The morally minded French public intellectual applies 21st-century chutzpah to our radical age.
By Adam Kirsch
It has often been observed that a phenomenon like Bernard-Henri Lévy could not exist in America. Lévy can be briefly described as an intellectual, but no American intellectual is famous enough to be referred to only by his initials, like BHL. That is partly because Lévy combines gifts and talents in a way that is discouraged by American specialization. Philosopher, pundit, filmmaker, activist, war correspondent, semiofficial diplomat—not to mention dashing, independently wealthy, and married to a famous actress—Lévy has many claims on public attention, and he has been a celebrity in France for some 40 years. It is fashionable for serious people to look down on BHL—all that flash, all that moralizing!—but he could only exist in a culture that honors ideas and those who live by them more than we do.
The left, in particular, has long despised Lévy, in something like the way it came to despise Christopher Hitchens. That is because, even as he claims to be a socialist himself, he stands for three things that are anathema to the contemporary left. First, he is fundamentally opposed to the idea of revolution; he came to prominence in the 1970s as a spokesman for the “New Philosophers,” a group of young thinkers who rejected the violent revolutionary fantasies of French Marxists and Maoists. Second, he advocates an interventionist foreign policy in defense of humanitarianism and human rights—most recently, he supported the NATO action in Libya. Since at least the Iraq War, if not earlier, this idea has been scorned by the left as a mere fig leaf for Western imperialism, and a recipe for international chaos (with Libya as a case in point). And third, Lévy is a committed Jew, who places Jewishness and the state of Israel at the heart of his political and intellectual identity.
This is particularly significant in a French context, because in recent years Alain Badiou, often considered France’s greatest living philosopher, has helped to turn anti-Judaism into an intellectual point of pride. To Badiou, and his epigone Slavoj Žižek, Judaism is the enemy of utopianism; just as Jews denied Christ, so Jewish liberals today deny the transcendent dimension of the revolutionary Event. The only good Jews, according to this school, are the ones who reject solidarity with other Jews and turn themselves into revolutionaries and pariahs, like Spinoza and Marx. In particular, this form of left-wing anti-Judaism demands hostility to Israel as a token of liberation from Jewish particularism.
The significance of Lévy’s new book, The Genius of Judaism, can fully appear only if this French context is kept in mind. Essentially, what Lévy does here is to accept all the charges against him, and turn them against his enemies. Yes, he writes, he is an enemy of revolutionary violence, a defender of Israel, and an interventionist—all because he is a Jew. But Jewishness is not an illegitimate form of identity, a betrayal of universalism, a vestigial backwardness, as much of the European left believes. On the contrary, it is precisely in his Jewishness that Lévy locates the inspiration for his progressive politics. The genius of Judaism—the title pays homage to the famous 19th-century book by Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity—is for Lévy “a certain idea of man and God, of history and power,” which inspires his thinking and his actions.
When it comes to elucidating this genius, however, Lévy is not wholly satisfying. In large part, this is because of the structure of the book, which reads as if it were dictated at high speed. Virtually every sentence is either a run-on or a fragment; many paragraphs are just one sentence long; and Lévy indulges a taste for rhetoric that feels especially ostentatious in English. Like an orator, he gets carried away by his own enthusiasm: “Words old and new. Words of glory or mistrust. Gratuitous words. Words howled out or whispered. Words boldly pronounced but lacking resonance. Words timorously uttered and echoing long.” (This is actually just the start of a paragraph that includes many other types of “words.”) And dramatization goes hand-in-hand with self-dramatization: The first-person pronoun makes many appearances in this book, and Lévy writes with an assurance that readers will know all about his past positions, interventions, and controversies. This confidence is probably justified for French readers, but almost no American readers will know or care so much about BHL.
Lévy’s points of reference and many of his arguments are also not really suited for export because the history of the Jews in France is unique. It was the first European country to grant Jews civil equality, after the Revolution of 1789. But the Republican bargain involved giving up communal identity and independence, in exchange for individual rights; Jews became highly assimilated Frenchmen of the Israelite faith, wary of any public expression of Jewish difference. Yet this did not stop the French of both the right and the left from embracing extreme anti-Semitism, as the Dreyfus Affair showed in the late 19th century. No wonder many Jews felt as Lévy says his ancestors did: “I am from a family that embraced Heine’s famous saying that Judaism, Zionism included, was a source of ‘insults and pain’ that one would not wish on one’s worst enemy.”
