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Michael B. Smith In the following considerations on Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of religion, I will in the first part of my paper speak about religion as a concept. Religion can be a category of human activity, a field of study, etc., but am using the word concept here in its strictly philosophical sense. One further word about the status of the nature of the remarks contained in this first part. They are not intended to be theological, as they are not meant to apply to one particular religion more than to another. The question of exactly how Levinas’s concept of religion has been affected by, is tributary to, or otherwise related to Judaism will be taken up in the second part of the paper. A third and concluding part resumes philosophical discourse in order to comment on dialogue as the realization of a transcendental movement toward the outside.
In Totality and Infinity, Levinas formulates his concept of religion in the following way. “For the relation between the being here below and the transcendent being that results in no community of concept or totality—a relation without relation—we reserve the term religion".1 Two terms of this formulation invite comment: relation, and religion. 1. Relation. No sooner has religion been defined as a relation, than that relation is declared to be a relation in which there is no relation. There is no relation because we normally think of a relation as forming some sort of a whole, precisely by means of the vinculum or tie between the terms of the relation. This question, or problem, is the theme of Totality and Infinity, since the infinity referred to in the title is precisely that which is not part of any totality, including its own. Hence Levinas’s linguistic scruple with respect to the word relation reflects his careful avoidance of any implication that the transcendence of his Infinity could somehow be included in a totality, which
3 What does it mean to emphasize the difference between the numen and the noumenon. la relation métaphysique est l’aube d'une humanité sans mythes. It is instructive to examine Levinas’s precise wording in his remarks on the positive religions. At least it is to be held apart from the usage in which religion is thought of as the relation between man and God only in the vague sense of being the residue of the attempts of man to attain or have some sort of communication or communion with God. Is there in the term relation as much imperialism as he gives it? After all.” or positive religions. since there must be two entities to relate. to bring the unknown within the domain of the known by means of relation or comparison (similitude or contrast) would be to transform. This noumenon is to be distinguished for the concept of God possessed by the believers in the positive religions. a relation implies difference as much as similarity. draws everything into itself—when that distinction is what is at stake. Nevertheless.2 Transcendence is to be distinguished from a union with the transcendent by participation. La relation métaphysique—l’idée de l'infini—relie au noumène qui n’est pas un numen. so to speak. as I said at the beginning of my remarks. the idea of infinity. who accept being immersed in a myth unbeknownst to themselves. in the act of cognition. Religion. L'idée de l'infini. two words that in fact are related only phonetically? The “numen” is a divinity . Ce noumène se distingue du concept de Dieu que possèdent les croyants des religions positives.would thereby draw it into the ambit of immanence. of immanence. a category of activity. In order to distinguish his new meaning from the traditional one. to look upon this term as a philosophically sifted or distilled meaning of the traditional use of the term. to compare. when what is at stake is the differentiation between immanence and transcendence (and that seems to be at the root of Levinas’s rejection of relation) the fact that the viscosity. mal dégagés des liens de la participation et qui s’acceptent comme plongés à leur insu. I believe. par participation. connects with the noumenon which is not a numen. One might question Levinas’s rejection of the word relation here. He writes: La transcendence se distingue d’une union avec le transcendant. for the latter. the other into the same. dans un mythe. Levinas uses the term “religions positives. Religion in this sense is. The metaphysical relation. or being. and in my opinion justified. To relate. 2. It would be a mistake. not the non-relational relation that Levinas attaches to the term religion. who are ill disengaged from the bonds of participation. like that of being itself. it makes Levinas’s linguistic scruple at least comprehensible.
