Speaking with Discretion: Religious and Philosophical Perplexities in Levinas

James D. Hatley
Salisbury University

“Ultimate questions are treated in discreet dialogues and even in the thought of one person alone.”
– Emmanuel Levinas on Tamid 31 b

“If the matter were not written, it would be impossible to say.”
– Genesis Rabbah I.5

“The son of Zoma is gone.”
– Genesis Rabbah II.4

“The infinite is unto itself its own idea.” – Malebranche

Perplexity in Raising the Notion of Creation

Might not philosophy in its very first thought already have succumbed to a peculiar and perplexing sort of temptation, what is termed by Levinas as “the temptation of temptation”? This question, oblique and arcane but persistent throughout Levinas’ writings, whether confessional or philosophical, asks those who are ready to hear it whether to philosophize at all is already to have bitten into prohibited fruit, to have crossed a line that leaves one’s thinking shameful, in shambles, crippled by its own deficiencies, entangled in the thickets of paradise. Can, indeed, philosophy have ever begun? Rather than being the illumination of world hoped for, if not outrightly promised in much of the Western tradition, philosophy’s mode of cultivating reason might instead lead the thinker into quagmire, precisely through an insistence on illumination. This paradoxical thought about the ineptitude of thought has been entertained by monotheistic discourse, among other modes of skepticism, philosophical and otherwise, throughout the ages. But to understand best the context in which this question is being raised here and now by Levinas, his reader would do well to start by considering how Moses Maimonides approached the same issue.

The Rambam, who more than any other thinker has set the tone for Jewish philosophy over the last millennium, demonstrates in his Guide for the Perplexed how philosophic reasoning might unfold the revealed truths of Holy Scripture to their fullest significance for mortals. Further, as Michael Fagenblat contends in his recently published Covenant of Creatures , [2] Levinas can be understood from within the tradition of Jewish philosophy as offering a critical rereading of and alternative to the approach of Maimonides in regard to religious insight achieved through philosophic means. But one might also argue that it is not so much that Levinas offers an alternative to Maimonides as that the former reads the latter with even more attentiveness, more sensitivity than heretofore. Liked Herman Cohen before him, [3] Levinas dampens a time-honored understanding of Maimonides as primarily engaged in metaphysical intellectualism and insists on the priority of the ethical in his thought as the key to receiving his teaching. If so, then the understanding that Maimonides advances an intellectual illumination through philosophical thought that would stem the tide of religious perplexity and would clarify in philosophy what remains only seen through a glass darkly in scripture, is itself open to question, or at least to revision.

In his introduction to The Guide for the Perplexed , Maimonides poses the issue of how an observant Jew, one whose life is illuminated and inspired by the teachings of Torah, might probe the literal meanings of Biblical verses to gain greater insight into truths otherwise hinted at only allusively in the scriptures. In doing so, Maimonides addresses the perplexity of the reader who would receive the words of Torah thoughtfully, in spite of a spate of confusing and contradictory statements within it seemingly defying metaphysical or scientific understanding. Thus, the Jew who reads Maimonides’ Guide is one whose very knowing is entangled—the literal meaning of perplexity—in the warp of philosophical demonstration and the woof of Biblical revelation.

As Leo Strauss rightly points out, at the core of Maimonides’s focus on Biblical revelations, what Strauss terms Biblical “secrets,” are the themes of ma’aseh bereshit and ma’aseh merkabah , the account of Creation, as treated in Genesis I and that of the Divine Throne, particularly as introduced in Ezekiel I. [4] These two scriptural themes, Maimonides argues, have their equivalent in the philosophical discussions of his time: Whether the world is eternal, as Aristotle argues, or has a beginning in creation, as the Torah recounts it, was a question that inspired much controversy, as did the matter of in what manner, if any, one might speak directly of the author of that reality.

Maimonides, Strauss argues, introduces philosophical discussions of the origin of earthly reality and the attributes of G-d not in order to write a book of philosophy but in order, as a Jewish adherent to Torah, to show how the truths articulated by philosophy already suggest the deeper, hidden meanings of G-d and creation in their biblical instantiation. Strauss further claims that in addressing those perplexed by, entangled in Philosophy and Torah, Maimonides would indicate, however surreptitiously to his reader, that the teachings of these two traditions in regard to creation and G-d are “identical.” [5] Ultimately Strauss and his adherents, as have other Jewish readers of Levinas throughout the ages, argue for the counter-intuitive conclusion that Maimonides actually affirms the eternity of the world rather than its creation ex nihilo . Whether and how this might be true remains open to impassioned discussion and more than a little disagreement for contemporary scholars of Maimonides’ thought.

