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Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas: a midrash or thought-experiment.

THERE IS MUCH EXCITEMENT AT THIS TIME in response to the challenging, but tremendously potent work of the Lithuanian-born modern Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. While he has had a European audience for many decades, it is only in the last few years that more than a few scholars in North America have wrestled with his provocative and ground-breaking philosophic writings. Recently, English-language collections of his essays, as well as essays by critics, have appeared. These collections reflect the prominence that scholars are attributing to Levinas, and, in making his thought more accessible, they also will contribute to this development.

Emmanuel Levinas was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1906, and received his early education in both Hebrew and Russian at home. During the First World War the family moved to the Ukraine, and Levinas was admitted to a Russian gymnasium there in 1916. In 1920, the family left the Soviet Union and returned to Kovno, where Levinas' education continued at a Hebrew gymnasium. In 1923, he left to attend the University of Strasbroug in France where he began to study philosophy. His work in that field included study with the famous thinkers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in Germany. Levinas fought in the French army during World War II, but was caught by the Germans and taken to Germany as a Jewish prisoner of war. Although he was not held in one of the death-camps, he has written that "the presentiment and memory of the Nazi horror"(1) dominated his reflections on his life history. After the war, he returned to France. He was an administrator and director of a school for the Alliance Israelite Universelle, while also holding a number of university positions. In 1973 he was appointed to the Sorbonne.

In order to acquaint more readers with the significance of Levinas' work, as well as to help to place his thought in the context of modern Jewish philosophy, I would like to offer some reflections in the form of a narrative that juxtaposes Levinas' writings with those of the modern pivotal Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig. Obviously, such a juxtaposition gives a distinctive coloring to an inquiry into Levinas. In addition, there are multiple views of the nature of Rosenzweig's work itself. However, I believe that this "midrash" will act as a supplement to other inquiries into the teachings of Levinas, particularly those that examine him primarily in terms of post-modern philosophic themes.

I have termed my narrative reflections a "midrash" in order to highlight the selective nature of this inquiry. It is not an attempt to list all of the themes or views that Rosenzweig and Levinas share, but to probe certain issues that strike me as relevant and rewarding in the context of contemporary discussions in a variety of disciplines about philosophy, language, and the nature of the human.

The point of departure for this narrative, as well as its continual element of orientation, is a notion of the person which philosophers have termed "Cartesian." It has its foundation in Rene Descartes' "cogito," the famous dictum that, "I think, therefore I am." The Cartesian self is a human portrait that accentuates the rational and autonomous features of life. However, this is not just the notion of the thinking -- I, but of the I for which self-consciousness, as well as self-realization through the individual's acts of free choice, are taken to be fundamental.

The Critique of Philosophy

Rosenzweig and Levinas are highly critical of what they hold is a single philosophic tradition emerging in ancient Greece and continuing through nineteenth century German lands, or, in their terms, from "Iona to Jena" and beyond. This tradition took the Cartesian self as its true content. They criticize it not just in the vein that this philosophic endeavor misses something, that is, that it does not see either what lies beyond or beneath the panorama of this philosophic vision. They contend that it has ignored or, better, has also not heard, a cry that has its origin outside of the insular totality of the Cartesian self's world. The nature of this cry and its ramifications for giving orientation to a person are central foci for Rosenzweig and Levinas. They speak of the way that encountering other persons saves the self from the dead-end, or the violence, of self-enclosed totality.

For Rosenzweig and Levinas, there is a natural, but, nevertheless, inauthentic concern or obsession of the self with itself. Rosenzweig utilized the ancient Greek figure of the tragic hero to express this natural potentiality of human life, a potentiality which he believed had, in some sense, been overcome.(2) This tragic figure lives a life of isolation and self-containment which culminates in his or her self-destruction. The hero is driven, from within, by a distinctive character and remains unrelated to anyone outside. This self trusts only in itself and, consequently, remains essentially speechless. Rosenzweig characterized the hero's speech with others as frigid, but also noted that, for Greek drama, even this limited form of dialogue was less important than the solitary act of soliloquy. The sovereign event of this character's life, that is, the event that fully expresses the nature of the Greek hero and provides whatever meaning there is to that life, is the destined encounter with death.

