Page 126 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
and the full measure of his impact on Jewish thought depends
on exploring the correlate impact on philosophy itself.
JEW ISH WRITINGS
Levinas’s Jewish thought takes various forms. The central text
is
Difficult Freedom
.6 This is a work that stands as one o f the
great collections in twentieth century Jewish thought. It is un­
fortunate that the English translation is quite poor, at times
ridiculous. The text rises above its treatment, but the version
we have now will in many places confuse those who cannot look
at the French. Levinas segregates his Jewish writings from those
for a philosophical audience, but we still find a philosopher
at work in those Jewish writings. This text collects various short
and long pieces, some written for academic audiences, some
for Jewish-community audiences, some directed to Jewish ed­
ucators, some for the broad reading public. In the first edition
there were several pieces on Khrushchev and the Soviet Union,
and in both editions there are pieces on Israel and Zionism.
Levinas was an educator for several decades, principal of the
Normal School for the Alliance, and so he writes with passion
and knowledge about developing Jewish education. He steers
a careful course between assimilation to and denunciation of
European culture, trying to advocate a contemporary, distinctly
Jewish, contribution to Europe.
What emerges from several of the essays is a Judaism which
focuses on responsibility. In the discussions of the opening sec­
tion (“Beyond Pathos”), Levinas defines Judaism not as a matter
of sentiment, ethnicity, or birth. Instead, he focuses on the pow­
er of Jewish texts and their commandments to define what it
means to be a Jew. Most of all, being Jewish is being responsible
for others. He defines Judaism by the view of responsibility
he develops in his philosophical texts.
In the second section, Levinas produces a commentary on
passages from the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin which discuss
messianism. These commentaries are the first examples in a
genre Levinas has developed. For almost thirty years he has
presented commentary on talmudic texts at the annual confer­
6. Emmanuel Levinas.
Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism.
Trans, by Se£n
Hand. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.