"Here I Am." A Call for Ethics in Hebrew

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Title: "Here I Am." A Call for Ethics in Hebrew Emmanual Levinas's Ethical/ Political Thought through the Lens of Hebraic Transcendence
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Shooshani, Leila
Publisher: New College of Florida
Place of Publication: Sarasota, Fla.
Creation Date: 2011
Publication Date: 2011


Subjects / Keywords: Emmanuel Levinas
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Abstract: This thesis undertakes an analysis of Levinas�s thought, as it specifically relates to his ethical/political formulations. I attempt to defend the idea that Levinas's first and last thoughts are political, that his ethics were inspired by a political reality, and will find their concretization in the political. I argue that the Holocaust, representing the dead end of political ontology, incited Levinas towards what he located as �otherwise than being.� He found what was otherwise to Western ontology in the �Hebrew,� whose texts teach an ethics that is based upon the being of the other. Levinas then uses the �Hebrew� ethic, in contrast with �Greek� ontologizing, to describe a fundamental ethic that places knowing before doing. Yet, Levinas desires to make the movement from an-archical ethics of the other to that of the Third, or a political realm that is mediated by Justice, rather than ethics alone. Levinas introduces the state of Israel as the political manifestation of the �Hebrew� and I examine the question of whether the state's construction as that which is both ethical and political is sustainable given the ever-present oscillation between ethics and politics.�
Statement of Responsibility: by Leila Shooshani
Thesis: Thesis (B.A.) -- New College of Florida, 2011
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The New College of Florida, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Local: Faculty Sponsor: Flakne, April

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Source Institution: New College of Florida
Holding Location: New College of Florida
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Classification: local - S.T. 2011 S55a
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Permanent Link:

Material Information

Title: "Here I Am." A Call for Ethics in Hebrew Emmanual Levinas's Ethical/ Political Thought through the Lens of Hebraic Transcendence
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Shooshani, Leila
Publisher: New College of Florida
Place of Publication: Sarasota, Fla.
Creation Date: 2011
Publication Date: 2011


Subjects / Keywords: Emmanuel Levinas
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: This thesis undertakes an analysis of Levinas�s thought, as it specifically relates to his ethical/political formulations. I attempt to defend the idea that Levinas's first and last thoughts are political, that his ethics were inspired by a political reality, and will find their concretization in the political. I argue that the Holocaust, representing the dead end of political ontology, incited Levinas towards what he located as �otherwise than being.� He found what was otherwise to Western ontology in the �Hebrew,� whose texts teach an ethics that is based upon the being of the other. Levinas then uses the �Hebrew� ethic, in contrast with �Greek� ontologizing, to describe a fundamental ethic that places knowing before doing. Yet, Levinas desires to make the movement from an-archical ethics of the other to that of the Third, or a political realm that is mediated by Justice, rather than ethics alone. Levinas introduces the state of Israel as the political manifestation of the �Hebrew� and I examine the question of whether the state's construction as that which is both ethical and political is sustainable given the ever-present oscillation between ethics and politics.�
Statement of Responsibility: by Leila Shooshani
Thesis: Thesis (B.A.) -- New College of Florida, 2011
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The New College of Florida, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Local: Faculty Sponsor: Flakne, April

Record Information

Source Institution: New College of Florida
Holding Location: New College of Florida
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: local - S.T. 2011 S55a
System ID: NCFE004451:00001

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HERE I AM! A CALL FOR ETHICS IN HEBREW: EMMANUEL LEVINASS ETHICAL/POLTICAL THOUGHT THROUGHTHE LENSEOF HEBRAIC TRANSCENDCEBY LEILA ORA SHOOSHANI A Thesis Submitted to the Division of Humanities New College of Florida in partial fulfillment for the degree Bachelor of Arts Under the Sponsorship of Dr. April Flakne Sarasota, Florida April, 2011


ii ACKNOWLEDGMENTSI would like to pay special thanks to April Flakne and Ori Dasberg, who offered a tremendous amount of guidance and insight.I appreciateSusan Marks for her great effort in helping me to read the Talmudic texts. I would alsolike to also thank my family for their support andencouragement. Thanks Mom and Dad for your interest in what I study and your never endingdesire to discuss philosophy, and Roxy for growing up with me as my best friend. Finally thank you Maia, for being right across the table from me these past four years.


iii TABLE OF CONTENTS Acknowledgments ii Table of Contents iii Abstract iv Introduction 1 Chapter I: Ontology, Politics, and Terror 5 I.1. An Embodied Ontology 8 I.2. Beyond Liberalism 11 I.3. The Pagan and the Jew 17 I.4. Political Horror 21 Chapter II: Hebraic Transcendence 24 II.1: Transcendence Through the Texts 26 II.2. The Translation from Hebrew to Greek 31 II.3. Towards the Other: Exegetical Analysis 34 II.4. Hebraic Ethics 42 II.5. The Translation from Greek to Hebrew 48 II.6. Hebraic Transcendence 50 Chapter III: The Political 54 III.1. The Necessity of the Hebrew to the Political 56 III.2. Ethics Demand for the Political 59 III.3. Israel: Between Ethics and Politics 69 III.4. A Place for the Political? 75 Conclusion 79 Bibliography 81


iv HERE I AM! A CALL FOR ETHICS IN HEBREW: EMMANUEL LEVINASS ETHICAL/POLTICAL THOUGHT THROUGH THE LENSE OF HEBRAIC TRANSCENDCE Leila Shooshani New College of Florida, 2011 ABSTRACT This thesis undertakes an analysis of Levinass thought, as it specifically relates to his ethical/political formulations. I attempt to defend the idea that Levinas's first and last thoughts are political, that his ethics were inspired by a political reality,and will find their concretization in the political.I argue that the Holocaust, representing the dead end of political ontology, incited Levinas towards what he located as otherwise than being. He found what was otherwise to Western ontology in the Hebrew, whose texts teach an ethics that is based upon the being of the other. Levinas then uses the Hebrewethic,in contrast with Greek ontologizing, to describe a fundamental ethic that places knowing before doing. Yet, Levinas desires to make the movement from an-archical ethics of the otherto that of the Third,or a political realm that is mediated by Justice, rather than ethics alone. Levinas introduces the state of Israel as the political manifestation of the Hebrew and I examine the question of whether the state's construction as that which is both ethical and political is sustainable giventhe ever-present oscillation between ethics and politics. April Flakne Division of Humanities


1 INTRODUCTION The tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility, whether accepted or refused... To say: here I am. To do something for the Other.To give. To be human spirit, thatsit.1 Emmanuel Levinas Emmanuel Levinas is primarily studied for his contributions to the existentialphenomenological tradition; however, one of aspect of Levinass scholarship that hasnt received as much attention as his typically philosophical writings are his Talmudic commentaries and the importance that they hold to the development of his philosophy. I argue that his Talmudic writings advance his understanding of the Hebrew mode of thought. Levinas takes the Hebrew to articulate ethics because it always recognizes the primacy of the other and thus also accepts responsibility for the other. The Hebrew for Levinas is not a spoken language, but one that takes up its meaning in actions towards the other through an asymmetrical dialogue with an other that is always beyond my grasp. I contrast the Hebrew to the Greek, as standing for Western philosophy proper, and particularly as representative of political ontology, or the notion that the concept of being is always already implicated in anddeterminant of the political. Given an initial curiosity with regards to Levinass position as both a Western philosopher and as a Talmudic scholar, I began this project with the desire to explore the question of how Levinas incorporates the Hebrew into his Greek philosophy. I wondered how much he, as a philosopher who is operating within a certain mode of discourse, would be 1 Emmanuel Levinas, Responsibility for the Other, Ethics and Infinity, (Duquesne University Press: 1982), 97


2 able to grant, negate, or synthesize between the two languages. I had expected to discover that although Levinas operates within the framework of Western philosophical discourse, that he would nevertheless synthesize Hebraic themes, all the while utilizing traditional western methodology. I took Levinass ethics still to be Greek in that they would only bear the marks of the Hebrews influence. However, what quickly began to unfold was that Levinas was not in fact simply incorporating the Hebrew into the Greek, but rather undertaking a translation of Hebrew into Greek. This thesis will explore Levinass ethics as it is influenced by his understanding of the Hebrew ethic and how it manifests in its concrete political form, revealing how the political represents both Levinas's starting and ending points. The movement towards translation rather than synthesis became evident after my analysis of Levinass early works, written before and during the Holocaust. I believe that it is impossible to discuss Levinas without mentioning what I take to be the incitement of his further writings. He saw the rise of Hitlerism as signaling the end of Western philosophy and the liberalism inspired by it. Given the political implications of ontologizing, Levinas sought what was otherwise to being: the Hebrew or the ethical primacy of the other and it within these early works that he concerns himself deeply with the phenomenon of Hitlerism. He responds to the Hitlerites political ontology,its reducing being to the body and thereby politicizing the body,through his own phenomenological analysis of the body and our drive to escape it. An analysis of political ontology and the horror associated with the rise of Hitlerism and the fall of liberalism lends itself to a discussion of why Levinas turned towards what was otherwise than being -the Hebrew. The Hebrew is otherwise to ontology because it


3 departs from a focus on the being of the subject towards the other whose being can never be tautological on pain of contradicting her otherness. Yet, within Levinass writing, there is already an ever present struggle between the Hebrew and the Greek modes of discourse, which according to Levinas is a necessary struggle. The two arise as both opposites and as requisites for each other. Essential ethical teachings arise when looking at Levinas's Talmudic commentaries. What is uncovered is not only contained within the writings of the texts, but also within their method of discourse. The Hebrew advocates a multi-dimensional and, moreover, ethical approach to study because of its focus on a fraternal yet asymmetrical relationship to others, as contentious co-interpreters of mysterious texts. From an analysis of the Hebrew, what becomes clear is that Levinas does not wish for it to remain in a simply theoretical form; the Hebrew is something that requires action and practice. I agree with Howard Caygills statement that the question of the political consistently troubles Levinass thought;2 however, I argue that while the political necessarily troubles Levinas, it is not trouble for him and his philosophy. Western liberalism that saw a paradoxical end in the rise of Hitlerism incited Levinass to move towards a political that is ethically mediated. Levinas finds such ethical mediation within the Hebrew teachings and in their possible concrete manifestation in the form of the state of Israel. Levinass views upon Israel are either ignored or highly criticized because they seem to stand against his ethical thought; however, I believe that if the state is understood as that which is comprised of a tension between the ethical and political, then their being at odds becomes one of necessity worth scrutiny. 2 Howard Caygill, Levinas and the Political (Psychology Press, 2002), 4


4 What follows is an analysis of Levinass understanding and subsequent movement away from political ontology towards the more ethically constituted Hebrew, and a defense of its political manifestations. The first chapter will explore Levinass conception of political ontology, its history in the West, and his phenomenological response to it. The second chapter will outline what we mean by Hebrew and Greek and why the Hebrew is analogous to the ethical for Levinas. The third chapter concludes with a discussion of the Hebrews concrete form in a messianic/prophetic politics that is ethically driven. I end with a reflection on the viability of the Hebrew and whether it truly allows for the ethically realized society that Levinas had envisioned, or if it succumbs to the temptation of the Greek.


5 1 ONTOLOGY, POLITICS, & TERROR Inspiration for a move towards the HebrewWith the rise of totalitarianism in the West, it seemed that Western philosophizing had been completed in horrors destined to bring about its own end. Witnessing these events first hand, Levinas began to search for what might be otherwise to the ontologisms, i.e. the philosophical focus on being, in the West. Certain Hebrew traditions and texts, as representative of an ethical inheritance, form Levinas's notion of what stands as otherwise to being because they re-frame existence in terms of an openness towards the Other. According to his reading, philosophy as ontology had found itself in a political crisis, giving rise to the question of political ontology in relation to the rise of totalitarianism.Ontology is the study of Being or as an understanding of Being as the foundation for understanding everyday life and its components, it is taken up as something that has political consequences. Political ontology refers to the idea that an understanding of being is always already political, prompting a particular fate or destiny of politics in growing opposition to ideas of transcendence. Liberalism, Marxism, and Hitlerism are all types of political ontologies. According to Howard Caygill, Levinas's critique of political ontology is centered on the ontological constitution of the modern political, andthe formulation of an ethics of alterity is


6 thus inseparable from a critique of political ontology.3 Caygill argues that Levinass ethicsis based within Otherness, necessarily gives rise to his contentions with political ontology. But Levinas is not simply posing a critique of political ontology, as Caygill suggests. Unlike Caygill, I believe that Levinas will not simply attempt to fuse ethics with political ontology, but will use ethics to rethink the political spectrum itself through a re-formulation inspired by the Hebrew and motivated by what was a pressing political reality for him. I believe that Levinass desire to avoid the political ontologies of the West was not motivated by an ethics of alterity, but instead by his political present. Suchdistress called for a Hebrew ethic, which is indeed founded in alterity; but his retrieval of it is a response to political ontology rather than its supplement. The ways in which Levinas re-thinks an ethically influenced political and its associated tensions will unfold in the following chapters. Levinass first and last thoughts are political in nature because the political was a point of both incitement and reconciliation in his work. Levinass writings, provoked by the trauma of the rise of Hitler, grapple with the question of what went so wrong with Western thought such that it was able to culminate in a society able to produce such atrocities. Levinas's views stem from the conviction that the source of the bloody barbarism of National Socialism liesnot in a contingent anomaly within human reasoning, nor in some accidental ideological misunderstanding.4 The rise of Hitler, according to Levinas, was not an act of racism, but rather the end result of philosophy having been perverted by some elementalevil into which we can be led by logic against which Western philosophy had not yet 3 Caygill, Levinas and the Political 73 4 Emmanuel Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, Critical Inquiry 17 (1990) 63.


7 sufficiently prepared itself... a possibility that is inscribed within the ontology of a being concerned with being [Dasein ]. 5 Levinas undertakes to study the conditions of a Greek thought [i.e the Western philosophical tradition] able to allow for Hitlerism. For Levinas, the philosophy of Hitlerism contains a miniature history of Western metaphysics, which culminates in modernity in a dialectic between fate and freedom. The following analysis will focus on the philosophical and political realities that provoked Levinas's further thought. Levinas worked to reconcile himself with the terror of a tradition of thought that he admired, yet which seemed to be reaching for itsown destruction in concrete political form. Thus, even while Levinas is attempting to move away from Western ontologisms in favor of a philosophy of the Other, he is still indebted to Western discourse, which he attempts to confront with a Hebrew teaching. This chapter will focus on Levinas's Greek thought and Levinas's critique of it, before moving on in the next chapter to a more in depth discussion of what is otherwise to being and how it might challenge traditional ontological theories. To get atthis latter theme, I will dwell not on Levinass well-known philosophical [i.e Greek] texts, but focus instead on the birth of his ethical ideas from the Hebrew tradition, specifically his Talmudic studies. The final chapter will return to Levinas's political thought, viewed through the lens of his Hebrew-inspired ethics. 5 Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, 63.