Throughout his works, Levinas demands that the self be torn from its natural obsession with itself. Prior to being forced to respond to the other, the individual takes himself or herself as the primary value, merely playing with, living on, and enjoying, that with which he or she comes into contact. The consequences of this combination of self-absorption and manipulation are many: one of them is ennui. Levinas defined this as an "enchainment to itself. where the ego ... ceaselessly seeks after the distraction of games and sleep."(3)

Both Rosenzweig and Levinas portray the individual as seeking to incorporate all that is different from the self, all alterity, into a single, total system of thought and life that is coterminous with himself or herself. Levinas noted that a fundamental critique of this totality bound his work to Rosenzweig's when, in his major book, Totality and Infinity, he wrote, that "|w~e were impressed by the opposition to the idea of totality in Franz Rosenzweig's Stern der Erlosung, a work too often present in this book to be cited."(4) For the two authors, not only is the self the originator of this idea, but the traditional philosophic endeavor constitutes its clearest expression.

In the first book of his Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig provides a critique of the idea of totality, which he depicts in terms of the cognition of the All. He holds that cognition of the All is the individual's response to the threat of death, that is, the threat that one's particular life will cease. The history of philosophy is animated by an answer to this fear. From Greek times to its modern culmination with Hegel, philosophy has sought a "one thing" that forms the basis of everything else in the universe. Since philosophy is fundamentally idealistic, according to Rosenzweig, this one thing has been the thinking-I. Philosophy maintains that the thinking-I is the essential I, that is, the only real and permanent part of the person, and that this essence is identical with both God and world. It concludes that death is an illusion, because what is ultimately real in the individual cannot die. The essential I continues to be part of the All of the universe, regardless of what happens to the body.

In "The New Thinking," an essay which Rosenzweig allowed to appear as the introduction to a later edition of the Star, the interrelationship of self, philosophy, and totality reappears. However, it is not the threat of death that animates his depiction of philosophy's identification of self with das All. Rather, Rosenzweig speaks of philosophy's fundamental reductive method, which insists on collapsing the human experience of persons, the world, and God back into the self. He once again states that what emerges in the modern period under the label "Idealism" is a perennial philosophic theme.(5)

The connections between self, philosophy, and totality are even more prominent in Levinas' work. In broad outline, Levinas holds that philosophy, as "ontology," expresses a fundamental feature of humans: the urge toward totality. By this he means that philosophy, through the exposition of that which exists or being, incorporates all that is different from the self, "alterity," into a single, universal system.

Most forcefully in Totality and Infinity, Levinas insists that, despite first impressions, the basic absorption of everything into the self, or the solitude of the self, is not broken even through the act of knowing. Through knowledge, a system of interrelationships binds all things together into an identity with the self. For him, Western philosophy, from Parmenides to Hegel, can be properly characterized as monist. The totalizing spirit of this endeavor necessarily brought it to deny all that lay outside of the self, that is, all transcendence.

Levinas' work draws much of its energy and eloquence from an ethical protest against the political ramifications of, or correspondence with, the egocentricism of traditional philosophy. His opposition to the philosophy of being is his rejection of a system of thought that he believed supported and justified the chauvinism, arrogance, and violence of the West. He speaks of this philosophical underpinning as the philosophy of power. He sees it as resulting in an idea of the State, as well as real states embodying it, where opposition and difference are systematically, but usually quietly, crushed. The "tyranny of the State"(6) is reflected in the domination and murder committed by Europe against the "other," whether that "other" consisted of communities close by or peoples in distant lands.

The notion that traditional philosophy is at an end is shared by Rosenzweig and Levinas, as well as many other thinkers today. Rosenzweig contrasted the "old thinking" of traditional philosophy to the "new thinking" of the "speaking-thinker." The former builds mathematical and logical systems out of "reason," while the latter uses speech as his or her medium and gives prominence to both time and other persons. Rosenzweig designated the old thinking as "logical," while the latter he saw as "grammatical."

A central focus of an important essay that Levinas wrote on Rosenzweig is the idea that philosophy has reached a dead end. Their treatments of this theme mirror each other so closely that, in the first pages of the essay, it is extremely difficult to disentangle Levinas' views from his presentation of Rosenzweig's position. Levinas holds that the end of philosophy is the end of thinkers who stay within themselves, that is, who think as an isolated and isolating occupation. Rather, philosophers must turn to life, to the recognition that they are persons who live with other persons. While this is still a form of thinking, not just individual, idiosyncratic rantings, it is a thinking built upon life, a thinking that can "escape the totalitarianism of philosophy"(7) that focuses on the self.

Thus, both philosophers share the view that a wider notion of reason must be the basis for a new type of philosophy. In addition, they see language as the new organon for this endeavor. Levinas writes that "if the face to face founds language ... then language does not only serve reason, but is reason."(8) He means by this that reason should not be understood as impersonal structures or laws. Reason or human rationality is constituted by, or arises out of, the dynamics of interaction.

