Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn
Philosophy and Jewish Thought
Ethan Kleinberg



God on Our Side / God on God’s Own Side

On the occasion of Emmanuel Levinas’s eightieth birthday, a group of his former students and colleagues held a celebration under the auspices of the École Normale Israélite Orientale and its parent organization the Alliance Israélite Universelle. At this event the president of the AIU, Ady Steg, told an apologue, or, perhaps a myth, imagining the day when Levinas would be summoned before the Heavenly/Celestial Throne:

“Emmanuel Levinas, what have you done with your life?” Levinas would be asked.

“I consecrated myself to philosophy and that which I considered to be good and just I have written in my books.”

“Very well, and what else?”

“I studied with Husserl and Heidegger.”

“Heidegger? Hmm . . . and what else?”

“I also studied with Shushani.”

“Marvelous! It is true that Shushani was able to penetrate the soul of the Talmud. And what else?”

“I presented many Talmudic lessons for the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs based on Shushani’s teachings.”

“Bravo! How can one possibly understand the Torah without the light of the oral Law? But what else?”

“As a result I was also able to comment on the Torah at the École Normale Israélite Orientale of the Alliance on Shabbat mornings.”

“At the school?”

“Yes, I was the director of the school for many years.”

“Director of the school? You, a prestigious philosopher?”

“Yes, director of the school.”

With these words, Ady Steg tells us, Cherubs and Seraphs, Ofanim and Archangels would begin to sing a glorious hymn as Emmanuel Levinas is conducted to the right of the Eternal One.1

Given the audience, it is no surprise that the hagiographic emphasis on Levinas as Talmudist takes pride of place above and beyond his status as a “prestigious philosopher.” Indeed, it is Levinas as a disciple of the enigmatic Talmudic master Shushani who is emphasized rather than Levinas as a student of Edmund Husserl or Martin Heidegger. It is Levinas’s commitment to Jewish teaching and to the transmission of these teachings, rather than his writings and work as a philosopher, that earns him his place “to the right of the Eternal One.” This was, of course, a celebratory speech presented before Levinas’s former students and friends, and thus one must be cautious in making too much of a playful address meant to commemorate a joyful occasion. Then again, Steg’s address was later published as the “Apologue” to an edited volume titled Emmanuel Levinas: Philosopher and Teacher, which included an interview between Levinas and Paul Ricoeur as well as essays by David Banon, Ami Bouganim, and Catherine Chalier.2 Thus the story holds symbolic weight commencing as it does by invoking Levinas’s status as philosopher of the “good and the just” and concluding with what can only be considered as the source of this philosophy, the teaching and transmission of Talmud. This conclusion is then corroborated in the essays by the three French academics.

Other more scholarly accounts of Levinas take a similar tack. In her work Vilna on the Seine, Judith Friedlander credits Emmanuel Levinas with introducing the French public “to a style of learning developed by the legendary [Talmudic scholar] Gaon of Vilna [1720–1797] in the late eighteenth century and passed down for generations by rabbis trained rigorously in the scholarly tradition established by this brilliant Talmudist.”3 Contemporary Jewish intellectuals such as Alain Finkelkraut and Richard Cohen credit Levinas with leading them away from “postmodern” philosophy and back to the Eastern European Jewish traditions that were all but eradicated in the Holocaust. Benny Lévy’s explanation of his own turn to Judaism and religious learning is exemplary. “The name of one person is important, a person to whom I must confess my indebtedness, Emmanuel Levinas. Here is someone who had the very same philosophical training as Sartre, the same roots in phenomenology and humanism. He was someone who was very close to Sartre in his philosophical language, and yet profoundly different, because he had roots in Talmud.”4 Statements like this have led to the belief that Levinas himself was “trained rigorously in the scholarly tradition” of the Gaon of Vilna and thus capable of passing on these teachings. Furthermore, Levinas’s self-fashioning through statements regarding his relation to the study of Talmud strengthened this belief. This belief is false. Levinas was not trained as a Talmudic scholar, at least not in his formative years in Vilna nor in a traditional heder or yeshiva, and the errant assumption that he was is the myth of Emmanuel Levinas.