Also remaining open for debate is whether Maimonides himself intended to pursue the Guide as a work that turns to Biblical tradition precisely to open up the significance of reasoning in a manner unanticipated in philosophy. To read the Guide in this way would register a tension between philosophical demonstration and Biblical interpretation that keeps open and mutually informs both sides of the relationship. Rather than perplexity having been abolished from thought, its hold upon both philosophical and religious discourse would be renewed. And in this folding of perplexity upon perplexity, in this redoubling of the bewilderment, the amazement that stalks all thinking, that shadows its every move, the senses and insights of both philosophical and biblical traditions would be renewed as well. This approach is one that is summarily rejected by Strauss and Straussians as new-fangled and weak-minded, but still it exerts a great influence on many contemporary readers of Maimonides, including Kenneth Seeskin [6] and, it is to be argued, Levinas. If one adopts this latter approach, then the very legacy of Maimonidean thought is up for reconsideration. One might claim that in opening both sides of the discursive divide between philosophy and Judaism to one another, one is no longer in a position to simply argue the explicit intention—whether it is exoteric or esoteric—of Maimonides. One sees him instead as having engaged in a discussion that is in principle not capable of being closed precisely because it has never been fully opened. In every generation, indeed, in every rereading of his text, perplexity emerges as it raison d’etre , renewing the crisis that is the plight of thinking, that is its struggle with what Levinas will claim is the temptation of temptation.

For example, both Seeskin and Levinas can be understood as rereading Maimonides in regard to the significance of creation as simultaneously a philosophic and religious category. For Seeskin, Maimonides argues not for the creation of the world ex nihilo but de novo and does so without esoteric indirection. In this view, Maimonides offers philosophy an alternative mode of understanding its own arguments by advancing the claim that the relationship of Creator to creation is not one that is dependably illuminated by an ontological notion of causality or production. As a result, the issue to be posed for philosophy is not how creaturely existence was caused to come into being whether or not from out of nothingness. To approach the question of creation in this manner would be to engage in a projection of the notion of causation, as it is understood and practiced by humans, onto the Creator and the reality of the Creator’s creation. Thus, to argue creation as causation, as occurs in the philosophical tradition framed by Aristotle in Maimonides’ time, involves not only the issue of ma’aseh bereshit but also ma’aseh merkabah , not only the instantiation of the world as created but also the characterization of the attributes of its Creator. Creation characterized as causation becomes a procrustean bed upon which the Name would be cut down to size and made more appropriately available to the needs and desires of creaturely existence. This is not an alternative that Maimonides would recommend.

Instead of this approach, the question of how creaturely existence is without necessity, is absolutely contingent and irremediably dependent upon a Creator should come to the fore. One inaugurates the thought of creation not from an ontological account of the attributes of the Creator (as one who causes) but from the existential situation of creatures whose very emergence into being is owed to the Creator. Given this latter approach, the obsession with an initial and magnificent moment in which all began from out of a prior nothingness is eclipsed by the humility of creaturely existence that is forever in reception of its being created and so always already being renewed. The point in this shift of emphasis is that philosophy is called upon not to qualify the power of the Creator to cause creation but rather to respond with acute, critical conscientiousness to the existential impotence of the creature, which is to say, to its powerlessness to assure for itself through an arche , a source or origin, the necessity of its very existing. Creaturely existence is revealed to be gratuitous, without precedent, anarchical. This is at least one sense of creation de novo . [7] And it is to this sense of creation that Levinas refers, for instance, when he argues early in his career that the human creature does not come into being as if she or he were caused from without but rather that “its point of departure is contained in its point of arrival.” [8] The created self comes to itself “without having left from anywhere.” Before a beginning might even have been possible, the creature stands without any possible ground in the instant, the instans , of its birth. [9]

Discretion in Perplexity: Raising the Notion of Creation in Sincerity

But just as important as the state of perplexity addressed directly by Maimonides in the titling of his work The Guide for the Perplexed is the discretion [10] called for in pursuing through reason the themes stirring up this perplexity. Long before Maimonides, the difficulty and danger of opening up the paired topics of creation and the divine attributes to public questioning and speculation is addressed by a Rabbinical prohibition: ” Ma’aseh Bereshit must not be expounded between two people, nor Ma’aseh Merkabah even by one, unless he be wise and understands it by himself.” [11] Although this particular commandment as expressed forthrightly in the Mishnah then opens up a rich discussion in aggadic discourse of the possible significance and reasons for the prohibition of public discourse over creation and the chariot, it is important to remember that the prohibition is itself halachic, which is to say, of the law rather than aggadic, merely of story and speculation. For Maimonides to write publically and in Arabic, the lingua franca of his world, about these themes, then, expresses in itself a crisis, a turning point in the Jewish tradition, much as had the earlier translation of the Tanach into the Greek Septuagint. Diaspora had made necessary a widening or dispersal of the intensely constrained discussion of the most recondite truths of the Torah. Further, as already discussed above, this crisis works in both directions. For opening up a Hebraic discussion of Biblical truth within a Greek context also foments a crisis for the latter tradition by disrupting its, for the most part, much more confident approach to ultimate questions, which, at least in Aristotle, begin in a state of wonder before the world and then mature into rendering that world as intelligible through reason.

