Bernard-Henri Levy Uses Judaism's 'Genius' to Showcase His Political Activism

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, a highly idiosyncratic take on what he sees as the fundamental lesson of Judaism, also offers a surprisingly clueless view of Orthodoxy.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in Geneva on April 20, 2009.
AP

“The Genius of Judaism,” by Bernard-Henri Levy (translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy), Random House, 241 pp., $28

The title is, of course, a bit misleading.

“The Genius of Judaism” isn’t, for example, a primer on Jewish thought through the millennia, as much as it is a highly idiosyncratic and impressionistic take on what its author sees as the fundamental lesson of Judaism – a type of universalism he says was laid out in the Book of Jonah, and filtered in modern times through the philosophy of Emanuel Levinas.

Not that “The Genius of Judaism” is an introduction to the thought of the French-Jewish philosopher (who died in 1995). Rather, Bernard-Henri Levy’s principal purpose in this book is to defend his political activism, in particular his support of the civil wars in Libya and Ukraine earlier this decade. His actions, he tells us, were based on the central lesson of Jonah, which Levy believes is at the very heart of Judaism.

“I took the risk of speaking out in Libya and then in Ukraine,” he explains, “because it was the way of what I will call, in tribute to the master whom I cite so often, Levinas, who spoke of ‘difficult freedom,’ difficult Judaism.”

It may sound a bit esoteric, but it’s a legitimate subject for a writer. If this worldly French philosopher and journalist claims to have insight regarding the proper way to engage with some of the unrest and chaos sweeping the world, and finds a basis for his insight in Jewish sources – we certainly should be ready to hear what he has to say.

Nonetheless, it needs to be said, up front, that “The Genius of Judaism” does not hold together – either as a book or as a convincing presentation of the essence of Judaism.

For one thing, only the second of the book’s two parts really deals with Judaism’s “genius.” Part One, or more correctly, the first section of Part One, is an indictment of contemporary anti-Semitism, which Levy argues convincingly is taking on increasingly sophisticated guises, whether in the form of Holocaust denial, disproportional criticism of Israel, or what he sees as the competition of victimhood. “In all cases,” he writes, “what emerges is a portrait of a truly detestable people guilty of so many crimes that they have earned the reprobation that is once again raining down on them.”

As troubling as anti-Semitism is, it’s not clear what it’s doing in this book, which was first published a year ago in France. Even less clear is how the non-French reader can be expected to understand or follow Part One’s next section, a passionate digression about how modern France has been influenced by Jewish thinkers ranging from Rashi to Marcel Proust.

Here, Levy assumes so much knowledge on the part of the reader, and checks so many names without doing more than minimally identifying them, that, after the feeling of ignorance passes, it is replaced by irritation. (We read in the prologue, for example, that the book’s title is an “homage to one of the few really great writers to have understood some of the genius of Judaism,” but must get through another 100 pages before the author reveals, in passing, just who that writer was – Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, author of the late-19th-century text “The Genius of Christianity,” a comparison that apparently needs no explanation.)

“The Genius of Judaism” by Bernard Henri-Levy.
Random House

Let’s skip, though, to Part Two, which holds Levy’s explication of Judaism’s genius, which he then employs to defend his own actions in Libya in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014. In Libya, Levy – one part journalist, one part engaged intellectual, and one part plenipotentiary – served as a go-between between the opposition and the French government, contributing to the latter’s recognition of the transition government in Tripoli and to the decision by a NATO-led coalition to bomb forces propping up the regime of dictator Muammar Gadhafi.

In Ukraine, Levy showed up in Kiev at the height of the Maidan demonstrations in February 2014 to express his support for the movement demanding the resignation of the country’s autocratic president Viktor Yanukovych. While there, he used the opportunity to criticize Ukrainians for their historical amnesia regarding collaboration with the Nazi occupiers during World War II, and for a near-complete lack of memorials to the more than 800,000 Jews murdered there during the Holocaust.

