Introducing “The Temptation of Temptation”: Levinas and Europe

Annette Aronowicz Franklin & Marshall College

In introducing Emmanuel Levinas and his Talmudic lesson “The Temptation of Temptation,” I will draw heavily at first on Solomon Malka’s recent biography, in which he draws a vivid picture of the Jewish world that Levinas inhabited on a daily basis. [1] This is not to say that Levinas’ thought did not reach beyond the Jewish world or was not influenced in central ways by non-Jewish currents. We know the opposite to be the case. Yet Malka’s book effectively underscores the extent to which Levinas’ philosophy was closely associated with the rebuilding of the Jewish community. The Talmudic readings beckon to be understood in this context. We will begin with a description of the task of rebuilding the Jewish community institutionally and then pass to the rethinking of the human that accompanied it, illustrated in a commentary such as “The Temptation of Temptation.” Especially in this second part, we will focus on the way that Levinas engages the European world in his interpretation of Jewish texts.

Rebuilding the Jewish Community

In 1946, Levinas became the principal of Enio (Ecole normale israelite orientale), the Jewish high school that he was to serve for at least two decades. At the time, it educated primarily North African Jewish youth in a French curriculum, with Jewish subjects added. Its purpose was to train teachers for such schools in the Mediterranean basin. Much later in life, Levinas was to confess: “After Auschwitz, I had the impression that in taking on the directorship of the Ecole normale Israelite orientale I was responding to a historic calling. It was my little secret…Probably the naïveté of a young man. I am still mindful and proud of it today.” [2] He remained involved in the school until 1979, although his official tenure as principal ended in the 1960s. This involvement, at least until 1961, was intimate. He and his family lived on the premises of the school. The first few years there was no secretary, no additional administrator. Every detail of what was then a residential school for about thirty students passed through him. [3] In addition, he also taught-the philosophy course, eventually a Talmudic class on Tuesday evenings, a Rashi lesson after services on Saturday mornings, in the beit midrash of the school where services were held, and other classes as well. [4] The Rashi lessons became famous all over Paris, bringing auditors who were not necessarily Jewish.

Reports are mixed as to how successful he was as a teacher of boys and girls in their teenage years. [5] But his choice to become a principal of a Jewish school reveals that for him rebuilding the Jewish community involved first and foremost educating Jews in their own tradition, especially in the textual study of the rabbinic classics of that tradition. As his articles from the 1950s and 1960s indicate, he did not think that educating youngsters was sufficient, although it was, of course, indispensable. The larger task involved bringing in Jewish adults, intellectuals and more generally professionals, who would learn to apply the same rigor to those texts as they did in their non-Jewish pursuits. Only if these prestigious members of the Jewish community would engage in serious textual study would the rest of the disaffected Jewish population regain respect for their own sources. He wanted to create institutional contexts in which such sophisticated study could be pursued. But this was no easy matter. Most French Jewish intellectuals dismissed the rabbinic tradition as irrelevant to the modern world. [6]

The imperative to turn around this neglect of Jewish study accounts for his very early participation in what is to this day an institution in French Jewish life-the yearly colloquia of French speaking Jewish intellectuals, sponsored by the World Jewish Congress. Two prominent figures in French Jewish life founded these colloquia in 1957, and from the start they asked Levinas to participate. Not only did he do so but also he remained part of the planning committee for years. From 1957-1989, he attended them, almost without interruption. They were even often held on the premises of Enio in the early years. Such was the case for the colloquium of 1964, the year our Talmudic reading “The Temptation of Temptation” was given.

The colloquia were always organized around a topic of concern to the Jewish community of the time. In the year 1964, the topic was “Temptations and Actions of Judaism,” and Christianity, Marxism, and assimilation seemed to be the temptations of choice, if one is to judge by the talks given. [7] In 1963, the topic had been forgiveness, and in 1965 it was “Israel in Jewish consciousness.” The selected speakers addressed the topic from their respective fields of expertise. Many of them had little or no knowledge of Jewish sources. A core group always did.

