“We Will Do and We Will Hear”

Claire Katz
Texas A&M University

The invisible of the Bible is the Good beyond being. To be obliged to responsibility has no beginning… It is responsibility overflowing liberty, that is, responsibility for others. It is the trace of a past that refuses itself to the present, the trace of an immemorial past. ( Humanism of the Other , 54)

In his 1975 presentation to the colloquia of Jewish intellectuals in France, published later as “Damages Due to Fire,” Emmanuel Levinas confesses that for him “philosophy is derived from religion. It is called into being by a religion adrift, and probably religion is always adrift.” [1] In his biography of Levinas, Salomon Malka cites this comment and then adds the following gloss to Levinas’ reflection: “Philosophy can lead us only to the threshold of a mystery, into which it cannot enter” (Malka 136). Presented ten years before his presentation of “Damages Due to Fire,” the Talmudic reading published as “The Temptation of Temptation,” addresses precisely the relationship between religion-read here as an origin of responsibility-and philosophy. [1]

“The Temptation of Temptation,” ultimately, serves as a critique of philosophy, asking us to consider philosophy’s limits. What makes this Talmudic reading so provocative is that it becomes a meditation on, if not an indictment of, philosophy. Indeed, Levinas recalls that the editors of the Talmud sometimes call a philosopher, the Sadducee, who says to the Raba “You should have listened in order to know whether you were able to accept…” Levinas does not correct the Talmud writers nor does he defend the philosopher. Rather, he queries, “An anti-Jewish Christian?” In the end, Levinas offers in this commentary the most explicit critique of philosophy and the sovereignty of the ego, revealing both the paradox of ethical origins and the limits of philosophy.

The Talmudic passage, which Levinas approaches, addresses the moment of creation and the standing at Sinai to receive the Torah. There are many points to focus on here, not the least of which is its placement in the tractate Shabbat, which concerns the festivals and the observance of the Sabbath. We could turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg for interesting commentaries on this reading. Levinas’ reading, however, explores the implications of reading the temptation of temptation “as the temptation of knowledge” (TT 34/74) as a fundamental shift from the original covenant when the Israelites accepted the Torah.

He begins his discussion with the provocative claim that the temptation of temptation-which he describes as the temptation of knowledge-“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” (32). And a few pages later he observes:

We want a knowledge completely tested through our own evidence. We do not want to undertake anything without knowing everything, and nothing can become known to us unless we have done and seen for ourselves, regardless of the misadventures of the exploration. We want to live dangerously, but in security, in the world of truths. Seen in this manner, the temptation of temptation is philosophy itself…. the solid basis of our old Europe. (34)

Levinas’ concern about Jewish assimilation reverberates throughout work and is most apparent in his essays on Jewish education. The citation above is especially intriguing insofar as he is insinuating that Jews are essentially not Westerners-that is, at the outset of this commentary, “being Jewish” is set in opposition, or at least in contrast to, “being Western.” What then is this western mode? Levinas describes it as the need to act with certainty, or as much certainty as possible. To act otherwise, that is to act without knowledge is viewed as simply childish and/or naïve. Additionally, he defines philosophy as the subordination of any act to the knowledge that one may have of that act, where the act comes about after careful deliberation, calculation, the weighing of pros and cons. He indicates that naïveté is the counter to philosophy. Indeed, he comments elsewhere that philosophy is the study of naïveté. And in his 1975 essay, “God and Philosophy,” he recapitulates many of the same themes that he covers in this Talmudic essay. As a result, we arrive at the “inability to recognize the other person as an other person, as outside all calculation, as neighbor, as first come” (35).

