by Palle Yourgrau
Reaktion Books, 189 pages, $16.95, paper
Simone Weil continues to fascinate. Civilization could be saved, she contended, only by a Platonic Christianity stripped of its carnal, Jewish side, through identification with the suffering Christ rather than in the hope of resurrection. Not even Weil herself could subsist on the thin broth of pure spirit; in 1943, not yet thirty-five, she died of tuberculosis aggravated by self-starvation, an eerie presentiment of today’s Europe wasting away from infertility and anomie. She rejected the Judaism of her antecedents and abhorred the God of the Bible, whom she thought cruel, but also refused the sacraments, mainly because she objected to Jewish elements in Catholicism.
The most recent entry in the huge literature on Weil comes from Palle Yourgrau, a professor of philosophy at Brandeis University. Yourgrau has a talent for raising uncomfortable issues, and his slim biography of Weil will outrage Christians as much as Jews, for he takes Weil’s side against her detractors from both religions.
Yourgrau explains Weil’s antipathy towards the Jewish God in an idiosyncratic but convincing way. Her critics charge that she betrayed her two peoples, Israel and France, in their hour of greatest need; indeed, Weil may be the only leading intellectual figure despised equally by French nationalists and Jewish intellectuals. But this double “betrayal” stemmed from a single motivation: Weil objected so adamantly to the national idolatry endemic in European (and particularly French) Christianity—the conceit that “holy France” was God’s chosen people—that she blamed Israel and its God for inflicting the idea of election on the world in the first place.
If the election of one people meant that some other people had to suffer, she wanted none of it. And because election is always the election of a particular people in its flesh, Weil rejected the fleshly, Jewish elements in Christianity, in particular the Resurrection. Identification with the suffering Christ, she averred, should be enough.
Her biographer Francine du Plessix Gray claimed that Weil’s “rantings against Judaism” stemmed from Jewish self-hatred. Yourgrau argues that Weil was not anti-Jewish any more than she was anti-Catholic or anti-French. Rather, she was a moral absolutist faced with an intractable problem: the irrepressible impulse of her beloved France (along with the rest of the European nations) to “elect” itself. As Yourgrau explains, “For Simone, France was not ‘holy France,’ any more than Germany was home to the ‘Master Race.’”
Weil rejected any and all connections with this tendency toward national idolatry. On her deathbed—after she had made her way from America to England in order to join the Resistance—Weil declared, “I cannot have any direct or indirect or even any very indirect connection with the French Resistance.” On the day Paris fell to the Nazis, Weil had said, “It’s a great day for Indochina,” that is, for the oppressed French colonies.
Working backward from her abhorrence of national idolatry, according to Yourgrau, Weil’s theology seeks to excise the fleshly, Jewish side of Christianity and repudiate the supposedly cruel God of the Hebrew Bible. She is so thorough that she leaves us with nothing but pure spirit, allying herself with Plato, in whom she claimed to find “intimations of Christianity.” It’s all beautifully, madly logical. No simple Marcionite preaching a de-Judaized Christianity, Weil is far more consistent than Marcion and his successors: to root out all affirmations of the election of Israel implies expunging every vestige of the flesh from Christianity. She brings to mind Chesterton’s comment that it is not the poet but the mathematician—and she had a keen mathematical mind—who goes mad.
Weil’s extreme remedy to the problem of idolatry may have led her into heterodox territory, but it was based on a correct historical insight. As she understood, the idolatrous conceit of national election got Europe into its world wars in the first place. Christendom destroyed itself because its constituent nationalities worshiped their own ethnicity and preferred the illusion of national election to membership in the People of God.
One might argue that ethnic idolatry was woven into Europe’s fabric from its founding. Each of Europe’s great nations in turn asserted its own claim to election, starting with Isidore of Seville and the Visigothic kingdom of Spain in the seventh century and followed in turn by the French, the British, the Russians, and the Germans. Aldous Huxley argued persuasively, in his biography of the “Grey Eminence” Joseph du Tremblay, that the Thirty Years’ War lasted so long and destroyed so much because Richelieu and Tremblay believed with mystical fervor that France was God’s proxy on earth. Their great antagonist, the Count-Duke of Olivares, thought as much about Spain.
Unfortunately, it did not occur to Weil that the weed of ethnic idolatry might be extirpated by any means other than that of eschewing the God of Israel and substituting for him Plato’s wan concept of the good. By her way of thinking, the apparent cruelty of the Jewish God—the massacre of the firstborn of Egypt, the command to exterminate the whole tribe of Amalek, the razing of Jericho—encourages rather than counteracts the bloody European history of ethnic and national idolatry. Before denouncing Weil, Yourgrau insists, Jews must explain biblical bloodshed. “One only has to read the Hebrew Bible with open eyes and without prejudice,” he writes, “to see why the primary complaint Weil has is that it is difficult to see how the (to her eyes) warlike, vengeful God of the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh, can be identified as the ‘father’ of Jesus—the man who gave the Sermon on the Mount.”