The purpose of these colloquia was at least two-fold. On the one hand, they were meant to encourage dialogue between Western and Jewish learning. On the other, and yet more fundamentally, they were meant to facilitate a communal Jewish space, to enable Jews to meet publicly, not in their otherwise exclusively French identities, but as Jews. This must be understood against the background of a continually receding synagogue attendance, along with other signs of disaffiliation in the post war years-conversions, refusal of circumcision, name changes. [8] In the face of this, the colloquia could be seen as giving Jews who still wanted to be Jews a chance to explore together what that meant, and to resist this trend. As one participant later described them: “These conferences were a real event, because in that distress and despondency that gripped the intellectuals immediately after the war, the conferences functioned to reinvigorate them.” [9]

From 1960 onward, Levinas’ yearly contribution to these meetings was a Talmudic commentary, relating the passage, the sugya of his choice, to the general topic chosen for the year. His own acquaintance with the Talmud came relatively late when he was already in his forties. From 1947-1952, a mysterious master, Mordecai Shoushani resided at the school, in one of the rooms reserved for students, in exchange of the nightly lessons in Talmud he provided Levinas and a friend. [10] He then disappeared. His manner of approaching Talmud left an indelible mark on Levinas, who always credited him for inspiring his own method. [11] From this period onward, he became convinced that Talmudic study lay at the center of a renaissance of Jewish learning, itself at the center of a renewed Jewish life.

“The Temptation of Temptation” is only the fourth of the twenty-three Talmudic readings he was to deliver in the course of the thirty years he participated in the colloquia. They already evoked great admiration. One of the auditors, who regularly challenged him, nonetheless began his criticism by exclaiming: “It is enough just to behold the faces of the listeners, the internal jubilation on their faces. It would be wonderful to catch these expressions on camera, without them knowing it.” [12] Even in 1964, there were 250 people in the audience and the public was to become larger. Levinas apparently put many weeks and even months into his preparations. His purpose, beyond, any specific interpretation he gave of a given passage, was to reveal the depth of these texts, to illustrate the rigorous thinking they called for. To an audience that included many people convinced of the parochial, picayune nature of the Talmud, he demonstrated the rabbis’ breadth, their relevance and the complexity of their thought.

In transforming his audience’s perceptions, he was highly successful. Ady Steg, one of the participants in these yearly meetings and a one -time president of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, looks back on them:

This presentation of Judaism was altogether new in that the Talmudic lesson was of a very particular style. It was a study starting from the text, a return to the texts, fundamental to Judaism…It wasn’t a study about the text but a study of the text itself. But the Talmud was something totally ignored, reserved for those good Jews with long beards from Poland or Morocco. The idea that the Talmud could be studied in French, in public, and in the same manner as it was studied by the Jews of Eastern Europe or the Maghreb, was extraordinary. And when I attended such a session for the first time, I was truly gripped and moved…during those years, his teaching was revolutionary, and at the same time, made a considerable impact. [13]

This is important to remember. Levinas, independently of the content of his commentaries, simply in the way he engaged with the Talmud publicly, influenced an entire generation and sometimes two, prompting them to develop an interest in their own textual traditions. The intellectual landscape of postwar French Jewry, as well as, somewhat later, elsewhere, was significantly affected.

Even so, we should not think that he had an easy time convincing his audience. The discussions after his readings, published in the proceedings of the yearly colloquia, are feisty, with Levinas getting as good as he gave. He was held in high esteem but he did not yet have the halo of the “greatest Jewish philosopher of …” or one of the greatest philosophers of….” He was a philosophically educated high school principal. His first great work, Totalite et Infini , had been published just a short time prior to our colloquium (1963), and not by a French press but a Dutch one. But even those who might have had time to read it by then would not necessarily have been able to make head or tail of it, given how difficult it was. In France, Levinas was not to become famous until the late 1970s and early 1980s. In short, the give and take, especially in those early years, was not hampered by his reputation.