8 An Embodied OntologyThe body is central to Levinas's mini-dialectic of modernity and freedom in his early writings. According to Levinas, the body has formed the basis for Western philosophy insofar as the body was something for spirit to overcome in its effort to achieve freedom. Accordingly, the West developed a tradition valuing dislocation from the physical world. However a shift occurred, according to Levinas, a movement away from the traditional notion of the body as that which should be overcome through spirit, planting the seeds of what Levinas calls the philosophy of Hitlerism. The ideology of Hitlerism claims that we are our bodies and that the Being of our body constitutes the essence of an existence. He writes that, The importance attributed to this feeling for the body, with which the Western spirit has never wished to content itself, is at the basis of a new conception of man. The biological, with the notion of inevitability it entails, becomes more than an object of spiritual life. It becomes its heart.6 At this point Western ontology had already conceived of the body as something that is always already political insofar as it formed the point of origination for either the individuals freedom or fate. However for Hitlerism, spirit does not transcend the body, but instead affirms its chained-ness to the body and negates subjective freedom; The mysterious urgings of the blood, the appeals of heredity and the past for which the body serves as an enigmatic vehicle, lose the character of being problems that are subject to the solution put forward by a sovereignly free self.7 For the spirit to say no is to negate what the factical body is ; But for Hitlerism, truth asdestiny is not 6 Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, 69. 7 Ibid,69.


9 universal truth, but a particular form of fatalism because it is a truth that is based upon an individuals bodily instantiation. Destiny, as it is ontologically relevant here, reduces one to their facticity, encouraging a totalization of the self where one is fully defined by their being. The individual cannot exercise any determination of Being, but instead, must be confined to the notion of what she already was. Her existence is characterized by an anti-freedom in the sense that Hitlerism disallows her to negate her being as primary through that which might transcend or limit it. Under the weight of existence there is not only an inability to escape but the loss of desire to do so as well. Escape here refers to a world-weariness in which an autonomous subject is nonetheless still confronted by all of the sufferings involved with existence. Such an escape is not just from corporality and all of its affects, but a general need that no lessening of lifes pains could diminish. 8 Existenceis imprisonment because it imposes identity and, as such, escape is the need (beyond need) to get out of oneself; one desires escape because one is terrified that I am me. In escape one isnt actually fleeing from finitude in the sense of exercising freedom, but rather from an identification with oneself, from an acceptance of the there is-ness of being. Levinas's response to this phenomenology of burden is that one should attempt to escape the fact that being is an issue for oneself in an effort to achieve a radical othering of the self. Yet, in order to do so it is important to understand that the body is neither a hurdle to be overcome by the spirit nor the totality of our existence, but rather openness to the world and to the other. As such he urges an escape from the ontologies that have devoured Western thought in favor of that which appears as otherwise to being in order to allow for the possibility of an ethical relation 8 Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape(Stanford University Press, 2003), 53.


10 to the other. In a sense, this early notion of ethics represents an ethics before Levinass ethics; it is not his philosophically outlined ethic, but is an urgent call to action toward something different, something otherwise to an ontology that responds to a totalizing transcendence of Being or Spirit with a totalizingimmanence, the body. In his work Existence and Existents,Levinas returns to these ethical appeals, objecting to a world where the existence of the other is reduced to the Same. Instead, Levinas maintains a fissure between the self and the other occurswhen the other is presented as that which is a mystery. A relation to this mystery eventually issues in Levinas's asymmetrical understanding of ethics. Hisreflections regarding the terrible events in Europe yielded an analysis that has at its heart a tension between politics and ethics, and correspondingly, between Greek thought and Hebrew thought. In order to probe further into the merits of speaking in Greek, or what will eventually be of more interest to us, in Hebrew, an analysis of the distinction, tension, and subsequently symbiosis between the two voices or modalities will be undertaken in more depth within the next chapter. For now, it will suffice to say that the Greek represents universal, conceptual, and philosophical thought. According to Levinas, philosophy proper is conducted in Greek because it is the language of philosophical discourse; it is widely accepted and encouraged as capable of delivering rational truth. Western civilization is Greek in its tendency to pursue totality and so in its attempt to reduce the other to the Same, which results, for Levinas, in the anti-ethical masquerading as the ethical. 9 Within the Same, the other ceases to be Other because her being is reduced to both substance and identity, rather than letting her exist in her alterity. This practice becomes the ethic 9 Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas(Princeton University Press: 2002), 157.


11 of the Greek, yet it is an anti-ethical ethics because it ignores the call of responsibility for the other qua Other. Political ontology, emphasizing a univocity of being, whether transcendent or immanent encourages the neglect of ethics via the rejection of recognizing Otherness in an unconditional manner. The logic of the Greek as a mode of knowing is an assimilation of the other to the Same.10 The subject becomes universalized and subordinates everything to itself; as if in order to understand others and the world one first must comprehend the nature of their being out of a reflection on their own being. The other is unable to continuously existas Other, because the self exerts mastery in the form of totalizing something that exists in infinite mystery in its alterity into a knowable, constituted essence. But according to another tradition, the Hebrew, the other calls me to responsibility precisely because of her very Otherness. We will return to this in the second chapter, but to explore further the limitations of what we have been calling political ontology, we will turn to some of its concrete manifestations in Liberalism, Hitlerism, and Marxism. Beyond Liberalism Liberalism exemplifies a political ontology insofar as it presupposes a Cartesian, disembodied subject, and draws political correlations from this. An understanding of liberalism also forms the ground upon which Levinas proceeds with his movement away from political ontology, while at the same time being a discourse that he is obligated to refer to. From the start, 10 Levinas uses the concept of the Same to refer to a relationship with the other that is characterized by equality in the sense that both appear as equally full substantial subjects. One could think about the Same in terms of Greek metaphysics, wherein it is the same substance that is prevalent through all.


12 Western philosophy had concerned itself with ontology, beginning with Platos metaphysics, moving through monotheism, and culminating perhaps, with Heidegger. All of these ontologies had direct political manifestations. Despite these ontological conceptions, Levinas, remained inspired by the great revolutionary themes of freedom, equality, and fraternity. According to Caygill, though Levinas tries to rethink fraternity on the basis of alterity and thus tries to derive the concept of freedom and equality from fraternity rather than leaving it as their supplement.11 Levinas is not criticizing liberalism itself then, but rather noting how it limits itself byneglecting the notion of fraternity based on alterity in favor of a liberty that functions as a creative spontaneity or absolute freedom of the subject. Western ontology as it manifests itself in modern liberalism allows for a self-involvement based uponthis inexhaustible freedom; whereas, Judaism bears this magnificent message... Remorse the painful expression of powerlessness to redeem the irreparable heralds the repentance that generates the pardon that redeems.12 Judaism in opposition to Western liberalism feels the power of a history that will never be theirs to change, yet they must still take it up fully as their own in acts of remorse and repentance; a repentance which according to the Jewish faith atones. The Jew is not atoning out of guilt,but rather out of a feeling of responsibility for the suffering of the other even if it was they who brought about the affliction. In repentance, one grasps tight to the present converting it into a means to affect the past. Christianity departs from this in its promise of salvation; one is freed through sheer belief. In this way Christianity like Judaism faces the past and is forced out of a deterministic finitude. 11 Caygill, Levinas and the Political, 31. 12 Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, 65.


13 Christianity allows for the possibility to regain ones nudity or rather to obtain yet again a sense of freedom with regards to ones past and present, colliding with the natural order and passage of time. The world exists as a concrete phenomenal entity, but the Christian soul is able to hover above its ebbs and flows, having been relegatedto the purely numenal realm.13 The power of the soul then lies in its ability to detach itself from history, thereby making itself absolutely free. 14 Western ontology combines with Christianity to encourage a liberalism that glorifies the subject as absolutely free with regards to being-in-the-world; it is not delimited by history, since history would limit absolute freedom. The sense of freedom articulated by the Western tradition emphasizes an ontology of the individual subject. It is true that time must pass for humankind and that its events are sealed; the present, which is always already just a bit out of reach, will forever elude us, just as the past taunts us. The liberal heritage of absolute freedom offers a true present that is always at the peak of destiny such that the subject exists wholly within the present and is entirely open to every possibility.15 In this way, liberalism allows one to maintain an apathetic attitude towards the past because it is seen as having little consequence on the present. This is problematic for Levinas, because such a realm of possibility would involve more than just an openness to the world; it would allow the individual to refuse to take up responsibility for the past and for the other. 13 Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, 66. 14 In an effort tobe true to Levinas, it should be noted that in Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, Levinas does not wish to find an enemy within Christianity and he in fact defends it against certain problematic notions of liberalism, perhaps becausegiven the date of the essay (1934) he specifically thought it best to seek out allies. However, I find that drawing the connection between liberalism and Christianity to be appropriate given their historical connection. 15 Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, 65.


14 Accordingly, in liberalism the past as well as the future is always secondary to the present because time becomes reversible when freedom asserts itself even against the irreversibility of time, to which it inevitably succumbs again in its products. This reversibility allows the pastto always be called into question within the present. The subject does not have to settle with the notion that history, once it has been made, is out of their reach. History becomes a falsity in so far as past acts, with the effort of the subject, can have no affect on the present. By contrast, Levinas believes that the freedom required of the Jewish people is a difficult freedombecause it requires that one give up their right to absolute freedom in order to accept the past and take up a responsibility for the freedom of the other. We will return to these themes in the second chapter. The philosophical and political traditions that were representative of political ontology for Levinas either placed the human spirit on a level that is superior to the world or collapsed it entirely facticity. In doing the former, humanity became detached from its being as being-in-theworld, and instead relegated being to the sphere of reason apart from the brutal physical world. The problem with this is that free from history, a person is able to exercise her subjective will, but only to the extent that she numbly reasons among a variety of logical possibilities she is forever making choices but only at a distance. Levinas describes the subjects choosing as one which always occurs at a distance because if one is not engrossed within history then one will also not be infused with the passion to take up the world as their own; to truly live in the world. Heideggerian ontology introduced the phrase being-in-the-world, but focused on the beingtowards-death and the anxiety that it produced in man. Levinas, on the other hand, argues that there is a more fundamentally profound horror in existence, which is the fear of Being itself. In


15 this way, a fear of death or nothingness is simply a measure for how committed or rather distressed one is by the there is that one can never escape. This distress reveals itself in concrete modes such as 'shame' and nausea'. Levinas believes the need to escape as an issue for oneself is manifested in these physical modes. He characterizes shame as a retreat back into oneself; it manifests the souls inability to free itself from its body, thus allowing the difference between the embodied self and the thinking I to be subsumed back into an identity. It forces responsibility for the body upon the soul. In nakedness, there is a certain intimacy towards oneself that is shameful one is presented with the totality of their being, which makes them retreat back into themselves The body as such is not shameful, but shame finds its exemplary moment in the nude body, when nudity is understood as a metaphysical concept indicating the ineluctable identity and thereness' [Da] of oneself within the there is without reprieve. Nausea is the feeling one gets during that going back into oneself where one recognizes the impossibility of being and escaping what they are. One becomes frightened by their existence as an existent thing with which they are forced to identify or to attempt to escape: But one cannot escape her body, and so she must start to identify with it; surprisingly this is Levinass transition from bondage to freedom. It is a movement from feeling imprisoned within the body, to recognizing it as part of one's being and using such a realization to maintain openness to the world and to others. We have shown that the body has historically been perceived as something that needs to be overcome as a hindrance to the abstract freedom of the spirit. The body is characterized by a feeling of eternal strangeness in the Western tradition in the sense that one never feels


16 comfortably at home within ones body, but one still identifies with the body. For instance, the bonds that blood establishes between family members tie persons not only to their ownbodies, but to the bodies of others. The sensation of pain links one to her body as it takes over consciousness; overcoming pain is all one can think about in the moment of pain. In this way pain is painful because spirit is trapped by it. But despite Western philosophy's desire to transcend facticity, Levinas argues that there must be something necessarily fundamental about the possession of a body. Those who are engrossed within the traditional mindset of the chainedness of the spirit to the body will never be able to appreciate the duality that exists between the two for the very reason that the souls imprisonment and thus escape are of their uttermost concern. But one cannot escape the body because of the union between the body and soul which, despite the Wests desires, imposes the tragedy of finitude upon humanity. 16 In reaction to this misguided transcendence of spirit from body, there results a reversalin which, Levinas states, mans essence no longer lies in freedom but in a kind of bondage.17 Here Levinass reversal of what Western thought intended to do, and what it actually achieves, is evident. He begins with a traditional analysis of the soul as being absolutely free and without history; however, existence necessarily requires a body, whichthen becomes something that impedes the souls freedom and thus must be mastered. Yet, if the soul occupies itself with overcoming the body, then freedom also hasnt been achieved. Out of the soul's desire to exhibit mastery over the body, it forges hereditary makers: if race doesnt exist then one has to invent 16 Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, 68. 17 Ibid,69.


17 it! Meaning is applied to the formerly meaningless in an effort to gain control over it through the mask of understanding. Existence, the act of being, is painful for humankind, so Levinas does not seek for the truth in being, but rather the good in it. Suffering is part of existence, but rather than focus such pain on oneself, Levinas believes that one should harness it to recognize the suffering in the other. The recognition of pain in the faceof the other allows for the other to be seen in their humanity, which in turn compels me towards good or towards taking up a responsibility for the others suffering. For Western philosophy, which begins with oneself, one's responsibility to the other is measured by responsibility to oneself. Levinas, on the contrary believes that one should engage in a nonreciprocal ethical relationship to the other that places the other as prior. Thus, Levinas justifies a movement towards that which is beyond being in the form of an open-ended relationship with the other. In the second chapter we will explore what is otherwise to being for Levinas in the form of a call for ethics in the Hebrew thought and its focus on the other rather than self. The Pagan and the JewFor Levinas philosophy must situate itself in the current epoch; contemporary events should shape philosophy, just as philosophy will have influence on them. Philosophy is not an impersonal venture, completely disengaged with time. Rather, The value of true philosophy does not situate itself in an impersonal eternity. Its luminous face is turned towards the beings


18 that we are.18 The subject should face her finitude and temporality because it is in those anxieties that her essence is characterized. Levinas often refers to the paganisms of the modern age as an ideal that negates all the progress and good that has been achieved within society, as wells as jeopardizes Jewish consciousness. Paganism stands in opposition to monotheism not because it doesnt recognize the existence of a unique deity, but rather that it lowers the divine to the physical realm. Monotheism offers the opportunity for bodily transcendence and temporal forgiveness, while paganism subscribes to the concept of fate attached to the embodied self. Paganistic fate is a self-sufficient one where the subject recoils back into herself. In this way paganism is a radical incapacity to break out of the world.19 Levinas refers to the Greek tragedies as examples of this sort of fatalistic attitude. Tragedy arises out of a burning feeling of natural powerlessness that man experiences in the face of time.20 One is fated to carry out their destiny and does not possess the will to engage in any reversal of time so as to live out the tension betweenthe thought that thinks with regards to the world as it is and the thought that is constantly trying to transcend what is. The Jew, on the other hand, differs from the pagan in the sense that she cannot fully ground herself in the world, despite all attempts, because the world itself will not allow her to do so. Levinas explains that the Jew has been on the edge of so called world-history and has never been able to engage with the world in a fully meaningful way. Yet, in a strange twist, Hitlerism evokes the exact opposite meaning for the Jew by reducing her simply to her facticity. The Jew's 18 Emmanuel Levinas, The Contemporary Relevance of Maimonides, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy16 (2008):91. 19 Ibid, 94. 20 Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, 65.