Levy’s actions, he says, took their inspiration from the Book of Jonah. Jonah, you’ll remember, was commanded by God to travel to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to warn its people that they would be destroyed in 40 days unless they relinquished their wicked ways. Jonah objects to, and tries to avoid, his mission, as he is convinced that the Ninevites will indeed “turn back,” and save themselves, but that their atonement will be skin-deep.

Jonah’s attempt to flee fails, and his mission to Nineveh turns out as he anticipated, to his chagrin. But later, God teaches him a lesson about mercy and about the nature of divine love of all creation (not just the Israelites), and Jonah presumably comes to terms with the sparing of Nineveh.

Readers of the Book of Jonah, however, know that in 721 B.C.E., the Assyrian empire – the same one saved by Jonah’s warning – conquered and destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, and that a little over a century later, in 587, it also overran Judah and demolished the Temple in Jerusalem. Levy reasons that Jonah’s resistance to carry out his mission was based on his feeling that he was caught “between two contradictory duties to be the instrument of his people’s loss, or to think first of his people and disobey the voice.”

'Noble' acts

“I have been to Nineveh,” declares Levy.

He means that literally – having recently observed the battles over Mosul, Iraq, the modern city adjacent to the ruins of Nineveh, which Iraqi forces are now attempting to wrest from the Islamic State, or ISIS. But Levy also has been to other “Ninevehs” – Bangladesh, Eritrea, Angola, Poland, and most recently Libya and Ukraine, which he sees as the modern equivalents of the Assyrian capital.

In both of the latter places, Levy recognized that there was suspicion, if not outright animosity, toward Jews and to Israel, but he also was convinced that the revolutions under way there were each “a noble act,” and deserved support, even if there was no guarantee that in the future, Libya or Ukraine would not be adversaries of Israel.

To those who would wonder what a Jew is doing mixing it up in Libya or Kiev, Levy claims that he was acting in accordance with “the commandment of universalism that is the heart of Jewish thought and that I found so powerfully expressed in the Book of Jonah.”

It is that universalism that is the very nucleus of what Levy calls “the genius of Judaism,” which is its ability, “whether or not one prays, whether or not one observes holidays, whether or not one follows the proscriptions of Leviticus or Deuteronomy – to produce a little of the intelligence that will offer people, all people, a little of the teaching that they need to be different from others”

It has taken Levy until page 214 to articulate this vague nugget that is supposed to encapsulate Judaism’s “genius,” and if you find it a little starry-eyed and not so obviously connected to Judaism as you understood it, you are not alone.

Levy’s readiness to distill Judaism’s teachings this way – as if he were a latter-day Rabbi Hillel, standing on a single foot – is part-and-parcel of his more general tendency to place himself at the center of so many international crises, and makes him confident that we have been watching him in his escapades. And that we care enough to want to read his justifications for his actions.

‘Grand dukes of Zionism’

Levy actually comes off here as nave, not mention ill-informed, certainly when it comes to Israel and to Orthodox Jews, both of which he views with a surprising sense of the romantic.

Though he has made it clear in the past that he knows better, here he seems unaware or unconcerned by the drift of Israeli society away from the democratic and universalist Jewish principles he himself holds so dear. He takes for granted that growing international criticism of the occupation, and the willingness to act on it, is really just an expression of a double standard that holds Israel to a higher level of morality than it does other states. And he assures the reader that Israel, “despite a lifetime spent under a state of siege, has somehow managed to remain faithful to its democratic founding principles.”

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators in Mea She'arim, in Jerusalem, protesting the closure of a local synagogue, Dec. 12, 2015.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Well, yes and no. Has Levy really not noticed that there’s a struggle going on both within Israel and among Jews worldwide over whether the state will continue to cleave to the values of democracy – really, over what that term means, beyond the principle of majority rule.

Levy does acknowledge that there is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in fact reminds those of us who forgot that it was he who “outlined thirteen years ago, in the presence of the leading voices of the ‘peace camp,’” the parameters of the 2003 Geneva Initiative that continue to be endorsed by many from both sides who still hold out hope for a political resolution of the conflict.

