Simone Weil remains one of the most complicated and enigmatic figures of the twentieth century. Her short life has inspired hagiographic reverence from writers as varied as T. S. Eliot and Leslie Fiedler, Albert Camus, and Czeslaw Milosz. Behind this reverence is a respect for an individual resistant to the forms of tyranny that gripped the mid-twentieth century—both communism and fascism. Even more important was her resistance to spiritual apathy; Weil refused to give in to the facile nihilism of the age. Self-denying, ascetic, constantly striving to define her own relationship to God, she resisted all forms of religious dogma while embracing a spirituality reminiscent of the great anchorite Julian of Norwich or of St. Teresa of Avila. To such humanists as the American critic Leslie Fiedler, her life was a model of the refusal to concede to accepted norms of religion. To left-wing intellectuals who were familiar with her writings, she was a near saint and genius but one who pushed her metaphysical claims about the reality of God and her access to him to dangerous extremes. The contradictions in her life and writing have resulted in numerous biographical studies which have portrayed her as a prophetic social analyst, a utopian, a neo-Manichaean. Thomas Nevin’s study is not yet another biography; rather, it is an intensive and massively researched study of her thought—which, as Nevin convincingly demonstrates, is inseparable from her life.
More than any other study of Weil, this work takes a decidedly skeptical approach to its subject’s virtue. It focuses critically on an aspect of her life that has troubled many—her relationship to her own Judaism. Though born to Jewish parents and living in Nazi-occupied France, Weil showed almost no attachment to the religion of her heritage. Why would someone so committed to human dignity and freedom refuse to accept and defend her own Judaism at a time when Jews were undergoing unprecedented persecution? While Weil hated the Nazis and was prepared to die fighting against them, she did little to defend Judaism. Nevin is not the first to address this issue. Robert Coles confronted it in his 1987 biography, arguing that Weil was suffering severely from the same kind of self-hatred that afflicts African Americans in the United States. Nevin makes no acknowledgment of Coles’s psychological assessment but posits his own thesis that Weil was “forced to recognize the burden of having no community, neither Jewish nor Christian, because she could not unlearn the history lesson of collectivity, that whether cryptic or overt, totalitarianism informs all organized beliefs.” Weil’s objection to Judaism focused upon the nationalistic pride behind the idea of a “chosen people,” which she considered another form of idolatry. She equated the Jewish sanctification of the cruelties in the Old Testament with Rome’s turning Christianity into the official religion of the often barbaric Roman Empire.
Nevin provides a trenchant and detailed analysis of Weil’s rejection of the sanctity of historical Judaism. Weil regarded the Yahweh of the Old Testament in the same way she regarded Plato’s conception of the Great Beast in The Republic (fourth century b.c.e.), as the state’s projection and worship of its own power. The covenant between the Jews and their God is a pact with a devil who promises worldly riches and rewards for worldly success, a contractual obligation to make virtue. Christianity, at its core, emphasizes the suffering innocence of individuals. In Judaism worldly misfortune is sin (not unlike versions of Calvinism), whereas in Weil’s version of Christianity it is virtue. Following the very complicated labyrinth of Weil’s mysticism, Nevin shows the ways in which Weil wanted to deracinate Christianity from its Hebraic roots and reveal its links with other mystical religions, particularly Eastern religions. She hated primarily the nationalistic and imperial basis of any religious authority and saw the world and its history as a long succession of totalitarian beasts without moral progress.
Nevin is highly critical of Weil for ignoring many of the important parts of Judaism that are part of Christianity, particularly the tsedeka, the compassionate justice extended toward foreigners and slaves which is an integral part of Deuteronomic laws. Since Weil was so passionate about freeing thought from collectivistic persecution, it is hard to understand how she was so indifferent to the horrifying history of Jewish persecution at the hands of Christian-dominated European governments. Nevin finds Weil dangerously ignorant about the ethical core of Judaism and believes that she would have found its concern for social justice and particularly its respect for manual labor most consonant with her own views. Nevin stresses the irony of Weil’s uprooting herself from an already uprooted tradition; for Nevin it was a terrible and unnecessarily uncompromising act of what he calls “self-mutilation.” Nevin takes an extremely strong moral position against a...
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