Ethics and halakhah in Levinas.
Emmanuel Levinas makes bold claims about the morality of religious life in general and of Jewish worship in particular that deserve further scrutiny, for while they are noble thoughts, at least on first inspection they defy a prevalent view of the nature of Jewish religious obligation. Levinas contends that God speaks and commands through the face of the other. Theology, revelation, and the practice of religion are all valid for Levinas as ethical imperatives to act kindly, charitably, and with justice. The famous account in Totality and Infinity proposes that:
The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face ... There can be no "knowledge" of God separated from the relationship with men. The Other is the very locus of metaphysical truth, and is indispensable for my relation with God ... The Other is not the incarnation of God, but precisely by his face, in which he is disincarnate, is the manifestation of the height in which God is revealed. It is our relations with men ... that give to theological concepts the sole significance they admit. of. (1)
The Jewish works are equally forthright in equating religious transcendence with ethics. To cite but from two important essays: "everything I know of God and everything I can hear of His word and reasonably say to Him must find an ethical expression." (2) And again:"Ethics is not simply the corollary of the religious but is, of itself, the element in which religious transcendence receives its original meaning." (3) For Levinas, Judaism (and religion in general) is not ultimately about knowledge of God, or truth, or salvation, or even consolation, but about responding to God's transcendence through ethical life. Levinas has compelling reasons for casting ethics as a form of revealed command rather than as a project of philosophical reasoning. In Sections 1 and 2 I outline this conception of ethics as revealed command, which links it closely with the phenomenology of halakhah, and the reasons for his refusal of a rational and philosophical account of ethics. However, this leads to thorny problems that are quite common to "divine command morality" generally, namely, that by sacrificing reason Levinas's ethics risks degenerating into irrationalism and dogmatism and might even become immoral. In Sections 3, 4, and 5 I suggest a three-fold strategy which Levinas employs in order to meet this challenge. First, he refers the authority of the other from the empirical to the theological register, much as the authority of halakhah is said to derive from God rather than from the empirical character of the law itself. Second, he turns from the Other to the Torah, as halakhah also relies on the moral character of the text more than the postulates of theology. Finally, he turns from the text to the moral act of interpreting it, once again as halakhah has always done. Levinas's account of ethics as revealed command thus has much in common with a certain understanding of halakhah that values revelation over reason while refusing to countenance irrational and immoral applications of the Law. Section 6 addresses a major problem with Levinas's strategy. In the final section I examine Levinas's view of the compatibility between ethical and ceremonial laws.
1. Ethics as Revealed Command
The idea that religious transcendence is expressed in moral life is a lofty one, but in an obvious way it defies a widespread view about the nature of the obligations demanded by revealed Jewish law. Both detractors and adherents of balakhah often point to the amoral and plainly immoral character of some particular religious laws. Detractors readily point to the immorality perpetrated now and since time immemorial not merely "in the name of religion" but in the actual practice of religious life. The God of the Hebrew Bible commands not only that we look after the poor, the widow, and the orphan but also, for example, that the Israelites annihilate the indigenous inhabitants of the land of Canaan or that Abraham sacrifice his son. And while the Christian West has never really appreciated the complex relationship between rabbinic law and biblical commandments, moving from the Bible to halakhic Judaism does not solve the problem. Even if the moral conflicts are less severe, they emerge when various modern values are sacrificed for the sake of fulfilling the obligations of halakhah. Some common examples include the sacrificing of environmental values for the sake of adhering to the laws of kashruth, the subordination of concerns about gender equality in order to maintain traditional halakhic categories, or the overriding of political values in the name of religious obligations, such as settling the land. These examples are not meant to point to unmistakably immoral uses of religious law but only to indicate places where there seems to be at least a tension or potential conflict between moral and religious obligations.
Moreover, adherents of halakhah are themselves often prepared to point to the authority of religious obligation over ethical ones. Their characteristic sentiment is that halakhah is a mode of serving God rather than human notions of what ought to be done. A mitzvah, as a commandment, aims at fulfilling God's will, not my will or your will. Halakhah, they argue, is essentially a heteronomous system whereby one's own will is sacrificed for the sake of fulfilling God's will, and only through this subjection of one's will is an act accorded religious value. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a strident proponent of the supremacy of halakhic obligations over ethical ones--though himself one of Israel's greatest moralists--argued that the confusion of ethics with halakhah is tantamount to idolatry since it subordinates God's transcendent will to our autonomous sense of right and wrong. On this basis he concluded that "[h]alakhah as a religious institution cannot admit the category of the ethical." (4) The standard liturgical formula for this proclaims that God has sanctified us by virtue of His commandments, asher kidishanu be'mitzvotav, without which Judaism sees no way to raise human action toward holiness. Levinas frequently quotes Psalm 119:19 to suggest that only heteronomous commandments prevent one from being alienated from God: "I am a stranger on the earth, hide not thy commandments from me." (5) Only the heteronomy of revealed law, not the autonomy of the moral law, can ensure that religious practice is not merely self-satisfaction but, rather, service of God. Revelation must therefore exceed the authority of autonomous reason. As Levinas puts it, if the elements of revelation "are accepted because they already recommend themselves to the discernment of the one who accepts them, they are in the domain of philosophy." (6) Belief in revelation and acceptance of its authority only begin where human reasoning and, by implication, autonomous moral deliberation cease to reign. This raises the fundamental problem of moral theology. As Levinas puts it:
In the logic of Western thought, Revelation, unless it wants to appear useless, must comprise elements which no reason could discover. Consequently, these elements must rest on an island of fideism or in a blind confidence in the transmitter of these elements. They must make those who accept them run the risk of having been duped by the Devil. (7)
Whether he is alluding to Job or Euthyphro, Abraham or Dostoyevsky, Levinas admits that faith in God's will, which for halakhic Jews is revealed in Scripture and as mitzvah, runs the risk of being but a wily ruse of the Devil. What one takes to be the content of revelation might in fact be plain murder--even though Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Joshua all obeyed the command. Without philosophy, revelation risks atrophying into blind faith and authoritative, arrogant traditionalism that might be but the ploys of the Devil. As Martin Buber posed the question: "Are you really addressed by the Absolute or by one of his apes?" (8)
Levinas is well aware of the danger posed by the heteronomy of revealed commandments and yet he insists on the primacy of revelation over reason. He does this because, following his two major influences, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Heidegger, he regards the traditions of rationalism and idealism, indeed the project of western philosophy as a whole, to have failed in its attempt to correlate reality with reason. (9) Kant is the most emblematic figure of this project, for the moral law is constructed on the basis of the universal form of practical reason. But for Levinas reason no longer commands the authority to determine the will and is therefore no longer the beacon and ground of moral philosophy. He therefore seeks an account of ethics that does not correlate with its rational transparency, for the primacy of the fact of reason is precisely what has been put in doubt by modern experience and philosophy. If we are not to be "duped by morality," as the opening Totality and Infinity wagers, it will not be because of the reasonableness of ethics but because of the pre-rational grip ethics has on our lives. Levinas's groundwork for a metaphysics of morals, as it were, thus turns not to the rational structure of the practical or objective spheres but to the ethical bond between the self and the other which precedes and enables the dawn of reason. Ethical obligations emerge prior to reflection and rationality with the mere appearance, or manifestation, or revelation of the other. Ethics is thus figured in terms of a revealed command rather than a rational imperative:
The idea of infinity, the infinitely more contained in the less, is concretely produced in the form of a relation with the face .... But what is produced here is not a reasoning, but the epiphany that occurs as a face. (10)
Levinas therefore defends a form of "divine command morality" by arguing that revealed morality, which he sees in the face of the Other, takes precedence over rational and deliberative morality. But how to ensure, or know, or guard against the possibility that the Other to whom one responds is in fact revealing an ethical command? The risk Levinas would have us run is that we might be duped by the Other, because the Other, as he puts it, might be the Devil. (11) The problem applies to halakhic life as much as it does to Levinasian ethics, since both prize the heteronomy of the command over the autonomy of moral reflection.
