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Modern Judaism 20.1 (2000) 78-102

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Toward a New Understanding of the Work of Emmanuel Levinas

Jacob Meskin

Neither the life nor the work of Emmanuel Levinas, the remarkable French Jewish philosopher and talmudic commentator, fit easily into customary categories. Levinas, who died in Paris in late 1995 just a few weeks shy of his ninetieth birthday, was born in Lithuania and emigrated to France, becoming a French citizen in 1931. 1 While still in his early thirties Levinas seemed poised to enter a promising career as a philosophy professor. Then the Second World War broke out. Drafted into the French army, Levinas was soon captured and, in view of his status as a French soldier, was sent off to spend the next five years in Nazi prison camps. When the war ended he returned to Paris and soon found out that his family in Lithuania had been slaughtered. Levinas rebuilt his life and, some fifteen years later, finally began that promising academic career. He had in the meantime taken on an important role in Paris' growing postwar Jewish community as the head of a training institute for Jewish educators; he also spent many years learning Talmud with a noted teacher. 2 Levinas continued to participate actively in Jewish communal life in Paris both during his academic career and long after he retired from the university in 1976.

Levinas' rich and complex life spanned many worlds. His work similarly resists disciplinary pigeonholes. He wrote with great acuity and mastery about philosophy, ethics, religion, literature, aesthetics, contemporary culture, and Jewish texts. His philosophical work is among the most important in the twentieth century. His several volumes of talmudic commentaries and his collection of essays on Jewish ideas and issues are also highly regarded. 3 His influence not only in philosophy and in Jewish thought, but in the humanities and social sciences as well, has been and continues to be significant.

While scholars have generally acknowledged the exceptional nature of Levinas' life and the diversity of his work, they have been reluctant for the most part to admit what follows from this--that in order to understand Levinas' unique project as a whole, it may well be necessary to move beyond academic models and the disciplinary divisions they reflect. This does not, however, mean discarding academic procedures and distinctions; Levinas' work demands not something less than [End Page 78] academic ways of thinking, but rather something more, something larger or more generous. 4 In this article I begin to develop a new approach to Levinas that acknowledges the implications both of his rich life and, above all, of his expansive vision. 5

I begin with a brief sketch of the new paradigm. Section two goes on to show how this new paradigm generates a very different view both of Levinas' philosophical writings and of his Jewish and talmudic writings. In section two the reader will find the surprising claim that several traditional Jewish sources play a vital role in Levinas' philosophical writings. Section II also offers a brief account of the several quite distinct tasks Levinas sought to accomplish through his intriguing use of philosophical ideas in his Jewish and talmudic writings. Section three provides details about Levinas' philosophy in order to substantiate the claim advanced in section two; it attends in particular to talmudic and kabbalistic ideas that shaped Levinas' philosophy. In light of this discussion, section four draws the conclusion that several standard ways of understanding Levinas' philosophy, which ignore the traditional Jewish sources functioning within that philosophy, leave us with an inadequate or distorted picture of it.

As the reader may have already gathered, according to this new model Levinas draws a strong distinction between philosophy and Judaism. Section five therefore takes up two obvious questions that defenders of this model must answer. The first question concerns sociological or biographical factors that may have led Levinas to distinguish in this somewhat unusual way between philosophy and Jewish tradition. The second concerns the ultimate philosophical justification that Levinas offers for accepting the strong distinction he draws. The sixth...


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