"Before the Face of God One Must Not Go with Empty Hands": Transcendence and Levinas' Prophetic Consciousness
Katz, Claire, Philosophy Today
While the structure and the bare content of prophetic consciousness may be made accessible by an attitude of pure reflection, in which the concern for their truth and validity is suspended, the sheer force of what is disclosed in such reflection quietly corrodes the hardness of self-detachment. The magic of the process seems to be stronger than an asceticism of the intellect.... In the course of listening to their words one cannot long retain the security of a prudent, impartial observer.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (xvii)
Let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream.
And they shall beat their swords into plow-shares
And their spears into pruning hooks
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war.
Here I am; send me
Emmanuel Levinas' 1934 essay "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism" warned us of precisely what others were unable to see, much less admit: Hitlerism was not simply an accident of evil, the acts of a "sick" man.2 Rather, its underlying logic permeates a type of thinking that puts into jeopardy, "the very humanity of man" (Levinas, 199Ob, 71). In this essay, Levinas reveals the two poles of thinking that provide the context for the tension between immanence and transcendence both as traditionally understood.
In 1990, fifty-six years after the essay first appeared in French, an English translation of the essay was published in Critical Inquiry. In a prefatory note, written expressly for the translation and republication of the essay, Levinas asks: "Does the subject arrive at the human condition prior to assuming responsibility for the other man in the act of election that raises him up to this height?" The prefatory note appears anachronistic because of his references to "election" and "responsibility to the other man," themes that emerge only later in his writings.3 This early essay tackles the dual problems of classical transcendence and immanence.4 How then could this essay be about ethics, a term not only absent in this early work, but also not mentioned until 1961 in Totality and Infinity?5 The claim that this prefatory note is anachronistic assumes that Levinas' interest in transcendence and immanence is simply philosophical-the result of a conceptual problem or puzzle in the history of philosophy that he needed to address. Further, this concern with transcendence might also suggest that Levinas' interest in ethics was not a primary concern; rather, it was a secondary concern, the result of seeing the ethical relation as the solution to the problem of immanence and transcendence.
Is the relationship between Levinas' early work and his later work simply the relationship between the posing of a philosophical question and finding its answer? In contrast to the view sketched above, this essay argues that Levinas' philosophical work follows a continuity of thought from his early concerns in the 1930s expressed in his essay on Hitlerism to his final works in the 1970s and 80s. My claim is that although we can mark changes in his use of vocabulary and the emphasis he places on different themes, his concern for and interest in ethics, religion, and social justice not only underlie all of his work, but motivate it. This paper proceeds as follows. I first examine Levinas' essay, "Philosophical Reflections on Hitlerism," in order to track the initial framing of the philosophical concern regarding the problematic relationship between immanence and transcendence. I then turn briefly to Levinas' 1946/47 lecture course, published as Time and the Other and his essay "The Trace of the Other" in order to suggest that Levinas' conception of time as the relationship to the Other is his solution to the problem of finding a middle way between immanence and transcendence. Finally, I turn to the notion of the prophetic in Judaism and Levinas' employment of the prophetic, especially in his later work, in order to suggest that his concern for ethics and social justice permeates his work from its beginning in the 1930s until his death in 1995. I argue that Levinas' frequent references to the Hebrew prophets, in particular Isaiah, one of the most significant of the Hebrew prophets, in Otherwise than Being is no accident nor simply a rhetorical flourish. His references to Isaiah complete his clarion call-prompted by his all too prescient insight of his earliest essay-to bear witness to the ethical, to speak out against injustice, and to act for the other.
The Quandary of Immanence and Transcendence
Levinas begins his critique of the classical understandings of transcendence and immanence with a discussion of transcendence and the view of freedom that accompanies it. The classical view of transcendence is understood through either Christianity or political liberalism. Although they each have respectively different views of the "dramatic aspects" of transcendent liberation, they both result in similar views regarding the relationship between "man" and world. For Christianity, it is the Cross and then the Eucharist that set one free. This emancipation from the present is attained on a daily basis, and the emancipation is so complete that one can return to the nudity of the days of creation (Levinas 199Ob, 65). The infinite freedom that Christianity promises leads to a completely detached soul.