2. The Temptation of Philosophy
One way of meeting this dilemma is to argue that revelation is constrained by natural morality. There is much to recommend this view in Jewish sources. Several of the greatest authorities, including the Bible, seem to posit notions of goodness and justice that do not depend on revelation but imply a human capacity to discern right and wrong independently of revelation. Not only prior to Sinai do we see notions of justice and goodness at work without regard for revealed commandments, as in the cases of the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, but also after Sinai the validity of independent moral criteria continues to stand, as the prophetic critique of ritualism implies. David Novak suggests that this notion of morality belongs to the order of creation rather than commandment. (12) Several rabbinic sources are frequently cited to advance the proposition that Judaism affirms the validity of morality independently of revelation. For example:
"My principles [mishpatai] you shall do" [Lev. 18:4]--this refers to those things written in the Torah which, were they not written it would have been reasonable to write them; for example, the laws concerning theft, incest, idolatry, the cursing of God and the spilling of blood, for if these had not been written it would have been fitting to write them. (13)
The commanded law thus is not the only way Judaism gains access to the Good since the tradition affirms non-revealed notions of morality. (14) It follows that we have a way of knowing if the commanded law is in fact good by comparing it to the goodness we find in the order of creation. I agree with those who argue that Maimonides also accepts this line of thinking. (15) David Hartman suggests that, since halakhah is a moral and rational process of reflecting on God's command and creation, it
must be subjected to the scrutiny of moral categories that are independent of the notion of halakhic authority. Just as Maimonides utilized the human capacity to know truth independently of revelation and rabbinic authority to determine the meaning of religious language, so too must our human ethical sense shape our understanding of what is demanded of us in the mitzvoth .... In that same spirit, contemporary halakhic Jews need not apologize for using the best of ethical thought to learn how to apply the mitzvoth that touch upon ethical and moral considerations in everyday life. (16)
Some philosophers of halakhah are wary of the implications of such a Kantian view, for a radical formulation of the affirmation of natural morality can make recourse to revealed ethics either redundant or at best a means for promoting what reason itself could realize but not implement on its own, as was in fact the case for Kant. (17)
From the perspective of revealed religion the problem with Kant's view is clear enough, for it effectively subordinates God's Word to the dictates of autonomous, secular reasoning. If the Devil will no longer dupe, that is only because God has also been silenced. Though Levinas comes close to Kant in his view of the a priori fact of morality, it is precisely the subordination of revelation to reason that he wants to avoid. Unlike Kant, he has lost faith in the power of reason to generate ethical obligations. In the tradition of Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, and Heidegger, Levinas denies that human beings are primarily rational and is therefore critical of the Kantian project to found morality on the allegedly rational nature of human beings. On this view, reason is a contingent and insufficient basis for moral authority, as Heidegger argued. (18) Accepting this critique of moral reasoning, Levinas nevertheless argues, against Heidegger, that there is an irreducibly ethical sense to human life. Even if it is not manifest through the self-disclosure of reason, ethics is revealed in the face of the other. In his view the temptation of philosophy is to think that obligation could be made rationally transparent or justified on the basis of reason. But if the normative authority of reason has been put in question, that does not mean we have got rid of ethics. On the contrary, it is precisely now that the "unreasonable" claims of ethics are revealed. (19) Just as the people of Israel said "we will do" before "we will understand" (Exod. 24:7), so too ethics demands an unreasonable and choiceless acquiescence. Describing this sort of revelation, Levinas says that it:
cannot come to the human being as a result of choice. That which must be received in order to make freedom of choice possible cannot have been chosen, unless after the fact. In the beginning was violence. (20)
How, then, can Levinas avoid the pitfalls of irrationalism, the pathos of surrender, and the madness of sacrifice which comes when revelation is privileged over reason? Without reverting to natural or rational morality, how can he avoid sacrificing ethics to the whims of the Other? Levinas has a three-fold strategy for meeting this challenge: the turn from the face of the other to the authority of the Other in general; to then turn from the Other to the text; and finally to turn from the text to the moral act of interpreting it. Let us consider each of these points.
