Levinas's Jewish Thought: Between Jerusalem and Athens

The Hebrew University Magnes Press  2008


Emmanuel Levinas has been described by scholars as one of the greatest Jewish philosophers since Maimonides. Levinas’ difficult- to-read general philosophy, as well as his Jewish writings, have probably been more appreciated in Europe and Israel than in the U.S. Levinas’ main thesis is based on a compelling, though questionable, assumption about what constitutes the human condition, namely, that “responsibility” is “the essential, primary, and fundamental structure of subjectivity.” Thus, says Levinas, “subjectivity is not for itself; it is...initially for another.” What this boils down to is that for Levinas, ethics—being for the Other before oneself, a kind of radical altruism—is what comprises living a humane life at its best.

In Jewish circles, Levinas’ “being for the Other” before oneself orientation is of course nothing new, as it is one of the main tenets of Judaism, and, for that matter, all major humanistic religions. However, for Levinas, it is “the harmony achieved between so much goodness and so much legalism [that] constitutes the original note of Judaism.”

Meir attempts to detail the precise relationship between Levinas’ so called “Jewish ‘confessional writings,’ and his philosophical, ‘professional’ writings—as a unity.” For example, he analyzes Levinas’ views on “revelation and philosophy, the biblical address and the logos, the Saying and the said, faith and reason.” Meir skillfully summarizes Levinas’ views on a range of topics that are on the interface of his philosophical (i.e., “Greek” mode of thought) and Jewish (“Hebrew” mode of thought) writings. Meir does us a service in summarizing, comparing, and contrasting Levinas’ views in relation to Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, among other Jewish thinkers.

However, there are some limitations to this book. First, there are too many technical terms that are used without explanation (e.g., theologoumena, noneudaimonic ethics, hyperousilogical), which, along with untranslated footnotes, leave the non-specialist in the dark. However, my main criticism of Meir’s generally interesting and thoughtful book is that it often reads more like a “celebration” of Levinas rather than a critical study of his oeuvre. Some of what Levinas says is quite debatable. For example, he speaks about “the end of theodicy” after the Holocaust, though beyond his assertion, he does not adequately show why this is necessarily the case. Indeed, such a proclamation is philosophically, religiously, and empirically questionable. In other words, Meir would have created a better book if he had rigorously and critically evaluated Levinas’s pronouncements rather than taking them at face value, including his views on women and on psychoanalysis.

Nevertheless, this is probably the best secondary source for readers who want to know what Levinas said about Judaism because it summarizes so much material and is extensively footnoted, though I am afraid that only libraries will purchase the book at its steep price of $99.95.

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