The view that traditional philosophy has come to an end is vividly reflected in the variety of genres utilized by these two men. Although philosophers have experimented with writing forms throughout the modern period -- Kierkegaard and Nietzsche stand as notable examples -- none, perhaps, went further than Rosenzweig. After his two-volume dissertation on the political philosophy of Hegel and the Star, Rosenzweig recognized that he could no longer write books. Even his Star is a strange piece; the central section was composed as letters (love letters?) to the wife of his friend, Eugen Rosenstock. Rosenzweig said that he needed to "see the other" in order to write. Most of his later work consists of long letters and some essays. His small book, Understanding the Sick and the Healthy, is in the form of letters from a doctor describing the treatment of a patient struck down by a special case of paralysis, apoplexia philosophica. The writing to which Rosenzweig dedicated much of his time, over all of his last years, was a translation and notes on the poems of the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher, Judah Halevi. The "notes" to poetry were seen by him as the "practical application" of the new philosophic method of speech-thinking. In his commentary on these powerful religions poems, Rosenzweig addresses both the poet and his own audience.

Levinas has often reflected upon his own startling style of writing. It follows upon his understanding of the betrayal by both philosophy and most writing of our responsibility for other persons. While many of his books and essays utilize some of the structures and terms of phenomenology, there are frequent twists or interruptions. Levinas speaks of ethical language as the interruption of phenomenology.(9) The repetition that hammers, but never flattens, is well illustrated by the following sentence: "The most passive, unassumable, passivity, the subjectivity or the very subjection of the subject, is due to my being obsessed with responsibility for the oppressed who is other than myself."(10) Some of his phenomenological descriptions of the caress are fully poetic in their power and sensuality. Equally important are those philosophic excursions by way of interpretation of Talmudic texts.

Meeting the Other

It is only through the encounter with the other that meaning is created and stagnation and death are overcome. Not only is life hollow without other persons, but the "new" would be an impossible category if there were only that which the self can give birth to from within itself. Rosenzweig affirms this insight in a number of different contexts. He holds that the isolated self, that self of the tragic hero, becomes an eloquent, speech-filled soul only through the transforming love that arises from a relationship with God and one's neighbor. He believes that a person becomes fully human through the transforming powers, the divine powers, inherent in language. For example, it is upon hearing one's name that the self becomes visible, even to itself.

Levinas is equally expressive about the way that relationship brings health to the isolated self. He tries to construct an understanding of the individual human that is not just a duplication of the Cartesian story of the ego. It is not self-consciousness that brings authenticity, according to Levinas, but, rather, it is "my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the other that makes me an individual 'I'."(11) He refers to discourse as a "traumatism of astonishment," that ruptures the self and introduces the new.(12)

Levinas agrees with Rosenzweig that the deepest things in life, those which found the possibility for our existence, are gifts from others. The confidence that one has in truth as well as the sense of the meaningfulness of one's own life derives from meeting others and being responsible for others. Similarly, according to Levinas, the uniqueness of the self is confirmed by the realization that there are responsibilities that only "I" can fulfill.

However, there are noteworthy variations in the two thinkers' treatments of the need to step beyond the self or have the self transformed. In most places, the setting aside of the self or ego is not the focal point of Rosenzweig's interest. Rather, the interhuman phenomena of speech and love hold his attention, and the transcending of the ego which results from these events is of secondary interest. The self is forgotten through participating in the life of speaking to others and loving others.

With Levinas, the issue of the overcoming of the self is fully emergent. He sees an intense conflict between the individual's natural love of the self and the demand of ethics. For example, he has written that, for ethical thought, "the self, as |the~ primacy of what is mine, is hateful."(13) Levinas, perhaps, believes that the ramifications of self-absorption/projection are more dire than does Rosenzweig. Reflecting this concern, Levinas utilizes more forceful language, as it were, to describe this process. For him, the overturning of the ego requires a rupture or tearing open of the self.

There is a philosophic step or presupposition that precedes the rupture of the self and the encounter with the other. This is the recognition that, to be a self is to be separate from all totalities. The view that the recognition of a distinct self, which includes a sense of boundaries and, also, of a limited autonomy, is a foundation for the development of the self through relationship, and is something that Rosenzweig and Levinas share with current clinical psychological theory.(14)

The first book of the Star has the principle purpose of combatting the monism of Idealism by insisting on the separateness and autonomy of the philosophic elements, "God, man, and world." Rosenzweig writes that "the premise of separate existence" is necessary in order that we can see the ways that these separate elements are spanned.(15) For him, our life is made up of experiences of such spanning.