Then again, why shouldn’t we accept Levinas as the heir to a tradition of texts and textual interpretation whose message and mission do not rely on, or should be judged by, the evidentiary standards of the modern historical guild. Is it so crazy to view Levinas’s turn to the study of Talmud and his transmission of these teachings as descended directly from the Gaon of Vilna in the chain of tradition (sheshelet kabbalah), worthy of earning him his place “to the right of the Eternal One.” The hagiography aside, why not come to this conclusion? After all, this would be in keeping with Levinas’s claim that while “no one can refuse the insights of history,” nonetheless “we do not think they are sufficient for everything. . . . Our approach assumes that the different periods of history can communicate around thinkable meanings, whatever the variations in the signifying material which suggests them. . . . For we assume the permanence and continuation of Israel and the unity of its self-consciousness throughout the ages.”5 Such a conclusion rests on the belief that certain texts and meanings are transcendent and thus transmitted in ways quite different from those accepted by modern secular scholarship.

This is to ask, on what grounds are we so confident that our modern secular historical analysis is the definitive one? One reason to think so is that the accounts by Friedlander, Finkelkraut, and Cohen that seek to link Levinas to the Talmudic tradition do so by employing the conventions of modern historical scholarship. As such they should be judged according to those conventions, and, as we will see, in this regard they come up short. This is an axiomatic answer, however, that does more to indicate the underlying problem than to resolve the question. The real reason we accept the conventional scholarly analysis is because we are committed to the secular bias of modern historiography and scholarship. Brad Gregory has argued that the rejection of “confessional commitments in the study of religion in favor of social scientific or humanistic theories of religion has produced not unbiased accounts, but reductionist explanations of religious belief and practice with embedded secular biases that preclude the understanding of religious believer-practitioners.”6 Levinas himself warns us of the violence done “by the impatient, busy hand that is supposedly objective and scientific” such that the Scriptures and those who interpret them are “cut off from the breath that lives within them.” Under such conditions these texts “become unctuous, false, or mediocre words, matter for doxographers, for linguists and philologists.”7 Following this line, accepting Levinas’s claims at face value but also his skepticism about “religion,” it is not only possible but also fruitful to imagine an alternative historical account where divine authority, revelation, and election are key components that allow for critical reflection and ethical judgment (illuminating the tensions and compatibilities between Levinas’s “philosophical” and “confessional” writings).

This would be a very different sort of historical account, and here we see that Gregory’s diagnosis of the hierarchy that privileges secular history is instructive but also inadequate, because he arrests the hierarchy after overturning it, thus rendering “confessional commitment” the privileged means of understanding the past. The methodological approach of these two competing worldviews, secular and confessional, remain constant even if the underlying commitments by which evidence is accepted or interpreted is different. This results in an impasse, because, as Constantin Fasolt has made clear, modern historical knowledge “is knowledge that conflicts in some important ways with claims made by the historical religions, for example, about the life of Jesus, about the origins of the Old Testament, about the authorship of Moses, and so on.”8 Secular history will not cede authority to religious believer-practitioners in pursuit of historical truth, but neither will the confessional mode accept the unqualified findings of secular scholarship. To adhere to one is seemingly to discredit the other.

The impasse can be viewed in light of Levinas’s formulation “God on God’s own side” and “God on our side.” On Levinas’s account, following the Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin who we will discuss later, “God on God’s own side” refers to the infinite and absolutely transcendent qualities of God that lie beyond our finite abilities to define, conceive, or even name God. “God on our side” references God as revealed in our finite and imperfect world and as such as limited by that which we can conceive or imagine. As Levinas puts it, “‘In the Image of God,’ According to Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner”: “Associated with the world, God would not exhaust [God’s] religious significance, for [God] would thus represent only God from the human viewpoint—God ‘on our side,’ as Nafesh ha’Hayyim expresses it. But, God also has a meaning in the Tetragrammaton, signifying something that humans cannot define, formulate, think or even name.”9 There is a fundamental cleavage between the qualities of God and what we can know of those qualities. Following this logic, the danger is that we take the qualities we know about God “on our side” to be the essence of God or we reduce God to a mere product of our imagination. The latter is what is at work in most academic scholarship.