Two of the interlocutors at the 1964 colloquium make clear the obstacles he was facing. The chief rabbi of France reproached Levinas with intellectualizing. You may recall that the Talmudic passage that Levinas chose for this lesson was about the giving of the Torah. A curious expression in Exodus 24:7 intrigues the rabbis, and in turn intrigues Levinas. The children of Israel, instead of accepting the Torah by saying that they will hear its contents and then fulfill it, say that they will do and then hear, naase ve nishma . As we shall soon see, the rabbis underscore the oddity of accepting something without first hearing its contents, and Levinas, in turn, will find a way of reading the precedence of ethics over ontology into this reversal. For Chief Rabbi Jais, however, the meaning of this statement is straightforward. You have to practice Judaism before you can understand it. [14] Levinas’ reply is sharp: He wanted to liberate, he says, the text from “the truths of a catechism of the Torah.” [15] He doesn’t explain what he means but, it seems, he objected to having an authoritative, once and for all meaning. He also wanted it to speak not just about and to observant Jews, but to and about all human beings.

A second interlocutor at the 1964 conference, Wladimir Rabi, a judge and a man of letters, challenges Levinas about his method. He does not see how the Talmudic rabbis derive what they do from the biblical text, which seems to be saying something else, and thus does not see how Levinas himself derives a meaning that the rabbis have not made explicitly either. He is a lawyer, he says, and in law there are principles of argumentation. Could Levinas explain the logic of the rabbis? [16] Levinas demurs but then adds: “But, Mr. Rabi, even if the way the Talmud refers to the biblical text were absolutely clear, do you have enough trust in the biblical text to be convinced?” [17] It is precisely as an embodiment of an act of trust, with all the intellectual rigor following from it, that this Talmudic readings function. We shall come back to this, since it has everything to do with the contents of “The Temptation of Temptation.”

If the Talmudic readings can be read as a response to a community that either takes the meaning of its texts for granted or has lost confidence that they mean anything at all, they are, at the same time, one of the sites in which Levinas works out a new image of the human being, in response to the horrors of the war. He had spent the years 1940-1945 as a French prisoner of war in Germany. In his native Lithuania, the Germans slaughtered his father, mother, and two brothers. He almost never makes direct references to this personal dimension of the war and it would not have had to be personal to have become the source of his reflection. [18] The horror exceeded anyone’s personal experience. In a way this is precisely what his work was about, not only how to situate this excess of evil, see it for what it derailed, but also to ponder the source of the rare appearance of acts of goodness despite it. As he once expressed it, through the reminiscence of a philosophical friend, “to his mind, the fact that in a world as cruel as ours, something like the miracle of goodness could appear was infinitely worthy of amazement.” [19]

For a full development of his thought, one needs to turn to the great philosophical works. The Talmudic readings are not sufficient. Yet in these readings, he also elaborates philosophical notions and sometimes provides concrete illustrations missing from the more abstract reflections. For Levinas, however, the Talmud is not just an object upon which he can try out philosophical notions that were developed elsewhere. He claims that it is itself the source of a thought about humanity that counters and corrects philosophy. Here, we can see how the task of rebuilding the Jewish community is related to the task of thinking the human on a new basis. The study of the Talmud is a bridge to both. This is not to claim that his philosophy derives directly from the Talmud, but that the teachings from the Talmud interact with other sources of Levinas’ thought in a way that renews them both.

Rethinking the Human

In what follows I am not going to undertake a full-blown reading of “The Temptation of Temptation,” which would require doing what he does himself, going line by line. Rather, I would like to simply suggest certain lines of inquiry. In the first place, how does Europe appear in the text? At first glance, there seems to be a clear-cut opposition between Europeans and Jews. The former live by what Levinas characterizes as the “temptation of temptation,” and the latter by the biblical expression naase ve nishma , “we will do and we will hear.” He is not saying that any one individual lives this or that way. In fact, Jews, in the modern world often live like Westerners, and one surmises that the opposite is also possible. But the general understanding of how one should live, embedded in central texts and practices, distinguishes the Westerner from the Jew. Levinas describes the European norm as revealing itself in several strata, the first of which is its great literature.

