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  • Levinas and the Question of Cardiology
  • Alan Udoff (bio)

In his essay, “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition,” Levinas takes up the question of “The Content of the Revelation” (BV 141–43). At the outset, we are informed, “It is not a matter of attempting a dogmatic (Il ne s’agit pas de tenter une dogmatique), a task that resisted the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages” (141; translation modified). This qualification does not warrant the conclusion that Judaism affirms no dogmas, nor that those whom Levinas refers to as medieval Jewish philosophers did not give their name to such affirmations; rather, Levinas puts us in mind of Franz Rosenzweig’s own qualification that “Judaism has . . . dogmas, but no dogmatic.”1 However these qualifications may apply, they are not the only entry point to Levinas’s discussion. An unguarded opening admits us if we speak, instead, of what is at the heart—what is au coeur—of revelation. It is a locution that Levinas employs elsewhere in Beyond the Verse, where he speaks of “the heart of daily conflicts” (187) or the love that is “at the heart of piety” (92). In taking this entrance we are able to bypass the question of dogma. Here, our situation is in a certain way akin to one described in The Guide of the Perplexed:

You will not find with regard to . . . [the great roots of knowledge] anything except slight indications and pointers occurring in the [End Page 115] Talmud and Midrashim. These are, as it were, a few grains belonging to the heart [luub], which are overlaid by many layers of rind, so that people were occupied with these layers of rind and thought that beneath them there was no heart [luub] whatever.2

What, then, is the content of revelation? What is at its heart? It is the “actual fact,” “the metaphysical one,” of revelation itself: “This fact is . . . the first and the principal content revealed in any revelation” (BV 129; translation modified). Borne by Israel, “its Scriptures and their interpretations,” it will

constitute a figure in which a primordial mode of the human is revealed, in which, before any theology and outside any mythology, God comes to mind. The challenge of an ontological reversal! The original perseverance of being in its being, of the individualism of being, the persistence or insistence of beings in the guise of individuals jealous for their part, . . . is reversed into “Thou shalt not kill,” into the care of one being for another being. Alterity becomes proximity. Not distance, the shortest through space, but initial directness, which extends as an unimpeachable approach in the call of the face of the other, in which there appears, as an order, an inscription, a prescription, an awakening . . . , responsibility—mine, for the other human being.

(ITN 109–10)

Let us pause here and return to the beginning, taking our lead from Hermann Cohen: “This is the most general sense of revelation: that God comes into relation with man. . . . God in no way reveals himself in something, but only to something, in relation to something. And the corresponding member of this relation can only be man.”3 In place of “a body of dogma,” it is the investigation and setting forth of this relation that concerns Levinas under the subheading “The Content of the Revelation.”

What we wish to do, in an empirical way, is to list some of the relations that are established between, on the one hand, Him whose message the Bible carries, and, on the other, the reader when he agrees to take as the context of the verse being examined [End Page 116] the whole of the biblical text—that is, when he takes the oral tradition as the point of departure for his reading of the Bible.

(BV 142 italics added)

The path of investigation that is indicated here runs parallel to another, the sight of which should not be lost:

My work . . . attempts to return to the structures or modalities of a spiritual. . . . These structures or modalities are hidden beneath consciousness, which is representative or conceptual, already invested in the world, and hence absorbed in it. They are hidden, but can be discerned by a phenomenology...


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pp. 115-127
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