This then raises the question of how humans can gain access to God on God’s side without reducing God to a reproduction of what we know of God from our side. The answer for Levinas lies in Revelation, both in its written form revealed to Moses as Torah and in its oral form ultimately conveyed as Talmud (we will delve into this in chapter 3). The relation is not an easy one because it requires that we “understand revelation both as a modality which paradoxically preserves transcendence from what is revealed, and consequently as something that goes beyond the capacity of an intuition, and even of a concept.”10 It is thus a relation with God on God’s side that “communicates” to reach us as God on our side. The relationship is ultimately a paradox because God enters our side, pierces it, but still preserves the status of totally other or otherwise than being. “The human, therefore, would not be just a creature to whom revelation is made, but something through which the absolute of God reveals its meaning. This human impossibility of conceiving the Infinite is also a new possibility of signifying.”11 This is a logic that eschews human understanding as the means for fully comprehending God or Revelation, be it in a religious or secular formulation, but nevertheless accepts the relation as a different mode of understanding based on a new possibility of signifying.

Scholarship on Levinas has often made sense of the tension in his work under the rubric of the universal and the particular and/or the ethical and the political. The argument in these works is that Levinas’s philosophical writings and his confessional or Jewish writings each do different work, with one making universal or ethical claims and the other addressing particular or political issues. The literature on Levinas is vast and the arguments myriad with some scholars arguing for a strict separation between the works, others arguing that one side holds influence over the other, and another group arguing the two bodies are inseparable.12 I find much of the scholarship defensible as readings of Levinas’s work “on our side” but nevertheless inadequate to the task of taking up Levinas on his own terms to accept the possibility and implications of “God on God’s own side.”

When scholars attempt to reconcile the universal aspects of Levinas’s work with the particular aspects, or attempt to massage Levinas’s actual statements and actions directed at political or particular issues (the State of Israel, the Jewish people) to reconcile them with a larger or more inclusive message, they do so from “our side.” In this work, I pursue the possibility that for Levinas, ethics springs from a source on the other side of our finite political or particular decisions and actions. The ethical commitment on our side is inspired, or better commanded, by Revelation, which is the conduit to God on God’s own side such that these ethics should, ideally, inform our politics; it is also the case that our particular or political actions are marked by all the failings of human beings as finite and fallible creatures. We do not have the attributes of God. Levinas does not assume that this leads to total failure, but neither does he presume we are capable of total success. Instead, the relation between God on God’s own side and God on our side provides a model for doing right even while it conserves the reality that we will also do wrong. Levinas does not assume too much or too little in what he calls the difficult freedom of a religion for adults. To fully understand this one must engage Levinas on the plane of his own understanding of the paradoxical relation between God on God’s own side and God on our side rather than transfer his thought and writings entirely into the realm of human understanding be it under the duality of universal and particular or ethical and political.

