Nine Talmudic Readings
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159 pages
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Description

Nine rich and masterful readings of the Talmud by the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas translate Jewish thought into the language of modern times. Between 1963 and 1975, Levinas delivered these commentaries at the annual Talmudic colloquia of a group of French Jewish intellectuals in Paris. In this collection, Levinas applies a hermeneutic that simultaneously allows the classic Jewish texts to shed light on contemporary problems and lets modern problems illuminate the texts. Besides being quintessential illustrations of the art of reading, the essays express the deeply ethical vision of the human condition that makes Levinas one of the most important thinkers of our time.


Levinas's Talmudic Readings: Thirty Years Later / Annette Aronowicz


Acknowledgments


Translator's Introduction / Annette Aronowicz



Four Talmudic Readings


Introduction


Toward the Other


The Temptation of Temptation


Promised Land or Permitted Land


"As Old as the World?"



From the Sacred to the Holy: Five New Talmudic Readings


Preface


Judaism and Revolution


The Youth of Israel


Desacralization and Disenchantment


And God Created Woman


Damages Due to Fire



Glossary



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Date de parution 16 mai 2019
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EAN13 9780253040503
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Exrait



From the Sacred to the Holy: Five New Talmudic Readings


Preface


Judaism and Revolution


The Youth of Israel


Desacralization and Disenchantment


And God Created Woman


Damages Due to Fire



Glossary



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NINE TALMUDIC READINGS
NINE TALMUDIC READINGS

EMMANUEL
LEVINAS
Translated with an introduction by
ANNETTE ARONOWICZ
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS
This book is a publication of
Indiana University Press
Office of Scholarly Publishing
Herman B Wells Library 350
1320 East 10th Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA
iupress.indiana.edu
1990 and 2019 by Indiana University Press
The readings included in this work were originally published in French as Quatre lectures talmudiques , 1968 by Les ditions de Minuit, and Du sacr au saint: cinq nouvelles lectures talmudiques , 1977 by Les ditions de Minuit.
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Levinas, Emmanuel, author. Aronowicz, Annette, 1952- translator, writer of added introduction. Container of (work): Levinas, Emmanuel. Quatre lectures talmudiques. English Container of (work): Levinas, Emmanuel. Du sacre au saint. English.
Title: Nine Talmudic readings / Emmanuel Levinas ; translated and with an introduction by Annette Aronowicz.
Description: Bloomington, Indiana : Indiana University Press, [2019] Translations of: Quatre lectures talmudiques; Du sacre au saint. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2019012434 (print) LCCN 2019012988 (ebook) ISBN 9780253040527 (ebook) ISBN 9780253333797 (hardback : alk. paper) ISBN 9780253040497 (pbk. : alk. paper)
Subjects:LCSH: Talmud-Criticism, interpretation, etc.
Classification: LCC BM504.2 (ebook) LCC BM504.2 .L4413 2019 (print) DDC 296.1/206-dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019012434
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CONTENTS
A Few Words on the New Edition
New Introduction-Levinas s Talmudic Readings: Thirty Years Later / Annette Aronowicz
Acknowledgments
Translator s Introduction / Annette Aronowicz
FOUR TALMUDIC READINGS
Introduction
Toward the Other
The Temptation of Temptation
Promised Land or Permitted Land
As Old as the World?
FROM THE SACRED TO THE HOLY: FIVE NEW TALMUDIC READINGS
Preface
Judaism and Revolution
The Youth of Israel
Desacralization and Disenchantment
And God Created Woman
Damages Due to Fire
Glossary
A FEW WORDS ON THE NEW EDITION
THIS REVISED EDITION CONTAINS A new introduction, a glossary, and some corrections and additions to the original version. The new introduction reflects on some of the reactions Levinas s talmudic readings have evoked in the last thirty years. The glossary briefly identifies regular attendants or participants in the Colloquia of French-Speaking Jewish intellectuals whom Levinas mentions within these nine readings, giving current readers at least an idea of the audience Levinas was addressing or had in mind. The corrections are mainly limited to typos, missing fragments unintentionally left out, and a few misleading Hebrew transliterations. As to additions, this volume now includes bibliographical information for those texts of Levinas, untranslated in 1990, now available in English. Along the same lines, to make it easier for the reader to locate a quotation or paraphrase in Levinas s writings outside these nine readings, I often substituted the new English translation for the one in my original introduction. In some cases, however, either for reasons of interpretation or aesthetics, I have left my original translation in place. I have also added footnotes to the ones already in the earlier version, in an attempt to clarify a reference that Levinas makes. For the rest, the 1990 translation and introduction have remained the same. Translation is an unending process, and there are always other and conceivably better ways to convey the meaning. When upon reviewing it I found my original translation accurate, I did not change it. In a very few places, I could not resist changing a word, mainly for matters of consistency or possible ambiguity. These instances are rare. As to the translator s introduction, of course, much has changed since 1990, including the author. But many people coming to Levinas for the first time might profit from the historical background it provides, and from the reflections on Levinas s style of interpretation. The new introduction is meant to complement rather than replace, bringing readers into some of the current controversies his work has stirred.
Annette Aronowicz
NEW INTRODUCTION
Levinas s Talmudic Readings: Thirty Years Later
ANNETTE ARONOWICZ
WHEN NINE TALMUDIC READINGS APPEARED in 1990, Emmanuel Levinas was largely unknown to American audiences, whether academic or general. None of his Jewish writings had been published in the United States, and his major philosophical writings, although available in English, remained the province of relatively small academic circles. 1 It is safe to say that in the intervening years this situation has changed. In his 2002 introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Levinas , the philosopher Simon Critchley notes, There is now a veritable flood of work on Levinas in a huge range of languages, and his work has been well translated into English. 2 Since 2002, this flood has not receded. If one searches under Emmanuel Levinas in the Harvard University library catalog, for instance, as of September 2017, the results yield over 18,000 titles. Even limiting the search to what has been published since 2010 leads to over 7,000 entries. This does not include the multiple colloquia, courses, and seminars devoted to Levinas in many countries.
Since no one person can hope to give a comprehensive overview of this astonishing reaction, I will limit myself to a single current particularly relevant to the Jewish writings. Hitherto considered peripheral or secondary to Levinas s philosophical works, the Jewish writings are increasingly taken into account for their philosophical significance. The scholars who do so are following Levinas himself, who from the first of his talmudic commentaries indicated that the meaning to be found in these rabbinic exchanges was not only transposable into a philosophical language but refers to philosophical problems. 3 This has led to no greater consensus than before, however, as to how the Jewish writings and the philosophical writings relate to each other. 4 Some scholars claim that the Jewish writings are the source of the philosophical writings. 5 Others claim that, on the contrary, Western philosophy is the lens through which Levinas reads Jewish texts. 6 Another sees a complex crisscrossing between the two, in which it is impossible to police the borders. 7 In all these cases, the Jewish writings now provide crucial grist for the philosophical mill.
Further proof of the Jewish writings increased philosophical recognition is their taken-for-granted insertion into philosophical discussion. To give just one prominent example, Jacques Derrida in his farewell address and in his commemorative lecture to Levinas cites Levinas s talmudic readings abundantly, intertwining them with the philosophic works, without further ado. 8 The Jewish writings are, of course, particularly pertinent to Derrida s concern in those essays, the relation of ethics to politics. In the talmudic readings, as well as in his other essays on Jewish themes, Levinas frequently reflects on Jewish citizenship in the modern State, and the state of Israel, among other matters. Yet the philosophical import of the Jewish writings cannot be limited to clarifying Levinas s political philosophy. A lesson like The Temptation of Temptation, in this volume, goes straight for the notion of subjectivity at the heart of Levinas s ethics and shows the relation of responsibility to cognition in a particularly suggestive way. Every one of the lessons, in fact, whether in this volume or in the others now available, explores his central ethical insight-the unchosen responsibility that defines us as subjects-as it relates to myriad issues-language, forgiveness, ritual, war, education, economics, gender relations, to list just a few. As is evident to anyone familiar with Levinas s texts, the latter s philosophy is dominated by one thought, but [Levinas] seeks to think one thing under an often bewildering variety of aspects, as Critchley puts it. 9 The Jewish writings, no less than the philosophical writings, reveal this diversity in unity.
This welcome recognition should not make us forget that the Jewish writings have a purpose different from the philosophical writings. The talmudic readings in particular were a call to Jews primarily or exclusively educated on Western sources to return to the study of their own classical texts, most particularly the Talmud. The study of these texts would enable the rediscovery of a specifically Jewish consciousness, in a community devastated by the Shoa and well on its way to assimilation. From one perspective, Levinas seems to be following the French sociologist mile Durkheim here. As the latter pointed out, a community builds and renews itself through its ritual activity, which is not only a way of strengthening feelings of membership in the group, but also a way of instilling the particular moral conscience that gives the group its distinctive identity. 10 Levinas emphasizes the crucial role of group ritual in Toward the Other, the first reading in this volume. The communal acts of repentance during the Yom Kippur liturgy help individuals to reestablish their moral conscience, which always needs this externalization into public deeds and words in order to come into being. 11 Many other passages in both his commentaries and in his other Jewish writings speak of the importance of mitzvot, of the commandments, Jewish ritual acts, as necessary to the preservation of Jewish conscience. 12 But chief among them, as he notes, is the commandment of Torah study, the study of the sacred texts, equivalent in importance to all the others. 13 Levinas s talmudic commentaries are an attempt to inspire this activity, by demonstrating the spirit in which it should be done.
