Ethan Kleinberg: Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought

Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought Book Cover Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought
Cultural Memory in the Present
Ethan Kleinberg
Stanford University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg
(Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

Reading Dialectically

1. Content and Structure

To begin, and with consideration for the nature of the journal in which this review appears, it should be acknowledged what this book is not: the work is weakest when it comes to philosophical analysis, for the most part providing descriptions of Levinas’ thought rather than interactions with it (although the latter is not entirely absent). I had expected otherwise and so this was somewhat disappointing, but – to slightly alter the old saying – perhaps we should not judge the book by the subtitle on its cover. The biographical information listed for the author tells us that Ethan Kleinberg is “the Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor of History and Letters at Wesleyan University” (this is also what is given on his institution’s faculty page), and a social media profile (for what such is worth, ours being the digital age) cites his PhD as being in History and Critical Theory. Thus, we should gear ourselves for history, and on that account the work is highly interesting and the reader does indeed gain much insight into Levinas the man from a careful reading of the text. This precisely – the act of careful reading – is the theme which I drew most from Kleinberg’s engaging and enjoyable presentation of Levinas’ Talmudic lectures as I journeyed alongside and through them, and the same shall become our concern in what follows.

A word or two must be given on the unique format that the book employs. Composed of six sections it is divided into four chapters that are flanked naturally enough by an introduction and a conclusion; the chapters, however, are “doubled” in the sense that each contains two separate columns of text which run parallel to each other: picture a single page with prose X on the left side and an entirely disconnected prose Y on the right; turn the page and X continues on as it had been still on the left with Y too carrying forwards on the right. In each of the chapters the right handed Y column ends before the left handed X, and therefore the final few pages simply have that side of the paper blank. It is admittedly not perfectly accurate to describe these two portions as “disconnected” however, for there is a thematic crossover between them which is related to Levinas’ life and personal educational mission. The left side sections offer biographical and institutional narratives connected to Levinas’ series of lectures on passages from the (Babylonian) Talmud delivered to the Colloque des intellectual juifs de langue française in Paris from 1960 to 1989, with an emphasis on what Kleinberg calls the “braid” of Levinas’ influences from and emphases on the trio of Western philosophy, French Enlightenment Universalism, and the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition. (See p. 12; Levinas had learned Talmud study under the mentorship of the well-known but perhaps mysterious Lithuanian master Shushani, being originally of Lithuanian stock himself although his family was forced to flee there for Ukraine after the German invasion of Lithuania in 1915, returning finally in 1920, only for Levinas to decide to leave again to attend university in France in 1923; these and other fascinating details are given in Chapter 1.) The right side sections relate to the content of the lectures themselves, titled respectively: “The Temptation of Temptation” (Shabbath, 88a and 88b); “Old as the World” (Sanhedrin, 36b-37a); “Beyond Memory” (Berakhot, 12b-13a); and “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry” (Sanhedrin, 99a and 99b; note that the transliteration for these tractate names varies slightly from source to source, here I am simply following the spelling given in Kleinberg’s book).

The biographical (left) portion is further categorized as “Our Side” and the Talmudic (right) as “The Other Side” at the opening of each chapter, and these divisions are references to what Kleinberg outlines in the introduction as Levinas’ formulae – after Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, founder of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva – of “God on our side” and “God on God’s own side”: that is, for the “God as revealed in our finite and imperfect world and as such limited by that which we can conceive or imagine” and “the infinite and absolutely transcendent qualities of God that lie beyond our finite abilities to define, conceive, or even name God” (p. 5). We are additionally warned that we must take care (this from Levinas’ thinking) not to presume that what we know from “our side” can be understood as “the essence of God or we reduce God to a mere product of our imagination” (also p. 5). Clearly this makes for a healthy alert prior to any approach for or about the numinous, but there is also a methodological risk here in that these alignments could become useless if taken too seriously, such that the attempt to query and seek God on “God’s side” – however tentatively – is thereby perfunctorily given up; we must have some tools to work with, and moreover the courage to so work. We will therefore try; initially by taking Kleinberg’s “our side” texts before shifting to his “other side”, and finally offering some general summative remarks.

2. “Our Side”

Levinas is probably best remembered for his ethics, and as Kleinberg relates it this in part formed the impetus for Levinas’ pre-war move from Husserl to Heidegger, that it was “through the realization that there was no place for ‘others’ in Husserl’s phenomenological program” and hence the shift to a Heideggerean perspective (one thinks here of Heidegger’s emphases on embedded “world” issues, on Dasein as entering a historical trajectory already “in progress”, and on the necessity of a subject-bound hermeneutics as opposed to (the illusion of) objectivity) which provided Levinas with “themes [that] returned in Levinas’s later writing and in his Talmudic readings when they were recast in relation to his renewed emphasis on Jewish thought” (p. 29). After the war, in the dreadful awakening to the horrors of what came to be called HaShoah (The Catastrophe: the Holocaust) which confronted every thinking and feeling person, but of course most forcefully Europe’s surviving Jews, Levinas re-situated his own commitments to begin to place “his philosophy in terms of his Judaism: ‘My philosophy [this is a quote from Levinas found in the collection Carnets de la captivité (Notebooks from Captivity) published in 1946; he was a prisoner of war] is a philosophy of the face to face. The relation with the other without an intermediary. This is Judaism.’” Hereafter he also withdrew from Heidegger, and he enacted “the substitution of ‘Being-Jewish’ for Dasein” (p. 36).