As noted, for Levinas the study of Torah and Talmud as “living Revelation” is the means for this paradoxical relationship, and thus I propose that the most fruitful way to engage with Levinas on his own terms is through a study of how he came to his Talmudic lectures or readings presented at the Colloque des intellectuels juifs de langue française from 1960 to 1989. One way to do so would be to establish how Levinas’s particular approach to the reading and interpretation of Talmud is similar to or different from other approaches. This is an attempt to situate Levinas within a specific tradition of Talmudic interpretation. Lawrence Kaplan takes such a tack in “Israel under the Mountain: Emmanuel Levinas on Freedom and Constraint in the Revelation of the Torah,” where he argues that Levinas’s Talmudic readings should be taken as such, readings of the Talmud. “For what this proposition means is that these essays, as Levinas himself states, are works of Talmudic commentary—philosophic commentary, if you will, commentary primarily on the Talmudic aggadah, but, nevertheless, works of Talmudic commentary—which consequently, and here we go beyond Levinas, ought to be read, studied, and understood within the context of that genre and tradition, that is, the genre and tradition of Talmudic commentary.”13 In what follows, Kaplan considers one of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures, “The Temptation of Temptation,” read in relation to “such Talmudic giants among the rishonim [the leading Rabbis of the eleventh to fifteenth century] as Rashi, the Tosafists, and the Ramban [Maimonides], by such great commentators on the Aggadah as the Maharsha and the Maharal, as well as by a host of more recent rabbinic commentators and scholars who have commented upon and elucidated, oftentimes at considerable length and with considerable insight, those very Talmudic sugyot which form the subject matter of Levinas’s essays.”14 Kaplan’s conclusion is that while he finds a “common denominator” among Levinas, the Ramban, and the Maharal, he also suggests that Levinas’s Talmudic reading is one that could only have occurred “in our time . . . in our post-Holocaust age.”15 Thus while one can find similarities between Levinas and his predecessors, the conclusion appears to be that Levinas’s approach is a product of his time and place.

Martin Kavka is less charitable in his view of Levinas’s relation to his predecessors when it comes to the reading of Talmud. In “Is There a Warrant for Levinas’s Talmudic Readings?,” Kavka unravels three of Levinas’s Talmudic readings to demonstrate Levinas’s distance from traditional readings of Talmud, but he also points to the merits of such a dissonance. In a later piece, Kavka argues that Levinas misuses Hayyim of Volozhin’s work in support of his particular claims and points to what he sees as several problematic interpretations.16 Whereas Kaplan finds a common denominator between Levinas and his predecessors, Kavka’s conclusion is that Levinas lacks such a warrant for his reading of Talmud, at least in relation to traditional sources.

The conclusions of Kaplan and Kavka should not come as a surprise given that Levinas came to the study of Talmud late and under the tutelage of an enigmatic master in the person of Shushani, whose mode of instruction is as mysterious as the person himself (as we shall see in chapter 2). While such investigations into the provenance of Levinas’s mode of reading Talmud are fascinating, they may also be quixotic in regard to determining the answers that the scholars pursuing such an investigation wish to provide. To my mind though, whatever the merits of such scholarship, be they historical or philological, their approach comes at the subject entirely from “on our side.” In what follows, I want to conserve the conclusions of such traditional scholarship but also take seriously the possibility that Levinas’s warrant for reading Talmud is determined by the relation between God on God’s side and God on our side. As we will see in chapter 3, Levinas’s dynamic reading of Torah privileges the book above individual interpretations of it, and it is the book that serves as the paradoxical link between the two sides. “We have to come back to the contradiction between ‘God on our side’ and ‘God on his own side.’ . . . In this radical contradiction, neither of the two notions could efface itself before the other.”17

Thus we reach an aporia, but, as I argued in Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past, it is the aporia that renders visible the polysemic and chaotic conditions of the past.18 In this work, it is the conflicting registers of the immanent and transcendent or finite and infinite as appear in the formulation “God on our side” and “God on God’s own side.” Thus the book is divided so as to provide an account of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures that comes at this history both from “our side” and from the “other side.” To do so, I deploy a deconstructive approach to the past that resists the interpretative closures that limit more traditional strategies. This is done by employing what Jacques Derrida has called a double gesture (un double geste) or double session (double séance), where two distinct modes of understanding the past remain open “according to a unity that is both systematic and in and of itself divided, a double writing, that is, a writing that is in and of itself multiple.”19

The first gesture or session of this book employs a traditional intellectual history of Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic lectures presented in Paris, France, between 1960 and 1990; the origins of Levinas’s turn to the study of Talmud in the years following World War II; and the reception of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures. The thrust of this movement is to dismiss the “myth” of Levinas as a Lithuanian-trained Talmudic scholar and explain the ways and reasons that Levinas came to study Talmud in the aftermath of the Holocaust. This exposes the particular interpretative strategies and cultural allegiances that Levinas privileges for his reading of Talmud. At this level, the first session is about issues of intellectual legitimacy, intellectual authority, and cultural or interpretative preferences. It is an approach that tackles the subject from “our side.”