Similarly, political liberalism promotes a self that is unencumbered by history. Like Christianity, the political philosophy of modernity places "the human spirit on a plane that is superior to reality, and so creates a gulf between man and the world" (Levinas 199Ob, 66). Although liberalism denies (or hides from) its religious roots, it should not surprise us that both Christianity and political liberalism arrive at a view of transcendence that promotes detachment from this world. Grace with salvation is replaced by complete autonomy of choice, with no regard for a past. Further, as Levinas reminds us, "the Judeo-Christian leitmotif of freedom pervades this autonomy" (Levinas 199Ob, 66).6
According to Levinas, Marxism provides the first means in Western history to contest this view of man (Levinas 199Ob, 66). Contrary to viewing the human spirit as pure freedom, which yields a completely detached soul, Marxism sees the human as "prey to material needs" (Levinas 199Ob, 67). Marxism reveals the fundamental material nature of humanity. This view of humanity does not put it at odds with Christianity alone, as one might suspect. Rather, Marxism is at odds with the whole of the idealist liberal tradition (Levinas, 199Ob, 67).
However, Levinas astutely identifies Marxism's blind spot. Contrary to its own self-identification, Marxism is not completely or wholly defined by materiality. Even Marxism has its moments of transcendence from this extreme determinism: "To become conscious of one's own social situation is, even for Marx, to free oneself of the fatalism entailed by that situation" (Levinas, 199Ob, 67). Marxism necessarily contains a shred of freedom, keeping it tethered, even if tenuously, to liberalism (Levinas 199Ob, 67).
The emphasis on Marxism's materiality naturally leads Levinas to a discussion of the body. In his view, the materialists' mistake was to equate the body with the self, at the price of "a pure and simple negation of the spirit" (Levinas, 199Ob, 68). Contrary to the views that see the body as eternally foreign, Levinas reminds us that it is our bodies with which we frequently identify. Our bodies often seem more familiar and even closer to us, and there are certain circumstances in which these feelings are particularly sharp. As Merleau-Ponty demonstrated, there are certain activities, sports among them, in which all boundaries or separations between self and body disappear. And is it not the case that we obtain well-being in our physical pain often by only the slightest change in position?7We cannot, therefore, escape the connection we have to our bodies, or rather the adherence the self has to the body.
Once again pointing out the problem of the materialist approach to the body, Levinas recalls that if one begins with a view of the body as that to which we are enchained, that from which we cannot escape, then there can be no account of a freedom, or a "free spirit" that struggles against the body (Levinas, 199Ob, 68). It is this view of humanity with which Levinas is concerned, since it assumes a biological view of the human that "becomes more than an object of spiritual life. It becomes its heart" (Levinas 199Ob, 69). It recalls heredity, blood, and a past that is embedded in the body. It does not allow for any conception of a free Self that can move beyond this enchainment:
Man's essence no longer lies in freedom but in a kind of bondage [enchaînement]. To be truly oneself does not mean taking flight once more above the contingent events that always remain foreign to the Self's freedom; on the contrary, it means becoming aware of the ineluctable original chain that is unique to our bodies and above all accepting this chaining. (Levinas, 199Ob, 69)
It is in this philosophical view of the body that we find the roots of Hitlerism, a society based on and motivated by its views of blood kinship.
We see, then, in Levinas' critique of immanence and transcendence his struggle to maintain some aspect of each. A view of transcendence that looks to another place and time allows us to ignore the ills that plague humanity on a daily basis. Pure transcendence takes us away from this world, away from the banal, and quite simply, it denies the reality that we are riveted to our bodies. The turn to materiality does not "fix" the problem; instead, it simply adds to it. Materiality acknowledges our connection to daily life-to our material needs and therefore the material needs of others. However, it leads to a view of the body that enchains us to it without any hope for escape from it. Thus, it leads to a dangerous view of humanity that is defined by blood and kinship.
Additionally, and in contrast to the view cited above, "man" is in fact free to make choices and thus to retract choices already made. This ability, while it allows for skepticism and doubt, also embodies thought's dignity and its danger. The ability to doubt can lead to a lack of conviction: "not to chain himself to a truth becomes for him not wishing to commit his own self to the creation of spiritual values. Sincerity becomes impossible and puts an end to all heroism. Civilization is invaded by everything that is not authentic, by a substitute that is put at the service of fashion and of various interests" (Levinas, 199Ob, 70). This enchainment precludes "man" from seeing his own ability to escape himself. In other words, to believe that we are enchained simply leads to self-deception regarding not only the choices that we do make, but also that we can make. What follows from this kind of thinking is a view of the body that becomes a universality and that then gives way to expansion. As Levinas remarks, "the expansion of a force presents a structure that is completely different from the propagation of an idea" (Levinas, 199Ob, 70). We see, then, how universality gives rise to, or allows for, racism. The very way in which this power is wielded allows some to be included while others are necessarily excluded. We have, as a result, the world of masters and slaves, determined by blood and body, in short, the world of Nazi Germany. Levinas' task henceforth is to reconcile a view of transcendence with a view of being chained to one's body. How can we give an account of transcendence that does not dispense with this world? How can we give an account of the body that does not leave us enchained?8
In this early work, Levinas identified the philosophical problem that occupied his thought for the next five decades. However, he had not yet identified, at least not explicitly, the solution. We can return to the problem posed at the beginning of this paper, which identifies the prefatory note to the 1990 English translation of the Hitlerism essay as anachronistic. The argument for this position might be summarized in the following way: Levinas' project, although ostensibly about ethics, is really about transcendence. Transcendence is the theme that runs through his project from beginning to end. I do not dispute this point. However, to claim that Levinas' focus on ethics is the only the result of seeing it as the solution to a philosophical problem, might miss the fundamental relationship between the two-certainly as this relationship is understood in the Jewish tradition.9 It seems that from the beginning, Levinas was concerned with a view of humanity that included an acknowledgement of the material needs that we have.10 Levinas' concern with transcendence and immanence in this early work is directly tied to the dangers involved with these conceptions generally, but also specifically insofar as he sees them lead to the philosophical logic that underpins Hitlerism.
