Religious Experience in Levinas and R. Hayyim of Volozhin
Kavka, Martin, Philosophy Today
One might reflexively think that if there were any claim that could safely be made about Levinas without getting critiqued by other scholars, it would be the claim that Levinas cannot tolerate the idea of religious experience, understood as a direct experience of God given to consciousness in a present moment. The readiest places to find support for such a claim are perhaps the brief sections on Descartes in "God and Philosophy" and Totality and Infinity. Here, Levinas reads the third of Descartes' Meditations, in which Descartes claims that God is the condition of the possibility of experience, to conclude that God is unthinkable. Because the awareness of God is always anterior to any and all acts of consciousness, the "idea of God surpasses every capacity ... [and] shatters [fait éclater] the thinking that only encloses in a presence."1 On this reading, God falls outside the rules of a customary account of experience such as Kant's.2 If experience is empirical knowledge, and if empirical knowledge only occurs through consciousness' synthesis of perceptions, as Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason,3 then an experience of God would be impossible. How could an act of consciousness, dependent on the categories of the understanding, represent that which transcends those categories, because (as Descartes has shown) it is prior to them and therefore in some way greater than them? For this reason, Levinas describes the idea of God in "God and Philosophy" as "the very absolution of the absolute," and denies that the idea of the infinite could be an object for consciousness in Totality and Infinity.4 There are no grounds for thinking that Levinas is here critiquing Kant's notion of experience in favor of another, more Jamesian, account of experience. Levinas does not authorize us to exchange a definition of experience as empirical knowledge with a definition of experience that grounds it in a "vague sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there.'"5 First of all, this is not what Descartes implies at the end of the Third Meditation ("the intuition of infinity ... will not become any sort of invasion of God across an inward emotion").6 But more primordially (and more persuasively), all experience claims are necessarily Kantian for Levinas. Any other account of experience is self-refuting: "a religious thought that appeals to religious experiences allegedly independent of philosophy insofar as it is founded upon experience, already refers to the ? think' and is entirely connected to philosophy."7 As soon as I claim to have an experience, it is my experience and therefore is subject to the categories of the understanding. That which is made impossible by the Kantian categories absolves itself from any and all possible direct relation with human consciousness, and therefore from all possible experience. The infinite is absolutely other than the finite, and nothing can bridge this gap; the infinite cannot be aimed at, and the infinite cannot engage in a dialogue with consciousness as some accounts of revelation hypothesize.8 For this reason, despite any surface similarity between Levinas's hyperbolic style and that of medieval Christian mystics, one must remain with what Bettina Bergo has described as "Levinas's criticisms of the ontological and totalizing preoccupations of the mystics' writing."9
And yet. There are at least three good reasons not to subscribe to this narrative. The first reason lies in the final paragraph of Descartes' third Meditation, which Levinas cites in Totality and Infinity. Levinas describes this as a shift away from epistemological language to one of "personal relation" or "majesty," since Descartes' contemplation of God ends in the language of a sensation of admiration and adoration. Nevertheless, in the Latin text, Descartes writes of contemplation as not only allowing him to admire and adore [admirari, adorare] the "beauty of God's immense light," but also as allowing him to intuit it [intueri].10 Once Levinas has moved us away from viewing God as an object of consciousness, what could this language of intuition possibly mean? One would not immediately think that Levinas could be adapting Descartes' language of intuition into a phenomenological context. The Kantian distinction between thinking and intuiting is precisely what authentic phenomenological thinking denies;11 Levinas has stated that "the thought of infinity is not a thought,"12 and it is therefore not an intuition either. But Levinas cannot be returning to a Kantian notion of intuition either: it may be the case that "to think consists in referring to an object,"13 but so does "to intuit," as the very grammar of the last paragraph of the third Meditation makes clear. So perhaps there is some more robust notion of intuition, and thus a more robust notion of experience, occurring in the relation with the infinite. second, the account of Descartes in "God and Philosophy" makes clear that the infinite is not simply defined by its difference from the world of finite things; Levinas asserts that the situation is one as though "the in of the Infinite signified at once the non- and the within."14 If the Infinite is within me, then it would seem that the absolute has not completely absolved itself from any and all relationship with the human; in a nontechnical sense, it would seem nonsensical to say that I can make claims about the infinite's being-within me without being able to make claims about experiencing the infinite (even as within me !). Finally, near the end of Otherwise than Being, Levinas describes the obedience to the ethic of responsibility as one which is nothing other than "le se passer de l'Infini" which connotes both the passing away (or the doing without) as well as the taking place of the infinite. l5 Here, it appears to be the case that something redemptive-the taking place of the infinite that I can at least perceive in my own movement unto the other person-occurs as soon as I accept the inability to represent God and the fact of my existence in the traces of a God who belongs to the immemorial past. The equivocation in Levinas' phrasing leads us to question whether the infinite is completely absolved from consciousness and/or human history, and whether Levinasian phenomenology is really as rigorously opposed to Western philosophy as is commonly understood to be the case. If the infinite takes place, or is realized, in my ethical intentionality, then it takes a shape, a form, a body. It becomes visible, and in so doing, ceases to be anything other than the human or the natural. From these passages, Levinas seems to have a realized eschatology, and one that is realized in every ethical act.