The necessity for an understanding of the person that respects the integrity of both the human and particular humans, is argued in an additional way in the Star. Early on in his discussion, Rosenzweig proposes a "metaethical" theory of "man." This position treats the human on its own terms, liberating a philosophic anthropology from the domination of any universal (ethical) system.

The importance of "separation" for Levinas' argument is well illustrated by three early section-headings in Totality and Infinity: "Separation and Discourse," "Separation and the Absolute," and "Separation as Life." In these sections, Levinas gives special attention to features of the individual's life that rest upon the premise of separation: the experience of time, the idea of infinity, and the solitude of enjoyment. He also utilizes the term "atheism" to refer to the self's autonomy. By this he means an understanding of the human individual as someone who stands outside of the Divine totality or other systematic whole.

To be human is to be there for another, to say, as Abraham said, "Here I am." It is important to emphasize that, for Rosenzweig and Levinas, the transforming encounter in human life is neither with nature, nor with a text, but with persons. Although giving different weight to these interpersonal phenomena, they explore this encounter is terms of the powers of language and the role of the body. Rosenzweig and Levinas also share an understanding that the fullest expositions of the interhuman realm require(16) the use of religious midrash, that is, the utilization of religious language or terms such as God, commandment, neighbor.

Thus, both Rosenzweig and Levinas describe the overcoming of the individual's innate isolation and self-obsession through life with others. Further, what makes life with other persons possible is the Divine action prior to or behind, as it were, these relations. For Rosenzweig, God's revelation to all, but particularly to Jews and Christians, is experienced in the Divine/human powers of speech and love. For Levinas, God's concern for the other that gives substance and form to all human interaction is felt immediately in the turning of one person to another.

More pointedly, thus, for both, there is no authentic ethics that arises naturally out of the individual's reason, for this is suspect. Every actual ethics, the realm of relations between humans, is founded upon God's revelation. This is, for Rosenzweig, God's revelation that is already immanent within our speech and acts of love. With Levinas, the commandment not to kill is God's shattering message that bursts through the face-to-face encounter.

Rosenzweig and Levinas hold that language or speech is the key for understanding the interhuman realm. With Rosenzweig there is an excitement, an amazement about the powers of language as living speech or parole, and not as mere structure, that carries through all of his work. He believed that language was as natural and as necessary to human life as air was to living things. He did not regard language as some ill-shaped foreign implement, but the medium into which individuals are born and through which they live and grow. Without language there is no human life.

For Rosenzweig, the study of language was the study of all the social process that surrounds speech. The speech-act thus uncovered as well as developed the basic trust that persons have for one another, as well as the ways that individuals draw out or create each other. He spoke of the transcending of self-concern through the call of another and of the maturation that appears when responsibility is given and accepted.

Of all of the activities of speech, Rosenzweig was most fascinated by the function of names, that is, proper names. For example, he said of his popular version of the Star, Understanding the Sick and the Healthy, that the whole book was simply about names. The calling of a person's name by another was the paradigm of transformation, according to him. Through such a call, the two persons are tied together and plunged into the world. In the call, the caller wills to put herself or himself into relation through question or through request. The life of the one called is also obviously transformed, because some type of response cannot be avoided.

Rosenzweig's love of language brought him to see its liberating powers. Freedom was not lost, in his view, by a request; rather, it was created. For him, new possibilities arise as a consequence of being called, and the free life is the one where such interactions or opportunities continually arise. He had no ear for a discussion of freedom that limited the individual's life to the expression of the self's own determinations and choices.

Although I want to discuss the use of religious categories a little later on, the theme of the Divine character of language naturally arises here. Rosenzweig saw language as nothing less than a Divine gift. Its potency or creativeness is an extension of God's first act. For Rosenzweig, God is revealed in words, and redeems humans through the process of our address and response. In this sense, all language is revelation. He found that the love poem, The Song of Songs, was a proof-text for his insight into the Divine nature of speech. The Song is the story of the exchange of "I" and "Thou" between God and humans, just because it is fully a sensual love-poem. Rosenzweig believed that in such language the dichotomy between transcendence and immanence evaporates. He could not separate the words of love between persons, from lover to beloved or friend to friend or neighbor to neighbor, from the words of love that are addressed by God.

