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  • Editors' Introduction
  • Rebecca Nicholson-Weir (bio) and Dara Hill (bio)

Akila translated the Torah [into Greek] in the presence of R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, and they applauded him, saying, "Through Grecian grace you are making its beauty known among men."

(Sefer Ha'Aggadah, p. 451:455)

This special issue of Shofar arose out of the growing body of recent scholarship regarding Emmanuel Levinas's contribution to both philosophy and Jewish thought. In the fall of 2005, the North American Levinas Society (NALS) was founded at Purdue University; it held its inaugural meeting, "Levinas and the Political," in the spring of 2006.1 Over 100 international scholars from a wide range of disciplines and from six continents attended. The success of the 2006 meeting was followed in 2007 by a second at Purdue, "Levinas and Community."2 [End Page 1]

In the call for papers that generated this special issue, we wondered whether we should draw the line often discussed between Levinas's philosophic and Jewish thought. This distinction is not an arbitrary one; Levinas chose separate publishers for the two arenas in which he worked and maintained that division throughout his career. Some scholars, such as Robert Bernasconi, Simon Critchley, Adriaan Peperzak, and Tina Chanter, focus primarily on his philosophic work and do not attempt to articulate explicit connections with his Jewish studies writing.3 Other scholars, such as Richard A. Cohen, Robert Gibbs, and Annette Aronowicz, have translated and commented upon both Jewish and philosophic themes in Levinas's corpus.4 Even for scholars who write about both, however, it is not a matter of collapsing the distinction between the two modes. Levinas was careful to preserve that boundary, and others do as well.5

Nonetheless, Levinas's project is sometimes summarized as "translating Hebrew into Greek," an idea which elicits more than a consideration of the difficulties in grammatical translation. This debate between the ancient Hebraic and the modern Greek is not limited to chronological considerations. It is also a dialogue between two modes of thinking and their respective languages: the philosophic, expressed in Greek, and the Jewish, expressed in Hebrew.6 And so we are led to wonder whether one mode of thinking is to be prioritized [End Page 2] over the other. Should Hebrew not hold the dominant place for Levinas as the scriptural language of revelation in the tradition in which Levinas was raised? Or does Greek, as the language of the university, of reason, and of modernity—in which as a young man he was certainly caught—hold sway? Or perhaps they both point to what Levinas called "a wisdom older than the patent presence of a meaning in the writing. A wisdom without which the message buried deep within the enigma of the text cannot be grasped."7

From our vantage point, Levinas attributes a certain priority to Hebrew as the original language of revealed scripture. The beauty and importance of Greek is rightly privileged as "[t]he language of deciphering . . . Greek is prose, the prose of commentary, of exegesis, of hermeneutics," and, moreover, it is "[t]he school of patient speech."8 Surely, though, we already find these qualities in Torah. The discrepancies between the two modes, notwithstanding the essential limitations of language, are, at least for Levinas, already mitigated through a common approach, which is Torah and its internal imperative as the "blueprint of the world," as the translation of the ancient into the modern.

Thus we may say Levinas is already engaging two competing notions of translation from a univocal perspective: translation as a version of representation, where something in one language corresponds to something in another, and translation as an event in which the same continues in a different context. If we retain representation as the name for the first, we may call the second midrash.9 Just as classical Midrashim may be said to address a gap in the scriptural text, so the midrashic may also be considered more generally as a method of interpretation or exegesis.10 By reading in this manner, without presupposing a one-to-one correspondence between Hebrew and Greek terms, but rather presupposing a continuity between the two, it is possible to...


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