The temptation of temptation may well describe the condition of Western man. In the first place it describes his moral attitudes. He is for an open life, eager to try everything, to experience everything, ‘in a hurry to live. Impatient to feel.’ In this respect, we Jews all try to be Westerners…Ulysses’s life, despite its misfortunes, seems to us marvelous, and that of Don Juan enviable, despite its tragic end. One must be rich and spendthrift and multiple before being essential and one. With what conviction did Mr. Amar utter the words ‘to enter history this morning! Oh, above all, we cannot close ourselves off to any possibility. We cannot let life pass us by! We must enter history with all the traps it sets for the pure, supreme duty without which no feat has any value. There would be no glory in triumphing in innocence, a concept defined purely negatively as a lack, associated with naïveté and childhood, marking it as a provisional state. [20]

Great European literature-Russian, classical Greek, Italian-urges opening oneself to multiple experiences, as a prelude to figuring out who one is. What is more, it urges testing all principles through experience. Modern Jews, as in the Zionist movement, comply with this norm or at least they try to. They want to test their values of justice by entering the political realm, rather than avoiding politics. Only placing oneself in a situation in which violence becomes a real possibility can prove that nonviolence can function as a way of life. From this perspective, to refuse to enter into an experience because it might challenge or negate your principles is to remain naïve or dogmatic.

Levinas also includes Christianity and its texts as part of this Western norm. He observes, “Christianity too is tempted by temptation, and in this it is profoundly Western. It proclaims a dramatic life and a struggle with the tempter, but also an affinity with this intimate enemy.” [21] Jesus and the saints struggle with various temptations and either succumb and repent, or do not succumb but remain prey to doubt. From this perspective Judaism appears boring. Classical Jewish texts are about what to do and what not to do, about Law and ritual, and seem to devalue the kind of knowledge gained on the basis of an experience outside the bounds of the Law.

These literary and religious texts indicate a way of life in which the goal is knowledge. He declares, “The temptation of temptation is thus the temptation of knowledge.” [22] But that knowledge is always in the process of being acquired. As a result, this way of life corresponds to the practice of philosophy for what is philosophy but a perpetual seeking after truth tested through evidence? In this way of proceeding, however, one is always postponing a final commitment, since more evidence will lead to more knowledge. This is why Levinas devises the term “temptation of temptation” to characterize philosophy. If the matter were simply temptation, good and evil would already be known, and to be tempted would mean to surrender to evil. But to be tempted by temptation is to leave everything open until one has investigated it for oneself. On this model, one is always one step short of being tempted because the final answer on what the good is has not yet arrived or the answer one has found is by definition provisional. There is always more experience and more evidence to be had, thus the infinite regress, temptation of temptation of temptation. [23] In this ways of knowing, one is at once courageous and very safe, courageous in that one sheds convention and investigates evil and good on the basis of one’s own evidence, and safe because the self is always disengaged from an absolute commitment. Levinas observes, “It is a noble temptation, hardly a temptation anymore, more in the nature of courage, courage within security, the solid basis of our old Europe.” [24]

From the perspective of philosophy, there are only two options: either to know the good as a result of a rational sifting of the evidence or to be naïve and dogmatic. Levinas wants to suggest that Judaism does not fit into either option. It does not establish the good as a result of testing through evidence and yet it is neither naïve or dogmatic. This alternative to the binary of philosophy is what he will find in the rabbinic understanding of “we will do and we will hear,” in Tractate Shabbat pp. 88a-b. “Perhaps the text suggests a way of avoiding both the alternative of an infinitely cautious old age [sifting through the evidence] and of an inevitably rash childhood [jumping blindly into commitment] by establishing the relation between being and knowing in another way. It may set to work a notion that takes away the value that the temptation of temptation has acquired for us.” [25]

Here I would like to suggest that the opposition that Levinas sets up between Europeans and Jews coexists with his desire to place Jews, and Judaism, within Europe. We have just seen that he speaks of “the solid basis of our old Europe” (emphasis mine). Jews are part of Europe. Exactly how they are part of Europe is not a simple matter, since they are also the other par excellence , challenging European assumptions, as Levinas wants to do in this Talmudic reading. Yet, it is also evident that throughout it, he wants to find a European language, that is to say, a philosophical context, in which to translate certain key biblical terms. A few examples should make this clear.

