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  • New Talmudic Readings, by Emmanuel Levinas
  • Michael Smith
New Talmudic Readings, by Emmanuel Levinas, translated by Richard A. Cohen. Duquesne University Press, 1999. 133 pp. $24.00

Between 1968 and 1996, the French press Editions de Minuit published five volumes of Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic readings. These readings, or lessons, take up the Talmudic tradition of oral interpretation. The Talmud is made up of the Mishnah (completed around 200 BCE) and the Gamara (c. 200 BCE to 500 CE), although the term Talmud is often used in a more restricted sense to refer to the Gemara alone. It is well known that Levinas placed great importance on Talmudic study and discussion, which was not only in keeping with the tradition of the Jews of the Mitnagim (based in Lithuania, where he himself was born in 1906), who emphasized intellectual devotion and opposed the more mystically inclined Hasidim; it also influenced his own philosophical orientation.

New Talmudic Readings is a virtual palimpsest. Each of the three readings begins with a translation of a selected Tamudic reading, followed by Levinas’s midrashic exegesis that follows the order of the text but relates it to a practically unlimited field of other textualities, be they written, lived, or imagined. The translator’s 46-page intro duction, which seems disproportionately long compared to the texts it introduces, offers a context into which the reader is invited to place the translated texts. The ideas presented take the form of an ideological rhetoric that, though often informative and helpful, tends toward the Manichaean, grouping American fundamentalism with Heidegger’s “Kehre,”—Heidegger, who “fresh from the horrors of the Nazi experience” is portrayed as the arch-enemy of humanism, if not of humanity altogether. Other [End Page 176] casualties are Spinoza and Nietzsche, whose sinking counterweight elevates Levinas to an apotheosis that may seem excessive even to Levinas enthusiasts like myself. The introduction has little to say about the philosophical points made in specific texts it introduces. Its stated function is rather (1) “to explicate the nature and value of the ethico-exegetical approach,” and (2) “to elucidate the larger issues at stake by locating Levinas’s exegetical approach . . . within the broader ethical-metaphysical project of biblical humanism that drives Levinas’s thought as a whole, and represents his proper contribution to contemporary thought.” Cohen, himself a seasoned Levinasian scholar (cf. his book Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas), has every right to speculate on Levinas’s contribution to contemporary thought, but there is in fact no consensus about its being biblical humanism. What is true is that Levinas’s Talmudic readings, as well as his Difficult Freedom (a collection of his essays on Judaism) elaborate such a concept, and Dr. Cohen, who teaches philosophy as well as Judaic and religious studies, is particularly well qualified to guide the general reader into this challenging but rewarding area of thought—an area that is an indispensable adjunct to any serious Levinasian scholarship.

Cohen’s explanations of what the Talmud is, and in what Talmudic exegesis consists, are perhaps the strongest feature of the volume. The notes are informative and helpful to the general reader. One translator’s note (p. 69, n. 22), acknowledges uncertainty about Levinas’s meaning—with reason, as it turns out. He offers two interpretations, both of which are wrong. What is really at stake is the suffix of the French word “littérature.” Levinas lists two other French words with the same suffix, “feuillure” and “mâture,” to show that he is using the word literature in its etymological sense of a collection of letters—Hebrew letters in this case, that contain the “folded wings” of meaning and cry out to be interpreted. Another footnote (p. 98, n. 9) acknowledges that the translator has assumed the word “génie” (genius) should really be “genre” (genus). Although the translator is almost certainly in error here (the point being made is that the human collectivity participates in the glory of the individual genius), his forthrightness, as in the previous example, allows the reader with some French, and access to the original, to examine the evidence and come to his or her...

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