Truth For Children
In the wake of World War II, French Jewish thinkers turned to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic canons to narrate a Jewish past and future.
By Sarah Hammerschlag
The phrase “truth for children” comes from a radio address Emmanuel Levinas delivered in September 1945, only months after his return from captivity. In the address he describes his time as a prisoner of war in a German camp set aside for Jews. Protected by the Geneva conventions, Jewish prisoners of war avoided the worst of the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans on the Jewish people, but they lived in what Levinas describes as a state of suspense. Death hung over them like a familiar shadow, but each day deferred. According to Levinas, it was a time of Jewish awakening for many in the camp: “The Jew lent his own significance to the sadness that he shared with his non-Jewish comrades, a consciousness of Judaism acute as a spasm.” Within this context, the biblical accounts of the Jewish people took on a new significance. “After so many detours,” Levinas suggested that the stories of the patriarchs, of God and Pharaoh, became true “in their elementary truth, in their truth for children, in their vulgar truth.”1
It is of course nothing new or revelatory to suggest that scripture has served a crucial function for communities in crisis. Nor is it anything new for Jews to consider the biblical text to be speaking to them and about them or to reimagine themselves into its circumstances. The liturgy of the Passover Haggadah asks the community to re-experience the exodus out of Egypt each Passover. Nonetheless, there is something striking in Levinas’s description of the significance these stories held for him. It was a singular emotion, he says, “to read an archaic text and to be able to accept it to the letter without adapting it to an interpretation, without searching for a symbolic or metaphoric truth!” Levinas claims biblical literalism while at the same time calling this “a truth for Children, a vulgar truth.”2 He identifies with the very thing he finds childish and simplistic. In this double consciousness there is an incredulity both in regard to the events that Levinas is living through and in relation to his own shift in thinking, about the way these events have overturned his trust in the forms of reason to which, as a university-educated philosopher, he had grown accustomed.
In my research for my current book project, which I will sketch out in a moment, I have discovered this return to literalism to be a broader phenomenon among French Jews during World War II, and I will argue that it had far-reaching consequences for postwar French Judaism, particularly French Zionism. In this essay I will show the consonance between the forms of self-understanding that were generated by the war among Jewish thinkers and leaders and trace their impact on a generation struggling to conceptualize Judaism’s relation to the French state in the postwar context, and to the state of Israel. The very forms of reading generated by the experience of wartime crisis persist in the writings of those most shaped by the crisis and create the nexus through which they understand the historical importance of the birth of the Israeli state.
Interpreting the deluge
The shift I want to track pivots around the issue of biblical interpretation. French Jewish biblical scholarship, in its first iteration in the second half of the nineteenth century, had been primarily concerned with reading the Mosaic covenant and the books of the prophets as forerunners of French Republican values. Interpreters such as Joseph Salvador and James Darmesteter sought to prove that the universalism and rationalism expressed by the Lumières (Enlighteners) and codified in the Declaration of the Rights of Man had its precursor in the Hebrew Bible. By contrast, in the postwar context, in the writings of André Neher, Léon Askénazi, and others, not only was there a new emphasis on the differentiation of the Jewish canon from the philosophical tradition of the West, but there was also a new emphasis on the Hebrew Bible as a text about the Jewish people for the Jewish people, as a text that not only narrates the Jewish past but also its future. This did not mean, however, that these thinkers gave up on their trademark universalism, but that they reconstituted it as a concept born out of Jewish election and Jewish exemplarity.
This shift was compounded by the fact that French Jews saw themselves as having a unique role to play in the postwar context as the only Jewish community on the continent that had survived relatively intact. Jews in France fared better in World War II than Jews in almost any other Nazi-occupied nation. About 75,000 of France’s 300,000 Jews were sent to the concentration camps; the rest survived through various means, but primarily through a highly effective underground network throughout the South of France.
During and after the war, French Jews had to come to terms with the fact that it was not the Nazis who first instituted race laws against them, but their own French government.