The second gesture or session takes Levinas’s claims about Revelation and Election on their own terms allowing for a logic of divine authority insofar as God is the author of the Book, wherein “the Scriptures confer a meaning upon events rather than asking for a meaning from them.”20 This gives the reader warrant to take stock of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures on the grounds upon which he presented them, the counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time or particular historical context. In so doing, the second session also exposes the ways that the first adheres to the modern secular bias that discounts or dismisses fundamental aspects of Levinas’s thought.21

The first session presents a traditional intellectual history of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures that provides a contextual reading of the sources and causes for his turn to Talmud as well as a critical assessment of how his interpretative strategies are at times in conflict with his stated ethical commitment to the Other. The second session simultaneously offers a counter that allows for Levinas’s transcendent claims about the past, history, and the ethical opening to the Other to stand in opposition to those of the first.22 Each session is meant to be in dialogue and conflict with the other such that the claims made in each session on the Talmudic lectures are often in direct conflict with the historical explanations offered as intellectual history. The one is historically situated and argued from “our side,” while the other approaches the issue as timeless, derived from “God on God’s own side,” even if the lessons to be learned can and should be applied to specific moments in time. This means that it is also the case that Levinas’s Talmudic readings, presented here, should be seen as applicable to our moment today. It is for this reason that I do not include the dates, places, or context when presenting the specific Talmudic lectures in the second session.

The architecture and presentation of this book is structured to facilitate this strategy as each chapter is written in two columns.23 The column on the left provides the intellectual history of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures from our side while the column on the right takes up a single Talmudic lecture from the other side.24 The two-column approach allows for the two historical registers to unsettle each other such that every reader is forced to consider the underlying logic or assumptions that ground each interpretative strategy. This also ties this book to Haunting History insofar as the two-column approach enacts the unsettling of singular historical accounts and/or the positing of a singular historical origin. As noted, one important template for this strategy is the double séance as presented in Haunting History, Derrida’s Glas, or his essay “Tympan” in Margins of Philosophy, but the more immediate and relevant template is the Talmud itself, wherein multiple and often conflicting commentaries and interpretations compete on a single page. The crucial distinction is that in this work the authoritative text around which the commentary is organized, the master or Urtext, is absent, and this too coincides with the arguments of Haunting History that question the authority and permanence of anything like an absolute original. To my mind, the past about which we write history is just such an absent text.

The deconstructive approach does place an interpretative burden on the reader, but it does so by design so as not to overdetermine the reader’s conclusions. The two competing columns of text are designed to inform, challenge, and drive the reader forward. It is also playful as it encourages readers to play with the text by choosing their path through it: intellectual history first then Talmud, Talmud first, all of one and then all of the other. The reader trained to read texts from left to right will take the intellectual history to be the first session while the reader trained to read right to left will take the Talmudic lesson to be the first session.

The book, its format, and the deconstruction at work within it attempt to provide a richer and more nuanced historical account of Levinas by defamiliarizing the familiar and unsettling the idea that any book or narrative is fixed and closed. As such, it questions the assumptions of modern scholarly norms and the consensus belief that our scholarly practices are privileged because of their modernity. “Is it not perhaps the case that ideas of a thought worthy of the name rise above their own history, royally indifferent even to the historians? There are perhaps more constants through time than one is led to believe by the differences of language, differences that in most cases come only from the varieties of metaphor. Perhaps modernity, that is, the claim of deciphering all the metaphors, is but the creation of metaphors whose wisdom can already be grasped in ancient ways of speaking.”25 By placing our modern scholarly conventions into dialogue with earlier modes of analysis and understanding and exposing them as the “metaphor of deciphering all metaphors,” I also hope to make evident the strangeness of the “modern” or the present to divest it and us of our privileged status. Our modern modes of analysis and judgment are no less strange than those employed in antiquity (Torah) or the middle ages (Talmud).

