Culture, Israel, Religion

Some Levinasian Torah

Learning Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity today with my hevruta, we came across the following statement.

“The idea of being overflowing history makes possible existents both involved in being and personal, called upon to answer at their trial and consequently already adult—but, for that very reason, existents that can speak rather than lending their lips to an anonymous utterance of history.” (p.23)

Levinas is making the following claim. History is often perceived as a narrative. Moreover since Marx and Hegel, for different reasons, history is seen as an explanatory tool of events. (Hence, the overused saying: history will prove me right (or wrong).) In this understanding, each moment is only a bit of history and it only makes sense once we get to the end. It is only in the arc of the historical narrative that each individual moment has significance. This is the claim that Levinas is denying.
“Being,” that is the whole infinite realm of existing which in and of itself does not have a narrative, Levinas writes, overwhelms “history.” When we grant “each instant its full signification in that instant”—that is, when we allow each moment of existing to have its own significance without having to be part of a narrative—the historical narrative is undone. This is a good thing. When it is the historical narrative which grants significance to the individual, the individual is melded into the collective and does not have a specific and unique personhood. When, on the other hand, each moment is allowed to flower in its own specificity, in its own relationship with being, then each person achieves a unique identity, an adult identity—that is an identity as a person with a name who is responsible (and should be held responsible) for their choices and their interactions with other persons.
Now, here is the kicker. As a result of the deconstruction of the (Hegelian? Marxist?) narrative arc of history by the significance that individual moments have, people are able to speak as individuals rather than “lending their lips to an anonymous utterance of history”—i.e. merely being in the chorus line of this or that “world-historical” movement.
As my hevruta and I were learning today, it struck me that this was one of Zionism’s claims—that any individual’s actions are only significant in relation to the national narrative. That each moment only has significance when understood through the lens of the “ends” of history. That the return to Zion was/is the return to history. In this Levinasian sense this is all true. Zionism was/is another call for the Jewish people to “lend their lips to an anonymous utterance of history.” On the other hand, as Levinas continues, “Peace is produced as this aptitude for speech.” The ability to speak as an individual and unique person undermines the collective utterance and allows the engagement with another person as a face to face encounter rather than a historical narrative to historical narrative encounter.

7 thoughts on “Some Levinasian Torah

  1. I agree with your assessment, but hope you realize Zionism is hardly unique in this regard. All forms of nationalism/tribalism create such a chorus to some extent or another. Granted, nations and tribes are inherently bad in themselves, but embracing such ideological constructs can often pit one in opposition to truth, which is never a good position to be in.
    Theologically, I take prohibitions against idolatry as a warning against such behavior, as aligning oneself to a particular chorus is metaphorically equivalent to crafting a graven image to worship in spite of God. As many nations and tribes learned throughout history when they grew particularly pretentious; He is a jealous God.

  2. Yes, of course, but a. Zionism makes a certain and specific claim on the Jewish people and b. that claim is all bound up in the “return to history.”

  3. But again this is not particularly unique. One notable corollary is the Manifest Destiny movement, during which Christians deemed themselves the new Chosen People and the Americas the new Promised Land, all backed by demented interpretations of Scripture to justify thier conquest.

  4. Aryeh’s point still stands, kyleb. Of course Zionism is not unique. It was modeled on already existing European nationalisms (and indeed, it is a European nationalism, in origin).

  5. Could this be about the coherence of means and ends? The question isn’t individuality vs community, as these concepts are intertwined and inseparable from each other. But we can ask if our community is striving to be in harmony with itself and others now (and therefore striving for a state of coherence of means and ends) or if it is willing to act inhumanely now for something else that it claims will be better later.
    There is a Zionism that sees holding onto political power at all costs as the goal and any means to carry that out are justified and there is a Zionism that sees sustaining Jewish cultures as a goal and recognizes that the surest way to destroy what is most worth preserving about them is the first thing that is destroyed when we adopt violent means to secure them. Both Zionisms are intensely communal.

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