Persecution and Expiation: A Talmudic Amplification of the Enigma of Responsibility in Levinas

By Hatley, James | Philosophy Today, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Persecution and Expiation: A Talmudic Amplification of the Enigma of Responsibility in Levinas


Hatley, James, Philosophy Today


"To tend the cheek to the smiter and be filled with shame."

-Lamentations 3:30

"It is difficult to forgive Heidegger."

-Levinas

Who Persecutes Me?

Levinas' characterization of the subject in Otherwise than Being as the very articulation of persecution is one of the most outrageous moments in this text's often outrageous assault upon the Enlightenment assumption that ethical responsibility can be confidently founded upon the autonomy of the rational individual.1 In his account, Levinas portrays my summons to responsibility as emerging not from out of my own capacity to reason coherently in a community of similarly-endowed beings but in the very incoherency of my suffering underneath the hand of the other who would rise up against me and strike me out from the human community altogether. An action that would seem to express the very failure of the ethical becomes in a most unsettling paradox its guarantor.

Before a chance to reason out my responsibility could have ever been given, Levinas argues, a blow has already been undergone and my autonomy already interrupted by the approach of another who persecutes me. To suffer responsibility before a reason can be given justifying this burden is to find I am responsible beyond my own means. In the approach of the persecutor, Levinas instructs me, I learn not only to be responsible for my own ethical practices but also, scandalously for those who would start with autonomy, to be responsible even for the other's responsibility. In making this claim, Levinas allies himself with a position, long held in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as in many other religious traditions, that the call to responsibility does not so much elevate as leave oneself humbled by and attentive to others-service (avodah) rather than excellence (arête) being the ultimate measure by which the good might make itself known.

But who exactly delivers this blow and in what manner? In response to the first half of this questions, Oona Eisenstat has argued against jumping too quickly to the conclusion that identifies the other by whom I am persecuted as a particular sort of human who treats me unjustly, say, the Nazi guard at Auschwitz, or the terrorist murdering innocents on a city street.2 Further, to identify the blow undergone with only the spectacular violence of the Shoah, or yet other acts of genocide and political mayhem, would also be a mistake. My persecution then does not necessarily imply either my innocence or guilt. The neighbor who is my friend, as much as the stranger without means, are my persecutors, as is, as well, the foe who would murder me.

To notice this "equivocation," or better, "enigma,"3 in the philosophical meaning of persecution for Levinas is not to deny a specific linkage between the rhetoric of this passage and the Shoah, complete with its death camps, its annihilative cruelty and its multiple genocides.4 Yet Eisenstat worries, rightly so, about an onticizing or historicizing of the Levinasian scene of persecution to the point that its full force is lost and even perverted. After all, most of those who will have read Levinas never were and never could have been a death camp inmate, or even, G-d forbid, one of those who inflicted a blow upon a death camp inmate. To read Levinas' words as if they were simply about that particular historical situation would be to engage in a morally devastating appropriation of the other's suffering that would belie the very point Levinas is trying to make. Further, identifying the blow in this manner would put most of Levinas' readers at a safe distance from it. Since I am neither the persecutor nor persecuted of the Shoah, I would be outside at least the direct purview of what is being invoked in the passage.

So, even if Levinas' language alludes to the violence of the death camp, as well as to other innumerable scenes of persecution, it is also necessary to keep in mind that any other who comes before me is my persecutor.

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