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Goodbye, Mr.

Chouchani - Haaretz - Israel News

Rated Jun 18 2008 • 1 review • judaism, monsieur chouchani •

From the page: "Even his many admirers - one of whom was the
philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the same man a
"wonderful teacher" and claimed he was
able to decipher any Talmudic text.
Levinas repeatedly emphasized that his
own understanding of the Talmud (as
expressed in his book "Nine Talmudic
Readings," translated by Annette
Aronowicz) is only the "shadow of the
shadow" of what he learned from his
great teacher. Shalom Rosenberg,
Hebrew University professor of Jewish
philosophy, who met this same man a
few years before he died in South America 35 years ago,
regards him as his most influential teacher and continues to
regret that he has not done enough to disseminate his

Friends and students knew him only as "Mr. Chouchani"

(pronounced "Shoushani"). He would sometimes call himself
"Prof. Chouchani," but that was apparently only one of the
names he used. He spent his life traveling in East Europe,
France, the United States, British Mandatory Palestine, North
Africa and South America. A solitary, eternal wanderer, he
always wore pauper's clothes and sought food and lodging
among friends. He zealously concealed his past, yet wherever
he went, he left behind many admirers who were astounded by
the scope of his knowledge - in both Jewish and general fields -
and his skill at integrating various realms to produce stunning
innovations. In his memoirs, Wiesel wrote that, wherever he
mentioned Chouchani in the world, he invariably encountered
people who had met him and had been profoundly influenced
by him.

Many people consider Chouchani to be one of the 20th

century's greatest teachers, certainly in the Jewish world, and,
simultaneously, one of that century's most mysterious figures.
He was a sort of human comet who darted through the skies of
the 20th century and generated a storm in the hearts of all who
met him. French-Jewish journalist Salomon Malka, who wrote a
book about Chouchani, called him the "20th century's most
enigmatic teacher." Once, in a conversation between Rosenberg
and Levinas, two of Chouchani's most prominent disciples,
Rosenberg said that the "world is divided into those who knew
him and those who did not." ....
Whether his real name was Rosenbaum or Perlmann, Chouchani
grew up in Eastern Europe as a child prodigy who, from an early
age, knew the Bible and Talmud by heart. The prevailing
assumption is that he had a remarkable photographic memory
and that his mind worked like a scanner. Rosenberg and others
(basing themselves on the meager amount of information they
gleaned from Chouchani) relate that Chouchani's father would
travel with his son through East European villages, earning
money from the boy's amazing displays of memory skills. There
must have been something very traumatic in such a childhood,
something that none of his friends was ever able to decipher,
but which turned Chouchani into an eternal wanderer and a
person incapable of utilizing his immense capabilities in any
formal framework."


Monsieur Chouchani is the (assumed) name of a mysterious Jewish teacher of uncertain

origin who taught Talmud, philosophy, and mathematics to a small number of
distinguished students in post-World War II Europe and elsewhere.

Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher who introduced Heidegger to

France, called Chouchani "a marvelous master."

Elie Wiesel described his initial 1947 encounter with Chouchani in "Legends of Our
Times" (Chapter 10). He was a "dirty," "hairy," and "ugly" "vagabond" who accosted
and berated him in Paris in 1947, and then became his mentor. Wiesel wrote of him
again in his memoir "All Rivers Run to the Sea" (pp. 121-130).

Aside from some "indecipherable manuscripts" cited by Wiesel, Chouchani (or

Shushani) left no body of work.

"His birth and his life are sealed in enigma," according to his gravestone in Montevideo,
Uruguay, where he died in 1965.

A French journalist named Salomon Malka wrote a 1994 book about him, entitled
"Monsieur Chouchani: L'enigme d'un maitre du XXe siecle," which has just been
reissued. It may be of interest to a few. See:
Page d'accueil

A phenomenological outlook at the Talmud.

Levinas as reader of the Talmud
Shmuel Wygoda
Hebrew University and Herzog College
In the course of the last twenty years, we are witnessing a steady interest in the various
aspects of Emmanuel Levinas' philosophy. This is a welcome development for the
Levinassians around the world, those who have had the privilege to know him and study
with him personally as well as those who share the feeling expressed by Richard Cohen:

I remember distinctly to this day the impression Levinas made on me. 'This is true', I
thought, in contrast to all the philosophers and philosophies which are fascinating or
provocative1 .

The philosophy of Levinas is indeed revealing itself to be both ethically profound and
intellectually stimulating. No doubt, that it is primarily anchored in the
phenomenological tradition of Edmund Husserl, and in constant challenge with
Heidegger's ontology or as in Eugen Fink's term "meontology". However, Levinas'
philosophy includes yet another element, I refer to Levinas' "reading" of Jewish texts in
general and of the Talmud in particular. This aspect of Levinas, while mentioned by
scholars has not yet been scrutinized in any common measure with the extensive study
and analysis of his "general" philosophy. The reasons for this are multiple. On the one
hand, there is no doubt that the thrust of Levinas' work is indeed concerned with his
attempt to suggest ethics as the basis for metaphysics thus replacing ontology, including
all the philosophical implications of such an effort. On the other hand, the Talmud as a
monumental work which has been the basis for Jewish law, philosophy and life for
some sixteen centuries is to a large extend difficult to penetrate, and requires years of
acquaintance and intensive study, mastery of the Hebrew and Arameic languages and is
of an idiosyncratic style drastically different from the Western or - as Levinas would
call it - Greek one.

Hence my paper will include the following parts:

A brief presentation of the Talmud

A brief description of the main modes of learning Talmud

A short presentation of Levinas' encounter with the Talmud, leading to his Talmudic

An attempt to describe Levinas' specificity as reader of the Talmud both intrinsically in

what characterizes him and in his relationship the classical approaches to the Talmud.

Finally, three examples from Levinas' talmudic work selected to illustrate one
characteristic feature of his specific mode of reading various sections of the Talmud.

The Talmud

The Talmud both mirrors and constitutes the civilization of the Jewish people. Over the
centuries, the Talmud became synonymous of Judaism to the extend that when a
prominent Rabbinic scholar in the twentieth century, Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg,
wished to describe Judaism in general, he did it by refering implicitely to the Talmud:

It never seeked narrowness, rather it covered all aspects of life and impacted them. It
never narrowed itself within the four cubits of religious ritual but encompassed all of
Man's deeds and capabilities; developed and spiritually influenced creation in all
areas, nature as well as art, science as well as politics, everything that human spirit
encounters2 .

The Bible is certainly the basis in which Rabbi Weinberg's description is anchored.
However, the Jewish tradition does not apprehend the Bible as autonomous, but rather -
as Levinas stressed time and time again - through its oral conterpart the Talmud 3 . In
that sense the Talmud is the true mirror of Jewish civilization. Formally, it represents
the cumulative work of Rabbinic scholars ranging from the time of Ezra until the sixth
century of the common era. Essentially however, it has been both the focus and the
locus of Jewish scholarship and practice in all areas including Law, Philosophy,
Theology, and customs. Historically it is composed of two distinct layers: The Mishna
and the Gemara. The Mishna - a term based on the hebrew root Shin-nun-heh which
implies both study and repetition - refers to the corpus of statements of Jewish scholars
from as early as Ezra until the end of the second century of the common era. This
corpus was edited by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, who codified and edited it in six main
Orders. From the beginning of the third century and for some four hundred years, this
corpus was studied, discussed, challenged and mainly commented in two centers: In the
Yeshivot, or Rabbinical Academies of Babylonia (corresponding more or less to today's
Irak) and in the northern part of Israel. The proceedings of these discussions became in
turn the Gemara (from the arameic Guimel-mem-rech meaning study), and together
with the Mishna they form the Talmud. As mentioned there were two centers of study
reflected in two Talmuds: The Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud of Jerusalem thus
called in honour of Jerusalem the political capital and its Tempel both destroyed around
the year 70 of the common era. The Talmud of Jerusalem was edited towards the end of
the 4th century of the common era, while the Babylonian Talmud was edited about two
centuries later.

Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, editor of the Mishna, collected, selected,organized and for the
first time published in writing, the enormous body of oral traditions that existed for
many centuries. He decided to organize them in six orders or "sedarim". They include:

Zeraim: (litteraly seeds) - Man and Earth

Moed: (litteraly special time) - Man and Time

Nashim: (litteraly women) - Man and Spouse

Nezikin: (litteraly damages) - Man and Society

Kodashim: (litteraly sanctities) - Man and the Holly

Taharot: (litteraly purifications) - Man and Death

Let me elaborate a little on each of these orders:

- Zeraim: Man and Earth deals primarily with issues related to the agricultural world
and by extension to the right of the poor as well as laws of blessings and prayers.

- Moed: Man and Time deals mainly with the laws of special times such as the Shabbat
and the various Jewish Festivals

- Nashim: Man and his or her Spouse deals with the various laws regulating marriage
and divorce and in general, all gendered related issues.

- Nezikin: Man and his or her fellow Man and by extension Society deals primarily with
the entire corpus of Civil and Criminal Law. It is in this order that appear the famous
Pirkei-Avoth or Maxims of the Fathers which reflect many of the moral values of the

- Kodashim: Man and the Holy includes primarily all the issues pertaining to the
Service of the Temple (sacrifices, rights and duties of the priests and levites) and via
oppositio the alimentary laws of Kasheruth which regulate what kinds of food are
permitted to be consumed. It is important to stress that while this order is formally
called the Holy, it is by no mean exhausting this central concept which lays at the very
basis of all the Six Orders of the Mishna and of Judaism in general.

- Taharoth: Man and Death deals with the various aspects of Purity and Impurity and
their legal implications all basically related to the phenomenon of Death4 .

Let me conclude this introductory part about the Talmud, by saying something about the
litterary style of this corpus. Each of the six orders is in turn divided into several
Tractates, each focusing on one (or several) main issue(s). It should however be noted,
that each Tractate deals with a wide range of issues from all six orders, and not only
with its main focus. Issues of various kinds are intertwined in a bizarre manner, thus
creating a World Wide Web of Suggioth or themes inorderly arranged.

Furthermore, one can distinguish two types of Suggioth: Halakha and Hagadda, the
former including the legal and formal component of the Talmud, while the latter refers
to its Philosophical and Homiletic aspects. Here again both parts are constantly
interwoven, resulting in a complex litterary entity.

The main modes of learning Talmud

Ever since the end of the sixth century when the Babylonian Talmud was edited it has
become the main focus of Jewish Scholarship. Sure enough the Bible was still studied
but it was (and in traditional circles still is) apprehended first and foremost through the
Talmud. The thrust of Rabbinic literature was devoted to commentaries on the Talmud.
Even the realm of Jewish Philosophy which grew primarily on the ground of
philosophical and theological challenges addressed to Judaism by alternative
Philosophies and Religions, cannot fully be comprehend if one is not well acquainted
with the Talmud and its subsequent Rabbinic literature.
Talmudic scholarship includes primarily the traditional way of learning as it developed
during centuries mainly in the world of the Yeshivot (Talmudic Academies) in Europe
and North Africa. In the twentieth century, a critical approach emerged in the academic
world in the footsteps of biblical criticism. It is important to stress that the two modes of
learning are uneven, as the classical approach bears a critically greater importance with
respect to the scope of creation it generated over past centuries and still does to this day.

a) The traditional way of learning:

The classical and most common way of learning Talmud is and has been for centuries,
the traditional one. In this approach the Talmud is perceived first and foremost through
its legal aspects. While not presented in a systematic style, it nevertheless incorporates
all the key components needed for the elaboration of a sophisticated legal system, and
Jewish scholars such as Maimonides in 12th century, Rabbi Joseph Karo and Rabbi
Moses Isserliss in the 16th century, have elaborated and codified entire Jewish legal
systems first and foremost on the basis of the Talmud and its former commentaries.
They in turn have become references for Talmudic scholarship from then on. In this
approach, the main attention is given to the Halakha or legal component while the
Aggadah i.e. philosophical or homiletic component is usually not as highly regarded
and kept for usage in sermons or more suited for those who are unable of an ongoing
demanding analytic effort.

An important variant of this first style is the Pilpul5 , a kind of intellectual analytic
exercise, not at all aimed at edifying the normative religious behavior but rather looking
at the very intellectual effort applied to the study of Talmud, as a goal in itself, not any
goal but the most noble one a Jew can aspire to, which bears not only cognitive
meaning, but also ritual meaning of utmost significance.

b) The critical approach:

Another and different approach to the Talmud, has emerged in the course of the last two
hundred years. The critical reading of sacred texts, initially applied to the Bible has
within a short period of time been applied to the Talmud. The term critical refers to the
historical-philological method, which is based on two main components:

An attempt to verify the most accurate version of the text is a necessary stage, bearing
in mind that the Talmud was completed towards the end of the sixth century and was
recopied for at least nine centuries with various degrees of accuracy, due both to mere
technical difficulties and at times to ideological polemics.

An effort to determine the various historical layers of the text, the internal and external
influences which are reflected in it, on the basis of both historical and linguistic data
within the text, and available relevant and reliable external sources.

The critical method has become the main occupation of the academic world interested
in Talmudic studies. Its adepts take pride in the fact that this approach is based on
accurate versions of the original texts, and aims to recreate the environment of its
historical elaboration, while its opponents deplore its lack of innovation as it does not
surpass the historical and philological aspects6 .

Levinas' encounter with the Talmud in general and of the Talmudic Readings in

At this point, I would like to move from the Talmud per-se to Levinas' encounter with
it. At the outset, I would like to stress the rarity throughout history of a prominent
philosopher involved at the same time in a serious attempt to study the Talmud.

While born in Kovno, Lithuania one of the main centers of traditional Talmudic
scholarship in Europe, and while he mentioned on several occasions that "he was
acquainted with the square letters before the Cyrillic ones" Emmanuel Levinas was not
exposed to any serious Talmudic education during his youth in Eastern Europe. He was
indeed exposed to the reading of Hebrew as his first language, but this reading was
limited to the Bible and basic Jewish texts. Whether it was because at the age of 11 the
family had to move to Kharkov, Ukraina, due to World War I, where learning
opportunities of the Talmud were not available, or for other reasons, the fact remains
that in his youth Emmanuel Levinas did not confront the Talmud. In fact, some of the
research I have conducted on this issue, leads to the conclusion that for many years
Levinas did not have any significant appreciation of the richness of the Talmud.
Though, this is not to say that he did not develop an appreciation of Judaism in general
and traditional Judaism in particular. As recently as two years ago, an article by Levinas
was "rediscovered". He wrote this article on the basis of an interview he gave on a
Jewish program of the French Radio on April 9th 19377 . The article is entitled: "The
meaning of religious practice"8 , In this article, Levinas stressed the importance of
Jewish Practices and Customs. The importance of this article for those interested in the
Jewish aspect of Levinas' philosophy is considerable, as it is probably the earliest
document suggesting Levinas' commitment to "Halacha" or Jewish Law. However the
fact remains that it was not until after the War that we have any testimony about
Levinas' first encounter with the world of Talmud. How did this come to be?