3. Ethics as Moral Theology, or Trusting the Other
Levinas follows the prevalent move made by all divine command moralists when defending the primacy of revealed law while justifying its moral content. The claim is that one is justified in trusting the moral content of revelation because one knows, or one believes, that God is good and loving. (21) When one encounters a command that seems to contradict the good and loving character of God, one might suspect that one has misunderstood the command; or else one might accept the command while doubting one's own capacity to know what constitutes goodness or love. While the Bible remains tentative, and despite the unsystematic nature of the rabbinic corpus, belief in a good and loving God can generally be regarded as an intrinsic component and presupposition to the covenantal relationship. Obedience to God, even when the ethical content of revelation is in doubt, can be justified on the basis of the dominant metaphors for describing the relationship between Israel and the Bible throughout the biblical and rabbinic corpus. These metaphors--of God as benevolent creator, as concerned suzerain, as guide and savior, as loving parent, and even as jealous husband--are pervasive theological presences that justify trust in the moral integrity of God's will, even when it is difficult to fathom. (22) Levinas makes a similar move. His early descriptions of the Other almost always imply a moral superiority or at the least a moral trustworthiness borne by other people. Emunah trust--faith or belief--relates directly to the moral character of the Other.
The problem with this solution, in ethics as in theology, is that it requires a dogmatic concept of the Other that goes beyond the evidence of phenomenology and Scripture--think of Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Priestly Torah in the Pentateuch, not to mention the Akedah and the holy wars; think of everyday immorality, or the Holocaust. For this reason Levinas makes an important shift which develops a more sophisticated and less dogmatic notion of the Other and the obligations owed to him or her. In his later work Levinas argues that the imperative borne by the Other does not result from his or her actual goodness but from the indispensable trust which cannot be violated without undermining the very fabric of social life, including my own "identity". Despite a common misconception, Levinas no longer presupposes a dogmatic conception of the other as good. Rather, he argues that one cannot avoid trusting the Other:
If ethical terms arise in our discourse, before the terms freedom and non-freedom, it is because before the bipolarity of good and evil presented to choice, the subject finds himself committed to the Good in the very passivity of supporting. (23)
This hermeneutics of trust is not a naive submission to the will of the other but, like a prayer, acknowledges my dependence--the fact that I am constituted in relation to others--and hopes for an agreeable relation between us, obliging me to that hope even if I can well judge that it is unwarranted on any given occasion.
But this means that in the end the primacy Levinas accords revelation over reason does not amount to accepting any determined moral content given through revelation. It is not that the other is good and therefore I ought to obey him or her, but that before I come to be my own person I am already exposed and answerable to the other. The fact that the Other precedes and enables me to be myself means that I am indebted regardless of whether the other is good or evil. And since my obligation is based on this "exposure" or "proximity" to the Other in general, rather than to the one facing me--who may, as it happens, be benign or hostile--it is not the other person who determines the content of the revelation but my self as the one who is constituted through exposure to the Other. Accordingly, "the revelation is made by him that receives it." (24) Or again:
It is an august command, but one that does not constrain or dominate and leaves me outside of any correlation with its source. No structure is set up with a correlate. Thus the saying that comes to me is my own word. Authority is not somewhere, where a look could go seek it, like an idol, or assume it like a logos .... It is the pure trace of a "wandering cause," inscribed in me. (25)
The morality of revelation does not, then, lead to blind obedience to the word of the other but to the ethical witness, the self as response to the Other. (26) While Levinas indeed holds a version of divine command morality, prioritizing the heteronomy of the revealed command over the autonomy of moral reason, there is no moral content to the revelation excepting my own "susceptiveness" or responsiveness to the other person. (27) But if we have found a way to accept the primacy of revealed law over moral reasoning, we still need to move further. For halakhah is not just the imperative to respond to the Other but requires that one yield to the actual content of revelation as it is expressed in Scripture.
4. Loving the Torah More than God
There are important precedents for Levinas's method that are not often brought to support his view and are therefore worth citing in this context. Nachmanides raises the problem of divine command morality. He argues that the Torah ensures that halakhah will not be immorally applied by providing general revealed precepts aimed at imbibing the Law with moral content, such as "and you shall do that which is right and good" and "you shall be holy" (Lev. 19:2). (28) These general revealed commandments are not reducible to the other commandments, otherwise they would be redundant. The right, the good and the holy are general moral principles commanded by the Torah, which can be understood to mean that they are not extrinsic to the law but are intrinsic to the revelation. (29) Commenting on one such law, Deuteronomy 6:18, "you shall do what is right and good," Nachmanides says:
Our Rabbis have a beautiful Midrash on this verse. They have said: "this refers to compromising and going beyond the letter of the law [lifnim meshurat ha'din]." The intent of this is as follows: At first it stated that you are to keep His statutes and His testimonies which He commanded you, and now it is saying that even where He has not commanded you, give thought, as well, to do what is good and right in His eyes, for He loves the good and the right. Now this is a great principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man's conduct with his neighbors and fellows, and all his various transactions, and the ordinances of all societies and countries. But after mentioning many of them ... it reverted to state in a general way that, in all matters, one should do what is good and right, including even compromise and going beyond the letter of the law.
If the formal law itself seems to conflict with morality, Nachmanides stipulates that concern for general moral principles should not be regarded as a recommended addition for the particularly pious but is a positive obligation of the balakhah itself.
This view is different from the theological view proposed in the previous section because it regards the moral content of the law as manifest not in the character of God but in the Torah. This is what "loving the Torah more than God" means, loving the moral education of the Torah more than the idea of a moral God, an idea Levinas regards as a childish fantasy:
The adult's God is revealed precisely through the void of the child's heaven .... The link between God and man is not an emotional communion that takes place within the love of God incarnate, but a spiritual or intellectual relationship which takes place through an education in the Torah .... Confidence in a God Who is not made manifest through any worldly authority can rely only oninternal evidence and the values of an education. To the credit of Judaism, there is nothing blind about this .... [I]t is the internal evidence of morality supplied by the Torah. (30)
Like Nachmanides and others, Levinas invokes the Torah rather than God in order to ensure that the law has a moral and not only a revealed character. But if the Torah provides "internal evidence of morality" by providing general commands to do what is "right," "good," and "holy," we still have the problem of determining the meaning of these terms and of reconciling them with ostensibly immoral scriptural commandments. Here we fall back to the options we have so far considered, either resorting to dogmatism about the character of revealed commandments or else subordinating them to autonomous moral reasoning or natural morality. Levinas, like many Jewish thinkers before him, sees a third way.
