Academic journal article Shofar

Ethics and Halakhah in Levinas

Academic journal article Shofar

Ethics and Halakhah in Levinas

Article excerpt

Levinas's conception of ethics has the structure of a phenomenology of Jewish law (halakhah) that privileges the heteronomous command over the rational deliberations of the subject. In this respect Levinas resembles neo-Orthodox Jewish thinkers. However, those who endorse halakhah as a system of heteronomous law frequently oppose it to ethics. They argue that the notion of obeying a mitzvah (commandment) from God requires one to sacrifice one's own conception of the good. Thus on the one hand Levinas' account of ethics closely resembles halakhah, while on the other hand the halakhah undermines the priority of ethics as Levinas understands it. The conundrum is resolved when we see how Levinasian ethics and halakhah both take exegetical responsibility for the heteronomous commandment. The moral act of midrash maintains the compatibility between ethics and halakhah but leads us to regard Levinas as a post-Orthodox halakhic thinker.

Emmanuel Levinas makes bold claims about the morality of religious life in general and of Jewish worship in particular that deserve further scrutiny, for while they are noble thoughts, at least on first inspection they defy a prevalent view of the nature of Jewish religious obligation. Levinas contends that God speaks and commands through the face of the other. Theology, revelation, and the practice of religion are all valid for Levinas as ethical imperatives to act kindly, charitably, and with justice. The famous account in Totality and Infinity proposes that:

The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face.... There can be no "knowledge" of God separated from the relationship with men. The Other is the very locus of metaphysical truth, and is indispensable for my relation with God.... The Other is not the incarnation of God, but precisely by his face, in which he is disincarnate, is the manifestation of the height in which God is revealed. It is our relations with men ... that give to theological concepts the sole significance they admit of.1

The Jewish works are equally forthright in equating religious transcendence with ethics. To cite but from two important essays: "everything I know of God and everything I can hear of His word and reasonably say to Him must find an ethical expression."2 And again:"Ethics is not simply the corollary of the religious but is, of itself, the element in which religious transcendence receives its original meaning."3 For Levinas, Judaism (and religion in general) is not ultimately about knowledge of God, or truth, or salvation, or even consolation, but about responding to God's transcendence through ethical life. Levinas has compelling reasons for casting ethics as a form of revealed command rather than as a project of philosophical reasoning. In sections 1 and 21 outline this conception of ethics as revealed command, which links it closely with the phenomenology of halakbah, and the reasons for his refusal of a rational and philosophical account of ethics. However, this leads to thorny problems that are quite common to "divine command morality" generally, namely, that by sacrificing reason Levinas's ethics risks degenerating into irrationalism and dogmatism and might even become immoral. In sections 3,4, and 5 I suggest a three-fold strategy which Levinas employs in order to meet this challenge. First, he refers the authority of the other from the empirical to the theological register, much as the authority of halakbah is said to derive from God rather than from the empirical character of the law itself. Second, he turns from the Other to the Torah, as halakbah also relies on the moral character of the text more than the postulates of theology. Finally, he turns from the text to the moral act of interpreting it, once again as halakhah has always done. Levinas's account of ethics as revealed command thus has much in common with a certain understanding of halakhah that values revelation over reason while refusing to countenance irrational and immoral applications of the Law. …

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