Emmanuel Levinas: Beyond Cucumbers

guest blog from Ivan Sindell

“Cucumber Magic, Cucumber Illusion” referenced Emmanuel Levinas, and he does have interesting things to say about cucumbers, witches and the huts in the field where they live, and the Rabbis who knew about these things. The essay was “Desacralization and Disenchantment” in Levinas’ Nine Talmudic Readings, translated by Annette Aronowicz (Indiana Univ. Press, 1990).

I thought it would be interesting to know a little more about him.

Emmanuel Levinas’ Background

The French Jewish Philosopher Levinas lived in two quite different worlds: Jewish Education and the most rarified atmosphere of French Post-Modern Philosophy.

He was the director of the French Alliance Israelite Orientale, an institute for training teachers in Jewish subjects for Jewish Education outside of France, in countries such as Syria. That was before he became a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne- a post-modern Husserlian.

It was while he was a professor of Philosopher that he would go once a year and give a Talmud Lecture to a conference at the Institute. Nine Talmudic Readings is the first of what I believe are five books of these lectures and other related writings.

While his philosophical texts are difficult – this a an understatement – I loved his Lectures.

In the late forties Levinas had studied Talmud with M. Chouchani. (More on Chouchani.)

Levinas’ Ethics

I went in to reading Levinas with a positive attitude. If I understand what he said, it was that we are responsible for each human being that we meet. Whereas Buber talked about relationships, Levinas requires no prerequisites. He says your responsibility includes all human beings with the exception of a very, very few – like Hitler, and he actually says no more than one dozen.

I like him because of his ethics: see this essay by Edith Wschogard in Shema, a Journal edited by Eugene Borowitz. (Download article here)

If you read only one chapter in Nine Talmudic Essays, I would recommend “Damages Due to Fire.”

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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