The Problem of the Promise: Derrida on Levinas on the Cities of Refuge

By Eisenstadt, Oona | Cross Currents, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Problem of the Promise: Derrida on Levinas on the Cities of Refuge


Eisenstadt, Oona, Cross Currents


LEVINAS'S ZIONIST WRITINGS are generally neglected. This might seem odd in light of the fact that one of the criticisms most often made of Levinas is that he has no interest in politics. You would think that scholars looking to defend him would be led to a consideration of his most overtly political writings. But as yet they have not. Partly this has to do with the prevailing political wind: in the last decade, Zionism has not been altogether popular with the socially conscious, and it is the socially conscious who read Levinas. But it is not just a question of the leanings of Levinas's readership. What those who criticize Levinas for having no politics want is the occasional policy statement, a comment here or there on how the ethics might apply to the concrete problems of the twentieth century--the kind of thing they are used to from, for instance, Jacques Derrida. What they get instead in the Zionist writings is a fervent discussion of the upper limits of human political possibility. It is an intemperate d iscourse, one in which the sobriety for which Levinas is known is all but entirely relinquished. Readers tend to find this alarming. Even those who crave more political discussion than is offered in the major works grow uneasy at the enthusiastic embrace of Israel's higher potential.

Derrida is one of the few commentators who take up the Zionist writings at length. His discussion, which appears in the essay, "A Word of Welcome," oscillates between praise and criticism. (1) Ultimately I think the criticism is intended to stand in the service of the praise; in other words, Derrida's intention is to deepen our appreciation of these writings and the political theory they present by deepening our understanding of their problems. In this paper, however, I will not complete the argument; instead I will raise only the forceful critique. The Zionist work on which I will focus is the talmudic lecture, "Cities of Refuge." (2) I will begin with a summary, and go on to raise questions in my own name and in Derrida's, questions which, however, should not be understood as my last word, or his.

The Talmudic passage Levinas takes up in "Cities of Refuge," Makkot 10a, arises in the first instance from Deuteronomy 4:41-3, which describes how Moses founded three cities to provide sanctuary to the manslaughterer, the one who "kills his neighbour unintentionally." The Talmud provides more detail, and a discussion of the purpose and significance of the cities. It begins by listing certain civic regulations. The cities had to be guarded so that a relative of the one killed could not get in and take vengeance on the manslaughterer--and, in case an avenger did get in, the citizens of the cities were forbidden to leave lying around any objects that might be used as weapons. More broadly, the cities had to be founded on trade-routes, near water-sources, and were required to have a good-sized population--presumably if a lot of people moved out, others were encouraged to move in. These and other provisions are mentioned by the rabbis, provisions both for sustenance and for a full communal, spiritual life.

Why, Levinas asks, so much concern for the manslaughterer? He answers: because we are all manslaughterers. The manslaughterer is the one who is half-guilty, since he has killed, and half-innocent, since he did not mean to kill. We all participate in structures of oppression--this makes us guilty--but we participate for the most part unwittingly--this makes us innocent. Levinas uses the images of sleepiness and wakefulness to describe our circumstances. Were we fully awake, he says, there would be no manslaughter. We would know what we were doing, and while under such conditions there might still be murder, there could be no unwitting harm. But, as it is, we do not know exactly what we're doing; our intentions frequently go awry; we are, in these respects, sleepy. We're conscious enough to know that our state is imperfect; we push towards waking; we're aware that responsibility is not limited by negligence, that it is not really adequate to say "I made a mistake. …

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