This particularization and un-finitizing (this blurring) of the self and its place in the cosmos moreover entailed for Jewish identity a necessary tie to the past (election, and therefrom responsibility) within the still-not-yet of the promised messianic future, and it is this orientation to time that distinguishes “Being-Jewish” from, for example, the present focuses of Christianity with its “born anew”, or science with its discovery, or politics with its revolution. Therein lies “the fundamental difference between the ontological meaning of the everyday modern world and the ontological meaning of Being-Jewish” (p. 50). It might be objected at this point that Christianity, science, and politics do each clearly look to their own futures – and in the instances of “new birth”, discovery, and revolution especially so – but perhaps the idea here is that the stresses are on something akin to “May we have it now (new birth, discovery, revolution)” rather than the “split” “Being-Jewish” mindset which always has one eye over its shoulder, as it were, gazing both to the was-then and simultaneously the will-be.

On this issue of identity Kleinberg also locates what he describes as a “blind spot” for Levinas, a level at which he “conserves aspects of the authentic/inauthentic distinction inherited from the philosophy of Heidegger”; evidently this is through the relating of an assimilation into the broader culture with an inauthentic mode of “Being-Jewish” (p. 52). There is an interesting argument here in the sense of assimilated life as less “validly Jewish”, and therefore as juxtaposing with Heidegger’s inauthenticity as less philosophically realized, but for Heidegger inauthenticity was the “thrown” and default condition of the “they” (i.e. everyone) and Dasein needs to make (great) efforts to achieve authenticity, whereas the opposite is the case if one is born into the Jewish lineage: there the efforts required are for assimilation (moving out of one’s heritage, and having to try to be accepted as having so moved out by the “mainstream”), and hence the conceptual matching that Kleinberg asserts is not a perfect fit. Then too we might ask how thin the line is (or should be) between embrace and exclude when it comes to matters of identity, a question that ethically and existentially matters tremendously. Concern for the other is certainly at the core of Judaism, but if each other is always viewed in terms of “Being-Jewish” and vis-à-vis the kind of ranking system thereby implied, then that concern must become colored or even tainted; yet again, if we place ourselves historically in post-war Europe we find our sympathies are unreservedly extended to this manner of thought. It might be that the us/them aspect of any identity simply cannot be rid of the paradoxes and double-edges that adhere: that to ever assert any version of “we” is always and necessarily to negate it in a “they”. Whatever the case may be, this is a critique that Kleinberg returns to in his fourth chapter wherein he cites scholars who have been critical of what they label a hierarchy of people and cultures within Levinas’ writings and, as Kleinberg illustrates, his Talmudic lectures.

Let us though transition from ethics as point of view into ethics within/by/as text (scripture and exegesis), mindful of our stated theme of a “careful reading”. The Talmud came to be central to Levinas for his project of an ethical humanism – the responsibility for the other, facing the other and the taking on of accountability beyond the mere confines of one’s own acts – and that, “For Levinas, ‘the Bible clarified and accentuated by the commentaries of the great age that precedes and follows the destruction of the Second Temple, when an ancient and uninterrupted tradition finally blossoms, is a book that leads us not towards the mystery of God, but towards the human tasks of man’” (p. 73; emphasis in the original). It is the reading of the book (Bible) and the reading of the writings on the book (Mishnah, Talmud, et cetera) that properly conditions one to become a creature who can care, and this understanding both motivated Levinas in his pedagogical objectives and in his – shall we say – seizing of the Talmud away from its customary place in the yeshiva and thrusting it into the academy. Levinas, Kleinberg informs us, “wanted to take control of the chain of transmission, to prolong the spirit of Shushani, and thus to fulfil the call to transmit what has been heard. In essence, Levinas sought to start a new tradition, a new chain of transmission, in keeping with his goals for Jewish education, his reformulation of Judaism as a humanism” (p. 83). This then places us back at the beginning, and the Talmudic lectures themselves.

The initial 1959 lecture that Levinas delivered to the series of colloquia (given at the second commencement, he did not speak at the inaugural meeting) was on the influential philosopher and theologian – or maybe more properly: philotheologian, or theophilosopher – Franz Rosenzweig, but at the third event he presented a Talmud lesson opposite another’s biblical lesson (André Neher; see p. 94). At the time this was quite remarkable; Ady Steg, who would become the president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle from 1985 to 2011, recalled that: “The Bible was familiar to the intellectual world, to the non-Jewish world as well. But the Talmud was something totally ignored, reserved for those good Jews with long beards from Poland to Morocco. The idea that the Talmud could be studied in French, in public, and in the same manner that it was studied by Jews from eastern Europe or from Maghreb [northwest Africa] was extraordinary” (pp. 94-95). This was to become the motif for the years that followed. To Levinas, who accepted the being of God/“God” (I add the scare quotes to allow this concept some attitudinal flexibility), and the subsequent central position God/“God” attains through recognition, an associating with and/or orienting towards the divine was not to be done in the kind of non- (or anti-)rationalist ways that are typical of traditional religion, but instead via the same critical and reason-based thinking which is common in scholarship (p. 112). At numerous points Kleinberg refers to this as Levinas’ “religion for adults”, and the notion seems to have been one that was both dismissive and upholding vis-à-vis faith: denigrating “feeling” faith while lauding “thinking” faith would perhaps be one way to put it. Thus, for Levinas the sacred books were that – sacred – and were moreover of greater value than their interpreters and the schools of interpretation which history has granted alongside them; it is “the text that serves as the conduit or pathway to God on God’s own side” (p. 111). Kleinberg, commenting in general but also specifically about Levinas, remarks that we as readers should not depend upon “the genius of the reader or the writer” but rather “we should look to the transcendent meaning of the text, the opening to the Other that always retains the potential to say more than it says” (p. 126).

