Philosophers only rarely achieve the celebrity of a rock star or a sports hero, but Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has been described as “France’s greatest philosopher,” is an exception. His tireless and courageous advocacy of human rights, both in print and as a documentary filmmaker, has taken him to war zones around the world. And, still handsome and dashing at the age of 68, his intimate private life, no less than his coiffure and couture, continues to attract attention and speculation in certain circles.
Significantly, BHL — as he has been dubbed by gossip columnists in Paris — is more celebrated in Europe than in the United States. “A fearless intellectual risk-taker” is how he has been described by British book critic John Gray in the New Statesman, “a thinker we cannot afford to be without.” By contrast, an exceptionally snarky 2015 profile in the Observer (whose publisher is U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner) was titled “Why Does Everyone Hate Bernard-Henri Lévy?” and characterized him as “the French playboy philosopher.”
Born in Algeria in 1948 to an affluent Jewish family, Lévy was raised and educated in France, where his father founded a successful timber business. Early in his career, he served as a war correspondent for the French newspaper Combat during the war of liberation in Bangladesh in 1971, and when he returned to France, he founded the so-called New Philosophers, a younger generation of public intellectuals who set themselves against the moral failures of Marxism. Since then, he has succeeded in playing the role of activist, adventurer and advocate, which has drawn his eye to Bosnia, Libya, Syria and other places of conflict around the world, always attracting attention to himself as well as the causes he champions.
The fact that Lévy lives and writes in France makes it all the more remarkable that he publicly affirms his own Jewishness, his admiration of American democracy and his concern for the Jewish homeland, all of which makes him an outlier among European public intellectuals. The point is made with characteristic ardor and eloquence in “The Genius of Judaism,” a kind of moral and intellectual autobiography that was published in France last year as “L’Esprit du Judaisme” and was released in English translation in the United States on Jan. 10 by Random House.
In the book, Lévy recognizes the irony in the fact that he has so often expressed concern for the fate of countries ranging from “Bangladesh to Iraq and Afghanistan, from the Libyan desert to the mountains of Kurdistan.” His goal is to “untangle why I, a Jew, put my head and body, not once but many times, into certain countries where no being is under greater threat than the Jew and where hostility to the Jew is like a second religion.” The question of how his Jewishness figures in his public life is rendered all the more enigmatic, as he readily concedes, because he is not an observant Jew: “I can barely read Hebrew,” he confesses. “I do not say daily prayers. I do not follow the dietary laws. I am, moreover, a lay Jew who seldom visits synagogues and has not devoted so much time or energy to study.”
The answer is revealed in oblique glimpses as he conducts us on a wide-ranging journey through Jewish tradition in search of “a certain idea of man and God, of history and time, of power, voice, light, sovereignty, revolt, memory and nature.” For Lévy, “the profusion of intelligence that flows from reading the Talmud” remains the seat of Jewish genius, and he calls on both secular and observant Jews to undertake the moral burden that it offers.
He insists on referring to Muslims as “my brothers in Adam,” but he makes a clear distinction between “terrorist, jihadist, radical Islam” and what he calls “Islam writ large,” that is, the religious civilization that he knows and respects. Returning to the martyrdom of Jewish-American journalist Daniel Pearl, the subject of one of his earlier books (for which he spent more than a year in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia and other locales), Lévy condemns the murder as “the most criminal conceivable jihadism.” But it’s also true that “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” attributes the crime to a conspiracy between al-Qaida and the Pakistani secret service, an assertion that prompted Scottish historian William Dalrymple, writing in The New York Review of Books in 2003, to condemn Lévy for “an intermittent disdain for Islam, and something approaching hatred for Pakistan.” And the victim’s father, Judea Pearl, told the Los Angeles Times that Lévy’s account of Pearl’s death in the book “doesn’t gel with the facts.”
As for his persona and the way it attracts the attention of media outlets that are more interested in whom he is dating than what he thinks, Lévy bears some responsibility. He favors stylish black designer suits and bright white shirts worn without a tie, and his flowing locks are still photogenic even though they are graying. Married three times — his current wife is French actress and singer Arielle Dombasle — he has famously socialized with fashion models as well as French presidents, and he is as comfortable in addressing the United Nations General Assembly as he is on French talk shows. He has dabbled, without much success, in newspaper publishing and feature films.
But it is also true that Lévy is paying a price for the fierce independence that characterizes both his intellectual life and his private life. He launched his public career in 1977 with “Barbarism With a Human Face,” a work that condemned Marxism on moral and philosophical grounds. During the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he advocated for armed intervention by the United States and its European allies to prevent atrocities against Muslims in Bosnia. He has insisted that the Israel Defense Forces conducted themselves in a humane way in the 2014 war against Gaza, and he has advocated banning the Muslim women’s veil in France. None of these positions was regarded as politically correct when Lévy embraced them.
The same boldness enlivens the pages of “The Genius of Judaism,” and never more so than when he contemplates the fate of Israel. “It is so tiresome to have to defend Israel,” he announces, thus acknowledging how unfashionable it has become to champion the Jewish state. “So distressing to have to present the same evidence over and over.” But his defense of Israel is actually surprising and refreshing — he argues that Israel is one country that “has found a solution to the problem of multiethnicity, not a perfect solution, but better than in France or the United States.”
Lévy makes the easy case for Israel’s democracy, “a society composed of Americans and Europeans, Russians and Ethiopians, Jewish and Muslim Arabs.” But he also is willing to make the harder case: “I know a society — Israel, again — where citizens of Arab origin may openly advocate the disappearance of the very state that guarantees them a life that three-quarters of them (according to polls) would not trade at any price for a life in a neighboring Arab country.”
But he also calls his fellow Jews to account. “What exactly is an ‘orthodox Jew’?” he ponders. “[Ultimately], if orthodoxy means thinking that is frozen or petrified in its dogma and supposedly correct, well-rehearsed forms, then there is one place that, by definition, is antithetical to orthodoxy: the houses of study in which scholars devote all of their time to endless dissection of individual verses of the Torah, to commentary on each verse, and to commentary on existing commentary and so on, ad infinitum.” To put it another way, Lévy insists that “the loftiest task to which the holy books call us is not to burn with love or to swoon before the infinite but to know and teach.” For him, the highest duty of a Jew is “the obligation of the Jew toward the non-Jew, that responsibility-for-the-nations that is so essential to the Jewish person and that we do not always embrace firmly enough.”
Thus does “The Genius of Judaism” boil with the same passion that Lévy has brought to his every endeavor. It’s almost as if the act of putting words on paper — which, after all, is the work of a philosopher — is now frustrating to him because there is so much more in his heart than words can convey. And, despite the title of his latest book, Lévy is as concerned with the fate of Ukraine, Libya and Iraq as he is with the fate of Israel and the Diaspora. If he draws deeply on the wellspring of Jewish knowledge and tradition, it is with the intention of calling his fellow Jews to what he regards as nothing less than the moral burden of their Jewishness.
“Because nothing is settled and God himself has not uttered the last word in the matter; because he left that last word to man as early as the sixth day and because, from then on, everyone has had his word to add and his part to play,” Lévy concludes, “we must put all our weight on the scale of the good and the bad, we must weigh in with every bit of our meager force, we must lend it our humblest hand and words.”
This is what Lévy aspires to do in “The Genius of Judaism,” and he has succeeded magnificently in his effort.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.