It is difficult to underestimate the impact the fall of France (1940) had on the nation, and in particular on its Jewish community. In his wartime journals, Levinas describes the days after the surrender as a time of radical transformation, apocalyptic in its dimensions, but also as a moment of revelation, when true reality showed itself for the first time. “There was no more France,” he writes. “It had departed in the night like an immense circus tent, leaving a clearing strewn with debris.”3 For Levinas, this evacuation of the infrastructure of French culture and politesse occasioned the need to rethink the condition of ethics, but also to reclaim Judaism as a crucial cultural source for knowledge, an alternative to the culture of the West, which had brought about its own collapse. In this later endeavor he was not alone. While Levinas was in a prison camp, first in France and then in Germany, working in a forestry detail by day and conceptualizing this transformation in his journals at night, another French Jewish soldier, Robert Gamzon, made the war an occasion for the concrete reorganization of Jewish lives.
As a teenager in the 1920s, Gamzon had initiated a Jewish branch of the scouts called les Éclaireurs israélites de France. Initially, its mission, in line with the Boy Scouts Association’s founder, Robert Baden-Powell, was to rescue youth from the decadence of urban living. In the case of the Jews, this was understood to be a double imperative. It was the task of the scouts, Gamzon wrote, to fight against “the sometimes mind-boggling physical and manual awkwardness of Jewish intellectuals whose hands know only how to make empty movements to support their words instead of using them to grasp hold of real tools.”4
At the war’s start, Gamzon found himself in a unique position as the leader of the Jewish boy scouts, a movement held in high esteem by Marshal Pétain and his Vichy government for its emphasis on returning Jews to the land and to manual labor. As part of his project to retrain Jews to work the land, Gamzon had already developed an elaborate network of farm schools and was thus in a unique position to help house and reeducate France’s Jewish youth, many of whom had traveled to the southern Free Zone in the wake of the Nazi invasion. He was thus deputized in 1940 by the Pétain government as the head of Jewish youth services for the Union générale des israélites de France.
If Gamzon’s initial motivation for organizing the Jewish scouts was to rejuvenate young Jews as hearty and capable men and women, the war itself quickly transformed that mission so that their primary task became that of providing Jewish youth with a new sense of identity: men and women, who had suddenly discovered that, as a consequence of the Vichy race laws, they did not count as French, were to be given a new primary allegiance to their Judaism. From this point forward, they would be Jews first and foremost. An identification with France, if it remained at all, would be secondary.
Along with the mass exodus south, which physically displaced over 100,000 Jews in France, the instating of Vichy’s 1940’s race laws set adrift a generation of France’s Jews—many of whom had little or no awareness of their Judaism before the war. They lost their positions in universities and lycées, in government agencies and newspapers, and, perhaps even more importantly, they lost their identities as French. Among them were also refugees from Germany and further east whom the scouts had begun taking in and housing already in the late 1930s. Among the immigrants were a select few who brought with them a much richer Jewish education than their French counterparts. Some would, with time, become the movement’s teachers. This confluence of learned immigrants and unoccupied French Jews, many of whom had never understood themselves as French, began to emerge as a crucible for transformation, and the war ironically became an opportunity in Gamzon’s mind.
Over the course of the war, Gamzon began quite literally to understand himself as the leader of the Jewish remnant, addressing “all that are left of the House of Israel” (Isaiah 46:3). It began with a dream in which he imagined a tidal wave destroying the landscape around him and leaving him the protector of a fledgling flock of chicks. At the center of the dream was a fountain. The force of the waves broke open the ice sheathing on top and allowed pure fresh water to come to the surface. This water would nourish those left in his care. “When I awoke I was strangely confident in the future,” Gamzon wrote in his journal.5
As in the book of Isaiah, for Gamzon and those around him, the fact of remaining entailed a mission. The work they set for themselves from 1940 onward was not merely the work of rescue but of spiritual purification and rebuilding. It may seem difficult to contemplate that such a romantic vision could accompany such a dire political and social reality. Yet it was not uncharacteristic of Gamzon, nor of his fellow scouts. In the recollections of the other scout leaders, a number of whom wrote memoirs of the period, the war is recounted as something of a dream, a heightened reality in which a new way of living seemed possible, all of it animated by its particularly Jewish significance. Gamzon’s dream is not an anomaly so much as a mythologized description of the reality that he and his fellow scouts found themselves living during these years. It is here that Gamzon’s experience shares its closest proximity to Levinas’s account, with which I opened.