There is surely much wisdom in this, but it should also be noted the way that such an approach leaves the door ajar for relativism; Levinas did, it appears, insist on a proper training for taking from the Talmud (adhering to and promoting the method he learned from Shushani), but to bequeath the text (any text) with a “something beyond” is to give it a mysticism that supersedes its actual content (such as is signaled by “conduit”, “pathway”, “opening”, et cetera), and this is a facet of reading that both Levinas and Kleinberg seem comfortable with. Thereby the word can be made to “say” anything, and thusly to actually mean nothing. Yet there is, I think, another possibility here, and that is not to be bothered by this relativism so much as to embrace it in a particular way, to adopt a hermeneutics of the moment, and in this phenomenological reading to take care for the written meaning that one finds from within one’s place at one’s present, without making the additional move of affixing definitiveness to that. We are all, I suppose, postmoderns in this denial of a single, permanent interpretation, but in this latter now-construct just offered it is not a case of everything being there because no-“thing” is “there”, rather that what is there is indeed there but its instantiation rests within a spectrum of potentialities. The text is rooted, what it offers is limited, but even so with a depth that the surface might mask.

These thoughts call to mind Levinas’ concern for dissociating oneself from the prejudices of time, and as we suggested that a reading can be repetitious without ever being repeated (returned and returned to for re- and re-readings without ever finding the same set of results), Levinas advised that we leave aside “what we might call the bias of the modern that includes the presumption that we now know more and better than those who came before us” (p. 161). We do not of course, we merely know differently (as regards the humanities at least, for empirical matters the case is naturally distinct). In such a way Levinas was prepared to let the Talmud, through his “religion for adults”, speak its archaic words to contemporary readers and hearers, and in this he found too (the idea of) God/“God” as the “ethical ground or backstop that keeps reason from devolving into sophistry or the will to power…as the inspiration for good, for Ethics” (p. 138). It will be recognized how close this is to God/“God” as the “call” of writers like John D. Caputo, although on my understanding I suspect that Levinas would give a “meatier” rendering to God/“God” than Caputo might. On this note of the other, then, let us now turn to Kleinberg’s second (the right hand side) column of text – his “The Other Side” – in order to better explore the Talmudic lectures themselves.

3. “The Other Side”

The talk which Kleinberg chooses to begin with concerns itself with what Levinas calls “the temptation of temptation”, namely “the need to make the determination and offer an answer [which then] ascribes that meaning and, in doing so, wrests the event and the possibilities latent in its occurrence away from the Other…creating a closure instead of an opening” (p. 18). As we have here been contemplating, this is quite deleterious to a reading (now-constructed or not) that would be able to take – and be enabling of – an ancient source and apply its voice to the present. Whatever the participants whose discussions are recorded in the Talmud may have had to offer on this or that, the instant we affix Correct Interpretation M to such data then A through L along with N through Z disappear into the aether, leaving us not only the poorer for it but the text itself too greatly reduced. The passage on the page might “be” M now, but we must by all means resist the urge to make it ever-M; and, we may add, the related prompting to make my M forcefully become yours (after all, you could be reading N or O or P, and then let us talk about that and see if we do not in the end arrive at Q, or L). Such dialogical/dialectical proceedings (we will have more to add on this below) are of course not only in accord with the way of the Talmud, they are the way of the Talmud, and as Kleinberg writes, “Levinas instructs us to ‘enter into the Talmud’s game, which is concerned with the spirit beyond the letter, and is, for this reason, very wonderful’” (p. 64).

As an example of this, Kleinberg remarks that for Levinas the history of an institution such as the Sanhedrin “is unimportant, even its historical existence. What is important are the lessons that have been drawn from the Sanhedrin” (p. 55); and by reflecting on this once again we may find our now-construct reading with its rooted but broad word-trees, its textual branches. It does not matter one bit if the Sanhedrin sat in deliberation as is described, nor if its hallowed judges ever lived, what does are the manners by which these stories have been taken and applied to the lived situations of those who read and heard them. This is how the book attains (or is given) timelessness, how it instructs from its own side the reader as hearer as interpreter who then must do something with it today, irrespective of the “when” of its contents. However, in thinking thus we need to also recall the above caution about the inherent spectrums within the words and passages, the caveat that whatever the beauty and the intuited or claimed transcendence of a text, such will never be capable of fully standing outside history (arguably nothing can) and therefore will always be connected to the era of its production and the subsequent recorded interactions of the person(s)/community(ies) with the word. Again, Levinas’ “Being-Jewish” (we might substitute “reading-Jewish(ly)” here) that is at once backwards and forwards-facing. Kleinberg summarizes this aspect with: “the memory need not correlate to an ‘actual’ historical event. This is to say that the ‘memory’ of the exodus from Egypt need not be a memory of something that actually happened but instead the memory must be such that it carries the future within it. The promise for the future is more important than the fidelity to the past” (p. 96). This, I think, is not only indicative of the value a perspective can have but also of that for narratives, for myths and storytelling, for those repeated and beloved tales whose truths are in the virtues they (seek to) impart rather than the information they present. Superman, for instance, never “happened”, but his call for social justice and the championing of the weak (incidentally, highly biblical qualities) are as relevant today as they were when the comic first appeared in 1938; Levinas would no doubt make a very similar remark about the more complex and venerable biblical and extra-biblical incidents with which the Talmud concerns itself (not to compare the two!).

