76984682 Meskin Role of Lurianic Kabbalah in Early Philosophy of Levinas


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48 LevinosStudies 2 Platonic science, of something of the Levinasian concern for moral primacy, for ethics as first philosophy. On the substantive issue, I do in fact believe Levinas would not have found much to take exception to in the Platonic assertion from Charmides: What makes up happiness is neither a life of knowledge in general, nor all the other sciences, but one science only: that which has as its object good and evil.21 The Role of Lurianic Kabbalah in the Early Philosophy of Emman
  48 Levinos Studies 2 Platonic science, of something of the Levinasian concern for moral pri-macy, for ethics as first philosophy. On the substantive issue, I do infact believe Levinas would not have found much to take exception toin the Platonic assertion from Charmides: What makes up happiness is neither a life of knowledge in general, norall the other sciences, but one science only: that which has as its objectgood and evil. 21 The R ole of LurianicK abbalah in theEarly Philosophy ofEm m anuel levinas J a c o b M e s k in  I n 1982 the American philosopher and Levinasã scholar Edith Wyschogrod conducted an interviewwith Emmanuel Levinas, the transcript of which shepublished seven years later. Early in the interview, Wyschogrod pro-posed to Levinas that his philosophy constituted a radical break withwestern theological tradition because it started not with a Parmeni-dean ontological plenitude, but rather with the God of the HebrewBible. The God Levinas began with, according to Wyschogrod, wasan indigent God, a hidden God who commands that there be a worldapart from God, because God needs the multiplicity of the world inorder for there to be justice. Levinas responds to this proposal: That's quite right. Justice, I callit responsibility tor the other, right? Thereis even in Totality and Infinity, the evocation of the tzimtzum [the ideain kabbalistic writings of the self-contraction of God in order to createthe void in which creation can take place], but I won't venture into that. I An intriguing remark, no doubt, but what does the phrase evoca-tion of the tzimtzum mean exactly? Does this reply of Levinas's say 49  50 levinas Studies2  anything about the nature of other work? In short, is Levinas tellingus something important here, and if so, what is it?Before addressing these questions, it is worth noting that with theHebrew term tzimtzum Levinas is invoking one of the most srcinaland influential ideas tound in the writings of the famous Jewish mys-tic Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-72), also known as Ha Ari, the Lion. R. Luria's lifeand work inspired both an enduring revitalization ofkab-balistic tradition and a truly vast, daringly imaginative, and dauntinglyintricate mystical literature. While there is obviously far more to thisliterature than tzimtzum, the idea of God's initial act of self-withdrawalin order to, as it were, make room tor existence different from andindependent of God, certainly bears extensive implications for theJewish mystical understanding of creation, human nature, the cosmos,and redemption. 2 It is, in addition, an idea that has long captivatedthe religious and philosophical imagination onew and non-Jew alike.Historians ofwestern philosophy and theology have noted the surprisingpresence ofLurianic tzimtzum in the works of such figures as Boehme,Schelling, and Rosenzweig among others. 3 However, the concept of tzimtzum that figured in the works of these thinkers had been, for themost part, extracted both from its original context in Lurianic texts,and trom the extensive speculation on tzimtzum of later Jewish mys-tics who came after R. Luria. 4 To return to the questions posed above, then, one answer might bethat in this interview more than 20 years after publishing Totality and  Infinity in 1961, Levinas was in tact revealing to his readers a less thanobvious, extra-philosophical source of inspiration on which he drewin composing that early masterwork. Perhaps, on the other hand, hehad learned something about the Kabbalah in those intervening 20years, and so had come after the fact to see some sort of/oose affinitybetween his earlier philosophical approach and the Lurianic conceptof tzimtzum. Perhaps on the third hand, as both philosophers andtalmudists liketo say,Levinaswassimplyenjoying an elevated intellectualconversation, and so seized an opportunity to suggest a comparisonat once playtlll and fascinating, but with no real textual roots. Meskin lurianic Kabbalah in Levinas 51 Without denying that Levinas was invariably charming in his inter-views, I will nonetheless argue in this paper that the first possibility isclosest to the truth. In other words, I will be claiming that Levinasactually had some knowledge of Kabbalah, in particular of LurianicKabbalah, when he sat down to write Totality and Infinity and, evenmore importantly, that we can find certain Lurianic notions at work  in this classic of twentieth century philosophy. Moreover, I will iden-tifY a unique historical pathway through which Levinas may haveacquired this knowledge, one very different trom the usual pathwaythrough which