In his latest book, “”The Genius of Judaism” (Random House), Bernard-Henri Levy revisits much of his early and recent public intellectual life to reveal that much of what he has done, where he has traveled to, and why he does it, is animated by his Jewishness. As a proud French Jew, Levy makes the case for a pointedly secular “affirmative Judaism” that is about actions not faith, ethics not belief. Levy calls it ‘messianic Judaism’ (which if I understand it, means not waiting for the messiah but actively doing those good deeds that will bring about the messiah).
In “The Genius of Judaism,” Levy elaborates on his credo by rebutting the pernicious and false logic behind current anti-Semitism and defends Israel as the world’s most successful multi-ethnic democracy created from scratch. Levy also makes the case for France’s Jews being integral to the establishment of the French Nation, the French Language and French Literature. And last, but certainly not least, he presents a striking interpretation of the Book of Jonah. It is a tour de force.
In a two-hour far-ranging conversation over lunch recently in Beverly Hills, I began by turning to the end of the book, whose last line is “The trip has only just begun,” – not only because Hebrew is read from right to left – but also because it begged the question of when Levy began the journey of reclaiming his Jewishness.
“It began 40 years ago when I wrote ‘Testament of God’ in 1979,” Levy said, “and I never stopped. I continued in parallel with all my other works.” However, Levy admits, his public persona was consumed with politics and polemics; while, in private, he pursued a less-seen education, “A second thread,” influenced by friends and mentors such as Emanuel Levinas and Benny Levy who inspired him to familiarize himself with well-known Jewish sources such as Maimonides and more esoteric ones such as the Malbim (a 19th Century Russian Rabbi, Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, known for his Torah commentary) and the Kabbalah. More recently, Levy explained, he has taken a teacher with whom, “on a more or less regular basis, I have tried to learn.”
When I asked if there was an event or moment that triggered his more recent deeper immersion in Jewish learning, Levy answered without hesitation: “The Libyan War in 2011.” Then he told me an amazing story: In Libya, as has been well-reported, Levy became more than an observer. He embedded with resistance forces and helped them plot strategy. Levy provided them material aid, most publicly by delivering direct messages to and from French Prime Minister Nikolas Sarkozy. One night, towards the end of the war, Johnny, one of his Libyan companions, asked if Levy if he wanted to meet “the radicals.” Johnny explained that Levy had met everyone else, the liberals, the fundamentalists, and the revolutionaries. Was he interested in meeting the most extreme Jihadists, those who pledge allegiance to Isis (Daesh)? Levy said “Yes.”
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“It was August 2011. I was driven to a remote farm out of Benghazi at night. It was during the end of Ramadan.” He was taken before three well-known jihadists. “I spent the night with them discussing face-to-face, a very strong discussion on very intellectual and political and intimate topics.” Afterward, he was taken out of the armed camp and returned to safety. “It was strange. I wondered, “Why do I do that?” What impelled him to be in Libya and meet with these men who were avowed Anti-Semites?
Levy turned to one of the books he had with him, a volume that contained the Book of Jonah. “This was a spark.” He began to read the story again. “I said, ‘There is something [in Jonah for which] I have to go deep. Benghazi is not Nineveh but it is a place where men are like beasts in great number, not recognizing the left and the right.” He came to the realization that “What I’m doing there… has something to do with rescuing Nineveh … And this was the launch [for his deeper inquiry into his Judaism].”
I suggested that there was perhaps another significant trigger that forced Levy to confront his Jewishness: The 2002 murder of Daniel Pearl. Levy had spent almost two years retracing Daniel Pearl’s steps for his book “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” (2003) who, significantly, was killed by his captors after being forced to say on camera that he was Jewish, the child of Jewish Parents and that a street was named for his grandfather in Bnei Brak (an ultra-orthodox community in Israel).
Shortly after the book’s publication, I interviewed Levy who told me then that in history there are “hinge moments” — inflection points — where things change radically. Levy said that the murder of Daniel Pearl was one such moment and that it would be as significant a marker of the return of worldwide Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century as was the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus in the 20th. Levy proved right about that (I think about it often). To write a book about Daniel Pearl and for Levy to come to face to face with the reductionism by which journalist, musician, humanist, husband, father, and son Daniel Pearl was made to affirm his Jewishness along with his final words could not but have had a powerful impact on Levy, forcing him to face his own Jewishness, his Judaism and how it informed his life. Levy did not disagree:
“For sure, it was a shock for me,” Levy said. “This encounter with this liberal dead Jew who came from a real Orthodox Jewish background, a liberal who was very ready to extend his hand to the Muslim world. He was very much [a] Jonah.”
Levy finds great lessons in Jonah’s struggle. Levy makes the point that Jonah is a reluctant prophet: “even at the end of the story, he does not realize what he’s accomplished… He does not understand.. his role in the economy of the creation.”
That night in Libya, Levy saw himself as a Jonah. “By the bad side, yes, at least. I did a lot of things in Libya [that] I did not understand at the time why I did it.”
Jonah, Levy argues, is one of the few prophets commanded to save non-Jews and to save their great city of Nineveh, despite the fact that in Nineveh there are “more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals.” To Levy, what God is signaling to Jonah is the importance of the City.