This theme is found throughout Levinas’ writings, from his early work to his later work, in his philosophical writings and his writings on Judaism. In “The Awakening of the I,” Levinas’ 1992 interview published in Is It Righteous to Be? , the interviewer opens with this question: “You have had the occasion to say, ‘Europe is the Bible and the Greeks.’ … Could you indicate first what ‘The Bible’ represents in this phrase?” (Levinas 2001, 182). [3] And Levinas replies:

The Bible, or, if you prefer, the Judeo-Christian source of our culture, consists in affirming a primordial responsibility “for the other,” such that, in an apparent paradox, concern for another may precede concern for oneself. Holiness thus shows itself as an irreducible possibility of the human and God: being called by man. An original ethical event which would also be first theology. Thus ethics is no longer a simple moralism of rules which decree what is virtuous. It is the original awakening of an I responsible for the other; the accession of my person to the uniqueness of the I called and elected to responsibility for the other . (182, emphasis added)

The interviewer replies, “The attitude you describe evokes holiness,” to which Levinas responds:

Holiness is nevertheless the supreme perfection, and I am not saying that all humans are saints! But it is enough that, at times, there are saints, and especially that holiness always be admired, even by those who seem the most distant from it. This holiness which cedes one’s place to the other becomes possible in humanity. And there is something divine in this appearance of the human capable of thinking another before thinking of himself. With humanity, holiness thus comes to transform the being of nature by constituting this opening of which I was speaking earlier. Very briefly stated, this is what, in the formula from which we started, ‘the bible’ designates. (182-3)

That is, while Levinas is perfectly aware that not all humans are saints, he nonetheless claims that it is holiness and the very real existence of saints that makes ethics possible for the rest of us. Moreover, for Levinas, notes that there is something divine in the appearance of the everyday average human ceding to the other.

We see a similar portrayal in his essays collected in Humanism of the Other , where Levinas describes ethics as not simply that the other is my concern; rather, we must give up the sovereignty of the ego and the self-certainty of introspection and reflection and turn toward the other. [6] Levinas’ invocation of the “After you,” while seemingly a reference to a banal discrete event, is not merely that for Levinas. This turn, to put the other first, needs to become the guiding condition of our lives.

In his 1964 essay, “Signification and Sense,” included in Humanism of the Other , Levinas addresses the movement that the ego makes turning away from itself and toward the other (Levinas 2002). [5] In section 7 of the essay, he refers to the nakedness of the face as “destitution and already supplication” (32). More significantly, he notes that this “humility unites with elevation. And announces thereby the ethical dimension of visitation…” (32). A few pages later he observes:

There, in the relation with the face-the ethical relation-the rectitude of an orientation or sense is traced. The consciousness of philosophers is essentially reflective. Or at least consciousness is grasped by philosophers in the moment of its return, which is taken for its birth (emphasis added). In its spontaneous pre-reflective movements it already casts a sidelong glance, they believe toward its origin, and measures the path covered… ‘Turn to the truth with all one’s soul’-Plato’s recommendation is not simply a lesson in common sense, preaching effort and sincerity. Is it not aimed at the ultimate most underhand reticence of a soul that, in the face of the Good, would persist in reflecting on Self, thereby arresting the movement toward Others? Is not the force of that ‘resistance of the unreflected to reflection… the will itself… [and is] the will not thorough humility rather than will to power? (34-35)

Levinas describes this humility in terms of the one who has no time to turn back to self. It is not a question of “denying” the self-as in an asceticism, for the self is not yet of concern. It is not the choice between me and other, for that choice is not yet possible. Rather, the self is turned toward the other. Levinas writes,

…the Ego, in relation with Infinity, is the impossibility of stopping the forward march, the impossibility, as Plato expressed it in the Phaedo , of deserting one’s post; it is, literally, no time to look back, no way to escape responsibility, no inner hiding place to go back into self; it is marching straight ahead without concern for self. Increase of obligations with regard to self: the more I face up to my responsibilities the more I am responsible. Power made of “powerlessness”-that is the challenge to consciousness and its entry into a contingency of relations that clash with unveiling. (Levinas 2002, 34)

Throughout this essay, Levinas implies that responsibility is not simply that which claims me-it is a way of being in relationship to the other. It is not that I can say, “I am responsible, but I choose to do otherwise.” Levinas seems to imply that responsibility-being for the other-is at once the same as acting for the other. When he says that “to affirm such an orientation…to surprise in the depth of an Ego unambiguous sincerity and a servant’s humility that no transcendental method could either corrupt or absorb, is to ensure the necessary conditions of the ‘beyond the given’ that shows up in all signification, a marvel of language whose ‘verbal origin’ will be endlessly denounced by philosophical analysis” (Levinas 2006, 35) he indicates that no philosophical method-no method of critique-can undo this relation.