In 1945 Levinas closest friend, Dr. Henri Nerson a Jewish obstetrician, told him about
an outstanding and quite bizarre individual he came to know during the years of the War
in the area of Vichy. The man was so unusual that even his real name was not known.
He used to be called Chouchani but this was more of a nickname than his true one. His
external appearance was quite unpleasant, some say even repugnant. However,
according to Nerson his knowledge was phenomenal. Nerson, who was known for his
sober way to apprehend people and situations, was clearly in a state of excitement as if
he would have become an adept of some sect. He strongly recommended to Levinas to
meet Chouchani, but for two years Levinas refused. After all, he had studied general
philosophy with Maurice Pradines (1874-1958), psychology with Charles Blondel
(1876-1939) "to who one could say anything", classical philosophy with Henri
Carteron, (1891-1927) an outstanding expert on Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas,
sociology with Maurice Halbwachs, phenomenology with Edmund Husserl and his
disciple and noted opponent Martin Heidegger, Levinas was quite suspicious as to what
this "clochard" looking man could contribute to him. Finally in 1947 Levinas agreed to
meet Chouchani. We know very little about the meeting itself. But there exists a myth.
The myth9 suggests that they met for an entire night, and in the morning Levinas said to
Nerson as he was about to leave: I can not tell what he knows, all I can say is that all
that I know, he knows". Be the accuracy of this myth as it may, one fact remains
undisputable. From then on, Levinas became interested in the study of Talmud to a
point where most of his free time, he would devote to studying it. At this point, I would
like to suggest to separate between the myth of Chouchani and the very real intellectual
experience Levinas had with this individual as bizarre and strange as he could have
been. By doing so, I am faithful to Levinas himself. For it was him, who in several of
my meetings with him, when I referred to the eccentric aspects of Chouchani of which I
had heard from many told me: "This is the "rocambolesque" aspect of Chouchani, it is
not the essential one"10 .

For the next five years Levinas studied at length with Chouchani. Alone, with Nerson
and in a weekly study group that would study Talmud and which included in addition to
them a small group of friends. In 1952 Chouchani left France for Israel, and came back
in 1956 for about six months before leaving Europe definitely for South America where
he remained until his death in 1968. After he left, the study group continued for many
years, with Nerson leading and preparing the text and Levinas often suggesting his own
way of reading it.

In 1957 the French Jewish historian, Edmond Fleg, decided to create a forum that would
provide an opportunity to present to the intellectual youth in France a Judaism different
from the one offered in the Synagogue11 . From the first stages of this new project,
Levinas was part of the nucleic group who worked with Fleg and after his passing
shortly thereafter, led what was going to be known as the Colloque des Intellectuels
Juifs de langue Française. Every year, usually in the fall, a conference or Colloquium
was (and still is to this day) organized around a central theme. The theme was decided
upon by the Organizing group, who tried to choose a topic which is either central in
Judaism, e.g. Forgiveness, Shabbat, the Land of Israel, the Bible, the Messianic
Concept, Temptations of Judaism, or Model of the West etc or a topic which was
relevant to the general intellectual community such as the two topics chosen after the
May 68 events: a) The Youth and b) Judaism and Revolution, the Self etc.. From the
very first colloquium, the organizers included a lecture on the Bible, by Andre Neher.
Cain and Abel, Job (Jo'b), Isaiah as a political prophet, were some of the first lectures
Neher gave. At that stage no one even thought to include a talmudic counterpart to the
lectures on a Biblical theme, primarily because of the idiosyncrasy of the Talmud and
the a priori difficulty to reflect on its meaning in Western terms.

In the first colloquium, Levinas did not speak, only participated in the discussions and
debates. In the second one, in September 1959 he gave a paper, though not related to the
Talmud at all, he spoke of Franz Rosenzweig12 . It was not until the third Colloquium in
September 1960 that Levinas started to use the Talmud as the basic text on which he
would address the Theme of the Colloquium. His first lecture, not yet named Talmudic
Reading was entitled: "Temps messianiques et temps historiques dans le chapitre XI du
"Traite Sanhedrin"". It was the French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch, noted
disciple of Henri Bergson who chaired the meeting and introduced Levinas by saying:
"We shall first hear a lecture by Emmanuel Levinas on Messianic Times and Historic
Times". Levinas first words were:

It is not a lecture I have to give, but rather an analysis of text, of a Talmudic text, or to
be more precise of three talmudic texts. I don't think that this 'genre' has been much
practiced before such a wide and importance audience. The analysis of a talmudic text
by someone who is not a talmid-hacham, who did not spend his lifetime to study
talmudic texts according to the traditional method, is a very daring undertaking, even if
the one who dares doing it, has for a long time familiarized himself with the square
letters, even if he got a great deal from these texts for his own intellectual life"13 .

From that year on Levinas gave every year a "talmudic reading" which he connected to
the general theme of the colloquium. These "readings" became the backbone of Levinas'
Jewish thought. Levinas published them in five books which appeared during his
lifetime while the last of his Talmudic readings was published posthumously less than a
year after his death14 .

Levinas' specificity as reader of the Talmud

The short quotation from Levinas' first "talmudic reading" in which he apologizes about
daring to comment the Talmud, even if he not a "talmid-hacham" i.e. a talmudic scholar,
and similar apologies which Levinas made in the introduction to most of his Talmudic
Readings should not be seen as mere expressions of true or false modesty. Levinas
knew quite well that he was not a "talmid-hacham" and it disturbed him for several
reasons. First, because he was aware of his ability to reach significant intellectual
achievements. He, who came to France at the age of 18, had been recognized by such
personalities as Jean Paul Sartre, Gabriel Marcel, Jean Wahl, Levy Bruhl, Jacob Gordin,
and Maurice Blanchot, knew quite well that within a short period of time, he had
reached some very substantial achievements of which he had the right to be quite proud.
But, paradoxically, it was precisely in Talmud, an area of scholarship in which
Lithuanians had been excelling for centuries, that he, born in Kovno, a capital of
Talmudic study, was still basically a beginner. Second, because the years of study with
Chouchani gave Levinas the absolute conviction of the intellectual richness of the
Talmud, not only - as a religious text, but as the sublime intellectual expression of the
Jewish people, an expression which could and should measure up with the
Greek/Western one. Levinas has expressed this conviction later on, in the foreword to
his Four Talmudic Readings:

Everything has been thought, at least around the Mediterranean during the few centuries
preceding or following our era "15 .

This is not a statement made by a Rabbi or theologian. Let us remember that this
statement appeared in 1963, two years after the publication of Totality and Infinity,
Levinas' philosophical magnum opus, a book, which many consider as one of the most
important oeuvres in twentieth century philosophy.

The importance of the Talmud for Levinas:

At this point, I would like to consider what did the Talmud represent for Levinas,
pointing at three features which characterize his relationship to it:

The Talmud as Referential Framework:

While Levinas did from an early stage on, conceive his philosophy in a oppositional
movement against both nineteenth century Hegelianism and Nietzscheanism and from
1935 on against his own teacher Heidegger, he found in the Talmud as he learnt it with
Chouchani, an entire system that could provide him with a referential framework for
this opposition. Levinas, never based himself on neither the Bible nor the Talmud. As
he commented in an interview to the French radio given after the publication of his
book In the time of Nations", I never took verses as premises for my philosophical
arguments" however he added they could be valuable conclusions'' which one could
understand as follows: Texts emanating from Revelation cannot enter the philosophical
discourse as basis for any argument, however, once the philosopher has reached his own
rational logocentric conclusion, he is fully entitled to express it or to illustrate it through
any literary medium including texts based on Revelation. Furthermore, the philosopher
who has elaborated his system, can draw from another culture ideas and concepts
through which he wishes to express that which he cannot express on the basis of the
conceptual framework suggested by "Standard" philosophy. This could happen in one of
two cases: either when the concepts he borrows from another system are antithetical to
"Standard" philosophy, or when the concepts he borrows simply do not yet exist in that
philosophy. In 1960 when Levinas started to lecture on Talmudic texts, his philosophy
was well established (his Doctorat d'Etat was submitted the same year, and it would be
published as Totality and Infinity a year later). By that time, he came to fully appreciate
precisely the unique aspect of the Talmud, as a system through which an alternative to
Philosophy could be suggested:

" It is certain that, when discussing the right to eat or not to eat an egg hatched on a holy
day" or payments owed for damages caused by a "wild ox" (thus referring to the
beginnings of tractates Beitza and Baba Kama) "the sages of the Talmud are discussing
neither an egg nor an ox, but are arguing about fundamental ideas without appearing to
do so. It is true that one needs to have encountered an authentic Talmudic master to be
sure of it. To retrace one's steps from the questions of ritual - which are quite important
for the continuity of Judaism - to philosophical problems long forgotten by
contemporary Talmudists would indeed demand a great effort today"16 . This is
precisely the effort that Levinas aimed at, while bearing in mind he lacked the means to
do it in all the areas of the Talmud, nonetheless suggested thereby a method which can
be applied.