Levinas is perhaps less of a Durkheimian, though, when we consider that the Jewish teaching he has in mind far exceeds the boundaries of the group. As mentioned in the 1990 introduction to this volume, for him, the Jewish understanding of ethics is necessary for the world and reveals the human as such. It needs to be translated into a Western philosophical idiom, now widely diffused beyond Western borders. Given the horrors of the twentieth century, everyone needs to rediscover an ethics that cannot be reduced to a list of rules but that reorients the very way we think. This reorientation, it must be stressed, is not a road map to a utopian existence freed from evil. As Levinas understands it, it is key to keeping alive the recognition of whatever acts of goodness we do find in this world and in propelling those acts into existence in the first place. It challenges the that s just the way it is of the powerful. 14
Since this universal ethics requires for its maintenance, however, a Jewish community that cultivates it through study, we may legitimately ask, two generations after the first of the talmudic readings, about Levinas s success in bringing Jews back to these classical texts. The problem is that the data required to answer this question is both unwieldy and elusive. It would involve querying both official and unofficial Jewish institutions on several continents, not to mention those that fall off the grid altogether. Complicating the matter yet further is that Levinas was not alone in urging a return to the sources. He himself referred to the school of Paris, which comprised other influential Jewish intellectuals who wished to read rabbinic texts philosophically, and this does not take into account yet others, among whom Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, for example, who also had considerable impact. 15 In short, influence is not easy to measure and is not time bound.
Nonetheless, signs, even if inconclusive, do suggest that Levinas s commentaries had an effect in returning Jews to their own rabbinic classics. In the French context, the philosopher Catherine Chalier, writing in 1991, affirms that not a few Jews, removed from the traditional Jewish world, undertook to study these texts because of him. 16 Salomon Malka, in his biography of Levinas published a decade later, notes that the philosopher is responsible, to a large degree, for a talmudic renaissance in France. 17 If one follows Akadem, a contemporary online compendium of French Jewish intellectual and cultural activity, talmudic commentaries open to a wide public consistently appear among the mix of offerings. In the context of Israel and the United States, signs are also suggestive. The translation, in 2001, into Hebrew of the same nine readings that comprise this volume remained on the bestseller list for four months in Israel and ran through four editions. This English translation has remained in print since 1990, and, as of June 2017, over 10,000 copies have been sold. 18
For now, the most that can be safely affirmed is that some Jews did return to study and that many more were captivated by Levinas s approach, confirming what he often stressed. The serious study of rabbinic sources requires a great deal of learning and would always be a matter for an elite. 19 He hoped to accomplish a change of attitude, a new respect for these sources that would draw the less learned to the more learned and eventually create a new body of Jewishly learned intellectuals. 20 If we are to believe Ady Steg, one of the former presidents of the Alliance Isra lite Universelle, and one of the frequent auditors of Levinas s live commentaries, he did shake up his Jewish auditors. For them,
The Talmud was something completely unknown, reserved for simple Jews with long beards from the hinterlands of Poland and Morocco. The idea that one could study the Talmud in French, in public, and in the same way as these old Jews of Eastern Europe or of the Maghreb was extraordinary. And when I heard this for the first time, I was truly taken aback, and moved. During those years, his teaching was revolutionary, with, at the same time, a considerable impact. 21
Similarly, Wladimir Rabi, a member of the audience who would often challenge Levinas during the question and answer period, commented on the faces of the auditors, their inner jubilation, as they listened to his commentary. 22 That jubilation does not necessarily translate into a regular study of the texts, but it does suggest a willingness to engage in a new way with those who do.
But if, at this point, any claim about Levinas s success within the Jewish community has to remain tentative, we can, on the other hand, state unequivocally that within the academic world, Levinas s presentation of the Jewish tradition, although it has evoked much admiration, has also provoked opposition, and on many fronts. I will limit myself to two strands of that reaction here, which I will label the historical critique and the political critique, explaining these terms in the course of discussing them. For all of us, those already familiar with Levinas s writings and those new to them, these critiques reveal that no matter how much has changed since Levinas delivered his first talmudic reading in 1960, a constellation of questions remains constitutive of the postwar world. In reading Levinas against his critics, we recognize this world and these questions as our own.
THE HISTORICAL CRITIQUE
As Levinas abundantly demonstrates in his commentaries, the talmudic sages unearthed multiple meanings within the biblical text and, in turn, invite their readers to unearth multiple possibilities in their own statements. Seeking new dimensions in the letter of the text, hiddushim , is, in fact, the life of talmudic study, requiring, as Levinas insists, the interpretation of each person, in his or her uniqueness, provided that they are familiar with the long line of rabbinic commentaries that preceded them. 23 This would be uncontroversial if it were not tied to Levinas s assertion that there is unity in all this diversity: For we assume the permanence and the continuation of Israel and the unity of its self-consciousness throughout the ages. 24
He calls this premise rash, but from the point of view of modern historiography, the better word might be not rash but untenable. 25 Historical study tends toward historicism, that is, the assumption that all truth claims must be explained as confined to the context in which they were produced. 26 Contexts are perpetually changing, making claims to truth relative to their time and place. In the case of Jews, for instance, historical documents show that that they have held divergent positions on any number of topics, including what it means to be Jewish. Is not Levinas essentializing, creating the illusion of unity, at the expense of the actual tradition? 27 As the eminent French scholar of the Kabbalah, Charles Mopsik, forcefully put it,
It is not of real Judaism that Levinas speaks, of the Jewish religion that can be historically apprehended, but of what Judaism is authentically, beyond the forms it has concretely taken, and which of course corresponds precisely to the philosophy of E. Levinas. 28
The criticism that Levinas invents the unity of the tradition out of whole cloth can shade into a criticism of Levinas s very philosophy of responsibility to the other, since by claiming it to be the unity of the tradition, he is, in fact, erasing particular voices that do not point that way. 29
Furthermore, the criticism that Levinas does not pay attention to the diverse contexts of Jewish historical existence sometimes extends to his scholarly admirers. Those who espouse his notion of responsibility as the truth of Judaism or the truth of human being are accused of blithely ignoring that Levinas s philosophy was responding to a specific historical situation, thus failing to notice its inability to serve as universal truth. 30 The real service of scholarship, these critics claim, is to set an individual s utterances within the web of relationships in which each one of us is imprisoned. In the view of these critics, none of us stands above history, capable in his or her unique voice of propounding a truth valid for all times. The best we can do, they say, is to show the conditions under which truth claims are made, thus freeing us to see our situation anew, and loosening the restrictions these claims to the absolute make on us. 31
In assessing these historicist criticisms, the first point to be made is that Levinas was not naive. That is, he made his claim about the unity of Jewish consciousness, and even the unity of human consciousness, fully aware that context shapes and limits truth claims, that his own philosophy derives from a context and that, although he was appealing to textual and historical evidence, it was not empirical in quite the way the historian understands the term. My first task will be to illustrate these three points and to give some indications of how he responded to them. I say some indications because Levinas s entire oeuvre can be read as a conscious refusal of historicism, as the affirmation of a truth beyond history, even if that truth can be detected at work only in history. Below are mere moments of what would require a much more extensive investigation.
As to the first point, Levinas fully recognizes that modern historical thinking has made us all conscious that truths are relative to their time and place, and they die like everything else. 32 Insofar as the historical method has debunked ideologies claiming to be universal truths, he claims it has often performed a useful service in getting rid of false prophecies or old gods. 33 One of these old gods is God himself, if understood in terms of dogmatic pronouncements about his existence or his power and not within and beyond the ethical act itself. 34 The fact that a certain kind of intelligibility is dying, is an opportunity, he says, to formulate truth in a different way. 35 The truth he has in mind is the responsibility for the other person, there before any ideational content or proposition, there before we have made a choice to be responsible. The responsibility of which he speaks is not the idea of responsibility but the act of hospitality or the act of responding to vulnerability. This act, he claims, is the one universal, signifying our humanity in all times and places.
As to the second point, Levinas fully recognizes that his philosophy arose within a specific historical context. It is this attention to the suffering of the other that, through the cruelties of our century (despite these cruelties, because of these cruelties) can be affirmed as the very nexus of human subjectivity. 36 The enormous scale of the dehumanization that has occurred through the various horrors of the twentieth century has helped bring out what our humanity consists of: our response to the suffering of the other. He recognizes the same power of context to shape thought in regard to other philosophers. Kierkegaard s philosophy, for instance, arose in the context of the historicization of transcendent meaning. 37 Rosenzweig s philosophy could arise only in a context when Jews and Christians were living in a new political and social proximity. 38 Buber s philosophy arose in a climate of Liberal Judaism. 39 Levinas himself followed all three of these philosophers, to a lesser or greater degree, even though the Second World War in two of these cases, and much else, separates him from each of them. For him, context limits expression by creating the conditions without which it could not have arisen. But conditions do not necessarily limit the meaning to a certain time and place. This is so for many reasons, including the way meaning means, which is related to the third point, the nature of empirical evidence.
