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Revelation and revolution.

For Alain Badiou, the contemporary French philosopher of the radical Left, a subject is what is summoned into being by a response of persistent fidelity to an eternally enduring "truth event" which breaks disruptively, unpredictably, into the given in all of its irreducible, incommunicable singularity, beyond all law, consensus, and conventional understanding. Badiou would argue that ethics is not the singular revelation of truth, but an ongoing process, that is, the process of remaining faithful to that truth. As Terry Eagleton summarizes, "It is a question of 'persevering in the disruption,' a phrase which clips together both innovation and continuity, visionary crisis and dogged consistency, or what in Badiou's language would be the 'immortal' and the 'mortal' ... He wants, in short, to insert the eternal into time, negotiate the passage between truth event and everyday life, which is what we know as politics." (1) While Eagleton calls this politics, Badiou truth, and Levinas justice, surely it is a description of Revelation, that radical cut into the everyday by a transcendent call to a higher ethics. The difficulty of being faithful to the event--of being just--preoccupies both the rest of the biblical narrative after the portrayal of the revelation, and that difficulty has also preoccupied subsequent human history--in this sense, the revelation is indeed understood as a process, the process of struggling to remain faithful to the truth of the revelation.

While Badiou has no difficulty associating the truth-event with advent of Christ--he pursues the analysis in his book on St. Paul--he is notably less interested in the radical revelation that marks the Sinai event. And yet this revelation beautifully exemplifies his understanding: the narrative describes the creation of subjects who are asked to be faithful to the event--and it gives dire warnings of pseudo-events, fake truths, false idols. I hardly need to rehearse the aura of the exceptional that fills the narrative of the Sinai revelation, the radical break from the ordinary, from life as they knew it--with Moses leading them, not only out of Egypt, out of their habitual slavery, but also out of their camp in the wilderness to be suddenly subjected to a terrifying sound and light show: "now at daybreak on the third day there were peals of thunder on the mountain and lightning flashes, a dense cloud, and a loud trumpet blast, and inside the camp all the people trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. The mountain of Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke, because God had descended on it in the form of fire. Like smoke from a furnace ... Louder and louder grew the sound of the trumpet. Moses spoke, and God answered him with peals of thunder" (Ex. 19:16-19). The form of fire is indistinct; the voice of thunder is unintelligible. This is not a deity who is easily reduced to a being, or for that matter, to any concept of being. The Truth has no place in the prior situation: under the terms that reigned prior to revelation, this is unintelligible, unnameable, unthinkable. The demarcation of the place of the event also points clearly to its break with the prior situation: "God said to Moses, 'Go down and warn this people not to pass beyond their bounds to come and look on God, or many of them will lose their lives ... Mark out the limits of the mountain and declare it sacred'" (Ex. 19:21-24). In the philosopher's language: A truth punches a "hole" in knowledges, it is heterogeneous to them, but it is also the sole known source of new knowledges.

The atmosphere at Sinai trembles with something else besides the shock of newness--with threat, with violence--but why? The people tremble before this God, begging Moses to intercede lest they die (Ex. 20:19). It seems that not only the message, but also the messenger is unbearable. Moses' face is radiant from his encounter with God, and he must veil himself for others to even be able to withstand the sight of him. Only before God and before the elders, to whom he communicates this startling justice, is he unveiled. Why is the revelation of the law accompanied by such fury? With the entry of the demand for justice, the world changes decisively. Furthermore, because the subject who is created by this truth event did not exist prior to it, that justice commands the hearer to a terrifying moment of decisiveness: will he accept this call to justice, or turn away? The first answer is univocal and affirmative: when Moses relates the words of God to the people "all the people said with one voice, "All that he has spoken we will do; we will obey" (Ex. 24:3, 7). "The term evoking obedience here [we will do] is anterior to that which expresses understanding [we will listen] and in the eyes of the Talmudic scholars is taken to be the supreme merit of Israel, the 'wisdom of an angel.'... This obedience before understanding is against Kantian logic, for this biblical ethic cannot be reduced to a categorical imperative in which a universality is suddenly able to direct a will. It is an obedience, rather, which can be traced back to the love of one's neighbor:... a love that is obeyed, that is, the responsibility for one's neighbor." (2) The demand of Revelation, then, is not a list of rational universals--rather it is a "love of God that is obeyed."

