidents in 2015: the stabbing of a sixteen-year-old girl in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade and the firebombing of a Palestinian home in Duma. In short, he reduces all of observant Judaism to Mea Shearim, a neighborhood in Jerusalem known for its insularity.
Even though the universalistic and prophetic “genius of Judaism” is the guiding doctrine of most mainstream Jews, they too are the subjects of belittlement. They bother Lévy because they’re “Jews on Yom Kippur” alone, “splendid in the happy nudity of renewal,” and they exude “a nettlesome air of frivolity.” It is they “who, from Mascara to Paris or New York, prefer the empty light of easy and low-stakes community life to the shadows of Nineveh.”
The author of The Genius of Judaism is Goldilocks, and the servings of matzah-ball soup are not up to snuff. He does intimate the existence of a dialectical “third bowl”: “a true Jewish messianism both ambitious and modest, aspiring to the infinite but respectful of the laws of this world and choosing, ultimately, tikkun over apocalypse.” Really, given its inimitability, it’s one that only his refined palate can appreciate.
PERHAPS THE most surreal moment is Lévy’s confession on page 208 of his 230-page work: “I can barely read Hebrew. I do not say daily prayers. I do not follow the dietary laws. I am, moreover, a lay Jew who seldom visits synagogues and has not devoted so much time or energy to study.” Excusez-moi? (This comes after Lévy, who I would hazard does not possess a mastery of classical Arabic either, has authoritatively pronounced that Islam is divided between “throat-slitters” and the “enlightened,” that Islam needs “a Muslim Talmud,” and that fanatical imams are “the exception,” not “the rule.”)
Alas, eclipsed earlier in the book are novel insights into Judaism’s myriad contributions to French culture and Western civilization, as well as incisive reflections on anti-Semitism, namely its evolution and one of its most arresting contemporary expressions: the demonization of Israel. Lévy’s inadvertent accomplishment is to furnish an illustration of the shallowness of today’s mode of mainstream Judaism. To warrant his beliefs, Lévy, like many other secular Jews, readily cites the concept of “seventy faces of Torah.” “That the Torah has faces means, first,” he affirms, “that the act of reading it brings it to life and that the reader animates it by making it his own.” Yet a person must at some point actually read it. He urges “difficult Judaism” and Talmud study, “a practice that some would you believe is the invisible church of ultraorthodoxy.” Alas, hardly any nonobservant Jews are able to even name one tractate of Talmud. Instead of learning Hebrew to understand prayers, mainstream Jews switch from Conservative synagogues to Reform temples and from Reform temples to, well, nothing. If they remain within the fold at all, they almost have to accept at face value the word of their rabbis. If they instinctively disagreed with it, they wouldn’t have the faintest idea where to begin to look within Torah. That we live in an age of instant gratification has only made matters worse. Even the creator of the universe must be rendered all-accessible, all-comforting, all-compassionate—and fit for “Jewish yoga.”
In the end, Lévy loves the greater world too much to break from it. The cosmopolitan life has offered him too much. He’s jealously proud to have befriended Bangladeshis, seen a future in the Jonahs of Angola and sided with the Muslims during the Bosnian War. Unlike first-generation neoconservatives, he is a liberal thrilled by the very prospect of being mugged by reality. In the epilogue, he coyly suggests that he wishes “to go further, to push beyond the bounds of this book and leave for good the path of arrogant men.” If he were serious, he could have started with the wisdom of a king rather than a prophet. “All is vanity,” Solomon recalled. Lévy might have even saved himself the time and effort of rehashing modern Judaism, for the humbled son of David also advised, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Jonathan Bronitsky is a Washington, DC–based historian and political commentator.
This essay was published in the July/August 2017 print magazine under the headline “The Vanity of BHL.”