Michael R. Paradiso-Michau, Guest Editor
North Central College

Welcome, dear reader, to this special volume of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning , devoted to “Emmanuel Levinas and Philosophy.”[1] It is my hope that the essays that follow will make an important contribution to the members of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning in particular, and more occasional visitors in general. As a programmatic indication, the essays in Part One focus on Levinas and scripture, and the contributions in Part Two offer a provocative conversation about Levinas and pragmatism. The contributions to each Part had their respective origins in a dialogical encounter where the participants conversed with audiences and with one another. The essays attempt to capture that physical presence while expanding and translating their formats for the online reader. This special edition of JSR continues the “open-ended practice of reading- and reasoning-in-dialogue among scholars of the three Abrahamic traditions.”[2] As noted above, Part One offers a collective and supplemental reading of one Levinasian text, and Part Two offers an open-ended engagement between Levinas and a major figure in American philosophy, William James. Taken together, the essayists and I bear witness to the deep and abiding relationships that exist between Levinas, his readers of various methodological, theological, and philosophical stripes, and the mission of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning.

For readers unfamiliar with the person or work of Emmanuel Levinas, some relevant background details may prove helpful. Born and raised in early twentieth century Lithuania, Levinas recounted that a certain style of living Judaism was all-pervasive, too present to be identified. While initially drawn to Russian literature, he became interested in the study of philosophy, and attended university in Strasbourg, France. At this time, the phenomenological studies by Edmund Husserl and his handpicked successor Martin Heidegger were revolutionizing the practice of philosophy in Europe, so Levinas decided to attend graduate school in Freiburg, Germany. He was among the first in France to address and translate German phenomenology, particularly in his award winning dissertation on the theory of intuition in Husserl’s work. During World War II, Levinas, who had become a citizen of France, was deployed to military service, and was soon thereafter captured by the National Socialists. He spent five years in a prisoner camp having been arrested as a French officer-and not as a Jew, which would have spelled a very different fate-while his wife Raïssa and young daughter Simone were hidden in a monastery in Belgium. Many members of his immediate family were killed by the Nazis in Lithuania, as the dedication of Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence commemorates. After the war, Levinas recommenced his duties as educator and administrator at Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale (ENIO), a school for teachers of Jewish culture in the Mediterranean basin.

In 1961, Levinas published his doctorat d’etat, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority . In this groundbreaking text, Levinas offered a phenomenological exploration into the ethical dimension of human subjectivity. Confronting major philosophies and philosophers of the Western tradition, Levinas promoted “ethics as first philosophy,” and this notion offered a critical response to, among other philosophers, Heidegger, Husserl, Hegel, Kant, Spinoza, and Descartes. In Totality and Infinity , Levinas highlighted the vulnerable status of the Other individual in the face-to-face encounter. This text propelled Levinas into the public spotlight, and Levinas was flooded with invitations to teach, lecture, and publish. In 1974, he published his second magnum opus, the aforementioned Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence . This book responded to criticisms of Totality and Infinity, and undertook a radical investigation of the human subject as a mode of responsibility to the point of hostage or substitution. Levinas died in 1995, having left behind a formidable intellectual corpus through which scholars are still combing.

Amidst his philosophical production and teaching duties at ENIO, Levinas was extremely active in the Jewish community in Paris, contributing numerous essays and occasional pieces to various Jewish publications. Throughout his life, Levinas insisted that his philosophical writings be kept separate from his confessional Jewish texts and lectures. His overall trajectory, however, was to “translate” Hebrew into Greek; which is to say interpreting the language and moral wisdom of the Bible into the parlance and practice of philosophy. His intellectual legacy weaves together an honest and existential engagement between Scripture and the all-too-human resources and abiding power of Reason. This volume of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning appears to present readers with an apt venue to discuss the legacy of Emmanuel Levinas. While the essays in Part One will directly engage Levinas’ idiosyncratic method of reading Scripture, one crucial Talmudic passage in particular, Part Two takes a different direction and assesses the stakes for placing Levinas into conversation with American pragmatist philosopher William James.

Part One. Levinas and Scripture

As noted above, in addition to being a philosophy professor and school principal at various stages of his professional life, Levinas was an active member of the Jewish community in Paris throughout his adult life. He gave numerous public commentaries on Talmud, the centuries-long collection of interpretations on Torah. On October 25, 2009, I hosted an event on the University Park campus of Pennsylvania State University entitled “We Will Do and We Will Hear: Emmanuel Levinas and Talmud.” Invited scholars interacted with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as members of the local community, in a discussion of Levinas’ somewhat peculiar method of reading and commenting on Talmud. The event was intentionally focused on one of Levinas’ Talmudic readings, “The Temptation of Temptation,” and its goals were pedagogical in nature. The presentations delivered at that event, since being expanded and edited for this journal’s readership, make up Part One of this volume.

Annette Aronowicz, who translated Levinas’ Nine Talmudic Readings , offers a scintillating introduction to “The Temptation of Temptation,” offering her thoughts on Levinas’ method of interpreting Scripture with a critical eye toward the cultural, religious, and philosophical status of twentieth century Europe.[3] “The Temptation of Temptation” in particular, and Levinas’ thought in general, reinvigorate the age-old confrontation between reason and revelation, between Athens and Jerusalem. Aronowicz and the other three essayists here breathe new life onto those smoldering embers.

In “We Will Do and We Will Hear,” Claire Elise Katz focuses closely on Levinas’ critical contribution to a Jewish approach to the ethical status of the human. As her title indicates, Katz’s study underscores the phenomenological discovery that “ethics is first philosophy” and its utterly radical implications for human life. The section of Talmud on which Levinas comments highlights the secret of the angels, that they do before hearing. Theirs is the ambit of unlimited responsibility. For Levinas, the ethical dimension of human subjectivity points to the possibility of saintliness, wherein the human displaces his or her egoism in favor of responding to the face of the Other person.