19 existence then becomes categorized purely through biology. Racism, by returning to a complete identification with the corporal self in the face of a noumenal self, cannot transcend fate. The pagan and the neo-pagan are grounded within a relation of intra-worldliness, whereas the Hebrew maintains a notion of transcendence, even if it is a this-worldly transcendence, orient to a past and to others. Marxism, like Judaism and in opposition to liberalism also breaks away from the attitude of absolute freedom found within the sovereign individual through its focus on a communal struggle based on class. Yet, Levinas still wishes to classify Marxism as a political ontology despite its focus on communality because it remains attached the physio-political, material world. Marxism progresses towards materiality because within it a person is no longer absolutely free, but subject to the forces of physical needs as driving the forces of history. In this way being determines consciousness and so Marxism also risks succumbing to another form of corporeal fatalism. Levinas believes that Marxism stands in juxtaposition to Christianity, liberalism, and thus also European culture in general; but, it is also linked to Judaism because of its emphasis on fraternity. While communality is encouraged and though being determines consciousness, in Marxism the human spirit still maintains some power over its destiny. Even within a materialist structure, one has the ability in tandem with their brothers to reject their situation based upon an understanding of the very situation which they wish to be freed from. Levinas rejects this notion of an alterity that is based within the materiality of class relation because it reinforces an


20 imminent political ontology. According to Levinas, to become conscious of ones social situation is, even for Marx, to free oneself from the fatalism entailed by the situation. 21 Levinas turns towards Maimonides toposit that the Jew should stand in opposition to the pagan as a subject who represents the possibility for a transcendence rightly understood a transcendence as openness to the other; for paganism is reversing values, confounding elementary distinctions, effacing the limits of the profane and the sacred, dissolving their very principles which, till now, permitted the restoring of order. In light of this Levinas declares that modern Jewish consciousness is itself in trouble. Assimilation appears as a profound reality for Levinas and one which he hopes to avoid; however, in the face of Western dogmas he believes that the Jewish peoples consciousness are indeed left in a state of perplexity. The Jews place in the world has historically been one of self-questioning, a constant fight for survival and recognition among others and even in the eyes of God. Typically, the Jew has existed in constant battle with oppression, but assimilation offers the chance of reprieve. Levinas acknowledges that this is an all too tempting offer, which will further influence his politicization of the Hebraic teachings in the form of the State of Israel. The state of Israels position as that which finally allows Jews a place in history, but also carries the threat of losing its most profound ethical teachings in its construction as a state, will be explained in the third chapter. Hitlerism had negated the Jew's struggle and need for transcendence by announcing the facticity of the Jew as a Jew, leaving the Jew herself in a state of perplexity over her newly found position in the world. Thus the Jew is forced into a fatalistic mentality with no option of escape, for she is now bound to her body in the eyes of others. Yet, the clarity of this distinction 21 Levinas, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, 67.


21 between the thought thatthinks the world and the thought that surpasses it comprises the definitive victory of Judaism over paganism22 Paganism is itself characterized by an inability to surpass the physical world, whereas the Jews existence within the world maintains a degree of suspicion in relation to the world because she has been denied an essential role in historymaking. According to Levinas, this suspicion gives rise to a sort of perplexity within the Jewish people that will allow for them to overcome Pagan dogmatism. Political Horror The focus on political ontology in the West and its eventual manifestation in the form of Hitlerism incited Levinas to turn towards the ethical as what he saw as otherwise to being in that it directed its focus on the other rather than on the being of the self. The distress incited by a politics that had no place for an ethics of the other inspired Levinass criticism of the Wests propensity towards ontology. Alternatively, Levinas advocates for something that is beyond such ontology, forcing one to go beyond the question of being towards the question of ones responsibility to the other as a pre-ethical relation. This relationship to the other is preethical because it does not rely on a positive construction or determination from someethical first principle, but is rather the initial moment of recognition of vulnerability in the humanity of the other. Such recognition allows itself to be taken up in the form of an originary relation to the other that is characterized by an unwavering ethics of responsibility. For Levinas, then, it was not existence that needed to be escaped; rather, it was a focus on ontology itself that should have 22 Levinas, The Contemporary Relevance of Maimonides, 95.


22 been evaded. Levinas believes that existence can be understood as a locus of open reception to the other, whereas ontology as is traditionally conceived dwells on a closing off of being, thereby canceling existences possibility for world-openness. Hitlerism was a paradigmatic example of this acute regression back into some more primordial form of existence, where the liberal notion of a subject who is absolutely free is perverted through a resignation under the weight of an existence demonstrated factically or biologically. Against the history of the liberal tradition, under Hitlerism the Jew did not cease to be given a place in history-making because of some existential relation, but instead because of a genetic indicator. According to Levinas, the Jews affliction is paradigmatic of the Western state of affairs. The West had failed, inevitably, in spiritseffort to transcend the body; so, under neopaganism, it reverted back into a complete identification with the body. But both modes of existence for Levinas create grave errors that manifest in perversions in the Western political sphere. The lack of a strong foundation in the world and the tension for or against recognition from others, which results in an always present perplexity within Jews, is the folly or faith of Israel; to abandon the promise of destiny and oppose paganism through ethical transcendence.23 Relationships are formed through interactions, and there is an ongoing effort to ethically prove oneself: ethics requires constant work. Levinas will develop these formulations in dialogue with the Talmudic scholars, whose methodology he admiredand sought to take up. For Levinas, ethics and politics although at odds with each other in terms of their composition, are still complimentary. Yet, despite the political trauma that inspired Levinas to move towards a more 23 Levinas, The Contemporary Relevance of Maimonides, 94.


23 ethically realized philosophy, he does not completely turn away from Western discourse. For him its that very tension between the Greek political ontology and the Hebrew (ethics), which gives reason to turn towards the Hebraic, thereby infusing logos with the ethics of the infinite or the good. Levinas's philosophy is reliant upon the Greek although it still advocates a movement towards that which is otherwise to it. The following chapter will narrow its focus on what we mean by the Greek and Hebrew, and turn specifically to the Hebraic texts in order to locate their underlying ethical message.


24 2 HEBRAIC TRANSCENDENCE The ethical realization of the Hebrew through its textsHebraic transcendence refers to the notion that the Hebrew does not find its actualization within an attachment to the world, but rater in an openness towards it. Levinas's thought was incited by the extent to which the Greek issued in an increasingly treacherous political ontology, as discussed in the prior chapter After the failure of the Greek model of transcendence results in a collapse into immanance, what remains is a closing off not only to the world, but to the other was well; thereby creating an atmosphere deprived of ethical urgency. He believed that ethics needed to be salvaged by a movement towards something other to ontology, and that the Hebrew, as the underlying meaning of traditional Hebrew texts, might transform the Greek. The Hebrew aids the Greek rather than taking over its position in thought entirely, because Levinas still relies heavily upon Western rhetoric and ideas. Yet, he will still strive toward something other than being as it was expressed in Greek ontology. Instead Levinas will direct us towards the ethical call within the Hebrew through an exegetical reckoning with the Talmud, which itself represents the primacy of the other in its inter-discursive requirement. Thus, the Talmud will inform Levinas's ethical philosophy not just through its verses, but also in the manner in which its study must be carried out. In this way, ethics, like the Talmud require that which is beyond the verse -action. This chapter will concentrate on outlining the meaning and


25 method of the texts, while the third chapter will explore what role Levinas envisions they areto play. The task of this chapter, then, is to uncover Levinas's use of the Hebrew as going beyond what the "Greek can offer. The Hebrew remains other to, and outside of, the dominant tradition, no matter how much the Jew may wish to negate or affirm this imposed title. 'Jewish-ness' aside, Levinas's Talmudic interpretations have not gained the same sort of attention that his more classically Greek philosophical texts have, despite the fact that within them one can find a similar ethical resonanceand profound methodological shifts to support it. Yet, in the process of moving between Greek and Hebrew modes of thought, meaning may be lost, while sometimes new meanings may emerge. The "Hebrew" has been entangled in this process of translation formillennium, and in a sense Levinas continues this practice. But there are two senses of the term translation, and one in particular will be useful to understand Levinas's thought. Translation in its most colloquial sense refers to a shift from one spoken and written language to the other. However, when I say that the Hebrew is translated into Greek or the Greek into Hebrew, I do not simply mean a linguistic translation of the Hebrew language into the Greek or vice versa. Rather, the act of translation for Levinas refers to a change of metaphysical orientation. Reading the Hebrew texts, and from our exploration of them with Levinas, we will discover teachings that are translated into the language of Greek logic but which exist as supplementary to it. The Hebrew provides ethical meaning without taking the exact shape of the Greek; indeed, it makes the latter change its shape. Following the general conceptual


26 movement of our argument, then, we will now proceed from ontology to methodology.There is for Levinas a certain amount of repressed presence of the Hebrew in the Greek tradition. Totality, opposing itself to infinity, represents the Same in the way that it closes itself off from the ability to receive others; as we have seen, this ontological resistance is transformed into the political in a way that has very concrete results. Levinass choice to divert from the Greek risks using an unfamiliar language, posing the dilemma of how to negotiate between the two modes of discourse.Fundamentally speaking, Levinas operates from within a traditionally Greek path because he owes much of his thought to phenomenology, for instance. The repressed Hebrew however, can be seen as a guiding force throughout his philosophy, consistently driving him to retrieve an ethical core inspired by the Hebrew texts. Transcendence Through the TextsIn the Talmudic reading the The Temptation of Temptation, Levinas argues that Greek philosophy is the subordination of any act to the knowledge that one may have of that act, knowledge being precisely this merciless demand to bypass nothing, to surmount the congenital narrowness of the pure act, making up in this manner for its dangerousness generosity. 24 A knowledge that would domesticate action isa temptation since by definition philosophy is a love of knowledge and, as is the case with most deep loves, the philosopher places knowledge or knowing on a level above all things including action. This supports the Greek ideal of mastery, in that it wishes to reduce what is other to the same in a quest for 24 Emmanuel Levinas, The Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings(Indiana University Press: 1990), 35.


27 totality in a world of knowable absolutes, in a parallel way that simple action differs from acting with knowledge. In this regard, Levinas refers to the Mitzvot in order to exemplify the Hebrews break away from the same. He believes that the acceptance of the Mitzvot those laws that dictate ones actions with others, were taken up prior to knowledge of what they contained. According to Levinas, it is this unwillingness to do before knowing that represents the temptation of Western civilization. The temptation of temptation is then the temptation of knowledge, it describes the condition of the Western person who is in a hurry to live and impatient to feel.25 A person is in a hurry to live when they wish to undergo experiences at their own convenience, and are too carried away with this freedom to hear the call of the other. They are closed off to feeling the pain of the other and instead reduce the other's pain to their own projection of it. Such detachment from world infects liberalism for example, because it exalts the freedom of the individual, allowing her to maintain her self-interest rather than take up responsibility for the other. We have seen that Westerner does not close herself off to anypossibility; rather, she welcomes history with outstretched arms, always ready and eager to make it her own. Levinas believes that, What tempts the one tempted by temptation is not pleasure but the ambiguity of a situation in which pleasure is still possible but in respect to which the Ego keeps its liberty, has not yet given up its security, has kept its distance.26 She is free to engage with history because time is not limiting for her. This is an alluring promise, surely, and one which Levinas feels possesses a special appeal to the Jew whose life of traditional rituals and practices of restriction 25 Levinas, The Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 32. 26 Ibid, 33.


28 make this sense of freedom so intoxicating. The Greek allows for a sense of purity to be maintained, and the idea of being able to take up an array of possibilities and to understand the world at large is tempting because it is a world free of responsibilities. According to Levinas there exists genuine good and evil, but the primacy placed upon knowledge allows for one to participate in everything from the outside. The Greek emphasis on knowledge as a concomitant to Greek ontology allows one to be at the edge of each situation without ever fully engaging. Levinas refers here to the Talmudic notion of doing before hearing, since when one is engaged in action they are wholly a part of that situation; yet if one feels the need to exert mastery over the situation via knowledge, then one can never be fully a part of the situation. Greece proclaims the possibility of truth, which also serves as a temptation to make knowledge a condition for the realization of truth, and thereby allows one to retreat into a purely subjective rather than inter-subjective existence. One becomes closed off to the other under this system because in the Greeks elevation of the subject, one believes that she can obtain truth through introspective analysis alone. In this way, the pursuit of knowledge advocates a knowledge that is found within oneself, rather than within the humanity of the other. For Levinas this train of thought reaffirms the European lack of a sense of responsibility for others.27 The temptation towards the Greek is so strong precisely because responsibility appears as a burden, a sort of difficult freedom that everyone and, as we shall see, particularly theJew, must take upon themselves. For Levinas the Greek represents the power of the political state because it linkspolitical power to the uncompromising universal. According to Gibbs, Levinas's critique of the Greek; and thus also the West, is alwaysprimarily a critique of the elevation of politics, 27 Levinas, The Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 36.


