Cohen, a philosophy professor and director of the Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage at SUNY Buffalo, is the author and translator of a number of important volumes on Levinas. In this collection Cohen has assembled some of the best papers he has written on Levinas in the last decade. While the book deals with both Levinas’s secular and religious writings, there is much in this thoughtful and readable book that deals with Levinas’s “Jewish” writings. Cohen focuses on Levinas’s hermeneutic use of the Talmud, including the way it is taught and “learned” and the ethical values and beliefs that animate this sacred text that have bearing on how we live our lives today. All of Levinas’ important terms such as face-toface, the saying and the said, the third, responsibility for the Other, infinity, the holy, and the “there is” (anonymous being), are all made as clear as these obtuse notions can be, including as they relate to Judaism conceived as ethical wisdom. As Levinas wrote, what is most unique about Judaism is “The harmony achieved between so much goodness and so much legalism constitutes the original note of Judaism.” For Levinas, says Cohen, Judaism is a unique prototype for humanity’s universal longing for ethics. As Levinas polemically noted, “To be Jewish is not particularity, it is a modality. Everybody is a little bit Jewish, and if there were men on Mars, one will find Jews among them.” In particular Cohen discusses Levinas’ thinking about faith and knowledge, ethics as one’s primary existential approach to God, Jewish universalism and particularism, and the problem of evil. There is also an informative chapter called “Defending Levinas: Interview with Chung- Hsiung (Raymond) Lai,” in which Cohen takes on many of the main criticisms of Levinas by philosophers and theologians. Thus, Cohen shows in this collection that he is one of the most illuminating interpreters of what Levinas is getting at in the latter’s affirmation that “ethics is first philosophy” as well as Levinas’ claim that Judaism is “a religion for adults.” This book will surely “turn on” the inquiring Jew to Levinas’s novel approach to Judaism.
Paul Marcus, Ph.D., a psychoanalyst, is the author of Being for the Other: Emmanuel Levinas, Ethical Living and Psychoanalysis and In Search of the Good Life: Emmanuel Levinas, Psychoanalysis and the Art of Living.