5. Taking Responsibility: Ethics as Midrash
Levinas was keenly aware of the morally indispensable and indeed revolutionary nature of the Oral Torah. (31) He was less interested in the Talmud per se than in the process of Oral Torah or the midrashic process, (32) precisely because only the Oral Torah provides the Written Torah with both the moral safeguard necessary to preserve the ethical content of the law and its character as revelation. "The novelty of [modern] Jewish thought lies in this Western revalorization of the Talmud, which is no longer treated archeologically or historically but as a form of teaching." (33) For Levinas as for halakhic Judaism in general, the Oral Torah is the primary method for ensuring that revealed law retains its ethical content and orientation. As Torah, the Oral Torah has the status of commandment, the Law given "at Sinai." (34) Its character is heteronomous and revealed, not autonomously or rationally derived from "natural law." That is why the moral content of the Torah changes over time, since it does not stem from an absolute or metaphysical conception of morality but from an exegetical sensitivity nurtured by the text in context. As exegesis and deliberation, as a midrashic process, the Oral Torah is a spirited and vigilant method of reflection that allows, among other things, for moral self-correction and change. As the prayer over the Torah says, the Blessed Holy One has not just given the Torah but is always giving it. (35) In Levinas's words:
From the outset Jewish revelation is commandment, and piety is obedience to it. But an obedience which, while accepting practical decrees, does not stop the dialectic called upon to determine them. This dialectic continues and is valid by itself in its style of open-ended discussion. (36)
Levinas's post-critical, or post-foundational, or postmodern theology avoids the moral blindness of pious obedience by fastening to the constitutive role of the Oral Torah in determining the halakhah. (37) The Oral Torah is the totality of interpretations piled upon one another which, as interpretations, determine the meaning of the Written Torah and even revise the apparently self-evident meaning of Scripture, In his important work on this topic, Moshe Halbertal notes that the interpretative revolutions accomplished through the midrashic process take place in one of two ways. Occasionally, when an exegete is confronted with a seemingly immoral divine command, he revises the biblical or mishnaic law on the basis of its moral impossibility. In other words, the exegete, like the Kantian philosopher, applies his own sense of moral reasonableness to the text despite its apparent meaning and effectively overwrites the moral, or rather immoral meaning of Scripture. Much more commonly, however, the exegete is able to revise Scripture on the basis of Scripture, drawing not so much on "external" moral sensibilities derived from folk philosophy or the contemporary moral context but on internal biblical values in conflict with the seemingly self-evident meaning of the revealed law at hand. (38) Several well-known examples illustrate this method of midrashic moral revisionism, as happened to the laws of the rebellious and defiant son, the collective punishment meted to the captured city, the injunction to wage war against the seven nations and to annihilate the seed of Amalek, to mention just a few. (39) It is not a question of imposing external values upon Scripture but of applying certain biblical (and rabbinic) values in order to transform others; for example, revising the laws of collective punishment in light of other biblical laws stipulating that each person shall be punished for his own crime.
Very much like Daniel Boyarin's seminal characterization of midrash as an intertextual practice derived from the creatively contradictory character of the Torah itself, the idea here is that midrash resolves the conflict between morality and halakhah by reading the canon as a moral whole expressing all the values under the sun, for everything is in it. (40) The Oral Torah provides Levinas with a way of reading that preserves the revealed character of the law and its ethical content by a necessarily selective and therefore morally empowering interpretation of the scriptural canon as a whole: "[T]he Talmudic spirit goes radically beyond the letter of Scriptures. Its spirit was nonetheless formed in the very letters it goes beyond." (41)
We can apply Boyarin's description of midrash as a process of resolving the intrinsic ambiguities and gaps in the Written Torah to the task of resolving moral perplexities: "[T]he resolutions of the ambiguities which the midrash presents are not merely appropriations or preemptions of the text but rather choices made from interpretive options that the canon itself offers." (42) The Oral Torah, for Levinas, is this process of resolving moral conflicts by putting the moral heterogeneity or the multiple ethical possibilities of the canon to work. There is no univocal meaning to any particular law, even if there may only be a finite set of possibilities. Faith in Torah, "loving the Torah more than God," or trust in the practice of Oral Torah means that all conflicts between ethics and halakhah are in principle resolvable. Moreover, since the revealed text itself provides the interpretative horizon for the moral solution, the command is experienced as having been given at Sinai, even as its meaning is not in heaven. Seeing the Torah as a morally heterogeneous text allows, in fact requires us to uncover its ethical meaning. Since the Written and the Oral Torah were given at Sinai, the mitzvah is revealed but not in heaven; it can therefore renew and preserve its moral meaning. (43) Levinas thus shifts from a dogmatic, theological defense of divine command morality to one that furnishes it with a method and content. As a practice of ethical exegesis, midrash or Oral Torah constitutes the moral content of the Law. As inspired exegesis it does not crush human conscience but expresses it. Commenting on the famous aggadah from Baba Mezia 59b which is often read as supporting this view, Levinas remarks:
The Torah is no longer in heaven, but is given: henceforth it is at men's disposal ... and appeals to man's exegesis, against which the echoes of heavenly voices can no longer do anything. Man is not, therefore, a "being" among "beings," a simple receiver of sublime information. He is simultaneously him to whom the word is said, but also him through whom there is Revelation. Man is the place through which transcendence passes .... In the event of the Revelation, the prophets are succeeded by the chakham: the sage, or scholar, or man of reason. In his own way he is inspired, since he bears the oral teaching. (44)
This line of argument is crucial for appreciating the absolutely traditional and post-metaphysical account of the ethics of halakha envisaged by Levinas. A mitzvah, a divine command, cannot be immoral, as Levinas argues, not because autonomous reason determines its content, as Jewish liberals and Kantians might argue, and not because of a dogmatic assumption that the Other (or God) commands only the good, and not even because the Torah informs us of general moral guidelines which determine the Law. Rather, because revealed law is determined according to the Oral Torah, which is a process of ethical exegesis, its content is forever open and subject to new moral horizons folded within Scripture. Midrash is the traditional and postmodern way of justifying divine command morality by taking responsibility for the meaning of revealed law without imposing autonomous philosophical reasons onto it.