How, Weil remonstrated, could the biblical God have sanctioned such slaughter? One answer is that given by Rabbi Lord Sacks, in the case focusing on the biblical sanction of slavery: God leads us by steps out of barbarism into civilization. Ancient Israel took part in the terrible migrations of the late Bronze Age but also was set apart: In Israel’s holiness code we first encounter the hope of an eventual end to cruelty.
Jews do not apologize for our history; on the contrary, rabbinic commentary asserts that Haman, who plotted the murder of Persia’s Jews in the Book of Esther, descended from King Agag of Amalek, whom Saul neglected to kill according to the prophet Samuel’s instructions. But God’s ways are not our ways, and in the killing of the firstborn of Egypt, a path opened to the day prophesied by Zechariah, in which the whole world will acknowledge one God under one name.
Yourgrau insists that we should not “pass over in silence” such disturbing biblical events, but he seems unaware that Jews are required to recall the slaughter of the first-born Egypt in fear and awe each weekday morning. Binding of phylacteries is our most ancient act of daily worship, commanded in Exodus 13. The two small leather boxes enclose parchments with four biblical verses, including this one:
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem. And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.
The import of God slaying the first-born of Egypt is found in its juxtaposition with the requirement that every Jewish father redeem his first-born son in an ancient ritual in which the infant is presented to a representative of the Kohanim, Israel’s ancient caste of priests. This “re-enacts the drama of Abraham offering Isaac to the Lord, of the knight of faith (using Kierkegaard’s term) giving unreservedly away his son to God. The presentation of the child to the kohen is symbolic of Abraham’s performance when he bound Isaac and placed him on the altar. The father of today, as Abraham of old, acknowledges the absolute ownership of the child [and all of creation] by God,” wrote Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. Unfortunately, Pharaoh’s self-deification forced God to demonstrate this truth to the Egyptians and the world. After binding phylacteries, Jews recite the relevant verses and then the Akedah (Genesis 22), the binding of Isaac. The Jewish response to the sacrifice of the Egyptian first-born therefore is reverential awe of the Creator embodied in vicarious self-sacrifice.
Orthodox Judaism thus has an answer to Weil’s revulsion at the concept of election. So, indeed, does orthodox Catholicism. Weil could not embrace the Gallic Catholicism of Gesta Dei per Francos. But was that essential to the Catholic faith? On the contrary, wrote Henri de Lubac, “It is said in St. Matthew that the Kingdom ‘shall be given to a people bringing forth the fruits thereof,’” not “to the gentiles” but “to a new people” of God. The Second Vatican Council embraced de Lubac’s understanding of the Church as “the people of God,” in explicit opposition to the ethnocentrism of “the churches of earthly salvation,” as Russell Hittinger characterized them in these pages.
That is the deeper theological significance of the Church’s abandonment of temporal power. Yourgrau reviews Catholic and Jewish sources without, however, taking on the mainstream of their respective orthodoxies. That is a lacuna in his otherwise vivid presentation.
What would Weil, had she lived, have made of the Second Vatican Council? It seems a shame that de Lubac was not among the Catholic authorities she consulted, for he might have mitigated her outrage at ethnocentric Christianity. One also wonders what Weil, in her concern for suffering humanity, would have made of today’s great extinction of the nations through infertility. Between one-half and nine-tenths of the world’s 6,700 spoken languages will disappear over the next century, linguists estimate, not through sword or plague, but through lack of interest in progeny. Several European languages may be moribund by the year 2100. A fifth horseman of the Apocalypse—let us call him Infertility—has appeared, worse than the four riders of Revelation.
Weil’s sad life is hard to separate from her theology. Of her pathetic death through self-starvation, Yourgrau writes that she was “literally feeding her body to God.” There is a less Platonic way to understand this, though. We might say that Weil displayed consistency even in her death because the election of Israel requires the sanctification of its flesh, such that eating according to the dietary laws becomes a sacramental act. If our flesh is not holy, it is only a muddy vesture of decay and ultimately must be detested. Weil’s chosen path to death prefigured a world in which the post-Christian (and post-Jewish) peoples of the industrial world reject their progeny, and in which anorexia has become a leading cause of death among young women.
Weil’s moral absolutism remains a reproach to Jews who believe they can appropriate Israel’s ethnicity (and perhaps its ethics) but dispense with its holiness code, and to Christians who seek redemption in their own ethnic roots rather than through adoption into the people of God. Although her reasoning led to tragic results, Weil nonetheless did the world a service, and Yourgrau has done a service by explaining her.
David P. Goldman, a former senior editor of First Things, writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online. His book How Civilizations Die (Regnery) will appear in September 2011.