Benny LÚvy

By Mitchell Abidor

Despite the apparent rupture, the path of Benny LÚvy, his road from Maoism to the Talmud, is one that hides an underlying consistency. Many of the generation of May ’68 abandoned Maoism, Trotskyism, the Communist Party, but almost none immersed themselves in religion as thoroughly as LÚvy after abandoning Marxism. And yet what is glaringly clear when one examines LÚvy’s life and works is an utter unity in his quest for the absolute. The man who uncompromisingly said as a Maoist that “there is nothing beyond the masses and the class struggle...Nothing, nothing” was later to feel he had to abandon the world of French intellectuals, was to regret that he didn’t begin his intellectual life with Rabbi Akiba (who lived from approximately 50 – 135 CE), and was to find it horrifying that before dedicating himself totally to religion “he was reading texts that were among most profound and secret of the Jewish tradition [yet I] was still eating like any other westerner in the finest restaurants.” The location of that absolute was not fixed, the path tortuous, but it was the absolute, that which was beyond measure and compromise, that was always his goal. And many of the mileposts along the way recurred in the various phases of his search.

LÚvy, great-grandson of an important Sephardic rabbi, was born in Cairo in 1945 into a family that had moved to Egypt from Aleppo, Syria. In 1956, when due to the Suez crisis the situation for Jews reached its second low-point since the founding of Israel, the LÚvy family left Egypt for Belgium. Significantly, not all the family left Nasserite Egypt: Benny’s older brother Eddy, already a Communist, in an act of solidarity with the Egyptian masses,and in order to break as radically as possible with his bourgeois family, converted to Islam. He assumed the name of Adel Rifaat and, together with Bahgat Elnadi, under the name of Mahmoud Hussein has written a number of books, following a LÚvy-ite path, from “The Class Struggle in Egypt” to two thick volumes of translations of the Islamic text “Al-Sira” into French.

Benny shortly afterwards left Belgium for France, attending elite schools, studying with Louis Althusser and, influenced by the latter, moving left to Maoism. LÚvy was a member first of the “Union des Etudiants Communistes Marxiste-Leniniste” and then, under the alias of Pierre Victor, was among the leaders of the small but influential Gauche ProlÚtarienne (GP). But even during his most leftist period Pierre Goldman, the guerrillero/holdup man/martyr was to say of him that “he was Jewish, and I never ceased considering him a Talmudist lost in the doctrinal parsing of Maoist texts.”

The GP, small but effective, was under regular attack from the authorities, and when its newspaper “La Cause du Peuple” was seized the group, as a defensive measure, asked Jean-Paul Sartre to assume the title of editor. He did so, and LÚvy’s meeting with Sartre was to be a crucial moment in his life. In 1974 Sartre, LÚvy and Philippe Gavi, another Maoist who was later to edit the daily “LibÚration,” collaborated on a book of political discussions called “On a Raison de se RÚvolter” (It is Right to Rebel).

After the final dissolution of the GP LÚvy was hired by Sartre to be his secretary. Thanks to the philosopher’s intervention he was granted the right to remain in France (his situation had never been regularized) and, eventually, French citizenship.

During the course of their discussions on heretical movements LÚvy, who had had no real contact with Judaism, was led to read Jewish texts, which soon, via the writings of Emmanuel LÚvinas, were to become the central focus of his life and thought.

In 1980 there exploded the affair of the interviews (though LÚvy insisted they be considered “discussions”) in the weekly magazine “Le Nouvel Observateur,” interviews later published in book form as “L’espoir maintenant” “Hope Now.” In them an elderly, ailing, and failing Sartre espouses political, philosophical and religious positions and ideas far from those he had represented for decades, political, philosophical and religious positions similar to those now adopted by Benny LÚvy. The Sartrean family around Beauvoir and “Les Temps Modernes” rose up in outrage at what they took to be an abuse by LÚvy of a Sartre of diminished capacities. As Beauvoir said in “Adieux”: “Victor didn’t express any of his own opinions; he had them endorsed by Sartre.”

Upon Sartre’s death LÚvy completed his academic cursus and further immersed himself in the Jewish tradition, studying at a yeshiva in Strasbourg and later moving to Jerusalem, where he became known as Rav Benny LÚvy. The final book published in his lifetime was titled “Etre Juif”: to be a Jew. He died of a heart attack in 2003.

Though he ended his life espousing and living the most narrow and ultra-orthodox wing of Judaism, he was also the founder of the Institut d’Útudes lÚvinassienes, dedicated to extending the reach of the works of Emmanuel LÚvinas , a philosopher who combined a philosophy of responsibility with the Talmud, who indeed made the latter the basis for the former. And in a final act of fidelity, a final demonstration of his consistency, never at any point, did LÚvy deny the centrality of Sartre to his own life and thought and to 20th Century philosophy.