When Levinas is read as part of "Continental Philosophy in a Jewish Context," to invoke the name of the group before whom a preliminary version of this paper was read, there is little interest in this second narrative. The stereotype of Judaism as radically aniconic and antiincarnational leads Jewish (and non-Jewish) readers of Levinas to perceive him as-surprise!-a thinker of aniconicity and antiincarnationalism, a feisty reclaimer of Hegel's caricature of Judaism as Unhappy Consciousness, who asserts that not only Judaism is unhappy consciousness, but that human consciousness is unhappy consciousness. But exactly how is this Jewish, other than the fact that Hegel implies it is? (Who made Hegel an authority on the Jews, anyway?) Where are the Jewish sources for such a claim? There are the Talmudic readings, to be sure, although they do not necessarily display a good understanding of the Talmudic text.16 Edith Wyschogrod, who correctly states the enigma of Levinas in which "the infinite remains an-iconic but the thought of the infinite is realized a/conceptually in the ethical relation,"17 roots Levinas's aniconicity in Maimonides's Guide of the Perplexed, and the arguments there for the incorporeality of the divine nature. As tempting as this is, it seems difficult to reconstruct this historically, since Levinas does not discuss Maimonides at length in his work until a 1985 interview; there, he falls quite short of declaring himself to be a Maimonidean.18 Lately, some scholarship on Levinas's commentaries on the ethico-kabbalistic writings of the Lithuanian rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821, and to whom I will hereafter refer to as "the Volozhiner," out of an interest in brevity more than one in piety) has appeared. Jacob Meskin has persuasively argued that Levinas's reading of the Volozhiner's magnum opus Nefesh ha-Hayyim ("Soul of Life") in the early 1960s led him to the language of animation and inspiration in his later writings, while Susan Shapiro has offered a fascinating account of how Levinas misreads the Volozhiner in such a manner as to elide the way in which the account of embodiment of Nefesh haHayyim questions the hierarchy of gender in Levinas's writings.19 I want to take up the thread of these Jewish readings of Levinas, but with a twist. For the reading of the Volozhiner that I offer in this essay is one that expresses the same hesitancy about the possibility of religious experience that Levinas offers in his philosophical writings. The Volozhiner does not offer a unitary discourse that readers of Levinas might be able to use to critique Western philosophy. Rather, the Volozhiner offers a mirror, in a non-philosophical context, of Levinas's philosophical enigma. Such an argument helps to make the point that the relationship between Levinas as Jew and Levinas as philosopher is anything but a "delicate topic," as Simon Critchley has described it in his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Levinas volume.20 To be indelicate, if "Jew" can be translated into "Greek," as Levinas thought it could, then the only substantive difference between Jewish and non-Jewish scholars of Levinas should be that the Jewish scholars are perhaps, but not necessarily, better at transliterating Hebrew terms into English.21 If Levinas is correct, then his entire project hints at the more fundamental point that the view that Judaism and the West (or Judaism and Christianity, or Judaism and "paganism") lie in contradiction to each other is a philosophical mistake. It is also a theological and a historical mistake; the theme of incarnation is anything but foreign to the Jewish tradition.22
To some extent, to make such an argument is to argue against Levinas himself. Certainly it seems that the places in Levinas's work in which he discusses Nefesh ha-Hayyim, which was originally published posthumously in 1824, are places in which he uses the Volozhiner's unique deployment of Kabbalistic lexicography to argue for a critique of Western philosophy and its essentially egological perspective on the world. Thus, in the 1963 essay "Means of Identification," Levinas interprets the Volozhiner's fundamental argument that the continued existence of countless supernal worlds depends on human deeds as meaning that "there is something that engages the individual still more than the salvation of his or her soul."23 Levinas repeats this basic claim in the long 1978 article on the Volozhiner entitled "In The Image of God." The argument of Nefesh ha-Hayyim that the ability of the individual in deed, word, and thought either to reinforce the holiness of the supernal worlds or to lead them to destruction means that "there is here an ethical significance to religious commandments: they amount to letting those who are other than self either live or, in the case of transgression, die. Does not the being of man amount to beingfor-the-other?"24 The stance of the Volozhiner's writing seems to be one which is starkly opposed to the cognitivist prejudice that Levinas sees in philosophy: "the labor of thinking gets the better of the alterity of things and men, and it is in this that rationality itself resides."25 Similarly, these essays appear to use Nefesh ha-Hayyim as rhetorical strategies for confirming the claim that an experience of God is impossible. In the 1978 essay, Levinas quotes the Volozhiner's claim that the name of God as En Sof-literally "without end," although Levinas also translates it as "infinite"-found in the Zohar and other medieval Kabbalistic texts, does not refer to any attribute of the divine but rather to the endlessness of the human attempt to understand God because of the firiitude of human understanding: "the grasp on our side is little, and we designate and describe it by many forms: names, nicknames, and attributes (shemot ve-kinuyim vemiddot)."26 From this, Levinas concludes that "strictly speaking, then, that which is infinite and never-ending is not the absolute of God which nothing can determine, but the act of thinking the Absolute which never reaches the Absolute." Here Levinas firmly announces that the absolute has irrevocably absolved itself from the realm of the human.
