Monday, June 30, 2008

The Heavenly Yoke


“No one would want to live in the world Levinas describes. We would all be completely overburdened with the impossible weight of responsibility.” So said the instructor in the Levinas course I started last week.

The course, at Toronto’s Anarchist Free University, is surprisingly packed: twenty five people from all sorts of backgrounds, no doubt attracted by the title of the course “Emmanuel Levinas and Ethical Responsibility.” As the course description says:

… Levinas attempts to show how the Western philosophical tradition has forgotten the ethical foundation to all human life and thought. … His writings have been incredibly influential in post-WWII European thought, shaping the work of Maurice Blanchot, Paul Ricœur and especially Jacques Derrida. … Levinas argues, this tradition forgets the ethical foundation to all human life and thought. His work over fifty years sought to show how the infinite ethical responsibility that arises from the relationship with the Other is "first philosophy." … Levinas's spiritual and ethical positions have influenced activists, intellectuals and statesmen around the world, such as Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, Jorge Semprun in Spain and Liberation Theologist Enrique Dussel.

Now Levinas – though I don’t claim to fully understand him – is one of my intellectual and spiritual heroes. In addition to his philosophical writings he also has an entire parallel body of Jewish writings. In these, he reveals that he views his philosophical project as “translating Hebrew into Greek.” By which I understand him to mean he is explaining/proving Jewish religious principals (as he understand them) in terms intelligible to Western philosophy.

And it is in this light that I understand the “infinite ethical responsibility” of which Levinas speaks, not, first and foremost, as an unbearable burden (though it might be), but as the traditional Jewish concept of “ol malkhut shamyim” - the yoke of the heavenly kingdom. This “yoke”, is indeed a burden, but also a privilege. It is what all religious Jews pray to be able to bear properly: to have the wisdom and strength to “do God’s will” – to act with full ethical responsibility. What’s more, we pray that one day all humankind will accept this yoke: and on that day “His name will be one”- and the messiah will indeed have arrived.

So when the instructor said: “No one would want to live in the world Levinas describes. We would all be completely overburdened with the impossible weight of responsibility,” my first – uncharitable and chauvinistic – thought was: “Goyishe Kop.” (Hey I never said I was perfect – just that I would like to be.)
But thats unfair. Maybe it is that Levinas has failed to truly “translate the Hebrew to the Greek.” Maybe “the Greek” will always be concerned with aesthetics and with intellectual stimulation, while “the Hebrew” will always be concerned with doing the right thing: philosophy versus religion: related, but different.

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