It is important to point at two major points in the passage we just quoted. First, Levinas
expresses in it his conviction that not only in passages of Aggada (i.e. homily) the
Talmud discusses "fundamental ideas" but in Halachik (i.e. normative or legal) ones as
well. The two examples he brings are both taken from Halachik texts, one regulating
what the behavior permitted or forbidden on a day of Festival, the other related to Civil
Laws regarding damages. Levinas' statement here is of great importance as we know of
next to no attempt to suggest a "philosophical" reading to such legal texts. Levinas
himself focused in his reading on the homiletic texts. Yet, he suggests here to try and
measure up with the challenge of reading beyond the first aspect of the text. At the same
time it is important to stress that Levinas does not erase the legal or ritual "prima faci"
reading of the Talmudic text, but rather qualifies them as "quite important for the
continuity of Judaism"17 .

b) The Talmud as means to express in Greek what Greece cannot express.

This leads us directly to another central theme in Levinas' talmudic readings. I am

referring to the translation of the Torah (written Bible through the Oral Talmud) into
Greek, which has often been conceived, as a mere didactical tool. The Torah expressing
the beliefs, values and norms of a particular nation, ought to be translated into Greek
that is, into Universal discourse, if one wants to make it accessible to those who nourish
from non Judaic sources. However, for Levinas, the concept of the translation of the
Torah goes far beyond this goal. The act of translation is necessary in order to express
in Greek what Greece herself cannot express. Indeed, Philosophy has taught from early
on, that Metaphysics is to be grounded in Ontology. Ontology in turn, has traditionally
taught us in different ways about the primacy of the self over the other. Without
scanning the entire history of Ontology, it suffices to mention several names in order to
be reminded of this point. Hobbes developed the concept of a Natural Right which
essentially does not have to take into account the presence of an other who has the very
same right. Thus the problem of coexistence emerges and Hobbes aims to solve it by
introducing his famous Leviathan. Spinoza focused upon the idea of the Conatus
essendi, the aspiration to persist in one's being, notwithstanding the other. Much of this
is true as far as several of the main philosophies of the nineteenth century are
concerned, though with different emphases as to the concern with and responsibility for
the other. Finally, one does not need to elaborate much on the impact that Heidegger
and his concept of Sein and Dasein had on continental philosophy in the twentieth
century18 . While Sein und Zeit is not indifferent to the existence of others, (Mitsein),
the primacy of the Self cannot be disturbed by any other". Levinas from early on,
challenged these views, in two programmatic articles which served as basis for Totalité
and Infini. Is Ontology fundamental" and "Freedom and Commandement" both
challenge the primacy of the Self, and begin to develop a phenomenology of the other,
focusing on its ethical implications, thus laying the ground for Totality and Infinity and
later Autrement qu'être ou au delà de l'Essence,(Otherwise than Being or beyond

The Talmud provided Levinas, with a possibility to demonstrate that the concern for the
other is not a mere theoretical or rhetorical exercise. Throughout his Talmudic
Readings, Levinas analyzed human situations as they appear in the Talmud and
expressed them in philosophical terms, that the metaphysical tradition could not have
expressed. Throughout his Talmudic reading, Levinas polemicized with ontology thus
understood.. Indeed, for Levinas the Talmud is not only - as any great text - transferable
beyond the time and place of its redaction, but it provides an alternative way to express
that which the West, from Ionia to Iena - as Franz Rosenzweig defined it - did not
express; could not express. Let me give an example as it appears in the very last reading
Levinas gave in December 1989.

Commenting on a text of Tractate Hulin, which suggests that the merit of Abraham who
said I am dust and ashes" (Genesis:18,27), the Jewish people was rewarded by the two
commandments of the Ashes of the Red Cow and the Dust used in the ritual designed to
left the suspicion of a husband against his wife. Let me focus briefly on two little
aspects of this reading. First the Ashes of a Red Cow used in the time of the Jerusalem
Temple to purify those who came in contact with the dead. Levinas while mentioning
that this law is traditionally defined as a "Hok", i.e. a religious prescription whose
rational or explanation is not given, thus becoming part of Satan's agenda to mock those
who respect it, suggests his own reading:

"The contact with the dead is always a chock quite sufficient to remind death itself, in
its negativity with no distinction nor exception, death always already my death... The
notions of purity and impurity impose themselves upon thought, free of all their
superstitious or mystical reminiscences. Impurity is the name of an already sordid
egoism, which death - my death - awakens as ultimate wisdom. The fact that Abraham's
awareness of his being "dust and ashes" did not carry him away from his des-inter-
essement19 , from his concern for the other - near or remote - the fact that the true values
remain true for him, despite the death for which everything is the same, this is the true
purity of Humans truly human of whom Abraham is father"20 .

Levinas finds here in one of the most difficult concepts of Halakha, a source that
enables him to announce in Greek the very antithesis to the Greek tradition. Abraham in
this passage from the Torah, argues with G-d Himself, in favor of no one else but the
Sodomites of whom the Bible recounts, and the inhabitants of Sodom were wicked and
sinful to G-d" (Genesis 13,13).

At the end of the very same reading the Talmud compares the behavior of Abraham,
Moses and Aron and David who humbled themselves to various expressions of
nothingness, to their pagan counterparts, who expressed their pride. It goes on by
suggesting that Moses and Aron who questioned: "what are we?" is greater than
Abraham that still thought in terms of dust and ashes. It concludes by bringing a
teaching from Rabbi Ila'a: "The world subsits only through the merit of he, who in a
quarrel restrains himself to nothingness "bolem azmo beshaat meriva". As it says "He
hangs the earth upon nothing" (belima) (Job, 26,7). Rabbi Abbahou said: the World
rests only upon the merit of the one who thinks of himself as nothing, as it says "
Underneath are the arms of the world"(Deuteronomy 33,27). Commenting this passage
in a Colloquium which dealt with the issue of the Self, Levinas fully aware of the
hermeneutical "freedom" used by the Talmud in suggesting that the word "belima"
literally meaning "restraining" could be read as "beli-ma" 'without something', suggests
in fact not a philosophy which is still anchored in one's own being, though capable of
concern for the other, but one where the concern for the self totally evaporates: "peace
as meaning of any ontology... maybe the chaos of which being emerges, expressed as an
original fight"21

What a philosophy! Not Spinoza and his Conatus Essendi nor Nieztsche and his endless
struggle for power, not Hegel and his implacable historicism nor Heidegger and his
concept of the Dasein as Sein zum Todt. In all of these philosophies Man can not be
genuinely concerned for the Other. He has to survive and gain power, and the pursuit of
survival is almost by definition solipsistic. It can leave no room in Man's primary
concern but for his very Self. Levinas reading the Talmud discerns a diametrically
opposed philosophy. Man is capable of acting not as a wolf to his fellow man, but rather
humanly, to be concerned for the other's well being to the point where he willingly will
let the other's interest precede his own, where is will restrain himself to nothing, this is
what the Talmud teaches about the world and about the role of Man in it.