Is the myth of Emmanuel Levinas his authority as an authentic master of Talmud or is it the authority of modern secular scholarship that impeaches such a claim? It is a dangerous question insofar as it threatens many modern secular assumptions, but it is the one that motivates this history of Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic lectures.

In the first three chapters I develop the metaphor of a braid to bring together three strands of influence that lead to Levinas’s Talmudic lectures at the Colloque des intellectuels juifs de langue française from 1960 to 1989. The three strands are Western philosophy, French Enlightenment Universalism, and the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition. The metaphor is imperfect, as we will see, because strictly speaking no strand is truly distinct, the influences of each blend into the other. Nevertheless, over the first three chapters I weave this braid to construct a history and counterhistory of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures in Paris. In chapter 4 I shift gears, gathering the strands of the braid together to address recent important engagements and criticisms of Levinas’s work by thinkers such as Andrew McGettigan, John E. Drabinski, and especially Fred Moten.

In chapter 1, I present a biography of Levinas’s early life and education focusing on the influence of “Western” texts and philosophy. This journey took Levinas from Kovno (Kaunas) Lithuania, to Strasbourg, France, then Freiburg, Germany, and then Paris. This is the first strand of the braid. I couple this with Levinas’s Talmudic lecture from 1964, “The Temptation of Temptation.” In chapter 2 we encounter the other strands, first via an exploration of Levinas’s work for the Alliance Israélite Universelle and his role as director of the École Normale Israélite Orientale then through his work with the enigmatic Talmudic master known as Shushani. The first takes up the second strand of the braid, the influence of French Enlightenment Universalism as well as the colonial aspirations of that endeavor. The second brings us to the third strand, Levinas’s return to, and privileging of, the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition and the danger of particularism or essentialism that resides therein. These are coupled with Levinas’s Talmudic lecture from 1966, “As Old as the World.” In chapter 3 we bring the three strands together to look at Levinas’s Talmudic lectures for the Colloque des intellectuels juifs de langue française and an analysis of Levinas as a reader of sacred Jewish texts. This is coupled with Levinas’s Talmudic lecture from 1984, “Beyond Memory.” In each of the first three chapters we encounter the ways that Levinas offers a message of universal ethics but one that is centered on the particularity of sacred Jewish texts accessed with the intellectual tools of modern Western philosophy. The fourth chapter addresses this tension by taking up recent critiques of Levinas’s confessional writings, which claim “there is something presupposed in Levinas’s conception of Europe that not only make . . . racist and xenophobic utterances possible, but even make them necessary.”26 I do so through an engagement with Fred Moten’s The Universal Machine and Levinas’s oft-cited claim that in his Talmudic lectures, and his confessional writings in general, his purpose was to translate “Hebrew into Greek.” This is coupled with Levinas’s Talmudic lecture from 1984, “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry.”

In the conclusion, I bring the two sessions together, “God on our side” and “God on God’s own side,” to ask the question of whether the ethical message and moral urgency of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures can be extended beyond the texts and beliefs of a chosen people, religion, or even the seemingly primary unit of the self or ego? To do so I employ the term “constitutive dissymmetry” in an attempt to prise a lesson of disinterested universal ethics from the seemingly particular example of reading Torah and Talmud. Here, Levinas’s commitment to the study of Talmud is not just any activity but indicative of one that results in “an other me, who answers me, tearing me away from my solitude, and for whom I am answerable.”27 The study for which Levinas advocates is indicative of a dynamism that is also a dislocation of sorts, a constitutive dissymmetry. As such, it can be an understanding of oneself completely dissociated from essentialism in regard to a people, a religion, or even the seemingly primary unit of the self or ego as well as the belief that it is our position in history as the most recent or modern that justifies our norms, codes, and actions. Our constitutive dissymmetry points us to the work we have to do, not to what we have already done. As such, it provides a compass for an ethics that is open to the Other in advance of the self.