related to the human. In any case. titled Du sacré au saint (1977). and out of. I am mainly speaking of something. The saintly. Thanks to language. or more precisely the interhuman. there is always a listener presupposed even in the most apparently disembodied and abstract discourse. nor is it an accident that takes place within the essentially silent world of nature. and has often expressed his admiration for the abrupt straightforwardness of the Talmudists. and the covert violence of eloquence. Discourse is not merely one among the other human institutions. it has been necessary to transpose what is essentially first-personal to the third person. the same. This is what Levinas has in mind when contrasting the Sacred” to the saintly” or “holy. included in Annette Aronowicz’s Nine Talmudic Readings. The sacred is a divine power that crushes humanity.” See. Levinas himself. Levinas’s volume of Talmudic readings. while fully cognizant of the psychic significance of the vocative (e. mais à jamais primitive de la religion. as I. or holy. until fairly recently. and it is a relation between self and other. “I” become “the ego. In saying that it is the relation between self and other. This is certainly not the personal and exclusive Buberian “Thou” that I am addressing. Language is the relation of the same to the other. “Tout ce qui ne peut se ramener à une relation interhumaine représente.g. been thought in philosophical circles that no significant loss is involved in transposing first or second personal expressions to third person ones. which opposes noumenon and phenomenon. As I am speaking here before you. however. namely you.thought of as indwelling in a place. The “noumenon” as used here by Levinas is of course an appeal to Kantian language. Buber—but also the Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel and many other existential phenomenologists—has rightly thematized the special nature of direct address as a privileged use of language. non pas la forme supérieure. Otherwise than Being.” It would seem to defeat the purposes of objectivity to attribute philosophical significance to direct discourse. that Levinas rejects it.” “the self. It is because the sacred is not. promotion or apotheosis of the human.” 4 I have retraced the distinction between Levinas's concept of religion and his notion of the “positive” religions. The philosophical mode forgets that it is addressed to someone who is listening in the wings.” he writes. in the early pages of Otherwise than Being it is the presence of the other—and the others—as listeners that is paramount. It has. like the saintly or holy. . goes out from. Religion is interhuman. is the realization. As Levinas points out in the early pages of his last major philosophical treatise. in this regard. is also wary of the labyrinthine dialogue of linguistic attitudinizing. a spirit haunting a locale or a physical object. in his essay on Paul Celan in Proper Names5 ). but I am also speaking to you. “Everything that cannot be reduced to an interhuman relation represents not the superior form but the forever primitive form of religion. For example.
possessions and the other person in terms that might best be described as those of a moral vision. but in fact the world of the res extensa is a continuum of externality. Without insisting on a rigorous parallelism. while remaining itself. to the side by side. and the metaphysical significance of the home. the face-to-face. as Levinas points out in the introduction to that work. however attenuated and ignored ." It is not the uniqueness of the self. If we cannot develop a sense of the anteriority of these relations. Just as the transposition of the first and second person to the third betrays the essence of communication.similarly the transposition of the relation of the face-à-face. one reason it does not form a whole is because I am anchored in it. But I am anchored in the whole in a curious way. let me suggest that Levinas's "human relations" bear the same relation to the world of nature as Plato's essences to the visible world. The cosmo-theros.itself. It is not. I make the world my home. present and future. but the absolute otherness of the other. that is the ultimate epistemological challenge. . that morality flows from that vision . the discovery of Kiekegaard and of so many other 19th-century philosophers (and poets as well). or partes extra partes. Not morality in the sense of what one should or must do and refrain from doing. are essentially metaphysical.” Another reason why the I-other relation does not form a whole is because the other is totally other. Levinas's texts that use such terms as proximity and approach must seem singularly gauche and inadequate. with its themes of separation. before chronology. is a seemingly solid basis that in fact hangs from a thread . The notions of distance. The extraordinary pages Levinas devotes in Totality and Infinity to the economy" of the self in the world. of past. of inside and outside.the thread of the discursive I-thou relation. describe our relation to the world. autonomy. not merely an älter ego. These ßpatial relations" are only later spatial relations: they begin by being something more akin to human relations. and if it is not a relation because it does not form a whole. is a betrayal. It thus realizes the conditions of what Levinas calls the metaphysical relation. The metaphors for the interhuman are spatial: but it is clear that the spatiality is not of the Cartesian variety. the view from nowhere. If the I-other relation is not a relation. They may be reflected in the Cartesian world of the res extensa. Similarly. toward the other. of approach. In both cases a detached third party is silently stipulated. after the manner of Franz Rosenzweig. Neither derived nor abstracted. which is a vocative. the temporal notions of anteriority. And the reason for the inadequacy is the same.it consummates that vision: “Ethics is an optics. but in a protoethical sense. are to be reconceived in their essentiality. they are an absolutely anterior source. transcendence.
