Interview with Richard A. Cohen on Levinas and Spinoza

Thirty years ago I was a graduate student reading the newly published translation of Emmanuel Levinas’ Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (1985) while standing against the door at the end of the dirty subway car on a southbound 1 train. In the midst of my reading, I pause to read the short biography blurb of the translator Richard A. Cohen. I pondered how fortunate he was to study with Emmanuel Levinas and how far his world seems from the Jewish Studies world of Hebrew University. In subsequent years, I read many of his fine translations of Levinas’ writing. Recently, after my interview with Robert Erlewine, Richard contacted me offering me his works and online conversation about Levinas.

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Richard A. Cohen is certainly one of the world’s preeminent Levinas scholars as well as one of his devoted English translators. Cohen is Professor of Philosophy, and served as Chair of Department of Jewish Thought, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York.

Prof. Cohen is author of several books on Levinas including: Levinasian Meditations: Ethics, Philosophy and Religion.(Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2010); Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 and Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). His prolific number of translations include:  New Talmudic Readings by Emmanuel Levinas. (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1999). His most recent work is Out of Control: Confrontations between Spinoza and Levinas (2016) to which this interview dedicates several questions. And Cohen wanted me to mention that he is a member of the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century and certainly one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the era. Richard A. Cohen as an expositor emphasizes the Jewish element in Levinas’ thought presenting Levinas as in line with Jewish contours of thought. Levinas was a practicing Jew who from 1947-1961 was the director of the Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale, a Jewish day school which was part of the Alliance Israelite Orientale, an educational organization for Jewish communities in France and French Africa. From 1961 to his death he held ever more prestigious academic positions. Starting in 1957, he organized annual public lectures to revive Jewish thought in France together with Rabbi Yehuda Léon Askénazi (also known as Manitou) and Prof. Andre Nehar.

Before turning to Cohen, a short précis of Levinas’ intellectual thrust is in order. According to Levinas, I must accept my relationship with and responsibility toward the Other in order to escape isolation and solipsism and become fully myself. Yet, this relation is not something that comes into existence because I have chosen or initiated it. It had to be there already so that I could be in a position to choose. I have never not been in relation to someone other than myself. It is this relation with the Other that makes possible and gives rise to my very consciousness. The presence of the Other—with its implicit call to responsibility and service—thus brings me fully into being, reveals to me my separation from what is other, hollows out my interiority, initiates discourse, and makes possible a world I have in common with the Other. The relation of the “I” and “the Other” is not self-contained, but calls me to service—not only to the Other before me, but to all other Others, thereby creating the whole of social life.

Therefore, Levinas is against the stream of modern Jewish religious thought as currently preached which emphasizes my personal commitment to Torah, my need to construct the self through repentance and coming to God, or the isolation of the modern self.. Levinas openly rejects Neo-Hasidic experience as self-serving, a false totality concerned with the self and a false sense of reality compared to the responsibility before the Other. And on the recent posts to this blog, Levinas has little in common with Rav Shagar’s mid-20th century concern with authenticity, individuality, and personal expression.

For Levinas, expecting God to help others or save the innocent makes God into a primitive dispenser of favors or a magician, rather we should seek a mature faith and accept personal responsibility for the suffering of the world.

What is the meaning of the suffering of the innocent? Does it not witness to a world without God, to an earth where only man determines the measure of good and evil?… This would also be the healthiest response for all those who until now have believed in a rather primitive God who awards prizes, imposes sanctions, or pardons mistakes, and who, in His goodness, treats people like perpetual children. But what kind of limited spirit, what kind of strange magician did you project as the inhabitant of your heaven – you who today state that heaven is deserted?

An adult’s God reveals Himself precisely in the emptiness of the child’s heaven. That is the moment when God withdraws Himself from the world and veils His countenance… The just person’s suffering for the sake of a justice that fails to triumph is concretely lived out in the form of Judaism.

We have to accept our infinite responsibility toward the world even though we know we cannot solve all the world’s problems. I have infinite moral responsibility for the suffering in the world, for the suffering in Syria, for morality in the United States, and for those who work and live around me.