Nevertheless, Levinas goes on to point out that the Volozhiner's equation of a divine name with the limits of human epistemology gives the reader more than simply a notion of God as a deus absconditus. Directly after the end of the preceding quotation, Levinas continues:
This has its own way-which is not a mere trifle [qui n'est pas un rien}-of missing the Absolute. Is the word "thinking" in its place here? Does not this word conjure up, if not vision, then at least aim, which in its way posits another end or sets it as a target? The text we have just quoted suggests a beginning that does not move towards an end, but traces as a relation without a correlate. And yet it is from this remarkable possibility of the human psychism that En Sof takes its meaning in order to appear [figurer] in discourse, as if man were its very means of signifying."7
Levinas goes on to deny the metaphorical implications of the "as if quoted in the final clause above: "This human impossibility of conceiving of the Infinite is also a new possibility of signifying."28 But how does this argument work? One might at first read Levinas here as claiming that the fact that "God" (qua infinite or En Sof) has meaning in our assertions only because it is that term which represents the limits of the understanding. But this argument is nothing new, much less "a new possibility of signifying." One can find the claim that God is an object of thought that takes on meaning through a via negations early on in Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, and one could doubtlessly choose far earlier texts as well.29 However, Levinas is also arguing that the Absolute qua Absolute can only have meaning in language because language about God always misses its aim. Language is the only evidence for God, and God only takes on being-becomes more than an object of thought-in acts of signification to others. For this reason, the argument that is found often in "Jewish" appropriations of Levinas's work, namely that Judaism serves as a corrective to the idealist element that is endemic to Western philosophy,30 is mistaken. The claim that Levinasian philosophy finds grounds in the Jewish tradition-a claim that is certainly true-is a compelling claim for the opposite reason. For Levinas, Judaism serves as an expansion of philosophical discourse, by showing that the idealist urge to make God present-to show that God reigns-can actually be fulfilled in worldly acts, in acts of signification to others. This claim can be fleshed out in a closer examination of a text from the Volozhiner.
Nefesh ha-Hayyim is the Volozhiner's major systematic work. But it is not his only work. There are some collections of sermons, a long article on the Kabbalism of the Volozhiner's teacher Rabbi Elijah ben Zalman (the Gaon of Vilna, 1720-1797), and most significantly, a commentary on the tractate Avot ("Fathers") from the second-century rabbinic text known as the Mishnah.31 This tractate deals with the cultivation of character traits and has for this reason often been referred to as "Ethics of the Fathers." The Volozhiner's commentary on this text, reconstructed from his students' lecture notes, bears the title Ruach Hayyim ("Spirit of Life").32 The opening of this text is fascinating. Like other traditional commentaries on this tractate of the Mishnah, the Volozhiner's lectures open with a commentary on another section of the Mishnah that serves as the liturgical introduction to Avot when it is read in synagogues during the afternoon prayer on the Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuot/Pentecost. This other text from the Mishnah, the base text for the Volozhiner's commentary, reads as follows: "All Israel has a share in the world-to-come, as it is stated [in Isaiah 60:21], 'And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time; they are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory.'" The most relevant parts of the Volozhiner's short commentary on this passage read as follows.
Behold, it is known that at the time when it occurs to a person to perform a mitzvah [commandment], a trace [rishum] of him is created in the upper world. A light from holiness is aroused upon him, surrounds him and protects his limbs.... The light is a help and aid for him to complete the mitzvah, for he sits as if really in the Garden of Eden [yoshev kemo bagan 'eden mamash], a holy place. The holiness clothes him, and by means of finishing the mitzvah, the garment is stronger and illuminates him. The light leaves afterwards to the Garden of Eden, and is his reward in the future. Therefore, one should say that by means of sin, the power of evil cleaves to him and goes around him as mentioned above, and after the act it withdraws, all of it, to Gehenna and is isolated from holiness, as it is said [in Isaiah 59:2], "Your wrongdoings have been a barrier between you and God." ... There is no greater refuge that rescues one from sin than a mitzvah, because in this manner, one is covered in the shade of holiness, and the smell of the Garden of Eden comes in with him into his life, and there is no place where the Evil Impulse rules.
[As it is stated inAvot4:2], "A mitzvah brings a mitzvah." The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah. The light surrounds him as explained earlier, and he sits really as if [mamash kemo] in the Garden of Eden, and it is therefore easy for him to do another mitzvah. . ..