6. Exegesis and Ethics: Authority and Responsibility
However, there is one major problem with this argument. Levinas describes the moral act which is midrash as:
An act of soliciting which issues from people whose eyes and ears are vigilant and who are mindful of the whole body of writing from which the extract comes, and equally attuned to life: the city, the street, other men. (45)
But who are these "people whose eyes and ears are vigilant"? Above I cited Levinas' formulation of the idea that "the prophets are succeeded by the chakham: the sage." The notion that revelation is prolonged and ethically renewed on account of the moral act of midrash amounts to the transfer of the authority of revelation to the exegete himself. From prophet to sage and from the Revealer to the receiver, midrashic exegesis, like all interpretation, is first and foremost an act of sharing in the authority of the Author. (46) Levinas's resort to a postmodern account of interpretation, according to which the intention of the author is incidental to the meaning rendered by the exegete, cannot avoid the question of authority. (47) If we have followed Levinas in providing a postmodern defense of divine command morality by saving its ethical content through the moral act of midrash, this does not suffice to reconcile halakhah as such with his account of ethics. For according to Levinas, ethics is always about taking responsibility for one's own responsiveness to the other. The transference of authority from the one who commands to the expert authority who decides the Law, as the regnant view of halakhic life suggests, jeopardizes its core ethical component for Levinas. How can one take ethical responsibility, in the utterly individuating and personal way Levinas proposes, if one obeys a revealed commandment determined by someone else?
We may even be back where we started. For while we have avoided the temptation of philosophy, does not the passage from God to the Torah and now to the midrashic authority mean that we might be duped by rabbinic authorities? In a famous passage, the obligation to obey the exegete is brought to its immoral nadir, for we are told to obey "even if he tells you that right is left and left is right," as Rashi and Nachmanides contend. (48) Nachmanides takes it to an unethical extreme whose contemporary resonances make one shudder when he rules that one should kill a person known to be innocent only because the Sage has judged it so. This self-conscious self-assertion of rabbinic authority is best illustrated by a well known Talmudic passage. While Deuteronomy 25:2-3 stipulates--reveals and commands--that a court can administer up to forty lashes to the guilty party of a dispute, the Oral Torah (Makkot 3:10) revises the apparently self-evident meaning of the Written Torah by ruling that only "forty less one," in other words, thirty nine lashes may be given. In the Gemarah, Rava says:
How foolish are all those people who rise before a Torah scroll but fail to rise before a great man [i.e. a rabbinic scholar]! For in the Torah Scroll it is written "forty," and the rabbis came along and subtracted one. (49)
Glossing this passage, Noam Zohar comments that "it is not so much an expression of reverence as an acknowledgement of authority. People rise before the Torah scroll to declare their allegiance to its commands; and they are fools not to recognize the superior authority of the Rabbis, who have the final word in determining halakhah." (50)
However, Levinas's characteristic move is not to espouse blind faith in midrashic authorities but, on the contrary, to run the "risk of subjectivism" by calling on each person to respond uniquely to the Revelation. (51) Despite its celebrated function of "uniting the Jewish people," the ethical practice of halakhah must run the risk of a personal and plural application, since only thus can one respond to revelation oneself and on each singular occasion. In that respect, Levinas breaks with a servile form of Orthodoxy, insisting on the ineliminable role of the personal ethical self in determining the revealed law. This personal rendering of the mitzvab can take place through Talmud Torah and responsiveness to the other, but not merely by deferring responsibility to exegetical authorities or formally executing the law.
Levinas likes to quote two verses in support of this pluralistic account of the responsiveness to revealed law. "The Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8), suggests that the fact of revelation is amongst us and therefore anyone (everyone) can respond to it, while Psalm 62:11, "Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this" tells him that "innumerable meanings dwell in the Word of God." (52) The objection that Levinas's pluralism applies to aggadah and not to halakhah, and therefore that Jewish unity "without dogma" is preserved, cannot be sustained. (53) The whole premise of my argument, and the whole premise of Levinas's account of revelation, is that what is revealed is precisely Law, or the fact of commandment. If revelation is Law, and revelation is plural, then the Law too will have to be radically plural. In that respect, Levinas provides a post-Orthodox and pluralistic defense of halakhic Judaism.
7. Ethical and Amoral Halakhah
I hope I have shown that Levinas has answers that explain why ethics and halakhah ought to be compatible and not in conflict. That they can and sometimes are in conflict is easily explainable, since the morality of the law is always being worked out through the responsiveness of ethical exegesis. But what about Levinas' maximalist claim, that "everything I know of God and everything I can hear of His word and reasonably say to Him must find an ethical expression"? (54) Here Levinas offers a slightly less traditional answer, though his main predecessor, Maimonides, lends him more credibility than he might otherwise have. For despite Levinas's protestations, it is obvious that the halakhah commands much that simply has no "ethical expression." If Kant thought that all of halakhah was amoral because of its formalistic structure and ritualistic content, at the very least much of it is amoral for that reason. How do kashruth, or the prohibition on mingling, or more generally the statutes that lack all rationale, the hukkim, correlate with Levinas's opinion that all religious obedience must find its ethical expression?
Levinas has two things to say about this. First, he regards ritual halakhah as training and education for the true purpose of the law, namely ethical service. That some halakhot would point beyond themselves toward the ultimate purpose of the Law as a whole is a view held by Maimonides, who argued that the true purpose of the Law was the welfare of the soul, that is, intellectual apprehension of the truth. (55) Maimonides, then, like Levinas, must provide a rationale for all those commandments that evidently do not serve the ultimate purpose of the Law as he sees it. Just as Levinas must explain the non-ethical laws, so too Maimonides had to explain the non-rational laws. Maimonides does so by arguing that most of the commandments are in fact rational, especially when one understands the historical reasons for them, and he also argues that one should not look to the details of the law to discover its rationale but to its general intent. (56) These views are consistent with Levinas's position, which is that those laws which cannot be understood in accordance with the true purpose of the Law (for Levinas this is ethics, for Maimonides it is knowledge) are nevertheless a useful means of training oneself for the true purpose of ethical monotheism:
The ritual law of Judaism constitutes the austere discipline that strives to achieve this justice .... [T]he way that leads to God therefore leads ipso facto--and not in addition--to man; and the way that leads to man draws us back to ritual discipline and self-education. (57)
Levinas's view can be supported by a reading of Maimonides, who also argued that the purpose of the ceremonial laws is to provide exercise in self-restraint. (58) The curbing of one's spontaneous egoism which the ceremonial laws are said to accomplish is indispensable to the purpose of the law as he sees it, which is ethical service. Somewhat romantically or even naively, Levinas claims that the "austere discipline [of the amoral laws] . . . leads ipso facto--and not in addition--to man." Levinas is surely wrong, empirically, to say that halakhic heteronomy leads to ethical service, but he is surely right to regard the heteronomous structure of halakhic obligation as of the same kind as the ethical heteronomy he envisages. He would also agree with Maimonides that the halakhah contains nothing that is in conflict with its ultimate purpose, even if Maimonides regards that purpose as the apprehension of truth whereas Levinas sees it as ethical service. (59) The important point is that they both agree that those laws which do not serve the ultimate purpose of the Law--for Maimonides this includes ethical laws, whereas for Levinas this includes rational beliefs--do not conflict with that ultimate purpose and in fact largely foster it.