c) The Talmud as text par excellence

The centrality of the book for Levinas is well known. He had a very special relationship
to books. In Ethics and Infinity he went as far as saying: "What is written in the souls, is
first written in books"22 . But here we ought to ask: What truly deserves to be called a
book? Does any bound written or printed paper truly deserve the name of book? By
extension the same question is to be asked about any 'real' text. What is really a text for
Levinas? Before I get to Levinas, I would like parenthetically to quote a statement
written over 850 years ago, by Maimonides, one of the greatest Talmudists ever and
certainly an important philosopher. In one of his famous letters about determinism and
astrology, Maimonides complained bitterly about the fact that "nowadays" i.e. 850 years
ago, people have started to develop a tendency to believe all what they see written,
particularly if it bears the form of a book. ``I tell you about the big and real evil, that all
the things that an individual will find written, will be considered by him at first as truth,
and so much more so if these things will be written in ancient books, and if these are
books which people have dealt with and studied in, it will immediately convince the
opinion of this hasty individual as he will say to himself: Does the lie deserve to be put
in writing, is it possible that people deal with these matters for no good reason?23

Is the book for Levinas the same it is for Wilhelm Dilthey, who defined it inclusively:
"Human testimonies put down in writing24 ". It seems to me that through this question,
we are pointing at the very essential aspect of the Talmud for Levinas. It is indeed the
"book par excellence". First and foremost, because it always solicits the reader, never
allowing for a final and exclusive interpretation to be accepted. Levinas, pointed to a
captivating fact which often strikes new students of the Talmud. In its debates about
many issues, it brings opinions, which will eventually be rejected by the Halacha,
allowing even in some extreme cases to bring opinions which are considered heretical
and theologically opposed to the basic corpus of beliefs which have singularized
rabbinic Judaism since its earliest days. Such an extreme example can be find in one of
the first readings offered by Levinas, related to Messianic era. In the last chapter of
Tractate Sanhedryn (98b), the Talmud discusses many aspects of the Messiah, a central
concept in rabbinic Judaism, both internally as an essential principle of belief - e.g. for
Maimonides who counted it as one of the thirteen basic principles of faith which bind
any Jew throughout the ages - and externally in the many polemics Jews had with
Christian opponents. The Talmud while debating about many aspects of the Messiah
and the Messianic era, brings a very uncommon idea on behalf of Rabbi Hillel: "There
shall be no Messiah for Israel, because they have already enjoyed him in the days of
King Hezekiah". The immediate reaction of the Talmud to this unorthodox suggestion
is: "Rabbi Joseph said: May God forgive Rabbi Hillel for saying so". Levinas reading
this passage comments:

"Rabbi Hillel's rejected opinion none the less figures in some way in the minutes of the
discussion. His opinion in not purely and simply passed over in silence. When one
knows the structure of talmudic thought, wherein a valid thesis is never effaced, but
remains as one of the poles of a thought that circulates between it and the opposite pole,
one can measure the true value of Rabbi Hillel's affirmation"25 .

Levinas' methodological comment here is of utter importance in our attempt to describe

his way to read the Talmud. For him, any opinion worthy of having been recorded in the
'minutes' of the Talmud, bears its own importance and can be compared to an electrical
pole which either positive or negative, contributes essentially to create an electro-
magnetic field. This phenomenological importance of all aspects of the text, engages the
reader to find what could the meaning of the rejected opinion be and what is its
contribution to the making of truth.

The Talmud is the book par excellence for yet another reason. It always challenges the
reader to find his own reading of it, stating that the Torah has 70 faces, thus leading
Rabbi Haym Vital, one of the renaissance Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) most renown
scholars, to go as far as suggesting that on each word of the Bible there as no less than
2.400.000 legitimate explanations, given than each of the 600.000 Israelites who stood
at Mt. Sinai had his own idiosyncratic way to understand the Word of G-d in its
quadruple dimensions: Pshat - the Literal, Remez - the Allusive, Drash - the Homiletic
and Sod -the Mystical. And yet, at the very same time it requests from the learner to
approach the text through his acquaintance with the richness of the hermeneutic
tradition that has read it thus far. Commenting upon a strange Talmudic text from
Tractate Megillah, which suggests that the Holy Scriptures "make the hands impure"
Levinas offered his own midrash on this passage, thus shedding light on his
understanding of the appropriate approach to Jewish classical texts:

"Due to the fact that the hand touches the uncovered Torah scroll, the hands are
declared impure. But why? Is it certain that the bareness of the scroll only means the
absence of a covering over the parchment? I am not sure that that absence of covering
does not already and especially symbolize a different bareness... And is the hand just a
hand and not a certain impudence of spirit as well, that seizes a text savagely, without
preparation or teacher, approaching the verse as a thing or an allusion to history in the
instrumental bareness of its vocables, without precautions, without mediation, without
all that has been acquired through a long tradition strewn with contingencies, but which
is the opening of horizons through which alone the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures
reveals the secrets of a renewed inspiration. Touched by the impatient, busy hand that is
supposedly objective and scientific, the Scripures, cut off from their inner breath,
become mere onctuous, false or mediocre words, matter for doxographers, linguists and
philologists. Therein lies the impurity of these inspired texts, their latent impurity"26 .

Levinas while commenting an obscure talmudic passage, turned this commentary into
an hermeneutical program. He stressed upon the importance of the "coverage" of the
hands, by suggesting that in approaching the text, one should first rely on the
hermeneutical tradition, and only then add his own new reading, thus enriching that
very tradition with a new commentary.

However, beyond the double requirement suggested by Levinas in this innovative

commentary, one can clearly discern a fundamental requirement of a text. For Levinas,
a text is first and foremost the expression of an other" individual. The text once written
is ipso-facto an address to the reader, who together with the writer engage in a common
endeavor which consists of opening the horizons of the text in order to 'reveal the
secrets of a renewed inspiration'. It is this understanding of what one can call the
responsibility for enabling the text to express all that it can, which explains Levinas'
reservation regarding the historical-philological method. Paradoxically, the adepts of
this method who are claiming absolute fidelity to the text, are in fact preventing it from
expressing all that it can express. By narrowing the text solely to its original meaning or
to the famous äuthor's intention" they in fact impoverish it from it full potential to bear
meaning beyond the limitations tributary of its elaboration.

As we mentionned before Levinas teased the adepts of the historical-philological

method, for reducing the Bible and/or the Talmud to mere "matter for doxographers,
linguists and philologists". This is not a single or rare expression of disagreement with
this method. It seems to me, that this disagreement in inherent to his own perception of
the Talmud as book par excellence.
In general Levinas has been very critical of the historical-philological method. While
recognizing that it sheds an important light on the accuracy of the text (lower criticism)
he felt that the overriding concern with the various layers that consist the text is made
of, precludes the ßcientists" from attempting to understand the intellectual richness of
the text. In a short passage from his In the time of nations", he stated:

Ä page of the Talmud, though it can be read as a document from a certain period
reflecting a set of historical circumstances, is above all (even in the state of affairs and
facts it sets forth) the expression of a teaching of Jewish culture and wisdom. Even if,
for example the historical account of the Pentateuch's translation into Greek in the
second century B.C.E. were but a legend, or even if it were merely the repetition, as an
eminent historian of the Septuagint has pertinently said, of a "guidebook blurb" (for
tourists and pilgrims visiting the annual act of that translation was celebrated), the
miraculous history of this "guidebook blurb" is, in the Talmud, an apologue or, if you
will, a midrash. The very fact of having been recorded in the Gemara, the fact that the
'redactors' of the Talmud considered it worthy of remembrance and transmission, and
beyond its anecdotal value it contains a truth independent of its historical reality and is a
teaching. It is this truth that interests us. Background knowledge and historical criticism
are not, in my view, devaluated thereby, and I shall turn to them on one point, as I
conclude. But it is impossible to say everything everywhere at all times, and one must
not loose sight of the forest amongst the trees, however interesting their genealogy may
be"27 .