Let us take the term “Torah.” It is clear that Levinas will interpret the revelation of the Torah to be the revelation of a responsibility to which one is bound before ever deciding to be so. The Torah, before being a specific set of teachings, posits a way of knowing in which reason comes second, after a responsibility that reason did not found. “The Torah…would be precisely that which precedes freedom of thought. Thus the Torah would play a role of the first importance in the theory of knowledge itself. The content of the received Torah would be able to be expressed in its inner coherence, just as all the philosophies inspired by it or denying it. But this coherence of a system must not be taken for the prior experience of the Torah itself.” [26] How Levinas deduces this from the rabbinic discussion is not important for the moment. The only point I want to underscore is that the biblical term is inserted into an epistemological discussion, challenging the primacy of reason. It enters into a Western theoretical frame while attempting to reframe it.

Something quite similar happens to the term temimut , usually translated as “integrity.” One might think that this refers to a moral quality, like not lying or not betraying one’s principles. But Levinas turns it into an epistemological term as well, “a mode of knowing which reveals the deep structure of subjectivity.” [27] He will explain it thus a bit further:

But here is where the deep structure of subjectivity leads: the direct relation with the true, excluding the prior examination of its terms, its idea-that is, the reception of revelation-can only be the relation with a person, another. The Torah is given in the light of a face. The epiphany of the other person is ipso facto my responsibility toward him: seeing the other is already an obligation toward him. A direct optics—without the mediation of any idea—can only be accomplished as ethics. Integral knowledge or revelation (the receiving of the Torah) is ethical behavior. [28]

Integrity or temimut is translated as a responsibility that defines the self as self, present without the mediation of any idea, and yet a form of knowledge. Again, the point is that a biblical/rabbinic term is made to be part of a philosophical discussion about the structure of the self, refuting well-established Western notions about human agency but also entering into a Western discussion.

It might be surprising that Levinas felt such an urge to insert the Jews into the European discourse so soon after the war. For many Jews, Europe was finished as a site of Jewish life and had to be rebuilt elsewhere, either in Israel or the United States, for example. [29] Despite the horrors of the war, a Talmudic commentary such as “The Temptation of Temptation” makes clear that for Levinas the task of rebuilding involved affirming the place of Jews in Europe, not as latecomers, but as integrally part of it from the first. After all, the Jewish Bible is as much a weave in the tapestry that makes Europe as the Greek heritage. [30] Despite the contrast between the Jew and the Westerner with which he began his talk, the universal language of philosophy remains necessary to point out the very premises that had helped eject the Jews from the Europe they helped to found. Of course, Europe is not merely a geographical concept for him but a mode of thinking whose dialogue with Jewish thought need not occur on European soil. In Beyond the Verse and in his introduction to his first collection of Talmudic readings, he mentions Israel as a site for just such a dialogue. [31] Rebuilding the Jewish world after the war thus involves rejecting a European mode of thought and remaining European at the same time.

A second line of inquiry to pursue in reading “The Temptation of Temptation” is the play of religious and secular within the text. Early in the essay, Levinas indicated that “in my commentary, the use of the word ‘God’ will occur very rarely.” [32] He goes on to say that he is approaching the text philosophically and that as a result, references to God are best understood through the human situations in which the word appears, through ethics. In other words, he will not be interested in talking about God but whenever the word occurs, he will spell out what it means for the human. It is a repetition of what he said in one of his first Talmudic commentaries, “Toward the Other.” “My effort always consists in extricating from this theological language meanings addressing themselves to reason…it consists in being preoccupied…with what this information [about God] can mean in and for man’s life.” [33] This is clearly a form of secularization, taking a word that points to an otherworldly realm and making it mean within the confines of this world, making man and not God the center of the discourse.