On this third point, rather than quoting Levinas directly, I would like to take a detour through a concrete example. He often speaks of the way that the talmudic sages never separate a concept from a particular example, which, more than an illustration, serves as a source for continual renewal of the initial meaning. 40 The example I have chosen does not come from Levinas s own writings, and I present it merely as an illustration, first of the kind of responsibility he sees as the heart of the Jewish tradition, and second, of what kind of evidence he adduces to back up his claim. The example in question comes from Chaim Grade s My Mother s Sabbath Days . 41 Grade (1910-1982), a prominent Yiddish poet and novelist, was not only a contemporary of Levinas but also a Lithuanian Jew, although from Vilna rather than from Levinas s birthplace, Kovno. His book, a memoir about his mother, Velle, and the Jewish community in which he grew up, despite the differences in intellectual milieu of the two authors, lends itself well to a Levinassian interpretation. 42
In the chapter I have chosen, Velle tells her son of an incident that occurred fifteen years earlier. During the First World War many armies on the march came through Vilna, including the Bolsheviks. 43 When the latter came to town a second time, they stopped the pogroms perpetrated by the Poles. Nonetheless, a young Russian soldier grabs a watch from a Jewish man s arm, and the latter, seeing a commissar riding by, reports him. The commissar forces the young soldier to kneel, and, despite his pleading to spare him for the sake of his wife and children, shoots him, leaving him to die in the street. Velle s son, the young Grade, cannot help asking his mother why this has stayed on her mind, when she has witnessed violence on a much larger scale. After all, the Bolsheviks did stop the pogroms that had taken many Jewish lives, and the commissar, in executing the young man, was trying to discipline his troops so that they would not steal from the civilian population. Velle s response is vehement. In the case of the pogromists, her fellow Jewish shopkeepers recognized them as murderers and held them in utter contempt. In the case of the commissar, however, many of them had approved of his act, considering him a hero. For once, they said, justice had been done because crimes committed against Jews were treated the same way as crimes committed against others. At the center of her story is her outrage, undiminished by the passing of the years. A violation had been committed twice-by the commissar, for whom the young man he shot did not have a face, and by her fellow Jews, who failed to recognize this as a violation. Oh, Lord, what has become of Jews? That Jews should stand by and not turn a hair when a human being is shot because of a watch! 44
To read this story through a Levinassian lens would be to focus on the nature of the responsibility Velle exhibits. Her certainty that an unspeakable violation had been committed does not seem to come as the conclusion of a reasoning process. She recognizes the violation instantly as such, as the source not only of her integrity but also, in her sight, of Jewish integrity and, even beyond, of the integrity of the Soviet commissar. She seems to feel responsible not only for herself in that she did not speak out at the time but also for her fellow Jews, and even for the commissar. They all participated, and she feels the burden of their failed responsibility. 45
The immediacy of her reaction, suggesting a responsibility there prior to a reasoning process, does not mean that she cannot adduce reasons but that these reasons follow her sense of violation, rather than being the source of it. In her rebuttal of her son s position, she describes the young soldier not as a Russian, not as a non-Jew, but as a specific person, a very young man. As she imagines it, he might have thought that having just risked his life to protect Jews, he deserved a little compensation. Perhaps he wanted to show off the watch to his wife and children when he returned home. In describing him with such empathy, she is not arguing that the theft should have gone unpunished. Rather, she is arguing that the punishment did not fit the crime. 46 It was not a response to what he did, indicating contempt for particular human beings. She points out that the same Bolsheviks whom her fellow Jews so admired for the commissar s just act, later shot a Jewish merchant on the spot when he refused to accept payment in the worthless currency of the time. 47 The killings were not acts of justice, the result of weighing the claims of particular people. They were the acts of violence of the powerful.
If Velle s reaction captures at least some aspects of what Levinas means by the responsibility that makes us into irreplaceable subjects, it also captures what he means by the continuity of the Jewish tradition over time. Grade s story shows that the majority of Jews did not act in accordance with that responsibility. The continuity of the tradition passes through an elite. In this case, the elite is a proste yidene , a simple Jewish woman, as Velle calls herself. 48 Yet, even if she is not privy to the subtleties of halakhic reasoning, she regularly studies Jewish sacred texts, in her case, the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew Bible, interspersed with aggadic commentary, midrash, the same kind of commentary that Levinas interprets. 49 She retells parts of that text to her son to illustrate her point, interpreting an already interpreted text. It is her ethical stand that makes her one of the elite, an ethical stand formed by a tradition.
By analogy, Levinas is not arguing that all Jews at all times have held responsibility to the other to be the core teaching of the Jewish tradition, or have acted accordingly. 50 He is claiming that there have always been some and that it is they who represent the tradition. They derive their stance from the texts, but these texts have to be interpreted, in two senses, in order to release the ethical teaching. 51 In the first place, the texts Velle cites did not say in black and white what she extracts from them. Her reading is based on imagery and on a dense narrative. It is plausible but not the only possible one. Levinas claims that many texts make the responsibility to the other evident but that it still requires an act of interpretation, given that often the sacred texts half hide and half reveal their meaning, requiring the breath of the interpreter to come to life. 52 The second sense of interpreting has to do with applying the teaching to a particular set of events, as Velle does in the case of the Bolsheviks. Here the teaching becomes testimony, a risk and a choice. 53 Levinas is claiming that this is the oneness of Jewish consciousness. A long line of people such as Grade s mother and Grade himself, since he retells the story, have carried the tradition. At times of crisis, a community as a whole has recognized this as their teaching. 54 But it is never there in a way that does not require interpretation.
To interpret is to bring out what is already there, hitherto unseen in its full dimensions. The immediacy of Velle s reaction is literally in the story. To see in her reaction a responsibility there before reason is to bring out what the text can mean but does not necessarily. Velle s insistence that this responsibility is what the Jewish tradition teaches, against the majority of her fellow Jews, is literally in the story. Recognizing her stance as an illustration of the oneness of Jewish consciousness brings out what the story can mean but does not necessarily. That she ritually studies the texts, interpreting already interpreted texts is literally in the story. To say that ritual forms consciousness, when done in a certain spirit, is suggested by the story but is not there in black and white. Where does this spirit that pulls out what is not fully there come from? Levinas would understand it as embedded in a long oral tradition, as we can see from Velle s telling the story of the young soldier to her son. One assumes that she learned it through oral transmission as well, interspersed with the letters on a page. Similarly, Levinas s talmudic commentaries draw out the ethical dimension that is already there, on the basis of a tradition he received prior to and while reading the text. The empirical evidence requires the spirit of the interpreter. It does not mean by itself, although it always half suggests and half hides the meaning within it.
This brings us back to historical context. Surely, Grade, publishing his memoir in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, included this particular story because he witnessed some of the events in both Vilna and the Soviet Union. The texts his mother cites in the story come alive because of that context. In the process, he casts a critical eye not only on the Bolsheviks in 1920 but on Jewish sympathizers of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. But context, if it evokes the teaching, does not limit it to just itself. Velle s reaction to the commissar s utter indifference to human life, and her contempt for the way her fellow Jews favored group interest over the protection of the vulnerable does not pertain only to the behavior of Communists and their sympathizers. These events were the contextual trigger for the ethical teaching, but surely the threat to ethics that both Grade and his mother detect can and is triggered by other events in other times. In that sense, the ethical teaching transcends time and place, although it always has to be interpreted anew.
But if historical context is essential, giving rise to the ethical teaching in the first place, historical study by itself cannot settle the question of whether there is unity in a tradition, despite all the diversity. That is a matter of ethical commitment, which is not done in a void, since there is evidence, but that evidence does not equal incontrovertible proof. On the other hand, the choice to see only diversity and to refuse any kind of unity may not be as empirically secure as it claims. Levinas suggests that the postwar version of historical relativism arose in part as a refusal of the universalism cloaking the imperialism and colonialism of a prior era. 55 It was a reaction to context and an ethical commitment of its own. But when the context changes once again, people may feel the absence of something universally human as an ethical void and seek to express it once again, differently from the prior universalism but still formulating a common basis. Is this not Levinas s project? Between Levinas and his critics lies the issue of how to think about our common humanity or whether it can even be thought about at all. It is not an issue of ethical commitment, on the one hand, and incontrovertible empirical evidence on the other.
THE POLITICAL CRITICISM
Grade s story about his mother can also serve as an entry point to a second strand of criticisms aimed at Levinas s understanding of Judaism, the political one. Velle and the entire Jewish community of which she is a part are subjects of many changing States and citizens of none. They are, in essence, powerless. Levinas suggests that it is the Jews precarious situation in history that has made them understand the human as responsibility to the other. 56 But what happens when Jews become equal citizens within their States and when they become citizens of their own sovereign State? All of Levinas s philosophy is meant to refute Nietzsche s claim that Jewish (and subsequently, Christian) concern for the vulnerable was a subterfuge, an attempt by the powerless to condemn violence, as a means of seizing the reins of power. 57 The least that can be said is that, for Levinas, the commandment of responsibility is not a veil for power. The very opposite of the will to power, it manifests itself across time and place, indifferent to social position.