Richard A. Cohen in all his many works and in this interview shows his great ability to render the thought of Levinas in a clear and concise manner.  Cohen’s writing removes the very Gaelic feel to Levinas whose writing are filled with technical coinages such as  “il y a”,  jouissance, substitution, or exorbitant. Cohen writes like an American instructor in ethics, in plain English and with distinct concepts.. Cohen also avoids many of the academic arguments of interpretation or of scholarship in order to render a clear presentation,

Cohen’s style is to write his books as a series of contrasts of “Levinas and X” so that his chapters are Levinas and Buber, Levinas and Spinoza, Levinas and Ricœur, Levinas and Rosenzweig. An ideal format for upper undergraduates and masters’ students thinking about topics. Cohen rises in each case to take sides and defend the thought of his master Levinas. Beyond the scope of this interview, Richard Cohen distances Levinas from the thought of Jacque Derrida, in that both Levinas was not strongly influenced by Derrida and that they diverge in their thinking.

Levinas’ religious thought has not caught on among United States Jews outside of academia except as out of context quotes making him into a musar thinker, pluralist, or moralist. I can think of many reasons why this is so, but as you read the interview with Richard Cohen, ask yourself if this can be taught in your community. The interview with Cohen stresses Levinas as a Biblical Humanist.

cohen-showing-spinoza
(Richard Cohen perusing 1st ed. 1677, Latin Spinoza, Opera Posthuma)

1)      Why is Levinas important? Why does he deserve more attention than other Jewish thinkers?

Levinas is a Jewish thinker of the first rank, and, if I may put it this way, of the “old school.”  That is to say, born in 1906 his childhood was spent in Kovno, Lithuania.  And then he went to France for a university degree.  His family, like almost all Litvaks, was murdered by the Nazis.  After his war imprisonment, Levinas became director of a AIU Jewish school in Paris, studied under the hidden Talmudic master known to his French students as “Monsieur Chouchani” [pronounced “Shoshani”] and eventually was invited to become a university professor of philosophy, finally at the Sorbonne.   Throughout his adult life he published articles and books of philosophy and Jewish thought, without any rupture between the two.,

So what I mean by “old school” is not simply, as one might mistakenly think, that he was from the “old country,” but rather that he was learned both by experience and training in Judaism and in the larger culture of the world at large.  I am thinking here of Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s lament – all too justified it seems to me – about how isolated and ignorant the post-war Yeshivah world has become in relation to the larger world and the cultural and intellectual heritage of the West.  My more limited point, however, is that this is not the case with Levinas, who truly knew both worlds, and was a Jewish thinker of the very first rank.

Given the fragmentation and ignorance in the Jewish world today, one might also say that Levinas is perhaps more important for the contribution his thinking makes to a certain context, a certain intellectual world, than for his most basic message itself.  His basic message, stripped to its core, is actually quite familiar even if it is all too often unheeded: be kind to others, create a just society.  Certainly this fundamental Torah teaching is also a universal ethical teaching recognized everywhere.   The aboriginal peoples of Australia did not await Mount Sinai to know that murder is evil and lying wrong.  To be sure, Judaism has made these ethical teachings central, and has created a way, halakha – to ensure their instantiation in all life’s endeavors and registers.

What make Levinas’s thought special, however, is that with the utmost intellectual and spiritual refinement he brings forth this teaching – the primacy of ethics – to challenge the heart of what has often, especially in the West (and within some quarters of Judaism itself), been taken to be a higher calling, namely, the call to know, to knowledge and contemplation.

Levinas is important in this critical enterprise – and this is key – because he launches his challenge not by retreating to indefensible and hence debilitating dualist premises, whether gnostic, Platonic or neo-Platonic. Rather, Levinas is a post-Kantian or contemporary thinker, which is to say – contra all the dualisms which tempt a dogmatic or so-called “religious” thought – that he sees in the body, language and time not obstacles to truth and goodness, but the means to their very possibility.  This also aligns with Judaism’s well-known this-worldliness, its rabbinic heritage of making the broad moral imperatives of the Bible concrete, real, rules of everyday life.  Goodness, then, enacted by and for human beings who suffer death and aging, who suffer wounds and wants, who speak and are heard or are silenced, is for Levinas the highest priority and the source of intelligibility itself – and he teaches this lesson to the most sophisticated of thinkers today.

2)      What is Mature Faith according to Levinas?

