n The Genius of Judaism, French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy explores the deep, lasting contributions—intellectual, moral, and philosophical—that the Jews have made to Western civilization, especially in France. His creative, affecting, and personal exposition is a worthy, if sometimes idiosyncratic, addition to the literature on this subject.
Lévy defines Judaism’s genius, somewhat elliptically, as “a certain idea of man and God, of history and time, of power, voice, light, sovereignty, revolt, memory and nature,” before delineating the relationship between Judaism and contemporary culture and politics. But he clears the underbrush first, by describing the lamentably durable nature of Jew-hatred and its modern-day manifestation, Israel-hatred.
Contemporary anti-Semitism reveals itself through enemies and critics’ persistent delegitimizing of Israel. By undermining its right to exist, rather than simply criticizing particular policies, contemporary anti-Semitism adopts the unique shape of anti-Zionism while maintaining its anti-Semitic core. “One can now be anti-Semitic only by being anti-Zionist,” Lévy writes. “Anti-Zionism is the required path for any anti-Semitism that wishes to expand its recruiting pool beyond those still nostalgic for the discredited brotherhoods.” By denying that the Jews—alone among the world’s peoples—possess the right of self-determination, anti-Zionists dehumanize the Jews in the same way their intellectual forebears did centuries ago.
Lest we forget anti-Semitism’s dangers, Lévy reminds us of the Holocaust’s singular abominations: 1) it was the only genocide designed specifically to be final, meaning that the murders would only stop with Hitler’s defeat or with the death to the person of the world’s Jews; 2) it was the only genocide that was inescapable through conversion; and 3) it was the only mass murder carried out using a modern, civilized state’s full administrative and technical resources.
As for French anti-Semitism, Lévy steadfastly refuses to “believe that France is on the verge of a new Kristallnacht or that the time has come for the nation’s Jews to pack their bags and leave.” Because no serious French intellectual, cultural, or political figures have espoused Jew hatred, and because leading politicians and Christian churches alike have vouchsafed the Jewish community’s security, current conditions are far more hostile to anti-Semitism than in the country’s troubled past. Even so, Lévy acknowledges that the French, who have never been comfortable with assimilating other traditions into their own, have never really adopted the Jews as true Frenchmen: “Such are the thoughts that preoccupy me when I consider my own roots, at once strong and fragile, solid and uncertain, in the France where I was born, a nation that crowns a Jew king for a day only to better despise him the day after and, when it can, bring him down.”
Brush cleared, Lévy turns toward the positive.
The Jews possess an indomitable inner strength that transcends financial or military prowess. “They are strong,” Lévy writes “through study and spirit…through their memory and through their effort to know…when they dedicate themselves to the astonishing discovery that God is a writer whose Book must never become an unclaimed inheritance.” Specifically, Lévy dedicates most of The Genius of Judaism to excavating the Jewish roots of much of France’s cultural, linguistic, political, and philosophical history. He lavishes special attention on Proust, whose contributions to French literature revitalized the genre. And he attributes to Proust’s Jewish origins and trainings the foremost influence on his works. He also traces the emergence of several court Jews, both at home and in the French empire, who helped shape the country’s foreign and domestic policy.
Perhaps as importantly, Lévy uncovers the surpassing importance of celebrated 11th-century Jewish commentator and kosher vintner Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known familiarly as Rashi of Troyes, had to the French language. While most remnants of Old French reside in scholarly, theological texts, giving modern linguists very little sense of the conversational language, Rashi’s Hebrew commentaries on the Torah and Talmud are amply seasoned with quotidian French expressions “drawn from the vocabulary of the wine grower, lawyer, boilermaker, barrel maker, farmer, hunter, miller, toolmaker, weaver, man-at-arms, tanner, spice merchant, and butcher.” Of these everyday feudal terms, Lévy claims that “without Rashi, we would not be aware of their appearance, their sound, or even their existence…They are not only the preserve but also the preservative, the formaldehyde, the liquid nitrogen in which Old French was captured and saved from oblivion.”
Lévy also explores the unique challenges of Jewish political leadership from Moses to Netanyahu. On the one hand, Israel “continues to produce in such great numbers scholars, writers, sages of all kinds, engineers and artists,” but on the other “still has not been able to cultivate a political class of commensurate stature.” At its heart, Judaism is apolitical. It prioritizes study and contemplation over ambition, thereby culturally deemphasizing the political. That said, modern politics in western democracies is often stifling and soul-crushing, which makes Israel’s shortcomings in political leadership almost a refreshing change of pace, an “antidote to the idolatry of the political and the deathly glacier with which it is smothering humanity…this unique experiment in transcending politics or of breaking, within politics, with the political vision of the world.”
The political examination is taken a step further by examining contemporary geopolitics through the lens of ancient prophets. At God’s behest, the prophet Jonah embarked on a torturous journey, which included emerging unscathed from a whale’s belly, to the Assyrian metropolis of Nineveh, which currently lies at the crossroads of the horrific Syrian civil war. Jonah’s purpose was to demand that the Ninevites repent their grievous sins against the Lord. Lévy, a modern-day Jonah, locates symbolic contemporary Ninevehs in the Levant and elsewhere. In Lviv, Ukraine, for example, which has struggled to erase its Nazi-era collaborationist sins, Lévy himself sojourned to give speeches and refresh the national recollection. In Benghazi, Libya, he insinuated himself into the movement to oust Khadafi, glomming onto the glorious national sensation (that is, before things went horribly awry) that “the inner Ninevite to which a bad king had reduced them over his reign of forty-two years was faltering.” For better or worse, Lévy fancies himself a contemporary Jewish prophet, refusing to take refuge in the whale’s belly, instead imparting ancient values to hidebound societies, never mind the physical or spiritual risks.
Lévy’s prose can be impenetrable (“in the Black Forest, perhaps one encounters Being and one’s ‘shepherd,’ but if you want to encounter others, the real Other, Others in their overwhelming, dazing presence, you must go to the city”) and sometimes incomprehensible (“Jews are strong when they mine intelligence from its matrix of gangue”). He’s not above name- and place-dropping, and he’s unashamed to quote his own articles and speeches, sometimes at length. It’s also likely his discursive, meandering style reads better in the original French, where an elevated sense of amour propre is more conventionally acceptable.
But in the end, The Genius of Judaism, while not of the caliber of Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews, is a provocative, engrossing compilation that showcases the important contributions of the Jewish people to the development of Western civilization.