James D. Hatley’s essay looks backward and forward. He places Levinas into conversation with the most well regarded Jewish thinker of all time, the medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides, as well as with Hannah Arendt, a twentieth century German-American Jewish political theorist. In his pithy rabbinic response to Levinas and Talmud, Ira F. Stone gently instructs or reminds readers that Levinas’s seemingly distinctive and cavalier method of Talmud interpretation surprisingly has important forbears in the Mussar movement.

Taken together, the essays in Part One appropriate, practice, and extend Levinas’s method of Talmudic commentary by offering original commentaries on both Talmud and Levinas, and indicate new and exciting directions for Levinas’ ideas in human experience. Aronowicz, Katz, Hatley, and Stone “‘rub the text’ to arrive at the life it conceals.”[4] This practice of close Scriptural reading and careful commentary, which Levinas and our essayists in Part One undertake, is directly in line with the methods employed by the Society for Scriptural Reasoning.

Part Two. Levinas and Pragmatism

In what initially appears to be an unlikely pairing, Megan Craig has placed the ethical phenomenology of Levinas into conversation with the pragmatism of William James. At the sixth annual meeting of the North American Levinas Society (NALS), held at Texas A&M University in Spring 2011, one of the sessions featured a lively discussion of Craig’s book, Levinas and James: Toward a Pragmatic Phenomenology.[5] The essays collected in Part Two expand upon these discussions, and display a thinking with Craig’s ideas along promising lines drawn from the NALS book session. What could these apparently disparate thinkers have to say to one another? How could Levinas’ phenomenology be placed into conversation with James’s pragmatic philosophy? More importantly, what does this attempt to intellectually cross the Atlantic Ocean have to do with us, here and now?

In his appreciative contribution “Levinas’ Empiricism and James’ Phenomenology,” Randy L. Friedman poses two critical questions to Craig. The first deals with ethical implications of the metaphysics of the self in a cross-reading of Levinas and James, and the second concerns the possibility of thinking about Levinas in a new way, in close relationship with American pragmatist philosophy. Of course, both Levinas and James share at least one common interlocutor: German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Husserl and James were not only innovators in their respective fields, but also active correspondents regarding fundamental commonalities within their fields of investigation: the principles of human psychology, the status of the human self, philosophical and psychological methodologies, and so on. While Craig is keen to identify and explore this formidable point of connection, Friedman critically considers its feasibility and the possibility for complicating matters by bringing a third cook into the kitchen.

As his title indicates, Stuart Rosenbaum’s “Aesthetics and the Face in Levinas and James” zooms in on two thematic topics on which Levinas and James can be placed into dialogue: Levinas’ rich description of the human face and the status of aesthetic sensibility. While he applauds Craig for aligning Levinas and James on the theme of the face, offering scientific and psychological sources as evidence, Rosenbaum cautions Craig against aligning Levinas and James too closely on the topic of aesthetics. Both Friedman and Rosenbaum join with Craig in making allusions to literary works to evoke the fertile common ground on which Levinas and James tread.

Stephen Minister, in “Emotions, Ethical Norms, and Pluralism,” offers deep appreciation to Megan Craig for her painstakingly slow explication of Levinas’ philosophy of art, careful to avoid thoughtless dismissals and knee-jerk reactions. Like Rosenbaum, Minister reminds readers of another direct point of connection between Levinas and James: the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose trailblazing analyses of lived-time with which scholars are still coming to terms. As Minister announces in his title, his critical questions to Craig include three pivot points: “(1) the relationship between emotions and ethics; (2) Levinas’ “ethical minimalism” and the place of ethical rules, and finally (3) the notion of plurality in James and Levinas.” Rosenbaum and Minister are equally concerned about the minimalist, or deconstructive, role that ethics plays for Levinas, and how this can be squared with James’ pragmatist and largely constructive sense of human morality.

Megan Craig offers a deeply appreciative and positive Response to Friedman, Rosenbaum, and Minister. She aptly notes the lines of thought that flow seamlessly between the three commentaries, and in the midst of her engagement with the essayists, continues the conversation in a dynamic way. Craig, in reflecting on the reflections on her book, reintroduces the reader to its impetus and inspiration: to think along with the insights of Levinas and James; not to pair the two side-by-side, but by “rubbing” their texts together to “arrive at the life it conceals.” What is most interesting to Craig is neither Levinas nor James themselves, nor their comparisons and contrasts, but rather their practical ideas about the status of the human person in its pragmatic and phenomenological dimensions. Craig observes, “Reading Levinas and James together helps us to envision more creative, experimental forms of being together than either of them conceived by themselves.”

Taken together, or read in isolation from one another, these fine contributions add a dimension of depth for champions and practitioners of Scriptural Reasoning, while providing new avenues of inquiry for Levinas studies. I sincerely hope that you enjoy reading through these contributions, and that you are inspired to return, again and again, to the texts—both scriptural and philosophical—on which they expertly comment. It is in the turning and returning of the pages of our classic texts that life is breathed into the ideas that provoke us, that inspire us, that constitute us.


[1] I would like to dedicate this special edition of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning to the memory and legacy of Dr. Brian Hesse: husband, father, friend, teacher, scholar, and administrator.
[2] “Gateways to Scriptural Reasoning” Accessed 15 October 2012.
[3] Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings . Trans. Annette Aronowicz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
[4] Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 40.
[5] Megan Craig, Levinas and James: Toward a Pragmatic Phenomenology . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.