Levinas and Biblical Studies

Article excerpt

Levinas and Biblical Studies, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Gary A. Philips, and David Jobling. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. Semeia Studies number 43. 214pp. $29.95.

Levinas has been an important philosophical figure in France since the 1930s, initially for his work on Husserl and Heidegger, and subsequently for his elaboration of a distinctive ethical position based on respect and responsibility for the Other. Over the last decade he has become widely known in the U.S., influencing discussion in disciplines such as ethics, the philosophy of religion, literary and cultural studies, and sociology. Readers interested in his ethical writings have sometimes overlooked the fact that an important part of his work consisted in talmudic commentaries; and the extent to which his "philosophical texts relate to, draw upon, or inform his commentaries remains a contested issue. The current collection of essays, including Levinas's "On the Jewish Reading of Scriptures" (already published in Beyond the Verse) and a Response from the eminent French philosopher and Levinas expert Catherine Chalier, seeks to consolidate Levinas's importance in the English-speaking world by demonstrating his actual or potential influence on biblical studies. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi's Introduction presents the volume as "a conversation with the work of Levinas" (p. 2). It contains essays which directly address Levinas's work, essays which apply his insights to biblical texts, and essays which explicitly take issue with him. Throughout the collection Levinas appears as both steeped in biblical values and as directly affecting how modern commentators might read and respond to the Bible.

Some contributions explicitly try to formulate what Annette Aronowicz calls the "hermeneutic of responsibility" (p. 42) which underlies Levinas's commentaries, involving a complex interaction of text, reader, and tradition, and requiring a respectful, non-dogmatic submission to the text as Other. Some of the questions Levinas himself fails to answer are touched upon, but could have been explored more boldly. How are the Bible and the Talmud different from other texts? If the Talmud confronts the commentator with an endless play of meanings, how can any reading be other than arbitrary? How relevant is Levinas's hermeneutic to secular works? In general, the presentation of Levinas's thought in this collection is fairly uncontroversial. The essays are most effective when Levinas is used as a filter for provoking fresh encounters with familiar biblical passages, as in Timothy Beal's comments on the Book of Job and Tod Linafelt's reading of lines from Leviticus. …