An alternative reading to the one sketched above views this early essay not simply as a critique of Kant, Marx, or paganism. We can see how Levinas ties these classical philosophical views to the "philosophy" of Hitlerism. However, his own words indicate that he also saw the dangers-the ethical implications-of Hitlerism, even if he could not imagine the real horrors it was yet to produce. "Ethics," therefore, while not mentioned explicitly, was a concern motivating Levinas from the beginning. He leaves this early text with the stated problem but without having found the solution.11 What would it mean, then, to be able to escape from that for which there appears to be no escape? We find the solution in Levinas' conception of time as a social relation.
The Time of Transcendence
Levinas first articulates his view of time in Existence and Existents (1947) and in his 1946/7 lecture course that was published as Time and the Other.12 In the former, he first introduces his concept of time as a social relation. He asks, "How indeed could time arise in a solitary subject" (1947,93). And he answers, "The solitary subject cannot deny itself; it does not possess nothingness. If time is not the illusion of a movement, pawing at the ground, then the absolute alterity of another instant cannot be found in the subject who is definitively himself. This alterity comes to me only from the other. Is not sociality something more than the source of our representation of time: is it not time itself?" (1947, 93).
He develops this theme in Time and the Other where he explains that the aim of these lectures is to show that "time is not the achievement of an isolated and lone subject, but that it is the very relationship of the subject with the Other" (1946, 39), that is, that time is not a series of instants strung together in a timeline to form an eternity. Like Existence and Existents the lectures in Time and the Other explore the themes of solitude, the il ya, enjoyment, materiality, death, eros, the feminine, and finally, fecundity in order to establish his view of time as a social relation. Levinas' concern in these early books is to show how the existent contracts existence, how the existent becomes subject. In so doing, Levinas focuses on the materiality of the subject in order to show how materiality, that "normal" timeline, is interrupted. The crucial point Levinas makes in these early works is that "it seems impossible to speak of time in a subject alone, or to speak of a purely personal duration" (1946 77/TA 64). We are never empirically alone in the world. We are always with other others.13 Time and the Other ends with fecundity, the ultimate joining of time and the other-the other who is my future. Invoking the words of Rosenzweig, Levinas refers to fecundity as the "victory over death."
Levinas recasts this early view of time in his 1963 essay, "The Trace of the Other."14 In this essay, he explains the concept of the trace as "the insertion of space in time, the point at which the world inclines toward a past and a time. Time is a withdrawal of the other, and consequently, nowise a degradation of duration, which, in memory, is still complete."15 Levinas' introduction of the concept of the trace in his writings that follow the publication of Totality and Infinity signals a shift in, although not a break with the conception of time that he explores in his early books, viz. Existence and Existents and Time and the Other. This mysterious and difficult concept becomes all important for Levinas' later work, particularly for his discussion of responsibility to the other in Otherwise than Being.
In "The Trace of the Other," we see Levinas offering a solution to the problem posed in his essays of the 1930's. Levinas reveals a third way, the path between the classical views of immanence and transcendence, when he writes, "It is the possibility of this third direction of radical unrightness which escapes the bipolar play of immanence and transcendence proper to begin, where immanence always wins against transcendence" (Levinas, 1986, 356). His third way articulates a new conception of transcendence that unambiguously ties it to the Jewish conception of God through his analysis of the trace. It is worth quoting Levinas at length:
Only a being that transcends the world can leave a trace. A trace is a presence of that which properly speaking has never been there, of what is always past. ... But it is in the trace of the other that a face shines; what is presented there is absolving itself from my life and visits me as already ab-solute. Someone has already passed... .The God who passed is not the model of which the face would be an image. To be in the image of God does not mean to be an icon of God, but to find oneself in his trace. He shows himself only by his trace, as is said in Exodus 33. To go toward him is not to follow this trace which is not a sign; it is to go toward the others who stand in the trace of illeity (Levinas, 1986, 358-59).