29 or power, or ultimacy.28 In opposition to Hebraic transcendence, Greek transcendence places the individual at the mercy of logic and universals, which can combine with the political state, reducing Being to the level of politics. By contrast, the ethical movement towards the other characterizes an elevation towards transcendence which maintains a fragile individual uncertainty and responsibility. The Hebrew is able to reference the ethical via its call to responsibility for the other person before anything else, particularly knowledge. According to Levinas, when one hears the other's voice, she must already have accepted the obligation to listen.29 This is a Jewish ethic insofar as it mirrors the relationship to the Torah as one of acceptance.The Hebrews accepted the Torah prior to having read it, and with that initial recognition they took upon themselves the burden of the Mitzvot In this way the Hebrew is itself a sort of ethical imperative; it isa way of being, but one that places emphasis on being-with-others. With this primary recognition of the other person, I am brought outside of myself only in order to serve the other. It is not a relationship that one autonomously chooses, but rather, the mere presence of the other requires it. We are thus again called back to what is otherwise to ontology conceived as the individual beings relationship to Being, this time with specific reference to what is other than Greek thinking, namely the Hebrew in its ethical requirement. According to Levinas, Hebrew is the language of the bible, but it is also communal language that is spoken in conversations over texts, and its manner of conceiving is concrete, practical, and above all, 28 Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas(Princeton University Press: 1994),159. 29 Levinas, The Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 48.


30 always ethical.30 The Hebrew is the language of ethics because it always recognizes the primacy of the other and thus also accepts responsibility for the other. Such dedication to alterity is reflected in the communal nature of Hebraic discourse. Its stories not only communicate an ethical responsibility through their narratives, but also achieve their message through the ways the teachings are told. In this way, the Hebrew is not just a language or a written document, but is a method of active discourse, from its teachings down to the very model of dialogue used. For instance, the entirety of the Talmud is essentially an argument between scholars as a learning device, suggesting that progress cannot be obtained through solitary efforts alone. The nature of the exegetical undertaking that comprises the Talmud is such that the infinity of exegesis is linked to the moral tradition as another manifestation of the sense of infinity proper to ethics and to unending obligation.31 Studying the Talmud must be undertaken in a communal setting because it is concerned with virtues as well as truths, the inter-subjective and the subjective come together to form a relationship characterized by a vertical transcendence. This vertical movement illustrates the ascent towards the other, sincewhile studying everyone should be able to learn equally from each other, otherness is valued. Paradoxically, Talmudic writings operate in a human as opposed to universal language, of which the defining characteristic is this inclusion of each interpreters experience. Greek as a universal language can be thought of as institutionally understood and recognized as philosophy proper.; The more ethical Hebrew language, by contrast, if it is to resonate with all peoples when translated, does so due to the content it possesses, rather than its manner of 30 Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig andLevinas, 157. 31 Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the State, in the State, New Talmudic Readings(Duquesne University Press: 1999), 41.


31 presentation. As was explored within the first chapter, Levinas's call to ethics relies upon the recognition of the humanity of the other, which is usually manifest in a realization of suffering. One is compelled to act ethically because she is brought outside of herself, towards the other. Hebrew privileges personal experience and also requires an inter-personal element as well, which is exemplified in the nature of Talmudic discourse. The inexhaustible pluralism to which it gives rise is a reflection of the irreducible alterity and personal challenge encountered in social relations, as if what enriches study is partially due to an engagement in dialogue with and a facing up to the never-presentness of theother. This never-presentness is necessitated in that being other, they will always be an inch away from mastery.32 I may be face to face to with an other, engaged in dialogue, but because of the fact of their being other, our relationship will always be asymmetrical and non-reciprocal. Here, the action of dialogical exchange demonstrates the very teaching of Hebraic texts.. The Translation from Hebrew to GreekGiven that the Hebrew and Greek are not simply languages, but also metaphysical instantiations of thought-traditions, it is now beneficial to move towards the ways that the Hebrew manifests itself as unfolding meaning through various textual undertakings. First, it is appropriate to note that given these descriptions of the Greek and the Hebrew, asking 'what is' the Hebrew is ironically already a way of Greek philosophizing and ontologizing. Such is a particularly fitting representation of the paradoxical task that Levinas and subsequently we too 32Levinas, In the State Beyond the State, New Talmudic Readings, 43.


32 must grapple with. The relationshipbetween Hebrew and Greek is circular in that Levinas's philosophical writing will always be pulled away from and back towards itself via the Hebrew and its ethical instances by the concepts that are its focus, namely the otherness of the other and my responsibility to her. Yet, Levinas translates the majority of his thought into Greek, with the possible exception of his Talmudic lectures, but even these are written in Greek, though they convey a Hebrew message. In this way, Levinas accepts this troubling back and forth by concluding that despite all of his efforts to rationalize the necessity for the Hebrew within Greek, the Hebrew needs the Greek, too. For reasons which we will further explore, one always requires the presence, though it may be a quiet presence, of the other. Talmudic discourse reflects the idea that every other is wholly other;33 the dialogues that occur in a Yeshiva reflect the often frustrating alterity of others. A discussion of hermeneutics is a fundamental component to any analysis of Midrash, and Levinas placed a good deal of emphasis upon it. The Midrash doesn't simply stand in opposition to the Greek logos, but infuses it through a dialogue. Midrash, although it may be a discussion in Hebrew, still has a tradition of reference to the Greek and its method of analysis. This discourse, which Levinas will draw upon and enlarge, is extremely important to the concept of scriptural polysemy that the Talmud undertakes.34 Rabbis sought to provide understanding through a plethora of views, whether they were representative of the fringe or of popular belief. The idea is that readers must uncover the meaning for themselves within the puzzles of texts. 33 Jaques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship(Verso: 2005), 232. 34 Emmanuel Levinas, Revelation in the Jewish Tradition, Beyond the Verse(Continuum: 2007), 130.


33 Talmudic methodology is such that the texts can be read in either a more literal Halakhahic or interpretive Aggadic way. Levinas's interests primarily lie within Aggadah rather than Halakhah traditions, arguably because the former deals more with analysis of the teaching rather than with a reading of the laws themselves. According to the Aggadic approach, the Torah is not set forth as a Platonic form, something a priori, unchanging, and absolute. Under it, the Torah is more of a guide and the Talmud an active dialogue with its architect, always questioning the structure in hopes of trying to build something sturdier than before. Levinas was drawn to this method because he wanted to move away from the Greek tendency toward a single truth and a corresponding egoism and move towards the action of communal growth. The idea hereis not so much a perplexity that must be mastered, but a bringing into being through collective practice. A study of the Talmud then allows for an interpretation of a living text, in the sense that it always requires one not only to engage with it, but todo so personally. Perhaps paradoxically, this focus leads to an important emphasis on a philosophical mode of thought within the Talmud. Aggadah is the presentation of philosophical views in the Talmud as well as the religious thought of Israel. As will be explored in more depth later, Levinas believes that these Hebrew Aggadic teaching are by their nature universal, although in a different way than their Greek counterparts Yet, in his Aggadic approach, Levinas is extolling the virtues of the rabbinical dialectic, which attempts to reconcile "Greek" philosophy with "Hebrew" philosophy by trying to locate the former within the latter.35 He does so with the aim of establishing a stronger doctrine that places emphasis on both philosophy as well as ethics,recognizing the individuals 35 Levinas, Revelation in the Jewish Tradition, Beyond the Verse, 138.


34 commitment to others as well as to reasoning and rationality. Though the methods of discourse are different, they are still complimentary. Levinas's Talmudic readings are a translation from the Hebrew to the Greek, as is emphasized not only in his method, but also in the themes that he chooses to take up. Still, Levinas's readings of religious texts are secular in nature, highlighting that the lessons at the heart of the Talmud are indeed ethical and not simply bound to religious dogmatism.36 The ethical is the ultimate meaning of the Hebrew texts and as such Levinas will conduct his Hebrew writings as a philosopher, while still making the ethical imperative the focus of his writing. Towards The Other: Exegetical AnalysisIn order to fully illustrate the significance of Talmudic discourse to Levinas, one should examine a piece of Talmud itself along with Levinas's analysis of it. His reading entitled Towards the Other not only contains references to the Hebrew mode of discourse, but also emphasizes the ethical underpinnings of the teachings. The lecture provides an analysis of Tractate Yoma 87a-b, which discusses the process of atonement during the Jewish day of repentance, Yom Kippur. Levinas focuses on key portions of the text that will be relevant to his analysis, and the lecture is structured in the usual format: it begins with a short passage from the Mishnahand then moves onto a larger section of the Gemara, which comments on the former. These lectures differ greatly from what a Talmudic scholar might expect, because rather than 36 Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas, 164.


35 remaining within the body of "Hebrew" thought and literature, Levinas moves outside of it. Through the use of philosophy, the following Talmudic reading can be seen as a philosophical text that has been translated from its original "Hebrew"; the implications of this shall be discussed at the end of our analysis. Levinas begins his commentary on the Gemara, which deals primarily with the idea that no one can obtain forgiveness from God for a fault committed against another person without having first appeased the offendedparty. Levinas then writes that this sentiment stands in contradiction with a biblical verse, namely that verse from the Torah that suggests that God maintains the ultimate power to absolve. Levinas argues that the difficulty in understanding this discrepancy between the Torah and its commentary is that the word Elohim was not meant to signify God, but rather a judge in the more common sense, which it linguistically often does.37 In this way, in any conflict, a third party must enter in order to act as a mediator, and that third party must be situated in the empirical rather than the divine world. Still forgiveness is only obtainable if the (guilty)party is sought out, despite the necessity of a judge. Another interpretation Levinas offers is that of Rabbi Joseph bar Helbe. When commenting upon the biblical verse that is in conflict with the Gemara, he writes "if a man offends another man, Elohim forgives38 According to Levinass secularized reading, here Elohim refers to history's role as world-adjudicator, because in one hundred years no one will recall the inconsequential tiff between two friends. History here forgives, rather than God. Thus, instead of a petty offense against the individual that would be lost to time, what is to be taken seriously is a crime against 37 Levinas, Towards the Other, Nine Talmudic Readings, 18. 38 Ibid, 19.


36 the universal or the principle of the matter. In this case, the offense manifests as an act against God and there is no Idea capable of reconciling man in conflict with reason itself.39 Reason here can be seen as indicating the nature of an interpersonal relationship. History may be able to forget individual indiscretions, but when the element of another person is added then there arises a force greater than history to hold one accountable for their acts. This reading reflects the importance of an ethically responsible interaction with others. In the story of Rab and the butcher, we find Levinas's discussion of the portion of the Gemara that deals with a reversal of the prior situations, where it is the offended rather than the offender who is concerned with reconciliation. Rab was insulted by a butcher, but the butcher did not come to Rab on Yom Kippur to ask for forgiveness. Therefore, Rab felt that it was within his right to go seek out the butcher and demand an apology. The butcher does not give one, and in the end, a stray bone kills the butcher. Levinas takes this text to comment on the idea that the inability to forgive could quite literally become a cause of death, because it represents an unwillingness to recognize the other's vulnerability. Is it not within reason to expect Rab, a supposedly righteous person, to forgive the butchers indiscretions? The back and forth between forgiveness and offense can be dangerous and potentially ad infinitum. Men do not yet form a single humanity and as such, conflicts are bound to arise, some seemingly without solution.40 Rab was actually the offender because he expected that the other would take up the same unyielding responsibility for others. Yet, the relationship with the other is not reciprocal in this way, and as such, one should not anticipate the same treatment that they afford the other. 39Levinas, Towards the Other, Nine Talmudic Readings, 20. 40 Ibid, 23.


37 Levinas moveson to the passage discussing verbal assault, where it is asserted that one should offer money as a means of compensation. Levinas believes that there a distinction between authentic humanism and materialistic humanism; commerce is at the borderline of alienation where freedom can easily turn into non-freedom by being controlled by goods.41 Jewish humanism isn't a sort of Marxist humanism that takes human value to be measured in materiality; rather it is humanism where the rights that must be defended are of the other and not of myself: and the others right is an infinite right. According to Levinas, when Israel is mentioned in the Torah we are to think of everyone, not just Jews. Abraham took people into his home and sheltered them or took care of them; in this away the Torah teaches us that the material needs of my neighbor are ultimately going to be my spiritual needs to help fulfill my ethical obligations to others. In this way Levinas does not take this passage of Talmud to be elevating the material to the level of the ethical, but rather emphasizing the seriousness of language and the power it possesses. Responsibility is the essence of language because to hear the other is to also recognize their presence. This presentness of the other manifests itself as a vulnerability that calls out to one to take up responsibility for the other.42 Language emerges not only here but continuously for Levinas as an important theme, especially given the question of translation. As Levinas illustrated in The Pact, in a certain sense language, more than anything else, has the power to affect another person, which is precisely why he believes that his efforts in translation from "Hebrew" to "Greek" and vice-verse are so necessary, permitting the whole of humanity to 41 Levinas, Judaism and Revolution, Nine Talmudic Readings, 97. 42 Levinas, Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 48.


38 be included.43 Thus, the translation of the "Hebrew" (Talmud) into "Greek" (philosophy) is according to Levinas a process of liberation and universalization, since it is taking something worthwhile and making it understandable to most. Moving back towards the reading of Tractate Yoma in the spirit of Talmudic discourse, an interpretation of Levinas's analysis should now be offered. First, with regards to Levinas's reading of the passage from the book of Samuel; If one man sins against another, the judge shall judge him: but if a man sin against the LORD (Elohim) who shall entreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the LORD would slay them. 44 Levinas rightly acknowledges that the use of Elohim here could either mean God or judge. and in fact the Gemara states that Elohim here means judge. But the question remains who is the judge and why is the distinction between God and judge necessary? Isn't God as the absolute the ultimate judge anyway? The passage from the Talmud that discusses forgiveness seems at some points to argue differently, in favor of the other as being the person to ask for reconciliation in affairs of inter-personal wrongdoings. For instance, in the case of the butcher who had done wrong to Rab, but did not ask for forgiveness from him, instead we might think that God killed the butcher for his stubbornness. Here, God acted as the adjudicator in the argument between two men; God essentially sentenced the butcher to death. Yet, another passage from the same reading from the Gemara expresses a different sentiment about the role of God, in the dispute between R. Hanina and Rab, where Rab had offended his teacher R. Hanina b. Hama. The latter would subsequently not forgive him because he had a vision that Rab was going to 43 Levinas, The Pact, Beyond the Verse, 74. 44 1 Samuel 2:25


39 take his place at the head of the academy, so he wanted to drive him out of town cunningly. In this story, God or a judge is not mentioned at all, and in the end Rab left to teach torah in Babylon and none of the wrongs were resolved. The story seems to convey that these matters are between men,and that if an effort isn't made to both atone and forgive, then there is nothing that God or history as a judge can do. An additionally troubling portion of Levinas's reading can be found with his discussion of Rab and R. Hanina. Levinas takes a psycho-analytical approach, which absolves R. Hanina of any blame or even awareness in his stubborn attitude of not asking for forgiveness. Levinas writes that without knowing it, Rab wished to take his masters place at the academy, and given this development, R.Hanina could not forgive him for his transgressions. Yet this petty quarrel appears to make no ethical sense.45 First, the Talmud says nothing of Rab's intentions, which indicates that it is just as plausible that Rab could have inherited his place as master of the academy due to a number of circumstances, desire perhaps not being one of them. Additionally problematic is the question of why Hanina couldnt forgive, since the Talmud and Torah continuously advocate this ethical imperative? Is Levinas suggesting that the Gemara wishes to teach that there are some instances, including exceedingly petty ones, where one shouldn't forgive his neighbor? This appears as especially odd since R. Hanina refuses to forgive based upon an event that hasn't even transpired.How can Levinas offer this formulation, especially given how he goes on to talk about Jewish standards of forgiveness and justice, and says that strict justice, even if flanked by disinterested goodness and humility, is not sufficient to make a 45 Levinas, Towards the Other, Nine Talmudic Readings, 25.


