The Imaginary Jew, by Alain Finkielkraut//The Wisdom of Love, by Alain Finkielkraut
These two volumes import French culture to North America. Published in 1980 and 1984 in France, they have a natural location in the intellectual world of France -- although they disturb and criticize it in new and important ways. Arriving here almost fifteen years later, they are not so easily located. Clearly, these are not simply entries in the culture wars, nor are they Jewish Studies monographs. Their value, however, surmounts the question of placement because they represent a most readable introduction to a critical perspective on being Jewish and an ethics of responsibility which are still unfamiliar here.
The importance of The Wisdom of Love is more obvious. It is an introduction to the themes of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995). Although many books of Levinas' have been translated and others have been published on Levinas' thought, he is still largely unknown. For the Jewish intellectuals in France, Levinas was a giant -- the true leader of a resuscitation of Jewish thought and intellectual life. Levinas was both a philosopher, teaching at the Sorbonne and writing on phenomenology and metaphysics, and a Jewish leader, teaching in the community and training teachers for the Alliance Israélite Universelle. His ideas have had influence across a wide range of European culture from Derrida and Lyotard to Liberation Theology, to the Solidarity movement in Poland, and so on.
Finkielkraut does not present a discussion of Levinas' thought in any systematic or exegetical manner. He takes Levinas' central concept, the face, and then explores how it relates to other aspects of our culture: to love, to antisemitism, to revolutionary politics, and so on. Levinas himself was largely unwilling to engage in this interdisciplinary cultural motion. He retained his loyalty to philosophy and only occasionally wrote at length about literature or culture. Thus Finkielkraut accomplishes, in the French context, an extremely valuable task: he makes the philosophy speak to vital and vibrant issues in the contemporary culture. But this is not simply a question of applying a new idea, for the face opens a critical perspective on our world, and indeed in Finkielkraut's world even more obviously.
Levinas' central idea is that I am responsible for the other person who faces me, that her face challenges me and puts in question my place in the world as well as my world view. The face is the way that the other person disrupts my image of her. The face shatters the images I form; it is a breaking through the physiognomy of nose, eyes and mouth, calling me to respond. Levinas himself develops the philosophical (and theological) significance of this responsibility for the other person, daring to make the ethics of responsibility a First Philosophy, a point of orientation for all thinking and particularly for all discourse. The breakthrough in Levinas' thought is to make an infinite responsibility for others the orientation for our way in the world. …