Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Love Letter to Judaism
The eminent French public intellectual mounts a defense of Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel–ultimately, for reasons of the heart.
One wouldn’t mind being Bernard-Henri Lévy.
The French cultural milieu still listens to the “public intellectual”—perhaps only for another generation (perhaps less, if Le Pen wins), but at least for now. Through a combination of wit, brilliance, opportunism, and culture, it somehow matters what this philosopher thinks about, say, foreign intervention in Libya, Bosnia, or Darfur.
This has not been without controversy: Lévy is generally liberal, but part of a generation of French-Jewish thinkers (Alain Finkielkraut is another) that sometimes resemble American conservatives in their critiques of Islamic fundamentalism. (Lévy is also a frequent contributor to this publication.) But love him or loathe him, Lévy matters in a way that has not been true of American liberal intellectuals for a generation. He is BHL, celebrity philosopher.
And of course, one wouldn’t mind getting away with Lévy’s French prose style; its occasionally indulgent poesy and prosody, rendered even in translation.
Its sentence fragments and short paragraphs.
Its pauses for dramatic effect.
I’ll stop gesturing to it now, but I admit: I envy the freedom and the consequence accorded Lévy and French intellectuals like him.
That said, The Genius of Judaism, his newest volume, is a curious book. It does not answer the audacious implied question of its title—what is the genius of Judaism, anyway?—until late in the book, and elliptically at that. (The French title, The Spirit of Judaism, is perhaps more reasonable.) And before it does so, it undermines itself with an inadequate analysis of anti-semitism.
At the risk of exacerbating my Americanness, I will proceed in reverse order, first assessing Lévy’ s depiction of Judaism, and afterward critiquing the first hundred pages of his book.
Much of Lévy’ s assessment of Judaism is poetic, rather than analytical. The Genius of Judaism is a love letter dressed up as an essay. Early on, for example, Lévy’ rhapsodizes over “the glory of the Jews, like the light gleaming in lines of rain falling to the ground, like shafts of sun over a misty land, like the trail of sparks left by the masters whose wisdom I was absorbing.”
This is emotive writing, not analysis. But there are three elements to this “glory” that surface throughout the work.
First is the old saw that Jews are the people of the book, committed to intellectual reflection and contributing to their cultural contexts in return. Speaking of French-Jewish philosophers like Emanuel Levinas, Lévy writes, “they are strong through study and spirit. They are strong through their memory and through their effort to know. Jews are strong when they mine intelligence from its matrix of gangue.”
(I looked it up so you don’t have to: “gangue” is the rough rock from which minerals are mined.)
Second is the Jewish ethic, exemplified by Levinas’s responsibility to the Other, a humanistic rejection of Hegelian dialectic (and its progeny in Marx and Heidegger). As Lévy writes, even the Jewish messiah “is just an everyman, or a beggar, or you.” The messianic moment is not the redemption at the end of history (though, of course, such messianism is found in countless Jewish texts) but rather the moral moment in the midst of the world. Not the revolution, but the ethical act.
Third—and here Lévy is more original than elsewhere—is the relationship of Jew to Gentile, i.e., .01 percent of the population to the other 99.99 percent, that is the exact inverse of the usual meaning of the term “chosen people.” God, writes Lévy, “did not come solely for the individuals gathered that day at the foot of Mount Sinai ... but for all those who were not there with them that day but are objects of the same redemption.”
To be sure, there are sources for this universalist view within Jewish tradition. Lévy makes use of the “70 faces of Torah” corresponding to the “70 nations of the world” and offers an extended reading of the Book of Jonah, the paradigmatic case of the Jew preaching to non-Jews. One could also add others: the non-triumphalist messianic vision of the prophet Micah, for example.
But like most such Jewish theologies, Lévy’s requires a selective reading of tradition, and tends to ignore the voices within it that directly contradict his view. Just this week, for example, yet another ultra-Orthodox rabbi published a book in Israel affirming that Jews have no ethical responsibility to non-Jews. And surely the “chosen people” concept has engendered precisely the ethnocentrism which Lévy here rejects.
Fair enough, I suppose. All contemporary religious thinkers have recourse to a “usable past”—not the past as it was, in all its multivocal complexity, but the past as resource for the present. BHL no more or less than anyone else. And if there is a certain grandiosity in aligning his own missions to Libya with Jonah’ s mission to Nineveh, well, that, too, is what good religion does; it provides paradigms, frames, archetypes, models.