Levinas can turn to “the Good” in this essay, in Otherwise than Being , and elsewhere, and further affirm that this turn to the Good does not need sentiments like care, affection, and so forth, because being gripped or seized by the Good is being a different kind of subject. It is not the same subject that we talk about in modern philosophy-it is a radical relinquishing of the ego in a turn toward the other. To be in relation to the Other as Levinas indicates above, to be seized by the Good, as it were, is precisely not to be able to harden one’s hear to the other. To say, as Levinas says just two pages previously, that “the Ego is through and through, in its very position, responsibility or diacony, as we see described in Isaiah 53,” the description of the suffering servant-the anticipation of the Jesus for Christians and Israel for Jews-leaves very little open to ambiguity (Levinas 2006, 33). For the Ego to be in this relationship to the Other is to undergo responsibility not simply as that which one can say “Yes, I am responsible, but I choose not to act.” It is precisely to be unable not to be for the other. While one could argue that what Levinas means is that we have this irrecusable responsibility but we choose to ignore it, Levinas appears to want responsibility for the other to be something with more binding force. The irrecusable responsibility for the other is precisely that which describes an Ego that is for the other and cannot not act for the other. He later tells us that the Ego is infinitely responsible in the face of the Other (33) and he calls the relation that attaches the Ego to the Other “the idea of Infinity, which is itself Desire” (33). What makes this happen? How does the Ego “erode its dogmatic naïveté in the face of the Other…”? Where does it mean to be gripped by the Good? It is not clear. But Levinas says this about it:

The “term” of such a movement, both critical and spontaneous-and which is not strictly speaking, a term, because it is not an end but the principle calling for a Work without compensation, a liturgy-is no longer called being. And that is where one might see how a philosophical mediation could find it necessary to turn to [ de recourir à , translation altered] such notions as Infinity and God. (34-36) [6]

Returning then to “The Temptation of Temptation,” we see that his explicit turn to religion as the inauguration of responsibility for the Other, an inauguration that itself cannot be proven. But the point that Levinas makes here with regard to naïveté on one side and philosophy on the other is that this dichotomy, or this relation, grows out of something prior to it. That is, we discover that the temptation of temptation correlates to the dichotomy between philosophy and naïveté, and this dichotomy presupposes something prior.

In response to the Western mode of knowing before doing, Levinas reads the Talmudic passage as offering an inversion of this order of knowledge and acting-doing before hearing. And more importantly, he reads this inversion as originary, as founding the very possibility of knowing at all, as founding this dichotomy. Thus, whatever this originary moment is, it must also precede reason. Levinas pre-empts the possibility of an infinite regress-turtles all the way down-by introducing Revelation into the discussion and he reminds us that if Revelation is to have any use it must comprise elements that reason itself cannot discover.

We find ourselves, therefore, in a bind: on the one hand, what does it mean to find these elements and moreover, what does it mean to accept them and thereby run the risk of having been duped by the Devil? (36) On the other hand, and this point is crucial, if these elements are accepted because they already recommend themselves to the discernment of the one who accepts them, “then they are in the domain of philosophy. They would already be in its domain even if reason were to decide only upon the authority of the messenger . The paradox is that Revelation nonetheless claims to overcome the apparently insurmountable waverings and doubts of Reason” (36; emphasis added). And here we have to ask if his reference to Revelation in this Talmudic reading carries the same meaning as his reference to Revelation in Totality and Infinity , a text that also requires us to ask after the warrant for the claim made on us by the other.

