Emmanuel Lev­inas: His Life and Legacy

Salomon Mal­ka
  • Review
By – October 26, 2011

Lev­inas (1906 – 1995), French phe­nom­e­nol­o­gist steeped in Jew­ish tra­di­tion, is unques­tion­ably one of the great­est eth­i­cal philoso­phers and reli­gious thinkers of the 20th cen­tu­ry. As a Jew­ish­ly-ani­mat­ed philoso­pher, he is on the lev­el of such giants as Mar­tin Buber and Franz Rosen­zweig. Lev­inas’ main focus was to expli­cate an eth­i­cal face-to-face” rela­tion with the Oth­er, which, while imme­di­ate and sin­gu­lar, is also tran­scen­dent. Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, the self, the I,” says Lev­inas, is orig­i­nal­ly not for itself; it is, ini­tial­ly for anoth­er. Thus, respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Oth­er is the essen­tial, pri­ma­ry, and fun­da­men­tal struc­ture of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. The Bible, with its Tal­mu­dic com­men­taries, is the most pro­found and pow­er­ful expres­sion of this idea that the social is the very order of the spir­i­tu­al. Says Lev­inas, The har­mo­ny achieved between so much good­ness and so much legal­ism con­sti­tutes the orig­i­nal note of Judaism.” 

Mal­ka, a for­mer stu­dent in the Jew­ish teach­ing sem­i­nary in Paris where Lev­inas was the prin­ci­ple, has writ­ten a thor­ough­ly engag­ing and thought­ful in-depth biog­ra­phy of Lev­inas, one that describes his life and his con­tri­bu­tions to mod­ern philo­soph­i­cal and reli­gious thought. Malka’s jour­nal­is­tic approach includes per­son­al accounts from Lev­inas’ fam­i­ly, friends, col­leagues, and stu­dents. We fol­low Levinas’s life from his child­hood in Lithua­nia, his pre­war years in Paris, his stud­ies with Husserl and Hei­deg­ger, his five years in a Nazi admin­is­tered POW camp, his pan­el­ing at the Vat­i­can and in the streets of Tel Aviv, and his teach­ing career at the École Nor­male Israelite Ori­en­tale and the Sor­bonne. Mal­ka sit­u­ates Lev­inas’ friend­ships with Mau­rice Blan­chot and Jean Wahl in per­spec­tive while also dis­cussing the teach­ing of M. Chouchani, the mys­te­ri­ous Tal­mu­dic schol­ar and math­e­mati­cian (who also taught Elie Weisel). Lev­inas’ lat­er rela­tion­ship and dis­cus­sions with impor­tant philoso­phers and reli­gious thinkers, includ­ing Paul Ricoeur, Gabriel Mar­cel, Jacques Der­ri­da (who gave Levinas’s eulo­gy) and Pope John Paul II (who often cit­ed his work), are also detailed. 

On a Jew­ish note, Lev­inas, a prac­tic­ing Ortho­dox Jew (though a rather het­ero­dox one), was a well known Tal­mu­dic devotée who offered intrigu­ing com­men­taries and reg­u­lar lec­tures to the sec­u­lar Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty in Paris. We also learn that Lev­inas, some­times a mav­er­ick, did not usu­al­ly wear a kip­pah in pub­lic, he took the ele­va­tor on Shab­bat and drank unkosher wine. After the war, accord­ing to his daugh­ter, prob­a­bly in part due to his being trau­ma­tized by his incar­cer­a­tion and loss of his par­ents, broth­ers, in-laws, and most of his com­mu­ni­ty to the Nazis, briefly renounced Jew­ish tra­di­tion and ate pork in his home. Lev­inas nev­er broke his vow to nev­er set foot in Ger­many despite being offered many hon­ors; he was a Holo­caust sur­vivor of a sort, through and through. As the trans­la­tor of this won­der­ful lit­tle book notes, Levinas’s phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of the face of the oth­er in its eth­i­cal height receives its philo­soph­i­cal clar­i­ty in and from Falling­bostel, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.”

Paul Mar­cus, Ph.D., a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is the author of Being for the Oth­er: Emmanuel Lev­inas, Eth­i­cal Liv­ing and Psy­cho­analy­sis and In Search of the Good Life: Emmanuel Lev­inas, Psy­cho­analy­sis and the Art of Living.

Discussion Questions