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.