For readers who are interested in the French Jewish community, current trends in Western philosophy, and biblical scholarship, The Genius of Judaism is a rare gift. Author, activist, and thinker Bernard-Henri Lévy presents as his core thesis the idea that the Jewish people exists because of its relationships with other nations. Without the Jews, there can be no gentiles. Without the gentiles, there can be no Jews. Destined to be the eternal “other”, Jewish communities around the world and throughout history have been tasked with, and must continue to, navigate this dynamic for the purpose of human religious, civic, and social development. No pressure, right? From here, Lévy provides an intriguing analysis of anti-Semitism, Zionism, and what all this means for Israel and the international Jewish community.
Considering the scope of Lévy’s topic, his attention to detail is striking. He includes a range of specific examples of laws, events, and headlines encompassing Jewish history from the Exodus from Egypt to the present. The result is dizzying in its breadth, as well as making it impossible to read without reflecting on the news of the day. Lévy may or may not have been able to foresee the results of the 2016 US Presidential election, but reading this book in its political aftermath is an almost revelatory experience. For better or for worse, much of Lévy’s writing sounds as if it may be better suited to being presented as a lecture. His words contain a passion that makes a reader want to hear more, but also come across as slightly disorganized. It’s also necessary to caution readers that parts of this book are deeply immersed in philosophical and academic language. Having a strong background in 19th and 20th European philosophy is almost a prerequisite to reading certain chapters.
While the philosophical discussion may be beyond the understanding of most lay readers, Lévy’s musings on the existence and role of the State of Israel and his interpretation of the biblical Book of Jonah are both fascinating and accessible. His understanding of Israel and the Book of Jonah jump off the page as animating for any adult education or study group – the floors of the halls and classrooms where readers meet to discuss these topics might shake from the impact of the resulting intense discussions. To a certain extent, The Genius of the Jews is really two distinct works: the deeply intellectual and philosophical study of Jewish history and texts, and the deeply emotional and spiritual extrapolation of what it means to be Jewish across history and in the 21st century. This book will make any reader reflect on the Jewish experience, and the lucky reader will have someone with whom to share their insights along the way.
For the purposes of writing this review, the reviewer received an electronic advanced reader copy via NetGalley.com.