It is against this background that Lévy argues for the centrality of Jews to French culture and history. Rashi, he observes, is a key source for early medieval French vocabulary because he used many French words in his Bible and Talmud commentaries. Eighteenth-century ideas about popular sovereignty drew on the example of the Hebrew Bible: The French Revolution was made possible by “the contribution … [of] the children of Jerusalem.” Finally, Lévy writes that the greatest modern French writer, Marcel Proust, couldn’t have written as he did if he weren’t half-Jewish. His immense novel In Search of Lost Time is “a Mishnah of the Faubourg Saint-Germain,” the Paris neighborhood where his aristocratic characters live.
In the second half of the book, Lévy focuses on the book of Jonah, which he turns into a parable about Jewish engagement with the non-Jewish world. Just as Jonah went to preach to the gentiles of Nineveh, so Jews must bring their legacy of prophetic justice to the peoples and places that need it. Immodestly, Lévy identifies himself with Jonah, and compares his visits to Ukraine and Libya to the prophet’s Ninevite mission: “I have been to Nineveh. … I have spent a nonnegligible part of my life and considerable energy working on behalf of people other than my own, people … who were, in some cases, in potential or in fact, the enemies of who I am.”
Lévy’s desire to ground his politics in Jewish textual tradition is an example of what he calls “inhabiting the name” of Judaism. He insists that progressive values are not opposed to Jewish tradition, but actually flow out of that tradition—a rhetorical movement that is familiar on the American Jewish left, but still radical in the French context, with its emphasis on secular universalism. “The genius of Judaism that I am seeking most certainly resides in the effort of going to Nineveh,” he writes, “in the relationship with the other and with the outside world that is the meaning of the lives of so many Jews and definitely of mine.” For Lévy, this outward-turning Judaism is nourished by turning inward to Jewish text—what he calls “the profusion of intelligence that flows from reading the Talmud.”
The problem with this line of argument is that it tends to remake Judaism in the image of 21st-century liberalism; and in fact, most of what Lévy describes as Jewish values are really Enlightenment values in Jewish drag. To take one example: Lévy argues passionately that the idea of Jewish chosenness does not entail any kind of superiority or divine favoritism. “The very idea of a privilege, of greater dignity, the very idea of an added increment of sacredness derived from the simple fact of being Jewish … is completely foreign to the profound genius of Judaism.” To believe otherwise, he says, is to fall into the delusion of Korach, the Biblical rebel against Moses, whose sin Lévy interprets as complacency about Jewish chosenness.
Yet this kind of interpretation seizes on one idiosyncratic reading of a Biblical story in order to contradict the whole burden and meaning of Jewish tradition. For there is no doubt that Judaism, historically and textually, does believe that being Jewish is a privilege and a dignity. There is no way to read the Torah, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis, without accepting that God’s special love for the Jewish people is the very basis of Judaism. Of course, this election involves heavy burdens, and it can be seen—it often has been seen—as an ambiguous fate. But Lévy’s attempt to purge chosenness from the Jewish story is absurd, flying in the face of Bible, Talmud, and later texts alike. (I wonder if he has ever read the Kuzari of Yehuda Halevi, one of the greatest Jewish books, and an audacious argument for Jewish spiritual superiority. )
The full absurdity of this approach emerges at the end of “The Genius of Judaism,” where Lévy writes that “No Jew … is required to ‘believe in God.’ ” Indeed, he believes that many orthodox Jews are bad Jews because they “believe themselves excused from their duty of piety”—by which he means, the piety of skepticism and difficult questioning—“because they wear sidelocks and caftans that protect them, they suppose, from time’s ravages.” This is what the genius of Judaism calls chutzpah: an unlearned, unbelieving Jew telling learned, believing Jews that he is a better Jew than they are. A better moral agent, a better human being, maybe—depending on what criteria you are using. But a better Jew, no—not unless Jewishness has been drained of all historical specificity and theological meaning. Lévy’s attempt to make all his values cohere, to say that being a progressive is not just compatible with being a Jew but identical with it, is a sympathetic and even admirable project. But if he can’t make it succeed, perhaps no one can.