Book Review – The Genius of Judaism

Bernard-Henri Lévy was a guest on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show a few weeks ago. He is a regular on the show and his insights are compelling and deftly presented. I was intrigued by his summation of his recent book, The Genius of Judaism in which he offered the potential reader solid insights about people with an experience that span several millennia. I was intrigued by the prospect to understand more and so I took the journey.

I wrote several notes as I went through the book and kept them on a smart phone. I dropped the smart phone one early morning. The device’s screen didn’t just crack, but cracked good. Fortunately, a low end smart phone and not a major event. All I had accumulated in the form of notes were lost however. No matter. The situation allows me to summarize more, draw from memory and insight rather than belabor the points I found interesting.

The book has two parts. I would describe part 1 as the Jewish experience through history while part 2 has stronger religious, spiritual, and transcendent qualities. I was captivated by what I read. I am unfamiliar with Mr. Lévy’s prior works, but I found the writing style, the pacing, the detail, and language applied with accessible sophistication. Imagery of experience expertly conferred to the reader. An incomplete summary of what you may expect if you read the book follows.

Part 1

  • Hitler’s Final Solution was different from historical attempts at genocide. He sought not just to kill Jews, but burn their books, artifacts, history, and any trace they ever lived (anywhere in the world). If Hitler had succeeded, people born after the time of his empire’s establishment would never know that Jews ever existed. That is premeditated destruction of a people on a scale unknown in the annals of persecution.
  • Anti-semitism is a deep and virulent plague that is simply difficult to shake off. Antagonism towards Jews has existed for thousands of years.
  • Revolutions are not what they seem and have a mixed track record in resolving the what troubles a society.
  • Jews have among the longest track records in resisting tyranny and fighting for freedom. Multiple times throughout history have they escaped subjugation from rulers of various kinds.
  • France and a major part of European history was defined by their participation. The French language/culture itself appears to be influenced by Hebrew and Jewish concepts of civility and governance.
  • Kingly coronation in the European tradition has a relationship to the House of David as well as features of the ceremony and ensuing exercise of the office.
  • A pattern of Jewish enrichment of the surrounding society to be followed by eventual disenfranchisement of the very people who bestowed a multitude of gifts.
  • An underlying narrative about the oscillating rise and fall of the Jewish people in their encounters with the wider world.

Again, there is more than this in part 1, but the above left the clearest impression with me as I was reading. The variety of insights from part 1 are much deeper than the bullet points can relate. Overall, the Jewish people have an extraordinarily rich culture and tradition that awakens possibilities in other people. The uniqueness of their traditions, knowledge, and experience can enliven situations but also stir challenge in those not quite receptive to such things or who may be inclined to renege on gratitude.

Part 2

  • He shares that a relationship with God being not about belief, but knowing.
  • Know and do. A sharper contrast with näive belief, a more clarified experience of the divine.
  • Lessons from Moses, Korah, Haggar, and others.
  • Meaning of being a people set apart. The meaning of the promise.
  • Nineveh (past and present, Jonah to Gaddafi) as a portrait of the perils and potential of the city, as the people as a means for God’s interaction with the chosen. The exploration of Nineveh takes on many meanings and images. Through them, the author guides you through Judaic perspective, prophetic activity, and irony in God’s interaction with people. A castor-oil plant is more than it seems.
  • The discussion of God, Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah, and more takes you through a variety of concepts. Some discussions touch on orthodoxy vs non-orthodoxy and what it means to really study vs be a lay Jew. The inner mirror and the revelation of God’s presence and the contrary conditions that are thought to bring that about by example of Moses and others.

An amazing work of literature that traverses history, politics, religion, individuals, people in general, war, peace, success and failure and through it all, God. Several discussions are running through the book simultaneously. One of the central questions is the Hegelian concept of the End of History versus the continual work of people in the development of the world. The idea of intellection as a key element of reconciling various spiritual questions and the sojourn’s progress through this life in a fuller understanding of God.


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