40 Jew. 46 According to Levinas, good isn't good enough for the Jew, but then why let R. Hanina off the hook? Although it seems paradoxical to fault Rab for transgressions that have yet to occur, Levinas's reading may be an attempt to emphasize the writers of the Talmud's intention that one must always be actively pursuing one's responsibility to the other. Ethics requires going in oneself further than oneself, it is not a passive engagement, but rather one that is built upon constant self-reflection incited by the presence of the face of the other; perhaps in an effort to uncover the humanity of others from within oneself. 47 This reading highlights the difference in ontology between the Hebrew and the Greek. Unlike Western philosophy, the Hebraic possesses thepower of a history that will never be the subjects to change. Just as Rab was at fault for events that have not yet transpired, Levinas believes that one must accept their fate. Despite this, the Hebrew still takes up history as its own, in acts of remorse and repentance; a repentance which according to the Jewish faith atones. In repentance, one grasps tightly to the present converting it into a means to affect the past. 48 The individual who is engaged in repentance feels the weight of the present and the responsibility of time in an effort to exercise freedom over the past, but this is not a completely solitary endeavor, because atonement requires communion with others. In order to be absolved of ones transgressions, one must be forgiven face to face with the other. This dynamic is important to the Hebrews ethical construction because it requires an element of vulnerable recognition, which according to Levinas incites a responsibility towards the other. In both 46 Levinas, Towards the Other, Nine Talmudic Readings,28. 47 Levinas, The Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 34. 48 Levinas, Towards the Other, Nine Talmudic Readings, 17.


41 forgiving and asking for forgiveness, one is placing the other ahead of oneself by taking up her well-being over ones own. Levinas's insistence on fraternity is influenced by his readings of the Talmud. Endeavors within the rabbinic tradition are not solitary, but rather communal in nature. Levinas's interpretation of Tractate Yoma expresses this dedication to fraternity. While the Mishnah itself states that the Day of Atonement itself has the power to forgive, Levinas asserts that such is true only because there are masses of people gathered together in prayer. One must study the text in a group, so that there can be an exchange of ideas that will influence respect for variety. This method of discourse itself underlines the nature of the exegetical undertakings that accompany the reading of these texts. Levinas argues that, the infinity of exegesis, linked to the pluralism of an ethically constituted humanity and hence to moral tradition is thus yet another manifestation of the infinity proper to ethics, to the unending and even greater obligations.49 Thus it is only in the presence of the other that there is recognition of responsibility to uphold those ideals laid down in the acceptance of the Torah; as is expressed in the Talmud, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"50 Everyone in Israel is responsible for everyone else. Levinas writes that, If he is responsible for my responsibility, I am still responsible for the responsibility that he has for my responsibility.51 The others very being is the reason for my responsibility towards her, but at the same time I also exist in ethical relationship to another, who possesses a responsibility for me, but not symmetrically or because of my responsibility to her. This is a formulation that is without form 49Levinas, Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 41. 50 Avoth 1:14 51 Levinas, The Pact, Beyond the Verse, 83.


42 and is never-ending. In this way being-with-other cannot imply the terms as set up in a social contract of free but mutually bound equals; society is rather transformed into a community where everyone's responsibility for everyone continues on in nonreciprocal fashion ad infinitum. Thus, Levinas transforms fraternity from one consisting of an equal band of self-interested brothers to one that is characterized by uneven and evolving relationships to irreducible others. Hebraic Ethics Hebraic transcendence should thus be understood as the very recognition of the ethical that being with others necessitates. The story of Sinai highlights the requirement of placing the burden of politics and also ethics within the concept of a fraternity based in alterity.52 On Levinas's view, humanity wasn't ready for the tablets of Mitzvot written by God, which were initially destroyed before Israel was ready to listen to the revelation prescribed within its laws.53 The West departs from the Hebrew ethic in its promise of salvation: one is freed as an individual, either through sheer belief or atemporal access to eternal truths. In contrast to Greek truthrevelation in Hebrew requires an element of historcality because its efficacy rests on the plurality of voices that have come to comprise it.54 Nor is history superficial in the sense that it may be the work of a historian to reference events in of themselves. Levinas refers to history as a personal God in the way that history should possess a certain amount of 52 Levinas, Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 30. 53 Levinas, Revelation in the Jewish Tradition, Beyond the Verse, 137. 54 Ibid, 132


43 historical uniqueness once again the universal is particularized by the subject only in order to experience a sort of communal transcendence through fraternal discourse. The Westerner at the foot of Sinai would not have been able to receive the Torah, because his tradition is one that places priority on knowing over action; it is a doctrine reduced of risk taking; whereas for the Jews, one accepts the Torah prior to having any knowledge of it.55 The biggest risk of all! Levinas assures hisreader's that such a leap of faith was not taken out of ignorant naivety, but through an inspired act that influenced all subsequent moments of revelation. The giving of the Torah is a good example of embracing acceptance prior to knowledge, and is linkedto the very verse from the Torah that states,Na'aseh ve-nishmah or We will do and we will hear.56 This sentiment representsa responsibility before freedom, which is distinct from the Greek's never-ending pursuit of reason. Revelation in Judaism presents itself as something that comes from the exterior to the listener, yet is already familiar to her in a fundamental way. In this way, the subject becomes the plain of discourse because she necessarily imposes personal peculiarities on whatever exteriority is being made interior; The human as a break in substantial identity not of itself the possibility for a message coming from outside not to strike free reason, but to take on the unique figure that cannot be reduced to the contingency of a subjective impression.57 The other, as exterior to myself, provides this break in my identity. This subruption in my identity actually allows for the possibility of openness to the world and to the other. 55 Levinas, Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 42. 56 Exodus 24:7 57 Levinas, Revelation in the Jewish Tradition Beyond the Verse, 131.


44 Revelation can then be seen as representative of exegetical dialogue because it requires a number of voices to weave together, develop, and form a new one. It is personal discourse par excellance in the sense that it infuses subjective particularities into a large collection. Levinas writes that, the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people.58 We can begin to view revelation as a form of the universal-particularism that is characteristic of the Hebrew, in the sense that it negotiates between these poles. Levinas contends that if revelation is to have any meaning at all in a Western context it must be able to possess components that are not strictly defined by reason, but rather are the conditions of reason itself: The man of the Torah transforms being into human history, meaningful moments jolt the Real.59 The freedom that Judaism teaches begins in a nonfreedom, not in the sense that one is in bondage, but rather that one is beyond freedom, which in terms of will is transcendence. To be in bondage requires firstly an idea of living liberated. Yet this willingness towards transcendence in the ethical does not entail a loss of rationality on the basis of some thoughtless imperative.60 Rather, reason and revelation coalesce in a moment where the former reflects on the external appearance of revelation. In receiving the Torah, the Jew affirms her being, since being is characterized either by being for the other or it's not being at all.61 If one wants to carry the label as a member of the Jewish community, then one must be prepared to take up this responsibility for others. This is the difficult freedom Levinas associates with being Jewish; it is the Torah or death it is 58Levinas, Revelation in the Jewish Tradition Beyond the Verse, 131. 59Levinas, Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 39. 60Levinas, Revelation in the Jewish Tradition, Beyond the Verse, 145. 61Levinas, Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 37.


45 responsibility or death! The Hebrew phrase, Torahat HaChayimexpresses the notion that the Torah is representative of life, yet this formulation should not be thought of as an ethical imperative for Jews alone. Interestingly, within the Jewish tradition the Torah is treated as though it were a person. It is clothed, adorned, sheltered, and even kissed. Perhaps then the Torah, as it houses the duty of the Mitzvot is representative of the responsibility required by the others very being. In this way, the Torah as responsibility is a metaphor for my responsibility for the other that is unwavering; it is the other or death. Given that we exist in the world with others and that we are according to Levinas, we might as well (or really rather must), be good. Being has a meaning; the meaning of being is to realize the Torah.62 We are, so that we can be ethical, and to refuse the Torah is to refuse ethics; it is to revert back to nothingness in the sense of being closed off to being-with-others. Everyone must act as the Messiah, who is a person who devotes herself to deliverance.63 What such deliverance entails will be further discussed in the next chapter, but for now it is sufficient to remark that it involves individual effort in the form of a concern for others. Ethics is something to be worked towards and in this way amore ethically realized world will not be reached through the act of a Messiah, but through the collective efforts of each person. This mutual engagement in a realized ethical project is what we mean by Hebraic Transcendence, as it is an ethical movement towards the other that is inspired by the Hebrew teachings of responsibility. 62 Levinas, Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 41. 63 Levinas, Messianic Texts, Difficult Freedom(Johns Hopkins University Press: 1997), 89.


46 Levinas would say that such transcendence was evident at Mount Sinai where the Hebrews played out their own version of Hamlet: they asked themselves to be or not to be?64 According to Levinas, this dilemma is actually a question of transcendence because being requires one to be good and to be for the other. Being realizes it's being in overcoming temptation of evil by avoiding the temptation of temptation. Avoiding this temptation consists in placing oneself beyond violence without this being the privilege of a free choice. The pact with good exists prior to even having the alternative of good and evil. The reception of the Torah or of the "Hebrew", which is the movement beyond being towards a responsibility prior to freedom, is ethical behavior of the highest quality. The unconditional yes! or Here I Am! may not be free, but it is also not naive.65 Responsibility is a burden; all the suffering of the world weighs upon the point where separation is occurring, a reversal of the essence of being.66 The existence of the other compels me to act out of responsibility for them, and in doing so, being ceases to be the ontology of the self of Greek thought, and becomes instead about openness. The relationship of "Greek" thought to the history of ontologizing and the "Hebrew" to that of ethics can be compared to the contrast between a choosing people and a chosen one. Importantly, Levinas does not wish to exalt the Jewish people herein some instance of divine election; rather he means to provide a parallel between these biblical tropes and the manifestation they have in their respective philosophies. The Greeks, who affirm the freedom of the individual to exercise the power of their will, also maintains that the choosing self, in choosing, 64 Simon Critchley & Robert Bernasconi, Levinas and Language, The Cambridge Compassion to Levinas (Cambridge University Press: 2002), 127. 65 Levinas, Revelation in the Jewish Tradition, Beyond the Verse, 144. 66 Levinas, Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, 49.


47 is always choosing to reaffirm their freedom. Since such is the nature of an absolute ability to act. The Hebrews, chosen by God, took up the largest burden of all. After all, being the chosen people refers to an absolute responsibility towards the other as was established in the covenant/Torah. This is the responsibility of the Here I am! To be is to be for the other. As with the acceptance of the Torah, one cannot choose to be, rather it is instead something that one is obligated towards by the other. Since being thus entails being with others, one is compelled through necessity towards a responsibility for others; it is the only way to be Knowledge is thus relegated to a lesser place than that of the dominion of the other. God always metaphorically serves as the absolute Other, the model by whom the humanity of others as alterity can be recognized. Levinas writes that the words of the Torah are not a debt, because a debt can be settled, whereas here we are faced with something, which is always to be settled: The Torah is permanence because it is a debt that cannot be paid.67 This could be read as meaning that the more one pays their debt by learning the Torah, the more in debt one becomes, because the less ignorant one is, the greater responsibility they posses to act in good faith. Yet, here Levinas means to communicate that through accepting the Torah prior to any knowledge of it, essentially through the act of being chosen by the Torah, the Jewish people were given a debt to the Other manifesting in responsibility for the other. In this debt, the closer you become to the other, the more your responsibility for them increases.68 It is an infinite duty that is exemplified through the teachings ofan upwards movement towards the divine, which is the infinite. 67 Levinas, Model of the West, Beyond the Verse, 29. 68 Ibid, 30.


48 The Translation of Greek to HebrewGiven the ways in which Levinas's tendency towards the Greek mode of thought have appeared in his Judaic writings, it is now appropriate to uncover how he infuses these Hebrew teachings within his better known work: his philosophy and, inevitably, his political thought. In an effort to transcend a Western philosophy that has ontologism at its heart, Levinas makes a movement towards what is otherwise to being or to the question of ontology that has so dominated the tradition. This otherwise is found in the Hebrew, which as was described, can be seen as inherently ethical given its emphasis on interpersonal transcendence and doing before hearing. As we saw in the first chapter, the Greek is a form of political ontologizing and as such it is characterized by a self that is constantly choosing to reaffirm their freedom through an expression of will; Greek thought does not leave room for the ethical because it is enslaved to the self either through politics as liberal autonomy or through the pursuit of knowing. Levinas as both a lover and a critic of Western philosophy wishes to rescue Greek thought from itself, but is this controversial? One could take this to mean that Levinas was simply seeking to reaffirm what was good in the Greek in order to justify his own writings in it. Is it then the case that the Hebrew needs the Greek for merely presentational purposes, or in other words, does Levinas wish to undertake this process of translation because he hopes to legitimize his Judaic commentaries? Robert Gibbs argues that this cycle of Halakhah and Aggadah is itself representative of a cycle of religion and philosophy within the Hebrew.69 Levinas's writing demonstrates the need for the "Hebrew" or ethical to possess in a movement of 69 Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas, 171.