It is possible, however, to see what Levinas is doing in other terms. Throughout this commentary, he wants to present Judaism as not fitting the category of “religion” as understood in the West. Since at least the Enlightenment, religion has been understood as a matter primarily of belief, belief in God being central. The doing before hearing that characterizes the Jewish attitude according to this passage in the Talmud is not a matter of belief at all. It is neither a matter of irrational adherence to a principle nor a matter of the rational deduction of a principle. As has already been pointed out, Levinas argues that in the doing before hearing, the commitment to responsibility is not founded by reason, although it is not a matter of accepting responsibility on faith, or believing that God wants responsibility. Thus, in his reading, Judaism escapes the opposition so crucial in any discussion of religion in the West-that between reason and faith or reason and blind acceptance. To secularize Judaism in this way is to protest against the binaries attached to religion. But that, in the end, may not mean an opposition to religion but an attempt to understand it in other than Western terms, even though he has to use these terms in order to liberate our understanding from them.

We will see that the word “God” or divine does appear, if only twice in the text, as though the language of immanence, of the exclusively human, were not enough to understand the human. In the same passage in which he spoke of avoiding the term “God,” he concludes by saying that the ethical situations he wishes to uncover whenever the word is used, point back in some way to the divine for it is in human relations that it comes to light. “It is these human journeyings which call or announce the Divine.” [34] The second reference to God occurs on the very last page of the essay. He speaks of the limits of responsibility that the third party places on the self. In the weighing of my responsibility, I confront not only one other person but also many others. To sort out how to apportion my obligations, reason and law come into play and one may forget the infinite nature of obligation. But he says that the infinity of that obligation is inescapable, despite the limits placed on it by law, and the unavoidability of this responsibility is related to the “[T]he impossibility of escaping from God-which in this at least is not a value among others-is the ‘mystery of angels,” the “We will do and we will hear.” [35] In both these reinsertions of the term “God,” we see that a transcendent dimension enters into human relations. It is never a matter of believing in God but of noticing that something beyond the self reveals itself at the moment of encounter with the other person. The break in our animal nature, which simply wants to satisfy its instinctual needs, points outward, beyond the human. Thus a way is left open to reenter the particular theological language of the Jewish tradition but through another door.

Perhaps one can see this movement toward the secular, which is at the same time an opening out to transcendence, as another aspect of the European/Jewish dialogue. Jewish religion is not the Western notion of religion, based as it is on Christianity. But perhaps no religion is what the modern West has reduced it to be and Levinas in “The Temptation of Temptation” and elsewhere makes possible new thinking about the religious dimension of human life, escaping the Enlightenment binary of secular and religious.

A third line of inquiry to pursue in this Talmudic reading is Levinas’ hermeneutic, the principles underlying the act of interpreting. In the first place, they are in themselves an embodiment of the philosophy he extracts from the text. He begins each of his readings by assuming that there is a teaching to be found in the text, a unity and a progression of thought. [36] He does so before he has examined the contents. He then proceeds by “rubbing the text,” forcing a meaning to come out that speaks into the present, erasing the layers of time that have silenced it as a living teaching. [37] The words in the text, voices of human beings who address us, evoke a response from us. “To hear a voice speaking to you is ipso facto to accept obligation toward the one speaking.” [38] That response is there first, before we have read the contents. It is a doing before hearing. But as Levinas stresses many times in this lesson, the hearing does follow. To be responsible to the authors, one must use reason to discover the teaching hidden within their exchanges. One must save them from oblivion. The image of rubbing the text is preceded by the image of drawing blood, of bringing to life. “As if by chance, to rub in such a way that blood spurts out is perhaps the way one must ‘rub’ the text to arrive at the life it conceals.” [39] To be responsible to the voices in the text does not necessarily mean to agree with them but to give them a hearing.