Yet, as many critics have pointed out, some of Levinas s specific statements, especially about the state of Israel, make problematic the distinction between politics and ethics he was at pains to make elsewhere. 58 The talmudic reading Judaism and Revolution, in this volume, does maintain this distinction, I would contend. In that commentary, Levinas can be read as proposing that the State s function is to guarantee the minimal security-a home, a living wage-without which, the gesture of hospitality toward the other, blocked by overwhelming need, cannot occur. 59 The State-the political dimension-thus serves ethics. But the State also works counter the ethical demand. It excludes from its protection those it does not label its own, the Jews having represented that outside more outside than the proletariat, in the course of history. 60 Also, even when the State builds institutions to protect the most vulnerable in its midst, the gesture of hospitality requires a particular person s response to another. 61 The ethical is never fulfilled if services are dispensed only impersonally, as in a check in the mail. As we know, for Levinas, the response to the face of the other lies at the center of Jewish teaching, and, as he notes, the insistence on the protection of the stranger in the biblical text make abundantly clear that the other to whom one responds cannot be only the member of one s own group. 62
On the other hand, in Promised Land, Permitted Land, to stick only to one essay also in this volume, it becomes difficult to see where the responsibility to the other lies. These essays can be read in more than one way, and they have to be read in the context of many other writings of Levinas. Yet in Promised Land, Permitted Land, the line between ethics and politics does blur. The state of Israel, as Levinas reads it, is established in the hope of creating the conditions for true justice between human beings, showing through institutions like the kibbutz, how this can be achieved. 63 He does point out that this is only a promise and the land will spew out its inhabitants if it is not realized, thus preserving an ethical distance toward the State. 64 Yet, in the rabbinic passage, conquest and dispossession of the original inhabitants are justified for the sake of the promise of a just society. 65 The explorers in the biblical text, who criticize the morality of the dispossession, as the rabbis interpret their hesitations, suffer a deserved terrible punishment. Of course, the entire rabbinic discussion, and Levinas himself by reproducing it, retains the doubt about the rightness of the conquest, but Levinas, in the end, concurs with the rabbinic condemnation of that doubt.
One must not share in these fears [that the explorers expressed], but only understand them. Let us not forget the end of the story the Torah tells us: the explorers were severely punished for their doubts and-perhaps as we shall see-for their scruples. Everything we are saying here and our entire endeavor to guess the interior crisis of these explorers should not make us forget the end of the story and the condemnation it teaches. 66
But if condemnation awaits those who have moral scruples about conquest when that conquest means to institute a just society, then is not the line between a will to power and ethics thin indeed, as Levinas himself acknowledges in a part of this essay? 67
Complicating the matter even further is the fact that Levinas recognizes that in the world we are never just two but three and that responsibility needs to be weighed between the other and a third to whom we are also responsible. 68
Doubtless, responsibility for the other human being is, in its immediacy, anterior to every question. But how does that responsibility obligate if a third party troubles this exteriority of two where my subjection of the subject is subjection to the neighbor? The third party is other than the neighbor but also another neighbor, and also a neighbor of the other, and not simply their fellow. What am I to do? What have they already done to one another? Who passes before the other in my responsibility? 69
The other is my neighbor, and that neighbor can be my kin as well as the stranger. 70 As he says elsewhere, It should not be forgotten that my family and my people, despite the possessive pronouns, are also my others, like strangers, and demand justice and protection. 71 But, if that weighing of who passes before whom always leans toward the kin or the countryman, toward the building up of the State, and not to what the State crushes, what happens to ethics? Is it not absorbed completely into politics?
How to relate ethics to politics in Levinas s thought is a matter of much more than academic interest, and one cannot shy away from it. In service to offering an entryway into this issue, I want to underscore an obvious point. Levinas s work would not have evoked the ocean of commentaries mentioned in the beginning of this essay, if it were not very powerful. But he did not emphasize his own subjectivity in his interpretations of either talmudic passages or current events to have us give up on ours. 72 The central part of his work lies in elaborating a new understanding of a responsibility to the other person that precedes reason. If a reader finds no echo with his or her experience, there is no choice but to reject Levinas s philosophy in its totality. If a reader does recognize that central part as true, it remains his or her responsibility to acknowledge difficulties and contradictions in specific contexts, if and when they appear. That they appear in the realm of the political strikes this reader as incontrovertible.
But, second, the very difficulties Levinas s texts may raise in this regard force us to confront an inescapable problem: how to relate two entities-the Jewish people and the Jewish State. Of course, even phrasing the problem this way is controversial. For some, certain anti-Zionist Hasidic groups, for instance, there is no such problem because they see no connection between the Jewish people and the State. In historical time, there can be no legitimate Jewish State. For others, some religious and secular Zionists, for instance, the problem disappears as well, because the people and the State completely overlap. For Levinas, taking his writings as a whole, the Jewish people and the Jewish State intersect but do not coincide. This intersecting noncoincidence is not a matter of diaspora and state of Israel. It is a matter of an ethical teaching, defining the Jewish people, and how it can be both embodied and betrayed in the way a State conducts its affairs or in the way it does or does not create the minimal conditions that make the responsibility to the other possible. Levinas s commentaries do not provide a formula as to when we are witnessing embodiment and when betrayal. Instead, they can only alert us to the necessity of keeping this distinction alive. I, for one, as a guide into these matters, would underscore a quotation from the prophet Amos Levinas often cites as central to the notion of the chosenness of the Jewish people. You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth. That is why I will call you to account. (Amos 3:2) 73
I understand that by agreeing to the notion of a specifically Jewish teaching, and even more so to a notion of Jewish chosenness, Levinas goes counter to one strand of the postmodern critique, which would see in identification with groups, and identifying specific teachings as connected to specific groups, the very source of the ethico-political problem. 74 We need, according to this criticism, to form a community of the deracinated to resist the privileging of one community over another. This view arises as a reaction to an exacerbated nationalism or ethnic identification evident today, limiting all gesture of protection to the group itself. That rigid identification blocks the gesture of hospitality to anyone outside the group and stifles criticism, even from within. Reflecting on this postmodern solution would require a longer treatment, once again, than what can be said here. The dangers of an exacerbated nationalism are only too real. But not identifying with a specific community, in this case, with the Jewish community, in order to participate in a realm beyond all group identifications has dangers that have been pointed out long ago. As the eighteenth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn replied to those who wished him to leave the Jewish community in the name of the universal, we are not yet at the end of time. 75 When the Messiah comes, no groups shall prevail over one another, and peace shall reign. In the meantime, when groups are a given of human existence, Mendelssohn saw the invitation to step outside the bonds of the Jewish community as a way of eliminating it. 76 Levinas was only too aware that the teaching central to the Jewish tradition is often betrayed, and by Jews themselves. There is no ideological fix for this, only courage to call it a betrayal when it is one.
ETHICS IN ANOTHER KEY: INVITATION TO THE ART OF READING
These are weighty matters. I would like to end on another note altogether, however, returning to the fact that beyond and through their content, the talmudic readings are masterful exemplars of the art of reading. Reading, so dependent on the person who interprets, simultaneously shaped by tradition and shaping it, brings to light an excess. There seems always to be another meaning, if not today, then at another time or another place. Levinas even speculates that the very notion of transcendence might have arisen as a result of the surplus of meaning in texts, 77 which always depend, as he often says, on the breath we blow on them to bring them to life, a breath awakened through contact with those very texts. 78 In an age in which so many features of what we hitherto considered to be our inalienable humanity are seemingly reproduced by computers or reduced to survival instincts, the art of reading quietly reminds us of our elusiveness to ourselves, through the very language we hear from another and to which we respond. Levinas s commentaries are the living image of that elusiveness. Looked at a thirty years distance, their lasting significance may lie precisely in keeping that elusiveness before our eyes. In cultivating that elusiveness, Nine Talmudic Readings also invites us to confront and articulate our moment in time.
NOTES: NEW INTRODUCTION
1 . In addition to Nine Talmudic Readings , another volume of his Jewish writing, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism , trans. Se n Hand, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, was also published in 1990. To investigate who was writing on Levinas in prior decades, it is useful to consult Roger Burggraeve, Une bibliographie primaire et secondaire (1929-1985), avec compl ment 1985-1989 . Leuven: Peeters, 1990. My own teacher, Kees Bolle, was part of the small circles that were reading Levinas already in the 1970s. Made aware of Levinas s work through Dutch philosophical and theological journals, he taught Infinity and Totality to his UCLA graduate students in 1974.
2 . Simon Critchley, Introduction, in Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi eds., The Cambridge Companion to Levinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 5.
3 . Levinas, Difficult Freedom , 68.
4 . Claire Elise Katz, Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 9.
5 . Francois Noudlemann, Dieu est-il un ma tre chanteur? in Danielle Cohen-Levinas and Bruno Clement eds., Emmanuel Levinas et les territoires de la pens e (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2007), 515.
6 . Samuel Moyn, Emmanuel Levinas s Talmudic Readings: Between Tradition and Invention, Prooftexts v. 23, n. 3 (Fall 2003): 342, 346-349.
7 . Catherine Chalier, Levinas and the Talmud, in Critchley and Bernasconi, Cambridge Companion , 100-101.
8 . Jacques Derrida, Adieu Emmanuel L vinas . Paris: Editions Galil e, 1997. Derrida had already referenced some of Levinas s Jewish writings in his famous essay of 1964, Violence et M taphysique: Essai sur la pens e d Emmanuel Levinas, Revue de M taphysique et de Morale 69, n. 3 (Juillet-Septembre, 1964): 328, 339, 342, 344, 347; deuxi me partie 69, n. 4 (Octobre-D cembre, 1964,): 471, 472. Considering that the 1964 essay is 80 pages in length, the references are sparse compared to the 1997 edition, in which huge sections are devoted to the talmudic readings. Of course, many fewer of them had been published in 1964.
9 . Critchley, Cambridge Companion , 6.