According to Levinas, the trace is a rupture; it shakes or jars me, and he often refers to it in Otherwise than Being as a trauma. The trace is what punctures; it is the "evidence" of that which was never present. The trace is a trace of something that was never there, spatially or temporally. It cannot be "there" in space or time or it would simply become a past instant, a part of my past that I can recall or represent. But the trace is not simply that which can be inscribed into the order of the world, like a check that leaves a "trace of payment." Rather, the trace disturbs the order and it disturbs it irreparably (Levinas, 1986, 357).
The crucial and most controversial part of Levinas' conception of time arises when he states that only a being that transcends the world can leave a trace, thus the trace is a presence of that which properly speaking never has been there, of what was always past. Invoking what has become a notoriously difficult concept, Levinas refers to the trace as illeity-"heness" referencing he, referencing God. And his choice to reference God is not accidental. At the end of this essay, Levinas refers to Exodus 33 where Moses sees the back of God. Levinas interprets this act as God showing himself only by his trace. To go towards God is to go towards God's trace, which is to go toward others who stand in the trace of God (1986, 359); what God does to or for me is present only in what I do for God, or rather for the Other. Thus, the "third way," is not simply a path between immanence and transcendence. Levinas explicitly links this path to God.
The challenge, however, is that as soon as I begin to articulate this response, God is lost in representation. This is what Levinas means by the "saying" and the necessary betrayal of that saying in the said. To use Levinas' expression, "the God who comes to mind" is a God who is completely and utterly withdrawn; it is a God who does not appear in representation, but whose "presence" is expressed in my response to the Other. The God in Levinas' project is a God that is not thematizable and thus parallels Levinas' concept of the saying. The trace, then, is not a residue that smoothes over the "gap." This view of the trace and our relationship to the other provides the foundation for Levinas' ethical metaphysics, or ethical subjectivity: we are always already obligated and we do not choose this obligation.16
Levinas offers a conception of transcendence articulated as a relationship to God in which the "relationship" is an approach toward the others. This view of transcendence, which has Levinas' radical idea of ethics embedded in it, is a view that extends from the beginning of his work to the end of his career, even if that view continues to evolve and become more explicit in its description. In other words, although he might have been concerned with transcendence from the beginning of his career, his concern emerged out of the implicit dangers that he saw in the classical views of both immanence and transcendence. It should come as no surprise that the transcendence he offers is an ethical transcendence: transcendence is the response to the other.
We see this point expressed in his interview with Philippe Nemo and published in Ethics and Infinity.17 In a discussion about transcendence, Levinas replies that "The term 'transcendence' signifies precisely the fact that one cannot think of God and being together. So too in the interpersonal relationship it is not a matter of thinking the ego and the other together, but to be facing" (Levinas, 1985, 77). Levinas consistently expresses the two sides as "being" and the "interruption of being." God is not the opposite of being, nor is it non-being; rather, God undercuts this very distinction. For example, God is neither visible nor invisible. Rather, he means God is not thematizable; God cannot be conceptualized.
In a variation on the description above, Levinas frequently refers to God as the Infinite, which he says comes in the signifyingness of the face (Levinas, 1985,105); he refers to the glory of God as the "otherwise than being"; and he refers to the glory of the Infinite as that which reveals itself through what it is capable of doing in the witness. In Nemo's words, "if God is not seen, he has testimony rendered to Himself; if he is not thematized, he is attested" (Levinas, 1985, 108-09), to which Levinas adds, "the witness testifies to what was said by himself. It is through this testimony that every glory of the Infinite glorifies itself. The term "glory" does not belong to the language of contemplation. . . . Ethical testimony is a revelation which is not knowledge" (Levinas, 1985, 109; 107-08).18 Ethics offers us something superior, something beyond the dichotomy of life and death.