Levinas has sometimes been accused of imposing his philosophy on the text rather than deriving it from it, of doing violence to the text not in the sense of liberating its meaning but in the sense of distorting it to fit his own. [40] In a lecture such as “The Temptation of Temptation,” the charge seems particularly pertinent in that while it is very clear that the rabbis are intrigued by the reversal of the normal order in the biblical expression naase ve nishma , and praise it, and it is also clear that in this particular sugya, the Israelites accept the Torah without having evaluated its content, there is indeed a large gap between Levinas’ notion of a responsibility, there before we choose it, and what the rabbis explicitly say. Levinas himself is aware of this gap. At the end of his essay, he says: “Allow me to add a few philosophical considerations, either inspired by this commentary or which inspired the commentary in the first place.” [41] He leaves room for the fact that he is interpreting the text within his own philosophy. But, if we read his various essays on hermeneutics, this does not mean for him a distortion of the tradition but maintaining its life. [42] Every interpreter is necessary in order to bring out one aspect of the meaning of the text. [43] Does this mean that anyone can say anything? Obviously not, for an entire education in Jewish sources in necessary, including a knowledge of the original languages of the text, [44] a long exposure to previous Jewish commentators, [45] an initiation by a master, [46] an imitation of the Talmudic sages’ own way of reading, among many other injunctions. But in the end, an interpretation is always a mixture of what is in the text and the subjectivity of the interpreter. There is absolutely no way to get away from that, nor is it desirable that one should. Training in all the above-mentioned ways is obligatory but it limits the risk of arbitrariness rather than eliminating it. What is midrash, rabbinic interpretation, but an arbitrariness that has been educated in a school of midrash? [48] Maybe here too Jewish and European thought need to confront one another. The very confrontation allows for the necessary boldness characteristic of midrashic readings, at least for our times.

Throughout my explanation of “The Temptation of Temptation,” the Jews and Europe are at once opposed and implicated in each other. We might well want to ask, at more than forty-five years’ remove from the delivery of this Talmudic reading, whether Europe needs to be so central to the exploration of Jewish sources. Have not Jews lived in Muslim lands and have they not had to think their sources in that light? Does it not behoove the State of Israel, surrounded by Muslim countries, to engage in dialogue once more with that thought? Are there not many other traditions in the world bearing a universal message against which Judaism needs to measure itself, given how small our world has become (and how small it has always been?) Can we still speak of China’s culture, as Levinas once did, as lunar and Martian, from the point of view of a European? [49] Surely, Levinas’ exclusive attention to Western philosophy is in need of revision. The truly bold, and even necessary move might be to step outside of Europe, not only in the direction of non-European traditions but also in the direction of contemporary Jewish traditions that refuse modern Europe. On the other hand, it is incontrovertible that the vast majority of Jews today are Westerners by education. It is impossible for them to study Jewish sources without confronting their insider-outsider relationship to European thought and culture. In that sense, Levinas’ stress on confronting Jewish sources with European ones remains both inevitable and desirable.


