Reading Sarah Hammerschlag’s “Truth for Children”
Sarah Hammerschlag is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature, Philosophy of Religions, and History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016) and the editor of Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2018).
Hammerschlag’s article is summarized and excerpted in this post. It is very worthwhile to read the piece in its entirety here.
The Jewish scout movement in Vichy France
“Truth for children” is a phrase from a radio address by Emmanuel Levinas in September 1945, shortly after his release from a German prisoner of war camp set aside for Jews. The Geneva conventions had protected Jewish prisoners of war from the worst atrocities of the Holocaust, yet death was a constant threat. It was a time of Jewish awakening for many. As Hammerschlag writes, quoting Levinas (p.54):
“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
While in the camp, Levinas discovered new insights from the liturgy of the Passover Haggadah, which asks worshipers to re-experience the exodus out of Egypt each Passover. Hammerschlag describes Levinas’ opening (p.55):
Levinas claims biblical literalism while at the same time calling this “a truth for Children, a vulgar truth.” 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…he had grown accustomed.
During and after World War II, French Jews had to face the reality that it was France, not Germany, that first instituted race laws against them. Before that time, they had seen their community as exemplary representatives of France’s universalist values. After France’s fall in 1940, citizenship was stripped from the Jews.
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….
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….
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. (p.56)
In line with the Boy Scouts Association’s mission “to rescue youth from the decadence of urban living,” Gamzon saw the task of EEIF as to fight “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.” (p.56)
After the start of the war, Hammerschlag writes,
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….
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…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. (pp.56-57)
The mass exodus south of over 100,000 French Jews was added to by refugees from Germany and farther east, whom the scouts had already been taking in and housing since the late 1930s.
This process mixed French youths, many of whom had not known they were Jews until France labeled them as such due to their ancestry, with religious and scholarly Jewish immigrants. Under the leadership of Gamzon and others, these people came to see themselves as the Jewish remnant, “all that are left of the House of Israel” (Isaiah 46:3).
They set themselves a new 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…, 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. (p.57)
The remnant – Jewish election to suffering
In the aftermath of the war, as knowledge of the six million dead under Nazism became public, the Jewish survivors in France struggled with the reality that no theological justification for these events could suffice. What appealed to many of this first generation of survivors was “the reclaiming of the biblical canon as a Jewish text and thus as a means of cultural resistance.”
As Colette Brunschwig3 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.”
They had survived to ask questions…, 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. (p.60)
Hammerschlag describes Jacob Gordin (1896–1947) as a key influence in this movement toward biblical literalism. A Russian immigrant who had studied in Germany before fleeing to France as a refugee, he went to teach at the École Gilbert Bloch, which Robert Gamzon had started after the war.
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.” 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.” 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…embraced the particularism of the Jewish people.4 But at the same time he believed that Judaism was incompatible with nationalism, and he died before the birth of the Jewish state. (p.60)
Religious Zionism & Jewish exceptionalism
These younger generations of Jewish survivors, however, had to struggle with the postwar Jewish refugee crisis and the matter of the emerging state of Israel. As Hammerschlag writes,
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. Throughout Jewish periodicals and conference proceedings from the 1950s, there were expressions of exuberant hope about what the state of Israel was to mean for the future of Judaism; but there was also anxiety and reservation, both about the forms of culture emerging in Israel and the role that Israeli cultural emissaries expected to play in the diasporic communities, especially insofar as they came to France to promote the return to the promised land. (p.61)
Levinas was ambivalent about Zionism. He believe that the Jews’ special relationship to the Torah set them aside as a special people, yet he was wary of the dangers of this shift from being a nation of people to being a nation of territory, government and worldly power.
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….”
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. (p.61)
Younger movement leaders were explicit in arguing for Zionism as a sacred ethnic nationalism. Léon Askénazi, an Algerian Jew and scout, was Gordin’s successor at Robert Gamzon’s school and was widely influential in France and in Israel’s Francophone Jewish community. Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Abraham Isaac Kook, was the inspiration for Gush Emunim, the settlers movement that developed after the 1967 war.
Rav Kook the younger had argued 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….” 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.” (p.62)
Askénazi saw Kook’s teachings as complementary with Gordin’s, and he popularized this new religious Zionism in France.
[He read] Torah as providing insight into history and history itself as providing insight into the text.
Askénazi took from Kook the idea that the age of geulah, deliverance, which for Gordin remained a future event, was immanent. For Askénazi, this interpretation did not suspend Jewish universalism; rather, it gave it a concrete fulfillment. (p.62)
Gordin had argued that the Jewish people are at the center of universal sacred history in order to justify Jewish suffering and exile. Askénazi turned this around using Kook’s interpretation of Torah.
Jewish exceptionalism is Jewish universalism…. 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, in its particularity, the necessary agent of universalism.
Askénazi thus wrote: “Israel assumes the history of the entire universe, because Israel, from Abraham, is capable of divining and knowing the creator’s project and it is Israel that assumes everywhere the condition of the exile of holiness, and it is Israel that carries the hope and the demand of deliverance from this exile of sanctity.” exceptionalism is Jewish universalism. (p.62)
André Neher worked in the 1950s and 1960s to rebuild the French Jewish intellectual community. In one of his last presentations, he argued 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. (p.63)
A wary conclusion
As a scholar recounting history, Hammerschlag withholds personal judgment on the path that the French Jewish remnant took. Instead she leaves the question hanging, giving Emmanuel Levinas the last word.
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.” (p.63)
Image Sources & Notes
Image: “LAUTREC 1943, manufacture of unleavened breads” from “The Jewish Resistance – The Movements: The French Jewish Scouts (Les Eclaireurs Israélites de France, EIF),” on the website of the Paris Shoah Memorial.
Image: “Jacob Gordin (1896-1947), philosophe russe juif,” on the website of the Bibliothèque Numérique de L’Alliance Israélite Universelle.
Image: “Andre Neher,” from the website of The Alberto Marvelli Higher Institute of Religious Sciences.
- “The Jewish Experience of the Prisoner,” by Emmanuel Levinas, in Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics, ed. Sarah Hammerschlag (Brandeis University Press, 2018, 99).
For more about Robert Gamzon and the EEIF, see the following:
- “The Jewish Resistance – The Movements: The French Jewish Scouts” on the website of the Paris Shoah Memorial. NOTE: This article is in French, but the reader can use this Google Translate version of the webpage.
- “Case Study: The Jewish Scouts in France The Jewish Scouts in France,” in “MODULE 2: World War, 1939-1945, Jewish Underground Resistance collection,” The Madeleine and Monte Levy Virtual Museum of the Holocaust and the Resistance, McMaster University Library.
- “Oral history interview with Denise Gamzon,” wife of Robert Gamzon, in the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
“Colette Brunschwig, born in 1927 in Le Havre, France, belongs to a generation of female painters active in the Parisian art scene after the Second World War. In the late 1940s she met…Emmanuel Levinas, with whom she kept up a frequent correspondence. In 1952s, she exhibited for the first…. As a representative of metaphysical abstraction, her work feeds off French existentialism in a post-war context marked by such philosophical tendencies alongside the sweeping movement of abstraction in painting.”
See Colette Brunschwig: Galerie Convergences for examples of her work.
- Note the parallels between this 20th century French Jewish movement and George Fox’s Quaker movement in 17th century England. The first Quakers sought to rediscover what the “primitive Christianity” of Jesus’ first historical followers, and they emphasized their own particularism, calling themselves a “peculiar people” in the idiom of the day, set aside to reform the Christian world through their own suffering.