Critique, Tradition, and the Religious Imagination: An Essay on Levinas' Talmudic Readings

Article excerpt

The work of the late Emmanuel Levinas presents a profoundly creative struggle with a number of competing visions. Modern philosophy, Jewish tradition, Jewish religious texts, European literature, poetry, literary criticism, aesthetics, and the social sciences all flow into and through Levinas' oeuvre. This rich confluence beguiles the reader; she may well wonder how Levinas brings these distinct streams together. Even more tantalizing and provocative is the way Levinas strictly and rigorously divided his own work into two different genres: "properly philosophical writings" published with one publisher, bearing no apparent relation to "Jewish apologetic or religious writings" published with another. Both these bodies of work have become famous, the first establishing Levinas as one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, the second creating an enthusiastic following among those searching for intellectually sophisticated and spiritually powerful readings of traditional Jewish texts.(1)

These two genres of writing and the distinction between them help Levinas integrate the many currents running through his work. The often neglected apologetic/religious writings play a surprisingly significant role in this integration. Scholars have for the most part attended to Levinas' philosophical writings, spending far less time on the apologetic/religious texts, and have neglected to attend to Levinas's suggestive doubling of genres.(2) The apologetic/religious writings may lack the argumentative complexity and sheer density of intellectual reference which abound in the philosophical writings; yet they contain intricacies of their own, propose vigorous critiques of modern social institutions, and formulate a compelling vision of Jewish spirituality. Even more telling: the apologetic/religious writings clearly expose the "seams" through which Levinas brings Jewish tradition and various kinds of modern Western thought into intimate relation. This sheds great light on the philosophical writings where such seams remain hidden, and reveals the implicit relations Levinas sets up between the disparate components of his thought.

My essay focuses on Levinas' "talmudic readings," the most significant body of texts among his apologetic/religious writings. It analyzes one specific reading called "Model of the West" ("Modele de l'occident"), in which Levinas comments on slightly less than a page of tractate Menachot of the Babylonian Talmud, 99b-100a.(3) This talmudic reading provides an unusually rich site for investigating the connections Levinas establishes between the very different ideas and energies that nourish his thought. "Model of the West" explores conceptions of a special kind of temporal relationship. Finding such conceptions in the talmudic text, Levinas draws on them to describe both the enduring, collective life of Jewish tradition, and the continuous, personal life of increasing spiritual vision this tradition makes possible. Representing an extraordinary flight of religious imagination, "Model of the West" attacks certain modern Western views of time that impede religious and ethical striving; it celebrates the divine discipline of letter and book, and the gradual, almost mystical movement beyond self toward God such discipline may help engender.

Levinas' Oeuvre and The Talmudic Readings

Levinas' talmudic readings depend in a complex way on his philosophical writings. In composing his philosophical writings Levinas relied upon traditional Jewish materials both for a critique of and for the inspiration with which to transform modern philosophy.(4) This resulted in a body of philosophical work that employed the standards, techniques, and language of philosophy in order to fashion very new modes of thought, ones which both strongly departed from, yet did not utterly break with the tradition of modern philosophy Levinas had himself inherited as a student in the European university. Still, there are moments in these writings that are highly unusual for post-Cartesian philosophy, some of which seem to border on the mystical, and it seems possible in these instances to pursue Judaic resonances back into talmudic and kabbalistic tradition. …