But Levinas makes a second claim about the significance of non-ethical laws:
The Law is the very badgering of love. Judaism, woven of commandments, attests the renewal of the instants of God's love for man, without which the commanded love could not have been commanded. The "mitzvah," the commandment that holds the Jew in suspense, is not a moral formalism, but the living presence of love. (60)
Levinas advances the idea that ceremonial laws are not merely a propaedeutic for the true ethical purpose of the law but are themselves "the very badgering of love." (61) As he says elsewhere, "there is nothing resembling a 'yoke of the Law'"; rather, obedience to ritual law is like "what the smile is to benevolence, the handshake to friendship and the caress to affection." (62) Of course such laws should not conflict with ethics, as we have seen. But the amoral laws, and there are plenty of them, provide halakhic Jews with "the living presence of love." This should hardly surprise us, given what we have said about the role of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah in Levinas's thought. Revelation--as the Other or as God, but also as Scripture and Oral Torah--is the very means through which ethics is given to us and rendered by us. In the end, however, Levinas does not hold the reductive claim that all Jewish law is ethics but only that Jewish law ought in principle to not conflict with ethics. If we saw Levinas break with a certain Orthodoxy in advocating a personal and pluralistic account of midrashic responsibility, here he breaks with a certain type of Reform Judaism by defending the ceremonial and legalistic culture of Judaism. Levinas argues that ritual laws are an educational tool for promoting ethical ends but simultaneously proposes that they express a relation of love between Jews and God. These two claims are not contradictory; they jointly constitute a "religion for adults" based on study and personal responsibility.
If Levinas proposes that the temptation of autonomous philosophy must be avoided, he also provides a way for negotiating the dangers of revealed command morality. He draws our attention to the primacy of the revealed relationship of trust (emunah) that binds us prior to the advent of reason. He overcomes the dogmatism that can be associated with such blind faith by turning away from the Other to the moral character of the Torah. Ultimately; though, only the Oral Torah, through personal acts of interpretation, can take responsibility for responding to Revelation.
(1) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), pp. 78-79.
(2) Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Sean Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), p. 17. Levinas's wider view of the relation between morality and religion in general requires a different sort of analysis.
(3) Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures, trans. Gary D. Mole (London: Athlone, 1994), p. 107.
(4) Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, ed. Eliezer Goldman, trans. Eliezer Goldman et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 18-19; for a related discussion see my "Lacking All Interest: Levinas, Leibowitz, and the Pure Practice of Religion," Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 97 (2004): 1-32. For another oft-cited view close to Leibowitz's, see Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), Part II.
(5) Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 19; Levinas, Beyond the Verse, p. 132; Levinas, Outside the Subject (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 131; and Levinas, In the Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 68. Levinas translates ger as"etranger", though some of his English translators follow the RSV's "sojourner," thus missing Levinas's point that without the commandments one is a stranger on the earth. For a complementary view, see David Hartman, A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 1999), pp. 6-8.
(6) Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz (Blooming ton: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 36
(7) Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 36.
(8) Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God: Studies in the Relation between Religion and Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1988), p. 119.
(9) On the convergent ideas of Rosenzweig and Heidegger, see Peter Eli Gordon, Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
(10) Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 198, see passim and also his discussion of ethics in terms of revelation as teaching on totality and Infinity, pp. 51, 67-70, recalling that "teaching" is another name for Torah.
(11) Levinas has been criticized along these lines by Michel Haar, "The Obsession of the Other: Ethics as Traumatization," Philosophy & Social Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 6 (1997): 95-107 and Gillian Rose, whom I cite below.
(12) David Novak, Jewish Social Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 22-44. For further discussion, see Moshe Halbertal, Interpretative Revolutions in the Making: Values as Interpretative Considerations in Midrashei Halakhah [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1999), pp. 22-33; and Michael J. Harris, Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2003). Levinas is well aware of this Jewish defense of natural law; see his brief discussion in "Secularism and the Thought of Israel ", Unforeseen History, trans. Nidra Poller (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), pp. 119f.
(13) Sifra, Acharei Mot 9:13; Bavli Yoma 67b; see too Bavli, Eruvin 100b
(14) This point remains disputed, either by detractors of halakhic Judaism, be they secular Jews or religious Christians (on this, see Levinas Outside the Subject, p. 57) or else by neo-Orthodox Jewish thinkers such as Leibowitz and Marvin Fox, who deny natural morality in Judaism. The unwitting convergence of the neo-Orthodox, secular, and Christian denials of natural morality in Judaism was inaugurated by Kant, who followed Spinoza's misreading of Maimonides. On this, see Halbertal, Interpretative Revolutions in the Making, pp. 28-29, notes 35 and 38 and Keeneth Seeskin, Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). While the denial of natural law in Judaism and the formalistic reading of Jewish law remains prevalent, I follow those scholars, some of whom I have cited already, who argue that this is a false characterization of Judaism, the halakhah and the halakhic process.
(15) Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), III. 31, p. 524, citing Deut. 4:6; on this see David Hartman, Maimonides: Torah and Philosophical Quest (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986), 144ff. More generally, see also David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An Historical and Constructive Study of the Noahide Laws (New York and Toronto, 1983), ch. 10; Halbertal, Interpretative Revolutions in the Making, p. 27 n. 32 and M. P. Levine, "The Role of Reason in Maimonides' Ethics," Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 14 (1986): 279-94. Fox and Leibowitz argue against this interpretation.
