The Vanity of Bernard-Henri Lévy
Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Genius of Judaism (New York: Random House, 2017), 256 pp., $28.00.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY has been the recipient of vast quantities of acclaim, a copious dose of scorn and even a handful of projectile pies. This likely would have been the destiny of any semiprominent ex-Marxist French intellectual who openly (and practically unilaterally) turned against the European Left, calling it out for its complicity in secular totalitarianism. This was almost inevitably the destiny of a person who is brilliant, who inherited a massive fortune, who has been involved in a number of high-profile dalliances and marriages, and who has spent forty years in the international spotlight as a philosopher, filmmaker, war correspondent, playwright, columnist and human-rights activist. Lévy claims on his résumé, among other achievements, more than thirty books—including works of philosophy, fiction and biography—countless articles and multiple lifetimes’ worth of harrowing foreign adventures. He’s been hailed in the pages of the world’s leading publications as “a star,” “a phenomenon,” “a commanding figure,” “a fearless intellectual risk-taker,” even “Superman.” Perhaps the greatest proof of his stature is that he’s widely known simply as “BHL.”
Lévy returns to his roots in his latest book. Born in 1948 in the iron ore shipping port Béni Saf to affluent Jewish Algerians, his family moved to Paris a few months after his birth. He became a Zionist in 1967. His timing was propitious. Arriving in Israel days following the Six-Day War, he found “the most unexpected of inner homelands.” Yet for much of his life, he remained uninformed of his religious inheritance. His family embraced the adage of the atrabilious and haunted nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine that Judaism “was a source of ‘insults and pain’ that one would not wish on one’s worst enemy.” He’s since discarded that chilly sentiment and embraced an “affirmative” rapport with his faith. After much deliberation, he decrees that “the genius of Judaism” is that Judaism is actually a religion without borders.
Contrary to other religions, Lévy contends, Judaism’s “first commandment” is “the commandment of universalism,” “responsibility for the world,” the ethical directive to expose oneself “to the shadow of the outside world, the shadow of the Other, even the radically other,” a directive anyone, anywhere, anytime can promptly embrace. To be sure, this isn’t the thrust of Judaism; it’s the religion’s totality. All of Torah’s other duties “shrivel and become dead letters” in comparison. Torah-observant Jews won’t read The Genius of Judaism, for a number of sociological reasons. If they were to, they would certainly take umbrage at its conclusion. Mainstream Jews—particularly of the Reform denomination, by far the largest denomination in America—will read it, and they’ll constitute the majority of its readership in the United States. And while they’ll celebrate its conclusion, they will still be taken aback by Lévy’s inconsistency in reaching it.
TO GRASP the impetus behind Lévy’s latest effusion, one must first recognize that Lévy is a disillusioned radical soulfully seeking atonement. The book is part of a very personal and protracted effort to construct and disseminate an outlook, a disposition, an anti-ideology capable of defeating the dogmas that deceived him during his youth. Lévy was educated at the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris in the 1960s, “the bastion of the aristocracy of the revolutionary movement known as Maoism.” There in the French capital, in that topsy-turvy era, the leviathans of poststructuralism nourished his mind. Ginned up, he along with many of his classmates rallied behind the Khmer Rouge, the chic insurgency du jour, because the regime’s leaders had studied at the Sorbonne. Steeped in the theories of Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Georges Canguilhem, the Khmer Rouge (purportedly) uniquely possessed the innovative knowledge needed to finally extinguish the oppressive quality of language, erase fascism from culture and fashion “the new man.” It would triumph because it would elude all the pitfalls that had derailed all previous Marxist enterprises. “We were sure,” Lévy writes, “that we were at the apogee of the age in which God had died. It had been beautiful. It had been huge.”
Needless to say, they were wrong. The Khmer Rouge carried out a genocide, murdering in four years around two million people, close to a quarter of the Cambodian population. History had repeated itself, for human nature had proven itself, once again, insufficiently malleable for Communism. Dazed and eager for reorientation, Lévy met and befriended philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and Catholic literary critic René Girard. Through them, he discovered the academic study of Torah. He also connected with philosopher André Glucksmann and founded Les Nouveaux Philosophes, a group that proceeded to blast progressivism driven by devotion to reason and inevitable progress. In 1977, he broke out with La barbarie a visage humain (Barbarism with a Human Face), in which he lamented, while examining the prevailing intellectual currents of the continent, that “Hitler did not die in Berlin” and “Stalin did not die in Moscow nor at the Twentieth Congress.” The following year, shortly before Pol Pot and his homicidal comrades fled to the jungles, Lévy produced Le testament de Dieu (The Testament of God), a polemic in favor of Mosaic Law over the utopian and secular “cult of the Political.”