Page 120 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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ROBERT GIBBS
Levinas and Jewish Thought
E
m m a n u e l
L
e v in a s
is
revitalizing Jewish thought and also help­
ing to reorient contemporary philosophical discussion. But the
reception of his work in the English-speaking world is slow and
uneven. His major philosophical works have been known to a
small circle of phenomenologists for some time, but only re­
cently has his position as a leader in postmodern thought be­
come clear. Levinas’s Jewish works, moreover, have only recent­
ly begun to receive attention and translation in America and
England, and so the full import for Jewish thought is yet to
emerge here. Nonetheless, consideration of the effects in France
and of the first writings here indicate that Levinas will signal
a renewal of the concern for ethics coupled to an energetic and
creative re-engagement with rabbinic texts. In many ways,
Levinas appears as the leader for what we may call postmodern
Judaism, combining a deep interest in Jewish thought with a
contemporary philosophical perspective.
We may begin with Levinas’s philosophical themes, because
even there we can see an agenda deeply resonant with a tra­
dition of Jewish philosophy. Levinas is often compared with
Buber because Levinas emphasizes what Buber called the
‘I-you,’ the face-to-face encounter where speech and ethics be­
gin. More significant, however, is his relation to Franz
Rosenzweig, and particularly
The Star of Redemption,
because
Levinas adapts much of the logic and structure of Rosenzweig’s
work. And like Rosenzweig’s teacher, Hermann Cohen, Levinas
makes the task of ethics the fulcrum for all thought. This tra­
dition of ethics, profoundly Jewish and rigorously philosophical,
characterizes Levinas’s work.
A useful introduction for the non-philosopher has recently
appeared.
Ethics and Infinity
1is an interview with Philippe Nemo,
1.
Ethique et L’infmi.
Paris. Librairie Artheme Fayard, 1982. Trans, by Richard
Cohen as
Ethics and Infinity.
Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985.
1 1 2