In “The Jewish Experience of the Prisoner,” Levinas describes how Torah became a lens for understanding the prisoners’ experience, how he came to see himself in the story of Abraham’s walk with Isaac up Mount Moriah and to understand his own captivity as a test. “It is by virtue of all these delays on the way that the test is fruitful. It is because of all that was bearable in the misery of the prisoner that this suffering could become a source of Jewish consciousness, a possible seed of a future Jewish life,” he recounts. The stories of the biblical miracles themselves, of “God’s indefatigable love,” were experienced both as a rebuke and then, finally, as a possibility. To implore God as a prisoner in the camps had its own mythic dimension. It was not merely to repeat the pleas of the patriarchs, he suggests, but also “to feel [God’s] presence; in the burning of the suffering, distinguish the flame of the divine kiss.” What is Judaism, he concludes, “if not the experience since Isaiah, since Job, of this possible return, before hope—at the depth of despair—of the pain in happiness; the discovery of the signs of election in suffering itself?”6
For Levinas, this conflation of suffering and election was more than an experience of recognition or even identification with the figures of Job or the suffering servant of Isaiah. Both the scouts and the Jewish prisoners that Levinas describes understood that they were living through events that were themselves of biblical dimensions. They understood that the contemporary moment had itself been rendered mythic.
For the scout movement, this was part of an explicit strategy to use the historical drama of the Jewish people as a means of cultivating Jewish identification. The poet, Jewish essayist, and scout leader Edmond Fleg noted as much when he hosted a seminar for Jewish youth at his home in Beauvallon for the newly unoccupied normaliens and agrégées. It was for “those chic types so warm and deep and sincere,” Fleg wrote to a friend, for those who “without Hitler would not have even known they were Jewish.”7 Fleg chose as the theme of his seminar “the suffering of Israel.” In it, he attempted to contextualize the current crisis within a larger narrative of Jewish persecution, thus making France’s Jews themselves protagonists in the historical drama of Judaism. This narrative perspective not only offered young disenfranchised Jews an alternative sense of identity to the one they had lost by way of the statutes, it conferred on the events themselves a transcendent meaning. For some young people who had never even considered themselves Jewish, this provided a transformative means to reclaim their own sense of value. For Fleg, this sense of identity had been and indeed could again be “the defense of Israel”; culture, community and what he called “la mystique” could provide a kind of refuge and protection.8 Under the grip of persecution, this group was taught to live their suffering as a privilege, as a point of access to a history and a tradition that separated them from their oppressors. Interestingly enough, it was often those who had identified most strongly with France and its traditions who were most open to this new reading of their experiences. It was often those who had grown up trusting in French rationalism and humanist universalism who were most willing to take on this “truth for Children,” and, like Levinas, be able to identify with it in and for its simplicity.
One final anecdote illustrates this ironic juxtaposition of rationalism and religious literalism. Once again it involves an unlikely figure, the biblical scholar Georges Levitte, the initiator of what became known as “the school of the prophets.” Until 1938, Levitte had been enrolled for a doctorate at the Sorbonne, studying Hebrew and Arabic, trained there to treat the text of the Hebrew Bible as a philologist and historian, but he spent the war at one of the scout-run homes for refugees in France’s southern Free Zone. At the end of 1943, when the network of children’s homes had to be disbanded and the Jewish scout movement went underground, Levitte announced his commitment to enact a form of cultural and spiritual warfare against the Germans. Inspired by Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai, the second-temple sage who established the rabbinic academy of Yavneh, Levitte gathered a small crew of three companions to enact an existence as a spiritual remnant. After a night on a train and a two-hour walk, they ended up at Istor, near Chaumargeais, a small village in south central France. Levitte found an abandoned house and set up shop with four companions. They devoted their energies to reading and interpreting the Torah. Like Ben-Zakkai “they were combating their enemies by reappropriating the study of the law.”9 A journal entry from one of the men recounts how the four celebrated Shavuot: With the war still raging around them, they stayed out in the fields all night, studying and praying. Such a vigil is traditional, but under these circumstances, he reports, they felt “this quasi-certitude that the heavens would open and God would come down to us as he had on Mount Sinai. . . . In the morning when nothing had arrived, we said to ourselves that perhaps we had not been sufficiently prepared.”10
It is hard to tell, in reading these accounts, when and where such a sentiment involves any skepticism. After all, Levitte himself was an avowed atheist, according to his son. How then do we understand this “quasi-certitude?” As in Levinas’s essay, there are traces in this account of an accompanying incredulity in the face of their experiences. Alternatively, there is something of a conundrum in these accounts: perhaps the identification with the Jewish experience here supersedes the claim to the supernatural, but at the same time the sense of identification seems to require the claim to the supernatural.