49 return the Greek reasoning. According to Gibbs, the "Hebrew" writings themselves also contain a movement back into the Halakhah, or rather into more practical matters. Yet, should we be so quick to parallel the Greek with the practical Halakhah ? Further, is it simply impossible to remain in the Hebrew, since it already possesses both Aggadic and Halakhahic teachings? Essentially, if we are convinced by Levinass appeal to the ethical, it is legitimate to ask what the value might be in salvaging the Greek. Throughout the Talmudic passages that Levinas singled out for his lectures, one thing that is consistently evident is that the sages themselves are pursuing universality, while staying within the confines of the Hebraic teachings. Is it not the case then that the Hebrew already contains the same appeals to reason and universality that the Greek is revered for? Perhaps then Levinas is not imposing the Greek upon the Hebrew, but emphasizing a movement that the text itself already contained and called for. Yet, by writing as a philosopher, Levinas still felt the need to translate some of these Hebrew teachings into a more of a Greek mode of thought, since even his Talmudic lectures pose classical philosophical themes and terms. Perhaps this is where Levinas gets caught in the circle that he had set up for himself. He wishes to provide what each expression cannot get from itself, but in order to do so, herisks compromising the purity of each. This is not a problem for Levinas, since he asserts a belief that that there is a deeply Jewish justification for the task of correlating the Jewish and philosophical concepts.70 Such can be seen originating in the houses of study where Talmudic exegeses were undertaken, in order to align the Torah with careful reasoning. 70 Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas, 173.


50 Levinas has argued that the "Hebrew" has the potential to say more or otherwise than can be said in the "Greek" if we are willing to listen. Assimilation if it entailed a loss of 'Jewish-ness' was something that Levinas feared, and so he argues that our greatest task is to express in "Greek" those principles about which Greece knew nothing. Jewish peculiarity awaits its philosophy. 71 Greek universalism is no longer safe from the influence of totalitarianism and thus the assimilation of the Jew into the Western model must end. Something more is called for; a new culture rather than just assimilation. Levinas believes that we may see the end of this temptation of temptation towards assimilation in the state of Israel, the implications of which will be discussed in the next chapter. Hebraic TranscendenceIn his rejection of the Greek, Levinas expresses the desire to turn away from the subject as the starting point for philosophical analysis. This turning away manifests itself as self-denial of sorts in favor of the primacy of the other. In his Talmudic reading The Youth of Israel, [Tractate Nazir 66a and 66b] Levinas turns towards the nazirite to demonstrate the possibility of anti-narcissism as a way of being that doesnt involve a turning towards oneself.72 The Nazirite is a religious devotee who does not cut his hair traditionally in an act of religious worship. Levinas draws a parallel between them and the youth of today, which at the time of authorship was the nineteen-seventies, who do not cut their hair out of protest; he believes that both the 71 Levinas, Assimilation and New Culture, Beyond the Verse, 193. 72 Levinas, The Youth of Israel, Nine Talmudic Readings, 124.


51 Nazirite and the youth are literally wearing their demand for justice.73 He argues that liberalism is itself a sort of youthful ideology, and the youth are in turn, those who do not fear power. Still, youth is not to be understood through a reduction to a simple revolutionary spirit, especially if a comparison between the youth and the Naziriteis undertaken; rather, as explored in his Talmudic reading, Judaism and Revolution, revolution itself must be defined by its context. 74 The youth and the Nazirite are engaging in a form of self-disinterestment in their rejection of maintaining their bodily appearance in favor of an expression of solidarity with others. They have detached themselves from their own vanity in order to achieve a constant form of critical self-reflection that aims at being with others. The Nazirite is the embodiment of the Talmudic spirit for Levinas since they reject the thought thinking itself and because they refuse to essentialize their whole being with their facticity, which, as we have seen, is a danger harbored in Western ontologizing.75 The Hitlerite can be seen as the foil to the Nazirite because she chooses a narcissistic existence where she is devoted to the preservation of her own appearance, perhaps as she may see it in others in the form of a preservation of a race, rather than acknowledging the alterity of others and the importance of their call to her own being. In the traditional sense, the "Greek" is the universal discourse of knowledge. It is a language that is recognized as legitimate by all, which possesses merits in its mode of questioning. Levinas never wished to deny the benefits that have come from Western philosophy; after all, he considered himself to be first a philosopher. Greek universalism 73 Levinas, The Youth of Israel, Nine Talmudic Readings, 121. 74 Levinas. Judaism and Revolution, Nine Talmudic Readings, 105. 75 Levinas, The Youth of Israel, Nine Talmudic Readings, 127.


52 however negates itself because though the Western person becomes aware of herself as subject and of the freedom which she possesses as such, her narcissistic fascination with her own being in turn closes her off from the truly universal call of alterity. The Greek then only maintains itself as universal in its method of discourse and language, but not in its ontological application. The Hebrew, on the other hand, in its own particular discursive mode, rejects a focus on the self in the sense of trying to constantly determine one's 'essence' in favor of taking up the burden of responsibility for the other whose incomprehensibility calls to her by drawing her out of herself. The Hebrew, then, is also universal, in that it is a language that is intrinsically and deeply understood, though often forgotten, by humanity; it is the language of a genuine ethics of alterity. The two have something to offer one another, though perhaps ultimately each in their own separate time. In this way, it is possible that in determining which one should supplement the other, Levinas had his audience in mind. The idea was to communicate using the understood language infused with teachings of responsibility to the other. In this way, Levinas wishes to provide a message to all of humanity, not just to the Jews. Are we to leave the translation where it is in the realm of thought, ordoes Levinas envision a manifestation of this infusion of the two teachings? We have maintained that Levinas's first and last thoughts are political in nature. Thus, it seems natural that he would move on from his explication of the Hebrew and Greeksneed for one another into how that relationship might be manifest politically. His critique of the Greek is also essentially a critique of its elevation of a politics in which a universal but egoistic morality subordinates responsibility to the other. The results of Levinas's own explorations of the Hebrew texts show


53 that philosophy can become other and that Judaism seeks universality through its own particularity, which is a universality that is not totalizing thanks to its dedication to the recognition of others in their otherness. The next chapter will explore how the Hebrew might influence the Greek in allowing for a politics beyond politicking, ensuring ethics over the corruptibility of the state.


54 3 THE POLITICAL The realization of Hebrew ethics in GreekHebrew thought is always moving towards the infinite due to the non-reciprocal relationship with the Other that is also always ethical and never completed in its totality: thus far, our line of argument followed the Hebrew in its call for an exegetical reading that is always already ethical. Now we will attempt to unfold how politics is necessary, although not complementary, to ethics. Prophetic politics will then be the translation of Hebrew as transcendence into Greek, which is defined through its focus on ontology. Levinas's vision of prophetic politics refers back to the image of the prophets of the Torah, who served as the voices of caution and reflection to the Israelites when they would drift astray from God's teachings. In this way, prophetic politics requires this similar element of self-critique so that the political and the state will not deviate from its ethical mission. The political serves a practical purpose in the final step in translation. The Hebrew texts do not find their meaning simply through words on a page, but rather provoke the reader to become an active participant in their teachings. Such is the method of exegetical reading; it requires a unique subject engaged in discussion with others who bring their personal understandings to the text. Given the call to ethics within these texts, it follows that it is also meant as a call to action. In Discovering Levinas, Michael Morgan argues that The product of exegesis is not a new interpretation of these old texts, but rather a way of life that is aware of


55 human responsibility and acts in behalf of others, that is responsive to the needs and suffering of others. Exegesis is just life.76 The translation from Hebrew to "Greek texts, then, ought to denote a practical ethic for the contemporary world. It is the intention of this essay to show that Levinas's first and last thoughts are political. Levinas envisioned a "Hebraic culture that differs from the West in its dedication to ethics through the use of the Hebrew texts. For Levinas the establishment of the State of Israel constituted the greatest event in modern Judaism because it would allow for the ethics of the "Hebrew to be enacted in a modern context. Still, Levinas struggled with his own opinions regarding a Jewish state because he, like so many others after WWII, was uneasy with the corrupting effects of nationalism. On the one hand, statehood could provide an excellent opportunity to reestablish the Hebrew ethic in modern life and to pursue justice; on the other hand, the State of Israel also possesses the constant threat of assimilation for the Jew, whereby Israel is no longer seen as a Jewish state, but rather as a national means of identification. Given this potential for either ethical greatness or the threat of corruptibility linked with a prophetic politics, three major themes arise for Levinas. The first topic is the defining role that ethics must have in the political, so that it is able to effectively fulfill its prophetic tasks.Here the question is primarily if the political is possible, and then if it is necessary. The second topic relates to the existence of the State of Israel itself; whether as political in practice it corrupts its own purpose and succumbs to the Greek temptation, rather than striving after the Hebrew ethic that Levinas had envisioned. This question raises the issue of the antimony of the Israeli state and how its construction must be founded on a contradiction between totality and infinity, 76Michael Morgan, Discovering Levinas(Cambridge University Press: 2007), 380.


56 politicsand ethics. The third and final theme of this chapter relates to the extent, if any, a preserved knowledge of the Hebraic texts or language helps to fulfill Levinas's prophetic dream. The accessibility of ethics should not be restricted to a certain group of people, yet the foundation of this particular ethics is linked to this particular tradition. The question then becomes one of metaphysical versus literal use of the language; how is it that the Hebrew ethic is tied to the Hebrew language and to what extent its attachment or lack thereof may affect Levinas's argumentative foundation?77 All of these issues represent polemics in Levinas's political thought and each lend themselves to the difficult question of whether Levinas can construct an ethically justifiable politics. The Necessity of the Political to the HebrewAccording to Levinas the existence of Jews who wish to retain their heritage, even apart from belonging to the State of Israel, depends on Jewish education.78 The re-orientation of the "Hebrew that is affixed within the political realm required for Levinas an expansion of knowledge for both Israelis as well as for the diaspora. Education serves the purpose of ensuring that the Hebrew teachings will not be forgotten in the shadow of the temptation of the West; yet does this focus on the Hebrew language itself take away from the universal meaning of the Hebrew, since it could then only be accessed through knowledge of an empirical language and texts? In other words, is knowledge of the Hebrewlanguage or tradition essential for an understanding of its ethics? 77 Hebrew language meaning, / Evreet 78 Levinas, Reflections on Jewish Education, Difficult Freedom, 265.


57 It is unclear the degree to which knowledge of the Hebrew language inspires the movement towards Hebraic transcendence. Elaborated upon in the previous chapter were the ways that the Torah and Talmud teach ethics and responsibility through a hermeneutic unfolding of the texts,yet such textual analysis is complex and often undertaken by the more religious Jews. Due to the specificity required for their study, these ancient texts run the risk of being lost in time by becoming unreadable by modern Jews. Within Levinas's construction, knowledge of the Hebrew language differs from knowledge of the Hebrew ethics. Due to what Levinas takes as the importance of the Hebrew language to the acquisition of an understanding of the Hebrew, he advocated that the diaspora outside of Israel must study the Hebrew language: Judaism is inseparable from the knowledge of Hebrew because Jews everywhere constitute a religious minority. 79 The texts, though universal in their meaning, are particular to the Jewish tradition in their delivery. Secularization carries with it the threat of having the Hebrew meaning lost due to an inability to speak the language itself. The necessity of education in part becomesthe task of restoring the Hebrew message through a preservation of the Hebrew language, since Judaism is inseparable from the knowledge of Hebrew. Is knowledge of a particular language necessary for ethical enactment? It could be that Levinas sees the Jewish people's task to be different than the world's, though he advocates that everyone take up the Hebrew ethical message. According to Levinas, the Jewish people who take up the traditions and teachings of Judaism are mostly located within the diaspora, since Israelis have undergone a religious assimilation towards nationalism. The diaspora, then, is essential to the political future of the Jewish people because 79 Levinas, Reflections on Jewish Education, Difficult Freedom, 265.


58 they must serve as a reminder to the State of Israel of its ethical mission. According to Levinas, the diaspora maintain a level of connection to the teachings of Talmud, different than the majority of secular Israel, and thus they must ensure against the loss of this cultural memory because Israel's books are its most valuable asset. Still, the ethical Hebrew appears to remain somewhat independent of the Hebrew language and Judaic tradition. Levinas does believe that the Hebrew can and should undergo a process of translation into Greek in order for it to be more understandable and also applicable within the modern world. He argues that we must enlarge the science of Judaism.80 This elevation not only involves a greater depth of understanding by Jews, but also a concretization of the ethical teachings of these old texts into the political form. According to Levinas, pure piety is no longer enough, Jews must lessen their focus from observance itself in order to turn towards a serious teaching of the Talmudic texts. Study, like ethics, does not consist solely in the acquisition of knowledge, as is commonly understood in the Greek tradition; rather, according to Levinas, religious observance of the laws of the Torah is not righteous unless it incorporates ethical action. Therefore, assimilation not only threatens the preservation of the Books themselves, but also the existence of the ethical imperatives that are brought into meaning through them. Politics without the "Hebrew would do harm to the State of Israel's prophetic task. The State would continue to be a state like any other: It is the reality of the half-rational, halfreligious element in which political realities swim like lymphatic matter, realities which bring into the very State of Israel a guarantee of religious persistence for the Israeli population, even if 80 Levinas, Reflections on Jewish Education, Difficult Freedom, 267.


59 individuals gobeyond every ritual rule and belief.81 Knowledge of Hebrew in its ethical rather than linguistic sense becomes paramount for Levinas's conception of the future of prophetic politics because it teaches a universalism that is purged of any particularism tied to the land: It teaches the human solidarity of a nation united by ideas.82 As a universalism that is not tied to a land or a people, the Hebrew as well as the political cannot be reliant upon the particularism of a language or tradition. The prophetic task of the State of Israel is then in part to be a light unto the nations; but this mission cannot be fulfilled unless that heritage is preserved through education. Ethic's Demand for the PoliticalLevinas does not describe ethics as the work of Greek philosophy, but rather as the human qua human. According to Levinas, ethics contains a form of prophetic revelation whereby each person is called towards an ethically constituted relation to the other; humans are not characterized just by a Heideggerian 'being-in-the-world' or 'being-with-others', but also by a being-toward-the-book. 83 The Torah contains what Levinas terms prophetic politics, which provides a landscape for existence. The ethical call to justice advocated by the Hebrew requires a supplement to itself in order to have a practical effect outside the boundaries of the texts. The Greek political must be transformed through the Hebrew in such a way that each person is able to take up its central teachings: responsibility, discourse, and asymmetry. Levinas advocates for an ethical politics, which differs in its constitution and mission from the political 81 Levinas, Assimilation Today, Difficult Freedom, 257. 82 Ibid, 257 83 Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous, (Columbia University Press: 1998), 109.