It is interesting to remark that Levinas did not oppose systematically the historical
philological method. He used it to a certain extent. However, by focusing solely on
them, one misses the "truth" of the text. According to Levinas, that "truth" is not
monolithic but rather contains as many layers as there are ways to look at en entire
forest versus defining the exact physiology of all its trees. This is why he often relates to
those who focus on the historical philological method as lacking to see the wealth of the
text, by paying attention only to external features of the text and putting aside its full

I quoted before, from the programmatic paragraph of Levinas' commentary on Tractate

Megilla about the hands which should not seize the text in its bareness where he
emphasized the duty towards the text to approach it through the medium of tradition. In
that reading as in many, he indeed followed his own suggestion. However, I would like
to point out to the fact, that quite often, Levinas contrary to his own recommendation,
approaches the text directly, with no clear reference to the hermeneutical tradition
related to the given texts he comments. Though it may be due to the fact that he "came
to Talmudic texts late and on the fringe of purely philosophical studies"28 . But it seems
to me that a biographically based explanation, fails to see the uniqueness of Levinas'
talmudic approach. In the next section of this paper, I would like to suggest that it is
inherent to his phenomenological reading of the Talmud. But before that, it is worthy to
note a final reason for the Talmud to be considered by Levinas as the book par

It is continuously concerned with the human situation. In describing briefly in my

introduction what are the Six Orders of the Talmud, I opted to describe them as Man
and Earth, Man and Time, Man and Spouse, Man and Society, Man and the Holy, Man
and Purity. This focus on Man is not fortuitous, but rather reflective of Talmudic
tradition, which called the attention of Levinas, given his focus on Man as the other.

A phenomenological outlook

In a small book entitled: "Transcendance et intelligibilité", prepared during his lifetime

but published a year after his passing, Levinas contemplated the ability of the concept of
the Infinite to contract or limit itself into the human mind. "How can the idea of the
infinite contain itself in a finite thought"29 . In this book Levinas also tried to define
what means to do phenomenology:

"But, doing phenomenology, is not only against the subreption, sliding and subrogation
of meaning, warranting the significance of language threatened in its abstraction or
isolation; it is not only controlling it by questioning the thoughts which it shocks and
lets be forgotten. It is mainly looking for and searching in the horizons which open
themselves around the first ïntentions" of the given abstract, the human - or interhuman
- intrigue which is the fulfillment (concretude) of its un-thought (impense) [it is not
purely negative], fulfillment which is the necessary ßtaging" for the detachment of those
abstractions in the ßaid" (dit) of words and propositions. It is seeking the human or
interhuman intrigue as the fabric of the ultimate intelligibility. This may also be the way
of return to the wisdom of heaven to earth".30

This rare definition by Levinas of what "doing phenomenology" is, fits or shall we say
perfectly reflects his own understanding of the Talmud. Not only because of "return to
the wisdom of heaven to earth", for that alone would have been mere theology (a realm
he tried to avoid although he did mention it at the very end of this article), but primarily
because it refers to phenomenology as seeking in the horizons of the abstract given, the
human intrigue. No doubt that in doing so, Levinas parts away from the original
Husserlian definition of phenomenology as visee, vision, will and intention expressed
through the well known dichotomy (or shall we say parallelism) of noesis-noema. But
by doing so he joins another prominent phenomenologist, who has focused most of his
work precisely on the phenomenology of language and hermeneutics, I refer to Hans
Georg Gadamer. For Gadamer, language as such is universal, because all which takes
place in the world can be expressed through language.

"Language is not a closed domain of what can be said, versus which there would be the
language of what cannot be said, but on the contrary language includes everything"31 .
For Gadamer, this is what enables the act of inter-lingual translation 32 . This feature of
language ought not to be perceived in its mere technical aspect. For Gadamer language
is fundamental in human existence, since it is through language that anything can bear
meaning. Hence, "Being that can be understood is language"33 . Hence, Hermeneutics,
initially perceived as a systematic reflection upon the adequate means to interpret texts,
becomes a universal dimension of being: "By seeing that language is the universal
medium of this mediation, we were able to expand our inquiry from its starting point,
the critiques of aesthetics and historical consciousness and the hermeneutics that would
replace them, to universal dimensions. For man's relation to the world is absolutely and
fundamentally verbal in nature, and hence intelligible. Thus hermeneutics is, as we have
seen, a universal aspect of philosophy, and not just the methodological basis of the so-
called human sciences... In view of the experience of art and history, we were led to a
universal hermeneutics that was concerned with the general relationship of man to the
world"34 . Being can be understood by speech. Comprehending speech requires for
Gadamer what he calls a: "fusion of horizons" and language is the substrata of that
fusion. In another passage from a later work he elaborates:

"Language synthesizes continuously the horizons of the past and the present. We
understand each other inasmuch as we talk to each other, inasmuch as we do not talk the
same language and yet eventually we do bring before the others through the usage of
words, things expressed by words"35

Gadamer's understanding of language as the encompassing relationship between man

and the world, as the ability to express being in words different from our own, is what
defines for Levinas a text in its highest form. And this is indeed what Levinas found
more particularly in the Talmud. First because the Talmud is - as I have shown -
explicitly concerned with all aspects of the relationship Man - World, and second
because it says this relationship in the mode of talking. Indeed, the style of the Talmud
is by and large dialectical (not in Hegelian meaning of this concept, rather in its
etymological one, closer to Dialogue). The Arameic talmudic expression used for that
is: Shakla ve Taria: Question and Answer. Not as an exclusive mode of expression but
with questions and answers interwoven in the thematic discourse of each of its tractates.
Furthermore, this dialectical mode goes on through the ages, as any learner of the
Talmud enters in fact in the dialectical (or dialogual) mode.

5) Levinas' Talmudic Readings, as a phenomenological midrash.

In this final section, I would like to focus on a single element, which in my opinion
singles out Levinas as a phenomenological reader of the Talmud. Furthermore it points
at a possibility to look at Levinas' talmudic readings as a unique literary genre, which I
will entitle as "phenomenological midrash".

Significance of the medium:

In a typical talmudic debate, several questions may be raised. A Mishna brings a new
concept or idea, which the Gemara will in turn analyze. Often, this will be done, by
virtue of trying to identify the scriptural source of this idea in the Bible. This process is
in current use throughout the Talmud, and is commonly perceived as technical. If the
Rabbi involved can find a passage or at least a verse, which includes a word, which has
a similar etymology, it could corroborate the suggested idea, and thus the idea will be
accepted. Levinas however, raises systematically the issue of the surrounding horizon
from which the scriptural source has been selected. For him, (unlike most classical, neo-
classical and modern talmudic commentators) the very choice of that horizon cannot be
fortuitous and must be seen as an integral part of the Suggiah. It is part of the talmudic
"phainomestay", and as such cannot be ignored. Let me give some examples of this.

In the reading named Äs old as the world", Levinas selected a Suggiah from Tractate
Sanhedrin to address of the Colloquium, whose subject that year was Is Judaism
necessary for the World?". The chosen text, starts with a Mishna which describes
amongst other things, the Judges geometrical sitting order, in a court authorized to
decide upon the life and death of an individual. The Mishna states:
"The Sanhedrin formed a semi-circle so that it members could see each other".