In contradistinction to Aristotelian wonder, the Rabbinical discussion of rendering intelligible the creation of the world remains inextricably caught up in and perplexed by devastation, impotence, even shame. Creation is not signified through turning back toward a place of origin preceding the created world but in the impact already registered upon any point within creation by the anarchical, which is to say, the gratuitous, the unprecedented. One cannot turn back soon enough to meet what has already arrived. As a result, Creation is precisely the incessant re-emergence of world sans origin and so sans necessity. In a passage from Midrash Rabbah, the act of creation, which begins in Bereshit with Elohim pictured as hovering bird-like over ” tohu v’bohu ,” over “formlessness and void,” is interpreted midrashically as a palace built by a monarch upon an edifice of “sewers, dunghills and garbage” [Midrash Bereshit I.5]. [12] Notice here how the trope of “nothingness” is interpreted not quantitatively as the null of being, a “0” that is greater (or less?) than any other possible negation, but qualitatively as the degraded, the superfluous, the offcast; this approach reveals the devastating passivity undergone by the created elements in their absolute inability to exist on their own terms. “If the matter were not written,” the passage continues, “saying it would be impossible.” In yet another passage shortly after this one, an unnamed and likely apocryphal philosopher is reported to have exclaimed “woe to that man” after hearing R. Gamliel explain that the stuff with which the Hebrew G-d fashions creation is sixfold: ” tohu v’bohu [formlessness and void], darkness, water, wind and the depths. ” (Midrash Bereshit I.9). If this had not been written, saying it here too would be impossible.

To ask ultimate questions in Biblical precincts, then, appears not at all a good strategy for living well. As the aggadic story of the Four Sages who seek Paradise [13] reports, reasoning about G-d and Creation can provoke the loss of one’s religious orientation, the onset of madness or the precipitous arrival of one’s death. Even in the case of the most discerning and knowing of rabbis, there is at best a one in four chance of coming out unscathed. But in that case, one may then be asked by the Most High to be flayed alive by the iron combs of idolaters as one’s just reward. The rabbis are very careful to make clear precisely how dangerous raising questions about the “four things”—what is above, below, before and after—can be. “It would be better for him [italics mine], if he had never been born,” [14] the Talmud warns. To pose metaphysical questions about ultimate things calls, at the very least, for hyperbolic practices of discernment and responsibility. To borrow a storied metaphor from the story of the four rabbis: One must not look at marble and, taken in by its flowing lines, its glimmering surface moving into shadowy depths, become convinced one is seeing water. One must remember the difference between a thinking that is human and a reality to be thought that transcends one’s humanity even as it authors it. In acknowledging one’s creaturehood, one’s very thought must be lived in, permeated with y’ireh , the fear of and reverence for the Creator.

Thus, addressing the perplexity induced by the questions of Creation and the Divine Attributes merely through their untangling from scriptural announcement is not sufficient in order to take seriously the condition in which the human thinker has been put in undergoing this peculiar sort of bewilderment. Learning to live wisely within entanglement, within the persistent renewal of the shifting senses of Holy Scripture in which the activities of the Name are announced is incumbent upon the philosophical thinker. In doing so, one needs to assert not only perplexity but also its limit. But this does not occur by simply untangling the knotting up of thought in self-contradiction that the very announcement of Creation involves, as if one would live a creaturely existence without or beyond perplexity. Rather one becomes discerning in regard to perplexity. In doing so, one adopts a mode of wisdom that embraces fully one’s existence as creature. In Hebrew the naming of this virtue of discernment, of acting with the discretion appropriate to one’s creaturely existence, occurs in the word Temimut , a term that becomes increasingly important to Levinas’ argument as he works through the significance of the temptation of temptation that is philosophy.

Modes of Discernment in the Time of Shoah

And now perhaps the time has come to address more directly the theme of Levinas’ essay “The Temptation of Temptation.” Nearly a millennium after the time of Maimonides and two millennia after that of the first rabbis, Emmanuel Levinas takes up the halachic commandment for discernment in the matter of ultimate questions, as he comes to write his confessional lecture “The Temptation of Temptation.” [15] This essay should to some degree be read autobiographically with reference to Levinas’ own recent history as a victim of the Shoah. That Levinas, a Jewish philosopher, has insisted on raising, even renewing the project of metaphysics, of asking ultimate questions in spite of their danger “for him,” not to mention those of us who read him, is strikingly paradoxical, if not fearful and scandalous, from a rabbinical perspective. [16] And Levinas in “The Temptation of Temptation” takes stock of this fearful and scandalous paradox, when he writes: “The universe in which the power of the Eternal is manifested is scared by his word.” [17] It is in this tone, akin to that of the rabbis in Mirdrash Bereshit and quite different from that attitude advanced by Aristotle’s affirmation of wonder at the cosmos, that Levinas takes up with the vocation of philosophy, a vocation he himself practices in the aftermath of the Shoah and of having been a student of Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who is, in a most disturbing sense, a thinker in the time of the Shoah.