Within this very aspect of the text as having value and being loved, however, lies another danger which Kleinberg introduces in the final lecture he considers: “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry” (Chapter 4). This is to take the Torah as itself an item due veneration, and Levinas counters this tendency (or temptation) by advising that – as Kleinberg puts it – “The general or universal rule is never enough and must be brought into contact with the actualities of the day [i.e. the reader’s time and place]. Invariable conceptual entities are to be avoided, perhaps, as one resists an idol” (pp. 130-131). For Levinas, a Jewishness which is based on a book (Torah) is that in which one is perforce a student, a reader, and it seems transparent enough that this is the kind of “Being-Jewish” that Levinas wishes to promote. The way, then, to avoid crossing the identity-based matter of “reader” with the commingled risk of an excessive reverence for the object of study is to seek to always read through what might be called a properly dialectical procedure, to move beyond mere dialogue with the words (itself already an improvement on a simple imbibing of the words) and into a realm where the text becomes an Other both affirmed and negated in a synthesis which produces something ever-ongoing: Kleinberg explains, “It is not the context in which the Torah was given that is important nor its status as a religious object. It is the act of reading and interpreting the Torah that brings Revelation to life” (p. 146), and therefore the “right and productive way [to engage the Torah] sees that the Torah must be studied, argued, and debated to be maintained. The wrong way is to take the Torah as a finished product worthy of worship in itself” (p. 148). A good reader, a non-idolatrous reader, will be someone who takes the pages as partners for interaction, who finds in them promptings that are always new and timeless precisely because they are timely, because they are connected to and responsive towards the needs of the moment: unlocked, unshackled from the past which birthed them and which must still nevertheless be known yet without allowing that information to circumspect their potential today. Kleinberg very colorfully describes the opposite of the dynamic approach just outlined as a version of “dogmatism” that “results in a harvest that cannot be consumed because the sowing has ceased” (p. 150). The message – its meaning, exercise, possibly even assessment – must be queried, argued, and found from what thereby emerges: again and again, world without end. The summary Kleinberg gives for Levinas’ focus is that, “Studying must not be a devotion in the sense of piety to an immobile code or rote memorization but a motion forward that reveals the way that such a self is always a work in process, a construction, an other me that can be a better me. As such, it is also an opening to the other” (p. 151).

It will be realized that the “self” of these concerns – for Levinas – is naturally connected to “Being-Jewish”, and Kleinberg transitions in his conclusion to contemplate some critics of Levinas’ work on these matters who find a (perhaps unbeknownst) favoritism or elitism within them that promotes his own in-group above all others. This is a matter of deep gravity for any system that would orient itself ethically, as both Levinas and the Talmud itself does, and moreover for one also dedicated to the legacies of Western philosophy and French Enlightenment Universalism (as Levinas was, outlined above), but it is also one terribly complicated by the “facts on the ground” of Jewish existence that at least in its Diaspora but possibly – in this globalized world – even in Eretz Yisrael faces regular threat and pressure to “be” elsewise. Levinas had lived through the Second World War, he had lost his family to the horrors of its pogroms, and he took it upon himself to struggle to assert a Jewish identity that could be proud and noble without retreating into either what he viewed to be a naïve form of Orthodoxy or a self-negating assimilation in the wider European (or other) culture: both of which would be a disappearance. Kleinberg wonders if these longings might not be extended further than the default exemplarism that comes part and parcel with membership-by-birth, reasoning that it is perhaps via a personal approach wherein such could be found: “He [Levinas] sought to make the past present for the future by blowing on the coals and reigniting the fire that he believed lives within the sacred texts of Judaism. It is in the relationship that we each can have with the text and not through the institutions that guard them” (p. 179). I sympathize with these thoughts, and certainly agree that almost limitless wisdom can be mined from the vast catalogue of writings that Judaism in its many formations has produced over the millennia, but I judge that too much structuring of self and personhood occurs from inside a belonging to permit a similarity of (let alone an equality of) reception to take place. “Being-Jewish” is something one cannot have without the constructive accoutrements that affix from the multitudinous angles of a people and a culture. Levinas wished to help his half-assimilated and/or “hidden” cohorts embrace themselves through his “religion for adults”; and with that as goal, and seen from inside that mindset, I think the preferentialism we can find in these lectures is probably inevitable. For the purposes they serve, moreover, that might not be a negative point.