Levinas does indeed distinguish between what he calls “adult religion” and mythological consciousness, which is not only prone to superstition and error but more fundamentally is morally irresponsible, passing real obligations onto a divinity conceived in the manner of bargaining with Zeus.

The kingship and fatherhood of God for Levinas appear in the unsurpassable moral responsibility of each human being in the face of another.  This difference between adult and childish religion is one that Kant already recognized, namely, that adult religion is mature precisely because it fully recognizes the primacy of ethics, that the religious person is not religious because he or she genuflects to gain favor with Deity, or holds “authorized” beliefs (dogmas) or performs prescribed rituals, but because he or she strives relentlessly to be a moral person and to make the world a more just place for everyone.

Of course, as the Jewish prophets taught, to make morality and justice the measure of true religion does not at all mean discarding certain character traits, beliefs or rituals.  It does mean, however, grasping their real purpose.

The purpose of Judaism for Jews is to produce not good Jews but good human beings – and good human beings who are Jewish are good Jews.  The mission of Judaism to the world at large is to produce a good and just humanity.  Levinas would agree.   Closeness to God is nothing other than this: kindness toward others, a just world for all. Need I quote Micah?   Unfortunately all too many people prefer the irresponsibility of children, to have Daddy tell them what to do, to obey orders, as if such formalism were all that God demands.  Childhood is one thing; adulthood – bar mitzvah – is another.  No wonder, then, that in his many commentaries to Aggadic portions of the Talmud, Levinas discovers always and precisely the call to moral responsibility and the call to justice in all the Jewish texts, beliefs, rituals, and stories.   For Levinas ethics is not a nice gloss on Judaism: it is Judaism at its best and nothing less – let us hope – will satisfy the good Jew.

3)      How does Levinas differ from Spinoza on truth vs goodness?

This is the topic of my last book: Out of Control: Confrontations between Spinoza and Levinas.  One would probably not be exaggerating to say that globalization is itself part of the heritage of Spinozism.

Spinoza witnessed firsthand the beginning of what subsequently became the earth shattering change, the paradigm shift represented by the rise of modern science.  Modern science, in contrast to all previous knowledge, was strictly quantitative, formal-mathematical, analytical and causally oriented.   Or to put this negatively, for the sake of its kind of knowing it rejected what the philosophers had called “final causality,” i.e., reality understood in terms of goals, ends, and purposes.  Modern science cannot say what water is for, its purpose, but it knows that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen in a ratio of H2O.

The basic components of the universe are not Hebrew letters, as some Kabbalists may have thought, but atoms.  When we distinguish God and creation, we can place the Ten Commandments as representative of the first, but the Periodic Table as representative of the second.  But there is a problem, it seems that the latter does not recognize the former – and such is Spinoza’s deliberate thesis.  Not ethics and science, but science is ethics.  No wonder he called his one truly philosophical book Ethics: the measurable real is all there is, and it is “best” because it is the only world.  All talk of morality, then, of good and evil, of justice and injustice, is simply the talk of ignoramuses, non-scientists, fools buffeted about by their bodily desires and emotions.

Obviously, then, modern science as Spinoza understood it stands in conflict with previous religious notions of Providence, of God’s Will, of righteousness and morality and justice.  Science grasps reality without any such notions, and indeed finds such notions – of will, freedom, purpose, goodness – false and deceptive, nothing more than anthropomorphic projections, no more truthful than animism, indicative of humankind in its ignorant immaturity.   In a word, Spinoza took modern science to heart, made it an absolute.

Today this path, however erroneous and destructive, of science and nothing but science – is what is called “positivism,” and it is perhaps the dominant intellectual worldview of the educated elite.   For anyone who has thought seriously about it, however, it is clearly reductive, leaving much that is significant and important about our world out of its picture, and in the process demeaning what it cannot reduce to its limited form of rationality.

This exclusivity is not harmless, however.  Indeed, it is a dangerous exclusion because what science leaves out does not go away, and when it is excluded from reason it comes back, sad to say, as unreason, in monstrous forms. In other words, if one does not properly grasp the true nature and limits of science, if one makes science supreme in all things, all the rest will come back in the most unreasonable forms. So there is nothing “ivory tower” about misunderstanding the standing of modern science.

