- Ethics and Suffering since the Holocaust: Making Ethics "First Philosophy" in Levinas, Wiesel, and Rubenstein by Ingrid L. Anderson
Broad in scope, Ethics and Suffering since the Holocaust by Ingrid Anderson is a unique contribution to the field of philosophical reflection on the Holocaust. Instead of fitting her analysis into neat methodological silos, Anderson works across philosophy, literature, and religious thought to make her claim about the primacy of an ethics of suffering. By ethics of suffering she means to show an ethics devoted first and foremost to the problem of suffering, as opposed to arguments relating to norms, rules, or character. Two overriding claims are at work in this project. The first is the methodological claim that suffering is the most important critical key with which to read philosophy, literature, and religious thought, and the key to unlock major ideas in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Elie Wiesel, and Richard Rubenstein relating to the Holocaust. The second claim is the hard substantive contention that "suffering is what makes us ethical or at least helps create the potential for ethics," that suffering has the potential to transform the human subject and cause one to hope. At one and the same time, Ethics and Suffering since the Holocaust is both a philosophical ethics and a philosophy of Judaism.
After a quick sketch and critique of modern enlightenment philosophy, the three main chapters of Anderson's study are devoted, first, to Levinas, representing philosophy, then to Wiesel, representing literature, and then to Rubenstein, representing the critical questioning of ethical projects. Judaism is the connecting thread that runs throughout these three chapters.
Anderson begins her study with Levinas in order to ground ethics as a transcendental philosophical project. What are the conditions of possible ethical rules and concrete actions that make ethics necessary, not merely possible? These turn out to be, following Bettina Bergo, precognitive and affective. A phenomenological figure, the subject stands at bay, struck and stripped, trapped into an awful immanence. [End Page 114] From the side of Judaism, Levinas gives us a Jewishness bound up with exposure, persecution, passion, and submission. While placing Levinas in the historical moment of post-Holocaust Jewish thought and philosophy, the placing of Levinas at the starting point of this study provides the building block upon which to construct an ethics based on the twin columns of Judaism and the phenomenon of human suffering.
If Levinas functions as a tool with which to ground an ethics of suffering on precognitive, affective phenomenological structures of raw human exposure, literature comes in to provide the voice to human suffering that only language can provide. The stakes of Anderson's project are thus raised. The passive, Levinasian phenomenological subject no longer takes the privileged position in this ethics of suffering. Moving with and out from the kind of pure phenomenology represented by Levinasian philosophy, literature is constituted ethically as action, as an "act of conscience," investing words with nothing less than the power to kill or to prevent killing. Ethical privilege now extends to the voice of the victim and to listening to the voice of the victim. The ethical subject is charged with moral demand, and moral value is now attributed to the act of suffering and to the one who bears it. The suffering person possesses "moral authority" and "metaphysical power." The suffering person is nothing less than God's messenger to humanity, and the particular form of Judaism has a self-defining moral mission that revolves around universal ethics.
In Anderson's study, Rubenstein's reflections on ethics, nature, and history are introduced as antithetical to those of Levinas and Wiesel. As much as Anderson herself stands in opposition to Rubenstein, he is, for all that, important to Anderson's study insofar as he is the figure who provides both a check and final confirmation to an ethics of suffering. On the one hand, Rubenstein famously rejected all of those things upon which an ethics of suffering and classical Judaism would seem to...