Obituary / Jean-Paul Sartre's Secretary Benny Levy - 1945-2003

Benny Levy (1945-2003) led a strange life, yet there was nothing astonishing about its twists and turns that led from Maoism to Judaism.

Benny Levy (1945-2003) led a strange life, yet there was nothing astonishing about its twists and turns that led from Maoism to Judaism, or "from Mao to Moses," as Levy put it. Levy, who died of a heart attack this week in Jerusalem, was a kosher Jew who had become repentant, immigrated to Israel and became the local expert here on the philosophy of his teacher of Judaism, the thinker Emmanuel Levinas, after not too many years earlier he had been the disciple and secretary of another philosopher - Jean-Paul Sartre.

It could be said of Benny Levy (whose real name was Pierre Victor) that he was the absolutely final variation - and also one of the most original - of the figure of the disappointed revolutionary, the long-haired student leader who uprooted paving stones in Paris and flung them at the police in May, 1968. From then until now Levy found nothing that was a stronger stimulus than that experience.

In Jerusalem, Benny Levy's name is associated with the Levinas Institute, which he founded here about three years ago with his colleagues, the French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and theoretician Bernard-Henri Levy, both of them disappointed Sartreans like him. Has this institute succeeded in disseminating Levinas' ideas among us? It would seem that the opposite is the case: The name of this French philosopher, the author of "Nine Talmudic Readings," the only one of his works that has been translated into Hebrew, continues to arouse antagonism here as it did in the past, because of his non-Orthodox interpretations of rabbinic Judaism.

Will Benny Levy go down in the history of philosophy as a major commentator on Levinas? No: The important commentators on Levinas live in Paris and publish there. Unfortunately, Benny Levy remains something of a curiosity: Like the court Jews of the middle ages, he will most probably go down in history as court Jew to Sartre, whose personal secretary he was during the last six years of the French philosopher's life. This was when Sartre was half blind and was no longer quite himself. Many people say that the two influenced each other to abandon their leftist religion and become true religious penitents.

Benny Levy's companions in the revolution of 35 years ago have joined the establishment, have committed suicide, have died of AIDS or have become those annoying people, about whom films have already been made and novels written, who work as youth counselors at a community center in the suburbs of Paris and in the evening, over a glass of red wine in a bar, reminisce about days gone by. It would seem that Levy wished to escape this pathetic fate and to this end went as far as Jerusalem. Becoming a member of the establishment as a professor of philosopher at one of the prestigious colleges in Paris was out of the question as far as he was concerned. Nor was sinking into the life of licentiousness that Paris offered in plenty during the dozen years between the student revolution and the AIDS epidemic.

Levy chose a route of his own for retiring from the world: Orthodox Judaism. And on the assumption that the world is Paris, Jerusalem is definitely an other-worldly location, and there Benny Levy chose to end his life, like the people of the Jewish community in the holy land before Zionism was born, who "ascended" to Zion in order to die there. Benny Levy was born in Cairo during the last year of World War II, and in this respect too, as a son of the Levant who sees Paris as the promised land, the trajectory of his life resembled that of the hero of a typical novel of the second half of the 20th century. That is, of the youth who dreams of another place where his life will be better, and when his dream is realized, he is already in the next dream. This was Benny Levy: a Jewish boy who dreamed.