Levinas, for whom intelligibility is based first in goodness, of course rejects Spinoza’s positivism.  He considers Spinozism to be at the “antipodes” of his thought, because it denies the humanity of the human, denies freedom and transcendence, in its effort to assimilate humanity to the rest of nature.  So Levinas’s great antagonist, one might say, is Spinoza and Spinozism.

4)      What is prophecy for Levinas and Spinoza?

Prophecy for Spinoza is no more than a vivacious imagination coupled with persuasive rhetoric.   Like all products of imagination, it does not contain truth.  Prophets do no more than interfere in politics, causing harm.  Spinoza despite his alleged modernity thinks that “words and images” actually hinder, indeed prevent truth.  Truth is the mind thinking itself, hence with no need to communicate, and indeed insofar as the truth is the intelligibility of One Substance, without anyone to speak to.

Levinas is also not satisfied to limit prophecy to the biblical prophets, because for Levinas it is far more exalted.  Indeed, for Levinas prophecy represents the basic character of all human communication.  Not in the sense that humans like the biblical prophets are able to predict the future, but in the sense that communication is always an elevation rising to transcendence, to goodness.  For Levinas intelligibility arises not in the mind in communion with itself, thought thinking thought, but like chavusa in a Yeshiva it arises in human conversation, discussion, one person speaking to another, what Levinas calls “the saying of the said.”

The first “word” of such intelligibility is one that is not actually said but is nonetheless the condition of all speech and truth: shema, “listen,” hear,” because one must first hear the other person, listen to the other before one can grasp, understand, evaluate  what he or she says.  So for Levinas all speaking is “prophetic” in this sense, attending to the other’s expression, conditioned by respect, by the moral transcendence of the other person.

Levinas takes creation seriously, and takes most seriously the transcendence of the other person, which lies at the root of all multiplicity, especially the multiple readings of the Torah, one for each person, each one of which is necessary as humans approach Torah truth.  The Torah, Jewish tradition teaches, was given to 600,000 Jews, in 4 registers of interpretation, and to the 70 nations as well.  The math is obvious: there are at least 158,000,000 legitimate – divinely expressed – readings of Torah, lacking any one of which the Torah is not complete.  And this as we know is really only the beginning of the math.

5)      Why is the book called “Out of Control” in its comparison of Levinas and Spinoza?

Perhaps it is a title a bit too clever, but the point is that not irresponsibility, wildness, letting go, what we usually think of as “out of control,” but responsibility, caring for the other, putting the other before myself, that such moral responsiveness is what is truly out of the control of all systems and institutions of control, from legislation to norms, from causal systems to linguistic rules.  It is illogical to put the other first.  It cannot be reduced to a calculus of self-interest and benefits.  Ethics is not an economics.  So the idea behind the title, “out of control,” is to re-appropriate this expression from its usual epistemic or aesthetic sense – the madman, the artist, the eccentric, the rebel – and acknowledge that the one event truly most out of control, indeed entirely out of control, is responsibility, the moral responsibility one person takes for another.  This is the radical thesis which the title of my book names and its arguments support.

According to “control” – epistemic and political – we are reduced to sequences of causes or reasons, or fit into categories, systems of genus and species, are Americans or French or Russians; allies or enemies or neutral; educated or uneducated; observant or unobservant; Sephardi or Ashkenazi; Misnaged or Chassidic; or we are Christian or Muslim, or Canadian or Eskimo.  But moral obligation, the responsibility one person takes for another, transcends – breaks out of – all these categories of identity control.

Responsibility fissures our identity, putting the self into question as the for-the-other before-myself of responsibility.  One who is responsible does not choose, but is chosen.  I am responsible for you whether you are my friend or enemy, whether you are Jewish or not, whether you are white or black, whether you care for me or hate me.  There are no prior contracts to contain such a responsibility – they burst upon me, shatter me, demand of me.  Such is moral command: the other comes first, I must obey first.  N’ase v’nishma.  To acknowledge human relations based in this manner means putting the “out of control” – ethical demand – at the root of intelligibility, and not the other way around.

