Page 128 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
and for the style. He admits that he is not trained for the rigors
bf halakhic argument. But the issue is also ideological, because
Levinas respects but avoids what we might call an Orthodox
reading of Talmud. Levinas shows respect for such traditional
perspectives, and indeed credits them with preserving the texts
and also the Jewish people. But his concern is to discover a
freedom of thought and argument in the text — one which
requires a philosophical orientation — in order to explore how
the text can have meaning for our contemporary problems.
A second approach that Levinas chooses to avoid (though not
ignore) is the critical-historical method. Levinas takes as his as­
sumption that different epochs can communicate about certain
themes, and thus that talmudic discussions can contribute to
our current self-understanding — indeed, that what Judaism
needs is precisely this contribution. Not that Levinas ignores
the texts or their contexts — but that his exploration of the
texts is not to find out about their time and the history of ideas,
but to find out what the Sages can teach us today.
The emergence of a philosophical Talmud, however, is not
a reduction of the Talmud to some universal principles. Instead,
Levinas must explore the details, the arguments, the structure
of the text. Much of what he says ‘goes without saying’ to tal­
mudists. Indeed, to many learned readers the readings Levinas
proposes will seem largely introductory, even amateurish. But
to the larger Jewish public, these texts show the way that rab­
binic texts can teach us — without invoking piety and without
becoming merely historical artifacts.
The guiding light of Levinas’s readings is a certain sort of
narrativity in a
sugya.
He treats the text as possessing a sequential
logic. Thus he navigates the discontinuities of speakers and of
topics (and of language, generation, place, and so on) in order
to find a conceptual sequence that restores a certain integrity
to the text. Although he does not refer to the editors and the
editorial hand, Levinas assumes a thoughtful, consistent and
rigorous editor.
One of the most important readings is the third, which ex­
amines the discussion of God holding Mt. Sinai over the people
when offering the commandments (Shabbat 88a-b). This is ide­
ally suited to Levinas’s sense that ethics is responsibility, a re­
sponse to a command which I did not initiate. He calls the read­
ing “The Temptation of Temptation” and makes it into a battle