and of being done with it (a "philosophical impatience"). and more inclined to remain ïn solution" than to find ä" solution that would obviate the necessity for further reflection. The texts need constant interpretation and commentary."7 ."6 In my view. First. but now it is time to consider what it was that constituted for Levinas the essential elements of Judaism. whereas the Talmudic spirit is more attentive to the injunction (laasoq bedivrei torah to be engrossed in the words of Torah). Levinas stressed the importance of the study of the Talmud. since his academic career unfolded perforce within the dichotomy of "the underlying rift of a world attached to both philosophers and prophets. Was this because he believed that his philosophical work might be seen as compromised by being intertwined with his religious thought? Was it that he himself saw philosophy as "Greek" and essentially atheistic as a modality. and to be aware of the overlapping shoots and branches between the Talmudic readings and the philosophical works. so that the procedures employed by Talmudic scholarship would compromise the purity of the former? Was it because the spirit of philosophy is that of problem solving. there is much to be gained in our understanding of Levinas's work to read it as a whole. namely "to translate the wisdom of the Talmud into modern terms. This approach provides a medium not only not hostile to philosophy. the study of Judaic texts in Hebrew is an essential element of Judaism. They are the ardent coals upon which we must blow in order to kindle new meaning.II It is clear that there is a connection between the two modalities of Levinas's work: the philosophical and the Judaic or "confessional. It should be mentioned that as a Lithuanian Jew in the tradition of the Gaon of Vilna and of Rabbi Haim of Volozhin. but the very medium required to carry out the task Levinas foresaw for this Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Not only does such a reading enable us to see the genesis and development of his thinking more clearly: these two aspects of his thought are mutually validating. Levinas's Judaism is Hebraic: that is to say. to have it face the problems of our own times. and Levinas did much to downplay the relationship between them. Perhaps there is more historical contingency than necessity involved in Levinas's policy of using different publishers for the two genres. I will have more to say on this subject at the end of this paper." But the connection is a complex one. and of the scholarly and intellectualist approach to Judaism in general. as a Mitnagdim (the group that opposed the Hassidim in 18th and 19th centuries).
that it has not always considered of decisive importance. just as I have shown the importance of the moral sphere in Levinas's philosophical consideration. and that the divine word moves it only as Law. Levinas’s more polemic writings. It is particularly the experience of the Holocaust. Third.”9 As a result. The emphasis takes the form of an insistence on actions. contain a critique of Christianity.and his metaphysics gives expression to what the philosopher takes to be his Judaism. but I do know that it has chosen action. Christianity “both overestimates and underestimates the weight of the reality it wishes to ameliorate. at the same time. while setting its sights on a utopia. politically. and the fact that two thousand years of Christianity did not prevent Europe from ending “six million defenseless lives”8 in the cruelest manner imaginable. being unable to go back to . As a Jewish educator himself (director of the École Normale Israélite Orientale beginning in 1945) Levinas believed the younger generation of Jews was turning away from Judaism in order to embrace forms of the sacred that seemed more picturesque and exotic. faithful and partisan . particularly those written in the Fifties and contained in the collection titled Difficult Freedom. interior.due in large part to forgetting Hebrew. who introduced the notions of “participation” and placed primitive thought on a plane equal to or even higher than that of the modern European. I do not know whether Judaism has expressed its metaphysics of the spirit in the terms I have just outlined. with much less emphasis on "belief" or a sense of the nuministic and the sacred. it has been quite conservative. the earthly. The source of Levinas's devaluation of the sacred in relation to the saintly or holy is probably bound up with his critique of the anthropologists Lévi-Bruhl and Lévi-Strauss. so it can easily be shown that ethics is the essential meaning of Judaism. it reassures Caesar. It is the gap between doctrine and practice.10 Levinas's relation to Judaism is thus critical. which is contrasted with the teachings of Judaism. Consider the implications of the following statement. But by rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. the religious) is nourished and sustained by ideas emerging from a background of Judaic thought. his Judaism is galvanized by certain ideas that have been more fully worked out in his metaphysical writings. making concessions in one realm. but also a more nuanced critique that involves curious antimony within Christian life. Levinas's philosophy (only one aspect of which we have considered here.Second. What emerges from our brief examination of the relationship between the philosophical and the Judaic in Levinas is a complex interdependence. reading a Bible frozen in translation. The incomprehension that greets the ethical essence of the spirit . that informs Levinas's critique. specifically that of the Mitnagdim.