60 ontologisms that had dominated the early twentieth century.In this way, a totalizing ontology is transformed into a relationship with the infinite, pulling the subject towards a self-less responsibility for the suffering of the other. To understand the relationship between politics and ethics, the following will be explored: Levinas's conception of the Third and Justice, what he means by prophetic politics, and how its ideality will be manifested within a messianic politics. Levinas believes that the political aids the possibility of Hebraic transcendence and the ethical finds itself tied to the political, as seen in his prophetic politics. Levinas explores the idea of an ethical state in an interview later published under the title Philosophy, Justice, and Love. The Third reveals itself in disruption of the face-to-face relation with the other, thereby creating a more complex relationship.84 Levinas calls the other of the other the figure of the Third. The Third in Levinas demonstrates the movement away from the purely ethical relationship with the Other, towards the political realm wherein one must respond the call of anotherother. Within the Third the tension between ethics and politics is exemplified and thus Justice is used as mediator between the two.85 The trouble that the Third proposes can be mediated through the manifestation of the political in the form of a state, where justice takes precedence over taking upon oneself the fate of the other.86 The relationship to the other is unequal in the sense the other is always simultaneously higher and poorer than me. There is In the Face of the Other always the death of the Other and thus, in some ways, an incitement to murder; the temptation to go to the extreme, to completely neglect the other and at 84 Levinas, Entre Nous 103. 85 William Simmons, The Third: Levinas' theoretical move from An-Archical Ethics to the Realm of Justice and Politics (Philosophy & Social Criticism:1999) 83 86 Levinas, Entre Nous, 104.


61 the same time the face is also the 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'.87 The Face of the other compels one to ethics because she recognizes the potential for suffering and finitude within the other. Yet, at the same time, one could take up this sense of responsibility for the other in a negative and nonethical way; either way, he is above all who I am responsible for.88 The other issues a sovereign call from on high, but are in need of my response. Such limitless responsibility is not invoked with the entrance of the third party and the State because one's relation to the other is complicated by the Third, thus, also by the concept of justice. Instead of this singular other, now each one is other. Here the relation is not one of ethics proper according to Levinas, but rather of a system that is there to maintain an ethical presence in light of the state. The state then serves as a limiting force, since if there were no order of Justice, there would be no limit to my responsibility.89 The state represents the transition from an immeasurable Good to Justice, because it does not take up an unwavering responsibility to its neighbors. The state then seems to be exempt in Levinas's mind from ethics proper, and instead subject to Justice, which does not operate under the same immediacy because it measures responsibility towards the other versus responsibility to all, and therefore also towards oneself. There is a limit to the state in both senses of its responsibility; it is not unwaveringly ethical, and it thus maintains the right to self-protection only when carried out in a just manner. In contrast, the state must also observe a strict level of justice through its judgment about the dichotomy between ethics and politics. 87 Levinas, Entre Nous, 104. 88 Ibid, 105. 89 Ibid, 105.


62 A state that determines its progression simply in terms of what will benefit its continuation will become subject to the label totalitarian because it would then cease to act in the interest of others. The Torah frustrates the diabolical tricks by which the civilization which rests on truths that rush onward, do not keep their own promises.90 The Hebrews call for ethics is a foil to a unmitigated political sphere. The problematic I of politics then finds its ethical formulation as a prophetic politics only in its instantiation or the particularization of such politics as not simply just a state, but a Zionist state. The I then must be dedicated towards the ethical ideals of prophetic politics and measured through justice. Thus, we see the shift from ethics to the politics (of a state) and to the idea of prophetic politics that is the political realm of ontology mitigated by ethics. Levinas acknowledges that ethics cannot substitute for state politics; nevertheless, he is aiming towards a prophetic politics that is beyond the state but also in it. The notion that Levinas's political is situated both beyond and yet necessarily within itself frames an apparent, although necessary, point of conflict. Perhaps an immediate demand would ask Levinas to undertake a reconciliation of his ethical rigidity with the practical concerns of statehood. To avoid the corruption of ethics by the state, Levinas envisioned a prophetic politics that seeks to re-work Greek politics with an emphasis on Justice. Furthermore, Levinas argues that the idea of an ethical state is biblical and thus the political should be informed by the Hebrew ethic. Politics and ethics are then at odds within the state, but their own irreconcilability is part of the prophetic project. Levinas argues that politics left to itself has the potential for corruptibility by encompassing itself in its own totality; yet politics flanked by 90 Levinas, Beyond the State in the State, New Talmudic Reading, 100.


63 justice is less prone to these failures. Justice is able to serve as the mediator of politics and not just ethics because of its relationship to law. Justiceis the prophetic message that is understood in a political sphere. Justice differs from ethics in the sense that it is not amovement toward infinity in the face of the other, but rather something that mediates between the state and its citizens in an effort towards an ethics that is situated within the political. Levinas introduces the concept of Messianism with regards to the State of Israel in order to demonstrate the possibility of an ethics that is situated both in the state and beyond it. He advocates what he calls a real universality that consists in serving the Other rather than the subject-self. Under this conception, each person does not measure their worth by what they claim is true, but instead through the very meaning and practice of the Hebrew good. One mode of reasoning is multiplied through the discourse and encouraged by the Hebrew method. Levinas writes that The State is equivalent to anarchy. It would mean that the acceptable political order can come to humanity by way of the Torah, its judges, and its learned teachers. Messianic politics.91 Levinas uses the term anarchy to describe the state, with reference to its ethics rather than politics because the ethical relationship with the other is without order. This relationship with the other becomes complicated with the entrance of the Third, which Levinas also characterizes as the movement towards the political. Yet, the political complicates the anarchical simplicity of the relationship to the other and thus Justice becomes necessary to act as an ordering force. Though the political offers the promise of support for the Jewish people's Messianic ethical endeavors, it also comes into confrontation with them. Any peace is always at the edge of 91 Levinas, Beyond the State in the State, New Talmudic Readings, 95.


64 conflict or a movement too far towards totality. In this way, Levinas's conception of Messianism does not advocate for an end of History but rather for a neverending pursuit of justice. Levinas believes that despite the conflicts that may arise within an ethical state, coexistence is possible between the two: "The just state will come from just men and women and saints rather than from propaganda and preaching.92 Levinas's conception of Messianism reflects this emphasis on the individual's role in ethics because the Messiah is not a figure who will appear shrouded in revelation, ready to provide redemption and bring peace to the world; instead, Levinas believes that each person should act as though he were the Messiah.93 This notion that all persons are the Messiah and that the Messiah is Myself; to be Myself is to be the Messiah, stems from his understanding that the progress of an ethical order rejects "Greek totality because one is always engaged in an non-reciprocal ethical relation to others.In this conceptionthe individual is not the heroic subject, but rather a vehicle of mediation; one does not interact in an ethical manner with the other in an inter-subjective relationship amongst equals, but rather she is towards the other. Messianic politics then means that one should not anticipate the state or any other person to bring about an ethically realized society, rather each person must take on the suffering of the other as if it were indeed themselves. Messianic politics for Levinas allows for one to become an active ethical agent; the political and the ethical complement one another because political selfaffirmation from the onset means a responsibility for all.94 For Levinas, politics must have ethics as its bad consciousness; ethics must always be the antithesis to the political, and likewise, truth is not universalized within Messianism. Instead, Messianism is generalized as each is called 92 Levinas, Philosophy, Justice, and Love, Entre Nous 120. 93 Levinas, Messianic Texts,Difficult Freedom, 90. 94 Sean Hand, Introduction, The Levinas Reader(Blackwell: 1989), 7.


65 upon to be the Messiah and the very inclusion of the political realm into his notion of Messianism implies that the state must somehow also be engaged in the process of taking up responsibility for the other. Levinas's own depictions of Messianism are muddled, and the distinctions between the individual Messianism and the states Messianism are not entirely clear. Perhaps, however, such conflict is further representative of the necessary tension that must exist between politics and ethics, between the face-to-face and the entrance of the Third. The asymmetry of this relationship mirrors Messianic politics because it is conceived of as without finality. This reflects one of the most evident instances of Levinas's re-working of Messianism in its rejection of totality, which is found within his critique of Hegel's conception of the end of History. The end of History finds its meaning in a salvation that is based upon a subjective instance becoming totalized through the process of universalization. He writes that According to the theoreticians of the end of History, people who act under the sign of universality act just for their era. All politics, through the universality of its designs is moral and every universal intention is directed towards unfolding History.95 In Judaism though, there is always a movement towards infinitude by reaching out for the coming of the Messiah. Such Messianism has already gone beyond the notion of a mythical Messiah appearing at the end of History, and Levinas conceives of messianism asa personal vocation among men.96 Humanitys pursuit of Justice is never finished: there is no end of History, and accordingly, The messianic era is not just anyone's to enjoy. One must be worthy of it.97 Finality would imply an actualization of these pursuits, whereas Levinas strictly advocates the projection of the infinite, 95 Levinas, Messianic Texts,Difficult Freedom, 81. 96 Ibid, 88. 97 Ibid,89.


66 which sees no end to its work. In his analysis of 97b and 98a of Tractate Sanhedrin, Levinas argues that the burden of messianism rests on the shoulders of a communion of individuals, rather than on the faceless Geist. The passage reads as follows: Rab said: All the predestined dates [for redemption] have passed, and the matter [now] depends only on repentance and good deeds. But Samuel maintained: It is sufficient for a mourner to keep in his [period of] mourning. 98 According to Rab, the messianic age relies solely on the efforts of individuals and how well they keep to the Torah's teachings of repentance and good deeds; in contrast, Samuel believes that deliverance cannot come from the efforts of the individual alone. Levinas acknowledges three possibilities of who Samuel's mourner is: God, Israel, or the Messiah (Elijah) himself. The Messiah as the mourner is of primary relevance here because he represents the idea that repentance can only be obtained through suffering. According to Levinas, it is through suffering that a freedom may be aroused,and with this freedom comes the possibility of ethics and also deliverance through just acts: The Messiah is ready to come this very day, but everything depends on man. And the suffering of the Messiah and, consequently, the suffering of humanity which suffers in the Messiah and the suffering of humanity for whom the Messiah suffers, are not enough to save humanity.99 The Messiah as the figure of ethical justice laments humanity's failure to act according to the destiny that he wishes to bring about. Humanity mourns its own inability to embody the characteristics of the Messiah, whose potential is already a part of them. For instance, in Levinas's Talmudic reading entitled 98Levinas, Messianic Texts,Difficult Freedom, 69. 99 Ibid, 72


67 Beyond the State and in the State, he explains Alexander the Great's perplexity at the words of the Hebrew elders; Alexander did not understand Israel's remark relative to the wisdom which would come to a man from whomever he meets, which would come from every man, who already teaches through his being-a-man. Every other, given their otherness, is able to instill wisdom in whomever one meets because the other brings one outside of oneself. Thus, we do not arrive at an ontology of being, which is otherwise to the always already giveneness of the what is as what is tied to the Earth. This relationship represents a political reality for Levinas, and suffering incites mankind towards their own ethical construction in order tobring about their own deliverance. The individual becomes the Messiah, the person who must carry the burden of responsibility for the world. The state and the political are then there to ease the burden and allow a vehicle for positive impact on the restof the world; war and peace arise as important themes for him with regard to situating ethics alongside the political. Statehood itself is problematic for Levinas, but an ethical state possesses even more dilemmas. In order to illuminate why this is so, it is first important to understand that the notion of totality is itself not total because of its dependence on its technical opposite, infinity, which functions as both oppositional and supplementary. According to Caygill, this should not be understood interms of a dialectical movement of recognition and misrecognition, but rather as denoting the intrinsic incompletion of totality, the qualification or postponement of this realization.100 In this way totality paradoxically requires what is other or exterior to itself in order to be completed. Levinas often refers to the wars of ontology and the peace of ethics paralleling the way that totality is opposed to infinity. The work 100 Caygill, Levinas and the Political, 95.


68 of the individual and the state then act as tools towards justice, founded between war and peace, totality and infinity, ontology and ethics. The desynchronized movement lends itself to the necessity of the political supplement, yet even this ethical politics is still prey to the effects of totalization and the ever-present potential for war. Levinas believes that war is characteristic of the "Greek in the sense that its pursuit of totality relies upon what is exterior to itself (the other) in order to make an enemy to define itself against. Along this line, Caygill argues that "The messianic triumph consists in the victory of peace over war, but the closing question of the work [Totality and Infinity] is one of whether 'perpetual peace' may not itself be in turn another totality that must be subject to the vigilance of the 'messianic consciousness'.101 War is always looming in the not so far distance and so the peace advocated by Messianism is always in the process of becoming a reality. Humanity must maintain vigilance in its Messianism because the Messianic age is always in the process of being arrived at. There are alarming dangers to the dual existence that afflicts prophetic politics. Even if at a distance, war is always present in peace just as peace is always present in war. Based on this idea, the Hebraic task becomes the search for peace in letting the other exists in her infinitude; however, whether the practical manifestation of this objective in the form of the State of Israel is capable of achieving this goal is something yet to be determined. 101 Caygill, Levinas and the Political, 104.


69 Israel: Between Ethics and PoliticsThe state of Israel inspired a wealth of complex emotions for Levinas, which complicated his notion of the political. Levinas's opinions about nationalism in terms of its effect on a state were strongly influenced by the World War II. The horrors of a total identification with an institutionalized race or ethnicity incited a deep distrust of nationalism within Levinas; yet, the existence of the State of Israel still faced practical dilemmas in terms of legitimizing the continued existence of the Jewish people in the eyes of the world. The Jews had been on the fringe of history, never fully allowed to interact with it, but never the less persisting despite the constant threat to their survival: Beyond the State of Israel's concern to provide a refuge for men without a homeland and its sometimes surprising uncertain achievements, has it not, above all, been a question of creating on its land the concrete conditions for political intervention? 102 Though it may function similarly institutionally to a state like any other in the world, Levinas consistently asserts that Israel has set itself apart in its prophetic politics: "The State of Israel, whatever the ephemeral political philosophy of its greatest workers, is not for us a state like any other. It has a destiny and depth that greatly surpass its scope and its political possibilities; it is like a protest against the world.103 In order to move towards transcendence through the infinite, Israel stands in protest against "Greek political ontology inits dedication to ethics through a politics that measures itself by justice. Israel's prophetic politics marks this form of Hebraic transcendence, away from ontological pursuits and towards the ethical. Levinas still maintains that the creation of the State of Israel revealed to the Jews themselves, to the great 102 Levinas, Politics After!, Beyond the Verse, 188. 103 Levinas, How is Judaism Possible?Difficult Freedom, 250.