The Gemara asks for the scriptural basis for this rule. It answers:

"We learn from verse 3, chap 7 of the Song of Songs: "Your navel is like a round goblet
full of fragrant wine, your belly like a heap of wheat hedged about with roses"

Levinas while following the regular talmudic process asks a question, I do not recall
having seen asked by any other talmudic scholar:

"... the nature of the text chosen for this purpose will still astonish us. The Sanhedrin
with its magnificent semi-circle, making human faces show themselves to each other,
with a perfect hierarchy, attesting to an objective and subjective absolute order, will find
its basis in an erotic poem, in a verse of the Song of Songs.

Of course the Song of Songs permits of a mystical interpretation, but for those who are
forewarned - or, without prior assumptions, for the mysticism of the Song of Songs is
not a mystification - it is an erotic text"36 .

This statement by Levinas is uncommon amongst rabbinic commentaries on the

Talmud. Most of the commentators dwell on the exact word in which the Talmud
anchors its practical remark37 . But no commentator I have seen, raises the very choice
of the Song of Song as a suitable source to base the form of a court of justice! After all,
if the goal of the Talmud was merely to find a Biblical verse, which by virtue of far-
fetched hermeneutics could suggest a circular form, many other - better - verses could
have been suggested by the Rabbis who had full mastery of both every word of the
Bible and of any hermeneutical option.

Having raised the issue, Levinas explains:

"Perhaps, justice is founded on the mastery of passion. The justice through which the
world subsists is founded on the most equivocal order, but on the domination exerted at
every moment over this order or disorder".

Here the very choice of the medium as part of the phenomenology of the Talmud is
insightful, and thus teaching. While it is true that the Talmud wants to ground in a verse
of the Bible the geometrical structure of the Sanhedrin, it is not all it does. In fact, this
may be only the façade behind which an essential issue is debated: What warrants the
full honesty of the Judges. For if they are not integrally honest, how are they different
from any other magistrates who might ßeem" to be honest but in fact conduct a
hypocritical life in which they are outwardly respectable but in their private lives as
subjects to their temptations, which no doubt impact (without others knowing) on their
'professional lives and decisions. This is why the Talmud opted to address seemingly in
a naïve fashion a legal problem through a reference taken from a text bearing a strong
erotic connotation.

"By speaking of justice in erotic terms, the eroticism of the terms has been overcome,
all the while preserving in the meaning of the terms a fundamental link to the realm that
has been overcome".
Another striking example of this distinctive feature of Levinas' reading can be found in
a reading concerned with the rights of the worker. In March 1969, the colloquium was
consecrated to "Youth and Revolution", a topic very much in the air after the stormy
events of May 1968 in Paris, during which the French youth led by Universities
Students revolted against the long lasting establishment. Levinas chose to address the
topic through a passage of Tractate Baba Metsia 83a-83b. In this passage the Talmud
discusses the right of an employer to impose early and late working hours on his

At the outset the Mishna states that an employer cannot force his workers to begin early
and finish late if this does not conform to the custom of the place. The Gemara goes on
to raise a general issue related to the time it takes to the worker to go from home to
work in the morning and back at home at the end of the day of labor.

The Talmud determines that the time it takes the worker to come to his workplace is
defined as his employer's time, while his return route is his own time. Resh Lakish, the
scholar who brought this opinion grounded it in a passage from Psalms 104: 22-23:
"When the sun rises, they leave and go hide in their lairs; man then goes out to his work,
to his labor until evening".

Levinas, in his reading, raises once again the very choice of this 'unexpected' scriptural
basis to ground the rights of the worker:

"But, why, in God's name, turn to the Psalms for something so self evident? Isn't this
proof of the famous sterility of the Talmudic method, which shocks the modern man
(the man who knows everything)? Doesn't he denounce proofs produced by the
association of ideas and the juxtaposition of texts having nothing to do with one
another? Furthermore, what do Psalms, which are poetry and in which the soul pours
itselfs out before God, have to do with the problem of unions?"38

Here again, this very questioning is also an integral part of the phenomenological
reading of the Suggiah made by Levinas. Here again, we must note the uniqueness of
this questioning as the quasi totality of commentators who have worked on this
passage39 , while commenting various aspects did not relate to the suitability of a lyric
poem as a basis for workers rights.

Levinas in a typical manner, suggests that the choice of this source is not fortuitous in
this passage dealing with the duties and rights of employers and workers. He first cites
his ëxcellent master" (Chouchani), who used to teach that beyond a quoted verse, one
must pay attention to the entire context from which it is taken. Hence Levinas referring
to the entire Chapter 104 of Psalms writes:

"Psalm 104 is a psalm which praises the Eternal One, but in an unusual manner. That
the creature should praise its Creator is undoubtedly an old pious idea. In practice, the
creature should praise the Eternal One, mainly when it does not see itself fully. The
Eternal One is praised when one goes to the seashore or to the mountains and has time
to contemplate the starry sky. When one is not on vacation or does not have the means
to go on vacation, the creature praises the Creator much less. Psalm 104, however, is a
psalm about the profound harmony that would rule within the creature - during
vacations as well as during working days and months. It is the psalm of the perfected
world"40 .

What does Levinas mean? How does he see the suitability of the strange medium
chosen by the Talmud in order to anchor the laws of employment developed in this
passage. Levinas answers: In this psalm, work is not associated with misfortune, a
curse, meaninglessness. The psalm seems to place the work amid the successes of

Yet, one must not be an expert in labor law to know how difficult and fragile the
position of being employed could be even nowadays, with all the laws existing to
protect the individual worker against the arbitrariness of an employer. Through his
reading of Resh Lakish's opinion, Levinas addresses not some ancient situation, but
rather today's obligation for an employer to set working conditions conducive to enable
the employee to feel part of a perfected world. For this is the true meaning of the choice
of Psalm 104. Not perpetuating a situation extensively described in the literature of the
nineteenth century e.g. by Emile Zola - in which the wealthy will eternally gather more
and more properties on the basis of hard work done by their underpaid workers. Levinas
reads the very choice of this psalm as scriptural basis for a legal section of the Talmud
as a reminder of the moral obligation of the employer towards his employees.

Is this a philosophical reading? Furthermore if it is one, is it congruent with the

phenomenological school or does it belong with the classical idealistic tradition with
which Levinas' teacher, Husserl wanted to break from, in order to redeem philosophy?
Levinas himself addressed this issue in the first reading we have analyzed in this paper.
There, the Talmud suggests that in order to have whole hart Judges, there must be an
entire community committed to morality. Building on this requirement, Levinas added
the following remark:

"... it (Judaism) teaches what, in its opinion, is possible for man, And it is through this
teaching, that the world needs Judaism. That after all, is more interesting than the
monotheistic theology that the world has, in many respects, assimilated!"41

Not a realm of knowledge beyond man's reach, but rather a teaching, which is aimed at
what is "possible for man". And if there were still doubts in his readers' minds he added
one page further another remark addressing the same issue but this time from the
experiential-historical standpoint:

"Nothing utopian, please believe me. In the Jewish communities of the villages Hitler
exterminated in eastern Europe, some men and women were so radically separated from
evil that a hedge of roses was enough to guarantee their purity or, if you prefer, could do
nothing against it"42 .

Indeed lived history, even if lived humbly with no publicity or attempt to convince
others, simply for its own merit, like the one Levinas' home town Jewish population
personified, rightfully deserves to be recorded in a modern phenomenological reading
of an ancient text.

Finally, when he discussed, a purely theological theme such as the Messianic Era, and
more specifically the political tensions related and preceding eschatology, which are
expressed through the words of prophecy used by Jeremiah and Daniel in his reading
called " Who will play last", Levinas once again paid full attention to the nature of the
medium used by the Talmud in this reading.