This is the transcendence Levinas sought. It is not a transcendence of the immanent that leads to another life, another place in time. Rather, it goes beyond this very dichotomy. It exposes the myth or the flaw in the received view that being has always and only ever been concerned with itself and its own survival. For Levinas, this "testimony" is revealed in the ' "Here I am," the readiness to respond to and before the Other. The "Here I am" gives testimony to the recognition of responsibility demanded by the face of the other. The exteriority of the Infinite becomes interiority and here Levinas disrupts the typical understanding of these terms. By interior, he does not mean, a "secret place" inside of me. Instead, he means that the exteriority of Infinite, as that which is wholly outside of me, becomes part of my interior voice-it commands me and I hear its command. It is precisely the disruption of the "me" or my ego. It is not simply my interior voice; it is a voice that commands me to attend to the Other, that directs me to the Other (Levinas 1985, 109-10).
Catherine Chalier underscores this point in her work on Kant and Levinas.19 She contrasts Levinas' discussion of the relation between the interiority and exteriority of the ethical to that in Kant's discussion. Although she observes that for both Kant and Levinas ethics depends on the fact of God's absence, Chalier also notes the difference in their relationship to their respective religions: Kant to Christianity and Levinas to Judaism. For example, Chalier reminds us that Kant's philosophy makes frequent references to Christianity and even "gives a privileged status to that religion to speak of Christ as a model for pure moral intention" (Chalier 2002, 154). She further recalls that for Kant interiority is the determination of the moral action-what motivated the moral subject, while for Levinas the determination is exteriority, the actions that are in fact done. In a state of need, the suffering person cannot wait until the final hour when the agent's motivation is ascertained to be pure; the person needs to be fed. Chalier's analysis effectively shows how the interiority of Kant's system can be mapped onto key themes in Christianity-namely, the anxiety over one's own salvation-while Levinas' emphasis on exteriority reflects the underpinnings of Jewish ethics-namely, the responsibility towards and care for the other (Chalier 2002, 164-75). In so doing, Chalier discloses how Western philosophy is often either a veiled religiosity (in the extreme view) or uncritical with regard to how religion has influenced the structure of what we identify as the philosophical canon.
We can see how Chalier's reading, which also emphasizes the role of practice in Judaism, supplements Levinas' view. Rather than having its focus on the salvation of the self, resulting from one's belief in God, Judaism requires that we do for the other. In spite of Levinas' own insistence, and those of his readers, that his philosophy is not normative, his own criticism of Buber belies this claim.20 Levinas is frequently explicit that response is not simply a "pre-cognitive" response, the response that is necessary for all other ethical theories to make any sense; it is also action. Though he does not specify what that action is or how it will be determined, he is clear that "before the face of God we must not go with empty hands." Our response to the other is not to be understood in terms of the simply spiritual Meeting that Levinas believes characterizes Buber's I and Thou. This view of time, then, as a social relation, a view that radically transforms how we understand transcendence is not simply a spiritual experience. Contrary to how many of us would like to understand Levinas' work, as that which simply renders ethics meaningful without "telling us what to do," his work frequently indicates that one must do something. Response is not simply "seeing" the face of the other. How, then, are we to understand what "action" means for an ethics that is considered "pre-ontological," "pre-cognitive," "pre-decision making"?
In his work The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel explains why he turned to such a project in the first place. Why study the Jewish prophets? The book was published in 1962 and Heschel had been teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the seminary for the Conservative branch of Judaism. He explains that his work within the academic environment began to feel isolating and self-indulgent. It had lost contact with the "real" world, the world that demands our attention. More importantly, he believed that the work of the academy led to a life of "suspended sensitivity in the face of stupendous challenge, indifferent to a situation in which good and evil became irrelevant, in which man became increasingly callous to catastrophe and ready to suspend the principle of truth" (xviii).21 The prophets according to Heschel are "some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived" (xiii) for their intense anguish about even the most banal of life's unjust events is relentless. By examining Heschel's treatment of the prophets, we begin to see what role they play for Levinas' philosophical project. Why insert fragments from the Hebrew prophets as opposed to quotations from Shakespeare? Are they simply literary devices?
