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Levinas's Concept of Religion and its Relation to Judaism

Levinas's Concept of Religion and its Relation to Judaism

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 what 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 would thereby draw it into the ambit of immanence, or being. To relate, to compare, to bring the unknown within the domain of the known by means of relation or comparison (similitude or contrast), would be to transform, in the act of cognition, the other into the same.

One might question Levinas's rejection of the word relation here. Is there in the term relation as much imperialism as he gives it? After all, a relation implies difference as much as similarity, since there must be two entities to relate. Nevertheless, 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 its viscosity so to speak, like that of being itself, draws everything into itself - when that distinction is what is at stake, it makes Levinas's linguistic scruple at least comprehensible, and in my opinion justified.

2. Religion. It would be a mistake, I believe, to look upon this term as a philosophically sifted or distilled meaning of the traditional use of the term. 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. Religion in this sense is, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, a category of activity, not the non-relational relation that Levinas attaches to the term religion. In order to distinguish his new meaning from the traditional one, Levinas uses the term "religions positives," positive religions, for the latter. It is instructive to examine Levinas's precise wording in his remarks on the positive religions. He writes:

La transcendence se distingue d'une union avec le transcendant, par participation. La relation métaphysique - l'idée de l'infini - relie au noumène qui n'est pas un numen. Ce noumène se distingue du concept de Dieu que possèdent les croyants des religions positives, mal dégagés des liens de la participation et qui s'acceptent comme plongés à leur insu, dans un mythe. L'idée de l'infini, la relation métaphysique est l'aube d'une humanité sans mythes.2

Transcendence is to be distinguished from a union with the transcendent by participation. The metaphysical relation, the idea of infinity, connects with the noumenon which is not a numen. This noumenon is to be distinguished for the concept of God possessed by the believers in the positive religions, who are ill disengaged from the bonds of participation, who accept being immersed in a myth unbeknownst to themselves. 3

What does it mean to emphasize the difference between the numen and the noumenon, two words that in fact are related only phonetically? The "numen" is a divinity thought of as indwelling in a place, a spirit haunting a locale or a physical object. This is what Levinas has in mind when contrasting the ßacred" to the ßaintly" or "holy." See, in this regard, Levinas's volume of Talmudic readings, titled Du sacré au saint (1977), included in Annette Aronowicz's Nine Talmudic Readings. The sacred is a divine power that crushes humanity. The saintly, or holy, is the realization, promotion or apotheosis of the human. The "noumenon" as used here by Levinas is of course an appeal to Kantian language, which opposes noumenon and phenomenon. It is because the sacred is not, like the saintly or holy, related to the human, or more precisely the interhuman, that Levinas rejects it. « Tout ce qui ne peut se ramener à une relation interhumaine représente, non pas la forme supérieure, mais à jamais primitive de la religion, »  he writes. Ëverything that cannot be reduced to an interhuman relation represents not the superior form but the forever primitive form of religion."4

I have retraced the distinction between Levinas's concept of religion and his notion of the "positive" religions. Religion is interhuman, and it is a relation between self and other. In saying that it is the relation between self and other, however, it has been necessary to transpose what is essentially first-personal to the third person. It has, until fairly recently, been thought in philosophical circles that no significant loss is involved in transposing first or second personal expressions to third person ones. For example, Ï" become "the ego," "the self." It would seem to defeat the purposes of objectivity to attribute philosophical significance to direct discourse. The philosophical mode forgets that it is addressed to someone who is listening in the wings, namely ÿou." As Levinas points out in the early pages of his last major philosophical treatise, Otherwise than Being, there is always a listener presupposed even in the most apparently disembodied and abstract discourse. As I am speaking here before you, I am mainly speaking of something, but I am also speaking to you. This is certainly not the personal and exclusive Buberian "Thou" that I am addressing. 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. Levinas himself, while fully cognizant of the psychic significance of the vocative (e.g. in his essay on Paul Celan in Proper Names5 ), is also wary of the labyrinthine dialogue of linguistic attitudinizing, and the covert violence of eloquence, and has often expressed his admiration for the abrupt straightforwardness of the Talmudists. In any case, in the early pages of Otherwise than Being it is the presence of the other - and the others - as listeners that is paramount.

Discourse is not merely one among the other human institutions, nor is it an accident that takes place within the essentially silent world of nature. Language is the relation of the same to the other. Thanks to language, the same, as I, goes out from, and out of, itself, toward the other, while remaining itself. It thus realizes the conditions of what Levinas calls the metaphysical relation, transcendence.