Fidelity to this remarkable event proves to be difficult--a "difficult freedom" as Levinas refers to it. The wrong paths soon beckon. According to Badiou, there are three ways to betray the Event: disavowal, trying to follow old patterns as if nothing had happened; false imitation of the event of truth; and a direct "ontologization" of the event of truth, that is, its reduction to a new positive order of being. The Exodus narrative depicts the ancient Israelites betraying the revelation in every sense. They doubt the validity of event, murmuring "Is Yahweh with us or not?" (Ex. 17:7) and disbelieving: "you have brought us to this wilderness [not to emancipate us but] to starve this whole company to death!" (Ex. 16:3). They give their allegiance to a pseudo-truth, and they reduce their emancipation to an order of being--signaled by their creating an idol of gold: "They have been quick to leave the way I marked out for them; they have made themselves a calf of molten metal and worshipped it. 'Here is your God, Israel,' they have cried, 'who brought you up from the land of Egypt!'" (Ex. 32:8-9). "Ontologization" is offered up as the danger of idolatry, of betrayal, of evil: "you know how prone these people are to evil," laments Aaron (Ex. 32:23). From another perspective, this is also the idolatry Paul engages in with reference to the Sinai event. By reducing it to prescriptions, to a positive law with rules, he also refuses the event of revelation, and he does so contrary to Jesus, who, like Moses, is faithful to that revelation: "I come not to oppose the Law but to fulfill it" (Matt. 5:17). For his purposes, Paul engages in three different contradictory betrayals of the Sinai event: he denies the enormity of its importance, he ontologizes it (as a system of universal rule-making), and then after reducing its significance, he claims it is oppressive (the yoke of the law).

When the revelation is betrayed in this way, it is destroyed (as the old Law becomes dead for Paul). And when the people of Israel are unfaithful to the Event, it disappears for them. The narrative depicts this as the destruction of the tablets, the destruction of the laws of justice. The Pauline example of the truth event is a sudden conversion that renders the new subject non-existent before, but the Hebrew subject is more complex: first he declares fidelity to the event, faith to the revelation--"all that he commands we will do, we will obey"--and then, despite the intention of fidelity, despite these promises, he backslides, betraying the true event with a false one (idolatry), falling victim to a failure of courage--"because there were no graves in Egypt, did you take us to die in the wilderness?" (Ex.14:11). Paul well understood this subject and classified it as death: "Though the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not, with the result that instead of doing the good thing I want to do, I carry out the sinful things I do not want. When I act against my will, then, it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me" (Romans 7:18-20). In Pauline terms, this is not a subject; this is sin.

In the Exodus narrative, Moses is offered in contrast to the people's response as embodying unswerving fidelity and missionary zeal on behalf of the truth, a true revolutionary set in relief against the backsliding people who were also given but cannot bear the difficulty of the truth. Moses demands fidelity to the Revelation, and only that fidelity can constitute the future community. Those who refuse become the enemy--not only to God in Levinas' reading, but to emancipation: "Gird on your sword, every man of you, and quarter the camp from gate to gate, killing one his brother, another his friends and another his neighbor" (Ex. 32:27). And so the Marxist Badiou need not frame Paul as Lenin; he could have turned to Moses as a revolutionary leader: his priesthood of believers is formed at the cost of brothers and sons (Ex. 32:29). The Revelation starts a Revolution.

But Moses demands fidelity to what? On the United States Supreme Court's building where a frieze in the east portico depicts Moses, among other historical lawgivers, holding up two tablets, the tablets are blank. The entrance door to the building's courtroom also has two tablets with the Roman numerals I through X on them, but no words. When the law-giving is renewed, instead of the finger of God writing on the tablets, Moses does the writing, and the voice of God--never reified in stone--becomes the foundation of the oral Law, with authority equal to the written one. What he says is what the rabbis puzzle over. If, as I am arguing, what God offers is not merely a series of prescriptions, not "the yoke of law," what does he confer in this breach with the past, and what is asked of the new subject? In fact, there is hardly any positive "content" in the Revelation as such even in the Exodus narrative. Levinas argues that in the living interpretation of the revelation, what is asked is not fidelity to any positive law, but to justice itself: the prior world is ruptured by the radical entry of the demand for justice. Just as the first "decalogue" (Ex. 20) rehearses the need for fidelity to the lawgiver and respect for the other, so the renewed "ten words" (Ex. 34) concern remaining faithful-the demand of allegiance, to remember allegiance, to commemorate allegiance--with warnings and promised rewards. What is required is fidelity to the truth of revelation, to justice; hence, the warning is made again and again, in different ways, against false truth, idolatry. "You shall bow down to no other God" (Ex. 34:14), "you shall make yourself no gods of molten metal" (Ex. 34:17); and you shall remember the feast of unleavened bread that commemorates the exodus from the prior condition; you shall dedicate your first-fruits to God, dedicate a day in every week to God, the festival of harvest, three more days a year--that covers the "ten words" that are the terms of the covenant, all except for the last sublime metaphor for injustice: "you shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." What gives life cannot be used to deal death. Surely this image offers a love that is obeyed.

Levinas has seen this revolutionary aspect of the revelation, and by turning away from the understanding of the subject as solipsistic and instead constituting it by its responsibility for another, by justice, Levinas has not only delineated an understanding of the subject that is preeminently social, but also political (despite the frequent charge that his ethics lacks a politics). But political up to a point--the delimiting point is Levinas' palpable suspicion of the political. Levinas' distrust of the state is the distrust of someone who has endured the state crimes of the Nazis. "The police official does not have time to ask himself where the Good is and where the Evil; he belongs to the established power. He belongs to the State, which has entrusted him with duties. He does not engage in metaphysics; he engages in police work." (3) He fears that if in order to fight evil, we adopt the tactics of politics, we would find ourselves in the service of the state. How can we engage responsibly in political action when we cannot be sure about the nature of evil, about what is evil? Interpreting the rabbis, he writes that "unquestionably violent action against Evil is necessary. And we shall soon see that this violence takes on all the appearances of political action." (4) But he sees the rabbis seeking deeper understanding, insisting on asking how do you recognize evil? For Levinas, here "lies the difference between a police action at the service of the established State and true revolutionary action." (5)