The text does not literally say "all Israel has a share in the world-to-come [ba'olam ha-ba'], but it says "all Israel has a share toward the world to come [la'olam ha-ba'}. "In the world to come" is an expression understood as meaning that it is a fixed place and whoever gains credit in mitzvot is given [that credit] from there. "To the world to come" implies that he is now bringing about [Oseh] the world-to-come as he performs the mitzvah, and that this is an act on the part of the individual himself. For the mitzvah is its own reward, and the light is in the Garden of Eden in the lifetime of man, and it is his future reward. Understand!33
I cannot swear to having obeyed the Volozhiner's final imperative all that well. But even so, one can note a key difference in the above passage from Ruach Hayyim and a similar passage in Nefesh ha-Hayyim 1:12.34 In the text from Nefesh ha-Hayyim, there is no mention of the Garden of Eden, which plays a central role in the account of the mitzvah-observant life in the opening to Ruach Hayyim. This addition, which does not contradict the sparse comments on Eden that the Volozhiner makes in Nefesh ha-Hayyim,35 makes the text a far more phenomenologically interesting one. What does it mean to say that the mitzvah-observant Jew is somehow related to a holiness that has its source in Eden?
Foremost, it means that there is some attenuated experience of that which transcends in the Volozhiner's discourse. What we have here is a narrative of a person who, in the decision to perform a commanded act, transcends the stream of lived experience-or, perhaps more precisely, lives in an experience of that which lies exterior to the mundane world-because in the Volozhiner's Kabbalistic framework, the world of the Garden of Eden is a supernal world that transcends that world in which we act. But this both is and is not an experience of intuition (and hence cognition) of the divine. It makes most sense to speak of this experience of transcendence as an attenuated one. For in this passage, there are two contrary discourses about religious experience. On the one hand, there is an experience of a supernal world-that of the Garden of Eden-in which the mitzvah-observant Jew receives some of the divine shefa (overflow), and another in which this experience of self-transcendence is deferred. There are at least three examples of this in the selections from the opening to Ruach Hayyim quoted above. First, the person who performs a mitzvah is mamash kemo bagan 'eden, "actually as in the Garden of Eden." The two adverbs here have a contrary force: mamash ("actually") implies that there is indeed some ascent to a supernal realm in the act of deciding to perform a mitzvah, while the kemo ("as") implies that the narrative of the experience is predominantly a metaphor of the future reward. The Volozhiner appears to be aiming at some middle ground between pure reality and pure fiction, but mamash kemo is a particularly frustrating way of communicating such a space. secondly, the relationship of the light of the holiness to the commanded act is simply puzzling. On the one hand, the description of the light of holiness departing to the Garden of Eden after one performs a mitzvah appears to defer the experience of the supernal world, and implies that the reader is to take the kemo more seriously than the mamash in descriptions of the individual's sitting in the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, since doing a mitzvah makes it easier to decide to do another mitzvah, and since the experience of the supernal world of the garden occurs during the act of performing a mitzvah (since the light only leaves after the act is completed), then it stands to reason that since the experience of being clothed in the light of holiness is repeated often during the course of one's life, the rhetoric of the light's withdrawal to the Garden of Eden really does not play an important role in the ideology of this text. Third, it seems to be difficult to determine the time frame in which the world-to-come is situated. The closing lines of the above quotation are also quoted by Yeshayahu Leibowitz in his essay "Lishmah and Not-Lishmah" ("Torah for Its Own Sake, and Torah Not For Its Own Sake"), and the translator of that essay renders the phrase I have translated "he is now bringing about the world-to-come" as "he is now in the world-tocome."36 The text could support this if one were to read it as "he is bringing about the world-to-come now," i.e., making it present. But one could also read the text as stating, "he is now making the world to come," i.e., that the creation of, or the move toward, the world-tocome is currently taking place, but the actual experience of the world-to-come is deferred. (To give a parallel example, one might declare that one is building a house now, but will not actually live in it until later.) To bring all this back to a more recognizable Levinasian language, the Volozhiner here is describing religious life both as being an experience in the Kantian sense, and therefore of something that is an object or a "term,"37 at the same time as the Volozhiner is describing it as an experience of the duration of time, suggesting that God "has no meaning outside the search for God."38
Part of what it means to say that this experience is attenuated is that its parameters are both spatial/ontological and axiological. To state the obvious, the Garden of Eden is a place. The possibility that its site is the imagination does not change the fact that it is given as a topos. It is a landscape where one becomes enrooted, a landscape in which one can dwell, especially as the performance of mitzvot becomes easier and easier. In the tradition of Lurianic Kabbalah which gives the Volozhiner his vocabulary39, the Garden of Eden refers to two of the three supernal worlds; Luria refers to an "upper garden" which corresponds to the world of the divine throne and a "lower garden" which refers to the world of the angels.40 The Volozhiner appears to collapse these two gardens into one, but one can still say that the person who performs mitzvot is able to transcend the bounds of this world, the lowest world that is the world in which we act. Furthermore, one can say that the Volozhiner's language here taps into a mystical tradition of accessing paradise and enabling the mystic to have a more direct experience of the divine. For example, the Lurianic custom of rising at midnight to mourn the exile of God from the world succeeds in arousing God to enter the Garden of Eden and delight with the souls of the righteous.41 In short, the language that the Volozhiner uses in the opening to Ruach Hayyim implies that the covenantal life is one in which the sacred is brought to life in the ascent to a supernal world. Given the possibility of dwelling in this supernal world, it seems very possible that this is a way of life that, in its own way, can go along uninterrupted. One could thus understand the rhetoric of the Garden of Eden as susceptible to the critique of the ontological language of the sacred (in favor of the purer language of holiness) that Levinas critiques in various places in his work, for example the Talmudic reading published as "Desacralization and Disenchantment."42 Nevertheless, the reader must also ask as to the conditions for this experience of a sacred space. This condition is an axiological outlook that views the performance of mitzvot as the highest value. Sacred space would seem to be secondary to holy acts. Still, while holiness is the ground of the experience of sacred space, the sacred is the telos of the holy. If the Volozhiner is arguing against any kind of religious experience here, it is one in which one passively awaits an event in which an encounter with that which transcends occurs, as Heidegger implies when he writes of "awaiting the divinities" in "Building Dwelling Thinking."43 The close relationship between action and experience, which gives the light of holiness both a spatial and an axiological dimension, means that the sacred and the holy, place and act, fact and value, belong together as two equiprimordial aspects of the religious life.
