By Oppenheim, Michael
Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought , Vol. 42, No. 2
THERE IS MUCH EXCITEMENT AT THIS TIME in response to the challenging, but tremendously potent work of the Lithuanian-born modern Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. While he has had a European audience for many decades, it is only in the last few years that more than a few scholars in North America have wrestled with his provocative and ground-breaking philosophic writings. Recently, English-language collections of his essays, as well as essays by critics, have appeared. These collections reflect the prominence that scholars are attributing to Levinas, and, in making his thought more accessible, they also will contribute to this development.
Emmanuel Levinas was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1906, and received his early education in both Hebrew and Russian at home. During the First World War the family moved to the Ukraine, and Levinas was admitted to a Russian gymnasium there in 1916. In 1920, the family left the Soviet Union and returned to Kovno, where Levinas' education continued at a Hebrew gymnasium. In 1923, he left to attend the University of Strasbroug in France where he began to study philosophy. His work in that field included study with the famous thinkers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in Germany. Levinas fought in the French army during World War II, but was caught by the Germans and taken to Germany as a Jewish prisoner of war. Although he was not held in one of the death-camps, he has written that "the presentiment and memory of the Nazi horror"(1) dominated his reflections on his life history. After the war, he returned to France. He was an administrator and director of a school for the Alliance Israelite Universelle, while also holding a number of university positions. In 1973 he was appointed to the Sorbonne.
In order to acquaint more readers with the significance of Levinas' work, as well as to help to place his thought in the context of modern Jewish philosophy, I would like to offer some reflections in the form of a narrative that juxtaposes Levinas' writings with those of the modern pivotal Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig. Obviously, such a juxtaposition gives a distinctive coloring to an inquiry into Levinas. In addition, there are multiple views of the nature of Rosenzweig's work itself. However, I believe that this "midrash" will act as a supplement to other inquiries into the teachings of Levinas, particularly those that examine him primarily in terms of post-modern philosophic themes.
I have termed my narrative reflections a "midrash" in order to highlight the selective nature of this inquiry. It is not an attempt to list all of the themes or views that Rosenzweig and Levinas share, but to probe certain issues that strike me as relevant and rewarding in the context of contemporary discussions in a variety of disciplines about philosophy, language, and the nature of the human.
The point of departure for this narrative, as well as its continual element of orientation, is a notion of the person which philosophers have termed "Cartesian." It has its foundation in Rene Descartes' "cogito," the famous dictum that, "I think, therefore I am." The Cartesian self is a human portrait that accentuates the rational and autonomous features of life. However, this is not just the notion of the thinking -- I, but of the I for which self-consciousness, as well as self-realization through the individual's acts of free choice, are taken to be fundamental.
The Critique of Philosophy
Rosenzweig and Levinas are highly critical of what they hold is a single philosophic tradition emerging in ancient Greece and continuing through nineteenth century German lands, or, in their terms, from "Iona to Jena" and beyond. This tradition took the Cartesian self as its true content. They criticize it not just in the vein that this philosophic endeavor misses something, that is, that it does not see either what lies beyond or beneath the panorama of this philosophic vision. They contend that it has ignored or, better, has also not heard, a cry that has its origin outside of the insular totality of the Cartesian self's world. …