I was sorry, however, that the man who has “met most of the prime ministers of Israel, from Begin to Rabin, from Shamir to Netanyahu, from Shimon Peres and the other grand dukes of Zionism to Ariel Sharon and others,” seems unwilling to acknowledge how far the State of Israel has moved away from the ideals that accompanied its creation and that he claims are the essence of Judaism. Is he really not paying attention?

Similarly, Levy appears fairly clueless about the struggles going on within Judaism, connected in part, but hardly limited to the fact that within Israel, control over Jewish religious life is relegated to a small cadre of power brokers who have a non-inclusive approach to Jewish peoplehood. In fact, he thinks it’s a mistake to even use the word “orthodox,” since it suggests an unfounded rigidity on the part of those it describes.

Levy wants us to know that, in actuality, if “there is one place that, by definition, is antithetical to orthodoxy,” it is “the houses of study in which scholars devote all of their time to endless dissection of individual verses of the Torah.” Thus, the rabbis of Haredi Judaism “are almost naturally immunized against the closing off of thought”

Levy should know. After all, 30 years ago, he wrote the preface to a book of photographs of people in Mea She’arim, something he agreed to do, “because a part of me believed them to be depositories of the secret that I attribute today to the treasured people and because another part liked thinking that they were there”

What’s more, writes Levy today, “I have not changed my mind.

“And I do not mind repeating here though hardly less ignorant than I was then, the distant respect that they inspire in me.”

It’s important for him to tell us this because of his distress over the “witchcraft trial they have been subjected to” since the stabbing murder of “a young homosexual [sic] during Jerusalem’s Gay Parade event [in 2015] while others from a nationalist religious group firebombed a Palestinian house in Duma, burning a baby alive and killing his parents.”

Not to misunderstand: Levy is sickened and outraged by both murders, but he is convinced that, just as it is wrong to blame all Muslims “each time a Muslim kills in the name of Islam,” he wishes that “a fraction of that restraint could also be applied here so that the crimes in Jerusalem and Duma are not used to exaggerate the danger of ultraorthodoxy in Israeli yeshivas.”

This is a straw-man argument: No reasonable, well-informed person thinks that Yishai Schlissel, the Haredi man who carried out the stabbing at the Pride Parade, is representative of the teachings of Orthodoxy, nor that the murderous actions of a small group of settler youth against an innocent Palestinian family were supported by a sizable portion of Orthodox Jews here.

If those two heinous acts had something in common, it was the failure of Israel’s law enforcement apparatus to prevent them. Levy praises the Israel Police for arresting Schlissel after he stabbed (the non-gay) Shira Banki, but if they had been doing their job properly, he never would have got close to her in the first place. Only a month earlier, Schlissel was released from prison after serving a sentence for a similar attack at a pride parade a decade earlier, and during his days as a free man, knowing that another parade was planned for the capital, he publicly stated his intention to “stop this giant desecration of God’s name.” Schlissel could and should have been stopped.

And the reluctance of the Israeli political and legal establishment to take anything remotely like a firm stance against settler violence vis-à-vis Palestinian noncombatants is so familiar and ingrained by now that it’s astounding that Levy is “shocked, shocked” by the Duma murder, with his main takeaway being that this freak event was used as an excuse to attack religious Jewry in general.

By suggesting that the real problem is hatred of the Orthodox, Levy avoids acknowledging a growing intolerance, racism and lack of democratic norms or respect for secular law among Israeli Jews, many of them Orthodox. Recognizing this does not constitute anti-Semitism, an assumption of guilt by association, or even a critique of what the “real” Judaism is.

The real Judaism, as Levy himself notes, has “70 faces.” Those who fear for Israel’s democracy would be grateful to have as articulate and (normally) thoughtful an individual as him speaking out on behalf of the more humanistic and pluralistic approaches to Jewish life that are to be found within the sources than to have to read about his romantic and “ignorant” affection for the residents of Mea She’arim.

By the way, Haredim have spread far beyond the tiny neighborhood of Mea Shea’rim and are now the majority in most of the northern half of Jerusalem. But that’s the problem with relinquishing romantic notions about Israel: It means freeing oneself of clichéd descriptions and acknowledging the changes that have taken place.

David B. Green is an editor and writer at Haaretz English Edition.