10 . mile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life , trans. Joseph Ward Swain (New York: Free Press, 1915), 222, 465-466, 467.
11 . Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 23-24.
12 . Ibid., 18, 82-84, 150. Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom , 18, 19, 26, 286-288.
13 . Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse , trans. Gary D. Mole (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 141.
14 . Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 55.
15 . Ibid., 15. This school of thought emanated from an institution founded after the war, the cole Gilbert Bloch, also known as l cole D Orsay, on the outskirts of Paris. See also Pard s 23/1997, entirely devoted to L cole de pens e juive de Paris. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (1937-) has made the Babylonian Talmud available through translations into modern Hebrew, and subsequently, into several European languages, so as to facilitate access to many more readers. The project began in 1965, and has resulted in a completed English translation and many other volumes.
16 . Catherine Chalier, A propos des lectures talmudiques: Entretien avec Gilles Bernheim, in Catherine Chalier et Miguel Abensour eds., Emmanuel L vinas (Paris: Editions de l Herne, 1991), 360.
17 . Salomon Malka, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy , trans. Michael Kigel and Sonja M. Embree (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2006), 143.
18 . Some books on Talmud have appeared, meant to encourage study of Jewish texts in the spirit of Levinas. In the case of Ira F. Stone, Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud: An Introduction , Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1998, his readings grew out of the classes he taught to his congregation in Philadelphia. Georges Hansel, in France, who spells out his debt to Levinas in his introduction, both writes on Talmud (see, e.g., Explorations talmudiques , Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1998, 12-19) and teaches it; Rav Daniel Epstein and Shmuel Wygoda, both living in Israel, also write on Talmud and teach it in a manner that owes much to Levinas. Epstein is the translator of the same nine talmudic readings comprising this volume into Hebrew, ( Tesha Kri ot Talmudiot , Jerusalem: Shocken Press, 2001), and Wygoda wrote his dissertation, ( The Jewish Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas: Phenomenology and Hermeneutics in his Talmudic Readings ) and many articles on Levinas s approach to Talmud. This is not in the least meant to be a comprehensive list, and I apologize in advance to those I have left out. I am concerned here not primarily with published works on Talmud, but with actual Talmud study, in the wake of Levinas s example, and again, this would require an extensive surveying beyond the limits of this introduction.
19 . L vinas, Difficile libert , 286-287.
20 . Ibid. 275-277.
21 . Malka, Levinas , 128.
22 . liane Amado L vy-Valensi and Jean Halp rin eds., Tentations et actions de la conscience juive: donn es et debats (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971), 187.
23 . Levinas, Beyond the Verse , 110.
24 . Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 7.
25 . Ibid.
26 . Martin Jay, referring to the Cambridge School of Intellectual History, described its historicist premises as follows: Every text had to be understood finitely, but holistically, as a response to the unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered questions of the day, not as a contribution to an omnitemporal conversation outside of any historical context. See Martin Jay, Historical Explanation and the Event: Reflections on the Limits of Contextualization, New Literary History , (Autumn 2011) v. 42: 4, p. 558.
27 . Sarah Hammerschlag, The Figural Jew: Politics and identity in Postwar Jewish Thought , (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010), 153.
28 . Charles Mopsik, La pens e d Emmanuel L vinas et la Cabale, Chalier et Abensour eds., Emmanuel L vinas , 384.
29 . Samuel Moyn, A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2005), 120-121, 157-158.
30 . Ibid., 112-113.
31 . Judith Butler, What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault s Virtue, in Sara Salih ed., The Judith Butler Reader (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 316. Butler is not at all addressing Levinas in this essay, but her point is pertinent to the kind of criticism that Levinas has received.
32 . Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names , trans. Michael B. Smith (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1996), 3-4.
33 . Levinas, Beyond the Verse , 114.
34 . Emmanuel Levinas, Outside the Subject , trans. Michael B. Smith (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 126.
35 . Levinas, Proper Names , 4-5.
36 . Emmanuel Levinas, Entre nous: thinking-of-the-other , trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 94.
37 . Levinas, Proper Names , 78-79.
38 . Emmanuel Levinas, Outside the Subject , 49-51.
39 . Ibid., 11.
40 . Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 10-11; Levinas, Beyond the Verse , 103; Emmanuel Levinas, In the Time of the Nations , trans. Michael B. Smith (New York: Continuum, 2007), 46.
41 . Chaim Grade, My Mother s Sabbath Days: A Memoir , trans. Channa Kleinerman Goldstein and Inna Hecker Grade (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 93-98.
42 . Grade had a yeshiva education, studying for a time with the famous talmudic authority, the Hazon Ish. He also came from a Yiddish-speaking home, and devoted himself to Yiddish literature, both poetry and fiction, from his days in Yung Vilna, an avant-garde Jewish literary group, through his immigration to the United States.
43 . Vilna or Vilne is the Yiddish pronunciation of what in Lithuanian is Vilnius, the current capital of Lithuania. The Bolsheviks most likely entered Vilna during the Polish Russian War of 1919-1920.
44 . Grade, My Mother s Sabbath Days , 95.
45 . Ibid., 95-97.
46 . Ibid., 96
47 . Ibid., 97.
48 . Ibid.; Chaim Grade, Der Mames Shabosim, Dertsaylungen (New York: Tsiko Bikher Farlag, 1959), 117.
49 . Ibid., 93-94, 97-98.
50 . For Jews as not more virtuous than other groups, see Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 90, 119-120, 166; Levinas, Proper Names , 122. For the teaching as practiced and transmitted by an elite, Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 62-63; Amado L vy-Valensi and Halp rin, Tentations , 183-184.
51 . Levinas, Beyond the Verse , 110, 121, 132-133. In fact, three of the essays in the section labeled Theologies, are pertinent to this point in their entirety. See Beyond the Verse , 101-150.
52 . On texts half hiding and half revealing their meaning, ibid., 121, and The Name of God according to a Few Talmudic Texts, in its entirely, ibid., 116-128. For blowing on the text, see ibid., 210n8.
53 . Ibid., 102.
54 . Ibid., 141; Difficult Freedom , 25.
55 . Emmanuel Levinas, Humanism of the Other , trans. Nidra Poller (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 36-37.
56 . Levinas, Proper Names , 123.
57 . Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals , trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale and Ecce Homo , trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1969), 33-37, 46-48, 52-53.
58 . I will restrict myself to just a few. Howard Caygill. Levinas and the Political . New York: Routledge, 2002; Judith Butler. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism . Columbia University Press, 2012; Shmuel Trigano, Levinas et le projet de la philosophie juive, in Danielle Cohen-Levinas and Shmuel Trigano eds., Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophie et juda sme (Paris: In Press Editions, 2002), 169-178, translated as Levinas and the Project of Jewish Philosophy, Jewish Studies Quarterly 8:3 (2001), 279-307; Sarah Hammerschlag, Figural Jew , 159-165; Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Afterlife of Religion (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016), 109. These critiques do not come from the same angle, although they all agree on certain inevitable contradictions.
59 . Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 141, 151. For an interpretation of Judaism and Revolution, see Annette Aronowicz, Judaism, the Jewish People and the State, in Joelle Hansel ed., Levinas in Jerusalem: Phenomenology, Ethics, Politics, Aesthetics (Springer, 2009), 91-108.
60 . Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 160.
61 . Ibid., 141.
62 . Ibid., 39.
63 . Ibid., 93-94.
64 . Ibid., 97.
65 . Ibid., 92-93.
66 . Ibid., 87.
67 . Ibid., 93-94.
68 . Ibid., 71.
69 . Emmanuel Levinas, Peace and Proximity, in Basic Philosophical Writings , eds., Adriaan Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 168.
70 . Se n Hand, ed., The Levinas Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 294. This particular formulation, given that Levinas pronounced it in a radio interview shortly following the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, has drawn much attention, usually very critical. For a recapitulation of the interview, some of the reactions, and a defense of Levinas, see Oona Eisenstadt and Claire Katz, The Faceless Palestinian: A History of an Error, Telos 174 (Spring 2016): 9-32. See also Michael L. Morgan, Levinas s Ethical Politics (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016), 266-297, for a detailed and sympathetic textual reading of the interview.
71 . Levinas, Beyond the Verse , xvii.
72 . See the section on subjectivity and objectivity in Translator s Introduction, xlvi-xlvii.
73 . Levinas, Beyond the Verse , 123.
74 . See, for example, Judith Butler, Parting Ways ; Hammerschlag, Judaism and Zionism in Butler: Parting Ways, March 25, 2014, www.politicaltheology.com ; Hammerschlag, Figural Jew , 261-267. Butler does not dismantle the teaching from the group in the same way as Hammerschlag.
75 . Moses Mendelssohn, Moses Mendelssohn: Selections from His Writings , ed. and trans. Eva Jospe (New York: Viking, 1975), 126-127; 147-148.
76 . Moses Mendelssohn, Moses Mendelssohn: Selections from His Writings , ed. and trans. Eva Jospe (New York: Viking, 1975), 126-127; 147-148.
77 . Ibid., 102, 114, 121; Levinas, In the Time of the Nations , 7.
78 . Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings , 10-11.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I WANT TO THANK FRANKLIN and Marshall College for the two grants that have enabled me to complete this project. The first, in the summer of 1986, allowed me to meet with Emmanuel Levinas and to research some of his earliest writings on matters Jewish in the Biblioth que Nationale. The second, awarded for the academic year 1987-1988, made it possible for me to hire an assistant to prepare this manuscript for publication. I am very grateful for the college s support.
Second, I want to thank my assistant, Scott Feifer, who typed many drafts with great care. Without his attention to detail and great loyalty to the cause, the manuscript might never have seen the light of day.
Then, there are a number of people who have helped me think through certain matters, concerning the translation as well as my own interpretive essay. Foremost among them is Jacques Rolland, who directed me to some of Levinas s early essays in the Biblioth que Nationale. Our many conversations were also of great assistance with regard both to details and to general principles. I want, too, to thank Susan Handelman, whose generous spirit and very good questions were a much-appreciated stimulus to my own thoughts. Lastly, I want to thank the many friends who read parts of my manuscript attentively and offered helpful suggestions, most especially Kees Bolle, Michael Kerze, Eric Lane, and Leon Galis.
TRANSLATOR S INTRODUCTION
The true goal of the mind is translating: only when a thing has been translated does it become truly vocal, no longer to be done away with. Only in the Septuagint has revelation come to be at home in the world, and so long as Homer did not speak Latin he was not a fact. The same holds good for translating from man to man.