The metaphors for the interhuman are spatial: but it is clear that the spatiality is not of the Cartesian variety. The notions of distance, of approach, of inside and outside, are essentially metaphysical. They may be reflected in the Cartesian world of the res extensa, but in fact the world of the res extensa is a continuum of externality, or partes extra partes. These ßpatial relations" are only later spatial relations: they begin by being something more akin to human relations. Without insisting on a rigorous parallelism, 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. Neither derived nor abstracted, they are an absolutely anterior source. If we cannot develop a sense of the anteriority of these relations, Levinas's texts that use such terms as proximity and approach must seem singularly gauche and inadequate. Similarly, the temporal notions of anteriority, of past, present and future, are to be reconceived in their essentiality, before chronology, after the manner of Franz Rosenzweig.

Just as the transposition of the first and second person to the third betrays the essence of communication, which is a vocative, however attenuated and ignored - similarly the transposition of the relation of the face-à-face, the face-to-face, to the side by side, is a betrayal. And the reason for the inadequacy is the same. In both cases a detached third party is silently stipulated. The cosmo-theros, the view from nowhere, is a seemingly solid basis that in fact hangs from a thread - the thread of the discursive I-thou relation. If the I-other relation is not a relation, and if it is not a relation because it does not form a whole, 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. I make the world my home. The extraordinary pages Levinas devotes in Totality and Infinity to the ëconomy" of the self in the world, with its themes of separation, autonomy, and the metaphysical significance of the home, describe our relation to the world, possessions and the other person in terms that might best be described as those of a moral vision. Not morality in the sense of what one should or must do and refrain from doing, but in a proto- ethical sense. It is not, as Levinas points out in the introduction to that work, that morality flows from that vision - it consummates that vision: Ëthics is an optics."

Another reason why the I-other relation does not form a whole is because the other is totally other, not merely an älter ego." It is not the uniqueness of the self, the discovery of Kiekegaard and of so many other 19th-century philosophers (and poets as well), that is the ultimate epistemological challenge, but the absolute otherness of the other.


It is clear that there is a connection between the two modalities of Levinas's work: the philosophical and the Judaic or "confessional." But the connection is a complex one, and Levinas did much to downplay the relationship between them. 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, 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, and of being done with it (a "philosophical impatience"), whereas the Talmudic spirit is more attentive to the injunction (laassok bedivré torah to be engrossed in the words of Torah), and more inclined to remain ïn solution" than to find ä" solution that would obviate the necessity for further reflection. Perhaps there is more historical contingency than necessity involved in Levinas's policy of using different publishers for the two genres, since his academic career unfolded perforce within the dichotomy of "the underlying rift of a world attached to both philosophers and prophets."6

In my view, there is much to be gained in our understanding of Levinas's work to read it as a whole, and to be aware of the overlapping shoots and branches between the Talmudic readings and the philosophical works. 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. I will have more to say on this subject at the end of this paper; but now it is time to consider what it was that constituted for Levinas the essential elements of Judaism.

First, Levinas's Judaism is Hebraic: that is to say, the study of Judaic texts in Hebrew is an essential element of Judaism. The texts need constant interpretation and commentary. They are the ardent coals upon which we must blow in order to kindle new meaning. It should be mentioned that as a Lithuanian Jew in the tradition of the Gaon of Vilna and of Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, as a Mitnagdim (the group that opposed the Hassidim in 18th and 19th centuries), Levinas stressed the importance of the study of the Talmud, and of the scholarly and intellectualist approach to Judaism in general. This approach provides a medium not only not hostile to philosophy, but the very medium required to carry out the task Levinas foresaw for this Hebrew University of Jerusalem, namely "to translate the wisdom of the Talmud into modern terms, to have it face the problems of our own times."7

Second, just as I have shown the importance of the moral sphere in Levinas's philosophical consideration, so it can easily be shown that ethics is the essential meaning of Judaism. The emphasis takes the form of an insistence on actions, with much less emphasis on "belief" or a sense of the nuministic and the sacred.