Rosenzweig had a deep trust in language. He was more interested in all the ways that language works than in the few times when it seems either to fail or to distort. While it is misleading to think that Rosenzweig did not recognize that language can be manipulated or distorted, I find that his primary concern was to testify to its power.(17)

There are some strong parallels between Levinas' reflections on language and what we have just seen above. This is especially evident in the sense that, for both philosophers, the social processes that surround speech are more important than the analysis of linguistic structures. More significantly, they agree in giving priority to speech over writing and to criticizing those who see language as deriving from thought rather than the other way around. However, there are some marked differences between the two. First, the theme of the distortion of language is prominent in Levinas' writings, particularly in the work, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. Second, with Levinas, the treatment of language is often located within a wider discussion of "the face."

Language pierces the individual's armor of self-concern. It uproots this natural attitude and brings the person to experience responsibility for, and to come to the aid of, the other. Language is creative; not only does it awaken responsibility, it creates the power to respond.(18) Levinas describes some of the features of human interaction that language awakens as the power of welcome, of gift, full hands, and hospitality.(19)

In that fundamental encounter with the other that is language, the new appears. We learn something from our meetings with other people. We are given insights, orientations, ideas that we did not possess before. "Teaching" is the term which Levinas often uses to denote the fact that something new emerges out of human interaction. He is quite insistent that we recognize that teaching is more than maieutics, the technique of helping the student to recall the truth that is latent within himself or herself. Without this notion of teaching, based on receiving something from the outside, we would be assigned the terrible destiny of living out of our own resources alone. There would be nothing in our lives but that which we found within.

The issue of the corruption of language is most clearly introduced through Levinas' distinction between "the saying" and "the said." As far as I have understood it, this is a distinction between the ideal possibilities of encounter or language and the reality of the ways that these possibilities are often limited or subverted. Again, "the saying" is not literally limited to spoken language.(20) It includes the whole situation of being in relationship, of approach, giving, etc., that precedes or, alternatively, is the foundation for the possibility of speech occurring between persons. "The said" is the limiting of real speech by linguistic structures that inevitably reflect the self's attempt to erase everything that cannot be one with itself. Through the category of "the said," Levinas is suggesting that the actual encounter between persons must be understood in the context of the particular social and political structures of the time. These structures or systems are, to some extent, expressions of the powerful urge toward totality or the domination of what is not "the same."

Readers of Levinas recognize that, compared to the eloquence and dramatic effect of his discussion of the impact of the face, every interpretation or commentary appears hellow. The face stands for the whole human body. It is just that Levinas has discovered that the poverty, vulnerability, as well as the wealth of the human is contained in the face. In particular, he speaks of the face of the poor and the stranger that overcomes every defense that the self might erect. Confronted by the face of another, silence is impossible, for one cannot but be responsive-responsible.

All that is found in the encounter with another, that at times is discussed in the context of language, is depicted at other times by Levinas in terms of standing before another person's face. As he writes, "meaning is the face of the Other, and all recourse to words takes place already within the primordial face-to-face of language."(21)

The theme of the face is not as prominent in Rosenzweig's work, but it is also not totally absent. The human face appears at the climax of the Star. He sees it as mirroring our understanding of the interaction of God, man, and world that gives orientation to everyday life. While the face of which he speaks is human, he believes that it provides a reminder of God. Thus, for Rosenzweig, in living with other persons the individual is continually made aware that she or he also lives before the Divine countenance.

More importantly, it seems to me that Rosenzweig shares with Levinas a positive attitude toward the body. For both of them, erotic love is a valuable topic for the philosophical understanding of the human. This is illustrated, in the case of Rosenzweig, by the prominent places given in the Star to The Song of Songs and to a discussion of "the kiss." In addition to the theme of the face, the poetic-philosophic description of the sensuous discovery of the other through caress is another testimony to Levinas' view of the philosophic importance of the body.

The use of religious categories and terms is an essential feature of the description of the encounter between persons, especially in reflections upon language for Rosenzweig, and the face for Levinas. They share the view that the interhuman realm reveals a trace of the Divine. They do not believe that human relationships exist for the sake of the Divine or that religious story diminishes in any way the importance of the human. Yet, their work powerfully implies that an understanding of the relationship between persons requires religious story.

The Divine nature of speech is one theme that illustrates Rosenzweig's use of religious story. In his view, speech is human, fully human, because it continually and effortlessly, as it were, brings out the highest in human lives. Yet, precisely for this reason, it is Divine, for the fullness of the human comes only through a power that stands beyond all humans and draws them up. The interhuman -- what Martin Buber described as "the between" -- is the miraculous place where traces of the Divine can best be sensed.