-Franz Rosenzweig 1
TRANSLATING INTO GREEK
These talmudic commentaries are, as Emmanuel Levinas tells us himself, an attempt at translating Jewish thought into the language of modern times. That is, they are simultaneously an attempt at letting the Jewish texts shed light on the problems facing us today and an attempt at letting modern problems shed light on the texts. Levinas sometimes refers to this approach as translating the Jewish sources into Greek, Greek being his metaphor for the language Jews have in common with other inhabitants of the Western world. 2
These talmudic commentaries, then, can be viewed as a mark of the secularization of the Jewish tradition, for today the majority of Jews live not in a world apart but in the world at large. They too need to worry about the State and nuclear war, revolutions and the relation between the sexes, all the burning issues of the times; and, what is more, they are used to expressing these issues in a language derived from sources other than the traditional Jewish ones. As a result, the Jewish texts way of posing problems-in particular, the Talmud s way of posing problems-is no longer intelligible or meaningful to a large majority of Jewish readers. The very polemic Levinas wages in every one of his commentaries against people for whom the Talmud is but a disjointed folkloric remnant or a dated discussion is a sign of its lack of transparency, its inability to communicate to most contemporary Jews. 3
The impenetrability of these texts is due not so much to a different historical context as to the Talmud s allusive, elliptical, seemingly incoherent style, so different from the expository logic that Western, university educated readers expect. Translating the Talmud into a modern idiom, translating it into the problems of the times, means, then, for Levinas, presenting its teaching in an expository, conceptual language that would be accessible to any educated, even if uninitiated, listener. This attempt at utter intelligibility, at clarity, at an exposition that aims at every human being regardless of background or prior assumptions, in un langage non-pr venu is also what Levinas means by translating into Greek. 4
But if the fact of translation can be read as a sign of modern Jews distance from the language of their own tradition and from their own spiritual resources, as a sign of secularization, it is also for Levinas the sign of a secularization in a very different sense, for he claims that the texts always need to be translated into secular language, into the language of contemporary issues, into the language that strives to be understood by all, into the language of prose and demystification. The very distance we might feel with respect to these traditional sources is, in a sense, a gain for these very sources, for it allows their universal import to manifest itself in yet another of its aspects. For Levinas, the capacity of these texts to signify is infinite, and only successive secularizations, translations into the language of the times, can bring these infinite meanings to light. 5 Translation, and thus secularization, is here not a sign of regret for a lost past but the very life of a tradition. It is, no doubt, in this context that we should understand his comment that the translation of the Septuagint is not yet complete, [and] that the translation of biblical wisdom into the Greek language remains unfinished. 6
But why should modern Jews, at home in Western ( Greek ) intelligibility and Western ( Greek ) wisdom, go back and attempt to translate these obscure Jewish sources? Levinas addresses this question often in his talmudic commentaries; but beyond the answers he suggests explicitly, the very richness of meanings his readings bring to light has its own eloquence. But what made him decide to undertake the task of translation, when there were no commentaries such as his available to persuade him? Here, a brief sketch of his life, with special attention to the tension of Greek and Jew within it, might provide us with a clue.
THE GREEK AND THE JEW
Emmanuel Levinas was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1906, into a Jewish community in which, as he put it, to be Jewish was as natural as having eyes and ears. 7 The first language he learned to read was Hebrew, at home, with a teacher, but it was also part of his formal education at the Hebrew Gymnasium he attended after the family s return to Kovno in 1920. During World War I they had moved to Kharkov, in the Ukraine, and while there Levinas was one of a small number of Jews admitted to the Russian Gymnasium .
While the Jewish influences in his childhood and early youth were very much present, so much so that one can hardly speak of mere influences, we can also see that other cultures were already exercising their strong pull. His parents knew Yiddish, yet Russian was spoken at home. In the Jewish Gymnasium , he developed an abiding love for the great Russian classics, which he credits with the awakening of his philosophical interests. And there he learned of Goethe and yearned, as he put it, to know the cathedral of Cologne. 8
In 1923, at the age of seventeen, Levinas went to France to study at the University of Strasbourg, and for the next decades it would seem that it was the non-Jewish cultural influences that aroused his passion and commanded his time. He became particularly engrossed in the thought of Husserl and Heidegger, both of whom he studied with in 1928-1929 at the University of Freiburg. His was the first complete work on Husserl in France, and it was Levinas who introduced Heidegger into the French intellectual world. 9 As he once put it humorously: It was Sartre who guaranteed my place in eternity by stating in his famous obituary essay on Merleau-Ponty that he, Sartre, was introduced to phenomenology by Levinas. 10 Levinas s career in the French intellectual world culminated with his appointment as professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1973, an appointment preceded by two other university positions (Poitiers and Nanterre) and by many and frequent contacts with the great figures of French intellectual life.
It would seem that during these years-a good part of his adult life- the square letters, as Levinas calls Hebrew and the Jewish sources with which he had become acquainted in his childhood and early youth, had receded completely. Indeed, there is little evidence of a living encounter with Jewish texts in the 1920s and 1930s. It should not be forgotten, however, that soon after his arrival in France, Levinas joined an organization of considerable importance in the world of modern Western Jewry, the Alliance Isra lite Universelle.
The Alliance was established in France in 1860 by a group of Jews prominent in French life. Inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, they wished to promote the integration of Jews everywhere as full citizens within their states, with equal rights and freedom from persecution. 11 While the eagerness of the Western Jews in the nineteenth century to enter into their host cultures has subsequently been criticized as an abandonment of the vital core of the Jewish tradition and as self-serving, Levinas underscores the religious nature of this move toward emancipation. 12 For nineteenth-century Jews it was not a mere desire to shirk their Jewish identity in order to make life more comfortable. They were also spurred by a vision of the unity of humankind, a sense of coincidence between Jewish and modern European values, and an ardent desire to participate in movements promoting this unity.
One of the many goals of the Alliance Isra lite Universelle was to establish schools in areas where Jews were not receiving the kind of education that, members of the Alliance believed, would make them fit to enter the modern world as productive citizens. The Alliance thus saw itself as having a civilizing mission, the regeneration of its brethren in the Mediterranean Basin who were not educated in the Western tradition. 13 This civilizing mission expressed itself in the creation of a curriculum that would train the Jewish youth of North Africa and the Middle East in modern languages, French taking a chief place, and in secular disciplines such as mathematics, (European) history, and science. These schools also taught Hebrew and some Jewish subjects. 14 However, the status of these latter subjects was lower than that of the secular curriculum. They were taught by local teachers who were not trained by the Alliance and who were very poorly paid, and the number of hours devoted to these subjects was small in comparison to the hours devoted to the others. Much tension often arose between the Alliance teachers and the local community over how, what, and by whom these subjects should be taught. 15
The history of these Alliance schools reveals what nineteenth-and twentieth-century Western Jews (the Alliance had members outside the French community, as the word universelle in its title indicates) perceived to be the relation between European culture and the Jewish heritage. It seems clear that the Alliance took it for granted that there was a coincidence of ideals between the two traditions. As a result, anything in the Jewish sources or way of life encountered in the communities of North Africa or the Middle East that pointed in a direction other than that of modern French culture was not deemed worth transmitting. 16
Levinas s membership in this organization soon after his arrival in France would seem to imply that he too saw the relation of Jewish and Western traditions as primarily one of a coincidence of ideals. But if this were so, events of the 1930s punctured this assurance. With the advent of fascism and all it brought in its train, Levinas, in a number of essays written for, among others, the journal of the Alliance, began to reflect upon the necessity of discovering the specificity of Judaism. 17 If we are being forced to admit our difference, what does this difference really amount to? In one of these essays he wrote:
Modern Jewish consciousness has become troubled. It does not doubt its destiny but cannot calmly be witness to the outrages overwhelming it. It has an almost instinctive nostalgia for the first, limpid sources of its inspiration. It must once again draw its courage from it and again rediscover in it the certitude of its worth, its dignity, its mission. 18
There is a groping in these essays for a return to one s own inner resources, reminiscent of the talmudic injunction (which Levinas discusses in Damages Due to Fire ) to withdraw into one s home, rentrer chez soi, in a time of epidemic.
It was the failure of emancipation, then, the refusal of admittance to the City, that led Levinas back to a rethinking of the relation between the Jewish and the European, or Greek, traditions. But it would be altogether inaccurate to see in this rethinking, which was eventually to lead to a return, 19 any sort of closing oneself off again into a purely Jewish world, even if that were possible. For Levinas, the rethinking of the relation of Jewish to Greek sources would have to include the vision of universality , of one humanity in which all related as equals and in which all participated responsibly, the ideals of the Alliance. 20 The difference now was that in order for this one humanity to come into being, Western sources of spirituality, Western wisdom, would no longer suffice. In order for a genuine human community to emerge, it was Jewish wisdom, the Jewish vision of the human being, which must be understood and made available to everyone else. In one of his many essays on this subject, he insists
upon the remarkable role that devolves upon the actuality of Israel, in its very exception, as formation and expression of the universal; but of the universal insofar as it unites persons without reducing them to an abstraction in which the oneness of their uniqueness is sacrificed to the genus; of the universal in which oneness has already been approached in love . 21