It is triumphantly set against the dry and mind-deadening moralism of the nineteenth century. toward the outside though never ending in a mystic merger that would end its infinite transcendence. in a silence already pregnant with meaning. as one excellent study by Etienne Feron tends to do. attains to its true vocation: that dialogual or dialogical modality that leads to an encounter without intrusion or annexation. which boldly unfolds the Bible in a way that reveals the whole spectrum of the human drama it assumes . What contemporary sociology discovered in the prelogical mentality of Australia and Africa assumes the status of a privileged religious experience. language traces preordained ways to the other.together with the fear and trembling. of a whole religious revival. The Sacred . to posit language itself as the foundation. proximity. In that movement the self. precondition and ultimate limitation of transcendence in Levinas.today propels a whole young generation who wish to be faithful to notions that are totally foreign to Judaism.the Talmud. whether it be expressed as the approach. but hopefully also preserve or aufheben") that movement from self to other. As Merleau-Ponty might have put it.8. Do these young men suspect the existence of the relentless war declared by the Bible and the Talmud against the Sacred and sacraments?11 In other words. neglect of the study of Hebrew and a lack of knowledge of the Bible (in this case the allusion is probably to Micah 6:7. if not the grand concept. hahutsa i. or the interhuman: the notion of dialog as a movement from self to other. I prefer to thematize (and thus immobilize and thereby destroy. the for-the-other. Notes: . no longer riveted to itself. or some similar passage)12 has caused the younger generation of Jews to seek enlightenment elsewhere. It is a movement toward the outside. III The interrelation of Levinas's philosophical and his Judaic writings have a common denominator. It is an overstatement. as well as the ecstasy.face takes place.e. that proximity within which the movement of dialog in the face-to.13 Language is still a modality of that approach. aroused by its luminous presence becomes the key word. I believe. the face-to-face. the abomination of abominations.
6 Emmanuel Levinas. titled Le lieu et l'utopie. My translation.d. DF." 12 De l'idée de transcendance à la question du langage. and TI 79. 13 English version of: conférence au Congrès Emmanuel Levinas à Jérusalem. Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8. 7 Difficile liberté (Paris : Albin Michel." in Proper Names (Stanford: Stanford University Press. passim. TeI 52. 80. 1996). in Difficult Freedom.. And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly. trans.Totalité et infini (The Hague : Nijhoff. Ibid. O man. 25. 8 Ibid. in the very unreliable translation by Seán Hand. ). Éditions Jérôme Million : 1992). 11 7 "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams. 40-46. p. Henceforth abbreviated as TI.. 100. n. Quatre Lectures talmudiques (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. 145. and to love mercy. TI 77. Press. 3 4 Emmanuel Levinas. 24. p. ). 144. Available in English. henceforth abbreviated as DF (London: Athlone Press: 1990). This quote appears appropriately at the beginning of Catherine Chalier's work on Levinas and the relationship between philosophy and prophecy:L'inspiration du philosophe (Paris: Albin Michel. 1996). 52. "Paul Celan: From Being to the Other. 145-146. resp..d. 100-10. 5 Emmanuel Levinas. A. Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. With ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression. n. p. p. Henceforth abbreviated as TeI Totality and Infinity. Livre de poche : 1976). 1968). 143. and to walk humbly with thy God. what is good. 1 2 TeI 49-50. 99.  1984). 20-23 mai 2002 . p. This and the following quotations are from short piece originally published in Évidences in 1950. DF. It hath been told thee. 9 10 Ibid. L'itinéraire philosophique d'Emmanuel Levinas (Grenoble.. translation slightly modified. 3e éd.
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