Thus, for Lévy, the genius of Judaism is for Jews to be, as the Bible holds, a “light onto the nations” and a “nation of priests.” They do this by speaking prophetic, ethical truth to power, by going beyond their own tribe to speak to the rest of the world, inspired by Jewish values and Jewish history. Even the suffering of the Jewish people is part of this mission, as “the people on the front line of mobilization [against genocide] have reflected on the plight of the Jews.”
To many progressives, all this rings hollow today, because the policies of the State of Israel have so fallen short of this ideal as to undermine the ideal itself. And so we come to the first part of Lévy’s book, which asserts that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. Indeed, says Lévy, “one can now be anti-Semitic only by being anti-Zionist.”
Unlike many apologists for Israel, Lévy does at least jump through certain intellectual hoops. First, he defines antisemitism as a kind of primal animus. “At bottom,” he writes, “it is a language of pure rage, of brute violence without logic, which knows that it is never more convincing .... as when it succeeds in dressing up its resentment in legitimate-looking clothes.”
This definition erases the historic plurality of anti-Jewish sentiments as “so many faces of the same demon spirit.” It also flies in the face of the last generation of scholarship on antisemitism, such as Gavin Langmuir’s Toward a Historical Definition of Antisemitism. But it does the work for Lévy, because now any animus directed against Jews is, by his definition, antisemitism.
That includes anti-Zionism, which, per Lévy, posits that the Jewish state is “(1) illegitimate, because it was planted where it did not belong, and (2) colonialist, racist, fundamentally criminal and even fascist in its attempts to silence the voices of its opponents.”
But wait a minute. What about observing that Israel is currently conducting the world’s largest occupation of another people (6.3 million people, plus 4 million more in refugee camps) while also being the largest-by-far recipient of U.S. foreign aid ($38 billion over the next ten years)? Surely, while some on the far left do make the arguments Lévy sets forth, many more make far more reasonable ones, such as the Israeli talk show host Assaf Harel, whose five-minute monologue “Wake Up and Smell the Apartheid” recently went viral.
Indeed, some Lévy’s defenses of Israel—presented, recall, before his affirmative case for the genius of Judaism—simply backfire. “I know a country that has found a solution to the problem of multiethnicity,” he proclaims. But then Lévy only speaks of the diversity of Jews, omitting anti-Arab housing discrimination, educational discrimination, employment discrimination, infrastructure discrimination, and of course the occupation itself. (Even within Jewish populations, one could ask Mizrachi Jews if Ashkenazi-dominant Israel has really solved the problem of multiethnicity.) The erasure of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from this narrative of “multiethnicity” render the narrative almost absurd.
Ultimately, these lapses and lacunae are a result of the personal nature of The Genius of Judaism and, indeed, of Lévy’s Jewishness itself. “I remember a country,” Lévy writes of his first visit to Israel, “where everything whispered to my soul in its soft native tongue. And the truth is that, though I was then so tepidly Jewish, there I found the most unexpected of inner homelands, a rock on which I knew immediately that I would lean from that point forward.”
I had similar moments myself: in 1992, visiting Israel on my junior year abroad and overwhelmed by an inarticulate sense of belonging, and the next year, when I began the first of my three years living and learning there.
But these are not moments deserving of intellectual priority. They were moments of sentiment, perhaps psychology. They are experienced not just by intellectuals but by teenagers on the Birthright Israel trip. If anything, they should cause one to be more skeptical of Israel and Judaism, not less. Because I am enamored, I am biased; I cannot trust my assessments because they are so thoroughly infused with feeling.
It is believable, authentic, and daring for Lévy to disclose the personal reasons for his love of Judaism: the visit to Israel, learning the Talmud from Levinas and from the lesser-known teacher Benny Lévy, the disillusionment from secular liberalism, which had failed to deliver on its promises.
Indeed, Lévy here is not unlike the American conservative Jewish intellectuals who, as ably chronicled in Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right, forsook secular liberalism because of their own personal crises and disenchantment from youthful ideals. Lévy embraces Judaism not for any principled reason, but because it spoke to his soul. Or, if you prefer to be reductive, to his psychology.
Yet Lévy is indeed a public intellectual, and so to discover that sentimental attachment is at the core of his apologia is disappointing. It almost renders the intellectual case redundant. It turns out that emotion is the ore. Philosophy is the gangue.