In the Aftermath
After the war, when the smoke had lifted, the question of what it meant to understand the Nazi persecution of European Jewry in religious terms only became more complicated, particularly as the reality of six million dead made the very question of theodicy impossible for many. No theological justification for the events could suffice. At the end of Levinas’s essay, “The Jewish Experience of the Prisoner,” he describes how time would come “to tarnish this joy in the recovered literal sense, in this simple truth regained.”11 Levinas himself would not continue to adhere to a hermeneutic of biblical literalism in his own work; far from it. He would insist both on the necessity of reading Torah with rabbinical commentary and on penetrating its surface to access its philosophical meaning. However, for other French Jewish intellectuals, the idea of understanding themselves as a remnant remained enticing, and the strategy of reclaiming the biblical canon as a Jewish text and thus as a means of cultural resistance would prove to be persuasive. As Colette Brunschwig put it in 1953 in the first issue of the French Jewish journal Targoum: “It is the privilege of some of Europe’s occidental Jews, those of France in particular, to have felt pass over them the fire of . . . apocalyptic hatred and to not have been consumed.”12 They had survived to ask questions, she wrote, but questions that could not be answered by the civilization in which they had been trained as good Western citizens to ask after cause and effect. It is the confluence of experiencing themselves as a remnant, and feeling that their civilization had failed them, that led a group of young people to see the Jewish biblical and rabbinic canons as the necessary focal points both of their identity and of their search for meaning and understanding.
Among those who influenced this turn to biblical literalism was Jacob Gordin. Gordin was a Russian immigrant who had studied in Germany among the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen’s disciples before making his way to France as a refugee after the Nazi rise to power. A revered scholar among those who knew him, he went to teach at the École Gilbert Bloch, which Robert Gamzon had started after the war. In the course of his teaching, he came into contact with a number of figures who would become influential in the postwar context, including Emmanuel Levinas, André Neher, and Léon Askénazi. In all these contexts he expounded a Judaism that tied suffering to election. For Gordin, the war itself only undergirded his sense that Jewish election is an election to suffering. In a lecture written during the final days of the war, he describes the Jewish people as sowers, and picking up on the kabbalistic theme of tikkun olam (“repair of the world”), he writes: “One can only sow outside . . . that is how the earth is transformed, that it germinates humanity anew. If Israel is the scattered center, if it is everywhere and nowhere, messianic time will fill the world in its entirety.”13 He was thus, until his death, staunchly anti-Zionist. At the same time, he introduced his young audience to a way of reading that was new to them. He taught his students to resist the claim that “Greek” or “scientific” knowledge should be the arbiter of sense in treating the biblical text. He reversed the priority and taught, in the words of Léon Askénazi, that “it was the thought understood to be universal, which in its turn must now be evaluated by the criteria of a Jewish conscience.”14 And he argued for a historical sensibility unique to Torah, by which its true protagonist was the Jewish people, in its past, present, and future.