Put in another way, Rosenzweig believed that the word is recognized as both human and Divine when we acquire an appreciation for the ways that persons are brought to life through speech. God's relationship to speech might be seen in two forms: as the origin or source of the trust that enables persons to throw themselves into speech, and as the power that transforms persons once they begin speaking. For example, Rosenzweig saw the acceptance of words from a speaker, including our belief that the other is sincere, as being based upon a trust in speech. No explanation can account for this trust, but Rosenzweig found that a religious story about God's creation of language points to the elemental nature of this trust and to its source in terms of a "person" prior to all human persons. Rosenzweig wrote:

And language is easily trusted, for it is within us and about us; as it reaches us from "without," it is no different from language as it echoes the "without" from our "within." The word as heard and as spoken is one and the same. The ways of God are different from the ways of man, but the word of God and the word of man are the same. The ways of God are different from the ways of man, but the word of God and the word of man are the same. What man hears in his heart as his own human speech is the very word which comes out of God's mouth.(22)

Second, Rosenzweig saw the need to use a religious midrash when speaking of the dramatic ways that other persons empower an individual to change, and the incredible ways that speech allows someone to reach beyond herself or himself, that is, to transcend the self. He spoke of the act of being touched by God's love, often through the speech of one's neighbor, as the transformation of the individual from a defiant, fearful self into an eloquent soul.

As noted earlier, for Levinas, the act of looking into a human face embodies the whole encounter between persons. Looking into the face of the person that is next to one, exposes the vulnerability of the other, along with the direct, if unspoken, command not to kill the other. Face to face with the other is the stance that first engenders responsibility. Yet, this face to face requires religious story in order to be fully described. The vulnerability of the other is both heightened and made more concrete by discussing it in the light of standing before the poor, the orphan, and the stranger, of whom the Bible speaks. The recognition that one must not kill the other who stands nearby is more than the result of some vague feeling not to harm; it is the acknowledgement of the commandment: Thou shalt not kill!

While Rosenzweig and Levinas recognize the necessity of utilizing religious story or midrash to illuminate the relationship between persons, they are careful that God does not thereby become a philosophical theme. For them, God is not a term in an argument. Story or midrash is suggestive. It does not prove anything, but points to the wondrous elements that lie within the interhuman realm. Put in another way, the term "God" is not part of some system (of the self). The word is used because it allows the responsibility that the individual has for another to be expressed or pronounced in the most forceful way. This responsibility cannot be communicated outside of the context of such terms as commandment, neighbour, stranger, and even creation. Levinas wrote, for example:

The religious discourse that precedes all religious discourse is not dialogue. It is the "here I am" said to a neighbour to whom I am given over, by which I announce peace, that is, my responsibility for the other. "Creating ... the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace to the far and to the near, says the Lord.(23)

Two Jewish Philosophers

There are other dimensions of the works of Rosenzweig and Levinas that might prove valuable to explore, and many of the topics discussed here require more analysis. However, as a conclusion, I would like to reexamine a few elements that have already emerged and to suggest that these might be distinctive to modern Jewish philosophy.(24)

Rosenzweig and Levinas were trained in philosophy, and their works take their point of departure from such pivotal thinkers as Hegel for Rosenzweig, and Husserl for Levinas. However, they all stand apart from the major philosophical streams. Both of them offer an ethical critique of earlier (and contemporary) philosophy by insisting on the centrality of the relationship to other persons. As we have seen, this ethical critique incorporates religious story into its philosophical discussion.

At least in terms of their notions of the self, Rosenzweig and Levinas do not represent either a modern or a post-modern position. They do not speak of the alienated self that must battle the outside world, while discovering some hidden meaning within. Yet, they also do not give prominence to the notion that the self's basic problem is that it is without a center or that it is fragmented and discontinuous. Many post-moderns prominently feature a self trying to recapture or reincorporate the missing, what is unthought, error or "the bastard." However, Rosenzweig and Levinas maintain that the healing of the self does not come through some type of individual contortions. It comes from the outside. The new, "teaching," is the gift that only another can bestow upon the self. There is no truth more fundamental or instructive than that children are born out of two.