Levinas s return to the specificity of Judaism, its difference, is thus not merely an attempt to retain some sort of identity in the homogeneity of modern life. It is not an ethnic loyalty. Rather, for him, the return of the Jews to Judaism is necessary for the weal of the world . Perhaps it is because of the immense obligation that Levinas sees devolving upon the Jewish tradition, in addition to the intellectual riches that he has revealed within it, that a commentator has said that he has succeeded in giving back to Judaism its lettre de noblesse, the stamp of nobility. 22
Levinas s desire to rediscover and reformulate the specificity of Judaism, which is present in the essays of the 1930s, began to be fulfilled through his meeting with an extraordinary teacher, Mr. Chouchani, with whom he studied from 1947 to 1951. Chouchani is the master whom Levinas mentions frequently in the course of his talmudic commentaries. He was apparently very learned, both in Western knowledge and in the Talmud, which he knew by heart. Levinas s studies with Chouchani were tremendously intense and provided a way of entering the text that left all parochialism far behind. The aura of mystery surrounding Chouchani is very pronounced in Elie Wiesel s account of him (for Wiesel also studied with him, although neither Levinas nor he was aware of having the same teacher) and apparent even in Levinas s descriptions. 23 Chouchani obviously did not fit into any categories, seems to have appeared and disappeared as he pleased, and commanded tremendous respect and affection. The hiddenness of Chouchani, the fact that, outside of a small circle, he remained completely unknown, the fact that his own history was not particularly clear to those who did know him, makes one think of the talmudic passage in which Moses retires to his tent; Levinas s reaction to this passage is that sometimes Judaism remains alive only in one man and yet this suffices to ensure continuity. Perhaps it is not altogether without significance, then, that Chouchani died in 1968 during the publication of Quatre lectures talmudiques , the first collection of Levinas s talmudic essays.
No doubt in great part because of his contact with Chouchani, Levinas realized that the discovery of the specificity of Judaism had to go through the Talmud and that it required a knowledge of the Talmud s original languages, Hebrew and Aramaic. The reader of his commentaries will note that Levinas does his own translations of the talmudic passages he has selected for discussion. Translation into Greek, into the language of the times, cannot happen without a prior contact with the original wording and ambiance of the text. In 1946, a year before his meeting with Chouchani, Levinas became the Director of the cole Normale Isra lite Orientale ( ENIO ), the school the Alliance established in Paris in 1867 to train teachers for its schools in the Mediterranean Basin. He eventually changed the curriculum to place a much greater emphasis on the Hebrew language and on the study of Jewish sources, taking charge, for many years, of the talmudic lessons himself. The Alliance schools had always included these Jewish subjects in their curriculum but, as mentioned earlier, they were considered of lesser importance. By changing the emphasis of the curriculum, Levinas was not in the least changing the goals of the Alliance. Its aim remained an openness to the world at large and an integration into secular culture. However, in Levinas s eyes, this universality could not be accomplished without reentering into the particularity of the Jewish tradition.
Levinas remained director of ENIO for several decades. During this time, he wrote a number of essays on the problems facing Jewish education and on the necessity and sense of a revival of Jewish spirituality. 24 These are among his most beautiful essays: They portray a vision of a Jewish renaissance at the same time that a complete openness to the world is being maintained. In his writings, the two are not to be found side-by-side, but one actually guarantees the vitality of the other. A complete openness to the world guarantees a revival of Jewish spirituality, while a revival of Jewish spirituality makes possible an openness to the world. In a sense, Levinas s own life during this period best illustrates the contents of these essays, for while he was heading a Jewish school, writing essays on the Jewish tradition, and, from 1960, giving talmudic commentaries at the yearly colloquia of Jewish intellectuals in Paris, he was also writing his great philosophical works, the works that speak to all human beings in Greek, Totalit et infini (1961) and Autrement qu tre ou au-del de l essence (1974), to mention the two generally recognized as his major contributions to the philosophical tradition. The Jewish subjects were fed by the philosophical work, and the philosophical work was fed by the contact with Jewish sources. The Jew and the Greek were in constant relation.
This brief aper u of Levinas s trajectory may throw some light, then, on the background of the talmudic commentaries, why and how they came into being. They are propelled by Levinas s search for the specificity of the Jewish tradition and represent not a culmination of that search but a perpetual renewal of the desire to search itself. A true culture, Levinas said, cannot be summed up, for it resides in the very effort that cultivates it. 25 Each essay in this volume addresses the following question: what teachings about the human being do the Rabbis convey that cannot be found anywhere else but here but which apply to the entire world? In the process of hearing how this question is answered, however, the reader of these commentaries may also expect to discover something else: the manner by which this specificity of Judaism is to be brought to light-Levinas s hermeneutic . In fact, the mode of access into the text is crucial, for, as I hope to make clear shortly, it is the living embodiment of its teaching. That is, Levinas s way of reading the Talmud incarnates the very message it brings to light. I will thus turn to a discussion of his hermeneutic, for it is the key to the center of the Jewish tradition that Levinas wishes to evoke.
THE HERMENEUTIC: SUBJECTIVITY AND OBJECTIVITY
I would like to pause at two features in Levinas s essays which I consider most revealing of his hermeneutic. The first is the humor present throughout his commentaries. The second is the manner in which Levinas approaches religious vocabulary, most especially the term God.
The humor in the talmudic commentaries is not in the least opposed to the seriousness of what Levinas is saying. 26 Rather, it is a sudden catapulting to the fore of his subjectivity, often in the form of irony, which reveals the distance, the heterogeneity, between the text and its interpreter at the same time that it reveals the relationship between the two. Examples of this kind of humor abound, and they depend on the sudden breaking of the rhythm of the discourse. For example, in Promised Land or Permitted Land, Levinas comments on the story of the twelve explorers whom the children of Israel sent on a preliminary investigation of the Promised Land, as recorded in the Torah and reworked by the rabbinic sages. Ten of the explorers, feeling qualms about the conquest of Canaan, tried, upon their return, to dissuade the people from going further. Levinas calls these explorers leftist intellectuals. The modern term, with its connotation of avant-garde thought and a university atmosphere, reverberates strangely in the context of events taking place in the Sinai desert in the second millennium BCE. A similar example is from As Old as the World? At one point, a heretic asks the Rabbis how they expect a husband and wife to refrain from sexual relations for a specified period each month if the Law does not require that they be separated during that time. Levinas remarks that the heretic was probably already a Parisian.
In each case, and there are many more, the juxtaposition of the modern term to the ancient one is incongruous. Levinas does not attempt to soften this incongruity but emphasizes it, vaunts it, in fact. It is as if he wishes to draw attention to his own subjectivity and to the process of interpretation itself rather than to conceal it. The prominence of his own subjectivity in the text is not incidental to his hermeneutic but crucial. It reveals that the text does not mean by itself but requires the specific person of the interpreter to bring this meaning to light. As he says often, within the text are enclosed an infinite number of meanings that require a plurality of people in their uniqueness, each person capable of extracting from the signs meanings which each time are inimitable. 27 Or, as he put it elsewhere,
It is as if the multiplicity of persons were the condition for the plenitude of absolute truth, ; as if every person, through his uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of the truth, and some of its points would never have been revealed if some people had been absent from mankind. 28
To put one s specific person into the act of interpreting, as interpretation requires, is to use all that is at one s disposal, all the tools one has. Thus, Levinas brings his rich familiarity with European culture to bear upon his understanding of talmudic passages. We find explicit references-such as those to the Russian poets Esenin and Pushkin, to the French dramatists Corneille and Racine, to the Greek Aeschylus, to modern philosophers like Hegel or Heidegger-as well as implicit ones. For instance, in the section on the caf in Judaism and Revolution, we find a paraphrase of a well-known passage from Pascal s Pens es: You know that all evils occur as a result of our incapacity to stay alone in our room. 29 In fact, when we think of Levinas s tools-his Western tools-in approaching the Talmud, we could also name the phenomenological method, the putting in brackets of all considerations outside the text and allowing the meaning of the text to appear from the structure that arises. The very preoccupation with method-the commentaries are strewn with remarks about the relation to the text, as the text is being interpreted-is itself characteristic of phenomenology, although calling it such may not necessarily lead to a greater understanding of what Levinas is up to.
What is important, though, is that Levinas s references to European artists and thinkers are not merely decorative. They are designed precisely to put the text into a context which, although on the surface incongruous with it, allows the original text to give off its own specific scent. 30 In the process the talmudic text is secularized, brought into the world at large, the discourse of all people. Yet, in this changing of contexts or in this juxtaposition, the Talmud does not become merely another example of a universal truth. Rather, it seems to function as the center to which all the other expressions can be related. The procedure here is reminiscent of what Franz Rosenzweig called for in one of his essays on Jewish learning: We all know that in being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside in. 31
