Why do I like Bernard-Henri Levy so much?
Because he is Maimonides meets Mick Jagger?
Because he is so stylish – if you like unbuttoned white shirts?
In fact, BHL (as the French call him) is as likely to appear in fashion magazines as in philosophical journals.
I like BHL because he is the epitome of the urbane public intellectual (how many intellectuals are known, affectionately, by their initials?). He is probably the greatest Jewish public intellectual in the world.
But, is he an intellectual — when it comes to Judaism itself?
I ask myself that question as I read his new book, "The Genius of Judaism."
BHL begins his journey into Judaism with anti-Semitism — the virus and its mutations.
He imagines Jew haters — in denial over their hatred — saying:
We have nothing against the Jews. We reject in word and deed the toxic ideology that was anti-Semitism in ages past. But we must regretfully point out that being Jewish seems, in a great many cases, to be defined by allegiance to Israel.
Question: Why must so many Jews start with anti-Semitism? How did that come to define us?
But, in fact, BHL does have more than a passing allegiance to Israel.
But he is also disappointed by Israel — which has become a badge of Jewish pride.
It is an ancient disappointment, going back to the mostly mediocre Israelite kings.
And is it by chance that modern Israel…continues to produce in such great numbers scholars, writers, sages of all kinds, engineers, and artists, but still has not been able to cultivate a political class of commensurate status?
Jews have never "done power" very well. Weakness, on the other hand, has not worked, either.
Then, BHL brings us "home" to France. It is a lengthy meditation on how Jews have been essential to French history.
BHL is pulling a Sally Fields at the Academy Awards: "You like us, you like us!"
It is as if BHL hopes that the barbarians at the gates of French Jewry will read his worlds, and be impressed enough to abandon their murderous hatred.
Then – and only then — BHL moves to Torah. What does he love most about it? Its pluralism.
He reminds us that there are “seventy faces in the Torah”:
That the Torah has faces means, first, that the act of reading it brings it to life and that the reader animates it by making it his own. The Messiah will come only when each person finds his own face in the Torah.
BHL notices that the number of faces to the Torah is seventy, and not twelve. Seventy: as in the number of ancient nations, not the number of tribes of ancient Israel.
And there we are. BHL is a universalist.
That is why the core of The Genius of Judaism focuses on the prophet, Jonah, who gets a starring role on the holiest afternoon of the year – Yom Kippur.
Why Jonah? Because Jonah did not preach to the people of Israel. God had called on Jonah to go to Nineveh (contemporary Mosul), to warn the Assyrian capital (the arch-enemies of ancient Israel) that unless they repented, God would destroy the city.
The lesson of Jonah: The Jew must be involved with the world.
BHL is a modern Jonah. He compares his visits to Ukraine and Libya to the prophet’s Ninevite mission:
I have been to Nineveh. … I have spent a non-negligible part of my life and considerable energy working on behalf of people other than my own, people … who were, in some cases, in potential or in fact, the enemies of who I am.
(Which prompts us to ask: What do we do about Syrian refugees who are, ideologically, our enemies?)
The genius of Judaism resides in the ability…to produce a little of the intelligence that will offer people, all people, a little of the teaching that they need to be different from others, to stand out from the crowd in which they are never fated to belong…
We have come full circle.
- If they hate the Jews, that hatred separates the Jews from the world.
- But to be a Jew is to imitate Jonah – to go into the world.
- And yet, to be a Jew means that one must stand apart from the world — this time, by choice.
But, why should Jews choose to stand apart from the world?
BHL — a self-confessed non-practicing Jew — figures it out. He quotes the master, Chaim of Volozhin:
Imagine a world in which no one remained to study the Torah. Imagine the Book, and books, falling into disuse, orphaned, forsaken. Imagine a world in which concern for the good had disappeared, a world in which no prayers, no study, not the smallest word was offered for the good. That world would be lost...The genius of Judaism is the Book and books. And it is when one chooses to close those books – that is, to comment on them no further, to challenge and oppose them no more – that the genius dies.
But, without some kind of observance to sustain it, can parents transmit a mere attitude?
But, I quibble. If BHL’s book convinces people to refuse to let the genius of Judaism die, it will have been worth it.
Which is why I am still his devoted fan.