No comfort, freebies or leaps of faith

In his new book, Jewish French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy sings the virtues of ‘difficult Judaism’

By TERRANCE MINTNER
March 9, 2017 11:39
Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy. (photo credit: YOUTUBE)

The year was 1979. For Bernard- Henri Lévy, one of France’s foremost public intellectuals, it was the end of a revolutionary era. The Vietnam War was over and Pol Pot’s brutal regime had just collapsed. The memory of the ’60s protests, still fresh, fueled a desire for new beginnings. For many – Lévy included – it all seemed to portend the end of something else: religion.

“We were sure that we were at the apogee of the age in which God had died... we had burned all of our idols, all of our religions, in the joyful fire of atheism,” Lévy, now 68, writes in the prologue of his new book The Genius of Judaism. “Anything was possible. Everything seemed to be permitted.”

Then a cloud of doubt appeared on the horizon.

“What if this was a deception?” Lévy asks. What if we merely replaced the supreme God with more troublesome ones, like the gods of race, history and politics, or “science without limits”? Given the travails of modern history, he wonders, should we disavow the Judeo-Christian tradition and its belief in man as both earthly and divine, in favor of all-too-human gods? This is the point at which Lévy decided to delve more deeply into his Jewish heritage.

The result is a wide-ranging book that he considers his most meaningful.

Although fairly short, its main subjects include antisemitism and how to fight it; the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and other critics of Israel; Holocaust denial; Jews in France; Jewish political thought and the concept of chosen-ness.

These include the big issues confronting Israel and Jewish life today, but where lies Judaism’s “genius”? Lévy answers this question in a roundabout way as he discusses how Jewish teachings have gradually seeped into his philosophical outlook.

Ever since 1979, when he became curious about his heritage, he claims that a “Jewish thread” began to run throughout his writings, reports from various hot spots around the world (for which he is most famous) and engagement with Islam.

But what kind of thread is it? Lévy considers himself a secular Jew, so it comes as no surprise that Halacha (Jewish law) is not the focus of his admiration. The focus is rather on what he cobbles together from the vast corpus of Jewish writings, especially the Talmud. It might seem like cherry-picking to some, but it is the book’s great strength, at least from Lévy’s philosophical perspective; because it amounts to an argument not only about what Judaism is, but what it can more fully aspire to be.

Lévy does this particularly well when he turns to the gentile other in Part 2, “The Temptation of Nineveh.” Here he concentrates entirely on the mysterious book of Jonah and the Talmudic interpreters of it.

As the story goes, Jonah is commanded by God to address the sinful denizens of Nineveh, the most populous city of the ancient Assyrian empire. His mission: get them to repent so God will not be forced to punish the city.

Jonah is dumbfounded by the command.

Not only are the Ninevites pagans, they are also hell-bent on Israel’s destruction.

Why on earth would God want to lend a hand to the enemies of his chosen people? What happens next is well known: Jonah tries to duck the mission by boarding a ship to Gibraltar (of all places), gets tossed off during a tempest, spends a few nights in the belly of a whale (at least it’s warm), and gets spat out on the shore from whence he came. Now realizing it’s not such a good idea to ignore divine commands, he sets out for Nineveh and successfully encourages its citizens to repent and renounce their evil ways.

Talmudic scholars have interpreted the story in vastly different ways. Lévy adds his own twist by bringing the prophecy of Jonah into the present. It should not be lost on the reader that Nineveh is modern- day Mosul in Iraq. Lévy has visited the war-torn region many times and accompanied the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the ongoing fight against Islamic State. He has also campaigned for humanitarian aid on behalf of those caught in the crossfire.

For Lévy then, the tale of Jonah takes on new meaning. It is about striving for the well-being of other nations, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult that may be. In doing so, this brand of Judaism is never content to remain inwardly focused and self-sufficient. But Lévy warns – in his own prophetic way – that this ideal has been neglected in our own times. “There are Jews [who]… prefer the empty light of easy and low stakes community life to the shadows of Nineveh.”

ANOTHER STRENGTH of the book is its insightful explanation of the differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

On Judaism, Lévy offers a surprising point of contrast when he says, “No Jew is required to believe in God.” First and foremost, a Jew must study, know and do, he says; belief comes secondary.

In Christianity, however, belief is the point of departure, best exemplified by “Pascal’s wager.” The wager or bet comes to us from Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century Christian thinker who argued that when faced with uncertainty about God’s existence, one is best advised to take a leap of faith and bet on God. Why not? If you are correct that God exists, you’ve risked little and may even enjoy eternal bliss, but if proven wrong, you risk, well, to put it mildly, an eternity of unpleasantness.

Lévy argues Pascal’s leap of faith is the near opposite of the talmudic effort.

The latter “never offers itself freebies” or “skips steps” by embracing belief. To the contrary, it “will be satisfied with itself only once it has arrived at the end of what it can think (not believe, but think).”

Such restless thinking in pursuit of fresh interpretations is precisely what Islam lacks at present, according to Lévy. If the Koran is the perfectly preserved and fixed word of God handed down via the Prophet Muhammad, then tinkering with the text or its meaning seems off-limits.

Lévy asks us to imagine an Islam that has launched “an assault on itself and the Koran” the way Jews have done with the Torah, an assault of endless dissection, debate and re-thinking. He knows imams who do it, but asks: What if they became the rule and not the exception? These are just some of the interesting ideas embedded in this fascinating book, but one criticism must be leveled at Lévy’s use of language. At times it is hard to avoid the impression that he is more interested in poetic wordplay than conveying a clear message. The book is replete with florid renderings that often fall flat as well as run-on sentences, some of which stretch for nearly half a page.

Sure, this could be a French way of writing (the book is translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy), a type of intellectual prose, or just Lévy’s mannerism. But the result is undue strain on the reader, who must struggle to connect the main nouns and verbs amid what often seems like a verbal onslaught. Though the book could use another edit or two, those with enough patience will be rewarded with new insights into a very old religion.


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