Page 124 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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idence of the ethical encounter. Neither the face, nor proximity,
nor the infinite can appear in a philosophical court. They are
too ambiguous and evanescent. But on the other hand, there
are traces of these experiences. Traces themselves are ambig­
uous and can point to something which cannot appear on its
The idea of trace leads to the essay “God and Philosophy,”
because ultimately it is God who cannot be present but who
leaves traces in the face of the other person. Following a long
Jewish tradition, God cannot be seen, cannot be real in the nor­
mal sense of the word. Instead, God appoints us to care for
the other, and the most we can say is that God has passed by.
Better, I can say “Here am I” or “In the name of God, I am
at your disposal.” The importance of this essay for Jewish
thought will appear more fully below, but for philosophy the
importance is remarkable because it shows how Jewish themes
can reorient philosophical thought. Levinas contests the distinc­
tion between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abra­
ham, Isaac, and Jacob. But unlike medieval or modern Jewish
thinkers, he does not force Judaism to conform to the philo­
sophical idea of God, but rather interrupts the traditional con­
cepts of philosophy and theology with an insistence on a God
who commands us to care for our fellows but does not appear.
He does not defend Jewish religious experience of God. Instead,
he insists on the inaccessibility of God, except through com­
mandment. The possibility of making philosophy think Jewish-
ly, think ideas which do not easily fit into its tradition of re ­
flection, is a new opportunity for postmodern Jewish thought.
One could argue that this sort of translation or adaptation of
Jewish themes into philosophical texts is a trademark of Jewish
thought since Philo, including many medieval thinkers. But
Levinas manages to overturn central concepts of philosophy in
the process. His postmodernity is reflected in both demanding
a new orientation to the traditions of philosophy and in his
continuing a positive relationship with philosophy.
While several secondary texts have now appeared on Levinas’s