Heschel's reading of the prophets asks us not to think as much about the truth or the validity of the prophets' claims. Instead, he asks us to think about who the prophets were. What distinguishes them as prophets? What did they feel? He tells us that before we can even begin to address the question of what the prophets mean to us, we must understand what they mean to God (xviii): "Prophecy is a sham unless it is experienced as a word of God swooping down on man and converting him into a prophet" (xviii). He further explains that although he does not wish to discount the method of "impartial phenomenology" this kind of impartiality has no place in his investigation. He confesses that he has long become weary, even suspicious of such impartiality, which indicates either that the situation has no relevance to us or it does, in which case the impartiality is simply a pretense. Reflection is not undertaken apart from a situation (xvi):
While the structure and the bare content of prophetic consciousness may be made accessible by an attitude of pure reflection, in which the concern for their truth and validity is suspended, the sheer force of what is disclosed in such reflection quietly corrodes the hardness of self-detachment. The magic of the process seems to be stronger than an asceticism of the intellect. ... In the course of listening to their words one cannot long retain the security of a prudent, impartial observer, (xvii)
Heschel is not discounting the power or necessity of pure reflection. He is simply indicating its limits. If we wish to clarify what the prophet asserts, then we call in pure reflection; if we wish to know what it is like to be a prophet, i.e., his existential character, pure reflection will not be sufficient. As Susannah Heschel writes, "Rather than debate theological interpretations, the prophets denounce hypocrisy and insist on justice as the tool of God and the manifestation of God. Neither religious ritual nor belief holds meaning for the prophets as ends in themselves; what God wants, Amos insists, is not worship but an end to war crimes and exploitation in the marketplace. For the prophets, justice is the means of redemption, including our redemption of God from the constraints of religion, human mendacity and complacency in the face of evil. They also are adamant that evil is never the climax of history."22 According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, "the prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism" (xix).
It is this distinction and this description, I argue, that Levinas exploits. Levinas' use of the prophetic in his later work, particularly in Otherwise than Being is not for the purpose of clarifying their words. He is not interested in a discussion about what the prophets meant. Nor does Levinas employ these words as a means to invoke the simply religious dimension of Judaism-the laws of kashrut, ritual, or the adherence to the Sabbath. Rather, Levinas is interested in the role that these particular words play both in the prophetic books and in his philosophy-what did they mean for God and what do they then mean for us?
Although Abraham and Noah frequently utter "Here I am," Levinas cites Isaiah as its source. We might think this does not make a difference. However, the prophet as described by Heschel indicates otherwise. The prophet is the one whose very existential position not only forces him to see injustices great and small, but also calls our attention to those injustices. The prophet cannot sit silently having only identified the injustice. Rather, the prophet's role is to alert the community to the injustices in its midst. The "here I am" that Isaiah utters is a sign of service-"I am ready to respond."
Could it not be that Levinas' invocation of the prophet is an attempt to disrupt our own complacency, our own intellectual asceticism that allows us to remove ourselves from daily instances of injustice-with the promise that we will respond when we are really needed? Could it be that Levinas saw exactly what happened after 1933 and in particular what happened to his teacher, Edmund Husserl, at the hands of another teacher, Martin Heidegger? Is it not too easy for us to dismiss everyday seemingly inconsequential acts of injustice as insignificant or trivial? Thus, we have in Levinas' work two bookends: at one end, an essay that brilliantly, if unfortunately, predicts what will happen if Hitlerism is followed to its end and at the other a philosophical treatise on responsibility written precisely because of what Hitlerism achieved.
Contrary to the view that the prefatory note to the English translation of Levinas' early essay is anachronistic, I instead view this essay as part of Levinas' prophetic consciousness, in the multiple meanings this word conveys. Although Levinas maps out the philosophical problem in the classical views that promote complete immanence or complete transcendence, this early essay is not simply an explication of a philosophical problem. In the Judaic understanding of the prophetic, this essay was a clarion call to action. Levinas forewarns us of where Hitlerism will lead and he implores us follow a different path, although he does not yet know what that path will be. His concern, even here, is not simply philosophical. In addition to his call for action, Levinas' essay is also unfortunately prophetic in the colloquial usage of this term. He follows in the path of Cassandra, for no one listened, and what he argued would come to pass in fact did. This prefatory note simply recalls what Levinas knew all along.
Otherwise than Being completes the trajectory of his work. His last instruction is not simply to remember the prophet, whose relentless passion motivates him to speak out against all injustice, no matter how small; nor is it simply to heed his words, like a school child memorizing the instructions for the day. Levinas' instruction is to become like the prophet, to be moved by even the smallest injustice, the everyday injustice, lest we become like the people who stood by in 1939-without any expression of outrage as they witnessed one of the greatest catastrophes and violations of humanity of all time. This magnum opus, whose dedications in French and Hebrew remember those who died in Nazi Germany, is a philosophical examination of suffering, persecution, and responsibility. Its focus, as many have said, its focus indicates the shift from the Other so thoroughly discussed in Totality and Infinity to the Subject. He now challenges us to be like the prophet. Thus, his frequent references to the banal-the gratuitous hello-and the extreme-dying for the other are not out of sync with each other. His work does not ask us to think in terms of the grand moral gesture, the "big one" that will require us to act. His work reveals that if we do not speak out against the small injustices, if we do not feed our neighbor, if we do not think of the other as someone to whom we owe everything, we will be incapable of acting when we are confronted with the so-called "big ones."
