Monday, February 11, 2013

Levinas and the Two Traditions

Over the past few years I have been exposed to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas.  He uniquely brings the Western intellectual tradition face to face with the Jewish tradition.  Through this encounter the Western tradition is called to task for its preoccupation with Being and is called to responsibility for the Other (I realize that these terms are not yet clear).  I am still muddling my way through Levinas’ work.  However, I believe that there is much that can be gained by sharing.  I hope that by calling my friends into a dialogue about his works I will benefit them (by exposing them to something of great value) and that this will help me work through my thoughts and come to a deeper understanding of Levinas.  The best place to start is with Levinas’ descriptions of the Greek and Jewish (which he refers to as the tradition of Revelation).

In the Greek tradition,
reason is solid and positive; it begins with all meaning to which all meaning must return in order to be assimilated to the Same, in spite of the whole appearance it may give of having come from outside.  Nothing in this reason can cause the fission in the nuclear solidity of a thought which thinks in correlation with the world’s positivity, which thinks from its starting point of the vast repose of the cosmos; a thought which freezes its object in the theme, which always thinks to its measure, which thinks knowingly. (Levinas, 2007, p. 144)

The tradition of Revelation, according to Levinas is,
a relation with exteriority which, unlike the exteriority with which man surrounds himself whenever he seeks knowledge, does not become simply the content of interiority, but remains ‘uncontainable’, infinite and yet still maintaining a relation. (Levinas, 2007, p. 144)

Next time I will try to provide some commentary to explain what Levinas is talking about.  For the meantime 
I would love to hear your thoughts, impressions, questions.

Levinas, E. (2007). Beyond the verse: Talmudic readings and lectures. (G. D. Mole, Trans.) New York: Continuum.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...
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Yehuda said...

I like that connection. But Levinas extends that arrogance into all domains in which the thinker thinks knowingly. Of course, it starts with the יסוד היסודות. Levinas' descriptions, though hard to penetrate at first, once connected to, can be quite evocative. One of my professors said he reads Levinas almost as if he was reading a poem.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

What distinguishes "thinking knowingly" from "reading a poem". If one reads a Chumash narrative as "reading a poem" or "literature" is this not just a step in a 3 part Talmud Torah process leading to "thinking knowingly" about dvarim and mitzvot?

Yehuda said...

I believe "thinking knowingly" refers to the conceit that our minds can truly grasp and contain chokhmato. I like my professor's description of reading Levinas as "reading a poem" because when reading a poem no one thinks they are truly grasping it all--yes, appreciating, participating, getting glimpses, but not fully knowing.
It should be said that Levinas is not necessarily denigrating the Greek tradition--only opening us up to its limitation. The d'varim of Torah Sh'baal Peh lead to "thinking knowingly" about mitzvot, but, this is not the ultimate is a necessity of a normative system. Perhaps the Rambam's poetic mottos for each Sefer point to this uncontainable telos of halakha.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

A cycle of limud.

Every descriptive poetic reading about the relation of a perceived element in our world, leads to a defined davar in which this described element is redeemed from a personal description and seen in the intelligible order.

This in turn leads to a new descriptive reading and seeking a superior defined davar which more closer shows the place of the part in the intelligible order.

Yehuda said...

Could you give me more context for your comment? What, in particular, are you commenting on?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

I was suggesting a view of Talmud Torah which incorporates the sense of descriptive knowing which I associate with the term "poetic reading" with the sense of definitive knowing of a concept within the theoretical ideas of a paradigm framework I associate with the term "thinking knowingly".

This view, not only in dvarim ketanim, but also in dvarim gedolim, seems to be a cyclical one.

One perceives an event, an interaction within the limited sense of its relation to my personal experience. One feels this and clarifies it through describing it poetically, or in a narrative or a case study.

This leads to greater clarity and ultimately a davar, a concept, which connects to a larger theory and ultimately to the notion of Chochmaso pointing to Him as the Matzui rishon mamtzi kol hanimtza.

This davar is limited and in turn leads to another personal experience and so on.

Yehuda said...

Thinking knowingly is, of course, necessary for action--but, I think Levinas is trying to tell us that it is not the end (or the beginning) which is reflected in the view of Talmud Torah you are presenting.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

As I see it, "thinking knowingly" is a preliminary stage, instrumental to service of Hashem, the matzui Rishon. The need for universal concepts the davar, comes from moving beyond the subjective language of the individual ,mere dibbur. This is true whether we consider the citizens action of preserving and developing the body, in cooperation with his friends or in personal growth in the relatonship to Hashem.

In the citizens action, the person must act on a plan of action first tested in tefilla. The tfilla requires universal concepts of redemption as this citizen can act upon it. This personal plan must be put before Hashem which is the end of an intellectual shift from poetic notions to davar, not mere personal dibbur. Yaakov's action in relations with Esav emerged from a core breakthrough in notions, forged from struggle to transcend his limiting narrative of sibling rivalry, in favor of a new sense of his place in the redemptive journey of civilization. This tfilla of course led to many more clarifications of divrei tfilla and action as time went on.

In the case of dvarim gedolim this is also the case. prior to ahava, there must be a formulation of davar which causes focus on seeking the Shem hagadol. Of course, the davar is inadequate as no man can see Him and live. This leads to a next stage of reserch into superior davar.