Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law, is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society, and the author, most recently, of “How Sweet It is!”.
For many years, Bernard-Henri Lévy has been one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals. But he has been even more ubiquitous, and curious, as the world’s foremost wandering Jew.
Born in Algeria, and a fixture in France as both an author and a media personality, Lévy’s reputation as a globetrotter — an honorary citizen of hot spots around the world — has never had anything to do with exodus or exile, the traditional reasons that Jews, for millennia, have been on the move.
Lévy’s wanderings have a more muscular, crusading quality, quite different from the often pained, desperate departures undertaken by his tribe. He has been more swashbuckler than supplicant, more prophetic voice than man crying out for dry land. Even more anomalously, he has dared to travel to places where Jews normally fear to tread.
With the publication of “The Genius of Judaism,” we may now finally know what has motivated his adventurous spirit. Lévy argues that Judaism possesses a special genius for introspection and human betterment. In his view, the study of humanities, and enlightenment itself, brightens with the spark of Jewish thought. Approaching his mature phase as a philosopher, Lévy has now directed his thinking inward and concluded that his lifelong travels as unofficial ambassador on behalf of the oppressed and forgotten were apparently tied, all along, to his moral obligations as a Jew.
It is an interesting revelation from a man who openly acknowledges his many lapses from Jewish ritual. One is far more likely to find him in a Parisian cafe than in one of its synagogues. He is a student of the European Enlightenment and not its Talmud academies. His romantic life would have exhausted Lord Byron, far better resembling that of a rock star than an ascetic rabbi. Yet, an intuitive sense of Jewish responsibility, if not Jewish soul, has not only guided his exploits but also seemingly imbued them with a higher moral purpose.
The Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam” — to repair the world — has been the raison d’etre of Jews who manifest their Jewish identity in social activism. Lévy was living these words long before most Jews knew what the phrase even meant.
Whether it was his years as a journalist and activist in Cambodia and Bosnia during their respective genocides, or as an investigator in Pakistan as he sought answers in the decapitation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, or in Kurdistan standing in solidarity with the virtuous peshmerga, or when he urged Ukrainians to acknowledge their Nazi-collaborating past and memorialize their Jewish dead, or when he undertook his righteous but ultimately criticized efforts to mobilize world opinion in support of Libyan rebel forces overthrowing Moammar Gaddafi, Lévy has insinuated himself into world affairs without diplomatic protocol but with a lot of Jewish chutzpah.
“The Genius of Judaism” arrives at a propitious time. Anti-Semitism is rising, especially in France, with the murders at the Parisian kosher market and the Jewish day school in Toulouse; the torture and death of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew of Moroccan descent; and the trapping of 200 Jews in a synagogue by an outside mob chanting “Death to the Jews!” and “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas!”
Lévy points out that these episodes are alarming, but quite different and far less threatening than the conditions in 1930s Europe that led to the Holocaust. Today’s Jew-hatred is directed at Israel and includes a cynical Holocaust backlash. Old-school Christian blood libels are passe, no small comfort to the thousands of Jews who left France for Israel these past several years.
But Lévy is correct in observing that this new look to an ancient prejudice has the potential to become a “moral atomic bomb.” Condemning Israel (and world Jewry) for the suffering of Palestinians normalizes anti-Semitism, allowing it to appear more respectable as a human rights issue, concealing its bigoted, murderous agenda. In a sly twist to centuries of Jewish displacement, Jews are now being blamed for having a homeland and for vigorously defending it.
Lévy suggests, however, that anti-Semitism is confined largely to Muslims and right-wing fringe agitators. French institutions, by contrast, are resolutely opposed to anti-Semitism. As former prime minister Manuel Valls has stated, “France without Jews is not France.”
Lévy couldn’t agree more with that statement. Indeed, he makes the case that modern France was significantly shaped by Jews, such as the medieval rabbi Rashi, who endowed the French language with a religious and communal purpose; Marcel Proust, who brought a Jewish sensibility and resuscitated the French novel; and philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, who imparted a moral vision for how Jews should come face to face with “others” and “strangers,” ideals that reinforce why “The Genius of Judaism” became, for Lévy, such a deeply personal and indispensable project.
Here he returns to the Old Testament and the Book of Jonah, a minor prophet who, not unlike the others, doesn’t really want the job. God asks Jonah to visit the wicked city of Nineveh and persuade its people to repent or face destruction. Nineveh, ironically, is a sworn enemy of the Jews. Why Jonah would want to save them, only God knows. Instead, Jonah tries to ditch the assignment and escape, which ultimately leads him to be swallowed up by a whale, only to eventually return to Nineveh and carry out God’s command.
“The Genius of Judaism,” a smart, revealing and essential book for our times, is Lévy’s own private whale, and our treacherous world is his Nineveh. The book enables him to reflect on how he has lived his life as a Jew and how, as a student of moral philosophy and world events, his writer’s voice took on more prophetic, humanistic dimensions.
By Bernard-Henri Lévy
Random House. 256 pp. $28