“Not an empty seat — how wonderful.”
So said author and critic Carlin Romano as he looked out at the crowd at the Free Library Parkway Central branch’s auditorium on Jan. 10. The audience was there to hear Romano in conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy, the phenomenally popular French public intellectual whose most recent book is called The Genius of Judaism.
The controversial philosopher wore a black blazer over a sharply tailored white shirt whose cuffs were artfully undone. As usual, his longish hair was pushed away from his face in salt-and-pepper waves.
Lévy’s rangy good looks certainly account for some of the 68-year-old’s acclaim in France, where he’s often referred to simply as “BHL.” But it is also true that France is one of few nations where philosophers can become as famous as rock stars.
In a 2003 profile, Vanity Fair described Levy this way: “Philosopher, publisher, novelist, journalist, filmmaker, defender of causes, libertine, and provocateur, he is somewhere between gadfly and tribal sage, Superman and prophet; we have no equivalent in the United States.”
Moment magazine declared him “the most famous man in France” in 2015.
But all this focus on the persona of the Algerian-born Lévy, as a celebrity, is precisely what he cautions against in his new book, in which he argues that to be Jewish means to look beyond the self.
The book, translated into English by Steven B. Kennedy, draws on history, philosophy and literature, as well as Torah and Talmud, to talk about present-day anti-Semitism, kinship with Muslims, the need to defend the Jewish state, Jewish influence on French political and literary history, and what it means to be a Jew.
He touched on many of these topics in his talk with Romano, speaking in his heavily accented, French-inflected English. When Romano asked Lévy to give the audience a “thumbnail sketch” of who he was as a Jew, Lévy said his personal identity was beside the point.
“The key point of being a Jew — and this is what I try to demonstrate in the book — is to know who is the other, is to go to the other, is to try to phrase and express the otherness, and to try to make himself the hostage of the other,” he said.
An audience member asked about this phrase — “hostage of the other” — that Lévy explained came from Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.
Making oneself vulnerable to another person’s subjectivity, he explained, “means to escape from the rank of the murderers and of the animality … to make oneself able to think as the other, to sit in the place where the other is sitting, intellectually speaking, to try to sympathize with him when he’s cold, when he’s hungry, when he’s shivering of fear.
“This capacity of hosting the deepest feelings of the other are probably the root of humanism.”
And this is why, Lévy believes, Judaism is deeply humanistic: “To be a Jew is not to be related to oneself, [nor] to [a] closed community, but being a Jew means being related, in some precise forms, to the rest of humanity.”
Lévy connected such considerations to present-day concerns, such as the refugee crisis in Europe.
“If you are not for one minute able to be the hostage of the other, if you are not able for one minute to host the other in yourself,” he said, “you will not host him on your land and you will not welcome him as a guest in the land of your country.
“Hospitality means two things: It means an infinite moral duty but it means also that you welcome the person in a definite place, which is yours. You open the doors of your house as you open the gates of your egoism.”
Lévy suggested that the Jewish imperative to put the self aside comes, in part, from the nuance found in the Talmud, quoting Rashi’s famous words that “the Torah has 70 faces.”
“Seventy is not any number,” he said. “It is a number of the nations, so it means that every nation, every existing group of humans, has to and is enabled to and is entitled to find its face in every verse of the Torah.”
The infinite quality of the Torah is reflected, Lévy said, in the Talmud.
“If you are a reader of the Talmud, you know there is no one proposal, truth, opinion, which cannot be the object of contestation or reversal,” he said. “This is the spirit of the Talmud and this in an incredible vaccination, an incredible antidote against … definitive opinions. There is not definitive truth. Truth is always a process, revisable.”
An audience member felt Lévy’s characterization of the Talmud smacked of relativism, but Lévy replied:
“Relativistic? Certainly not,” he said. “‘To revise’ does not concern the factual truth.
You will never find a rabbi in the Talmud saying France is in America and America is in Asia and so on. You would never find a rabbi in the Talmud denying some historical events. … [But] the truth is infinite; it is endless, in a Talmudic point of view. And it goes from big theological questions to ordinary questions of life.”
In researching his book about Daniel Pearl, Lévy was able to see for himself this kind of complexity, which elides black-and-white distinctions of good and evil.
When he was speaking to the Al Qaeda members who killed Pearl, Lévy recalled, “It was so strange. They, of course, embodied evil … but … you could find the trace, the last spark of humanity [in them]. It doesn’t mean that they can be saved because it’s probably not enough, but this mix of evil and good in mind is a fact which defines the human condition.”
Lévy was willing to depart from shades of gray when talking about Islam, however.
“The biggest political clash of our epoch is the battle between radical Islam and enlightened Islam,” he said. “Who will prevail?
“All my life I tried to find the traces of these enlightened Islam. I searched for this when I was 20 years old in Bangladesh. I looked for it when I was a little older in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I looked for it in so many other places.”
He found it, he said, among a group of Kurds fighting against ISIS in Peshmerga.
“They are incredible because they are valiant, they are brave, they confront ISIS in the most incredibly brave way,” he said. “They are modest, unnamed, true heroes … and they are Muslims.”
The key, Lévy said, was that the Kurds practiced a moderate Islam that respects and embraces other creeds and traditions — including Judaism.
Lévy spent several weeks with Kurds while making his new documentary film, Peshmerga, which just screened at the New York Jewish Film Festival. During his time with them, the Kurds made it a point to show him their region’s Jewish heritage, at one point driving Lévy for several hours just to see a nearly vanished grave of a dead Jew.
They also showed him a house where an Israeli minister was born.
“So to consider this link with Israel as a source not of shame but of pride, to consider this brotherness, this being a brother with an Israel politician as a food for the Kurdish spirit … ” Lévy said the encounter with the Kurds was very emotional for him.
“The two things — this braveness and this commitment to otherness, tolerance of alterity and especially to Jewishness — it makes the Kurds for me very special people.”
An audience member asked if it’s not true that moderate Islam has been silenced by radical Islam.
“No. It has been targeted by radical Islam,” he said, “but we can never forget that those who are on the real front lines against radical Islam are the moderate Muslims. The biggest number of victims of terrorism, of jihadism, of radical Islam are Muslim.
“I got so many testimonies from Muslim families who saw their relatives killed, martyred, tortured, crucified — not because they were Christians, not because they were Jews, not because they were atheists, but because they were bad Muslims.
“Are they silenced? Sometimes, but thank God, not always — far from it. There is an outstanding and admirable number of Muslims in Pakistan, in Iraq, inside Mosul, in Kurdistan, who stand bravely, firmly against this plague, this absolute evil, this new fascism which is radical Islam.
“They are at the vanguard of the battle that we wage and they need our full support.”
Lévy also spoke about Israel, French anti-Semitism, Proust’s Jewishness, Rashi’s Frenchness and much more.
At the end, over the applause of the crowd, he shouted out — in admittedly rock-star fashion — “It is great to be back in Philadelphia!”
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