The book ends by confronting the problem that tears at the heart of Levinas’s ethical project and motivates my entire study from beginning to end. This problem has often been cast in regard to the conflict between Levinas’s universal philosophical claims and his particular confessional ones or as the conflict between his ethics and politics. To my mind this misses the mark because it does not take up the way that Levinas’s ethics are predicated on the relation between God on God’s own side and God on our side. This is an ethics that is exemplary (or perhaps paradigmatic) and thus universal in a sense but that is intended to be applicable to particular, that is localized, cases or events. The danger or problem is the possibility that this exemplarism loses its dynamism and becomes essentialism. This happens when the exemplary status of sacred Jewish texts becomes more important than the message or living revelation contained within those texts, such that the people who adhere to those texts consider themselves elevated above others rather than beholden to them based on the teachings of responsibility that the texts ask us to continuously reconsider.

In the shadow of this tension and this understanding of ethics and responsibility, Levinas takes up the relation of Jewish identity to universal ethics. This leads us to the ways that being Jewish and being an ethical person are related for Emmanuel Levinas. In his life, in his career, and in his writings. As I see it, and as laid out in this book, the issue is that of maintaining a particular identity as a means of both self-preservation and ethical restoration, which, in so doing, also maintains the identitarian or essentialist logic that is the basis for racial exclusion. Restitution or reparation cannot be made to, or by, the appropriate parties without recognition of identity, but recognition of identity retains what is worst of such an essentialist formulation as the basis for identity based hierarchies. “Why can’t we just let go?”28 This is a problem for Levinas living in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but it is also a problem for our historical moment as we come to terms with other legacies of racial injustice. Unraveling the myth of Emmanuel Levinas is my attempt to deconstruct the ways that exemplarity and essentialism collide in even the most earnest of ethical constructs and to gauge the possibility of escaping this bind by thinking otherwise about the past.


1. Ady Steg, “Apologue,” in Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophe et Pédagogue, ed. Nelly Hansson and Anne Grynberg (Paris: Éditions du Nadir de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle, 1998), 7.

2. David Banon is director of the Département des études hébraïques et juives at the Université de Strasbourg; Ami Bouganim is a philosopher who was director of L’institut de recherche et de développement du département de l’Éducation de l’Agence juive until 2010; Catherine Chalier is professor emerita of philosophy at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defense.

3. Judith Friedlander, Vilna on the Seine (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 3.

4. Stuart L. Charmé, “From Maoism to Talmud (With Sartre Along the Way): An Interview with Benny Levy,” Commentary 78, no. 6 (December 1984): 50.

5. Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 5–6; Quatre Lectures Talmudiques (Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1968), 14–16.

6. Brad Gregory, “The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion,” History and Theory 45, no. 4 (December 2006): 132–49.

7. Emmanuel Levinas, In the Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (New York: Continuum, 1994), 13–14; A l’heure des nations (Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1988), 33.

8. Constantin Fasolt, “History and Religion in the Modern Age,” History and Theory 45, no. 4 (2006): 21.

9. Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse, trans. Gary D. Mole (New York: Continuum Press, 1994), 159; L’au-delà du verset (Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1982), 195.

10. Emmanuel Levinas, “The Name of God According to a Few Talmudic Texts,” in Beyond the Verse, 119; L’au-delà du verset, 148.

