Toward a Jewish (M)orality: Speaking of a Postmodern Jewish Ethics

By S. Daniel Breslauer | Go to book overview

the meaning of Judaism problematic by expanding the range it includes through the compass points of halacha and aggada. Derrida goes even further and makes the compass itself a problem.


MODERNITY IN BETWEEN

The difference between Levinas and Derrida follows what may be called Derrida's "philosophy of hesitation."47 Levinas, despite his fecundity at generating meaning, decides for Judaism and the Jewish tradition. He understands his role as a translator, a transmitter, a conveyer of that tradition. Derrida acts more cautiously. He introduces hesitation and undecidability. His caution arises not because he wishes to avoid religion, or more specifically Judaism, but because he knows he cannot avoid it. He refuses an apocalyptic vision of nonviolence now, because violence seems inherently part of the texts of life, the texts of Judaism, the textuality of humanity.

What then lies between Derrida and Levinas? Apparently both approach Judaism as postmoderns rather than as moderns. Yet the concerns of Leo Baeck, the ghost of modernity as it were, hovers between them. Derrida seeks to banish that ghost--seeing its presence as a perpetual threat of violence, an indissoluble element within the human consciousness. Levinas seeks to affirm the ghost, to remove its claws and tame it for the contemporary Jew. Baeck espoused a totality that could embrace all oppositions. He neither rejected violence entirely nor affirmed peace unconditionally. Instead he hoped for a messianic union between the two: "Messianic conviction is an ethical treasure in which suffering and consolation, the will to fight and the confidence of peace, are reconciled."48

This totalizing vision stands between Derrida and Levinas. Derrida rejects totality and acknowledges suffering and violence. Levinas transcends the will to fight and offers consolation. Both recognize what Derrida says of the Ephraimites--that they are forced to betray themselves by their betrayal of difference. The Ephraimites "betray" their ethical difference "in rendering themselves indifferent" to the marks that the Gileadites knew indicate a distinctive type of reading. 49 That reading of faces rather than words, of the visage of life rather than absolute values constitutes a postmodern recognition. To demarcate the self is to de-moralize the self. From whichever way they look at the modern, this new postmodern Judaism as ethics requires a process of facing the self and facing the other in which every new mark demands its remark in an infinite series of textual re-readings and re-marks.


NOTES
1.
See Jonathan Culler, "In Defence of Overinterpretation," in Umberto Eco with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, and Christine Brooke-Rose, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Stephan Collini, ed. ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 109-23.

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