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  • Through the Lens of LevinasPreliminary Reflections on Holiness (Leviticus 19)
  • Richard I. Sugarman (bio)

You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people, you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed—I am Hashem. You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him. You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as yourself—I am Hashem.

— Leviticus 19:16–19

“Love your neighbor, he is like you.” But if one first agrees to separate the last word of the Hebrew verse, kamokhah, from the beginning of the verse, one can read the whole thing still otherwise. “Love your neighbor; this work is like yourself ”; “love your neighbor; he is yourself ”; “it is this love of the neighbor which is yourself.” Would you say this is an extremely audacious reading?

— Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind [End Page 129]

By situating the reflections of Levinas on holiness within the context of the Jewish commentary tradition, we can show how his phenomenological approach broadens the reach of the tradition. In traditional Judaism and in the writings of Levinas, the oral talmudic commentary tradition always takes precedence in interpreting and applying the written text of the Bible. At the same time, Levinas remains committed to the phenomenological approach in both his philosophical and religious writings that form one library. Our general purpose is to think along with Levinas in rediscovering the saying (la Dire) as it animates the said (le Dit). The saying corresponds, for Levinas, to the animating intentions of speaking or the texts before they have been deposited into the lapidary language of the said. To rediscover the saying is a vital and original part of Levinas’s philosophy of language. By awakening the intentions on the threshold of discourse, the “old becomes the new,” and is invested with a contemporary sensibility by the active reader. In the language of Scripture, the saying usually refers to the spoken or oral Torah that is the Talmud or the Midrash, as opposed to the written text. The questioning involved in everyday discourse and regarding the Torah begins with an attempt to illicit the intention, the sincerity, or the saying, before it becomes chiseled into the language of the said. This is how the “old” becomes “new” without suffering distortion. Given Levinas’s transformative philosophical originality our comments are then preliminary and provisional.

Only very recently has the field of Levinas and biblical exegesis begun to appear as a category of academic research. In 2003, for example, Tamara Cohn Eshkenazi, Gary A. Phillips, and David Jobling published a volume on Levinas and Biblical Studies. Further, Levinas rarely commented on Scripture directly. Even then, it was usually with reference to traditional biblical commentators as opposed to a talmudic exposition. For example, Levinas comments on Genesis 32:8, “Jacob was greatly afraid and anguished.” He asks, “What is the difference between fear and anguish?” (AT 135). He [End Page 130] goes on to cite Rashi (1040–1105), the rabbinic commentator par excellence, who says that Jacob was fearful over his own death, but anguished at the possibility of having to kill.1 In fact, Levinas might have drawn on the commentary of Gersonides (1288–1344), who argues that Jacob was more distressed over the threat of killing than he was of being killed.2 We proceed, then haltingly, aware of the daunting nature of this task.3

Levinas indicates that holiness can only begin to be understood in a world that is rendered free of possession, mania, and above all, enchantment (NT 141–42). This does not await the Enlightenment with its twin superlatives of “progress” and “objectivity.” Rather, it operates on a more basic level. Before and after the notion of “progress” is that of the idea and phenomenon of “time bearing a promise.” As Levinas says in a late interview, “Our relation to time finds itself in crisis. It seems indispensible that we Westerners situate ourselves in the perspective of time bearing a promise. I do not know...


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pp. 129-143
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