Levinas’s readers are familiar with his manner of distinguishing his philosophical and Jewish confessional works from one another. Whether this distinction is a matter of sciences or only genres, it is reinforced by a decision to keep publications well clear of one another. During his own lifetime, the philosophical texts appeared for the most part with Alcan, Vrin, Martinus Nijhoff, and Fata Morgana, while the Jewish texts were published mainly with Albin Michel and the Editions de Minuit.1 At minimum—though this is already a great deal—this decision is evidently in the service of a position on the “Athens and Jerusalem problem” that also preoccupied people like Lev Shestov and Leo Strauss. In a relatively late interview with Françoise Armengaud, Levinas characterizes his work on the Talmud as an attempt to make Jewish insights and experiences generally communicable by translating them into the Greek concepts and thought-patterns that promise superior intelligibility (ITN 156–57). Yet when he addresses himself to his more recognizably philosophical work, he draws attention to an inspiration that is not contained by philosophy itself. And so, in another late interview, he refers to “pre-philosophical experiences” not dependent on our experience of the world such as it is the business of philosophy to interpret (IR 159). Would the “pre-philosophical” be anything other than what, for example, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond [End Page vii] Essence calls “exposure” and “substitution”? This cannot be wrong, and yet matters seem somewhat more complicated than that. Some of the same concepts that the philosophical works have introduced appear first in Levinas’s earliest confessional essays (e.g., “Ethics and Spirit,” “A Religion for Adults,” etc. [DF 3–23]), and even appear in the course of thinking that certainly resembles what one finds in his engagement with Husserl and Heidegger. Furthermore, this tendency has a counterpart in the philosophical works. In the early pages of Totality and Infinity, Levinas proposes to address himself to “the world attached to both the philosophers and the prophets” (TI 24), and the phenomenological proposals found early in Otherwise than Being prove in need of appeal to such apparently religious notions as “glory,” “witness” and, again, “prophecy.”
Already, we have seen that the position some have claimed to find in the distinction marked so neatly by a decision for separate publishers is contested by the work of the texts themselves. We have also caught sight of the somewhat different position taken in those various texts, or rather taken from the perspective that commands all of them at once. If philosophy and prophecy meet even across their difference in speaking to the same world, they are able to critique and perhaps complement one another. If that complementarity becomes anything more than a mere composite, then to some significant degree they are translatable into one another. This is plainly Levinas’s view. But there is more. As we learn from his reference to a source for philosophy itself in prephilosophical experiences, what comes first are the insights in need of concepts, so that the labor of philosophy, itself replete with concepts, consists in no small measure of fashioning or perhaps adapting a concept to the experience that calls for it. For Levinas, the dignity of philosophy, of Greek thought, resides in its capacity to satisfy this need. But it is in Jewish thought, and above all the Bible, or Torah (as approached through the Talmud), that the properly ethical and religious dimension of human experience is to be found. Europe, Levinas sometimes says, is both philosophy and the Bible, and yet [End Page viii] the Bible is not wholly contained there. The text of the Bible is the damp ground where a religious inspiration seeps into the fertile soil of a form of thinking ready to provide the lucidity by which education becomes possible.
But if we say above all the Bible, then the labor of philosophy awaits, or perhaps participates in, a preparatory discipline of reading. Close study of Levinas’s relation to the Bible reveals, as I have already noted, a commitment to approach it only through the Talmud, which is to say only by way...