We should note here the striking similarity between the themes in this commentary and the themes that he takes up in his philosophical writings-e.g., responsibility for the other precedes choice and freedom. In the context of thinking about this choice to receive the Torah, to receive “a freedom of responsibilities” he asks, “Is one already responsible when one chooses responsibility?” (37). That is, if the acceptance of the Torah is itself the inauguration of responsibility, was responsibility present prior to this acceptance? What then is this acceptance? It is not “choice” as we typically understand that act if it lies outside the structure of both knowledge and freedom. But nor can this acceptance have been forced on the Israelites through violence-ethics cannot issue from that kind of violence. “The teaching, which the Torah is, cannot come to the human being as a result of choice. That which must be received in order to make freedom of choice possible cannot have been chosen, unless after the fact” (37). What then is this acceptance or consent?

Levinas concludes that reason “rests on a mode of consent that cannot be reduced to the alternative of liberty-violence and whose betrayal would be threatened by violence” (37). He suggests instead that Revelation serves as a reminder of a consent that is prior to the freedom-non-freedom dichotomy. As such, revelation does not co-exist with other kinds of knowledge, with reason that issued from this originary acceptance. Revelation precedes, indeed it conditions, reason. Thus, in the study of knowledge-epistemology-the Torah plays a fundamental role. It inaugurates reason and all knowledge that issues from it. For Levinas, this cannot be reduced to a naïveté, since naïveté is contrasted with reason; naïveté is such because it is characterized as “an unawareness of reason in a world dominated by reason ” (emphasis added). Thus if we follow the relation between Revelation and Reason, we see that the acceptance of the Torah not only conditions but also gives meaning to the Real, thus claiming that “in this anteriority lies hidden the ultimate meaning of creation” (40). And then he asks, “What is the meaning of creation: God did not create without concerning himself with the meaning of creation. Being has a meaning. The meaning of being, the meaning of creation, is to accept the Torah.” That is, the acceptance of the Torah is the act that gives meaning to reality. It is not that God would punish the Israelites but rather the act of refusing Torah would simply “bring being back to nothingness.”

We find a similar reading in Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s book The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis , where she tells us that Rashi’s commentary argues that the “main business of [the second day] was the radical transformation of reality from the encompassing oneness of God to the possibility of more than one.” [7] The movement of all of creation is a movement of separation and individuation, a movement of identity. The movement of separation, though, often leaves one without a ground. By its very definition, to be individuated is to be separated from something. In this case, the separation may be separation from God and all that separation means. And another commentator, Resh Lekesh taught: “God made a condition with the works of the Beginning-If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not, I will bring you back to chaos [ tohu va-vohu ].'” [8] The acceptance of the Torah at Sinai reveals the Judaic theme “to do and to hear.” This expression is understood in English as “To do and then to hear,” that is, “to do and then to understand.” Why is this significant? The acceptance of the Torah without knowing what the Torah is demonstrates faith. More precisely, it is by living an ethical life that one understands what an ethical life is and the necessity of living life as such. But this acceptance is not merely a blind faith. Zornberg writes:

…”to be or not to be” is a question that is “suspended or standing” till Mount Sinai. … The world, till Sinai, awaits its true creation…This is not simply a matter of a shotgun commitment being demanded of the people at Mount Sinai. Their standing at the mountain is an experience in extremis of the instability, the terror, not only what would have happened had Israel not stood before Mount Sinai but also emphasizing the relationship between God and Israel: “Earth and all its inhabitants dissolve: ‘it is I who keeps its pillars [ amudeha , standing supports] firm’ (Psalms 75:4). The world was in the process of dissolving. Had Israel not stood before Mount Sinai and said, ‘All that God has spoken, we will faithfully do’ [lit., we will do and we will listen (Exodus 24:7)] the world would already have returned to chaos. And who made a foundation for the world? ‘It is I- anokhi –who keeps its pillars firm–in the merit of I– anokhi –am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.'” [9]