Unlike much of modern philosophy, Rosenzweig and Levinas do not offer the encounter with one's own death as a criterion of authenticity. The confrontation with one's own death is still just the act of a single person, an act of solitude. In the work of some thinkers, including Heidegger, the encounter with death seems to bring the self to denounce an essential relationship to another. However, Levinas' treatment of death heightens one's responsibility for others. It is this concern for other persons rather than the turning of the self upon itself that is exemplified in the treatment of death in the following lines:

The face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus, the face says to me: you shall not kill.(25)

While Rosenzweig does begin the Star with a discussion of the individual's fear of death, this is a result, in my view, of the distinctive narrative within the book, rather than a belief that authenticity arises out of the confrontation with death. For Rosenzweig, facing the future death of the self makes one death-like or mute. It is only within the meeting with the other that speech and life well up.

Often in surprising ways, their discussions turn toward the theme that love overcomes death. While neither Rosenzweig nor Levinas believes that a person can escape death, they hold that, through language and the related human phenomenon -- love, death is not permitted to wipe away all meaning. Despite the truth that the individual will some day die, love between persons builds up things that death cannot overcome.

In their work there is a fascination with language. They trust in speech, seeing it as having a source, origin or foundation that is beyond humans.(26) They are also very positive about the body. Just as language is not some kind of clumsy instrument, they do not have an instrumental view of the body. The body is more than an apparatus of the mind. The body, especially the human face or countenance, is the window to the soul or the whole being of a person.

I think that there is a link between these attitudes toward language, body, and other persons. Rosenzweig and Levinas are critical of views that insist that language is a derivative of, or an almost unnecessary dimension of, thinking. They are equally opposed to the position that the body is a crude, almost expendable, extension of mind. What they are excited by is the concrete world of the everyday. This is the world of interaction, of persons who are encountered precisely through the specificity of their speech and bodies.

In this world, other people are very important, because they liberate the individual from the cage of the self. Rosenzweig and Levinas maintain a pluralism that is not just tolerant of the other, but requires the other as different.

I would like to suggest that the positions of Rosenzweig and Levinas that have just been outlined in terms of death, love, human interaction, language, the body, and pluralism, are positions common to many modern Jewish philosophers. Some of these views can be found in works by Martin Buber,(27) Abraham Heschel, Emil Fackenheim, and others. For example, Fackenheim once linked the pivotal role of the theme of death in modern philosophy to the influence of Christianity. He contended that, on the other hand, the portrait of humans that views the interaction between persons as an essential feature of existence was a position more in harmony with basic features of Judaism.(28)

Finally, despite these pronounced areas of similarity between Rosenzweig and Levinas, it is precisely with reference to religious story that a major difference appears. For both of them it is vital that God be understood as person. Only the language of person provides them with the resources to speak of God's concern for the neighbor and the stranger, for example. Yet, with Rosenzweig there is a celebration of, and joy in, Biblical anthropomorphisms. These offer him the means to compose story after story about all of the ways that God lives with people. In one of the last articles that he composed, he wrote that behind the Biblical stories about the encounters between humans and God there lies the double assumption of the Bible as a whole:

namely that God is capable of what he wants (even to meet the creature from time to time in fully bodily and spiritual reality) and that the creature is capable of what he should be (thus, even to understand fully and to recognize God's self-embodying and self-spiritualization that from time to time turns towards him).(29)

In contrast, with Levinas there is a supreme austerity in terms of what can be said directly about the human relationship to God. Beneath his linguistic hesitancy or carefulness is the fear of appropriating God into a human system of the same nature, of affirming a "Gott mit uns" (God|is~ with us). However, this austerity exhibits its own type of grandeur. Levinas has written:

It is not by superlatives that we can think of God, but by trying to identify the particular interhuman events that open towards transcendence and reveal the traces where God has passed.(30)

I am intrigued by the reasons that lie behind this difference as well as the powers and limits of each of these paths.

Is it legitimate to suggest that the opposition to the notion of the self that is tied to the Cartesian "cogito" brings together the writings of Rosenzweig and Levinas? Despite the differences between them, it is through a midrash that focuses on this opposition that two central features of their work have been illuminated: the critique of philosophy and the transformation of the self that arises out of the encounter with the other.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIM is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.


1. Levinas, "Signature," Research in Phenomenology, VII (1978), p. 177.

2. Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (Boston, 1972), pp. 76-9. Rosenzweig believed that the emergence of the Jewish and Christian communities was part of a process whereby what had earlier been latent possibilities of encounter and speech in humans had now become actual.

3. Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (The Hague, 1981), p. 124.

4. Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh, 1988), p. 28. Also see, Ethics and Infinity (Pittsburgh, 1985), pp. 75-6.

