Nine Talmudic Readings

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Emmanuel Levinas
Translator(s): 
Annette Aronowicz
  • Bloomington: 
    Indiana University Press
    , May
     2019.
     240 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253040497.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Since Emmanuel Levinas is a prominent thinker, readers may be generally familiar with his pure philosophical writings, but the reception of his writings on Judaism is starkly different. Levinas’ Talmudic commentaries have been largely overlooked in anglophone scholarship until recent years, despite the fact that the English translation was published almost thirty years ago. Levinas’ intellectual relationship with Judaism is complicated. In his philosophical writings like Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Duquesne University Press, 1969), he makes only a handful of reference to Talmud or any other Jewish sources. His approach of philosophical reflection is manifestly secularized so that Jewishness is hardly found in his arguments or speculation.

But alongside his pure philosophical inquiry, Levinas also devoted himself to the study of classical Jewish thinkers like Maimonides. Hence, it is hardly surprising that Levinas has a Jewish side of thinking. Thanks to Annette Aronowicz’s brilliant translation of Nine Talmudic Readings, readers may access Levinas’ thoughts on Judaism in a new way. Only through his commentaries on Talmud can readers have a comprehensive view of Levinas’ main thoughts and perspective.

The methodological and philosophical significance of this work is significant. Unlike Levinas’ early canons that usually have a rigorous structure, the Talmudic Readings are speeches that aim at elaborating on a definite section of Talmud. His speeches are loose in structure and his interpretation is far from being conclusive. This is for the sake of doing justice to the “saying.”  Since his early writings, Levinas is aware of the insurmountable gap between “being said” (le dit) and “the saying” (le dire), which is the age-old tension between writing and saying. Saying is presumed to precede writing, and the richness of saying is incapable of entirely being reduced to the writing.

Thus, the writing cannot deliver the whole package of message that the saying expresses in a historical circumstance. In short, writing is inferior to saying. Hence, the later Levinas is facing the methodological problem of using propositions to fill a book that capture the uncapturable saying, when the former is doomed to betray the latter. As a result, from Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (Duquesne University Press, 1998) onwards, Levinas reconsiders the way of writing that can somehow overcome the ontological status of the said. His Talmudic readings can be conceived as the product of his style changing, for the sake of preserving the ethos of a dialogue that is irreducible to propositions.

As Aronowicz argues, the commentary is a specific form of writing, and it is impossible to summarize its argument through propositions. Aronowicz writes:

 The very mode of a commentary, broken up by the articulation of the passage and forced to derive its continuity from them, rebuts attempts to make a beeline for the end. Thus, the interpreter, while bringing his or her entire person to bear on the text, must also pay extreme attention to the specificity of the text, which include paying close attention to the way it is ordered, to its symbolic dimension. (53)

Like the case of Frederick Nietzsche or Theodor W. Adorno, Levinas deliberately adopts the form of commentary to illuminate the constant dialogue between the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud commentators. This passage that reveals the tradition of commentators unfolds one’s subjectivity: “The subjectivity called into play by the act of interpretation is always an extreme attention to what is outside itself” (55). In short, his commentary is a resistance against totality by drawing attention to the alterity of the text. This is the most proper way for Levinas to approach the tension between the saying and the said.

Apart from the methodological concern, the Jewish studies of Levinas would enrich our understanding of the theological ground of his ideas, such as responsibility or ethics. Nonetheless, readers should bear in mind that Levinas has no intention to be subjected to Jewish teaching. On the contrary, what he is doing is reconstructing and universalizing Judaism in order to philosophize it. Concerning the idea of God, for instance, Levinas writes, “we see traces of the difficult paths which lead to the comprehension of the Divine, coming to light only at the crossroads of human journeyings, if one can express its thus. It is these human journeyings which call to or announce the Divine” (45). In other words, Levinas does not attempt to follow Jewish teaching in a narrow sense, but he universalizes the doctrine as a new way to approach the issues that haunt him for years.

Another example: concerning the responsibility for others, early Levinas reveals the asymmetry of relationship phenomenologically in his philosophical doctrine. To be is to encounter the other and be responsible for the other, insofar as being for others is the condition of subjectivity. But needless to say, the ground of responsibility for others is unexplained. In the speech “The Temptation of Temptation,” with regard to the story of Moses, Levinas revisits the issue of responsibility by reading the tractate Shabbat. He writes: “My responsibility for everyone can also manifest itself by limiting itself: the ego may be called in the name of this unlimited responsibility to concern itself about itself as well” (71). This is no longer derived from the reflection of alterity theoretically, but through the lines of the Talmud.

Therefore, the Talmudic lesson of responsibility is properly corresponded to the present demand of ethical relationship. The hermeneutic that reveals the rich sense of meaning of Talmud “is not outside the text it is interpretating but already an essential part of its teaching” (63). But it is through the act of interpreting that we can derive the essential teaching from the text. Those Talmudic lessons are unsurprisingly corelated to Levinas’ early philosophical thinking. All in all, the new translation of Nine Talmudic Readings could be undeniably helpful to the Levinas studies, as well as the general public who is interested to approach Levinas through his Jewish writings. 

Thus, the Talmudic lesson of responsibility properly corresponds to the present demand of ethical relationship. The hermeneutic that reveals the rich sense of meaning of Talmud “is not outside the text it is interpreting but already an essential part of its teaching” (63). But it is through the act of interpreting that we can derive the essential teaching from the text. Those Talmudic lessons are unsurprisingly corelated to Levinas’ early philosophical thinking. All in all, the new translation of Nine Talmudic Readings could be undeniably helpful to the Levinas studies, as well as the general public who is interested in approaching Levinas through his Jewish writings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel (Yu-sum) Lee is a graduate student at the New School for Social Research.

Date of Review: 
June 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emmanuel Levinas was a French philosopher of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry who is known for his work within Jewish philosophy, existentialism, and phenomenology, focusing on the relationship of ethics to metaphysics and ontology.

Annette Aronowicz is the Robert F. and Patricia G. Ross Weis Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. She is author of Freedom from Ideology: Secrecy in Modern Expressions and Jews and Christians on Time and Eternity: Charles Pguy's Portrait of Bernard-Lazare.

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