“The Temptation of Temptation” is presented by Levinas at the annual Colloquium of French-Speaking Jewish Intellectuals in the mid-sixties following upon his previous year’s Talmudic lecture for the same group titled “To the Other.” In this earlier essay, Levinas had raised the issue of being a disciple in the context of responding to those whose hearts are hardened against either giving or receiving forgiveness. A persistent subtext threading through those remarks was the lack of discernment by Heidegger and Heideggerian discourse concerning the significance of philosophy and the responsibility of philosophers in the wake of the Shoah. The Shoah was, at that point, only twenty-two years old. And in its twenty-third year, Levinas moves in his succeeding essay for the Colloquium from the more personal, preeminently dyadic concerns of discipleship, including philosophic discipleship in the case of his own mentor Heidegger, to a more general concern for one’s participating whatsoever in the philosophical tradition. How then are we to engage in philosophy when it is to be practiced, Levinas hints discreetly, in “times of great dangers and catastrophes” [18] ? The moments Levinas is speaking of here are ones in which, as he puts it in Existence and Existents , the being-in-the world of Dasein characterized so confidently, even if with an anxiety attendant upon it, by Heidegger cedes to an event in which one is thrust into the “horror” of “existence without a world.” An anonymous “ there-is ,” also characterized as “a total exclusion of light,” shadows any world that we might come to articulate personally, politically, historically and ultimately philosophically. [19]

In the horror of the “ there-is ,” the stakes involved in the articulation of goodness within the world is being raised by Levinas in order that an opening might be made in thought for admitting how wrong the world can go, not to mention our thinking about that world. The world cannot only be damaged, wounded, in need of repair; the world can also be lost to itself. And this loss, as Levinas puts it in yet another Talmudic essay, “Damages Due to Fire,” [20] unleashes an elemental violence that is without bounds and that cannot be resolved in any possible calculation or justified by any dialectical acrobatics of reason. Here we find a severe testing of philosophy’s most basic confidence to reason clearly about reality, a testing that comes to pass from before the beginning, in the tohu v’bohu of creation, the sewers, swamps and slums upon which the magnificence of the world comes to pass. The world can be dashed beyond quantitative nothingness to qualitative ignominy by the very word of its creator.

Yet, in the politics of National Socialism, one meets up with a thinking that refuses to acknowledge as horror that the world can be lost. Here is given a politics that responds to perplexity without any trace of discernment. Instead, one would willfully refuse to even have heard that one is scared of the Divine and Creative word. Instead, the annihilation of the other’s world is grasped upon as the creation of one’s own, as if one were not vulnerable to the same dysappropriation, as if this demonism of the human spirit only radiated outward without setting its foot first in oneself. One sets oneself up in the role of the one who utters the word of which the world is scared. Thus comes about the time of catastrophe that is named the Shoah.

But is it fair, in fact is it not profoundly “over the top,” to associate philosophical reasoning with the demonic indiscretion that is National Socialism or the unbridled violence that engendered the Shoah? To answer this objection, one needs to understand more precisely what Levinas means by the notion of the temptation of temptation and of how thinking, in so far as it succumbs to this redoubled temptation, loses its creaturely discretion. To appreciate this, one needs to work out exactly how philosophical thought, or at least what Levinas means by philosophical thought, operates.

But, instead of beginning by tearing down philosophical thought, might one not first admit that it too counsels a mode of discretion, one that ends up willingly, even necessarily, in indiscretion in order to remain discreet, in order to engage in illuminating critique rather than in the merely straightforward elaboration of its own claims? In this wise, philosophy, it can be argued, begins in a notion of discretion doubly understood. In the first place, taking up the philosophical tradition calls one to affirm a notion of reasoning that discerns truth from non-truth, understanding from non-understanding. One elaborates the world as it truly is. In the second place, the very nature of this discernment calls for its own suspension, a subjection to critique demanding the courage on the part of the thinker to move beyond a boundary already determined by reason for the sake of a yet to be determined reason. One elaborates the truth anew in order to criticize what one has already thought. Thus, one must be discreet in Philosophy; one must discern truth from untruth, good from evil, beauty from chaos. And then one must be discreetly indiscreet: one must challenge discreetly whether the heretofore evil is not yet in some so far undetermined sense a good; whether the heretofore untruth is not yet another truth; whether heretofore chaos is not yet another beauty. At the very least, the claim can be made that understanding these things, knowing them in their full reality, is necessary if one is going to act meaningfully in regard to them. Given this doubled mode of discernment, that Levinas concludes philosophy “simultaneously [is] outside of everything and participating in everything” [21] is not surprising.

In his remarks, Levinas draws a crucial corollary to philosophy’s redoubling of discretion in indiscretion: one philosophizes as if any theme that offers itself for thought can be engaged in without one’s actually having crossed a line such that one would become irrevocably committed to and affected by the very reality whose realm one would articulate. For philosophical reasoning, Levinas notes, nothing is irreparable, nothing is final; all is subject to further discernment.

To traverse the whole, to touch the depth of being, is to awaken the ambiguity coiled inside it. The evil which completes the whole threatens to destroy everything, but the tempted ego is still outside. It can listen to the song of the sirens without compromising the return to its island. It can brush past evil, know it without succumbing to it, experience it without experiencing it, try it without living it, take risks in security…If you wish, the temptation of temptation is the temptation of knowledge. [22]

As the people of Israel assent to a covenant with their Creator at Sinai, they proclaim in a dictum resounding through the generations, “we will do and we will know.” One first assents to the creator and then only afterward knows what one has done. Much Rabbinical discussion of the ordering of the relationship between doing and knowing has occurred throughout the ages, a discussion that Levinas is relying on here. And his question is clear: In philosophy does not one insist on knowing in order to do? And in doing so, does not philosophy precisely invert the ordering of doing and knowing necessary to approach the creator in a creation that is “scared” of the Creator’s word? One philosophizes in regard to the violence of the murderous, the gratuitousness of creation, the attributes of the Most High, as if these realities were from the beginning offered as subjects for one’s theorizing in detachment from their unyielding reality. The very transcendence of the known over the knower, a transcendence that threatens and disrupts the very grasp upon one’s own mind, often with devastating effect, is ignored. Thus, the vulnerability of the soul to being corrupted by the very evil it would contemplate, or being overwhelmed by the transcendence of a good that cannot be made one’s own, is left unaddressed. Philosophy, at least in this characterization of it, does not suffer its truths as much as celebrate its capacity to uncover their existence.