“What the text says and What I believe with all the fibers of my being,” Levy said, “is that… this way of inhabiting Earth, which is the way of the City, gives to humans a certain form of freedom: Freedom vis-à-vis Man, vis-à-vis God, vis-à-vis matters of substance, [even] vis-a-vis Idols, that is worth saving. That is the message given to Jonah by God. A city may be bad, but this way of creating community with the world that is what we call a City is a school for liberty that we cannot let be extinguished.”
In Libya, Levy realized that even if the outcome was unsure, even if those who followed were anti-Semites, he was compelled as a Jew to try to save those great cities from fascism and Urbicide (a term Levy uses for the destruction of cities). “Fascism… always has at its core the wish of urbicide,” Levy said, much as we’ve seen recently in Aleppo and Palmyra.
And so, in the Book of Jonah, Levy found the “Genius of Judaism” and this caused him to reconsider his own personal journey.
While admitting regret for his youthful embrace of Maoism in the late 1960s (and being blind, at first, to the atrocities of those regimes), Levy, looking back, now wonders: What did this moment have do with Israel? Why was it that so many of his fellow philosopher activists such as Emanuel Levitas and Liberation founder Benny Levy (then known as Pierre Victor) were Jewish? And why did they each turn to Judaism late in life to explain their world view; along with Jean-Paul Sartre the famous existentialist, and author of “Anti-Semite and Jew” who, shortly before his death renounced his early philosophical stances in favor of ethics informed by messianic Judaism. Levy now says this was the start of his journey back to Judaism.
Over the next 40 years, Levy’s work as a journalist and human rights advocate led him to many of the world’s troubled places and forgotten war zones to report on the atrocities and upheavals in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Angola, Sri Lanka, and Colombia. Which is how he found himself in Ukraine, mounting a production of his play ‘Hotel Europe’ in Lviv, addressing an audience of young Ukrainians who knew nothing of the history of anti-Semitism that ran rampant in Lviv during World War Two (and where in 1941, I might add on a personal note, my paternal grandparents, and four uncles and aunts were murdered). And why, in 2011, Levy found himself in Libya during the overthrow of Gaddafi, brokering the recognition of Israel by the opposition rebel groups (who would themselves fall in the face of more radical elements). And why he met with the Islamic radicals outside Benghazi.
It is why in this book, he gives an answer to contemporary anti-Semitism. As Levy sees it, there are three justifications propping up contemporary anti-Semitism (all three of which he finds present in the US): 1. Zionism is the problem (it’s not the Jews, it’s Israel). 2. Holocaust Denial (It’s not the Jews or Israel but the way they lie about the Holocaust in order to justify Israel and their own existence). 3. The competition between victims (It’s not that we don’t believe the Holocaust, it’s just that it should not be treated as or more important than other national tragedies). Levy effectively answers each arguing for the uniqueness of what occurred in Auschwitz and during the Holocaust, as well as mounting a strong defense of Israel.
Levy cites Israel as the rare example of a democracy built from the ground-up that successfully integrates a multi-ethnic society without abandoning its legal ethics and civil morality even during times of crisis. He also writes what I found to be a wonderful paen to Israel: “In a world so profoundly splenetic and disenchanted, that beings have managed to survive, that they have had to retain a vitality and a passion, both fanciful and practical, those achievements give Israel a dimension that escapes many contemporaries and makes its national epic an adventure in which, putting politics aside, part of humanity’s destiny is playing out.” And Levy adds, “There is no place, today, where the Arabs are as free as in Israel”.
Finally, in the face of a French Jewish exodus, Levy wants to reclaim France as Jewish. In counterpoint to the narrative put forward in every French Lycee of Catholic France and its Church-led history, politics, and literature, Levy proposes the Jewish counter-narrative: France owes its monarchy to the Jewish nobles of Septimania; its language to the French Rabbi and Torah Scholar Rashi; and the revitalization of French literature to Marcel Proust. (To which I added my own fourth: its sense of community, society and artistic cross-pollination to its Jewish salonists such as Genevieve Straus and Gertrude Stein). The French word for Levy’s argument is chutzpah. That being said, he is not wrong in the facts he presents or the overarching point of his argument.
What Levy wants France and French Jews to understand is that Jews were never guests or refugees in France. “They were really among the main builders of France.” And so, “The spirit of France owes them a lot.” Further, French Jews did not assimilate into French Culture – they were the ones who made French culture. “My conclusion was, clearly,” Levy said, “that if someone had to leave [France], it was not the Jews but the anti-Semites.” Point, set, match.
Although, Levy’s incursions in Libya and other places have led some to accuse him of having a messiah complex, in “The Genius of Judaism,” Levy argues that “the whole truth” is that he does so as a French Jew who believes in a Messianic Judaism. What is Genius about Judaism, Levy says, is “The absolute reluctance at any dogma, frozen thoughts, admitted truth [that is] not fake. It gives to no one person to own the formula of the perfect community in front of which each human should kneel down and accept and revere.” In other words, there is no Jewish Pope to rate, rank or pass final judgment on Jewish practice and observance. And while Levy feels this empowers him in the secular, liberal Judaism he embraces, he also asks his fellow Jews not to shun the Ultra-Orthodox, for their right to maintain their place in the large tent of Judaism.
Which brings me back to Levy and the line with which he ends “The Genius of Genius”: “The trip has only just begun.” Which begs the question: Where does it lead next?”
To which Levy answers, “To studying more and knowing more.”
Such is the Genius of Judaism.