The use of one s own specific person in the task of interpretation does not make interpretation an easy matter. On the contrary, Levinas stresses that it is an exertion, a battle, a tearing or wresting of meaning from the text. The word he uses again and again to characterize this struggle is the French sollicitation . The English to solicit does not necessarily connote a great deal of motion or commotion, but, as one of the commentators on Levinas s talmudic essays, David Banon, has pointed out, the Latin roots of the term have to do with a shaking-up, in reference to a whole. 32 The context in which we find the word in the commentaries (I have tried to put it in brackets following my translation, wherever it appears) suggested to me an equivalent such as wresting, teasing from, even forcing, in one case. One of the images Levinas uses in the talmudic essays themselves suggests this force , this struggle , very well, although the word sollicitation does not yet appear. In The Temptation of Temptation, we hear of Raba, one of the talmudic sages who, while studying the Torah, rubs his foot so hard that blood spurts out. Levinas comments: As if by chance, to rub in such a way that blood spurts out is perhaps the way one must rub the text to arrive at the life it conceals. Raba, in rubbing his foot, was giving plastic expression to the intellectual work he was involved in. Another image Levinas frequently uses to suggest the exertion necessary to bring the meaning of the text to light derives from Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, one of the great Lithuanian rabbis of the late eighteenth century. Interpreting a passage from the Sayings of the Fathers in which rabbinic commentary is compared to hot embers, Haim of Volozhin explains: The coals light up by being blown upon; the glow of the flame that thus comes alive depends on the interpreter s length of breath. 33
Levinas insists that this solicitation, this rubbing, this blowing upon, is not mere subjectivism, not a mere imposition of an individual s impressions upon the text willy-nilly, although he concedes that perhaps all search for truth cannot help but run this risk. 34 What does keep interpretation, then, from being merely subjective fancy? Levinas mentions a number of rabbinic principles that minimize the risk. For instance, according to the rabbinic hermeneutic, solicitation, the wresting of meaning from a text, has to be done by people with ears and eyes on the look-out, attentive to the whole from which the excerpt is taken, open as well to life: the city, the street, other human beings. (my italics) 35
In the context of the commentaries, eyes and ears on the lookout, attentive to the whole means not simply overviewing a text and skipping passages but paying attention to every single detail present, much as the Rabbis asked themselves why there was an extra yod in the word vayitzer ( And God Created Woman ). It also means paying attention to the way a text like the Talmud is ordered. At many places in the commentaries Levinas pauses to explain this particular order. In line with the injunction that the interpreter must use his or her specific person to wrest the meaning from the text-and Levinas s commentaries elicit as much interpretation as the texts they themselves are interpreting-I refer here to Blaise Pascal s categories as a means of clarifying the order that Levinas perceives in the Talmud.
Pascal, in one of the Pens es , insists that the Bible has an order, that in its arrangement of texts it is not just a hodge-podge. But to see this order one must be able to make a distinction between the order of the mind, which uses principles and demonstrations, and the order of the heart, which consists mainly in digressions upon each point which relates to the end so that this shall be kept always in sight. 36 For Pascal, of course, the order of the heart is quite distinct from loose sentiment or fancy. It is a structured whole but distinct in the manner of conveying its truth from that of the order of the mind.
In the order of the heart there is an apparent unrelatedness between contiguous parts because they do not relate to each other as principles do to their demonstrations. But this unrelatedness is only apparent because each of the separate parts points to the end, the meaning toward which the entire text is tending. Thus, each of the parts points to the whole, as does the peculiar juxtaposition of parts, all of which reflect back upon each other as they all reflect the central meaning in one of its aspects.
Levinas, in saying that the interpreter must have eyes and ears on the look-out, attentive to the whole from which the excerpt is taken, means that the Talmud is organized on the order of the heart, just as the Bible is for the Rabbis, that there is one web of meaning in it, expressed in a myriad of ways through the specific parts. This does not at all diminish the presence of the order of the mind in the text. It means, rather, that the text operates in several dimensions at once.
More specifically, then, to pay attention to the whole from which each excerpt is taken means not only, in the case of Levinas, paying attention to the whole psalm from which the Rabbis quote one verse (as he does so masterfully in his discussion of Psalm 104 in Judaism and Revolution ) but also placing each passage or even segment of a passage into a whole of which it is only a part, the entirety of the Talmud. Take, for instance, the commentary in The Youth of Israel, which is perhaps especially appropriate as an illustration in that the Mishna and the Gemara, 37 both in themselves and in their relation to each other, appear even more discontinuous than most of the other passages Levinas has chosen to comment on.
The Mishna was concerned with regulations governing the nazirate. 38 The Gemara, making no references to the nazirate, begins in the following way:
Rab said to Hiyya, his son: Snatch (the cup) and say grace. And, similarly, Rav Huna said to Raba, his son: Snatch the cup and say grace. Which means: greater is the one who says grace than the one who answers Amen . But don t we have a baraita ? Rabbi Jose taught: He who answers Amen is greater than he who says grace. I swear that this is so, Rabbi Nehorai answered him. Know that it is the foot soldiers who begin the battle and that the victory is attributed to the elite troops, who appear as the battle is finishing.
In the order of the mind, the text seems quite self-explanatory and, as Levinas remarks, trivial. It is an argument about who is more meritorious, the person who says the blessing (over wine) or the one who responds Amen. In the order of the mind, there seems to be no particular reason for Rabbi Nehorai s choice of the image of foot soldiers and battles to indicate his position in favor of the greater merit befalling the troops, the congregation that says Amen He could have chosen another image. In the order of the mind, it is his opposition to that of the previous position quoted which is the one point worthy of attention. Levinas will show, however, that the image of foot soldiers and battle is intrinsically connected to the meaning of the entire debate. But, in order to do this, he has to see the whole from which the excerpt is taken.
He stops at the mention of saying grace to ponder at the meaning of the act of blessing. If one thinks about it, he says, to bless (food and wine) is to recognize that one is not in ultimate control of one s nourishment, that one receives it as a gift. Thus, this particular discussion about blessing is a part that points to an invisible orientation, present everywhere throughout the Talmud, a certain non-mastery vis- -vis the world, vis- -vis the other man. Levinas goes on to say that the recognition of non-mastery over the world in fact allows one to recognize the need of others for whom food is also a gift, but a gift that might somehow have gotten diverted one way or another. The image of the foot soldiers and battle is crucial, then, to the meaning of the passage, as it can be interpreted to mean that the performance of the act of blessing ensures a defense of the other s right to eat. The discussion among the Rabbis about who has the most merit, the sayer of grace or the respondent, is not forgotten in the least. But, now, the sense of the question appears. It is no longer a mere quibbling over the arithmetic of piety. Rather, Levinas shows that the Rabbis going back and forth on this issue signifies their recognition both of the need of a community that lives by the orientation expressed by the blessing and of the need for someone to take the first step toward acknowledging his non-mastery, the acknowledgement of which is what the blessing signifies. Levinas claims, then, that the Rabbis are not just prescribing behavior, although they are very much also doing that, but that they are reflecting upon what it means that the act be done.
By the end of his commentary, Levinas has shown the profound unity which articulates not only this portion of the Gemara but the relation of all of the Gemara to all of the Mishna. He does it through painstaking attention to each rabbinic saying. But, as indicated above, he locates each in the order of the heart, in the whole it points to-this attitude toward the other person in its myriad of manifestations. It is in this way that he manages to deepen the logical link between each passage. The entire section is as if bathed in the meaning which permeates the Talmud in its entirety. For Levinas the Talmud is a text that functions symbolically. Not only does each of its specific parts reveal a spiritual orientation but also the whole Talmud reveals one symbolic orientation toward which the entire text is tending, through its multitude of particular statements, each capable of reflecting upon the others.
This symbolic ordering may explain why it is impossible to summarize the argument of any of these talmudic commentaries. They, like the texts they follow, aim not at a systematic comprehension of a problem based on principles and demonstrations, but at glimpses into a whole that one cannot make completely present as an argument from principles can be made present. The very mode of a commentary, broken up by the articulations of the passage and forced to derive its continuity from them, rebuts attempts to make a beeline for the end. Thus, the interpreter, while bringing his or her entire person to bear on the text, must also pay extreme attention to the specificity of the text, which includes paying close attention to the way it is ordered, to its symbolic dimension. The subjectivity of the reader requires as its corollary that intense attention to the object , not only in what it manifests but also in what, through its manifestations, it hides. It must take this double dimension, this order, the spirit in the letter, into account.
The other rabbinic principle that Levinas felt cautioned against mere subjectivism is that the reader must be open to life: the city, the street, other human beings. 39 This no doubt means that the interpreter must have experiences that can be used to illumine the sense of the texts, as in the statement that such and such an experience has suddenly made me understand this or that passage in a great author. But, more important for our emphasis here, it also means that one needs to be aware of issues of concern to the polis . It should not be forgotten that each of these talmudic essays was originally delivered as a response to some questions the French speaking Jewish community felt it urgent to address: attitudes to take toward the Germans, the land of Israel, the place of Judaism in the world at large. This too helps to make the relation of the interpreter to the text something other than mere whim, for it forces him out of his private universe into the life he shares with others.
But the third, and probably the most important, principle of rabbinic hermeneutic that Levinas emphasizes as most crucial to maintaining the authority of the text free of merely arbitrary impositions is the obligatory recourse to Oral Law, especially as it has been set down in the Talmud. One must go through the tradition of commentators on the text that precedes one s own commentary. It is this passage through the tradition that curbs, trains, molds one s own subjectivity. He says this in many places:
What allows one to establish a difference between a personal originality brought to the reading of the Book and the pure play of amateurs (or charlatans ) illusions is a necessary reference of the subjective to the historical continuity of interpretation, to the tradition of commentaries that cannot be ignored under the pretext that inspirations come to you directly from the text.

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