By Dan Clendenin

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Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Genius of Judaism (New York: Random, 2017), 240pp.

Philosopher, journalist, political activist, filmmaker, and author of dozens of books, he’s France’s most prominent public intellectual, known there as simply BHL. Bernard-Henri Lévy (b. 1948) is fabulously rich, telegenic, and close friends with the most powerful. He owns restaurants, a soccer team, a line of vodka, and (it had to be) a perfume called With Love from Bernard-Henri. He’s an intellectual provocateur of prodigious learning. His third wife was a famous French actress and singer. His current liaison is the fashionista Daphne Guinness. Exactly how seriously we should take Lévy is a question that has dogged his controversial career for decades. This book doesn’t provide any answers.

The “essence” of this book, he says, is “the search for, and defense of, a certain idea of man and God, of history and time, of power, voice, light, sovereignty, revolt, memory and nature.” After surveying the “new guises” of anti-Semitism (Holocaust deniers, competitive victimhood, Israel as a problem), the contributions of Jews to French society, and the meaning of Jewish election or exceptionalism, the second half of the book considers the story of Jonah as a paradigm for a modern, secular Judaism.

In Jonah, Levy sees “the secret universal.” We must “stand in the shadow of Nineveh” (modern day Mosul!) and commit ourselves to the “other.” Levy has zero interest in theological orthodoxy of any sort, which he would construe as mere “psittacism.” He doesn’t pray or follow dietary laws. He rarely goes to synagogues. The “genius” of Judaism is in “the Book and books” — in its broad and deep history of critical disputation (the Talmud).

For Levy, we are not called to “believe” anything. Rather, we are called to study and to act. He repudiates the famous wager of faith of his fellow Frenchman Pascal. He doesn’t mention him, but Levy sounds like Descartes, for whom man is a “thinking being.” Levy has cast the “essence” of Judaism very much in his own intellectual image. He’s more interested in the God of the philosophers than in what most religious Jews would understand as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Lévy describes himself as having been a “de-Judaized Jew,” and “so tepidly Jewish,” until his 1967 visit to Israel. In this book he “stands tall” as “proudly Jewish,” and offers his “unambiguous embrace” of what he calls an “affirmational Judaism.”

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