Also, part of what it means to say that this experience is attenuated is to say that the experience of a transcendent Other is not easily separable from the immanent experience of selfhood. At the beginning of the passage, the Volozhiner speaks of the self's being aroused or awakened when intending to perform a mitzvah. The verb here is mit'orer, a reflexive verb that also has senses of being stirred or incited, or even of being contested. In the history of Jewish philosophy, it has a technical sense as the Hebrew translation for the Greek orektikon, referring to the appetitive faculty of the soul, and appears most notably as such in the commentary on Avot written by Moses Maimonides in the middle of the twelfth century, commonly known as Shemonah Peraqim or "Eight Chapters."44 There is good reason to think that the Volozhiner is consciously invoking this technical sense of the term, since he is a careful student of Maimonides; most obviously, Nefesh ha-Hayyim begins as a commentary on Gen. 1:26 ("Let us make man in our image"), just as Maimonides's Guide of the Perplexed does. In the "Eight Chapters," Maimonides describes the acquisition of moral virtues, which reside in the appetitive part of the soul, in terms of repeated actions that inculcate the habit of desiring to do virtue over and above vice. The Volozhiner's narrative of the acquisition of the light of holiness deepens Maimonides's often sketchy narrative of the formation of the ethical self; it serves to explain how it is that the performance of a mitzvah (which is de facto virtuous) can lead to a desire to do another action of that sort. But this narrative too falls into problems. On the one hand, it seems that the power to desire to do another mitzvah is constituted by the strength donated to the self by the light of holiness. On the other hand, the text opens with a desire to perform a mitzvah that occurs before any mystical event that makes possible a desire to do a mitzvah at a later point in time. In this case, the power of desire is not awakened by the divine, but is something that already inheres in the self before the experience of the Garden of Eden. In other words, the structure of covenantal life that the Volozhiner lays out is one in which a person decides to act, and goes on to view that decision as giving rise to an experience which changes the nature of the ground of acting, shifting it from the human will to the light of divine holiness. Nevertheless, this shift cannot erase the fact that the ground of action was originally the self's own desire to perform a mitzvah. There is a puzzling double origin of desire in this text-both natural and supernatural, both freely willed by the self and accomplished by the divine. While the reader may want to privilege one over the other, there is nothing in this text that authorizes such a move. What we see in the opening sentences of Ruach Hayyim is a structure in which a self becomes more fully itself by being pulled outside of itself, toward the holiness of the Garden of Eden. It turns toward itself by turning away from itself; interiority and exteriority bleed into each other.
These simultaneities in Ruach Hayyim-both fiction/feme and actuality/mamash, both future and present world-to-come, both norm and fact, both exteriority and interiority-parallel the simultaneities of negative theology and religious experience, the non- and the within, that rightly puzzle readers of Levinas. (One might add that the most obvious simultaneity in Ruach Hayyim is that in which there is a move upward into the Garden of Eden that is at the same time a move outward into the world in which mitzvot are performed.) The strange conjunctions that we find in the opening of Ruach Hayyim are an example of a broader claim that Levinas makes in an article on Husserl from the 1970s:
What is the meaning of this "soul within the soul," this alterity, there where everything is nevertheless coincident with self or rediscoveries of self, this unreality at the heart of lived experience? What might this exteriority-which would not be an intentional ecstasy-signify? Aretro-cendence: that which is identified in immanence and recovered there, detaches itself from itself or sobers up [se dégrise], like the instant at which sleep gives way and where, in awakening, the lived experience before us discolors as a dream that is past and may only be remembered. Transcendence in immanence, the strange structure (or the depth) of the psyche [psychique] as a soul within the soul; it is the awakening that always recommences in sleeplessness itself; the Same infinitely carried back in its most intimate identity to the Other.45
Levinas's claim that the depth of subjectivity is a constant awakening to itself-to an alterity within it that, because it is not a graspable object, does not displace the language of ego and ontology46-is not verified by Ruach Hayyim. It is verified by a phenomenology of various aspects of waking life; in the case of the quote above, the argument is grounded in the analyses of sleep and wakefulness found in Husserl's Phenomenological Psychology and Experience and Judgment. But what then does this mean for using the Volozhiner to shed light on Levinas, and vice versa?