11. Levinas, Beyond the Verse, 161; L’au-delà du verset, 198.

12. Notable authors to consult on the subject include Dan Arbib, Robert Bernasconi, Catherine Chalier, Joseph Cohen, Simon Crtichley, Sarah Hammerschlag, Anabel Herzog, Robert Gibbs, Claire Katz, Martin Kavka, William Large, Diane Perpich, Jill Stauffer, Hent de Vries, and Edith Wysograd. In particular see Robert Bernasconi, “Who Is My Neighbour? Who Is the Other? Questioning the ‘Generosity of Western Thought,’” in Ethics and Responsibility in the Phenomenological Tradition (Pittsburgh: Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center, Duquesne University, 1992), 1–31; Bernasconi, “Strangers and Slaves in the Land of Egypt: Levinas and the Politics of Otherness,” in Difficult Justice: Commentaries on Levinas and Politics, ed. Asher Horowitz and Gad Horowitz (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Howard Caygill, Levinas and the Political (London: Routledge, 2002).

13. Lawrence Kaplan, “Israel under the Mountain: Emmanuel Levinas on Freedom and Constraint in the Revelation of the Torah,” Modern Judaism—A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience 18, no. 1 (February 1998): 35,

14. Kaplan, “Israel under the Mountain,” 35.

15. Kaplan, “Israel under the Mountain,” 43.

16. Martin Kavka, “Is There a Warrant for Levinas’s Talmudic Readings?,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 14, no. 1 (January 2006): 153–73; Martin Kavka, “For It Is God’s Way to Sweeten Bitter with Bitter: Prayer in Levinas and R. Hayyim of Volozhin,” Levinas Studies 13 (2019): 43–67.

17. Levinas, Beyond the Verse, 161; L’au-delà du verset, 199.

18. Ethan Kleinberg, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017).

19. Jacques Derrida, Positions (University of Chicago Press, 1981), 56; Derrida, Positions, 2nd ed., trans. Alan Bass (New York: Continuum, 2002), 41.

20. Emmanuel Levinas, In the Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (London: Continuum, 2007), 8; A l’heure des nations, 27.

21. In her book Levinas’s Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), Annabel Herzog also pursues the possibility of understanding Levinas’s work by employing the double geste but does so quite differently. Herzog contends that Levinas’s Talmudic lectures can be seen as “literary” in contradistinction to, and in dialogue with, his philosophical writings. To my mind, this argument follows from Sarah Hammerschlag’s analysis in The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) and to a lesser extent in Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016). Herzog uses the distinction between the philosophical and Talmudic writings as the basis for her double geste such that the Talmudic writings challenge the philosophical ones. On Herzog’s account, the Talmudic writings represent the political and the philosophical represent the ethical. The philosophical writings are thus universal while the Talmudic writings are particular. I find the book and the approach incredible, but in the end, Herzog restricts her analysis to one that rests entirely on “our side.” In short, the philosophical texts are allowed to take the place of Revelation, and as such any dissonance between the two bodies of texts remains a matter of human interpretation within the bounds of conventional academic scholarship.

22. Readers interested in issues pertaining to theory of history should note that the double session also reveals the ways that aspects of each tendency are always already at work in the other. The “secular” historical frame retains aspects of Christian, thus confessional, belief from its means of dating events on a calendar to the Protestant underpinnings of its methodological apparatus. In this light, the second session emerges from and is necessitated by the first and vice versa. This makes clear the necessity of an interminable analysis wherein the historical investigation turns on itself as the hierarchy is constantly reestablished, each undermining the definitive status of the other. For an in-depth discussion of what I call the theologico-historical hold, see my Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017), chap. 3, 72–114.

23. This is a literal undertaking of the content of the form. Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

24. As noted, the two sessions of each chapter are designed to be in dialogue and dispute with each other, although each can also stand on its own.

25. Emmanuel Levinas, In the Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (New York: Continuum, 1994), 3–4; A l’heure des nations, 22.

26. John Drabinski, Levinas and the Postcolonial (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2013), 6.

27. Emmanuel Levinas, “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry,” in In the Time of the Nations, 55; “Mépris de la Thora comme idolâtrie,” in A l’heure des nations, 80.

28. Fred Moten, Universal Machine (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), xi.