(16) David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 1997), p. 98. Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman provide many more sources and defend a similar position in their "Divine Command Morality and Jewish Tradition," Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 23 (1995): 39-67. While I propose to contrast Levinas's view with David Hartman's, in truth Hartman himself, like Levinas, turns from a Maimonidean, rationalist account to the sort of account I find in Levinas which relies on the character of the Oral Torah rather than the rational character of halakhah or of God; see his "Judaism as an Interpretative Tradition," in A Heart of Many Rooms, pp. 3-36. Hartman's vacillation between reason and interpretation can be explained by (1) his less severe critique of the Enlightenment project, (2) his related view that reason indeed bears independent moral and theological authority without regard for revelation, and (3) his awareness of the authoritarian implications of privileging hermeneutics over reason, since in the end this privileges the interpreter, the rabbinic jurist, over the autonomy of moral agents, as we will see. Sagi and Statman likewise vacillate between "autonomy" and "exegesis" in trying to propose a Jewish divine command morality; see their "Divine Command Morality and Jewish Tradition," pp. 61-63 and cf. their Religion and Morality, trans. Batya Stein (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995), pp. 146-64.
(17) "Even the Holy One of the gospel must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognize him to be such ... Imitation has no place in morality, and examples serve us only for encouragement" (Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H.J. Paton, New York: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 76/29. See also Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated with an Introduction and Notes by Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), pp. 81-82 and, for discussion, Sagi and Statman, Religion and Morality, p. 127 and Seeskin, Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, ch 1.
(18) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (San Francisco: Harper, 1962), [section]27.
(19) Levinas, Beyond the Verse, p. 147. For a trenchant critique of Levinas's abandonment of reason's dialectical role in developing concrete moral and political law, see Gillian Rose, Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), pp. 1-32 and 211-24. There is much to learn from Rose's critique, though she completely ignores the capacity of hermeneutics and narrative to fill the lacuna left by Levinas's abandonment of moral reasoning. This essay hopes to contribute to a hermeneutic correction.
(20) Levinas, "The Temptation of Temptation," in Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 37, but see the entirety of this important essay and also Beyond the Verse, pp. 146f. and In the Time of the Nation, p. 111. The Talmudic reference is BT Shabbat 88a-b. For discussion, see Lawrence Kaplan, "Israel Under the Mountain: Emmanuel Levinas on Freedom and Constraint in the Revelation of the Torah," Modern Judaism 18.1 (1998): 35-46.
(21) For a Jewish defense of this position, see Martin Kavka and Randi Rashkover, "A Jewish Modified Divine Command Theory," Journal of Religious Ethics 32 (2): 387-414, who follow Rosenzweig on the loving character of the divine command; see especially Rosenzweig's extraordinary letter to Buber on "Revelation and Law," On Jewish Learning, ed. Nahum Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1965).
(22) Much more should be said about these metaphors, and about calling them "metaphors," which I do brashly and without qualification because Levinas is sceptical or iconoclastic about all literal language except ethics.
(23) Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 122.
(24) Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 156.
(25) Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 150.
(26) Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 120; see also p. 193 n. 35. The best case for this reading has been made by Jean-Luc Marion, "A Note Concerning the Ontological Difference," trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal Vol. 20, No. 2 (1998): 25-40 and Marion, "From the Other to the Individual," trans. Robyn Horner, in Regina Schwartz, ed., Transcendence: Philosophy, Literature, and Theology Approach the Beyond (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 43-60. See also Ricoeur's fine analysis, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 335-40.
(27) Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 122. I note again the work by Marion and Ricoeur (see note 26) which corroborates this interpretation.
(28) See Nachmanides' commentary to Lev. 19:2.
(29) Elsewhere Nachmanides seems to be of the view that these are natural moral concepts accessible to all people independently of revelation. See his Commentary on Genesis, at Commentary on the Torah, 5 vols., ed. and trans. Charles Chavel (New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1974), Vol. 5, at Deuteronomy 6:2 and 6:13. This disparity can be resolved by distinguishing between pre-Sinaitic ethics and post-Sinaitic ethics.
(30) Levinas, Difficult Freedom, pp. 143-44.
(31) See his remarks in Beyond the Verse, pp. 131-35. For a related discussion, see Gerald L. Bruns, "The Hermeneutical Significance of Emmanuel Levinas' Talmudic Readings," in Hindy Najman and Judith H. Newman, eds., The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel (Brill, 2004), pp. 545-65.
(32) I use these interchangeably in this context and am referring throughout to the exegetical method of midrash rather than to specific books of Midrash.
(33) Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 161. Annette Aronowicz has commented insightfully on Levinas's Jewish hermeneutic; see her "Translator's Introduction" to Nine Talmudic Readings and "The Little Man with the Burned Thighs: Levinas' Biblical Hermeneutic,' in Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Gary A. Phillips, David Jobling, eds., Levinas and Biblical Studies: (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), pp. 33-48.
(34) The idea that the Oral Torah was given at Sinai appears in several rabbinic sources and is fundamental to rabbinic Judaism; see e.g., Mishnah Avot, 1:1, Sifra BeChukottai 2.8. 12, Sifre Deut 351. For an excellent and thorough account, see Shmuel Safrai, "Oral Torah," in Shmuel Safrai, ed.., The Literature of the Sages Part 1 (Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1987), pp. 35-120. See too Boyarin's wonderful description of this in Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 23 and esp. 39f.; cf. Levinas, Beyond the Verse, pp. 133-34.
(35) Cf. Levinas, Beyond the Verse, p. 110.
(36) Levinas, Beyond the Verse, p. 139; see passim.
(37) See especially his remarks on post-critical exegesis in Outside the Subject, p. 131.
(38) Halbertal, Interpretative Revolutions in the Making, pp. 18-19 and 168-173. As Boyarin has emphasized (though not in the case of moral interpretation), according to this view the distinction between external and internal collapses, since the "external" meanings are derived from other verses "internal" to the canon, used as keys to unlock seemingly intractable verses; see Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, p. 74 and passim.
(39) For detailed treatment of some of these cases see Halbertal, Interpretative Revolutions in the Making and much of Avi Sagi's work, for example, "The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem," The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 87, No. 3 (1994): 323-346.
(40) Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, p. 48 and passim.