Perhaps not very much at all. To say that a Jewish text displays the structure of the other in the same, the same structure which Levinas finds in his analyses of time, responsibility, etc., is really to say that the Jewish context of Levinasian thought really isn't that important. There is nothing that the Volozhiner gives us that we could not have already gotten from Levinas's critique of Husserl. Ruach Hayyim shows itself to be a phenomenologically rich text, which does not detach us once and for all from the egoism of philosophical discourse; rather, that egoism shows itself to be part and parcel of one strand of Jewish discourse as well. As a result, the claim that Judaism serves as a criticism of philosophy is evacuated of its significance. If both Judaism and philosophy (not only Levinas, but also Descartes, Malebranche, and Husserl) display the torsion of same and other, then there is nothing in "Judaism" that is foreign to "philosophy"; the source for the critical force of alterity found in both rhetorics must be found elsewhere. Such an argument prevents us from viewing Levinas' Jewish context in an unhealthy manner. After all, the texts of the Volozhiner are unique unto themselves, and the concepts that we might draw from them will not make us into Levinasians. For example, at one point in Ruach Hayyim, in a comment on Avot 2:4, the Volozhiner writes that the command in the Mishnah to "equate His will to your will" leads one to the point at which one's will is completely nullified.47 However, such an extirpation of all psychological characteristics also extirpates the self's ability to respond to the particularity of the other person.
There is still the possibility, though, that a study of Levinas's Jewish context can give a fuller narrative heft to concepts that seem vague in the philosophical writings. The most obvious example is that of the language of the passing of the infinite and prophecy near the end of Otherwise than Being, which often evoke reactions similar to what a student of mine once poetically expressed as, "What the [expletive] is going on?" In response to such a question, we can point to Levinas's last two essays on the Volozhiner: "Judaism and Kenosis" from In The Time of the Nations, and the preface to Benjamin Gross's French translation of Nefesh ha-Hayyim. In both of those essays, Levinas quotes a midrash from Nefesh ha-Hayyim 2:10, one which the Volozhiner himself takes from Moses de Leon's Zohar, the primary text of medieval Jewish mysticism. In that text, Moses de Leon re-reads the end of Isaiah 51:16, God's assertion that "You [Israel] are my people ['ami attah]" as "you are with me ['imi attah]"48 Such a shift in vocalization as that from 'ami to 'imi is not an uncommon strategy in rabbinic interpretation.49 On this reading of the text, it is not election or peoplehood, but a broader sense of being with God that results from the event described in the first half of Isaiah 51:16: "I have put my words in your mouth." In other words, being-withGod is the result of prophetic speech. It therefore seems best to say that the concept of prophecy in Levinas is a most apt parallel to the attenuated narrative of religious experience in Ruach Hayylm. In Ruach Hayyim, there is a conjunction with holiness that seems to be both real and imagined, while in the discussion of prophetic speech in these late essays on Nefesh ha-Hayyim, there is a being-withGod that still questions the Kantian parameters of experience.
In Otherwise than Being, Levinas denies that prophecy is an experience of God in any meaningful Husserlian or Kantian form, in which the object of the experience would or could be represented in consciousness. Prophecy, equated with psyche, is defined as "the other in the same" and refers to a situation in which "to bear witness to God is precisely not to state this extraordinary word, as though glory would be lodged in a theme and be posited as a thesis."50 Nevertheless, it should be very puzzling to those who want to use such a passage as the basis of an argument that religious experience is impossible, that Levinas himself cites a passage from the Zohar that defines prophecy as being with God. How can the simultaneity of these two texts be saved from meaninglessness? It makes little sense to say that being with God cannot be experienced; if that were the case, I see no way in which one would even have the ability to assert that one is with God. What the opening of Ruach Hayyim suggests is that the witness enters a fictive world-a Utopia, a paradise-in which God's having passed by is fantastically reproduced by the witness' acting in the name of God, likened to performing covenanted acts while clothed in the divine light of holiness. The witness or the prophet-or, in the world of R. Hayyim of Volozhin, the Jew-has no evidence for positing God as something that is cognizable in the present. However, the phenomenological evidence for God's having passed (temporality, maternity, etc.) gives one the confidence and trust necessary to posit God anyway in prophetic witness. To posit a thesis in this way is to posit a thesis that undoes itself-God is said and unsaid, posited and deposited through linguistic signs that show that this act of positing is not to be taken as similar to the positing of any natural fact. But even though the mental world of the prophet is fictive, the acts performed in the name of that fictive world have effects in the real world, and so the prophet ends up working to produce the world that he fantasizes does not need to be produced at all. What the Volozhiner teaches readers of Levinas, then, is that the proper name for this strange conjunction of fiction and reality, diachrony and presence, is mamash kemo, "actually as if." In these two words is buried the story of how a fable becomes a world.
