Lev­inasian Med­i­ta­tions: Ethics, Phi­los­o­phy, and Religion

Richard A. Cohen
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
Cohen, a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Insti­tute of Jew­ish Thought and Her­itage at SUNY Buf­fa­lo, is the author and trans­la­tor of a num­ber of impor­tant vol­umes on Lev­inas. In this col­lec­tion Cohen has assem­bled some of the best papers he has writ­ten on Lev­inas in the last decade. While the book deals with both Levinas’s sec­u­lar and reli­gious writ­ings, there is much in this thought­ful and read­able book that deals with Levinas’s Jew­ish” writ­ings. Cohen focus­es on Levinas’s hermeneu­tic use of the Tal­mud, includ­ing the way it is taught and learned” and the eth­i­cal val­ues and beliefs that ani­mate this sacred text that have bear­ing on how we live our lives today. All of Lev­inas’ impor­tant terms such as face-toface, the say­ing and the said, the third, respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Oth­er, infin­i­ty, the holy, and the there is” (anony­mous being), are all made as clear as these obtuse notions can be, includ­ing as they relate to Judaism con­ceived as eth­i­cal wis­dom. As Lev­inas wrote, what is most unique about Judaism is The har­mo­ny achieved between so much good­ness and so much legal­ism con­sti­tutes the orig­i­nal note of Judaism.” For Lev­inas, says Cohen, Judaism is a unique pro­to­type for humanity’s uni­ver­sal long­ing for ethics. As Lev­inas polem­i­cal­ly not­ed, To be Jew­ish is not par­tic­u­lar­i­ty, it is a modal­i­ty. Every­body is a lit­tle bit Jew­ish, and if there were men on Mars, one will find Jews among them.” In par­tic­u­lar Cohen dis­cuss­es Lev­inas’ think­ing about faith and knowl­edge, ethics as one’s pri­ma­ry exis­ten­tial approach to God, Jew­ish uni­ver­sal­ism and par­tic­u­lar­ism, and the prob­lem of evil. There is also an infor­ma­tive chap­ter called Defend­ing Lev­inas: Inter­view with Chung- Hsi­ung (Ray­mond) Lai,” in which Cohen takes on many of the main crit­i­cisms of Lev­inas by philoso­phers and the­olo­gians. Thus, Cohen shows in this col­lec­tion that he is one of the most illu­mi­nat­ing inter­preters of what Lev­inas is get­ting at in the latter’s affir­ma­tion that ethics is first phi­los­o­phy” as well as Lev­inas’ claim that Judaism is a reli­gion for adults.” This book will sure­ly turn on” the inquir­ing Jew to Levinas’s nov­el approach to Judaism.
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.

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