Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

14 Tishrei 5764 - September 29, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Benny Levy: A Quiet Revolutionary, A Life that Began and Ended with Revolution

by Binyamin Nehorai

When Danny Cohn-Bendit, called "Danny the Red," and Pierre Victor, later known as Reb Benny Levy, mounted the barricades in 1968, they never realized that they were taking part in something that would later be compared to the French Revolution. The same is true about Jean-Claude Ziegler (currently known as Rav Chaim Ziegler) the leader of the student revolution in Lyons, and others from additional French cities. After Ziegler and Levy were finished with this revolution they went through a personal revolution. This time it was not a political or social uprising; it was a genuine revolution.

A Jew is always a revolutionary. At no time is a Jew's neshomoh at rest; it continually aspires for more. His neshomoh's true place is never where it finds itself at a given time! Either it ascends to the heights or descends to the lowest possible depths. Of the four leaders of the French student rebellion (see box) three were Jews and two of them became ba'alei teshuvoh: Benny Levy, first a well- known philosopher, later studied Torah in Yerushalayim. Jean- Claude Ziegler became Rav Chaim Ziegler, originally trained as a scientist and now serving as a senior lecturer in Arachim (a dynamic international kiruv organization).

Throughout history, Jews were often catalysts of revolutions, but only a few experienced a genuine revolution. From the Student Revolution, sometimes called the New French Revolution, to a revolution of their life itself.

Rav Yehuda Aryeh Cohen, principal of the Ofakim Beis Yaakov Seminary, and Rav Chaim Ziegler offer some thoughts about Benny Levy, a person with whom they were well acquainted. Here is the profile of a revolutionary.

Child Prodigy

When HaRav Yehuda Halevi (not the famous personage bearing that name) arrived at Jaffa from Ragusa and later served as the head of the Jewish community of Jaffa during Turkish and British rule, he never imagined that his great-grandson, Benny Levy, would be an internationally known philosopher and considered one of the most brilliant philosophic minds of the whole world.

His offspring moved from Jaffa to Halab (Aleppo) in Syria. Benny Levy himself was born in Egypt in 1945, at the end of World War II, and was raised in Cairo as the scion of a traditional Halabi family until the age of eleven. At that time, because of the "Kadesh Campaign" in Eretz Yisroel (the 1956 Israel-Egypt war), his family was forced to leave Egypt for Belgium.

In Belgium, Levy completed his high school studies and, after a break of two years, continued his academic studies in Paris. Here he was a student in the Ecole Normale Superieure, a prestigious teachers' college in which prominent French intellectuals studied and taught.

It did not take long until Levy became known, even in that esteemed institution of higher education, as an outstanding genius in the fullest sense of the word, even though it was a competitive school that only admitted the most talented students. Even in his first year, Benny Levy stood out in his studies -- and also as a committed political leftist. Besides his expertise in ancient Greek, he devoted his first year to a deep and systematic study of writings of the founders of Communism. His comprehensive and profound knowledge of this subject was legendary.

Already at this point in his life, one could discern a leading motif that characterized his personality until his last day on earth: Benny Levy constantly tried to combine theory and reality. It is the adherence to this idea that caused him to become a baal teshuvoh at the end of his life and to genuinely come nearer to his Father in Heaven.

One may say of Benny Levy that there never lived such a first- rate philosopher who started out so embedded in falsity but who finally reached the one and only truth to such a great extent. Besides studying the revolutionary writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their disciples, in the middle 1960s he established, together with Alain Zismer (a Jew) and Serge Julie, the "Proletarian Left," which was a revolutionary movement in France, led by Levy. He devoted himself more and more to the radical ideologies that at that time knocked on the windows of Parisian aristocracy, and even became a devout Communist.


His public name, Pierre Victor, was only an alias, stuck on him by a French writer. Although he did not have French citizenship, Levy was considered the leader of the French students. In an article that was printed this year after Levy's petiroh on Chol Hamoed Succos 5764, Serge Julie, his partner in that movement, wrote that Benny Levy's speeches to his audience made such a profound impression that they often took time out in the middle of his speech in order to digest and correctly understand what he had said.

And then came the gigantic Student Revolution (in May 1968, against De Gaulle's Fifth Republic, see separate box). The student disorders and major confrontations, wildcat strikes in factories that involved several million workers and virtually paralyzed France, stirred up not only all of Europe but actually the whole world -- but it all eventually blew over.

Nonetheless, the aims and aspirations of the Student Revolution did not wane and "Pierre Victor" continued to cling to his vision of a better France. He even founded a newspaper, Les Affaires du Peuple (People's Affairs), that ran into difficulties because its editors were taken into custody by the police, one after the other, due to the government's determination to put an end to what it regarded as dangerous agitation.