To be sure, moral responsibility, which means caring for another, giving to the other, providing food, clothing, shelter, education, entertainment, medical care, company, etc., also demands justice, a concern for all others, including those who are not present.  Justice requires knowledge and institutions, precisely control.  So a great deal of what is normally thought of as control is genuinely necessary: laws, courts, police, schools, army, highways, hospitals, and the like, everything needed to produce and maintain a just society, a society of plenty rather than poverty.  Nevertheless, we must never forget that all of these universal systems, if they are not to lose their humanity, if they are not to put administration above those to whom they administer, at bottom serve the singularity of moral life, to enable me to be responsible for you.  Justice with a human face, that alone is justice.  Thus the “out of control” is not anything esoteric or crazy, except for evil persons.

My book shows that Spinoza, contrary to “popular opinion” (in this case including scholarly opinion) does not represent a Jewish outlook.  In the history of philosophy and even more broadly in all the cultured circles of the West, Spinoza is usually taken to be representative of Judaism. Certainly it is true that Spinoza writes extensively about Jewish topics, and has a clear mastery of Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible.  Nonetheless, I believe we can hardly fault the rabbis of 17th century Amsterdam who excommunicated Spinoza: he is not only not representative of Judaism, which is to say he does not fully grasp what Judaism is about, he is positively antagonistic toward Jews and Judaism.  He abhors the ancient Jews, who are but “slaves” and “ignoramuses.”  He hates the rabbis, whose biblical interpretations he considers “mad,” “ravings,” and “malicious.”

6)      What is Levinas’ Biblical humanism? How does he define love thy neighbor?

Levinas distinguishes between secular humanism and biblical humanism because the latter is based in radical transcendence, irreducible otherness, while the former is not, is projective, and finally closes in upon itself in an arbitrary or historical immanence.  Thus for Levinas the goodness which is the ultimate purpose of each person, each Jew, of Judaism and humanity as a whole, is properly “holy,” and Levinas uses this term.

Judaism and ethics are thus holy in Rashi’s sense of “separation,” but here in the context of Levinas meaning a response to the transcendence of the other person as moral height.  Responsibility arises in the priority of the other’s suffering over my own, being put into question by the other who I cannot reduce to another myself, hence a shattering of the complacency of my own identity in helping the other, giving more than I am really able but striving nonetheless to give all I can.  Thus the other appears as a surplus, a disturbance, an otherness unassimilable to  my own syntheses but raising me to higher responsibilities.  This separation is holiness: not physical, not ontological, not epistemological or aesthetic, but ethical – a moral demand.  God is the demand that I love my neighbor more than myself, that I dedicate myself to justice for all – such is the passing of the most Desirable, the Most High, indeed, the Holy One Blessed be He.  It was Martin Buber who coined the term “biblical humanism,” but it serves Levinas’s thought quite well.

Again, let me accentuate that Levinas it not trying to “gloss” Judaism with an “ethical interpretation,” as if Judaism were really something else, as if God were a real person, an entity, and Levinas would “improve” it with ethical language.  No, the deepest meaning of Judaism, of its texts, written and oral, its rituals, halakha, of the One God, indeed all of it in all its details, is precisely nothing other than ways to goodness, pathways to goodness, morality between one and another, and justice for all.  Is this not the exalted test – of Abraham, of God – in the Akeda, holding God himself, as it were, to His own Justice, God who cannot condone the slaughter of innocents?  Read with adult eyes, no longer as children, but as sons and daughters of the mitzvot, everything in the Bible, the Talmud, all the words of our sages teach precise this.

Levinas’s ethics is not new, but a renewal – because ethics must constantly be renewed.  Levinas shows the contemporary sensibility how each and every aspect of Judaism, all of it, is a call to moral goodness and a call to justice.  The height of God is the height of goodness and justice.

7)      What is justice for Levinas?

Justice is a society where one can be moral without fault.   I will give a brief explanation because I am not trying to be enigmatic.  To be moral, as I have indicated, is to alleviate the suffering of the other.  It arises in the first person singular, me responsible for you.  But your suffering is infinite, in the sense that each of us is finite, mortal, vulnerable, with physical needs, for air, food, clothing, shelter and the like; medical needs in case of illness or injury; psychological and sociological needs for self-esteem, honor and respect and the like, and the list goes on without end.  If I feed you today, you will be hungry again tomorrow.  No one can ever satisfy even one person despite the most total devotion.

Levinas even calls moral responsibility “maternal,” like a pregnancy, the other in oneself, carrying the other… and who can do this for more than a handful of others and really for only one other one at a time?  But the burden is even heavier, more difficult.

