In the last four decades Bernard-Henry Lévy has been one of the most influential and controversial public intellectuals and cultural commentators on the world stage. A noted French philosopher, journalist and activist, he has also been celebrated as one of the great moral voices of our time. His critics, however, point to his pursuit of glamour, self-promotion, narcissistic display and hedonistic impulses as detracting from the seriousness of his ideas and the passion for active engagement with the causes he believes in. Whatever roll Bernard-Henry Lévy enjoys as a public intellectual is inextricable from his personal celebrity as a former “star” of the French left. His persona is his work and story and his story is his celebrity. An Algerian born Jew who first came to notice in the 1970s as one of the new French philosophers who repudiated Marxism, he has taken unpopular positions, especially on Israel, on interventionism, on the dangers of radical Islam and the “new” anti-Semitism, that have alienated many on the French and European left of which he considers himself a part.
Lévy’s latest book, The Genius of Judaism, which is both fascinating and frustrating, if not at points poorly written and constructed, claims to be a point of convergence of everything else he has written and attempted to do, and nearly everything he has experienced over the past forty years. He probably would have been better served conceiving of it as a memoir rather than a cultural treatise. Essentially what Lévy does in this book, which owes its title to Chateaubriand’s “The Genius of Christianity”, is to confront the charges made against him and turn them against his critics. Yes, he is an enemy of revolutionary violence, a strong defender of Israel and an interventionist precisely because he is a Jew. But his understanding of Judaism is not a betrayal of universalism, not mired in blind observance and ritual and not insensitive to the call of the “stranger”, as much of the European left believes. On the contrary, it is in his Jewishness that Lévy locates much of the inspiration for his progressive politics and his social and moral activism. One can read this work as part of his ongoing conversation with Judaism, influenced deeply by the texts of the Torah and the Talmud, especially the Talmudic traditions of argument and debate by the commentaries of Rashi, Malbim, Sforno and Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, and watched over by philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Benny Lévy. What he gleaned from these texts, particularly The Book of Jonah, and these masters, is the obligation to the other, the dispossessed, to the forgotten and to the non-Jewish world, an obligation that he has sought to embody in his activism from Bosnia to Africa’s forgotten wars, from Libya to the desperate fight against the Islamic State.
When it comes to elucidating the genius of Judaism, Lévy is not always satisfying or convincing. This may have something to do with how the book is structured and written — fragmented sentences, an embellished rhetorical style and incomplete arguments — as well as to idiosyncratic interpretations and readings of a Biblical story or text. But these do not fundamentally obscure the book’s virtues. These mostly take the form of powerful observations on the dangers of new and veiled anti-Semitism; an impassioned and lucid defense of Israel; the threat of Islamism; the exploitative nature of competitive victimhood, especially as it affects relations between blacks and Jews in the United States; and the underappreciated Jewish roots of Western democratic ideals.
This is an important if somewhat flawed book by a seminal thinker and activist. There is much here that is insightful and provocative, a passionate and personal book, that plumbs the Jewish intellectual and spiritual sources of one of our keenest contemporary thinkers. If only it could have been more carefully developed and presented.