Tam K. Parker :

Emmanuel Levinas - Where Philosophy and Jewish Ethics Meet

Levinas: Where Philosophy and Jewish Ethics Meet
by Tam K. Parker   


Of the many meetings of modern philosophy and Jewish thought in the twentieth century, perhaps none has generated as much recent interest as the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Like Buber’s marriage of Hasidism and the philosophy of intersubjectivity (the quality and dynamics of the relationship that exists between two people) and Rosenzweig’s analysis of Jewish historicity and Hegelian philosophy, Levinas’ work is the product of two cultures. Or more to the point, his work derives from the encounter between two cultures: Judaism and modern philosophy, or as Levinas himself would have it, Hebrew and Greek.

Born in Lithuania in 1906, Levinas took his formal education in Germany and France during the mid 1920s and early 1930s. His early philosophical work was in the growing phenomenological school. He studied with Edmund Husserl (whose work he translated into French) and Martin Heidegger, among others. While continuing his philosophical work, Levinas worked for Jewish organizations in France such as the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Oriental Israelite Normal School. Upon his arrival in France, he engaged in Talmudic studies, at one point studying with Elie Wiesel’s teacher, Mordechai Chouchani. Unlike his family, which remained in Lithuania, Levinas survived the Second World War, spending five years as a French POW in a German internment camp. The Holocaust and his encounter with totalitarianism forever marked Levinas’ work. From his "Greek" work Totality and Infinity to his "Hebrew" Talmudic essays, Levinas focused his attention an the possibilities of, and threats to, life lived ethically and humanely.

The central theme in Levinas’ life work was his abiding concern with the well-being of the other person; in particular, the suffering and powerless other: the widow, the orphan, the stranger. In his work, he sought not only to describe our responsibility for, and our duty to respect the difference of, the other person, but also to place our relationship with the other person at the very center of life. Like Martin Buber, Levinas expounded a philosophy of intersubjectivity and dialogue. But whereas Buber described the relation between persons in terms of mutuality, communion and reciprocity, Levinas described the relation between oneself and the suffering other in terms of command, duty and responsibility. This is not a relationship of equality, but one in which the suffering other commands from on high that one attend, with immediacy and succor, to the wounds afflicting her. Like the address and command at Sinai to the Israelites, the cry of the other cannot go unheeded. As Levinas states, this duty may be shirked, but it may not be escaped. This response of responsibility to the cry of the other—what Levinas terms the ethical relation—makes imperative the pursuit of justice in the world at large.

Levinas’ interest in ethical relations clearly has its roots in the Jewish concept of mitzvah (command) and the Torah’s concern with the welfare of the "widow, the orphan, the stranger." Yet his thought is not merely a translation of Jewish ethics into the modern parlance of generalized ethical theory. Levinas’ notion of the ethical relation is a direct challenge to the predominant philosophical ideas of his day.

Much of modern philosophy is what Levinas calls the "philosophy of subjectivity" (Hegel, Husserl). In it, consciousness, or the self, is the starting point for the philosophical endeavor and the basis of reality. In the words of Descartes, cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). As opposed to this motto of modern philosophy and model of personhood, Levinas offers the Hebrew phrase Hineni (Here I am). This is the response Avraham gives to God when called from the land of Ur and upon Mount Moriah; it is the response Moshe gives to God on Mount Sinai. According to Levinas, it is the full and responsible response to the call of another—"Here I am"—not the insular workings of the consciousness, that define the human person. Thus for Levinas, the act of conscience makes possible the act of consciousness. Thought, in particular philosophy, derives from the act of responsibility and the ethical relation. For Levinas, denizen of both "Greek" and "Hebrew" worlds, institutions, society, the work of justice, and philosophy itself all have their genesis in the ethical response of one person to another

The author is currently completing her doctoral dissertation "Making Separation: The Obligation of Ethical Practice in Post Holocaust Jewish Thought," in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. She received an NFJC Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in 1997.