1. Levinas, "Dieu et la philosophie," in De Dieu qui vient à l'idée (Paris: Vrin, 1982), 105; "God and Philosophy," in Of God Who Comes To Mind, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 63.
2. Levinas links the Cartesian cogito with Kant's account of the unity of apperception at "Dieu et la philosophie," 100, "God and Philosophy" 59.
3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin's, 1929), 173 (B 166), 209 (B 218-19).
4. Levinas, "Dieu et la philosophie" 105, and "God and Philosophy" 63; Levinas, Totalité et l'infini. Essai sur l'extériorité (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1961), 186-87, and Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonse Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969). 211.
5. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier, 1961), 62.
6. Levinas, Totalité et l'infini, 186; Totality and Infinity, 211.
7. Levinas, "Dieu et la philosophie," 103; "God and Philosophy" 61-62.
8. For the infinite as that which cannot be aimed at, see Levinas, Autrement qu 'Lire ou au-delà de l'essence (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), 124, and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonse Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), 97. For the critique of revelation, see Totalité et l'infini, xvi, and Totality and Infinity, 28: "the relation between the same and the other is not reducible... even to the revelation of the other to the same." This puts the kibosh on the possibility of resuscitating in a phenomenological context the erotic dialogue between the human individual and God that grounds Rosenzweig's critique of totality in The Star of Redemption. see Rosenzweig, Der Stern der Erlosung (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976), 193-206; The Star of Redemption, trans. W. W. Hallo (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 173-85; The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara Galli (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 187-200. For a fuller account of a Leviniasian critique of Rosenzweig, see Martin Kavka, Jewish Messianism and the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 129-92, esp. 13Iff. and 188. see also Peter E. Gordon, Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 10-12, 200-01.
9. Bettina Bergo, "The God of Abraham and The God of the Philosophers: A Reading of Emmanuel Levinas's 'Dieu et la Philosophie,'" Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 16:1 (1992), 125.
10. Lev'mas,Totalitéetl'infini, 187',Totality and Infinity, 211-12.
11. See Steven Gait Crowell, "Authentic Thinking and Phenomenological Method," The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 2 (2002): 26ff. For a discussion of Levinasian phenomenology as indebted to Eugen Fink, see ibid., 32ff.
12. Levinas, Totalité et l'infini, 186; Totality and Infinity, 211.
14. Levinas, "Dieu et la philosophie," 106; "God and Philosophy," 63.
15. Levinas, Autrement qu'Être, 192; Otherwise than Being, 150.
16. See Kavka, 20 and 130 for all-too-brief analyses of "The Temptation of Temptation" and "And God Created Woman," which appear in Quatre lectures talmudiques (Paris: Minuit, 1968), 65-109, Du sacré au saint (Paris: Minuit, 1977), 122-48, and Nine Talinudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 30-SO and 161-77. A brief manuscript that deepens these claims and also analyzes "The Pact" in L'audelà du verset: lectures et discourse talmudiques (Paris: Minuit, 1982), 87-106; Beyond The Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures, trans. Gary D. Mole (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 68-85, is available upon request to nikavka @ maiier.fsu.edu.
17. Edith Wyschogrod, "Corporeality and the Glory of the Infinite in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas," in Marco M. Olivetti, ed., Incarnation (Padua: CEDAM, 1999), 192.
18. Levinas, "Sur la philosophie juive," in A l'heure des nations (Paris: Minuit, 1988), 197-215, esp. 20003; "On Jewish Philosophy," in In The Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 167-83, esp. 169-72.
19. Jacob Meskin, "Toward A New Understanding of the Work of Emmanuel Levinas," Modern Judaism 20 (2000), 78-102; Susan E. Shapiro, '"And God Created Woman' : Reading The Bible Otherwise," in Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Gary A. Phillips, and David Jobling, eds., Levinas and Biblical Studies (Atlanta, GA: Society for Biblical Literature, 2003), 159-95, esp. 183-87.
20. Simon Critchley, "Introduction," Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 23.
21. The habit of certain translators of Levinas to retain French transliterations of Hebrew terms was noted by Robert Gibbs, in "Blowing on the Embers: Two Jewish Works of Emmanuel Levinas," Modern Judaism 14 (1994), 99-113; it is retained in the translation of Catherine Chalier's "Levinas and the Talmud" that appears in the Cambridge Companion volume (100-18).
22. See Elliot Wolfson, "Judaism and Incarnation: The Imaginai Body of God," in Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David F. Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer, eds., Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000), 239-54, as well as Daniel Boyarin's Dying For God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), and Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
23. Levinas, "Pièces d'identité," in Difficile liberté, 2nd ed. (Paris: Albin Michel, 1976), 75; "Means of Identification," in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 51.
24. Levinas, '"De l'image de Dieu' d'après R. Hayim Volozhiner," in L'au-delà du verset, 192; '"In The Image of God', According to Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner," in Beyond the Verse, 159.