The philosophical tradition, as inaugurated, say, in Socrates’ Apology or Homer’s Odyssey , announces the willingness to be tempted, to act spontaneously in spite of all prohibitions to the contrary, in order to understand even more insightfully, which is to say, even more comprehensively , even more inclusively , what calls for thought. Put otherwise, limit is set out by philosophic reasoning, at least as it is characterized by Levinas in his essay, not only to mark a boundary but also to offer the opportunity for broaching that boundary. In this way, philosophy is a noble condition, a courageous act but not a particularly reverent one, not one with that quality the Rabbinical tradition and the Jewish philosophers coming in its wake identify as temimut , simplicity, sincerity, whole-heartedness.

For example, in The Apology Socrates tells the story of how the Oracle of Delphi has identified him as the wisest of all men. His reaction to this pronouncement is to immediately submit its claim to dialectical ordeal. Rather than trusting the god, Socrates will know for himself why the limits articulated by the god are incumbent upon him, a mortal. Thus, through a logical sleight of hand, he will effectively replace the divine pronouncement with his own understanding achieved through his own reasoning. Put otherwise, Socrates will only truly hear the god’s affirmation of wisdom after he, Socrates, knows what the call entails.

In this movement from pronouncement to knowing to hearing, Socrates’ practice of philosophy usurps the role of the god, which is to say, the articulation of limit. Socrates accomplishes this in turn by testing the wisdom of every man he meets, since no god is nearby whom he can interrogate. But the outcome of Socrates’ immodest adventure, his all-encompassing curiosity, is in turn paradoxical: for he learns that the very limited notion of knowing he has cultivated in the past—to know that he does not know—is indeed superior to any other that is human. This leaves uncharted what the god would understand by wisdom. Indeed, the god becomes an afterthought in Socrates’ pursuit of wisdom. Once commanded by the god to be wise, Socrates is set into motion to see for himself yet again and again, the manner in which he Socrates has failed again and yet again to anticipate his own ignorance. Socrates is repeatedly humbled, only repeatedly to set out on an adventure in knowing, so that he might yet again do what the god has commanded: to practice wisdom. For Socrates, it can be argued, knowing is not once and for all, but nevertheless is always logically prior to doing. We know in order to do. This is the philosophical succumbing to the temptation of temptation that Levinas warns against.

The Renewing of Discernment in a Time of Catastrophe

But might not yet another understanding of Socrates be articulated, one that brings his perplexity in the face(s) of knowing into another light? Hannah Arendt, like Levinas is a thinker in the time of Shoah and another uneasy student of Heidegger. In her own last work of philosophy, The Life of the Mind , Arendt analyzes how the cultivation of Socratic consciousness and conscientiousness in what she terms a time of “political emergency,” a time overwhelmed by the machinations of totalitarian regimes, might “prevent catastrophes, at least for the self.” [23] Only the Socratic individual, Arendt argues, can keep her wits about her when political discourse has been subverted by the totalitarian state, when the social is consumed by the conflagration of destructive intentions running amuck, running beyond even the rational state of war that would balance one’s success against one’s failure. When all things have become possible, when all lines are being crossed, only a person who continues to think about her thinking, who knows that she does not know, yet who still will know before she acts or obeys, will know to question an authority that is without consciousness of or conscientiousness in regard to its own limit. In this way, the Socratic thinker will continue to act with courage, nobility and discernment, Arendt argues, even when every other human does not.

But Levinas questions precisely this faith in the philosophic loner during a time of total destruction, the elemental conflagration that occurs when political discourse becomes not only without consciousness of its own limits but also without a face. Levinas notes of such a time in “Damages Due to Fire”: “No escape into isolation! Watch out for the peace of private worship! Beware of dreams in an empty synagogue!” [24] The only synagogue to which one can repair during a time of elemental fires, the rabbis have argued, is one in which learning still occurs, in which children still are being instructed in Torah. Not the saving power of thinking nurturing itself by or even with itself but the accusing approach of the human face of the other, “the original goodness of creation,” as it is termed in Otherwise than Being , will call philosophy and its reasons to repentance, to covenant, to creation. [25] Already placed before the human face as the signature of my creation, I find myself already speaking nonsense, already invested in my words to another beyond what I could ever have intended on my own. Only reasoning that remembers this vulnerability, this unknowing submission to the other’s address will have the wisdom to think with discernment, particularly in a time of conflagration.