Only after the arrests intensified did the newspaper's editors decide to ask for the help of the one person in France whom no one would dare arrest. This was in 1970, two years after the Student Revolution. Jean Paul Sartre (1905- 1980), the famed French existentialist philosopher and writer, was regarded as immune to being put behind bars. Sartre would comment sharply about every topic of interest on the public agenda and would publish his criticism in a journal called Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times) that was founded and edited by him and Simone de Beauvoi. He also stood at the head of all street protests organized against the establishment.

Sartre was a natural revolutionary and pacifist and a person who spearheaded all anti-establishment campaigns. He would have been imprisoned a long time ago if not for his good friend in the Elysees (the eighteenth-century palace that is the official residence of the President of France) President Charles de Gaulle, who arrogantly saw in him a partner for the title "a great man who made history."

Sartre agreed to take Levy's newspaper under his patronage. After he added his name to the list of the editors, the paper immediately became immune to the normal rules of law and order and the police left it alone.

Ultimately, in 1973, Levy decided to dismantle the "Proletarian Left." He was afraid that the organization, like other similar organizations in Europe, would turn into a pure terrorist organization. In that same year he established an influential daily called Liberation, a moderate leftist newspaper that comes out daily to this very day alongside a long line of long-established daily newspapers.

Benny Levy: "I was forced to become an observant Jew"

The "Socratic Circle" was the name of the philosophic club that Benny Levy started after he abandoned the path of practical revolution and decided to instead delve into philosophy per se. Amazingly, exactly at this time, the authorities found out that the person who was the leader of the "Proletarian Left" was not even a French citizen. The authorities understood that they had a golden opportunity to expel Pierre Victor, the man whom they regarded as being dangerous to the republic, from France. After his United Nations passport was confiscated, he was ordered to report to the police station every two weeks, together with his relatives and a lawyer. This was because of his past as one of the major leaders of the leftist revolution.

The person who came to Levy's aid was again Jean Paul Sartre. In response to the authorities' harassment, Sartre not only protected Levy but made sure that he was awarded French citizenship.

However, it seems that the greatest compliment that Levy received from Sartre was his appointing him in 1974 as his personal secretary.

A new stage in Levy's life started. Sartre was surprised to discover how well-versed Levy was in his writings, and some say that he knew them better than Sartre himself. Sartre was enchanted with Levy's rare mixture of intellect and readiness to take part in revolutions.

Together they perused philosophic texts and together they analyzed contradictions in texts of Western philosophy. Jointly they tried to compare the intent of the authors contained in the details of their writings with their general intent.

Benny Levy's main interest was in political philosophy, in which he saw the linkage between philosophy with reality, and it was precisely that reality that he longed to change for the better. Both of them thought that they would be able to reform society by presenting an improved Western political philosophy. They worked together for six years. Their collective effort even bore literary fruit in the joint publication of three books.

In an interview with Uri Paz at the end of 5761 (2001), Benny Levy commented with words that bear enormous portent: "Although I tried every possibility that existed to remain loyal to non-Jewish Western culture, logic forced me to be a Jew. I was a Jew who wholeheartedly aspired to assimilate. Since I was an intellectual, I aspired to be a distinguished French non-Jewish-type of intellectual. Sartre prevented this. My criticism of culture during the revolution, although expressed incorrectly, was in a certain sense a basic preparation for the process of my returning to Jewish heritage."

First Meeting Between Benny Levy and Judaism

When did the first meeting between Benny Levy and his religion, Judaism, take place?

The first time he came in contact with his Judaism at all was in 1976, when Jean Jacqled, a French researcher of Kaballah, tried to charm him with the beauty of Jewish mysticism. Later, also Charles Mufsique interested him in Jewish sources and Shmuel Trigani even taught him a little Chumash. But these were only weak flickers of light, and the way of Torah could not yet be perceived in them.

The first turning point came after the second publication of Liberte Difficile (Difficult Freedom) written by a Jewish-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. That author offered an alternative to Western philosophy while making extensive use of classical Jewish sources. "I remember that sparks glittered in my eyes," remarked Levy about reading the text of the book for the first time, at age 17. After being enchanted with Levinas' book he added: "At this period, my thought underwent a revolution. It was a real explosion!"

Although that did not yet lead to adopting true traditional Judaism, it lit the spark within Benny's limited world of ideas at that time.

Benny Levy: "Sartre himself forced me to sign my true name, Benny Levy, on my discourses. I simply went out of my mind when I first saw my Jewish name on black and white referring to me. I am obliged to Sartre for being introduced to Judaism and his opening the way for me to embrace it. This allowed me to come to part of myself, or to be more exact, to link on to my own Jewish identity."

And then, precisely when they began dealing with the subject of the essence of Judaism, Levy began to study Judaism. When this subject came up for discussion, Sartre firmly declared that Levy has a misconception. In contrast to his previous conception, Sartre understood that there exists a Jewish reality, with a root, a stem and source, that is different from other religions. Sartre realized that the miracle of the Jewish Nation's survival is metaphysical. He came to this conclusion by contemplating the struggle for survival of the Jew, scattered among the nations, a struggle in which he saw a continuing history of striking roots followed by uprooting them, a history of collapse followed by rebuilding.

Levy published articles in which he declared that Sartre, reconsidered his philosophical views (that the survival of the Jewish people is an understandable historical phenomenon) but was accused by philosophers of deliberate distortion. Sartre's wife also protested vehemently but Sartre himself remained quiet about this until almost his very end. Only before his death did he confess: It was all a mistake.

The whole time, Levy did not respond to those who abused him but searched for the true way, a search into himself, a slow and consistent search, into his own Nation's sources.

After Sartre died in 1980, a French university offered Levy a position teaching philosophy, on the condition that he first complete his doctorate. It took Levy only three months to earn his Ph.D. in philosophy.

He began teaching philosophy in the university and, parallel to this, devoted most of his time to studying Torah. Judaism, which until now was considered by him something archaic and fossilized, suddenly became transformed into something flowing and spirited.

His slow journey to the bosom of his fathers and his Nation's heritage, accelerated. He began participating in Torah classes, but after a lesson was over, continued enjoying himself in Parisian restaurants, as customary of the local intellectuals. Still, he felt that what he was doing was bizarre and inconsistent. "Something hit me hard," he later said. "It is impossible to hear profound ideas of the Vilna Gaon about the significance of gid hanosheh and at the same time go to a restaurant and, chas vesholom, eat it."

This contradiction and falsehood bothered him immensely. As a result, he bravely decided to follow through to the end.

Having started with a life according to mistaken ideas, he finally set out on a journey of genuine return to Judaism. He began with the Student Revolution and continued to explore the secrets of Western philosophy. In that way, he arrived from his world of Western culture at remote domains far removed from it, from ivory academic towers to the benches of the Torah World in Yerushalayim.

Into Torah

Here begins Benny Levy's stage of life as a Torah-observant Jew. This phase started with a meeting of Benny Levy with HaRav Eliyahu Abutbol, who headed the yeshiva of students in Strasbourg.

1984 was a fateful year for Benny Levy. In that year he moved his family from Paris to Strasbourg so he could dedicate himself to Torah study and there he began to gradually observe mitzvos. Many people who appreciated his new life style and spiritual changeover were influenced by him. Nine years ago, he left Strasbourg for the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Yerushalayim. His Rav in Yerushalayim was HaRav Moshe Shapira who, besides his Torah scholarliness, is a well-known Torah intellectual. Benny Levy felt that HaRav Shapira's personality and his discourses held the solutions to philosophical issues he had not yet resolved.

He was only fifty-eight years old when he passed away. He suffered a massive heart attack on Chol Hamoed Succos and was buried that same night at Har HaMenuchos of Yerushalayim. His new book, To Be a Jew was published on the week of his passing, as if to signify the last stop of one of the greatest thinkers of our generation.

HaRav Moshe Shapira eulogized him in his shul in Bayit Vegan by saying:"In our generation he was like Avrohom Ovinu who came to recognize the existence of a Creator." He also dedicated one of his weekly shiurim given in Sanhedria Murchevet (to an audience of hundreds) to the memory of Benny Levy.

May his soul be bound in the bond of life!

France trembled. The "Student Revolution" of May 1968 began after a group of student radicals took over one of the Sorbonne dormitories in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. The student rebels were led by Danny Cohn-Bendit, who was later called "Danny the Red" because of his flaming reddish hair. He was the son of a Jew who had emigrated from Berlin to Paris. Because of his political activities the university tried him, something that sparked a strike of hundreds of students. The campus at Nanterre was surrounded by police, and the head of the student disorders was arrested.

Street fighting broke out, spilled into the Latin Quarter, and the major confrontation spread to the Sorbonne, the prestigious Paris university. The revolution spilled over to all the universities of France and then to factories as well. It turned out to be a real rebellion against the French Fifth Republic of Charles de Gaulle, with barricades, burning of ancient and precious furniture of the university, with police, truncheons, beatings, and wounded.

This was an outburst against the "outdated" regime. The students argued that the French higher educational system was inflexible and corrupt. The universities became "factories" for producing professionals rather than institutions for teaching humanities. The students intended to generate the change by force, if necessary. The government tried to crush the uprising but was unsuccessful. The universities remained under the control of the students who were initially enthusiastically backed by the populace. The police were busy with the rebels and crime was rampant. Houses and stores were looted. The stock market collapsed, without any direct connection to the revolution. The workers threatened to join the revolution.

President Charles de Gaulle began to consider resignation. Army units were sent to surround the parliament out of fear that it would be taken over. De Gaulle, at his imposing height, appeared bent over, as if he had suddenly aged. He left Paris unexpectedly by helicopter on May 29 and returned the next day with a promise of armed support from the commanders of the French occupation troops in Germany. Danger of a civil war hovered in the air.

The streets were empty when de Gaulle, in a dramatic four- minute radio address to the nation, claimed that the whole revolution was a plot of the Communists, France's archenemies, and he was the only barrier to anarchy or Communist rule. In this way, he minimized the sympathy of the nation for the students. This sufficed. France that "almost" changed, reverted to its old ways.

Although the actual revolution died out, there were, however, considerable repercussions: the government made a series of concessions to protesting groups. Workers began receiving higher wages and their working conditions were improved, higher education was modernized and teachers and students were given a voice in running their institutions.

At the head of this revolution, Jews stood out. What Binyamin Levy and his friends did throughout France was only a natural result of the fact that a Jew, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was the head of the revolution, and of the fact also that Chaim Ziegler, a scientist and today a respected lecturer in the Arachim Movement, and others, took an active part in it. They generated a rebellion in France similar to what Leon Trotsky (org. Lev Davidovich Bornstein, 1879-1940), Grigory Zinoviev (org. Arnov Radomylsky, 1883-1936), and Lev Borisovich Kamenev (org. Rosenfeld, 1883-1936) did in Russia. All of them had their Jewishness in common. This common denominator is frequently emphasized by movements wanting to prove that Jews are interested in taking over the world and setting up a new world order. Similarly, Karl Henrich Marx (1818-1883), regarded as the founder and premier theorist of modern socialism and international Communism, was a Jew who apostasized to Christianity, a grandson of the Rav of the city Trier in southwest Germany and a grandson of the famed Katzenelson family. What do Jews find so special in revolutions?

"The neshomoh does not find any satisfaction from all the pleasures in this world," writes Rabbeinu R' Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his classic mussar work Mesillas Yeshorim. Subsequently, the author cites the Medrash Rabbah on Koheles (6:7): "All man's toil is for his mouth, yet his wants are never satisfied," and then remarks, "To what can this be compared? It is similar to a commoner marrying a princess. Even if he will bring her all of the pleasures of this world, it will be of trivial value for her since she is the king's daughter. The same is true of the nefesh. Even if one brings it all pleasures of this world it is of trivial value for it since the neshomoh stems from the higher heavens. Chazal (Tanchuma, Pekudei 3) write: `You were created against your will, and you were born against your will.' This is because the neshomoh does not like this world at all, but on the contrary, despises it" (Chapter One).

The same was true with Benny Levy and his colleagues. They did not find their true place in this world. They wanted to reform the world, to change it into something a little more spiritual, to somewhat lift it up from the earth. However, they were unsuccessful; their revolution failed. In truth they were looking for their own revolution, their spiritual changeover, and that they, boruch Hashem, eventually found. They found the place from where their neshomoh was carved.

Not all of them. But from the heights of glory of being an assistant to Prof. Jean Paul Sartre, a person who, in his time, was considered the foremost philosopher in the world, Benny Levy arrived to the bench in a beis medrash in Yerushalayim. He started with Sartre and ended up, lehavdil, listening to the Torah teachings of the gaon HaRav Moshe Shapira shlita in Bayit Vegan.

He went a long way: from the center of non-Jewish chochmah (wisdom) to the Toras Emes (True Torah) of the Jews. He was born an assimilated Jew and died as a true baal teshuvoh. Also Jean Claude Ziegler who later became Rav Chaim Ziegler, who once inflamed the masses in Lyons, now fervently appeals to his audiences to reform the world through taking part in the kingdom of Heaven.

Only Danny Cohn-Bendit, "Danny the Red," and some other Jews who stood at the head of the Student Revolution, sank increasingly deeper.

As a member of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, Cohn-Bendit is today far away from any Jewish influence. Every year, on the day of the revolution, his friends come to his house and they talk about the rebellion and discuss what was done and what was not done. However, the real revolution occurred in a remote country, nowhere near their house. It happened, happens and will happen. On the contrary for those who raise any doubts let them ask HaRav Ziegler and he will tell you.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.