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Modern Judaism 22.3 (2002) 281-284
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The Fence and the Neighbor:
Emmanuel Levinas, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Israel Among the Nations
Adam Zachary Newton, The Fence and the Neighbor: Emmanuel Levinas, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Israel Among the Nations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001). 261 pp.
The title for this perceptive set of reflections comes from Robert Frost's famous poem "Mending Wall," which is not only analyzed beautifully at the outset but remarkably illuminated at other points in the book via juxtaposition with Levinas and Leibowitz, and their respective enlargements upon rabbinic attitudes toward "the other." Good fences, as Pirke Avot would have it, make for more than good neighbors. They make for good Torah. Yet a sage would also want to know, before he built a wall (cf. BT Baba Batra 7b), "What I was walling in or walling out / And to whom I was like to give offense." Newton's work demonstrates clearly that "something there is" in Levinas "that doesn't love a wall / That wants it down." Levinas as a result sometimes strains the rabbinic passages he interprets to the breaking point. For Leibowitz, by contrast, the wall is a given, part of the order of halakhah through which a Jew serves God. Whether "he likes the thought of having it so well" or not, and "to whom [one is] like to give offense" by that observance, are both utterly beside the point. Newton, a professor of English at the University of Texas, deftly draws and redraws the contrast between the two thinkers, with a focus on their respective attitudes toward "exclusion and enclosure—walling in and walling out." Frost's poem serves him well. The effect of his ruminations is sometimes arresting.
Like Newton's previous books, this one has (in the author's words) applied "some dimension of Levinas's thought to critical practice," in part by "expos[ing] Levinas' voice to other voices sounding contrapuntally." Levinas emerges, thanks to the host of rabbinic and Jewish philosophic interlocutors whom Newton provides, as "Aggadic Man." His well-known insistence on the primacy of ethics stands forth clearly as both development and departure from the Talmudic texts on which he commented. Much of Newton's exposition will be utterly familiar to students of modern Jewish thought (though students of Levinas hitherto uninterested in his relationship with Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig, Fackenheim, and Soloveitchik et al. may be persuaded by Newton that this context merits attention). The intended audience seems at times to be Jewish insiders (the word pasuk is left untranslated, and Soloveitchik is called the Rav) who might not yet have grasped the importance [End Page 281] of deepening and challenging their commitment with the study of two major figures who, like Soloveitchik, brought philosophical learning and questioning to Talmudic study and halakhic practice. "Halakha is the way to behave," Levinas wrote, expositing the rabbis' view of the world, "aggada is the philosophical meaning of this behavior." Yet, as Newton tells us at once, Levinas could by no stretch of the imagination be considered a halakhic man. "Where the Rav is dictated to by the Torah in its fullness, Levinas finds, in that same amplitude trope after trope, parable after parable, that collectively reflect back to him his own abiding ethical concerns."
Newton is surely correct in this characterization of Levinas, and indeed the thrust of this quote and much else in the book seems to be an attempt to anchor Levinas in the legal tradition from which he so uprooted himself. He leaves the reader wondering why "Aggadic Man" dispensed so completely with halakhic observance, despite holding to a Rosenzweigian point of view that "sees all the mitzvot as variations on the theme of love of the neighbor." The reason seems not to have been a Buberian rejection of the notion of nonethical commandment as such, though as Newton observes, "it is significant that Levinas does not typically dwell on ritual and mitzvah apart from the textual context of a talmudic homily or parable . . . He...