Yet Arendt argues that the Socratic soul that knows that it does not know is one that keeps itself company in its very thought. As she puts it: “When Socrates goes home he is not alone. He is by himself.” [26] As in the Rabbinical prohibition discussed above, Socrates does not attempt to share his understanding, at least for the time being, with others but remains invested in his thinking about his own thinking. In this active sense of being by oneself, which Arendt characterizes as the keeping company of one’s soul by one’s soul, the Socratic thinker retains a minimal readiness to speak again with others, to renew her thought beyond her own thinking in the plurality of reasoning(s) that is the political for Arendt. Further, the thinker does not lose her or himself in the mania that has consumed political discourse in a regime of terror.

Socratic reason, in taking seriously the openness of thought to renewing itself in its very questions, becomes so corrosive, so windy or stormy in its own movement, in Arendt’s view of the matter, that no ideology, no totality can result from it. As a result, she argues Socratic thinking has not so much flowered in the philosophical tradition as the former has been coerced by the latter, made subservient to this fixed resolve or that. At its core, the mistake is not that we know in order to do but that we assume that a particular moment in knowing will make all further thinking unnecessary. Socratic thought is not contemplation for Ardent but meditation, not a move toward totality motivated by “a desire that would make further thinking unnecessary” [27] but a movement of incessant correction that will not be stilled.

Temimut and Perplexity: Responding in Wisdom beyond One’s Knowing

Socrates as a “lover of perplexities,” [28] sets himself, at least in Arendt’s characterization of the matter, in opposition both to a knowing that knows in order to do and a doing that does in order to know. Instead, Socrates knows in order to witness again how he does not know. This approach runs askew to Levinas’ own insistence on discerning between a doing in order to know and a knowing in order to do. Yet, like Levinas, Arendt embraces Socratic perplexity to reject a history of philosophy that has hoped and striven to render the world in its totality as transparently intelligible.

In lieu of Arendt’s emphasis on Socratic perplexity, Levinas would turn to the rabbinical notion of temimut , of sincerity, wholeness, simplicity. The virtue is grounded biblically in Devarim 18: 13: “You must be wholehearted ( tamim ) with your G-d.” In the exposition preceding this command, temimut is specifically associated with the refusal to imitate pagan idolatry: sacrificing children, augury, divination, sorcery, consulting spirits and the dead. But temimut itself is a word whose shape shifts, is difficult to pin down, and so repeatedly comes into exegesis and thematization with renewed senses within the Jewish religious and philosophical traditions. For Ibn Ezra, temimut entails unquestioning simplicity before Elohim; for Maimonides, it is an intellectual distillation of any concept that would stand in for the Most High; for Nachmanides, it announces an all-embracing relationship, intellectually and emotionally, with the Almighty. [29] In all these approaches the virtue is linked to the capacity of the individual human to reject avodah zarah , foreign or idolatrous practices in regard to G-d.

To this esteemed tradition of discussion, Levinas now adds his own interpretation, his own renewal of biblical exegesis and philosophical demonstration regarding this term: Temimut involves discretion not only or in the first place in regard to the Almighty but also and with pre-eminent urgency in regard to one’s fellow human being, to the approach of the other announced in her or his face. To the Rabbinical emphasis upon discretion in the face of Elohim, Levinas would add discretion in the face of Elohim’s creature, specifically the human other. This reinterpretation or renewal of discretion is given under the name of sincerity in Otherwise than Being , where it is characterized in the following manner:

The glory of the Infinite is the anarchic identity of the subject flushed out without being able to slip away. It is the ego led to sincerity , making signs to the other, for whom and before whom I am responsible, of this very giving of signs, that is, of this responsibility: “here I am.” [30]

One page later, Levinas cites Isaiah in his discussion of the hineni, me voici ¸ “here I am” of sincerity. In doing so he comments in a footnote on Isaiah 6:8-“Here I am! Send me.”-with the following translation: “‘Here I am’ means ‘send me.'” [31] The doing that precedes knowing is not in any way to be characterized as a doing without discernment but rather a being open in unrequited sincerity to whatever the other who approaches me calls upon me to hear.

By announcing the theme of creation in the original goodness of the human other’s face, Levinas transforms and extends the discretion called for by the Rabbinical discussion of ma’aseh bereshit and ma’aseh merkabah . Rather than focusing on the implications of these themes merely in regard to one’s relationship with the Most High, Levinas would call attention to their significance for one’s ethical relationship with other humans. [32] Here an account of temimut is given that extends Maimonides own point of how the metaphysically attentive philosopher is called to meditate on acting as the Creator acts, rather than knowing as the Creator knows. Like the Rabbis and Maimonides, Levinas would keep a discreet silence in regard to Elohim . One is not to name The Name in its own right but rather to keep one’s distance from the temptations that accrue when one thinks one thinks as G-d thinks. But beyond one’s discretion in regard to G-d, one is called to discretion before the human other. One is not even to think that one thinks as the human other thinks-prohibiting any descriptive phrase of its approach, the other’s face simply asks one to respond with one’s attentiveness, with one’s readiness to respond, with one’s sincerity: hineni . Reverting to Levinas’ own use of the first person, before the other’s face, one would claim: no other other can speak or act on my behalf. I am alone in my responsibility for the other’s approach, so much so that I am even responsible for the other’s responsibility. [33] On the other hand, one cannot name enough the themes that accrue in the social and political realm when one speaks on behalf of the human other to all the other others.