[1] Salomon Malka, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy , trans. by Michael Kigel and Sonja Embree, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2006. [2] Ibid., 84. [3] Ibid., 87. [4] Ibid., For a description of the Rashi lesson, see pp. 107-124. [5] Ibid., 88-106. [6] Levinas’s essays on Jewish education can be found in the section “Hic et Nunc” in Difficult Freedom , trans. Sean Hand (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990), 245-288. Also see Annette Aronowicz, “Jewish Education in the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” Abiding Challenges (London: Freund Publishing House, 1999): 65-100. In French translation, it appeared as “L’education juive dans la pensee d’Emmanuel Levinas,” Pardes 26 (1999): 195-210. [7] Tentations et actions de la conscience juive , ed. Jean Halperin (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1971). This volume includes the proceedings of both this conference, the sixth in the series, and of the eight one, on whether the world still has need for Jews. [8] See Maud S. Mandel, In the Aftermath of Genocide-Armenians and Jews in Twentieth Century France (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 162-163; David Weinberg, “The Reconstruction of the French Jewish Community after World War II” in She’erit Hapletah , 1944-1948 (Yad Vashem, 1990), 173-174. [9] Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy , 128. [10] Ibid., 155. For an extended discussion of Levinas’s relationship with Shoushani, see Shmuel Wygoda, “Le maitre et son disciple: Chouchani et Levinas,” in Cahiers d’etudes levinassiennes (2003), 1. For an attempt to describe the person of Chouchani, see also Salomon Malka, Monsieur Chouchani: l’enigme d’un maitre du XXe siècle (Paris: Editions Jean-Claude Lattes, 1994). [11] See, for instance, Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990): 8, 98. [12] Tentations et actions , 187. [13] Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy , 128. [14] Tentations et actions , 185-186. [15] Ibid., 186. [16] Ibid., 187-188. [17] Ibid., 188. [18] Two such places are the dedication to Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence , trans. Alphonso Lingis (Boston: Kluwer, 1981), in which his family members are named by name, and the short essay “Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights” in Difficult Freedom , 151-153, in which he briefly recounts part of his experience in a German prison of war camp. [19] Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy , 171. (A slightly modified translation). [20] Nine Talmudic Readings , 32-33. [21] Ibid.,33. [22] Ibid.,34. [23] Ibid. [24] Ibid. [25] Ibid., 36. [26] Nine Talmudic Readings , 37-38. [27] Ibid, 42. [28] Ibid., 47. [29] See, for instance, Israel Bartal, “Autonomie, autonomisme, diasporisme,” in Les Juifs et le vingtieme siecle, dictionnaire critique , eds. Elie Barnavie, Saul Friedlande (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 2000), 45-46; David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 119-120. [30] See Emmanuel Levinas, “The Bible and the Greeks,” In the Time of the Nations , trans. Michael B. Smith (London: Continuum, 1994): 119-121. The essay famously starts with the following sentence: “What is Europe? It is the Bible and the Greeks.” [31] Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse , trans. Gary D. Mole (London: Continuum, 1994): 193-194; Nine Talmudic Readings , 9-10. [32] Nine Talmudic Readings , 32. [33] Ibid., 14. [34] Ibid., 32. [35] Ibid., 50. [36] Ibid., 32. [37] Ibid., 46-47. [38] Ibid., 48. [39] Ibid., 46. [40] One of the more interesting of these accusations is that of Samuel Moyn, “Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Readings: Between Tradition and Invention,” Prooftexts , 23:3, 338-365. Moyn claims that Levinas, because he did not receive a traditional Jewish education, is reflecting his philosophical concerns, derived from European philosophy, for example, Kierkegaard’s attack of Hegel, and reading the rabbis through that. He wants to raise the issue of Levinas’s notion of tradition, which, according to him, allows someone outside the recognized educational system and recognized authority structure, to present readings as if there were in continuity with tradition. I respond to some of these assertions a bit further in this essay. See also Moyn, Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Ethics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). [41] Nine Talmudic Readings , 48. [42] Most important in this regard are “On the Jewish Reading of Scriptures,” and “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition,” both in Beyond the Verse , as well as the introductions to his Talmudic Readings in Nine Talmudic Readings : pp. 3-11 and 91-93. [43] Beyond the Verse , 109, 131-132, 142. [44] Difficult Freedom , 257, 273-276. The importance of studying the texts in the original language is also attested to by the fact that Levinas always did his own translations from the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Talmudic passages he was interpreting. [45] See “For a Place in the Bible,” In the Time of the Nations , 12-14, in which Levinas interprets the notion of “keeping the hands impure,” that is, not interpreting the text directly but going through the tradition of commentators. Also, Beyond the Verse , 132. “But, what is more, a distinction is allowed to be made between the personal originality of amateurs (or even of charlatans); this is made both by a necessary reference of the subjective to the historical continuity of the reading, and by the tradition of commentaries that cannot be ignored. A ‘renewal worthy of the name cannot avoid these references, any more than it can avoid reference to what is known as the Oral Law.” [46] We have already mentioned his references to his own master, Mordechai Shoushani. We also see his emphasis on having a teacher when he bemoans, in “Simone Weil against the Bible,” Difficult Freedom , 133, the scarcity of real teachers and the corresponding lack of desire for them. “To meet a real teacher of Judaism has become a matter of luck. This luck depends greatly on the person looking. It is created out of discernment. Most of the time, we let it pass by.” [47] Nine Talmudic Readings , 8, 93. [48] In Beyond the Verse , 131-132, Levinas describes the midrashic method. [49] Emmanuel Levinas, Unforeseen History , trans. Nidra Poller (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 108.