Emmanuel Levinas

A 20th-century philosopher whose Jewish sensibility influenced his encounter with Western thought and ethics.

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Talmudic Readings

Beginning in 1963 Levinas engaged with Jewish sources through a series of "Talmudic readings," combining the insights of Western philosophy with rabbinic interpretive methods. He sometimes referred to this in terms of translation: Hebrew sources were to be translated into "Greek," meaning the language of the European philosophical tradition, but also meaning something more ambitious: Levinas sought to find lessons within Talmudic literature that might shed light on unresolved problems remaining in European thought.

Furthermore, and more controversially, Levinas thought that reading both the Bible and the Talmud in the light of contemporary political problems, might help us to interpret those texts themselves. He once said: "The translation of the Septuagint [the first translation of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek] is not yet complete," implying that Jewish texts had to be continuously "re-translated," in his metaphorical sense, to remain relevant. The idea that Levinas' "post-Heideggerian" reading of the Talmud could somehow be superior to previous rabbinic approaches has earned Levinas detractors within Jewish thought, but also many devotees eager for a new conversation between "Athens" and "Jerusalem."

Levinas' Legacy

In part because of his friendship with major figures such as Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot, Levinas has become a truly influential figure in continental philosophy, sometimes grouped with Derrida and other "postmodern" philosophers. Interestingly, Levinas has also become one of the voices in the contemporary conversation between philosophy and theology (both Jewish and Christian), valued for his arguments that both religion and philosophy can contribute to our running conversations about human values.

Levinas has been accepted--perhaps inappropriately--by some postmodernists as a sort of "Rabbi," an authoritative speaker on matters of Jewish tradition, because he provided readings of Jewish texts that are agreeable to a postmodern sensibility. Levinas argued for the open-endedness of texts, the importance of interpretation, and the relevance of biblical and Talmudic religion, offering a philosophical account of ethical responsibility in both philosophy and Judaism. Still, many of Levinas' interpreters attempt to disentangle these two strands from one another, but while he wrote for different audiences during his lifetime, it has become increasingly clear that neither "side" of his intellectual project is entirely comprehensible without the other.

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Benjamin A. Wurgaft

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a graduate student in History at the University of California. He also writes on food culture and the arts for a variety of magazines.