Academic journal article Shofar

"A Land That Devours Its Inhabitants": Midrashic Reading, Emmanuel Levinas, and Prophetic Exegesis

Academic journal article Shofar

"A Land That Devours Its Inhabitants": Midrashic Reading, Emmanuel Levinas, and Prophetic Exegesis

Article excerpt

This essay initially cites the ways Levinas has been read to date-in philosophy, feminism, and Jewish Studies-noting the absence of midrashic reading, and especially one identified as akin to literary reading. It next defines midrash as the Rabbis and Jewish Studies scholars describe it (for example, in Genesis 22), and proceeds to examine a sample of midrashic reading-Levinas's "Promised Land or Permitted Land?"-perusing this text in four ways: (1) for the Biblical scripture (in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah) the Talmudic rabbis read; (2) for the Talmudic commentary in Sotah that Levinas examines; (3) for Levinas's ethical commentary; and (4) for my own prophetic account of Levinas's commentary upon Talmud's scriptural reading. These four roughly correspond, the essay suggests, with the four traditional levels of interpretation-pshat, remez, d'rash, and sod-about which the Rabbis speak or the four levels about which Christian hermeneuts speak: plain sense, allegorical, moral, and analogic.

So they gave-out a (false) report of the land that they had scouted out to the Children of Israel, saying: The land that we crossed through to scout it out: it is a land that devours its inhabitants.

Numbers 13:32(1)

"That they may explore the land for us" (Deuteronomy 1:22). Rav Hiyya bar Abba said: The explorers sought only the shame of the land, for about this it has been said/That they may explore (veyashperu) the land." And elsewhere it has been said (Isaiah 24:23):"The moon will be ashamed (veshapra) and the sun will be confounded."

Talmud Tractate Sotah, 34b-35a

He brought us out of Egypt, split the sea for us and fed us manna. Shouldn't we listen to him, even if he were to tell us to build ladders and ascend to heaven?

Where does the idea of a ladder and of heaven, which are missing in the biblical text, come from? Does the text say: "We shall go up and gain possession of it" (Numbers 13:30). It is this "we shall go up" which the Midrash uses as a pretext to introduce the idea of a "ladder to ascend to heaven."

Emmanuel Levinas2

Everything is given to God except the fear of God.

Where in the Temple we used to make sacrificial offerings, today we pray and study, [or, others translate it,] we pray and read.

God is nowhere present in Torah, but everywhere accessible through Torah.

Rabbinic sayings

Sartre introduced Levinas into France in the 1950s as a Husserlian phenomenologist.3 Derrida qualified that understanding, re-inventing him in the 1960s as a deconstructionist in dialogue with Heidegger.4 Contesting Sartre's endorsement. Simone de Beauvoir challenged Levinas's thinking on the feminine as asserting "masculine privilege," a challenge first amplified by Irigaray, then qualified (in context of a defense of Irigaray) by Tina Chanter.5 More recently, Richard Cohen and Robert Gibbs have introduced a Levinas responsive to Jewish sources-principally, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.6 And these three fields-philosophy (phenomenology and deconstruction), feminism, and Jewish studies-remain to this day indelible to any serious discussion of Levinas.

What, to date, to my knowledge has never been fully argued, however, is that Levinas is reading midrashically: that midrash is not just one among other modes of rabbinic exegesis but co-terminous with the activity itself; that Levinas recognizes and practices that rabbinic exegetical midrashic mode even when he is "translating Hebrew into Greek"; and that for Levinas, as for the rabbis, midrashic reading remains above all literary reading.7

What would it mean to say as much?8

Midrash, of course, has its own history.

First there were the rabbis. Along with commentaries on Talmud and Kabbalah, and the writing of the later rabbis (especially Rashi, Maimonides, and Nachmonides), the various collections of stories and other materials known as the Midrash or midrashim were among the four major bodies of exegetical writings through which prism the reading of biblical scripture was customarily passed. …

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