One can only imagine how powerful this message was to the generation of young people that Gordin taught until his death in 1947, a generation dissatisfied with the dominant culture, one they understood to have abandoned them. They were hungry for a means to critique it, and they were seeking to rediscover themselves as Jews. He introduced to them a lineage of Jewish thinkers, who, unlike the nineteenth-century pioneers of the science du Judaïsme or the Wissenschaft des Judentums, embraced the particularism of the Jewish people. But at the same time he believed that Judaism was incompatible with nationalism, and he died before the birth of the Jewish state.
However, finding a way to embrace Zionism that would at the same time still valorize their own project of reviving French Judaism was more difficult than one might imagine.
Levinas himself displayed considerable ambivalence about Zionism. In 1939 he wrote that it was the people of Israel’s destiny to resist “the cult of power and terrestrial grandeur.” Even in 1948, he writes with regret about the new nation, with its Jewish soldiers and Jewish peasants: “They’re just hungry to start a History. . . . It is too bad,” he says in a letter to the literary theorist Maurice Blanchot.15 But by 1951, he was fighting to overcome his own reservations by arguing for the state’s worldwide historical significance and thus justifying even its “infidelities to Judaism’s great teaching,” its acts of violence. “Its reality alone counts,” he wrote. For it was only by entering the playing field of history that Judaism’s truths could be disseminated. For Israel to become a prophetic state, its continued existence needed to be secured.16
A similar process of conversion to Zionism marks the disciples of Jacob Gordin. But for them, it would be by identifying with the Israelites of the Torah that they would come to find their way to a religious Zionism.
One case in point was Léon Askénazi, an Algerian Jew and scout, who came to France as a member of a WWII battalion. He was Gordin’s successor at Robert Gamzon’s school and would credit Gordin as his master until the end. Though virtually unknown in the United States, he was widely influential in France and continues to be so in Israel among the Francophone Jewish community. Until the mid-1950s, he followed Gordin in arguing for the importance of the diaspora as the future of Jewish spiritual life. However, during a trip to Israel in 1956, he attended the seminar of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Abraham Isaac Kook, the inspiration for Gush Emunim, the settlers movement that developed after the 1967 war. Askénazi came to the conclusion that Kook’s thinking was the logical continuation of Gordin’s. And Gordin would himself have become a Zionist had he met Kook, Askénazi argued.
While Rav Kook the elder was the inspiration for religious Zionism, it was Rav Zvi Kook the younger’s immanent messianic vision that inspired Gush Emunim, which he believed set the historical stage for Israel to return to its biblical dimensions. While Rav Kook the elder made the radical move of interpreting Zionist activity as a stage in messianic redemption, of seeing the secular pioneers as unwitting but necessary tools in the Jewish people’s redemptive narrative, the reality of redemption always remained in the future for him, thus allowing a gap between the ideal and the real to remain intact. Rav Kook the younger closed this gap, arguing that “[t]he Master of the Universe has His own political agenda, according to which politics here below are conducted. . . . Part of this redemption is the conquest and settlement of the land. This is dictated by divine politics, and no earthly politics can supersede it.”17 In a religious variation on the Hegelian theme of the cunning of reason, Kook argued that the military and political powers of the state of Israel were unwitting partners in the enactment of God’s will. As Aviezer Ravitzky describes it, the payoff of the younger Kook’s method was that “religious faith sanctifies the sociopolitical structure, transferring it to the realm of the absolute and thereby bestowing upon it a transcendent validity.” Israel’s wars then “come to be seen not merely in terms of national survival or reclamation of ancestral land. They are portrayed in ethical and theological terms, as a mighty struggle to uproot evil and achieve universal rectification.”18
Instead of Judaism proving itself as consonant with French—and thus universal—values, Israel as the sole agent capable of carrying out the Creator’s will, was the necessary agent of universalism.
Jews are exceptional according to this narrative, because by way of the Torah, they have been given the tools to interpret God’s word. Their exile was indeed a form of punishment for not having heeded it. However, now the time of deliverance has arrived, according to Askénazi, affirming Rav Kook’s teaching. It is a time comparable to that of Moses, when the Israelites did not have the confidence to leave exile. Like the slaves in Egypt, Jews who remain in the diaspora are unwilling to believe that the stage of exile has passed. This is not a sign of a crisis of faith; it is a resistance to recognizing the new age. Askénazi even insisted that this way of thinking did not amount to nationalism. Because of their election to suffering, the Jews, he argued, can never embody a chauvinism. They are a people at the heart of the world, a people that exists for the sake of others, for the nations of the world, not in conflict with them.
