The Vanity of Bernard-Henri Lévy

June 24, 2017 Topic: Society Region: Europe Tags: ParisEuropeanZionistSix-Day WarJewish

The Vanity of Bernard-Henri Lévy

BHL's latest tract, The Genius of Judaism, is a polemic masquerading as intellectual history.


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.”