western philosophers have in the past gained whatever,largelydecontextualized knowledge ofLurianic Kabbalah they may havepossessed. This sort of twofold claim, namely that Levinas both knewsomething about Lurianic Kabbalah and put this knowledge to con-crete use in his philosophical argumentation has not, to the best of myknowledge, been advanced before. Indeed scholars have not, tor themost part, devoted a great deal of attention to the general question of kabbalistic influences in Levinas's work. 5 As we are about to see, thepresent claim isone that scholars in several fields are likely to find quitecontroversial.For starters, there is the matter of Lurianic Kabbalah itself. Givenits markedly esoteric character, and the sheer number of kabbalisticthinkers and adepts over the past 500 years who have continued todevelop R. Luria's insights and practices, scholars and perhaps eveninitiates must venture into its truly labyrinthine depths with justifiedtrepidation. For example, some of the most significant recent sec-ondary work in Lurianic Kabbalah has tocused on trying to untanglethe immensely contllsing compositional history and divergent strataof the original texts circulating under R. Luria's name, a sinequa non without which it is difficult to trace the historical flow of Lurianic texts and ideas. 6 It follows from this that claims invoking thepresence (in any sense) of this multifarious and more or less esotericbody of texts will need, at the very least, considerable clarification andspecificity.  - -~ - - - -------------------- 52 LevinosStudies2  Secondly and perhaps even more crucially, there is the surprising asser-tion that Lurianic Kabbalah played a role in the philosophical writingsof Emmanuel Levinas. It might well seem far more appropriate to inves-tigate the role of such traditional Judaic mystical materials (if any) inLevinas's Jewishapologetic writings, rather than in his philosophical ones.Not only do the philosophical texts feature few references to thingsJewish, they also hew fairly strictly to the traditions and conventionsof modern philosophy, producing a thematic coherence and carefullyshaped, overarching argument utterly unlike the visionary hermeneu-tic and ritual texts in the Lurianic canon. The present attempt to track down such apparently heterogeneous material in Levinas's philosophywill, therefore, raise many a critical eyebrow.These two points having been raised, however, this paper's centralclaim may incite controversy for still other reasons, which would haveto be called disciplinary. The historian grown wary of claims suggest-ing influence; the philosopher certain that only issues of rigor andnot of provenance matter in philosophical argumentation; the Jewishstudies scholar trained to see a vast gulf separating Kabbalah from mod-ern Jewish thought, and the modern Jewish thinker suspicious of mysticism and appeals to what may seem irrational and irretrievably  past- all of these might proffer reasons to wonder about the value of the present inquiry.These are all weighty issues that must be addressed. I will return tothem shortly below, but for the moment I want to attend to a morebasic query, one that many readers may find themselves entertainingat exactly this juncture. That question is the following: outside of thebrief passage from Levinas's interview cited above, why would anyonethink that there might be Lurianic ideas afoot in Levinas's texts in thefirst place? What might make this strange notion seem even vaguelycredible? Let me then cite two short excerpts here from the pages of  Totality and Infinity itself. While these excerpts have been previouslydiscussed, notably by Mopsik and Ajzenstat, for the moment I invoke Meskin LurianicKabbalahin Levinas 53  them solely to underscore the presence of Lurianic motifs in Levinas'sphilosophy.?The Place of the Good above every essence is the most profound teach-ing, not of theology, but of philosophy. The paradox of an Infinity admit-ting a being outside of itself which it does not encompass, andaccomplishing its very infinitude by virtue of this proximity of a sepa-rated being - in a word, the paradox of creation - thenceforth losessomething of its audacity ... But then it isnecessary to cease interpretingseparation aspure and simple diminution of the Infinite, a degradation.Separation with regard to the Infinite, compatible with the Infinite, isnot a simple fall of the Infinite. (TI  103; 76)Infinity is produced by giving up [en renonfant  a]  the invasion of a total-ity,in acontraction that leaves aplace for the separated being. Thus rela·tionships that open up away outside of being take form. An infinity thatdoes not remain enclosed circularly in itself, but withdraws from the onto-logical extension so as to leave a place for a separated being existsdivinely. Over and beyond the totality it inaugurates a society. The rela-tions that are established between the separated being and Infinityredeem what diminution there was in the contraction creative ofInfinity.Man redeems creation. (TI  104; 77; translation modified)These rather amazing excerpts speak volumes. Here, in the first partof  Totality and Infinity which introduces the overall framework of thebook's argument, Levinas