4. A (Re-)Return to (Re-)Reading

In his turn to Talmud we find in Levinas a “return”, and thus we must invoke the concept of teshuvah, the “turning back” from having “gone astray” or – more colloquially – from “missing the mark”. We have not done what we ought to; we have not been as much as we could have; we have not lived up to our potential, or our calling. The challenge, the beckon, is always there: do (be) better, more. Levinas’ was a mission of education and encouragement, to go back and back and back to the text to seek from it what one may need in the moment for that moment, knowing full well that there can never be a mastery and that each re-reading is a confrontation anew. Kleinberg has given us an excellent snapshot of this facet of the great philosopher, of this piece of time within the man’s life, the concerns that enshrouded it and the motivations that animated it. The “stacked” or “doubled” nature of the four chapters that each contain biographical narratives alongside excerpts from and comments on the Talmudic lectures compel the reader to decide which he will engage with first (a strategy Kleinberg outrightly states in his introduction: this is the point of his arranging the book this way), and the choice may be self-revelatory in one way or another. Whether that is the case or not though, the opposite tack can thereafter be taken upon a second reading (“Our Side”/“The Other Side”: “The Other Side/“Our Side”; or vice versa), a notion one suspects Levinas would agree with (and probably Kleinberg be pleased by). The issue is a fittingly Jacobean one of “wrestling with God” (Genesis 32), of trying and trying and trying, of never giving up despite openly recognizing that there can be neither a completion nor finality. Kleinberg demonstrates how the Talmudic talks can be placed into Levinas’ broader oeuvre, and thereby how the treatments given in their contents might be matched with our own era and struggles for identity, purpose, and meaning. Levinas, along with his earlier contemporary and fellow imaginatively thinking European Jew Martin Buber, was an intellect of the other, of ethics, of relation. This too is a journey that does not end, but through our constant revisiting – and re-pondering – of the texts that help us on the way, may it be we find companions as provocative as these.

Ethan Kleinberg: Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought, Stanford University Press, 2021

Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought Book Cover Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought
Ethan Kleinberg
Stanford University Press
Paperback $28.00

Andrea Oppo: Lev Shestov: The Philosophy and Works of a Tragic Thinker, Academic Studies Press, 2020

Lev Shestov: The Philosophy and Works of a Tragic Thinker Book Cover Lev Shestov: The Philosophy and Works of a Tragic Thinker
Andrea Oppo
Academic Studies Press
Hardback €130.95

Richard I. Sugarman: Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach Book Cover Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach
SUNY series in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Richard I. Sugarman
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Hannah Bacon (Stony Brook University)

The eminent French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) has garnered recent renewed interest, both in terms of his philosophy and his reflection on Judaism. Sugarman contributes to this emergent scholarship in his extensive analysis Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach (published by SUNY Press in 2019), which extends and deepens his own body of work on Levinas.[1]

Sugarman’s extant Levinas scholarship includes the articles „Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‚Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn“ in Phenomenology World-Wide; “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas” in Recherches Levinassiennes; and “Toward a Rationality of Transcendence: The Importance of Emmanuel Levinas to Contemporary Jewish Thought” published in A Perennial Spring.[2] Sugarman, with H.A. Stephenson, translated Levinas’s Talmudic text “To Love the Torah More Than God.” Pertinent to this project is the collection of John Wild’s work that Sugarman edited with R.B. Duncan entitled Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild.[3] John Wild (1902-1972), an influential phenomenologist, was Sugarman’s former teacher and mentor at Yale. Sugarman credits Wild with introducing Sugarman to the work of Levinas. As a result of his association with Wild, Sugarman personally met with Levinas in 1973.

Levinas and the Torah, an approachable but extensive text, begins with Sugarman’s own introduction and study of Levinas’s work, including a short, but relevant, biography of Levinas. This biographical framing includes three events pertinent to his philosophical work: the political horror that served as the backdrop of Levinas’s early life, including World War I; the Russian October Revolution which precipitated his family’s exile and relocation as Lithuanian Jews to the Ukraine; and, most saliently, World War II, during which he was imprisoned in a labor camp, his wife and daughter went into hiding, and most of his extended family was murdered. He dedicates Otherwise than Being: Beyond Essence to these family members murdered during the Holocaust of World War II. Sugarman’s biography also highlights his lifelong Jewish education in Talmudic Studies, his early philosophical immersion in phenomenology as a student of Edmund Husserl, and the trajectory of his work and the anxiety over influence as a colleague, admirer, and eventual critic of Martin Heidegger.

The guiding principle of Dr. Sugarman’s study is that, “The approach of Levinas to both Talmudic texts and philosophy is governed by the discipline of phenomenology.”[4] That said, Sugarman is a professor of religion: the book leans more towards religious studies than philosophy. To wit, there are more than twice as many commentators cited on the rabbinical texts as there are commentators on Levinas. Despite this focus, one need not be a religious scholar. The book is accessible and provides contexts and historical interpretations for the texts cited (such as the differences between the Pentateuch, the Mishnah, and the Bible).

Levinas and the Torah is decidedly focused on Levinas’s religious hermeneutics. The five main books of the Torah is the organizing taxonomy of the book (Genesis: Bereishis, Exodus: Shemos, Leviticus: Vayikra, Numbers: Bamidbar, and Deuteronomy: Devarim). These five sections are further divided down into the weekly readings portion of the Pentateuch. Sugarman pairs these readings with an equally diverse array of Levinasian concepts and interpretations of the underlying topics. Needless to say, this rich and multifaceted text covers a lot of ground, making it a difficult book to summarize.