Third, Levinas's more polemic writings, particularly those written in the Fifties and contained in the collection titled Difficult Freedom, contain a critique of Christianity, which is contrasted with the teachings of Judaism. It is particularly the experience of the Holocaust, and the fact that two thousand years of Christianity did not prevent Europe from ending ßix million defenseless lives"8 six million innocent lives in the cruelest manner imaginable, that informs Levinas's critique. It is the gap between doctrine and practice, but also a more nuanced critique that involves curious antimony within Christian life. Christianity "both overestimates and underestimates the weight of the reality it wishes to ameliorate."9 As a result, it has been quite conservative, politically, making concessions in one realm, the earthly, that it has not always considered of decisive importance. But by rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, it reassures Caesar, while setting its sights on a utopia.

What emerges from our brief examination of the relationship between the philosophical and the Judaic in Levinas is a complex interdependence. Levinas's philosophy (only one aspect of which we have considered here, the religious) is nourished and sustained by ideas emerging from a background of Judaic thought, specifically that of the Mitnagdim; at the same time, his Judaism is galvanized by certain ideas that have been more fully worked out in his metaphysical writings. Consider the implications of the following statement.

I do not know whether Judaism has expressed its metaphysics of the spirit in the terms I have just outlined, but I do know that it has chosen action, and that the divine word moves it only as Law.10

Levinas's relation to Judaism is thus critical, interior, faithful and partisan - and his metaphysics gives expression to what the philosopher takes to be his Judaism. 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. 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, who introduced the notions of "participation" and placed primitive thought on a plane equal to or even higher than that of the modern European.

The incomprehension that greets the ethical essence of the spirit - due in large part to forgetting Hebrew, reading a Bible frozen in translation, being unable to go back to the Talmud, which boldly unfolds the Bible in a way that reveals the whole spectrum of the human drama it assumes - today propels a whole young generation who wish to be faithful to notions that are totally foreign to Judaism. The Sacred - together with the fear and trembling, as well as the ecstasy, aroused by its luminous presence - becomes the key word, if not the grand concept, of a whole religious revival. What contemporary sociology discovered in the prelogical mentality of Australia and Africa assumes the status of a privileged religious experience. It is triumphantly set against the dry and mind-deadening moralism of the nineteenth century, the abomination of abominations. 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 6:7,8, or some similar passage)12 has caused the younger generation of Jews to seek enlightenment elsewhere.


The interrelation of Levinas's philosophical and his Judaic writings have a common denominator, whether it be expressed as the approach, proximity, the face-to-face, the for-the-other, or the interhuman: the notion of dialog as a movement from self to other. It is an overstatement, I believe, to posit language itself as the foundation, precondition and ultimate limitation of transcendence in Levinas, as one excellent study by Etienne Feron tends to do.13 Language is still a modality of that approach, that proximity within which the movement of dialog in the face-to- face takes place. As Merleau-Ponty might have put it, language traces preordained ways to the other, in a silence already pregnant with meaning. I prefer to thematize (and thus immobilize and thereby destroy, but hopefully also preserve or aufheben") that movement from self to other. It is a movement toward the outside, hahoutsa i.e. toward the outside though never ending in a mystic merger that would end its infinite transcendence.

In that movement the self, no longer riveted to itself, attains to its true vocation: that dialogual or dialogical modality that leads to an encounter without intrusion or annexation.


1Totalité et infini (The Hague : Nijhoff, [1961] 1984), 52. Henceforth abbreviated as TeI Totality and Infinity, trans. A. Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, n.d. [1969]), 80. Henceforth abbreviated as TI.

2TeI 49-50.

3TI 77.

4TeI 52, and TI 79, resp.

5Emmanuel Levinas, "Paul Celan: From Being to the Other," in Proper Names (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 40-46, passim.

6Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, n.d. [1969]), p. 25, translation slightly modified. 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).

7Emmanuel Levinas, Quatre Lectures talmudiques (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1968), 24. My translation.

8Difficile liberté (Paris : Albin Michel, 3e éd., Livre de poche : 1976), p. 143. Available in English, in the very unreliable translation by Seán Hand, in Difficult Freedom, henceforth abbreviated as DF (London: Athlone Press: 1990), p. 99.

9Ibid., p. 144. This and the following quotations are from short piece originally published in Évidences in 1950, titled Le lieu et l'utopie.

10Ibid., p. 145. DF, 100.

11Ibid., 145-146. DF, 100-10.

127 "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, With ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8. It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."

13De l'idée de transcendance à la question du langage, L'itinéraire philosophique d'Emmanuel Levinas (Grenoble, Éditions Jérôme Million : 1992).

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On 31 July 2002, 16:59.