Let us imagine I have some food and I am facing a hungry person.  From a moral point of view, I will give this food to that other person – such is moral obligation, to alleviate the hunger of the one who faces me.  I give all to the other, without even thinking of myself – what a moral person I am!  But the other person, however hungry, is not the only hungry person in the world.  By giving all the food to the hungry person who faces me, by being as moral as I can possibly be, I am at the same time denying food to the hungry persons who are not proximate.  So my act of morality creates injustice, feeding one person leaves others unfed.  What a conundrum: goodness creates injustice.

Thus from out of morality itself comes the call to rectify its own excess.  Morality demands justice: not simply the for-the-other of morality but the for-all-others of justice, to care for those “near and far.”  Morality, though infinite, is not enough: at once I must be moral and just – this is not so easy, indeed nothing is more difficult.  To be sure, justice is guided by morality: what I want to provide for all is what I want to provide for the one who faces me: to alleviate specific suffering, tailoring my aid to the needs of the others, first of all the other’s material needs, food, clothing, shelter, medical care.

Levinas explicitly appropriates an expression he takes from the Mussar giant Rabbi Israel Salanter: “The material needs of the other are my spiritual needs.”  In other words, Levinas is not deceived by the high sounding but abstract “rights” of bourgeois liberalism.  Yes, the other should have “free speech,” “free press,” “free assembly,” well and good.  But the other must also be fed, clothed, housed, medically treated, educated, and the like.  Moral obligations are concrete, real, material, not beautiful ideas.  The first demand of justice, Levinas has said, is for food.

Justice is thus the rectification of morality in a pluralist world.  To be sure, just as morality is “impossible,” meaning I can never fully satisfy the needs of even one person, so too is justice impossible, meaning that I presently know not how to set up a just society in which everyone can be moral without fault.  Levinas thus admits and indeed celebrates the “infinity” of morality, and the “utopian” or “messianic” character of justice.  Anything less would be to reduce the transcendence of goodness to the immanence of being; or to say this more simply, it would be to let ethics off the hook, converting the “ought” to the “is,” – stripping the world of its holiness – which really means to eliminate ethics altogether.  For this reason too one can say that God “is” justice, or better that God is the inescapable demand for justice, that the true transcendence, the transcendence that calls upon us and raises us to our highest stature, and at the same time demands more, above our highest, higher than the highest, is the call to justice, which is always a call for more justice.  Justice, Levinas has said, is never just enough.  In this way God is beyond, indeed above being.

8)   How is Levinas different than Maimonides, especially on ethics and justice?

Maimonides is a medieval thinker and Levinas is a contemporary thinker.  In this context, to be contemporary means taking seriously the body, language and time, not as barriers to what is ultimate but as part and parcel of the absolute.  Body, language and time are not merely ladders, to be discarded, on the path to God; they are the human way of coming close to God – angels going up and down.  To be sure, the Absolute “ab-solves” itself, as Levinas says, meaning that God is not being but transcendence, not the real but the good.

Torah too is for humans: the good only occurs not despite embodiment, language and temporality, but because of them, in the midst of them, by way of them.  Nevertheless, owing to his situation, because he is caught up in the theological premises of medieval thinking, even if in his case they are Jewish rather than Christian or Muslim, I do not think that Maimonides is fully able to share this contemporaneity with Levinas.

Despite so much in Maimonides that is fully immersed in the hustle-bustle and flesh and blood of the created world, i.e., which is so characteristically “Jewish,” with feet on the ground, “pots and pans,” “carnal,”– in his most philosophical moments he remains caught in theology, which is to say, caught in the intellectual conundrums set by ancient thought, originating with Greek and Asian metaphysics.

9)   Prior Jewish thinkers emphasize character, virtue, and self-cultivation, for examples Maimonides, & Rabbi S.R. Hirsch. Why does Levinas critique these ideas? In fact, much of your presentation of Levinas’ critique of Paul Ricœur’s thought could just as well be about Maimonides or Hirsch

This is a huge topic.  We would have to first make clear what exactly Maimonides and Hirsch are saying about character, virtue and self-cultivation.  On the face of it, no ethical thinker would oppose these, and Levinas certainly does not.  But if you are right about their views being similar to Paul Ricoeur’s, then let me speak about Levinas and Ricoeur.  Levinas’ critique of Ricoeur – who was his friend and colleague – is an argument about the priority of self-esteem in relation to respect for the other, an argument therefore about what comes first in the ethical: me or the other.