As the catastrophe that is National Socialism bears witness, the danger to thinking is not only found in the attempt to know as the Creator knows. One must also be wary of assuming one knows as the other creature who faces one knows. The indiscretion of theodicy, of thinking that would interrogate and know another creature’s suffering from without , that would know evil without evil being incumbent upon oneself in the act of knowing it, is not only opposed by means of Levinas’ having given reasons for his thinking on the matter. That would put knowing before doing. Rather in the name of temimut , Levinas would call, prophetically, the very thinking of theodicy, a thinking that would stubbornly know through its reasons the significance of its theme, into an unanticipated humility, into self-renunciation and even into repentance. Before theodicy could even have been thought, the other’s suffering has already claimed my responsibility to address it.

To Arendt’s Socrates, who cultivates perplexity, Levinas would pose in response the figure of Jacob, an ish tam , [35] one who is “a man of integrity” but also one who is “aware of evil, crafty and industrious.” [36] Certainly these are all qualities implicit in Socrates’ character as well, particularly as he is presented in The Apology . But the philosophical virtue that sustains these qualities in Socrates is not the devastating humility of temimut but the elevating love of radical perplexity. Socrates cannot live with a thought that is in contradiction with itself and yet all thought eventually leads to this or that mode of contradiction. As a result, at least in Arendt’s account of Socrates, he finds it nearly impossible to make a distinction to which he must then adhere. And his very noisiness about this incapacity to begin his thinking through knowing stirs up the Athenian public against him. The only distinction he will knowingly make, Arendt argues, is between the one who is without perplexity, who sleepwalks, and the one who within her or his perplexity keeps her or himself company. The thinker in perplexity no longer is defeated by her or his lack of knowledge, Arendt argues, but rather is prepared to worry with others over “the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly.” [37] The thinker in perplexity becomes, once he turns to others, adept at judgment.

Levinas, unlike Arendt, focuses on biblical rather than Greek sources and so finds an exemplary thinker steeped in temimut , a mode of discretion that is articulated by a devastating (which is to say, transcendent rather than merely radical) humility in regard to one’s knowing. This virtue is not quite registered in Socrates’ radical love of thinking in the face of perplexity. Yet it would be mistaken, a failure of discretion, to dismiss one thinker’s account of wisdom for the sake of the other’s. Both Levinas and Arendt, each in their own way, bring philosophy to trial by invoking a responsibility that in one manner or another precedes knowing. But biblical responsibility as it is given in Levinas’ exegetical remarks in “The Temptation of Temptation” is perhaps more discreet: in temimut the Socratic struggle to live by oneself through thought is already interrupted by the approach of another. And this approach of another disrupts even the thought that one should be with oneself in one’s thinking. One is not only put into question by the approach of another but also is created anew, de novo . So denuded of one’s own thought that one could never have been by oneself in one’s thinking, Socratic perplexity and the integrity of mind that sustains it are, in the Levinasian view, devastated by the temimut of Jacob in a manner unanticipated from within the Greek ethos. In place of one’s thinking orienting oneself to one’s very thought and so to one’s soul, one is called into interiority and conscientiousness only through the suffering of others. One’s own soul is an unanticipated thought, a gratuitous breath; it is only known after the other has spoken in one’s hearing.

In a time of catastrophe, of the unleashing of elemental fires, certainly both the radical love of perplexity and the creaturely discernment of temimut are called for in thought. Both virtues exemplify a wisdom that would acknowledge the severe limits set upon one’s own reasoning and the capacity to know the world on and in one’s own terms. Put more abstractly, each virtue would respectively cultivate a wisdom that acknowledges the gravity of limits that cannot be transcended. Yet, Socrates who fears for the integrity of Athens and its citizens throughout the Peloponnesian War and afterward, is perhaps finally too naïve about the temptation that arises, as Levinas puts it, “in the heart to devour the very heart which brought these temptations into being.” [38] The discretion without limit called for in accepting that one is a creature, an anarchical existence sans origin, sans necessity, is not yet announced in Socratic perplexity. In the time of black cows in a black night, which is to say, in a time of Shoah, in which knowing is devastated by the dimensions of its own affliction, one is called to respond in a manner that that exceeds the radical love of perplexity cultivated by Socrates. Unlike Socrates, Jacob, the ish tam , proclaims the nudity, the denucleation, which is to say, the irremediable passivity of one’s all-too-creaturely reasoning, its abysmal failure to have kept itself company from before the beginning. Here too, as in Socratic perplexity, one’s thinking will not be stilled. Yet, in temimut the storm of thought engulfing one is renewed from beyond rather than by means of one’s own intention to know oneself. For Socrates is not the temptation to think anew from within the possibilities offered in thinking too great to resist? He would know evil through his thought in all its perplexity.

However, in temimut one does not have the time to be tempted in this manner. One is already acting, already engaged in reaching out to another whose face will not, has not let one’s own thought be stilled. In this responsiveness beyond any reasoning out of its warrant, one becomes sensitive to both the moral heights of the holy and the abysmal lapses of the demonic that are part and parcel of one’s engagement with others. The renouncement of the other’s face that is National Socialism shadows all political and ethical life of whatever time and place one might think. To live with this horrifying thought as horror is to live in temimut . Hineni : In attending to the accusing face of the other, that original goodness of creation proclaimed by Levinas, one’s reasoning is called into absolute simplicity that is at the very same moment an instruction in the necessity of becoming canny, of resisting the advances of evil with industriousness, with incessant doing. Here I am, send me.