70 surprise of some of them, the depth of their enrootedness in Western countries.104 Israel reflects this dichotomy between the pursuits of what was otherwise to Western society, while still being founded in the ontologisms that it was supposed to be supplementary to. For Levinas the State of Israel provides a unique opportunity to move history by bringing about a just world and through doing so Israel would be, a search for the absolute and for purity.105 He believes that prior to the State of Israel, Jews persisted throughout history without ever having the possibility to produce an effect on it; now, the State offers an opportunity to be this protest against the world. According to Levinas, Israel is not a state like any other, precisely because it has the potential to transcend its own political possibilities and move towards a model of ethical greatness. Despite the potential he locates within the State of Israel, Levinas still views the countrywith a reserved skepticism. For him statehood is not the ideal route towards a more ethically actualized society, but it is still necessary because the state is the only form under which the nation of Israel could survive given the ever-present threat of assimilation or possibly extermination. The difficulty arises in the dual nature of Israel's construction; it is an amalgamation of the Hebrew and Greek in the way that its institutional foundation lays within the West, while its prophetic mission aimsat exactly what is otherwise to Western ontologies. According to Caygill, Levinas's judgments of the State of Israel embody this difficult adjustment between the demands of a nation-state governed by the logic of political 104 Levinas, Assimilation Today, Difficult Freedom, 255. 105 Levinas, Jewish Thought Today, Difficult Freedom, 164.


71 ontology and an unconditional ethics.106 Levinas demonstrates his understanding of the risks involved with such a construction through his hesitations about the present conflict in the region. Such unease with regards to the political and ethical construction of the State of Israel is accentuated in Levinas's reaction to the Sabra and Chatila massacre, in which he admits no guilt on the part of Israel. 107 The sober ease with which Levinas dismisses what has been deemed to be a moral lapse on the part of the Israeli military is shocking given Levinas's body of thought: where was the man who devoted his philosophy to an obsession over ethics and one's responsibility to the other? Levinas is not in fact being hypocritical given the terms that he has arranged for himself, but the statement that responsibility has nothing to do with any acts one may really have committed is illuminated in a different lighting under these circumstances if responsibility and thus also ethics is looked at as primary.108 The Jewish people feel a deep sense of responsibility for the humanity of the other, but according to Levinas, that is not to say that they do not or should not feel a sense of responsibility towards themselves under a guise. There is room for the subject within Levinass thought, but subjectivity must be flanked with a self-disinterment in favor of a focus on the other. Still, if ones existence is threatened she has the right to self-defense and also to the defense of one's neighbor: There is certainly a place for defence... I'd call such a defence a politics, but a politics that's ethically necessary. Alongside ethics, there is a place for politics.109 Levinas believes that there is ethical justification for the state, but that if ethics and politics are 106 Caygill, Levinas and the Political, 261. 107 Ibid, 290. 108 Ibid, 290. 109 Ibid, 292.


72 taken to the extreme on either side, they begin to exist in opposition to one another. The State of Israel can now be seen as a delicate balance between the Greek and Hebrew because in leaning too far towards the Greek the meaning of the Hebrew is at risk of corruption, while the opposite extreme endangers the efficacy of the Hebraic message. Another potential threat to Israel's constitution arises when one considers the issue of innocence in the way that it could tip the delicate balance between politics and ethics within the State. Levinas has argued that the Jewish people and consequently the State of Israel undergo a continuous bombardment of attacks on its legitimacy: whether it is the struggle for existence under the implicit persecution of Haman or Hitler, or even the unconscious threat of assimilation, Levinas has made it clear that he believes that the Jewish people are perpetually having to justify their own existence. He writes: The Zionist idea, as I now see it, all mysticism or false immediate messianism aside, is nevertheless a political idea which has an ethical justification. It has an ethical justification insofar as a political solution imposes itself as a way of putting an end to the arbitrariness which marked the Jewish condition, and all the split blood whichfor centuries has flowed with impunity across the world.110 Zionism is then supposed to both provide a homeland for a people without a home and to also serve as a prophetic vehicle for the world; yet, in the pursuit of its goals as a homeland for Jews, howmuch blood is the Jewish state allowed to spill? It would seem that if Israel's asymmetrical relationship to the other is broken, then it would cease to exist in the name of it prophetic task. Levinas writes that Peace as a relation with an alterity, irreducible to a common genus inwhich, 110 Levinas, Ethics and Politics, The Levinas Reader, 292.


73 already contained in a logical community, it would be only a relative alterity.111 Israel must then balance its existence as a State having personal interests with the continuous relationship to alterity that is not represented by a divine other, but rather through one's neighbors. The tension within prophetic politics lies within its dualistic composition; Levinas does acknowledge the necessary tension in the construction of the state as both an ethical and a political entity, however, there is an ethical limit to this ethically necessary political existence. 112 Unsure about where this ethically motivated limit to the political lies, Levinas places the burden of distinction on those who experience the contradiction between ethics and politics and are compelled to reevaluate their own actions. He writes that Political intelligence, however, perhaps cannot go beyond certain limits.113 This sentiment corresponds to Levinas's belief that Ethics will never, in any lasting way, be the good consciousness of corrupt politics, or rather that the ethical is always the bad consciousness of the political itself.114 The State is still not protected from undergoing a shift towards corrupt politics and whatever its prophetic, or perhaps more conveniently protective, mission may be the State of Israel in reality still operates as a state like any other. Caygill refers to the sacrifice of settlers in the West Bank after the Six Day War in the name of Israels Holy History. For good reason he points out the possibility that Levinas constructed the notion of prophetic politics in order to justify its unique position with regards to justice. Caygill writesthatThe danger of Levinas's position lies in not fully recognising that 111 Levinas, Peace and Proximity, Alterity and Transcendence,137. 112 Levinas, Ethics and Politics, The Levinas Reader, 293. 113 Levinas, Beyond the State in the State, New Talmudic Readings, 88. 114 Levinas, Ethics and Politics,The Levinas Reader, 295.


74 the State of Israel is a modern state among states... The danger here is one of supporting injustice and forgetting the third for the sake of the Other and thus indeed sacrificing Israel to the idol of the State of Israel.115 Here, Caygill is arguing that if Israel continues along in accordance with its prophetic tasks, then the Third and thus Justice will be neglected. The entrance of the Third for Levinas was meant to signify the necessary movement towards the political, but as Caygill argues, the State of Israel runs the risk of neglecting the Third in favor of the other. Given Caygill's discussion of Levinas's lapse in ethical and political judgment, the point where the prophetic demand borne by holy history for justice to strangers, widows and orphans those without protection has been forgotten, Caygill argues that under these circumstances the other whom I have a responsibility towards becomes that whom I identify with.116 He cites Levinas's fear of Asia as a point of Jewish solidarity against a threatening other who is not as deserving of my respect as the more familiar European other. 117 The issue with Caygill's argument is that the crux of Levinas's ethical thought is that one cannot identify with the other who is truly other; yet, it is possible that Levinas's seemingly incongruous notion that in alterity we can find an enemy can be brought to a new light when one re-contextualizes it given these considerations.118 It could be read that Levinas is arguing that the otherness of the other could be madeenemy and subject to ones violence, and that such alterity is threatening and calls for an even more steadfast responsibility towards them. Levinas 115 Caygill, Levinas and the Political, 165-166. 116 Ibid, 182 117 Ibid, 182 118 Levinas, Ethics and Politics, The Levinas Reader, 294.


75 believes that in otherness there is always the possibility to go to the extreme because of the threat of alterity; yet, one can resist this temptation through a steadfast ethicaldedication to the other. Given these concerns, the question remains as to whether Levinas can adequately justify the existence of the State of Israel. He recognizes that the prophetic mission of Israel is put into peril through its adoption of statehood, but still considers himself to be a Zionist; however, there are two different uses of the term that should be elaborated upon. Zionism is popularly referenced with regards to a beliefin the state of Israel's political status as a sovereign Jewish nation; however, according to Levinas, the Zionist idea, all mysticism of false immediate messianism aside, is nevertheless a political idea which has an ethical justification.119 Levinas openly critiques the nationalist Zionisms of Israel's early settlers who made idols out of the land. This doctrine of thought reduces the nation of Israel to the State of Israel, and in doing so becomes symptomatic of a nationalism resembling that of Europe'sin the early twentieth century. Though one cannot deny that there is a required amount of nationalism within the adoption of a state, Levinas believes that it should not be the force driving its actions. Despite Zionism's fulfillment of a Messianic destiny, the State of Israel's right to existence may be hard to justify with such mysticism precisely because it is impossible for the Hebrew to remain in its un-translated form. The State as it is both ethics and politics cannot solely persist in the Hebrew, it must make the movement into Greek in order to fully engage with history and the world as a state. The Hebrew requires the Greek, but is the ethical enough to prevent an ontological takeover of politics? Levinas writes, Evil can take on universal form, and the very meaning of the Messianic promise perhaps consists in admitting that 119 Levinas, Ethics and Politics, The Levinas Reader, 292.


76 by itself evil can assume universal forms and become a State 120 There is a vigilance associated with prophetic politics due to its unique construction, but the question remains whether a dedication to the ethical is enough to preserve the sense of open and unyielding responsibility to the other, and thereby preventing the entrance of evil in the form of the political ontology of a state. A Place for the Political?Given an analysis of Levinas's political theory and the ways in which it is intrinsically tied to the Hebrew, the question remains as to whether there is still a place for the political alongside ethics. The political appears to serve as a means to an ideological end for Levinas and the State of Israel is the suggestion that peace is a concept which goes beyond purely political thought. 121 The political is supposed to ensure the possibility of an ethically realized society; the state of Israel infuses Hebrew with Greek, attempting to raise peace to a point beyond mere possibility. The political itself cannot ensure peace, according to Levinas, and thus requires prophetic politics. Given that prophetic politics should be situated between ethics and politics, it becomes unclear as to how the two are supposed to maintain their respective tension with one another. While Israel may serve as a concrete embodiment of the political, it should not have to sacrifice its own ethical integrity in the name of politics. If the State of Israel is representative of that which will be the end of assimilation, then it is also supposed to function in the hopes of securing not only the Hebrew ethics, but also the Hebrew language; thus, raising concerns as 120 Levinas, Messianic Texts, Difficult Freedom, 81. 121 Levinas, Politics After!, Beyond the Verse, 188.


77 to how much the latter is related to the political, especially given that a prophetic politics is aiming towards universality. 122 Zionism then becomes justifiable in its particular efforts towards a form of universalism; however, does this line of thought not run the risk of the same sort of Western subjectivism that Levinas is trying to avoid? Perhaps Zionism risks exploiting a particular and elevating it to the level of a universal, thereby falsely enforcing a totalization of its belief upon others. It appears that Israel cannot interact on the level of the Greek world through mere translation, because to do so would allow the political to be vulnerable to the problems associated with political ontology. Thus, Levinas believes that the state of Israel must exist withinthe construction of both the ethical and political; perhaps, he does not quite recognize the delicate balance between the two as potentially threatening the ethical essence of the Hebrew because Levinas is not advocating the state of Israel to be a utopia. Despite Levinas's dedication to ethics, his vision of Israel is not utopic because it would then require an end to its work. Just as Levinas denies the notion of an end of History, he too rejects utopia because messianism requires the constant and vigilant effort of individuals. A just society must make Israel, because the Bible does not begin the building of an ideal city in a void. It places itself inside these situations which it must assume, in order to overcome them.123 One is always choosing and one should always choose ethical action. The state of Israel must be made through the choices of its people; in this way, each person is the Messiah, whose sole task it is to move towards a never fully realized ethical world. Being is 122 Levinas, Assimilation and New Culture, Beyond the Verse, 193. 123 Levinas, Place and Utopia,Difficult Freedom, 101.


78 always in a processof becoming and the efforts of justice will never be completed; Levinas believes that To move towards justice while denying, with a global act, the very conditions within which the ethical drama is played out is to embrace nothingness and, under the pretext of saving everything, to save nothing. Thus, the state is necessary; it is needed as the locus of discourse, as the place where the self, other, and Third meet. For Levinas, the political is where metaphysical abstractions, those toys of oratory, take up effective meaning and all the rest is a dream. 124 The practice of ethics is not something that prepares one for the end of struggle, it is struggle itself. Prophetic politics is the constant approach towards the infinite or divine, which is the ethical order itself. 124 Levinas, Place and Utopia,Difficult Freedom, 102.


79 CONCLUSION I hope to have demonstrated the ways in which and the extent that Levinas's understanding of the Hebrew influences his ethical theory and its relation to the political. I began in the first chapter by identifyingthe significance that the political ontologies of the West had on Levinas's philosophy and why it incited his subsequent movement towards the ethical Hebrew. The second chapter then aimed at the meaning of the Hebrew and the Greek, where the Hebrew's definition arose through specific exegetical analyses Given the political motivations expressed in the first chapter and the movement towards the Hebrew as expressed in the second chapter, the third chapter dealt with the Hebrew's concrete political manifestations. A discussion of what an ethically realized politics would look like for Levinas, as it appeared in his prophetic or messianic politics, lent itself to the notion that politics and ethics must exist together, but will necessarily also be forever at odds with one another. A remaining question is whether there can be political efficacy in Levinas's theory. I have demonstrated that his conception of the political necessarily originates from his understanding of the ethical, yet I reserve my own doubts as to whether in practice Levinas's hopes for Israel have come to be. I believe that an element of practical analysis is called for precisely because according to Levinas, the Hebrew requires activity. Thus, I feel like I must reconcile myself with the irreconcilability of the Hebrew and the Greek, of ethics and politics, totality and infinity. If I were to venture a response, I would say that the balance between the ethical and political, though delicate, is possible to maintain. Levinas does excellent work in establishing a


80 system of ethics that is motivated by the alterity of the other; he utilizes classically philosophical phenomenological terminology, infused with Judaic teaching. Yet, what arises is not a simple amalgamation of the two; rather Levinas envisions a Hebraic ethics, which although it utilizes the rhetoric of the West, still departs from its tradition. Levinas beautifully illuminates our primary responsibility towards the other and to the ethical, but perhaps it is not Levinas the philosopher that is so troubling to us. Caygill described Levinas's political reflections in an interview as that which sparked his interest in Levinas's politics, because they seemed so discordant with his philosophy. I am sympathetic to this fear, but Levinas is by no means Heidegger because at the center of all of his thought, even his political thought, was ethics and the unwavering concern for the other. The state of Israel does present a problem because, at least in its current manifestation, one would not be quick to say that it is fulfilling the duties of messianic politics. Levinas would agree, inasmuch as he was not necessarily a blind supporter of the state of Israel. He never lived there and opted for his remarks on the subject to be kept to a minimum. I take it that the matter of politics, despite it representing Levinas's first and last thoughts, was not one that he particularly romanticized. Rather, as was made evident in the third chapter, Levinas saw politics as a necessary mediatorfor the ethical. In this way, Levinas had to reconcile himself with the irreconcilability between ethics and politics, and he chose both but in the name of ethics.


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