5. The same point, namely, ... "'ego' is the essence of the world. All the wisdom of philosophy can be summed up in this sentence," can be found in Rosenzweig, Understanding the Sick and the Healthy (New York, 1953), p. 54.

6. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 46. To what extent there are the seeds of such a critique in Rosenzweig's corpus is a complex question. Rosenzweig recognizes the role of philosophy as providing a justification for the state, and he sees the history of states as a history of blood, war, and revolutions. However, Levinas' explicit theme of the violence of philosophy, as it were, does not fully emerge in Rosenzweig's work, at least as far as I know. See Alexander Altmann's famous essay, "Franz Rosenzweig on History," in P. Mendes-Flohr, ed., The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig (Hanover, 1988): pp. 124-37.

7. Levinas, "Franz Rosenzweig," Midstream (Nov. 1983): 35.

8. Levinas. Totality and Infinity, p. 207.

9. Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, p. 193.

10. Ibid., p. 55.

11. Levinas interview in R. Cohen, ed., Face to Face with Levinas (Albany, 1986), p. 27.

12. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 73.

13. Levinas, Face to Face With Levinas, p. 26.

14. Erik Erikson, for example, places the developmental task of "identity" prior to the task of "intimacy," in Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York, 1968). See, also, B. Ables, Therapy for Couples (San Francisco, 1986), p. 24, and on the relationship between autonomy and intimacy, M. Scarf, Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage (New York, 1987), pp. 20-24.

15. Rosenzweig in N. Glatzer, ed., Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (New York, 1970), p. 198.

16. It is interesting to ask whether the use of religious stories is merely a requirement for reflection, or whether Rosenzweig and/or Levinas might believe that persons cannot fully live with others unless they see their lives as taking place within such stories.

17. Rosenzweig belonged to an informal group of thinkers, called the Patmos circle, who were interested in the issue of the corruption of language in the political and academic spheres, during the period following World War I. Among these people were Eugen Rosenstock and Karl Barth. See, Stahmer, "Speak That I May See Thee!" (New York, 1968), pp. 121-4.

18. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 178.

19. Ibid., p. 205.

20. Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, p. 48.

21. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 206.

22. Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, p, 151 (emphasis added).

23. Levinas, "God and Philosophy," in S. Hand, ed., The Levinas Reader (Oxford, 1989), p. 184. The Biblical quotation is from Isaiah 57:18-19.

24. Of course, it is not just themes that help to characterize the nature of modern Jewish philosophy. The modern Jewish philosopher evidences, additionally, a commitment to the present community and a feeling of being obligated by the tradition of the past. Other aspects of these two philosophers' life and work could be discussed in terms of these points.

25. Levinas, Face to Face With Levinas, p. 24.

26. It is noteworthy, perhaps, that, as part of the awesome Divine act of creation, the Bible calls to our attention the equally Divine act of naming what God created. The act of naming is similarly emphasized as Adam's first act (Gen. 1:5,7,10,20). See also, Noah J. Jacobs, Naming Day in Eden: The Creation and Re-Creation of Language (N.Y.: MacMillan, 1958).

27. While Rosenzweig and Levinas share with Buber a deep concern for the dynamics of relationship, they are critical of the presentation of these in terms of the philosophy of "I and Thou." Rosenzweig did not agree with the stark opposition between the I-Thou and I-It relationships. Levinas' main criticism of Buber is that in proposing that the interaction of the self and other is symmetrical or mutual, the necessary shattering of the self's powerful egoism is lost. Rosenzweig's incisive one-page critique of Buber's famous book is discussed in B. Casper, "Franz Rosenzweig's Criticism of Buber's I and Thou," in H. Gordon and J. Bloch, eds., Martin Buber: A Centenary Volume (New York, 1984), pp. 139-159. Levinas has written extensively about Buber, for example, "Martin Buber and the Theory of Knowledge," in The Levinas Reader (Oxford, 1989), pp. 59-74.

28. Emil Fackenheim. Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy (New York, 1973), pp. 215-16.

29. Rosenzweig, article on "Anthropomorphism," in Kleinere Schriften (Berlin, 1937), p. 532 |tr. by Barbara Galli~. Rosenzweig's appreciation for the religious significance of anthropomorphic metaphors is a major point of departure in the author's book, Mutual Upholding: Fashioning Jewish Philosophy Through Letters (New York, 1992).

30. Levinas, Face to Face With Levinas, p. 32.
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Title Annotation:modernJewish Philosophers Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas
Author:Oppenheim, Michael
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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