1. We might remember Amos's words, often uttered by Martin Luther King, Jr., from the 196Os Civil Rights movement.
2. Emmanuel Levinas, "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism," trans. Sean Hand, Critical Inquiry 17 (Autumn 1990): 63-71. Originally published as "Quelques Réflexions sur la Philosophie de L'Hitlérisme," Esprit 2 (1934): 199-208.
3. In July 2003, I participated in the 2003 Collegium Phaenomenologicum, where Robert Bernasconi gave a fascinating week long course on Levinas. The question concerning the primacy of transcendence v. the primacy of ethics emerged from his course.
4. A similar theme is explored in more detail in De l'evasion, published in 1935, just one year after the "Hitlerism" essay. see the recent English translation, On Escape, translated by Bettina Bergo (PaIo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002).
5. "Ethics" is alluded to in Existence and Existents and in Time and the Other, where Levinas conceives of time as a social relation. And he uses the term "ethics" in his essay "Ethics and Spirit," published in the 1950s. However, this term does not appear in his philosophical work until much later.
6. Levinas will return to this idea that Judaism lies at the core of liberalism, freedom, and humanism in his essays on education. see these essays in Difficult Freedom, translated by Sean Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1990).
7. see Levinas' discussion of this point in On Escape.
8. Levinas continues his exploration of the problematic outlined in this early essay in On Escape (1935). In this essay, he offers the phenomenological structures that demonstrate the imterplay between immanenence and transcendence in our expressios of existence. The experience of malaise, suffering, and nausea reveals both our enchainment and our need to escape. That is, these experiences reveal that neither immanenece nor transcendence, the latter as classically understood, can offer a satisfactory account of our own being. Levinas' account of nausea is particularly compelling. In his description of this experience, he uncovers the root of the experiencenausea reveals our own vulnerability and complete possibility of nudity before the other. Nausea functions as a leveling experienece in its reminder that we all have bodies; to have the xpereience of nausea is to be reminded that no matter who we are, no matter how many layers of clothing we wear, that our bodies can still betray us and reveal us to the other as nude and vulnerable. The structures that Levinas describes in On Escape reveal our identificaiton with our bodies; they remind us of our enchainment, or our being riveted to our bodies, while also revealing our need to excape, even though any escape will not be comlete. The "escape" from ourselves still maintains a foothold in being.
9. For example, one could easily characterize the Jewish religion as making the everyday sacred, or hallowing the everyday. The laws of kashrut, the observance of the Sabbath, and so forth are examples of how immanence is brought together with transcendence, how daily practice is made sacred.
10. I am reminded here of Levinas' criticism of Buber's I-Thou relation as too ethereal, too spiritual. He says, "Misery and poverty are not properties of the Other, but the modes of his or her appearing to me, way of concerning me, and mode of proximity. One may wonder whether clothing the naked and feeding the hungry do not bring us closer to the neighbor than the rarefied atmosphere in which Buber's Meeting sometimes takes place. . . . Before the face of God one must not go with empty hands." Outside the Subject, trans. Michael Smith (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 18-19. This essay was first published in French in 1968, although a similar view was published in 1965.1 realize that this view appears thirty years after Levinas first approaches this philosophical problem, but the ideas are not discontinuous from what we see first concerning him in 1934.
11. As I mentioned, he continues this discussion in On Escape. However, he does not arrive the solution.
12. One can actually see the solution to the problem introduced in Existence and Existents. However, I am more interested in the way Levinas fully develops the solution through his reconception of time as found in Time and the Other and the "Trace of the Other," works that take us from an earlier point to a later point in his thought.
13. Thus in these early writings, organized around a critique of Heidegger's analysis of temporality, Levinas criticizes Heidegger for not acknowledging or being able to provide an adequate account of the specificity of the instant in its materiality. Levinas's discussion of solitude and mastery leads him to a discussion of death, the first interruption of that solitude and mastery. Contrary to Heidegger's notion of death as confirmation of my solitude, death on Levinas's account demonstrates that we are in relationship to something absolutely other. Ultimately, Levinas believes that "The relationship with the Other [autrui], the face-to-face with the Other, the encounter with a face that at once gives and conceals the Other, is the situation in which an event happens to a subject who does not assume it, who is utterly unable in its regard, but where nonetheless in a certain way it is in front of the subject. The other 'assumed' is the Other" (Time and the Other, 79). Thus, the relationship to the Other. Additionally, in his discussion of eros (the last lecture of Time and the Otherand the very end of Existence and Existents), and in particular his reference to Plato's symposium, he reveals his suspicion of views of relationships that cast each participant in that relationship as complementary terms of a whole-thus, emphasizing or advocating the totality. On Levinas's view, it is not that the other is mirrored in me. Rather, he wishes to "break in the dialectical mode of the unity in difference," which simply reinscribes the totality. The feminine, characterized in these early writings as "eros," is the first experience of alterity as the Other. The feminine here represents both enjoyment and the movement beyond enjoyment.
