Lev­inas’s Jew­ish Thought: Between Jerusalem and Athens

Ephraim Meir
  • Review
By – January 9, 2012

Emmanuel Lev­inas has been described by schol­ars as one of the great­est Jew­ish philoso­phers since Mai­monides. Lev­inas’ dif­fi­cult- to-read gen­er­al phi­los­o­phy, as well as his Jew­ish writ­ings, have prob­a­bly been more appre­ci­at­ed in Europe and Israel than in the U.S. Lev­inas’ main the­sis is based on a com­pelling, though ques­tion­able, assump­tion about what con­sti­tutes the human con­di­tion, name­ly, that respon­si­bil­i­ty” is the essen­tial, pri­ma­ry, and fun­da­men­tal struc­ture of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.” Thus, says Lev­inas, sub­jec­tiv­i­ty is not for itself; it is…initially for anoth­er.” What this boils down to is that for Lev­inas, ethics — being for the Oth­er before one­self, a kind of rad­i­cal altru­ism — is what com­pris­es liv­ing a humane life at its best.

In Jew­ish cir­cles, Lev­inas’ being for the Oth­er” before one­self ori­en­ta­tion is of course noth­ing new, as it is one of the main tenets of Judaism, and, for that mat­ter, all major human­is­tic reli­gions. How­ev­er, for Lev­inas, it is the har­mo­ny achieved between so much good­ness and so much legal­ism [that] con­sti­tutes the orig­i­nal note of Judaism.” 

Meir attempts to detail the pre­cise rela­tion­ship between Lev­inas’ so called Jew­ish con­fes­sion­al writ­ings,’ and his philo­soph­i­cal, pro­fes­sion­al’ writ­ings — as a uni­ty.” For exam­ple, he ana­lyzes Lev­inas’ views on rev­e­la­tion and phi­los­o­phy, the bib­li­cal address and the logos, the Say­ing and the said, faith and rea­son.” Meir skill­ful­ly sum­ma­rizes Lev­inas’ views on a range of top­ics that are on the inter­face of his philo­soph­i­cal (i.e., Greek” mode of thought) and Jew­ish (“Hebrew” mode of thought) writ­ings. Meir does us a ser­vice in sum­ma­riz­ing, com­par­ing, and con­trast­ing Lev­inas’ views in rela­tion to Mar­tin Buber and Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, among oth­er Jew­ish thinkers. 

How­ev­er, there are some lim­i­ta­tions to this book. First, there are too many tech­ni­cal terms that are used with­out expla­na­tion (e.g., the­ol­o­goume­na, noneu­dai­mon­ic ethics, hyper­ousi­log­i­cal), which, along with untrans­lat­ed foot­notes, leave the non-spe­cial­ist in the dark. How­ev­er, my main crit­i­cism of Meir’s gen­er­al­ly inter­est­ing and thought­ful book is that it often reads more like a cel­e­bra­tion” of Lev­inas rather than a crit­i­cal study of his oeu­vre. Some of what Lev­inas says is quite debat­able. For exam­ple, he speaks about the end of theod­i­cy” after the Holo­caust, though beyond his asser­tion, he does not ade­quate­ly show why this is nec­es­sar­i­ly the case. Indeed, such a procla­ma­tion is philo­soph­i­cal­ly, reli­gious­ly, and empir­i­cal­ly ques­tion­able. In oth­er words, Meir would have cre­at­ed a bet­ter book if he had rig­or­ous­ly and crit­i­cal­ly eval­u­at­ed Levinas’s pro­nounce­ments rather than tak­ing them at face val­ue, includ­ing his views on women and on psychoanalysis. 

Nev­er­the­less, this is prob­a­bly the best sec­ondary source for read­ers who want to know what Lev­inas said about Judaism because it sum­ma­rizes so much mate­r­i­al and is exten­sive­ly foot­not­ed, though I am afraid that only libraries will pur­chase the book at its steep price of $99.95.

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