This Day in Jewish History, 1943

'God Isn't Dead, He's Silent': Simone Weil Dies, Very Young

Affliction as love? Simone Weil died at just 34, only after which would the world learn of her extraordinary insights following her conversion to Christianity.

Wikimedia Commons

On August 24, 1943, the French philosopher Simone Weil died after a very short, but eventful life. In her 34 years, Weil became a political activist and trained with anarchists, worked in the fields, converted to Christianity and wrote papers - whose posthumous publication ensured her status as one of the great religious philosophers of the 20th century.

 Weil was born in 1909 in Paris, France. Her father Bernard, a medical doctor, and her mother, Saolomea, were both wealthy, agnostic Jews. In 1928 she began studying philosophy at the cole Normale Supérieure. Ranking first in the entrance exam, she passed Simone de Beauvoir, who came in second and later nicknamed Weil "The Martian".

Hopelessly inept at actually working

After graduating in 1931, Weil began teaching philosophy at a girls' school, but her main interest was trade union activism.

As with her later theology, she felt that writing should be based on real life experiences, so in addition to teaching, she began working in factories and in farming.

However, her radical political activism eventually led to her dismissal from teaching. This left her dependent on her factory job, at which she was "hopelessly inept", by her own account.

Although a self-described pacifist at the time, Weil trained with anarchists to fight alongside with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Her training was never completed, because of a clumsy accident involving her foot and hot oil.

Her time in Spain left her feeling disillusioned about the secular ideologies of her time, mostly Marxism. "For a period of time she was more or less in sympathy with our cause, but then she lost faith in the proletariat and in Marxism," none other than Leon Trosky wrote in a letter to his friend Victor Serge about the Frenchwoman who invited him to stay with her parents in Paris.

A mystical experience

 It was around this time that Weil began feeling drawn to Christianity. In 1937, after returning to France and working again as a teacher, Weil had her first mystical experience, while visiting at the chapel of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy. The following year she converted to Christianity, although she always had a rather unique interpretation of what conversion entails: Her emphasis was more on spirit than ritual.

 In 1940, Weil realized that religion isn't just something you choose: it can be imposed on you. She was dismissed from teaching because of the anti-Jewish Vichy Laws, and turned south, to a friend's vineyard. There she concentrated on her writing.

When she fled the country to the United States and then England in 1942, she left her writings with her friend. The following year, while working for De Gaulle's Free French movement, she died of tuberculosis, at the age of 34.

Posthumous fame

It was only then that Weil's legacy began. Little did she know that after her death, her friend, philosopher Gustave Thibon, would collect all the papers and notes she had left with him - and make her famous. She may have died relatively unknown, but the works published after Weil's death made her popular around the world. In fact, her most influential book, "Gravity and Grace", is actually a collection of some of those papers and notes she had written, that were collected and edited by Thibon. They weren't meant to be a book, and she never even requested for the texts to be published at all.

In the decades following her death and publications, her philosophy was extensively analyzed. Weil had examined the modern world from a religious point of view, and deduced that God was not absent but silent. For her, unlike many theists, that was actually a good thing: It was where human creation begins.

One of her most notable ideas emphasized suffering as a virtue, and not as a divine punishment. For her, it was a curious form of God's love. Affliction was a way towards love.

While she received praise from many people, from Pope Paul VI to Albert Camus, many Jewish writers accused her of anti-Semitism. Weil was a harsh critic of Judaism. She claimed that the fall of Western Civilization in her life time was the result of its twin shaky foundations: Jewish and Roman cultures. Her solution was to abandon her old faith and embrace Christianity – eve though to the end, she remained firm in her refusal to be baptized. 

Feyd Huxtable, Wikimedia Commons