So, according to Rabbinic interpretation, it is the ‘standing at Sinai’ that affirms what God is to create (has created) and therefore, saves the world. The face-to-face with God is connected to finding a foundation. Individuation separates and it is the commitment to the ethical that puts these early inhabitants back in relationship to God. Thus, the giving of the Torah at Sinai necessitates, as recounted in Deuteronomy 5:4, [10] the ability to stand “face to face” [11] with God. To be able to stand in this way with God, “who alone exists and whose anokhi emerges from a vast silence, is to take that immensity of the anokhi immediately within oneself.” [12] To stand “face to face” requires one to be separated, to be individuated. This next passage from Zornberg powerfully illustrates this relationship between standing and separation, and the terror of returning the world to the chaos and emptiness before creation:

“You have been shown to know that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35). Rashi’s comment emphasizes the visual-mystical experience of de-realization: “When God gave the Torah, he opened the seven firmaments, upper and lower worlds were torn apart and they saw that He is alone; that is why it says, ‘[lit.] you were shown .'” In other words, what the people overwhelmingly see is that there is nothing, nothing to stand on. “If you do not accept the Torah, I shall return the world to chaos and emptiness.” [13]

Like the rabbinic commentators, Levinas also concludes, “The unfortunate universe also had to accept its subordination to the ethical order.” That is the universe is such because ethics was accepted. The question of ontology-how being realizes its being-consists in how the Torah was received, in “overcoming the temptation of evil by avoiding the temptation of temptation” (41). That is, being realizes its being, by avoiding a return to the egoism of philosophy, of self-sufficiency and the sovereignty of the ego asserted via ones desire for knowledge. In this acceptance of the Torah, the acceptance of the ethical, the sovereignty of the ego is subordinated to the other.

In the last part, Levinas returns again to the question of childish naïveté-clearly troubled by this problem. The unique nature of the event of the giving of the Torah: one accepts the Torah before one knows it. How do we know that we are not duped by evil? What protects us against this? But for Levinas, this originary moment is beyond good and evil in that it precedes it. Everything we do is conditioned by the ethical, by our responsibility for the Other person. Rather than see this originary moment as childish naïveté, Levinas sees this resistance to the temptation of temptation as a “perfectly adult effort” (42). And yet unable to “prove” the existence of this originary moment, the Talmudic text will nonetheless call the paradox of this inversion-the origin of trust prior to all examination-an ‘angel’s mystery’ (42).

To be clear, Revelation for Levinas is not about God per se -the acceptance of Revelation is the turning toward the other. Indeed, it seems that for Levinas, these are one and the same-Revelation = the acceptance of the Torah = the Light of the face = the epiphany of the other person, which he declares is ” ipso facto my responsibility toward him: seeing the other is already an obligation toward him. A direct optics-without mediation of any idea-can only be accomplished as ethics. Integral knowledge or Revelation (the receiving of the Torah) is ethical behavior” (47). For Levinas, then, to examine without acceptance, that is the real reversal; knowledge without faith is “logically torturous,” it is a corruption of morality (48). And yet, it is here that we can invoke the question that Martin Kavka asks in his essay on phenomenology and Jewish philosophy: “Is the epiphany of the face the ground of ethics or its goal?” [14] It is possible that the answer to this question is simply, yes, but acknowledging the tension does not resolve the problem.

