The Genius of Judaism

Bernard-Hen­ri Levy; Steven B. Kennedy, trans.

  • Review
By – May 9, 2017

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.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions