Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Simone Weil and Jewish Estrangement

A film about Simone Weil is touring the South and coming to the Light Factory in Charlotte April 15 (next Tuesday). Who is Simone Weil? The film's promo identifies her as “one of the most compelling and contradictory spiritual thinkers of our times. A pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a former Marxist who discovered the value in religion, a Jew and a Christian who refused to be baptized.” From the parts of the interview with the filmmaker I listened to, the filmmaker who came to filmmaking through 'philosophy' was drawn to do a film on Weil because her 'outsider approach' to mystical Christianity produced a 'spirituality' that resonated with the 'practical' something-about-post-Marxist and liberalist thus-and-so... I admit that I got little lost as it got beyond my level. But I did find out that you pronounce her Simone Weil's last name "vey" (as in "oy-vey"), because that's how they roll in France.

Here is an overview on Weil's life by Jillian Becker. I found this much more insightful than the snippets or the interviews. In the part I am quoting from, the context is that the WWII Vichy regime in France had just denied her a teaching position because she was Jewish:

Rejection on the grounds that she was Jewish could not have come to her as a bolt from the blue, but as a bolt it struck her. She winced under it, smarted from its unfairness. Yet in the light of her temperament, her history, and her idealism, might one not fairly ask: why did she not see this hardship as a gift? Was this not her opportunity to come out strong? She who had for so long thought of herself as the champion of the oppressed, the comforter of the afflicted, who felt only for them and not for herself and desired so ardently to share in ther lot, to bear their anguish with them, was now almost inescapably one of them. She had the words to protest; she had the courage to endure; she had the intellect to perceive, analyze, understand, clarify the issue; and she had the will, a positive ardor, to suffer in the cause of suffering humanity. Compassion was her calling. So what might be expected of her now? At the very least, perhaps just to start with, she could publish a denunciation of the Vichy government and its craven collaboration with the Nazis in their policy of persecution and genocide. Had not the Jews a claim, at least as great as any other oppressed people if not at this moment greater, on those who routinely published protests against oppression and injustice? Now, would-be saint and martyr, now is your hour!

She did not seize it. She wrote to the government, and, yes, it was a letter of protest. She reasoned with them sharply against what she felt to be an injustice—one inflicted on Professor Simone Weil personally. Not one word did she say about the evil of anti-Semitism, not one word on behalf of the Jews who were being stripped of all they possessed, torn from their families, deported, imprisoned, starved, enslaved, tortured, and massacred. The letter was entirely and exclusively a complaint that the authorities had classed her as a Jew. She argued that to call her Jewish was an unfounded, unreasonable allegation.

I do not know the definition of the word, “Jew”; that subject was not included in my education. The Statute, it is true, defines a Jew as “a person who has three or more Jewish grandparents.” But this simply carries the difficulty two generations back. Does this word designate a religion? I have never been in a synagogue, and have never witnessed a Jewish ceremony. As for my grandparents—I remember that my paternal grandmother used to go to the synagogue, and I think I have heard that my paternal grandfather did likewise. On the other hand, I know definitely that both my maternal grandparents were free-thinkers. Thus if it is a matter of religion, it would appear that I have only two Jewish grandparents, and so am not a Jew according to the Statute. But perhaps the word designates a race? In that case, I have no reason to believe that I have any link, maternal or paternal, to the people who inhabited Palestine two thousand years ago… . I myself, who profess no religion and never have, have certainly inherited nothing from the Jewish religion… . I would say that if there were a religious tradition which I regard as my patrimony, it is the Catholic tradition. In short, mine is the Christian, French, Greek tradition. The Hebraic tradition is alien to me, and no Statute can make it otherwise.

Therein lies the problem: How could an encounter with the real, historical Yeshua not just stem from but even reinforce a total alienation from one’s Jewish identity? It seems to me that the tired “Jew/Christian” dichotomy by which the promo got my attention doesn‘t really give a contradiction at all. Rather, the contradiction lies in her refusal to recognize her own Jewishness, under the spell, not of the faith reflected by the Scriptures, but of a self-abasing Gnosticism.

Did she manifest or express some vital aspect of twentieth-century Zeitgeist that continues to haunt us? I think she did....she was, “at least by temperament,” a Cathar—Weil herself had declared that her religious beliefs were closest to these medieval dualistic heretics.

To her, as to them, the human soul was a moral battlefield where good and evil were locked in a time-long conflict. Like Gnostic thinkers, such as the Marcionites of the second century, she denounced the god of the Jews as a lesser and evil god, and sought to be reunited in spirit with the true but absent God, the God who is goodness itself, the Platonic ideal or essence of goodness.

Becker concludes, "If ... Simone Weil epitomizes the moral ideals of our time, then we are morally adrift in an era of darkness."

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