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Emmanual Levinas (1906-95) was a contintental philosopher, credited with introducing the thinking of Husserl and Heidegger to France. He was raised in the Lithuanian Jewish community, however, and that heritage became increasingly important to him in the 1930s, culminating in his study of the Talmud following WWII. The nine lectures collected in this volume were originally delivered by Levinas between 1963 and 1975. In the guise of commentaries on specific passages of Talmud, these lectures represent Levinas' attempt to "translate" the values and the concerns of the Talmud into the terms of 20th Century phenomenological discourse. Levinas' main concern is with the ethical aspect of Judaism, and the universal role it (in its specificity) plays. Each lecture begins with a passage from the Talmud, which Levinas interprets line-by-line. Although the interpretation often strays far afield from the plain meaning (and even, sometimes, beyond the symbolic or didactic meaning) of the passage under consideration, I do not think that the rabbis would disagree with Levinas' conclusions. Most of the lectures ultimately turn to one's radical responsibility to and for the other. It is not enough to be good oneself: "the righteous are responsible for evil before anyone else is. They are responsible because they have not been righteous enough to make their justice spread and abolish injustice." (186) Levinas' interpretation of the story of the Gibeonites is particularly thought-provoking in these times: the Gibeonites demanded talion (a life for a life) for the wrongs done to them by Saul; in doing so, by failing to show mercy toward the other, they excluded themselves from Israel.Read more ›
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Emmanuel Levinas' ethical philosophy is also becoming more known in North America lately - he is very popular in Europe and Israel. He received a "good Jewish education" as a child but was no yeshiva boy. After he moved to France and studied with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger he developed after WWII his ethical philosophy. At the same time he started to learn Talmud with the mysterious Mr. Chouchani. The combination of his original philosophical thought with his knowledge of Talmud became popular topic of a number of lectures that finally became part of this book. For someone who has never encountered the Talmud it might be difficult to follow his reading and understand some of his original interpretations. It is a very fine example of how to give an ethical reading of an ancient text and make it meaningful for our time.
In the Indian University Press edition of 1994 some of the "page" quotes referring to the Talmudic passages are incorrect which is irritating.
This is the book that's noted for the famous quote about how we might be able to forgive some Nazis but never Heidigger. And while that's a great line, it's even more profound in the context of a story about a rabbi that didn't begin teaching again for the last late student - a seemingly inocuous action that had great consequences. While the traditional interpretation (rabbis have greater learning and leadership roles and therefore greater responsibilities) is in line with Levinas' argument, his invocation of Heidigger at once makes the Talmud contemporary and profound.
Every one of his readings of the Talmudic passages (and note that these are aggadic passages. Levinas is humble enough to understand that many better and more learned philosophers have mined the halacha) illuminates the Talmud and the contemporary society, showing how the Talmud is still a revolutionary text despite its long history. Of course, the methodology that he uses and his conclusions are great for those that have no Jewish learning.
I read this book when I was first contemplating a conversion to Judaism and while it spoiled me for some methods of learning, it definitely gave me enough learning to see that I was on the right track. Anyhow, I could gush forever on the importance of this book, but suffice it to say that you should buy it.