Simone Weil’s “Tormented Flirtation” with Catholicism and Her Shameful Silence about the Holocaust

June 17, 2020 | David Guaspari
About the author:

Born in 1909, Simone Weil developed a reputation as one of France’s most influential philosophers only after her untimely death at the age of thirty-four. Her older brother André, by contrast, lived to the age of ninety-two and received many accolades for his contributions to theoretical mathematics. While the two were raised in a thoroughly secular Jewish Parisian home, both had a markedly mystical bent in their thinking: André was fascinated by Hindu thought and particularly by the Bhagavad Gita, and spoke often of the beauty of mathematics; Simone’s twin philosophical occupations were radical politics and questions of faith rooted in what one reader termed her “tormented flirtation with Catholicism.”

Reviewing an unorthodox, semi-fictional biography of the two siblings, David Guaspari comments on Simone’s theology:

To some, [Weil’s religious thought] is a challenging mysticism—to others, mystification. There is no doubt that Simone honestly attempted to live [by her religious ideals], and her writings attempt to elaborate it in ways often surprising or paradoxical. For example, Gravity and Grace, mined from her notebooks, says: “Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification. I have to be an atheist with that part of myself that is not made for God.” This passage is often quoted on atheism discussion forums. Also from that book: “There are people for whom everything is salutary which brings God nearer to them. For me it is everything which keeps him at a distance.” Yet Weil is also quoted in the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Prayer is nothing other than attention in its purest form.”

As for her relationship with her fellow Jews, Guaspari writes that it is what is “most problematic” about her life work—despite the fact that she escaped from Paris moments before the arrival of the Nazis, and was involved in the French resistance:

Leave aside her fierce hostility to the Old Testament, which counted among her heresies; this crusader for justice was virtually silent about the Holocaust. And when Vichy’s anti-Semitic laws touched her directly, by blocking her appointment to a teaching position in Marseille, her response was not to denounce them but to play the clubhouse lawyer with a lengthy explanation of why she shouldn’t be classified as a Jew.

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