For Levinas respect precedes self-esteem, being for-the-other is the main thing, getting honor or self-esteem or happiness from such behavior is secondary and in a certain sense entirely accidental.  If a person for whatever reason gets no pleasure, no happiness, and no self-esteem from behaving morally toward others – that is of no importance.  The greatest deeds in the world are for the most part unknown. The desire to be good, a character oriented toward goodness, is good, to be sure, but, as Levinas says: “No one is good voluntarily.”  The other is an imposition – better than my own self-interests, to be sure, but as such not my pleasure or satisfaction.

Levinas does not propose a eudemonistic ethics, an ethics concerned with the happiness obtained by moral agency.  Ethics for Levinas is not a cost-benefit analysis, not a tactic or strategy in the path to self-fulfillment.   Levinas does not say “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which seems to give priority to self-love, but rather “Love your neighbor is yourself,” which thinks moral agency as self-sacrifice, as a rising above selfishness, even the satisfaction of self-esteem.  What is of primary importance, in other words, is the happiness of the other person.  I sacrifice myself for the other’s happiness – that is morality for Levinas.  To be sure, as an embodied being I know pleasures, the enjoyment of good food, fine clothes, for instance, the advantages of spending money, and the like.

But for Levinas these self-satisfactions precisely enable me to understand the suffering of the other.  Giving money is a sacrifice because I would rather keep it.  Giving food to others is a sacrifice because I enjoy eating myself.  Such is one of the great lessons of Yom Kippur.  Levinas has described moral responsibility as a taking of food from one’s own mouth and giving it to the other.

Indeed, for Levinas the ultimate structure of ethics, of moral responsibility, is “dying for… the other.”  Certainly no one wants to make such a sacrifice, but certainly too, this is the ultimate structure of morality, of the for-the-other before oneself, and those who have made it – kiddush Hashem – are moral martyrs.  Let us hope it does not come to that.

10)   Why does Levinas reject love as a basis of ethics.

Generally, Levinas shies away from the term “love” I think for two reasons.  One, the most obvious, is the way this word has been used in Christian discourse.  There it seems to mean an effusive charity and forgiveness toward the other independent of justice, so that Christians, or more precisely some Christians, in America (such is my experience), are often inclined in the name of “love” to care more for the perpetrators of crime and injustice without due consideration for the victims of those same crimes and injustice.

These are themes that Rabbi Leo Baeck addressed more broadly with regard to the nature and contrast between Jewish and Christian ethics and outlook in his 1938 book entitled Judaism and Christianity.  In this book Baeck characterizes Christian spirituality as “sentimental,” prone to good feelings, in contrast to the disciplined spirituality of Jewish “law,” “ritual” and behavior with its intellectual sobriety.

I think Levinas avoids the term “love,” then, because he is very much aware of the rigor and sobriety of Judaism, especially manifest in Talmud and the rabbinic tradition of interpretation built thereupon, but no less evident in the rigor and sobriety of his own writings and philosophy.

The second reason he avoids the term is its vagueness.  For Levinas love is primarily a familial and erotic term, between husband and wife, parents and children.   Ethics for Levinas is neither familial nor tribal, nor a sentiment or feeling, though it includes sentiment and feeling.  The moral agent suffers for the suffering of the other, true, but the moral agent also alleviates the other’s suffering – my suffering is not enough, the other’s suffering comes first, it is an imperative for me.  Moral obligation arises in an alertness to the needs of the other, a wakefulness, an awakening by the other arousing my responsibility to and for the other, and ultimately to and for all others.

But the other solicits infinitely, without end, without conclusion, so I can never do enough.  This does not debilitate my moral responsiveness, however, but spurs it on.  Such is the high exigency of the “ought.”  For this reason Levinas puts “bad conscience” above “good conscience,” because no one has fulfilled their moral obligations or the demands of justice – there is always better and more to do.  Perhaps one could call such stringency and obligation “love,” if one understands this term correctly; the issue is not a matter of semantics, but of giving.

11)   Given that the program you designed at Buffalo focuses on Jewish thought, how do you sees the relationship between Jewish thought/philosophy and Jewish Studies in general?