25. Levinas, Transcendance et l'intelligibilité, suivi d'un entretien (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1996), 17; "Transcendence and Intelligibility," trans. Simon Critchley and Tamra Wright, in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Critchley, and Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 153.
26. Quoted in Levinas,"'De l'image de Dieu"', 198;"'In The Image of God,'" 164. see Hayyim ben Isaac Volozhiner, Nefesh ha-Hayyim (Brooklyn: S. L. Rogozin. 193?), 48, and L'âme de la vie, trans. and ed. Benjamin Gross (Paris: Verdier, 1986), 74. The Levinas text cites this passage as being from section 111:2 of Nefesh ha-Hayyim', in actuality, it is from section 11:2.
27. Levinas, '"De l'image de Dieu,'" 198; "'In The Image of God,'" 164-65.
28. Levinas, '"De l'image de Dieu,'" 198-99; '"In The Image of God,'" 165.
29. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989), 35.
30. See, for example, Jacob Meskin, "Critique, Tradition, and the Religious Imagination: An Essay on Levinas' Talmudic Readings," Judaism 47:1 (1998): 90-106.
31. For fuller portraits of the Volozhiner's writings in English, see Norman Lamm, Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah's Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and his Contemporaries (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1989), Immanuel Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993), 30-56, and Shaul Magid, "Deconstructing the Mystical: The Anti-Mystical Kabbalism in Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin's Nefesh Ha-Hayyim," Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 9:1 (1999), 21-67.
32. A "rendering" of this work into English exists: Rav Chaim Volozhiner, Ruach Chaim, rendered into English by Chanoch Levi (Southfield, MI: Targum, 2002). On occasion, it omits parts of the original Hebrew text.
33. Hayyim ben Isaac Volozhiner, Sefer Ruah Hayim (Kovno, 1931), 17. My thanks to my colleague David Levenson for assisting me in revising my translation for publication.
34. Nefesh ha-Hayyim, 33f.; L'âme de la vie, 39f.
35. The garden as the site of Adam's prelapsarian contemplation of Edenic holiness is mentioned briefly by the Volozhiner in Nefesh ha-Hayyim, 118; L'âme de la vie, 234 (also see 355-56n316).
36. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, "Lishmah veshelo-lishmah," in Emunah, historyah, va'arakhim (Jerusalem: Academon, 1982), 33; "Lishmah and Not-Lishmah," trans. Yoram Navon, in Eliezer Goldman, ed., Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 67.
37. See, for example, Levinas, "Philosophie et positivité," in Jean-Luc Marion, ed., Positivité et transcendence: suivi de Levinas et la phenomenologie (Paris: PUF 2000), 19; "Philosophy and Positivity," trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky, in Regina Schwartz, ed., Transcendence: Philosophy, Literature, and Theology Approach the Beyond (New York: Routledge, 2004), 31.
38. see Levinas, "Questions et réponses," in De Dieu qui vient à l'idée, 150; "Questions and Answers," in Of God Who Comes To Mind, 95.
39. But not his ideology; see Shaul Magid, "Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Hazot," Da'at 36 (1996), xvii-xlv.
40. see Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (Jerusalem: Keter, 1974), 333.
41. see Magid, "Conjugal Union." see also the Volozhiner's brief mention of this theme in Nefesh ha-Hayyim, 102; L'âme de la Vie, 195-96.
42. Levinas, "Désacralisation et Désensorcellement," in Du sacré au saint (Paris: Minuit, 1977), 82-121, esp. 107-09; "Desacralization and Disenchantment," in Nine Talmudic Readings, 136-60, esp. 152.
43. Martin Heidegger, "Bauen Wohnen Denken," in Vorträge und Aufsatze (Stuttgart: Neske, 2000), 145; "Building Dwelling Thinking," in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 150.
44. see Herbert Davidson, "The Middle Way in Maimonides' Ethics," Proceedings for the American Academy of Jewish Research 54 (1987): 31-72.
45. Levinas, "De Ia conscience à la veille," in De Dieu qui vient à l'idée, 47; "From Consciousness to Wakefulness," in Of God Who Comes To Mind, 23-24.
46. see Levinas, Autrement qu 'être, 143, Otherwise than Being, 112 and the account of psyche there: "The more I return to myself, the more I divest [dépouille] myself." The radicality of the sentence lies in the fact that the two clauses can be reversed.
47. Volozhiner, Sefer Ruah Hayim, 45; Ruach Chaim, 94.
48. Levinas, "Judaïsme et Kénose," in A l'heure des nations, 145; "Judaism and Kenosis," in In The Time of the Nations, 125-26; L'âme de la vie, x.
49. Readings of Biblical verses as containing the phrase "with me," i.e., with God, through midrashic revocalization are not uncommon either. For another example, see Kavka, 214.
50. Levinas, Autrement qu 'être, 190; Otherwise than Being, 149.
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Publication information: Article title: Religious Experience in Levinas and R. Hayyim of Volozhin. Contributors: Kavka, Martin - Author. Journal title: Philosophy Today. Volume: 50. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2006. Page number: 69+. © DePaul University Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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