Towards the end of the essay, Levinas raises the skeptical question to philosophy itself-“will it be said that this alliance was not freely chosen. But one reasons as though the ego had witnessed the creation of the world and as though the world had emerged out of its free will. This is the presumptuousness of the philosopher” (49). Can philosophy prove otherwise? No-and so we find ourselves confirming Malka’s statement above, “philosophy can lead us only to the threshold of mystery, into which it cannot enter.” The angel’s knowledge, then, is the prior consent, the immemorial past, this is the “we will do.” My turning toward the other, relinquishing my place in the sun, being responsible for the other, giving the bread to the other, this is the commentary-this is the “we will hear.” Is this then the warrant for this ethics, and if so, what does it mean for those who do not accept revelation? Whose lives are not conditioned by the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai? And in light of where we have gone wrong, or turned away from this ancient message of doing before hearing, we can ask if we need to stand again at Sinai? I would say yes, but not literally-figuratively.

* * *

At a conference I recently attended, we were put into small groups and asked to discuss a personal account of someone who lived during Nazi Germany, an ordinary university professor. This professor had not thought of the events taking place around him as any of his affair and only when he heard his young son refer to the “Jewish swine,” did it occur to him that maybe he had been wrong. Upon moving into these small groups, we were given a set of questions to consider, including these: Why did the professor not speak out? If one person had spoken out, how could that have made a difference? Was the professor indifferent? Is indifference wrong? If your life is at risk, do you still have an obligation to help?

I was intrigued by the most common response, “No, we don’t have an obligation if there is a risk to life or livelihood.” While on the one hand, I tried to explain, yes, we do have an obligation even if we choose to do otherwise-to protect or feed our families, though one could argue that in the long run, the obligation to one’s own family is even greater when there is a risk to others (the young son whose mind is now poisoned with hate, and so forth), the Levinasian point is that the obligation to the other, precisely if our own life is threatened is what makes his ethics so radical. In the general discussion about making moral decisions, it was clearly important that folks believed they had made the right decision and thus they rendered the other choice not really an option. It was striking how much faith, if you will, they invested in reason. There is a faith that Reason will tell us the right thing to do. Granted, this was a philosophy conference-and a conference on teaching philosophy to children/doing philosophy with children. And I admit that this view is not novel-the idea that the humanities and the study of the humanities make us better people certainly circulates in the academy.

It was hard enough to persuade these folks that competing obligations impinge on us and there is rarely the one correct choice-if only we could reason better to find it. The more interesting discussion took place when the conversation turned not so much to competing obligations but to a perception of competing “rights,” which was essentially the most basic point in Levinas-whose place in the sun takes precedence? What is the ethical warrant that will tell someone to choose funding national health care over keeping his/her own money? That is, why would someone accept that life-or a “right” to health care overrides or is more important than his or her “right” to what they earned? Why would someone turn from the idea that their money is theirs to the view that they are in fact responsible for their neighbor? Why would someone turn from themselves to the suffering of the Other, to a view that the other is in fact his/her responsibility? Reason can easily offer a justification for either choice-e.g., economics, pragmatics, and so forth. [15] Someone will only part with their money in the service of others (without benefit to themselves, e.g., the tax break), if the have first turned to the Other.

While this particular example appears to points to the underlying obligation that informs both, my point here is that these two “obligations” are not really obligations. One is a right that is assumed by many-my right to my money-and the other is a responsibility for the other, to give up some of that money in order for others simply to have health care, simply to live. That is, there is nothing in a discussion of competing rights that will turn one away from one’s own rights and to the other. Once formed in this manner, with a view towards knowledge, the sovereignty of the ego, and my right to my stuff, philosophy will simply not be that which changes the heart. Levinas is pointing to a different relation the I has to the Other-and it does not appear to be something that he thinks should happen on a lark or at my own will. He is describing a fundamentally different view of subjectivity, one for which he believes there is an originary warrant and that I would then argue is secured through a complementary education-formal or otherwise.

Reason and introspection do not turn us toward the other nor do they compel us to be responsible for the other. That is, while reason and introspection might lead us to understanding they do not guarantee wisdom-a conflation long ago made in the history of philosophy, where the love of wisdom (search for truth?) was conflated with possessing wisdom. [16] And so the question then is what does? I think the turn here must be towards education. If Levinas believes that we need a new subjectivity-or rather a return to the old, the one that we find accepting the Torah at Sinai, the one willing to give up the sovereignty of the ego and the one who will take on those commandments, which Levinas reads simply as different iterations of turning towards the other-then the formation of this subject is found in how we raise and educate our children. What this education would look like, I am not certain, but if “being Jewish” is contrasted to “being Western” to being European, then the educational system that yields that Western subject must be changed.