When Levinas explicitly distinguishes between the heirs of Abraham, the universal family of humanity, and the State, he does so nervously, knowing that this will make some readers unhappy, adding, "it is suggested by the text. Let not the worshippers of the State, who proscribe the survival of Jewish particularism, be angered!" "There is more in the family of Abraham than in the promises of the State. It is important to give, of course, but everything depends on how it is done. It is not through the State and through the political advances of humanity that the person shall be fulfilled, which of course, does not free the State from instituting the conditions necessary to this fulfillment. But it is the family of Abraham that sets the norms." (6) Privileging the "children of Abraham" over the State, Levinas takes pains to qualify that community as not a blood-group (this is not "petit-bourgeois racism and particularism"). (7) So who are the heirs of Abraham? "Those to whom their ancestor bequeathed a difficult tradition of duties toward the other man, which one is never done with, an order from which one is never free ... So defined, the heirs of Abraham are of all nations: any man truly man is no doubt of the line of Abraham" (my italics).

What, then, is the relation of theology to politics? Of Revelation to Revolution? To approach this question, I want to turn, not to the constitution of the subject (Badiou's preoccupation) or the constitution of the community (Paul's preoccupation), because in the end these entities may be more indifferent for their political ends than these leaders imagine. Instead, I want to turn to the question of justice, for it seems to me that this is the vital political and ethical concern.

In "Loving the Torah more than God," Levinas engages an anonymous text that offers itself as a document written during the final hours of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance by one "Yossel, son of Yossel." (8) Doubts flow from his agony: "What can this suffering of the innocents mean? Is it not proof of a world without God, where only man measures Good and Evil?" But these "murmurings" do not issue in any idolatry or atheism; they take a very different turn from the generation lost in the wilderness. Instead of betraying the revelation in the midst of this horror, "Yossel, son of Yossel experiences the certainty of God with a new force, beneath an empty sky." This is not paradox nor blind faith, nor has despair driven him to irrationality. Levinas reads the empty sky as the opportunity for a full conscience: "if he is so alone, it is in order to take upon his shoulders the whole of God's responsibilities." An absent God becomes most immanent internally. God is no protector or savior, but is internalized as a moral principle that guides action. Humanity must create a just world. The Godless are redefined as those who do not have this. "The condition of the victims in a disordered world--that is to say, in a world where good does not triumph--is that of suffering." He quotes Yossel: " I am happy to belong to the most unhappy people on earth, for whom the Torah represents all that is most lofty and beautiful in law and morality.... Now I know that you are really my God, for you could not be the God of those whose actions represent the most horrible expression of a militant absence of God." Empty sky, full conscience. Levinas understands the wellsprings of Yossel's "confidence that does not rely on the triumph of any institution: it is the internal evidence of morality supplied by the Torah." (9)

If the Revelation offers the gift of justice, it can either be accepted or refused, as the human history of failure and agony confirm. Neither Levinas nor the Hebrew Bible ever underestimate how difficult this gift of justice is. If the Bible portrays humanity as persistently failing, it also insists that the radical entry of justice into the world cannot be compromised with cheap solutions--what it calls idolatry. The gift of grace in Paul works differently, imputing righteousness through the death of Christ. What the gift of justice does, on the other hand, is present one with the harsh reality that only acts of justice performed by the subject, and only by him, can help to create a just world and only this can relieve despair. There is no other way out--no imputed righteousness, as in Luther. And this is what makes the covenantal demand of justice ultimately political: while Revelation is a radical rupture into the status quo, it does not offer a miraculous solution to human pain.


1. Terry Eagleton, Figures of Dissent (London: Verso 2003), 250.

2. Emmanuel Levinas, "Revelation in the Jewish Tradition" in Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures, tr. Gary D. Mole, (London: The Athlone Press, 1982), 146-47.

3. Levinas, "Judaism and Revolution," in Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 110.

4. Nine Talmudic Readings, 109.

5. Nine Talmudic Readings, 110.

6. Nine Talmudic Readings, 99-100.

7. Nine Talmudic Readings, 113.

8. Difficult Freedom, trans. Sean Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990), 143. [The author of the text, unknown to Levinas since the work had several times been published anonymously, is Zvi Kolitz. The story's publication history is discussed by Paul Badde, "Zvi Kolitz," in Zvi Kolitz, Yossel Rakover Speaks to God: Holocaust Challenges to Religious Faith (Hoboken: KTAV, 1955), 1-12. -Ed.]

9. Difficult Freedom, 144.

This paper was first delivered at the MLA Conference in Philadelphia 2004. It is excerpted from Schwartz, "Revelation and Revolution" in Theology and the Political, ed. Creston Davis, Duke University Press, 2005.
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Author:Schwartz, Regina M.
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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