We have here a confluence of the universalizing trends of French Judaism expressed, however, as an ethnic nationalism, even as the movement is not identified as such by its practitioners. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the last works of André Neher, who in the 1950s and 1960s worked toward rebuilding the French Jewish intellectual community. In one of his last presentations to the French Jewish community before the general assembly of French Judaism in Paris, he expressed his regret at having come to devote himself so late to the Zionist cause, but he did so by arguing that though Zionism risked reducing the Jewish people to a dangerously narrow particularism, God’s election of this people and their endless trials for the sake of the world transformed its mission into the most universalist of aims. The fight was a metaphysical battle to reunite God’s chosen people with the land of Israel, the navel of the universe.
Thus, he said, we can see here the amalgamation of French emphasis on universalism, the definition of the tradition in confessional terms, and the wartime emphasis on suffering as a means of Jewish identification, all of which are understood to be parts of an ongoing narrative that justifies the Jewish conquest of Palestine in religious terms.20
In conclusion, I want to add that this is, of course, only one avenue this story could pursue. There are others who stood by the diasporic ideal, and those who supported Israel but resisted the logic of religious Zionism. Levinas himself would insist that the prophetic tradition had to serve as a check on the worldly ambitions of the state, rather than as a justification for all of its actions. But he argued that because the Jewish people have the sacred law, they will build a nation more righteous than others. Thus, even he could never fully resist the temptation to set its drama apart and thus to set the suffering of its people apart from the suffering of other nations, particularly those with which it was in conflict. Both Israel the people and Israel the nation could only and would only ever be “the most fragile, the most vulnerable thing in the world.” However strong it became, it would “still [carry] pain and dereliction in its depths,” he writes, describing it at moments with the very terms he used to describe the imprisonment of the Jewish soldier. By virtue of this, he would insist that whatever the political realities appeared to be on the ground, to act for Israel would be to act for “the very idea of peace.”21
- Emmanuel Levinas, “The Jewish Experience of the Prisoner,” in Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics, ed. Sarah Hammerschlag (Brandeis University Press, 2018), 99.
- Levinas, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 3, Eros, littérature et philosophie. Inédits (Grasset, 2013), 43.
- Robert Gamzon, Tivliout: Harmonie (Busson, 1945), 63.
- Robert Gamzon, Les eaux claires: Journal 1940–1944 (Éclaireuses éclaireurs israélites de France, 1981), 31.
- Levinas, “Jewish Experience,” 101, 102.
- Letter from Gamzon to S. Racine, in Alain Michel, Les éclaireurs israélites de France pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale (Éditions de EIF, 1984), 66.
- Ibid., 64.
- Gerard Israel, Heureux comme Dieu en France (Lafont, 1975), 272.
- Quoted in Catherine Lewertowski, Morts ou juifs: La maison de Moissac 1939–1945 (Flammarion, 2003), 225.
- Levinas, “Jewish Experience,” 103.
- Colette Brunschig, “Témoignage,” Targoum 1 (1953): 30.
- Jacob Gordin, “The Galuth,” in Modern French Jewish Thought, 94.
- Léon Askénazi, La parole et l’écrit, vol. 2, Penser la vie juive aujourd’hui (Albin Michel, 2005), 481.
- Emmanuel Lévinas, “Letter to Maurice Blanchot on the Creation of the State of Israel,” trans. Sarah Hammerschlag, Critical Inquiry 36, no. 4 (Summer 2010): 647.
- Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand (Johns Hopkins Press, 1997), 164.
- Quoted in Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism (University of Chicago Press, 1996), 131.
- Ibid., 83.
- Askénazi, La parole et l’écrit, 114.
- André Neher, “The Jewish Dimension of Space: Zionism,” in Modern French Jewish Thought, 158.
- Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures (Indiana University Press, 1994), 194, 195.