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8. JUDAISM It is generally assumed that the two works for which Levinas will be remembered are his two major philosophical contributions, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974). It is indeed true that it is in those works that Levinas has presented us with the fullest, most sustained and best “coordinated” presentation of his philosophical thought. Nevertheless, his writings on Judaic themes, as well as the talmudic lessons or readings, are intimately interrelated to his formal philosophical texts. This chapter will explore those writings and that relationship. Levinas’s Judaism When asked, in the course of an interview with François Poirié, whether the fact that he was often presented as a Jewish thinker was meaningful to him, Levinas replied in a nuanced manner that he accepted it, as long as it was not intended to imply that he dared make certain rapprochements between concepts solely on the basis of religious texts, without philosophical analysis. He went on to explain his particular method of approaching biblical texts, a question that we shall consider in its place, then concluded by expressing some irritation at the suggestion that he used biblical verses to prove anything. He said that he sometimes might “seek by using the ancient wisdom,” but he did not “prove by means of the [biblical] verse.”1 79 SMITH_F10_76-84 3/1/05 6:05 PM Page 79 The essential contours of Levinas’s writings on Judaism are found conveniently gathered by the author himself in the collection of essays on Jewish themes, Difficult Freedom, originally published in 1963,2 and containing pieces ranging from the Liberation on. There we find very personal yet philosophically profound expressions of the significance of Judaism, polemical texts, anchored in current events, short monographs devoted to specific figures (e.g. Rosenzweig, Gordin, Spinoza, Claudel), and a lengthy talmudic commentary on the theme of Messianism. Perhaps the most important trait of Levinas’s Judaism is expressed in the author’s brief preface. “The other’s hunger — earthly hunger, hunger for bread — is holy; only the hunger of the third party limits its rights; the only bad materialism is our own.”3 This is by no means a new idea in Judaism. One of Levinas’s criticisms of Martin Buber was that the latter’s I-thou relationship appeared to be too much on the order of a friendship, more of a spiritual affinity than Levinas’s ethical and earthy coming to the aid of the other, regardless of whether there might be any psychological or emotive rapport involved.4 There is a perceptible and fecund interchange between Levinas’s writings in Difficile Liberté and his philosophical works of the same period. The crossings are particularly discernible in the writings of the early 1950s: between “L’ontologie est-elle fondamentale ?” (1951) and the first piece in Difficile Liberté, “Éthique et esprit” (1952); or between “Liberté et commandement” (1953) and “Le Moi et la Totalité” (1954). The institutional vessel in which Jewish and philosophical themes were able to coincide was the annual meeting of the Colloquium of Jewish Intellectuals, the first meeting of which took place in May, 1957.5 There are many places in Levinas’s texts in which the idea that religious and philosophical thought will eventually converge is noticeable. One clear example of this is the author’s preface to Entre nous: On Thinkingof -the-Other, in which we read, 80 Part Two: Themes SMITH_F10_76-84 3/1/05 6:05 PM Page 80 The main intent here is to try to see ethics in relation to the rationality of the knowledge that is immanent in being, and that is primordial in the philosophical tradition of the West; even if ethics — ultimately going beyond the forms and determinations of ontology, but without rejecting the peace of reason — could achieve a different form of intelligibility and a different way of loving wisdom, and perhaps even — but I will not go that far — the way of Psalm 111:10.6 Due for the most part, no doubt, to the fortuitous circumstances of his birth in Kovno, Lithuania, Levinas was, as mentioned earlier in passing, of the Mitnaged (meaning, in Hebrew, “opposed”) tradition. This group, formed after the Gaon of Vilna placed a ban on the emerging Hasidic movement, was known for its emphasis on study and a generally intellectual approach, which set them at odds with the more mystically inclined Hassidim. The Gaon of Vilna’s...


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