The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Understanding Emmanuel Levinas as a Jewish Thinker

This paper argues that three things are essential to (1) understanding Emmanuel Levinas as a Jewish thinker and (2) understanding what constitutes our humanity, Jewishly understood: the holy, the face, and time. Many philosophers have something to say about these things, inasmuch as most philosopher have something to say about the ultimate, about the human being, and about the world or “being.” In Levinas’s concern with the holy we seen the key to what he calls the “otherwise than being” or the “height of being,” as it is manifested in a human relation expressive of a higher relation. The holy, it is explained is not part of the ontological space-time landscape; rather it is an irruption of that landscape. The relationship between one human being and another is revealed as both human and as a relation in the face-to-face encounter, which, according to Levinas, is the unfolding of an awe-inspiring absolute, what he refers to as “glory.” Here the prohibition against murder that issues from the face is the fundamental condition for meaning in human life. It is, therefore, without context and is prior to all the determinations and coordinates of culture, society, race, gender, and so on. Finally, Levinas associates time not with being but with the otherwise-than-being, that is, with God: time is the presence of God in the realm of space. This is where the absolute ethical commandment announces a responsibility yet-to-be fulfilled. In the urgency of the word and the deed about to unfold, we are overcome with awe in the presence of the other. Thus, it is argued, we discover how the holy, the face, and time are interwoven, and in that interweaving our humanity announces itself.