In his 1966 essay, “Nameless,” reprinted in Proper Names , Levinas describes three truths that correspond to us living more humanly. [17] The first is that “people need infinitely fewer things than they dispose of in the magnificent civilizations in which they live” (Levinas 1996, 21). He is reminding his Jewish readers of the fragility-and failure-of their assimilation, when between 1939 and 1945 they lost everything-from food and clothing to books and synagogues. The second truth, “in crucial times, when the perishability of so many values is revealed, all human dignity consists in believing in their return. The highest duty, when ‘all is permitted,’ consists in feeling oneself responsible with regard to these values of peace. In not concluding, in a universe at war, that warlike virtues are the only sure ones…” (121). That is, maintaining one’s belief that in spite of the presence of war, ethics is still the “truth.”

And finally, the third truth, and the one that I want to note in particular: “we must henceforth, in the inevitable resumption of civilization and assimilation, teach the new generations the strength necessary to be strong in isolation, and all that a fragile consciousness is called upon to contain at such times, and here Levinas names the maquis, those who resisted French collaboration with the Nazis (122). I simply want to note the link that Levinas makes between teaching and resisting evil.

Later in this same essay, under the subtitle, “The Jewish Condition,” Levinas offers the following connection between religion and the ethical, and it is worth quoting at length:

The fact that settled, established humanity can at any moment be exposed to the dangerous situation of its morality residing entirely in its ‘heart of hearts,’ its dignity completely at the mercy of a subjective voice, no longer reflected or confirmed by any objective order-that is the risk upon which the honor of humankind depends. But it may be this risk that is signified by the very fact that the Jewish condition is constituted within humanity.  Judaism is the humanity on the brink of morality without institutions. (Levinas 1996, 122)

It is difficult not to ask if this is what Levinas hopes for? A morality without institutions? An ethics without politics? Without need of politics? An ethics when there is no more war?

Anti-Semitic language is an exterminating language (123). The Jew sits simultaneously as the object of absolute annihilation, nihilistic destruction, but also as the hope for humanity, for it is the morality that came from the hither side of civilizations, that brought those forth and blessed those civilizations, that brings forth that morality again (123). Like his essays on Jewish education, he locates the Judaism as the site of this ethical relation, and it is education that will deliver it.

At this point, one cannot help but recall the discussion of war and ethics in the Preface to Totality and Infinity and wonder what is at stake theologically in that discussion. If we are not to be duped, the possibility of peace must be certain-but is it ethics that brings this about? Recognizing this problem, we can turn to Martin Kavka’s question: Is the epiphany of the face the ground of ethics or its goal? It is a question, to be sure, to which I do not know the answer. If it is the case that Levinas is tracing the priority of the ethical to the acceptance of the Torah, to a covenant whereby an agreement is made to live in a particular way, what does this mean? What does it mean epistemically? What does it mean historically? What does this mean philosophically? Does he mean that this acceptance was quite simply outside of time and history, that indeed it is an immemorial past?

Levinas deploys terms that are religiously loaded and these terms do work for him that philosophical terms simply do not do-“the trace is not just one more word: it is the proximity of God in the countenance of my fellowman” (Levinas, as quoted in Malka, xxiii. Originally from Entre Nous ). Can we really exchange “God” in the previous citation with “the Good” and have it carry the same meaning, the same connotation, the same force? It is not a question of whether I believe in God. It is a question of what these words might mean for Levinas and whether “God” can be said to be a placeholder that can be simply exchanged with another normative term, like “the Good.” For Levinas, “God” invokes an original covenant that then conditions Judaism-Jewish ethics and Jewish education. That is, it is not God who gives moral authority. Rather, God stands in the background of the acceptance of the originary covenant. Is there a “secular” or philosophical or Greek counterpart to this acceptance? It is not clear that “the Good” does the same kind of work, nor is it clear that Levinas thinks the humanism of the Enlightenment is comparable. That is, Levinas’ ethics receive their authority from something not simply extra-philosophical, but connected to the divine. And if this is how Levinas understands this originary moment, how do we translate this into philosophical language? Or, do we say that we have arrived at the threshold of mystery into which philosophy cannot enter?


[1] Levinas, “Damages Due to Fire,” Nine Talmudic Readings , trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 182.
[2] Levinas, “The Temptation of Temptation,” in Nine Talmudic Readings , 30-50.
[3] Several of these paragraphs are reproduced from my review essay, “Jew-Greek Redux: Knowing What We Do Not Know – On Diane Perpich’s The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas ,” philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism 1:1 (January 2011): 103-111.
[4] Emmanuel Levinas, Humanism of the Other , trans. Nidra Poller (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002). First published in French in 1972.
[5] This is the second essay in Humanism of the Other .
[6] Indeed, the very last section of this essay, “The Trace,” anticipates the essay he will publish as “The Trace of the Other.” In this section, we find his discussion of “illeity”-the origin of the otherness of being” (44), and his reference to the trace within a discussion of Moses seeing the back of God.
[7] This passage paraphrases Rashi’s gloss cited in Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1995), 4. When citing Rashi, I give the original source. These next few paragraphs are a version of material that I published in my book Levinas, Judaism, and the Feminine: The Silent Footsteps of Rebecca (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).
[8] B. Shabbat 88a. See Zornberg’s discussion in The Beginning of Desire, 27.
[9] Pesikta Rabbati, 21 (100a).
[10] Deuteronomy 5:4 reads: “Face to Face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire” (Plaut, The Torah , 1354).
[11] This phrase permeates Levinas’s work as a way of describing the ethical relation. We should find it no coincidence that this phrase is also used in this ancient Jewish text to describe the relationship between God and the Jewish people when the latter were to receive the Torah-God’s ethical commandments-itself.
[12] See Zornberg, 32.
[13] See Zornberg, 31. Translation modified.
[14] Martin Kavka, “Phenomenology,” in The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: The Modern Era , eds. Martin Kavka, Zachary Braiterman, and David Novak (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 97-127.
[15] Indeed, Levinas addresses this very point-not the healthcare issue, but the money issue-in “The Awakening of the I”: “There are of course the frightening aspects of capitalism and of excessive attachment to money. But one must fall into the error that consists n believing that money is accursed and that one must declare it systematically malignant. I am convinced that here is an ethical significance to money and that it can contribute to a humanization of the world” (Levinas 2001, 184). In an ironic twist, Levinas sees money as the end of “barter and trade,” which he takes to be the source of confrontation and war.
[16] In January 1963, the Cahiers d’Alliance published an announcement of Levinas’s participation as the external examiner for William J. Richardson’s dissertation defense at Louvain on November 29, 1962. As is commonly known, Richardson’s dissertation was entitled “Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought,” which was dedicated to Heidegger’s philosophy (4th ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1993). Although the announcement indicates that Levinas’s colleagues at the Alliance are proud of this invitation for him, we see that the controversial subject matter of the dissertation does not escape them. They write: “Philosophy does not guarantee wisdom…. In 1933, Heidegger was a supporter of Hitler and the magazine, Mediations , recently published the translation of some Heidegger texts of that period…. [Levinas’s participation included] trying to denounce [in Heidegger’s philosophy] a fundamentally foreign and hostile message to the great Biblical tradition….” (archived document, translation is mine).
[17] Emmanuel Levinas, “Nameless,” in Proper Names , trans. Michael B. Smith (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 119-123.