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  • Michael Fagenblat (a1)
  • In response to commentaries on:


My reading of Levinas's magnificent philosophical works, Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being is based on two primary convictions. The first is that Levinas's philosophical works, in which he addresses and enjoins people without regard for identity (without regard for peoplehood and law), were produced out of strong readings of the Judaic tradition. Samuel Moyn showed how deeply Levinas was nurtured by interwar Protestant philosophical theology, and I sought to show that it was also possible to read Levinas's philosophy through the rabbinic tradition. Whereas Moyn's outstanding work shrugged off Levinas's Judaism as an “invention,” I regard Levinas as a midrashic philosopher whose account of ethics amounts to a non-Jewish Judaism—non-Jewish since it is addressed to anyone, yet Judaism since, in my view, it is midrashically determined from the ground up. Most of the book attempts to show how Levinas's philosophy works as a reading of core concepts from the Judaic tradition and thereby as a phenomenological midrash of biblical, rabbinic, and Maimonidean texts, all of which Levinas knew well.


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1. Moyn, Samuel, Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas Between Revelation and Ethics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

2. Butler, Judith, “Ethical Ambivalence,” The Turn to Ethics, ed. Garber, Marjorie, Hanssen, Beatrice, and Walkowitz, Rebecca L. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 1528, 28.

4. As he remarkably puts it: “The ethical language we have resorted to does not arise out of a special moral experience, independent of the description hitherto elaborated. The ethical situation of responsibility is not comprehensible on the basis of ethics. … The tropes of ethical language are found to be adequate for certain structures of the description: for the sense of the approach in its contrast with knowing, the face in contrast with a phenomenon.” Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Lingis, Alphonso (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981), 120, Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), 154–55. Although one should be careful in reading Levinas backwards, my point is that Levinas was always, and especially from the late 1940s, finding the “tropes of ethical language” that describe “the sense of the approach in its contrast to knowing, the face in contrast with a phenomenon,” in the immemorial heritage of the Judaic theological tradition. Ethics is not simply a phenomenology but a phenomenological hermeneutic of everyday life.

5. As Israel Knohl explains, “[T]wo principles are at the heart [of the priestly school], holiness and commandment.” Knohl, Israel, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and The Holiness School (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 149. Knohl's important study of the Priestly Code of the Torah is particularly interesting for our purposes since it argues that the Holiness Code in the Pentateuch (Leviticus 17–27) is composed under the influence of the classical prophetic critique of the sublime but amoral theology of the Priestly Torah. The Holiness Code would attest to the earliest attempt to reunite the ethical and the sublime, which is essentially what Levinas is trying to do. That is why it is not principally Plato's “good beyond being” that provides Levinas with a model for ethical transcendence but also always an attention to the moral prophets and Leviticus 17–27. This is another example of why I think Moyn is wrong to propose that Levinas is more indebted to Rudolf Otto, for example, than to the Jewish tradition. Both the account of God as “wholly other” and its moral critique are intrinsic to the theology of the Torah. Moyn's impressive intellectual history is too historicist and not sufficiently hermeneutical. It fails to see that Levinas has not only secularized the Protestant theology of the interwar period but also the tradition of moral holiness that is intrinsic to Jewish thought and within which Levinas is also situated.

6. Compare TI, 177–80/TeI, 151–55.

7. Levinas no doubt also has other related senses of panim in mind, such as standing before (lipnim) and within (bipnim).

8. That is why I am not at all surprised that Levinas confessed to Derrida that “what really interests me in the end is not ethics, not ethics alone, but the holy, the holiness of the holy,” Derrida, Jacques, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Brault, Pascale-Anne, Maas, Michael (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 4. Moshe Idel related another intriguing tale to me, which is that Levinas once told him that he regarded Rashi as the greatest philosopher. One could easily dismiss this as facile, throwaway, or bizarre, or else one could take seriously the thought that Levinas contemplated the rabbinic tradition quite like Heidegger pondered the Greeks, though with greater fidelity.

9. In no way do I suggest that Levinas denies the significance of the blessings and the promises and even the lessons borne by the Jewish people in their history. Aronowicz says that “it would be a mistake to compare his project to that of St. Paul” because “for Levinas, Jewish particularism is not just one particularism among many.” But neither is it for Paul. Think of Romans 9:4–5: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.” The passage continues with Paul's allegories of Israel and the children of Abraham, allegories that Levinas frequently repeats.

10. Heidegger, Martin, Sein und Zeit (Frankfurt am Main: Vittoria Klostermann, 1976), 384–85; Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie, John and Robinson, Edward (London: SCM Press, 1962), 436.

11. Levinas, Emmanuel, Beyond the Verse, trans. Mole, Gary D. (London: Continuum, 1994), 190.

I am grateful to Annette Aronowicz for her critique of my book, and especially for her valuable and characteristically lucid presentation of Levinas's views on Jewish peoplehood. That view is indeed at odds with the interpretation of Levinas I provide, but I belive my interpretation of Levinas's philosophical position is still to be preferred. This requires explanation.


  • Michael Fagenblat (a1)
  • In response to commentaries on:


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