One drawback to this structure is that the Levinasian philosophical concepts are spread across different sections. For example, the Talmudic concept of the Hineini, or the “Here I am,” that Levinas employs in his philosophical writings is discussed not in Genesis and the story of Abraham where one might expect it. Instead, it is treated in the section on proper names and Exodus 1:1-1:6 and then again in more depth in the section devoted to Prophetism: Inspiration and Prophecy, Numbers 22:2-25:9. These sections are almost two hundred pages apart and there is no indexical entry for this concept despite the centrality to Levinasian thought. For a Levinasian neophyte it is difficult to trace certain Levinasian specific concepts or ideas that are treated in multiple sections, but also to have a view of how specific leitmotifs fit together to form in his overarching philosophy. Similarly, Sugarman fails to attend to the nuanced way in which specific Levinasian concepts shift over time.[5]

In addition to the Jewish inflection that one can find in Levinas’s’ straightforward philosophical texts, Levinas also produced scholarship specifically on Jewish religious texts. Levinas lectured on the weekly Torah portions at École Normale Israelite Orientale. These lectures have no transcripts as recording and note-taken is forbidden during Shabbat. Levinas published two notable collections of essays specifically on Judaism: in 1963 with a book translated as Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism) and in 1968 with Nine Talmudic Readings. New Talmudic Readings was published posthumously in 1996. Sugarman draws on both the Talmudic texts and the philosophical texts. Sugarman puts Levinas’s Talmudic readings in dialogue with other Jewish scholars such as Mordechai Shoshani, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rashi, Maimonides, Abrham Ibn Eza, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, and others.

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach yokes Levinas’s conceptual framework to Talmudic passages and hermeneutical religious scholarship. Beginning with Genesis, Sugarman lays out Rashi’s, Erwin Straus’s, and Abraham Ibn Ezra’s readings of Genesis, drawing out the passages that pertain to Levinasian philosophy. In the first of fourteen subsections on Genesis, Sugarman gives an in-depth reading of Cain’s query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The obvious Levinasian response to this is affirmative: Responsibility to and for the other is one of Levinas’s central underlying ethical tenets. The Levinas that is juxtaposed is not always the most obvious. For instance, I assumed a discussion of fraternity in Levinas and its role in justice would ensue, but instead Sugarman focuses on God withdrawing his face as a form of grave punishment. The face and its appeal, specifically its appeal in terms of its unspoken command, is another central concept for Levinas. From there, Sugarman moves on to a discussion of responsibility to the future, and whether Cain is guilty not just of fratricide but guilty of the violence against Abel’s future bloodline in what he terms generational responsibility. Levinas argues one has a responsibility to the other not just in the current moment, but a responsibility to the other in ensuring their future. One is infinitely responsible to the other. Sugarman’s treatment of Levinas’s theories of fraternity and justice did come later. By highlighting minor or less overworked aspects both in the Torah and in Levinas, Sugarman opens room for the reader to pursue lines of thought that are not already so established and exhaustively treated as to be clichéd.

One of the more compelling and interesting moments is the discussion of Levinas’s 1935 text On Escape with relation to the Talmudic account of Abraham and Sarah (also found in Genesis). The Abrahamic story begins with the command Lech Lecha, which is often translated as meaning ‘go for yourself.’ Sugarman however, proposes an alternate reading of “go out from yourself” (19). This interpretation is then put in conversation with Levinas’s phenomenological description of embodiment as being trapped in the self and under the thumb of various affects such as hunger, exhaustion, restlessness, and malaise. In other places the most dynamic insights come from these close hermeneutical alternative readings.

In Levinas, the self becomes a self by sacrificing for the other. Egoism, or putting the self before the other, is a grave ethical failure and a form of spiritual death. Abraham becomes the father of faith by being willing to make the most profound sacrifice for the divine. Sugarman is a close reader: he reminds the reader of details that are often forgotten because they do not seem relevant, but they become significant because of the Levinasian framing.  In his reading, Sugarman returns us to the less sanitized version of Biblical stories, although he does not say as much. I, for one, had forgotten that Jacob had children with four women and that Sarah convinces Abraham to sleep with their slave/servant (depending on your reading) Hagar, an act that Sugarman characterizes as ‘selfless’ of Sarah.  Sarah then casts Hagar out when Ishmael (Hagar’s and Abraham’s son) and Isaac, (Sarah’s and Abraham’s son) get into a verbal altercation. The return to the original text opens us up to the possibility of less cemented hermeneutical readings, and raises questions as to what we forget or exclude when we tell the story of Abraham. This incident could be an interesting counter-example of Abraham and Sarah as “exemplars of hospitality.”[6] Sugarman does not go this far, and in fact does not have a critical reading of either Levinas or the Talmudic sections. By bringing in the actual text, however, the reader can take the task of critical reading upon herself.

One powerful aspect of the Talmudic stories that Sugarman highlights is that these are not stories in which one returns home in the end, but instead lives in exile. Sugarman argues that this narrative arc essentially differs from the hero’s journey of Greek myths such as Odysseus, or the teleological structure of human nature put forth by Aristotle. Odysseus and Abraham are fundamentally different cultural narratives: when a person leaves without the guarantee of returning or even the hope of returning, this is the basis of an essentially different kind of narrative and thus an essentially different kind of subject. Pointing out the resonance between the story of Abraham and the centrality of responsibility to the other in Levinas’s construction of the subject is not a fresh or new idea. Sugarman provides a compelling hermeneutical argument that, in its most successful passages, makes the reader newly aware of how uncommon specific narratives and arguments are in present-day culture and contemporary intellectual thought. By sharing the joyful ruminations gleaned from a close hermeneutical reading practice, this book is a successful argument for the importance of revisiting the Torah. Sugarman reminds the reader of what a radical shift it is to think of the self or the subject as inherently for the other, and he also demonstrates how against the grain Levinasian thought is in relation to the prevailing intellectual history of the subject or ego.