[1] The image seen below is the Hebrew word Bereshit , the first word in the Book of Genesis. The image was published by the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/rr/amed/guide/hs-intro.html; accessed 15 October 2012). As to the text itself, the LOC website states: “This decorated initial word is from the Hebrew Bible published by the Society of Jewish Bibliophiles in Germany, the Soncino Gesellschaft, in 1933.”
[2] Michael Fagenblat, A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’ Philosophy of Judaism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010). See especially pp. 111 ff.
[3] See Herman Cohen, Ethics of Maimonides , trans. Almut Sh. Bruckstein (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).
[4] Leo Strauss, “The Literary Character of The Guide for the Perplexed,” in Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays , Joseph A. Buijs, editor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988): p. 33.
[5] Ibid., 35.
[6] One should also add here Michael Fagenblat (op. cit.). This book provides a well-developed, even magisterial, reading of Levinas’ approach to the thought of Maimonides.
[7] Kenneth Seeskin, Maimonides on the Origin of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 194-95.
[8] Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents , trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2001), p. 75.
[9] See in particular Levinas’ discussion of the “instant” in Ibid., 15-25. Rather than effecting a Heideggerian ecstasis of time, Levinas would speak of the instant as an event that precedes time, a standing in ( in-stans ) the moment that is prior to all relation with a present characterized as a temporal movement in regard to its past and future.
[10] discretion c. 1303, from L.L. discretionem (nom. Discretion ) “discernment, power to make distinctions,” from L. discretionem “separation, distinction,” from discre- stem of discernere “to separate, distinguish” (see discern ). Phrase “at (one’s) discretion” attested from 1577; “the age of discretion” (1395) in English law was 14. [“discretion.” Online Etymology Dictionary . Douglas Harper, Historian. 18 Oct. 2009. .]
[11] Mishnah, Tractate Chaggigah. ii.1
[12] All references to Midrash Rabbah in this article can be found in the translation edited by Rabbi Dr. H Freedman and Maurice Simon (London: The Soncino Press, 1983).
[13] See Tractate Chaggigah, ii.xxx.
[14] Tractate Chaggigah ii.xxx. Notice that the warning here is not for the sake of Judaism or G-d but for the sake of the one asking the question. This emphasis makes clear that the spiritual well-being of the human being who questions G-d is at issue rather than the well-being of Judaism or G-d.
[15] Emmanuel Levinas, “The Temptation of Temptation,” in Nine Talmudic Readings , trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).
[16] See also his discussion in “Beyond the State in the State,” in New Talmudic Readings , trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1999), p. 88: “Ultimate questions are treated in discreet dialogues and even in the thought of one person alone.”
[17] Levinas, “The Temptation of Temptation,” op. cit., 40.
[18] Ibid., p. 35.
[19] Levinas, Existence and Existents , op. cit. pp. 54-55.
[20] Emmanuel Levinas, “Damages Due to Fire,” Nine Talmudic Readings , op. cit.
[21] Levinas, “The Temptation of Temptation,” op. cit., 34.
[22] Ibid., 33.
[23] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Volume I, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 192; 193.
[24] Levinas, “Damages Due to Fire,” op. cit., p. 193.
[25] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), p. 121.
[26] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind , op. cit., 183. One might just as well phrase this otherwise with reference to the following English idioms: “When Socrates is in thought, he is not by himself but with himself.” I am thankful to Monica Mueller for this formulation.
[27] Ibid., 176.
[28] Ibid., 180.
[29] For these characterizations, I am thankful to the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Mirash Project (VBM) and the summarization made by Simon Jackson of sichot sponsored by the Project regarding the meaning of temimut : http://vbm-torah.org/archive/sichot/devarim/48-57shoftm.doc. Accessed 15 October 2012.
[30] Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence , pp. 144-45 [emphasis mine].
[31] Ibid., 199, fn. 11.
[32] But it is a mistake to assume that Levinas would exhaust the notion of acting as Elohim acts in the ethical relationship alone. As the trajectory of his writings make clear, the relationships of paternity and maternity, of erotic lovers and domestic partners, of historical life and political engagement also offer moments demanding temimut , creaturely discernment in regard to one’s Creator and fellow creatures.
[33] See the discussion in Otherwise than Being , op. cit. 111.
[34] Ibid. 157ff.
[35] Genesis, 25:27. Tam -“complete; usually (morally) pious; specifically, gentle, dear:–coupled together, perfect, plain, undefiled, upright” [ Hebrew Strongs IPD ]-is the adjective associated with the substantive virtue of temimut .
[36] Levinas, “The Temptation of Temptation,” op. cit., pp. 48-50.
[37] Arendt, Life of the Mind , op. cit., 192.
[38] Levinas,”The Temptation of Temptation,” op. cit., p. 49.
[39] As the philosopher in Genesis Rabbah would have it: “Woe to that man!”