(41) Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 39; see too pp. 92f. Levinas's major contribution to Talmudic hermeneutics lies in his insistence that Talmudic citations of biblical verses must be followed back to their biblical context to appreciate the narrative horizon behind the Midrash. This is rarely practiced but of great pedagogical and even moral benefit; see, e.g. Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 63.
(42) Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, p. 57.
(43) For Levinas's account of the midrashic process, see Beyond the Verse, pp. xiiif, 103, 109-15, 131-35; In the Time of the Nations, pp. 109-13; Outside the Subject, pp. 126-34 and Levinas's Introductions throughout Nine Talmudic Readings; cf. Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, pp. 22ff.
(44) Levinas, Beyond the Verse, pp. 144-45.
(45) Beyond the Verse, p. 110
(46) See Halbertal, People of the Book, Chapter 2, esp. pp. 63ff.
(47) Levinas, Beyond the Verse, pp. 137 and 114, where Levinas aligns his view that prophetic speech "extend[s] beyond the primary intentions that carry it" with postmodern hermeneutics. Note, however, that he also expresses his admiration for philology and historical criticism which, "at times," is able" to destroy false prophecies."
(48) See their respective commentaries to Deut. 17:11, which follows the Sifri and, for a valuable discussion, Ya'akov Blidstein "Afilu yomar lekhah 'al yamin she'hu smol': le'atzmat ha'samkhut ha'mosdit be'halakhah u'gvuloteyha" in Sagi and SafFrai, eds., Between Authority and Autonomy in Jewish Tradition, pp. 158-80. Blidstein proposes to curb this authoritarianism by invoking the authority of conscience. Levinas's work as a whole can be seen as a defense of conscience (e.g., Totality and Infinity, p. 80) in the wake of Heidegger's vehement critique of conscience as inauthentic and ideological (Heidegger.Being and Time, p. 321)
(49) BT Makkot 22a-b. While the Mishnah in general cannot be considered an exegetical work, this particular one presents itself as such and is thus understood by Rava. For this and other related sources, see Michael Walzer et al., eds., The Jewish Political Tradition. Volume 1: Authority (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), ch. 6. Some excellent essays are also collected by Avi Sagi and Zeev Safrai, eds., Between Authority and Autonomy in Jewish Tradition (Tel Aviv: Ha'Kibbutz Ha'Me'ukhad, 1997 [Hebrew]) and see also Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book. It is unsurprising but still noteworthy that critical appraisals of how the institution of halakhah, including the role of rabbinic experts, mediates the authority of revealed law comes largely from scholars in Israel, where the question of halakhic authority bears a political significance that is often cast in purely spiritual terms in the Diaspora. This crucial dimension to the Oral Torab does not seem to have pressed Levinas or Rosenzweig. For a discussion of the limits of the Oral Law according to some important medieval authorities, see Menachem Lorberbaum, Politics and the Limits of Law: Secularizing the Political in Medieval Jewish Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001). See additionally Levinas's brief though insightful discussion in "Secularism and the Thought of Israel" (Levinas, Unforeseen History, p. 122 and passim and cf. Nine Talmudic Readings, pp. 80ff.).
(50) Noam Zohar,"The Oral Law: Celebrating Radical Reinterpretation," in The Jewish Political Tradition. Volume 1: Authority, p. 279. Zohar's concluding remarks confirm Levinas's view: "the full flowering of reinterpretation as the chief mode of halakhic creativity heralded the supremacy of the Oral Torah over the written Torah. Radical reinterpretation characterizes midrashic treatment of the biblical texts and then in turn the treatment of the Mishnah by Talmudic amora'im and of the Talmud by authors of responsa and codes" (pp. 280-81). See also Avi Sagi,"Both are the Words of the Living God: A Typological Analysis of Halakhic Pluralism," HUCA 65 (1994): 105-136.
(51) Levinas, Beyond the Verse, pp. 134-35;
(52) Levinas, Beyond the Verse, p. 132; see also pp. xiii and 144; cf. BT Sanhedrin 34a. This is the basis for Levinas's postmodern defense of "prophecy."
(53) As Levinas himself does, e.g. in "Secularism and the Thought of Israel," Unforeseen History, p. 114. Levinas's notion of the unity of the Jewish people is not, in the end, based on the unity of the Book or the unity of the Law, despite some of his remarks, but on the unity accomplished through a shared history--a much more pluralistic field, if one thinks about it; see Unforeseen History, pp. 95, 97.
(54) Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 17.
(55) Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, III.27.
(56) Guide of the Perplexed, III.26 and III.32.
(57) Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 18; See also Difficult Freedom, p. 19, Beyond the Verse, p. 144 and Nine Talmudic Readings, pp. 80ff.
(58) Shemonah Perakim, VII.
(59) The gap between Maimonides' intellectualist teleology and Levinas's ethical one is greatly reduced by the celebrated conclusion to the Guide which Levinas calls a "remarkable reversal" from knowledge to ethics; see Guide, III .54, Difficult Freedom, p. 17 and In the Time of the Nations, p. 172. In a forthcoming article, "Levinas and Maimonides: From Metaphysics to Ethical Negative Theology," Journal for Jewish Thought and Philosophy (2008) I explore this relationship in its complexity.
(60) Levinas, Outside the Subject, p. 57. The passage continues: "Let us note in passing how close that interpretation of so-called 'Jewish legalism' is to the Jewish experience of rite; the failure to understand the latter is possibly the most characteristic trait of Christian thought and even of assimilated Judaism, which is unaware of the degree to which its reflexes have become Christianized, even if its reflective thoughts fancies itself freethinking." See too Catherine Chalier's discussion of this passage, "Levinas and the Hebraic Tradition," in A. Peperzak, ed., Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 7.
(61) Levinas probably has the rabbinic yisurin shel ahava in mind here, sometimes rendered as "castigations" or "chastenings" of love. The term is important in rabbinic theodicy where it refers to suffering understood to come from God in order to promote better action, teshuva. See especially BT Berakhot 5b, which Levinas clearly knew, e.g., Entrenous: on thinking-of-the-other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 240 n. 4. See additionally Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs, translated Israel Abrahams (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), ch. XV ss2-3 and David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 1997), ch. 8.
(62) Levinas, Beyond the Verse, p. 7. Cf. David Hartman, "The Joy of Torah," in A Heart of Many Rooms, ch. 2.
Monash University, Australia
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