In the sections devoted to “Exodus: Shemos,” Sugarman outlines experiences of exile, revolution, tyranny, oppression and the duty towards social justice. Sugarman relates these concepts and narratives to the consequences they have for identity, morality, and temporality in the Talmudic text. These passages on temporality include a clarifying distinction between nostalgia and tradition. This constellation of ideas is related to Levinas’s conceptual framework of responsibility, freedom, law, and development of the moral subject. The most interesting aspect of this section is an account of the moral importance of the act of promising and the essential role it plays in intersubjective relationships. In order to promise one must have hope for a future. The discussion of promising emerges in Exodus in form of the promise G’d makes to the enslaved Jewish people. One consequence of slavery is the loss of individual identity evinced in the loss of proper names (Shemos the Hebrew for Exodus means names).[7] For Levinas, to be a subject, one must be responsible to the other. Sugarman shows, through his reading, how enslavement inhibits one’s ability to be a Levinasian ethical subject, in that one cannot make a promise to the other, nor can one respond to the needs of the other, or take responsibility for the future of the other. Exodus contains the command to protect ‘the widow, the orphan, and the stranger’ a phrase that regularly appears in Levinas’s ethical philosophy, suggesting that these Talmudic passages are immensely pertinent for Levinas in terms of our ethical duty to others.

Sugarman’s analysis of Leviticus: Vayikra focuses on holiness, religious law, the duty to study, and the atonement or repentance of Yom Kippur for transgressions against each other and against G’d. Leviticus is often considered the most esoteric and least well-known book of the Torah. Sugarman draws on Levinas’s discussion of holiness, the importance of language and dialogue, further analysis of diachrony (the time of the other), the difference between holiness and sacredness, and the phenomenology of human suffering to enliven this section successfully. In it Sugarman returns to his analysis of Nietzschean ressentiment.[8] Levinas is attentive to the ritual of Yom Kippur and how forgiveness and pardon can only be enacted after genuine action is taken to repair or alleviate the ongoing suffering that one’s actions have caused. Levinas also cautions against the rationalization of evil and suffering with relation to the Holocaust, which he argues was wholly inexplicable and unjustifiable. This section also puts forth a reading of the environmentalism inherent in Talmudic laws around agriculture.

The Book of Numbers: Bamidbar gives account of the period from the teachings on Sinai to the journey to the Promised Land. It begins with two censuses, which Sugarman juxtaposes with insights gleaned from Levinas’s book Proper Names. It then moves to a discussion of peace, prophecy, and most saliently Israel, which is central to the complicated issue of the relationship between ethics, politics, and Judaism in Levinas. Other topics discussed include fanaticism and obsession, infinity, and justice as it relates to cities of refuge for those who have committed involuntary manslaughter. Each of these sections, although often only a few pages long, are filled with provocative readings raising rich philosophical and religious questions.

Deuteronomy: Devarim, the last of the five books, mostly hinges on Moses’s dictum on how life ought to be lived in the Promised Land and what can be learned or what needs to be reiterated from the journey there. These sermons, Sugarman notes, contain a sense of urgency in that they would have been given in the last 37 days of Moses life.[9] This form of reflection aligns with Levinas’s notion of the past as trace, and the importance of facing that past in order to open a new future. Sugarman discusses topics that include prayer, profundity in the prosaic, whether it is righteous to exist, the responsibility to pursue and enact justice, and revolution. In his Nine Talmudic Readings, Levinas emphasizes the Talmudic basis for social justice and workers rights. Sugarman points out that Levinas’s text was written immediately following the 1968 Paris uprising. Here, and elsewhere, Sugarman indicates the lessons we may still need to learn or the concepts that may be pertinent in securing a more open future today. The book closes with an epilogue, two appendices—a useful and compact glossary of Talmudic and Biblical Terms, along with a glossary of Levinas’s terminology—and a brief but descriptive list of the Talmudic scholars or commentators that Sugarman is employing.

One possible criticism of Levinas and the Torah is that in order to make Levinas’s philosophy accessible, complex concepts are occasionally given superficial treatment. It is debatable whether necessary nuance and complexity were sacrificed. Sugarman seemingly makes these choices for the sake of clarity. For example, when Levinas speaks of the face of the other, at times it seems he is in truth speaking of an actual face or visage; at other times the face is clearly a metaphor, the face of the other is language or expressivity, or the face is meant in terms of orientation but not the literal sense of face. Other concepts developed and shifted over the course of his work: for instance Levinas’s descriptions of role of justice or politics shift in significant ways from his early texts to his later texts.

These conflicting meanings and connotations are often left unsaid in Sugarman’s hermeneutic reading, whether for the sake of clarity, efficiency, or simplification. There are passages in Levinas and the Torah where the move from the specific and singular other to multiple others, or the transition from ethics to justice, is more fluid and neat than it is in Levinas. Debates about what the face means in Levinas and what a Levinasian politics is are live and contentious, but these competing readings are not brought in. The narrowness of Sugarman’s reading could lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations if the reader has not already read Levinas, or is not reading the original Levinasian texts in concert with Levinas and the Torah.

In the most successful exegetical analysis, Sugarman does not shy away from the complexities in Levinasian philosophy. This attention to nuance is shown in his careful and persuasive account of substitution and Levinas’s claim that one must take responsibility even for one’s persecutors. Arguably, with these lean arguments, there is more room for other types of rumination. When one is not reading and re-reading dense and convoluted Levinasian texts one can see the simplicity of this assertion. The reader can instead focus on an argument for radical responsibility for one’s persecutors that was made by someone who was held in a labor camp and whose family was murdered during the Shoah. For Sugarman this room for rumination is more important than making sure his reader understands all the subtle tonalities of the face in Levinasian philosophy.