14. This essay was published in English translation in 1986. see note 15.
15. Levinas, "The trace of the other," in Deconstruction in Context, edited by Mark Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 358.
16. see Edith Wyschogrod's Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).
17. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985).
18. In response to Philippe Nemo's concern about the Infinity of Totality and Infinity, Levinas says, "I am not afraid of the word God, which appears quite often in my essays. To my mind the Infinite comes in the signifyingness of the face. The face signifies the Infinite."
19. Catherine Chalier, What Ought I to Do ? Morality in Kand and Levinas, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).
20. In "Martin Buber's Thought and Contemporary Judaism," Levinas says, "Saying Thou' thus passes through my body to the hands that give, beyond the speech organs-which is in a good Biranian tradition and in keeping with the biblical truths. Before the face of God one must not go with empty hands." Cited in Outside the Subject, 18-19.
21. In a biographical note about Heschel, we find him struggling to locate a place where he fits in both academically/intellectually and spiritually. His view that academics have a responsibility also to be activists for social causes was not welcomed by his colleagues at JTS, though later the JTS faculty lamented this disagreement with Heschel and conceded that they should have followed his lead. Heschel's concern rings all too true.
I recently attended the summer institute of the American Association of University Professors. This is a noble organization with its own colorful past. The AAUP was founded by John Dewey and Arthur Lovejoy when they resigned in protest of a Stanford University economics professor being summarily fired for espousing economic views that ran contrary to those held by the wife of Leland Stanford. In spite of the fact that the organization was founded in response to such an unjust act, the AAUP and its most famous members (e.g., John Dewey) did not respond so well during the faculty protests of WWI; nor should it be proud of its activities (or inactivity) during the McCarthy era. Regardless, it is an organization that continues to stand for academic freedom, shared governance, and respected codes of professional conduct and procedure, and it defends those professors and faculties whose academic freedoms have been violated. The AAUP is an organization not simply for, but of, university professors. As such, it stands for values that we as academics not only hold near and dear, but also allow to define who we are professionally. They are values and characteristics of our profession that by definition require our vigilance and our activism in order to maintain them. Without them, our profession is rendered meaningless. Thus, by our very definition as academics, we are activists.
We have become professional trumpeters of great injustices far away, in distant lands, or on paper about issues that do not really force us confront our own behavior. And we have become proficient at ignoring those "small" injustices that are right in our lap, often happening to one of our neighbors or one of our colleagues. How easy it has become to write about the ethical and the political only to ignore it when it confronts us personally. In my short time as a university professor, I have already grown weary of the divide that exists among us-on the one side, there are members of the profession who believe it part of their academic position to speak out, with the risk that they might be wrong, and on the other, there are the members of the profession who retreat to their work, naively assuming that what happens to their colleagues is not of their concern (unless thenown self-interest is at risk). In response to a series of incidents on my own campus, I found it striking how many times I have heard in the past few months, "You have tenure now; just do your own work," as if receiving tenure somehow allows one to adopt a position of moral quietism. We often hear of the "career associate professor," the person who receives tenure and then never publishes another word. It never occurred to me that tenure also affords one the opportunity to be excused from ethical responsibility.
At the risk of sounding naïve or even moralistic, 1 understand the reasons behind the tenure system, especially as they hark back to that incident at Stanford University almost 100 years ago. Tenure is to protect us so that we have the freedom to pursue "edgy" or controversial research. But enemies of academic freedom are frequently found inside the academy. And sometimes the protection we need has little to do with the focus of our research. Sometimes our profession demands that we speak out for people of color, for women, or for others who have been marginalized; sometimes it demands that we speak out against a war or in favor of a particular political situation; and sometimes it demands that we simply speak out for our colleagues whose offices are next door to ours, across the campus from ours, or in a university several states away. When it does, our profession and our humanity demand that we respond.
22. Susannah Heschel, "Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Forum," The Nation (December 2, 2004). http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20041220 &s=forum
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_____. 1993. Outside the Subject. Trans. Michael Smith. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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Publication information: Article title: "Before the Face of God One Must Not Go with Empty Hands": Transcendence and Levinas' Prophetic Consciousness. Contributors: Katz, Claire - Author. Journal title: Philosophy Today. Volume: 50. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2006. Page number: 58+. © DePaul University Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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