straightforwardly borrows the Lurianic ideaoftzimtzum and puts it to use in two ways. In the first excerpt he drawson it to reinterpret both the Platonic idea of the good beyondbei1~ andthe Neoplatonic scheme of emanation, arguing that both - far fromrepresenting a loss of an otherwise unitary infinity- capture the rich-ness of a new, pluralistic, and relational form ojinfinity. In the secondexcerpt Levinas uses the notion of tzimtzum to help define termswhich will stand at the absolute center of  Totali~'Yand Infinity)s argu-ment, such as totality, separated being , and of course Infinity. Nor do these excerpts stand alone, since there are several others likethem in the book. Even more importantly, these Levinasian invocations  5 _ 4 _ L f!in _ a _ s S ~ tu d _ je s2 _ of an infinite which divinely contracts itself to make room for separatebeings clearlycannot be dismissedasmere rhetorical flourishes.To extendWittgenstein's famous locomotive metaphor, these borrowed or adaptedLurianic concepts are working parts of the engine, and not merely orna-mental. 8 The work they do, and the way they do it, will be essentialto Levinas's philosophical argument in Totality and Infini~y. This paper, then, will be devoted primarily to making an initial casefor the admittedly multifarious claim stated above. In addition I willoffer some reflective responses to the sharp disciplinary challengesraised above. Although it will not be possible to address all of these indetail in this paper, I hope that even the somewhat condensed responsesto these challenges I ofter below will convince readers that much moreis at stake here than several seemingly recondite questions of intellec-tual history. Indeed, fundamental interpretive issues in philosophy, reli-gious studies, and modern Judaism are involved. The vast majority of secondary work on Levinas has focused on analyzing his relation toHusserl, Heidegger, and Derrida, with some attention also to othercontinental figures and to classic older thinkers. This is understand-able, and also immensely beneficial, given the seemingly endless rich-ness of Levinas's relationships with these philosophers. Yet so muchmore remainsto be saidabout Levinas- almost asifthere were avibrantlite in the midst of his texts that, even with the revelatory power of much current secondary work, still remains in the shadows. The effortsundertaken here aim to start describing this shadow life and tobring it into the light, in order to appreciate its vital contribution toLevinas's thought and texts. 9 This will also have the added benefit of specitying a hitherto hidden reason that readers and critics alike findLevinas's philosophy so compelling, so powerful. This is by no meansto make the fatuous assertion that Levinas was a mystic, for he wasnot.But it isto highlight Levinas's living receptivity to the dynamism con-cealed in traditional sources, and to praise his creation of rigorouslyphilosophical texts within which we can nevertheless hear the echo of other, heterogeneous texts and insights. Here we have a vital paradigm ---- _ _ . . ¥ .e sk jn _ _ L u rja n j~ ~ a _ b b _ a l_ a h!_ n L ~ e v jn a L _ 5 J . for modern Jewish thought, both that of the past and that which mustcome today.My argument in what follows fallsinto four parts. First of all, I willindicate at least one highly probable historical pathway through whichLevinas may have learned something about the Kabbalah. Despite myrelatively brief treatment here, I think it will become evident quicklythat the historical details involved point to a truly engrossing andenigmatic story, one that has in fact already served as the subject of several articles and even a book. Secondly, I will describe what is,arguably, the basic structure of the overarching philosophical argumentof  Totalityand Infinity. This sets the stage for the third part of the paper,in which I argue that this basic structure bears witness to the influenceof Lurianic ideas. Finally, in the fourth part I attend to the aforemen-tioned disciplinary critiques. I have also included an appendix follow-ing the text which offers some speculation about another aspect of Levinas's argument in Totality and Infinity that seems to possessLurianic resonances. W H E N P A R A llE l L IN E S M E E T Although the following may sound fancifulor even slightly subversive,one of the most influential figures of postwar Jewish intellectual andspiritual life in the twentieth century may be an almost completelyunknown individual whose works are studied neither in the academynor in the yeshiva. This person had only a small group of students, forhe never held any formal academic or rabbinic post. Yet the list of hisvery few dedicated disciples includes the names of some very importantwriters and teachers in Jewish life in the second half of the twentiethcentury, names such as Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, EmmanuelLevinas, and Shalom Rosenberg of Hebrew University. This mercur-ial, unpredictable, and secretive man, who cherished his obscurity andignored what one might call the normal rules governing polite inter-change possessed, according to all reports, an unsurpassed command
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