Readers will most likely not always agree with Sugarman’s readings of either the Torah or Levinas. Additionally, some of the specific resonances between the Talmud and Levinasian philosophy feel more tenuous than other. By Sugarman’s reading it seems that anytime one leaves one’s house is an example of the Levinasian passage from the self to alterity and radical exteriority. Hopefully, any reader will be motivated to return to the original texts in order to ground productive disagreements and participate in the rich tradition of Jewish argument.

In this way the book is doing something different. There is already a wealth of scholarship that interrogates Levinas’s use of the concept of fraternity or whether or not one can use Levinas to move from an ethics to a robust account of justice or politics. While not every book needs to be critical of Levinas—and if criticism is what one wants there are plenty of resources for a more measured reading of Levinas outside of this book—there are instances where it would have opened a more nuanced or rich reading. The author recommends reading Levinas and the Torah alongside of the Talmudic readings. I would advise to read it alongside the wealth of contemporary Levinas scholarship that analyzes both the strengths and weaknesses of his work.

There are three main aspects of Levinas that are usually the focus of criticism. First, he tends to employ an overly masculine account of ethics in his reliance of concepts such as fraternity, and the son rather than the child (This is central to Derrida’s criticism and is all the more striking in that Levinas had two daughters, although one did not survive) and his equivocating femininity with the domestic sphere and with alterity. Second, Levinas’s actual political statements occasionally verge on nationalism in the case of France and Israel. Perhaps Levinas’s most controversial opinion was given during a 1982 radio interview weeks after the Sabra and Shalita massacre of between 700-3,000 Palestinian men, women and children in which Israeli courts later deemed the IDF complicit. When repeatedly pressed by the interviewer Levinas avoided finding fault in this behavior, and implied that these victims perhaps did not rise to the level of being an ethical other. Last, Levinas has been accused of Euro-centrism in his championing of Europe and European culture through his claim that Greek culture and the Bible were the pinnacle of civilization and societal achievements, and that other cultures were non-serious or lesser. These issues raise crucial questions of who can be an ethical other, of whether or not hospitality has its limits, and whether Levinas makes exception to his own dictums. This sometimes overly laudatory account of Levinas’s work does not even footnote the criticisms that Levinas has received, let alone place them in conversation.

Although clearly rooted in intense Talmudic scholarship, this text does not provide a critical lens for Levinas’s religious readings. A generous reading would state that Sugarman is not concerned with these debates and that they are well documented elsewhere. A more critical reader may see this as a missed opportunity to provide a more robust discussion and also a chance to respond to these criticisms and defend Levinas’s positions. In the tradition of questioning within the Jewish intellectual tradition, it would benefit the readers of Levinas and the Talmud to have this same hermeneutical precision trained on the full range of readings and scholarship.

Levinas and the Torah is a rich and compelling text that provides the reader with a general overview and the necessary exegesis and hermeneutic tools for further inquiry. Through persuasive and spirited analysis, Sugarman makes clear a generous intention for his reader. I would recommend Levinas and the Torah for those who are curious or towards the beginning of their study but feel overwhelmed by the jargon and complexity of other exegetical readings of Levinas’s Jewish thought or to those with familiarity with either the Talmudic texts or Levinas and have a thirst for knowledge for the other. Moreover, this seems to be a book conscious of the zeitgeist of our time, with its pertinence to questions of apocalypse, exile, revolution, suffering, political uncertainty, and futurity. Levinas and the Torah is rich without being exhaustive; it is penetrating without being abstruse and esoteric.  In Levinasian terms we have an infinite responsibility to the future. Sugarman argues compellingly for the importance of learning the narratives and ideas of the deep past in order to enact a more ethical and just future for the coming generations.

[1] Sugarman, Richard I. 2019. Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach. Albany: State University of New York.

[2] Sugarman, Richard I. 2003. „Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‚Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn.“ In Phenomenology World-Wide, ed. Anna Teresa Tymieniecka (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers), published in Analecta Husserliana 80: 409-430; Sugarman, Richard I. 2012. “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas.” Recherches Levinassiennes, ed. R. Burrggreave et al. Series Bibliotheque Philosophique de Louvain 82, 421-436, Peeters Publishers, Leuven, Belgium; Sugarman, Richard I. 2013. „Toward A Rationality Of Transcendence: The Importance Of Emmanuel Levinas To Contemporary Jewish Thought.“ In As A Perennial Spring: A Festschrift honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, 473-493.

[3] Wild, John. 2006. Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild,ed. Richard I. Sugarmn & R.B. Duncan; Phenomenological Inquiry 24 (2000): 205-292.

[4] Sugarman, Ibid. 8.

[5] For instance, the face-to-face, the neighbor, and the trace are omitted from the index but are treated in multiple sections. Incomplete Indices is a common problem in academic books.

[6] Sugarman, Ibid. 32.

[7] Sugarman, Ibid. 96. Curiously, this section on Proper Names does not make reference or use of Levinas’s book Proper Names in this section, but in the beginning of The Book of Numbers.

[8] This was the topic of his book Rancor Against Time: The Phenomenology of Ressentiment (Felix Meiner, 1980)

[9] Sugarman, Levinas and the Torah, 303.

Richard I. Sugarman: Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach, SUNY Press, 2019

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Richard I. Sugarman
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Elad Lapidot, Micha Brumlik (Eds.): Heidegger and Jewish Thought: Difficult Others, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

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Elad Lapidot, Micha Brumlik (Eds.)
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