My answer may surprise you.  Earlier I indicated that Levinas’s thought is contemporary while Maimonides, for instance, is medieval, meaning that Maimonides inherited and was tripped up by certain dualisms from the ancient past (soul/body, mind/matter, spirit/matter, etc.), caught in theological difficulties which Levinas was able to avoid.   I stand by this claim.

But at the same time we must recognize that the Jewish tradition for the most part did not adopt the gnostic and dualist presuppositions which permeated and split Greek thought.  So the Jewish tradition, for instance, did not separate soul from body or body from soul, and hence did not obsess over the immortality of the one and the corruption of the other, as did Christian theologians, nor did it expend much intellectual energy on the split between heaven, hell and earth and the inscrutability of their relations.

Christianity is a theological religion, doctrinal, a matter of belief; Judaism is not.  This said, it follows that the Jewish tradition as a whole – including Maimonides – is much closer to what I have called Levinas’s contemporaneity, for it has very well appreciated the integral unity of mind/body, spirit/matter and spirit/letter.  It is, as I have said above, and speaking quite positively, a “carnal” religion, if I may alter the valence in which Christians used this term to denigrate Judaism.

So, my “surprising” conclusion is that what I am calling the contemporary period of the West, in which Levinas is a major voice, should be open and ready to appreciate rabbinic thinking.  Indeed, I will go further: today, our time, is the epoch of Jewish thought as genuine thinking, thinking beyond dualisms, thinking creation in its reality and integrity without flight into fantastic other-worlds or immaterial souls.  For the first time, in other words, the world is ready for Jewish thought as thought itself and not some parochial second cousin.  Concreteness, this-worldliness, human measure, has always been the strength of Jewish thinking, its hardheadedness, as it were, its sobriety, its famous worldliness.  It seems to me that now the world at large, or at least the Western world which had been dominated by ancient Greek and Christian dualisms, has finally caught up.  So for the first time Jewish thought, because it has been at it much longer, and is far more developed in this style of thinking, can be the leader and guide of a global thought, a truly contemporary appreciation for an integral reality, based – such of course is Levinas’s fundamental view – on the primacy of ethics, of the “ought” over the “is.”

It is all the sadder then, that the Yeshiva world, just when it faces a world never more capable of being receptive to Jewish teachings, seems ever more intent on closing its doors, retreating, remaining willfully ignorant of the science, literature, culture, in sum the spiritual heritage of the non-Jewish world which cannot distract it but surely can enrich it.  Would the Yeshiva world really become impoverished reading Shakespeare?  Just as the non-Jewish world is more prepared than ever for Jewish thinking, Orthodox Jewish thinking is turning away from it – it is a terrible and twisted mistake, for both worlds, so it seems to me.

Levinas was able to speak to the entire world not despite his Jewishness but because of it.  He did not reduce Judaism to an abstract and artificial universality, but found in its most particular words and deeds, in the density of its righteous this-worldliness, the universal, openness to all and everything.   “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.”  This too could be Levinas’s motto.  He wrote philosophical treatises and published “Talmudic Readings,” he lectured in his synagogue on Shabbat and taught in the academic halls of the Sorbonne, without altering his teaching, because his teaching was so quintessentially Jewish that it was a teaching for the whole world.

So today, to answer your question, the Department of Jewish Thought at the University at Buffalo sees itself at the same time as a fount of the Humanities, indeed, as the foundation of the entire College of Arts and Sciences, and hence as the foundation of the entire university, of Higher Education, if this way of putting it does not sound too pretentious.

Never before has the world needed Jewish Studies more, because the world is finally waking up to its grandeur, turning from its time-worn escapisms.   Now is not the time for Jews to turn their backs to the world.  Quite the reverse, now more than ever is the world ready and in need of Jewish thinking.  Without demanding that others convert to Judaism as a religious community, Jewish thought is the thinking of all humankind, each tradition in its own idiom, to be sure, following its own specific heritage – but united in striving for goodness and justice.  Judaism does not demand reductive conformity but harmony, of interpretations – which is the Talmudic way – without erasing their differences.  Levinas’s thought is rigorous, demanding and all-embracing, at once human, humane and holy, for Jews and for everyone, at the highest levels of intelligibility.

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