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  • Bearing the Other and Bearing Sexuality: Women and Gender in Levinas’s “And God Created Woman”
  • Deborah Achtenberg (bio)

Much ink has been spilled on the question of the role of women for Levinas’s ethics in accounts containing a gamut of claims, from Stella Sandford’s that woman is aligned with sexual difference in such a way that Levinas’s attempts to install her within the human fail,1 to Diane Perpich’s that one reason Otherwise than Being is preferable to Totality and Infinity is that the ethics in the former does not rest on a failed narrative of family life and woman’s role in it as ethics does in the latter,2 to Claire Katz’s that there is a rich, positive ethical component to women’s role for Levinas since he uses maternity as an example of being-for-the-other.3

This essay complements those accounts by giving a detailed analysis of the discussion of women in Levinas’s talmudic commentary, “And God Created Woman.”4 Specifically, I ask whether Levinas is right, in his commentary, that, according to Talmud Berakhot 61a, women are not ultimately inferior to men because both men and women are human and their humanity precedes the division of humanity into male [End Page 137] and female. I pursue the question by reading the talmudic passage the way Levinas, in his commentary, tells us that we should read Talmud, namely, by situating texts quoted in it in their broader textual context in Torah rather than treating them as proof texts.

When I put quotations cited in Berakhot 61a in their textual context, I find that the male figures treated in the texts from Torah are dismayingly dismissive of women in distress, suggesting that women are treated as inferior, but then learn their mistake and treat the women as equal or even superior, suggesting that Talmud does see them as having a humanity that precedes sexual difference. Nonetheless, I go on to argue, though the talmudic passage does not see women as ultimately inferior to men, it nonetheless treats them as inferior on the day-to-day level and such treatment belies the attempt to treat them as human.

I go on to ask about Levinas’s stance toward this problem in the talmudic text, Does he accept the treatment of women as inferior? I argue, to the contrary, that Levinas sees the problem and attempts to overcome it by criticizing two ways the talmudic passage treats women as inferior on the day-to-day level: he rejects the passages’ prohibitions on certain types of male contact with women—such as looking at them!—and he reinterprets its association of women with makeup and deception. His stance is more complicated, though, because he goes on to find a kernel of truth to preserve in each of the problematic talmudic positions: in the first, the fundamental ethical ambiguity of sexuality, since sexuality points toward the other as other but also toward one’s own satisfaction; in the second, what we might anachronistically call women’s ways of knowing that, for Levinas, have a certain ethical superiority over the ways men know. The two resolutions have their own problems, I maintain, since if Levinas is to avoid gender norming and gender hierarchy, he needs to make it clear that both the problematic ethical ambiguity of sexuality and also the ways of knowing he thinks are ethically superior are not essentially associated more with women than with men. [End Page 138]


Reading Levinas’s way, I search out the context of quotations, taking them not as proof texts, but as invitations to interpret. In “And God Created Woman,” he says, “each time a biblical verse is brought in as proof it is not likely that the sages of the Talmud are looking in these texts, squeezed every which way in spite of grammar, for a direct proof of the thesis they are upholding. It is always an invitation to search out the context of the quotation” (NT 166/DSS 130–31). As a feminist, when I search out the context of the quotations Levinas refers to in his reading of Berakhot 61a, I...


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pp. 137-154
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