Levinas (1906 – 1995), French phenomenologist steeped in Jewish tradition, is unquestionably one of the greatest ethical philosophers and religious thinkers of the 20th century. As a Jewishly-animated philosopher, he is on the level of such giants as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Levinas’ main focus was to explicate an ethical “face-to-face” relation with the Other, which, while immediate and singular, is also transcendent. Subjectivity, the self, the “I,” says Levinas, is originally not for itself; it is, initially for another. Thus, responsibility for the Other is the essential, primary, and fundamental structure of subjectivity. The Bible, with its Talmudic commentaries, is the most profound and powerful expression of this idea that the social is the very order of the spiritual. Says Levinas, “The harmony achieved between so much goodness and so much legalism constitutes the original note of Judaism.”
Malka, a former student in the Jewish teaching seminary in Paris where Levinas was the principle, has written a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful in-depth biography of Levinas, one that describes his life and his contributions to modern philosophical and religious thought. Malka’s journalistic approach includes personal accounts from Levinas’ family, friends, colleagues, and students. We follow Levinas’s life from his childhood in Lithuania, his prewar years in Paris, his studies with Husserl and Heidegger, his five years in a Nazi administered POW camp, his paneling at the Vatican and in the streets of Tel Aviv, and his teaching career at the École Normale Israelite Orientale and the Sorbonne. Malka situates Levinas’ friendships with Maurice Blanchot and Jean Wahl in perspective while also discussing the teaching of M. Chouchani, the mysterious Talmudic scholar and mathematician (who also taught Elie Weisel). Levinas’ later relationship and discussions with important philosophers and religious thinkers, including Paul Ricoeur, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Derrida (who gave Levinas’s eulogy) and Pope John Paul II (who often cited his work), are also detailed.
On a Jewish note, Levinas, a practicing Orthodox Jew (though a rather heterodox one), was a well known Talmudic devotée who offered intriguing commentaries and regular lectures to the secular Jewish intellectual community in Paris. We also learn that Levinas, sometimes a maverick, did not usually wear a kippah in public, he took the elevator on Shabbat and drank unkosher wine. After the war, according to his daughter, probably in part due to his being traumatized by his incarceration and loss of his parents, brothers, in-laws, and most of his community to the Nazis, briefly renounced Jewish tradition and ate pork in his home. Levinas never broke his vow to never set foot in Germany despite being offered many honors; he was a Holocaust survivor of a sort, through and through. As the translator of this wonderful little book notes, “Levinas’s phenomenology of the face of the other in its ethical height receives its philosophical clarity in and from Fallingbostel, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.”