This reading is concerned primarily with the war which should, according to an ancient
talmudic tradition, end History. This war, will, according to the Talmud take place
between two of the world's superpowers, Persia and Rome.

``Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in the name of Rabbi said: Rome is designed to fall into the
hands of Persia, as it was said: `Therefore hear ye the counsel of the Lord, that He hath
taken again Edom ( understood in the Talmud as Rome, SW); and His purpose that He
hath purposed against the inhabitants of Teman: surely the least of the flock shall drag
them away, surely their habitation shall be appalled to them. (Jeremiah 49:20).

Rabbah ben Ullah demurred: What intimation is there that `the least of the flock' refers
to Persia? (Presumably) because Scripture reads: The ram which thou savest having two
horns, they are the kings of Media and Persia (Daniel 8:20). But might you not say that
it is Greece, for it is written, Änd the rough he-goat is the king of Greece? (Daniel
8:21)"43 .

Without entering the heart of this Talmudic passage from Tractate Yoma 10a, and some
of its possible meanings, it is interesting to notice that it speaks about Persia and Rome,
two of the greatest ancient empires, through Biblical quotations from Jeremiah and
Daniel, both speaking in zoological terms. Here again, most of the classical
commentators focus on the meaning of this passage. But for Levinas, the very
terminology of the Talmud is should not be seen as fortuitous and is in fact part of the

``... Unless - and this is my hypothesis - the very animality of the symbols used to
predict the events expresses, moreover, the nature of these events. The animality of the
symbols might, indeed, suggest a philosophy of war: war would be a confrontation of
purely biological forces, of the brutality of animals; its outcome would be
predetermined by the imbalance between the vitality of the initial energies of beings;
politics would already be inscribed in chromosomes''44 .

Levinas pays once again full attention to the very nature of the medium used by the
Talmud and sees in it a critical element of its phenomenology. But whereas for Husserl,
finding and describing the phenomenon was the main goal, for Levinas it is but a means
to reach ultimate significance which lays in the ethical implications the text has. Thus,
in this particular text, after having categorically rejected the option of a remainder of
totemic myth, he goes on to translate his phenomenological finding into his opposition
to Heidegger:

``I think, then, that the recourse to animal symbolism means that, for Rabbi Joshua ben
Levi who speak on behalf of Rabbi, pure politics in which the nations of the world are
involved are only the display, towards mutual repression of the animal energies, of the
attachment to being. Energies deposited in the genes of the living person, vital energies,
energies which are definitely yet unequally that is, unjustly distributed, sustaining weak
races and strong races, whose confrontations signifies nothing other than the very
confrontation of forces which resist all equalization, an energy of which only the
appearance is revealed by the theories, cultures or ideologies of human beings''45 .

There is little doubt in my mind that in this reading of an ancient, ``mythological'' text
of the Talmud, Levinas discerned an implication which is neither ancient nor
mythological, one which had echoed throughout the twentieth century, but also one
which was not only that of politicians seized by a frantic ideology or their own ``folie
des grandeurs'', but which was in its stalinistic version anchored in the philosophy of
Hegel, and in its hitleristic version corroborated by Heidegger and his philosophy.

Levinas thus applied his own Phenomenological reading to the text in a new,
challenging and innovative way, which calls for taking the method he tried on the
shores of the Talmudic Sea, to be applied in the depths of its midst.

Cf: Richard Cohen: Ëlevations: The height of good in Rosenzweig and Levinas".
University of Chicago Press. 1994 p.xi
cf: Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg: "Lifrakim" Kiryah Neemanah Press, Jerusalem 1967 pp:
This is a major theme in Levinas Jewish writings. See for example: Difficile Liberté,
p.352 and L'au delà du verset, p.166. In his strong criticism against Spinoza, Levinas
asks: "Did Spinoza ever understand the correct way to 'talmudize'? See ibid, p.202.
For this way to present the content of the Talmud, see the introduction of Abraham A.
Weingort to his excellent : Interet et Credit dans le droit Talmudique. Librairie Generale
de Droit et de Jurisprudence. Paris 1979, pp: VIII-IX
On the "Pilpul" as a method of learning Talmud see: Julius H. Greenstone: "The Pilpul
system in the Talmud" Jewish Theological Seminary, Students' Annual I (1914) pp:152-
162; and Heinrich Ehrentreu: "Über den 'Pilpul' in den alten Jeschiboth" in Jahrbuch der
Jüdish-Literarischen Gesellschaft 3, (1905), pp:206-219. Another method has developed
in the course of the last century and a half, which has been developed by a noted
Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik, who created a Yeshiva (Talmudic
Academy) in Brest-Litowsk (Brisk), Lithuania, this method was further developed by
his children and grand-children. For more details on this method see for example:
Norman Salomon: ``The analytic movement: Hayyim Soloveitchik and his Circle''.
Atlanta, 1993; Jeffrey Saks: ``Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik On the Brisker Method''.
Tradition 33: 2 (Winter 1999), and Lawrence Kaplan: ``Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's
philosophy of Halakhah'' in Jewish Law Annual.
On the Historical Philological method applied to the Talmud, see Meir S. Feldblum:
"Prof. Abraham Weiss - An Evaluation of his way in Talmudic Research and summary
of his conclusions" in the Jubilee Book for Abraham Weiss. Edited by Yeshiva
University, 1964, and Menachem Kahana: " Talmudic Research in Universities and the
traditional method in effect in Yeshivot (Talmudic Academies)" in Behevlei Massoret U
Tmura. Kivunim Press. Rehovot Israel 1990, pp:113-142, (in Hebrew). See also:
Michael L. Chernick: "Contemporary Talmudic studies: The Continuing Agenda" in
New Perspectives on Ancient Judaism Vol 4,
"La voix d'Israel", 9 avril 1937
cf: "La signification de la pratique religieuse" in " L'Univers Israelite: Journal des
principes conservateurs du Judaisme paraissant le Vendredi" . This Journal did not
remain active after World War II, and even before the War was not very known. This is
probably the reason why this article had been "forgotten"
I have tried to verify the authenticity of this story with Levinas' closest relatives, but
none of them couldf/ confirm it. Hence, I prefer to refer to it as a "myth".
On the mythical aspect of Chouchani, see the book by the French journalist Salomon
Malka: "Monsieur Chouchani - L'enigme d'un maitre du XXem siecle" Editions Jean
Claude Lattes. Paris 1994. The book focuses on mainly on the 'enigma' suggested by the
very personality of Chouchani, in terms of identity, intellectual sources etc. There is
however no comprehensive study on Shushani's teachings. I hope that either myself or
somebody else will be interested in addressing this challenge as it potentially bears a
greater value than the mere historical enigma.
For more details on the history of the Colloques des Intellectuels Juifs de langue
Francaise and particularly of the contribution of Andre Neher and Emmanuel Levinas to
those colloquia see: Shmuel Wygoda: Ön the contribution of Andre Neher and
Emmanuel Levinas to the Colloquia of Jewish Intellectual french speaking" paper given
in Hebrew at the Conference on Andre Neher, Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem 1999, (to
be published).
Cf: Ëntre deux mondes" (Biographie spirituelle de Franz Rosenzweig) published in
"La conscience Juive" Textes des trois premiers Colloques d'Intellectuels Juifs de
Langue Francaise. Presses Universitaire de France, 1963 pp:121-137
cf: idem pp: 268-285,
The Jewish books of Levinas do not include exclusively talmudic readings. In the first
of them "Difficult Freedom" (1963) they are but a small part of the entire book. From
the second book on, they are either exclusively Talmudic Readings, such as Four
Talmudic Readings (1968), From the Sacred to the Holly - Five new Talmudic
Readings (1977) and the last one New Talmudic Readings (1996); or they are the dorsal
spine of the books, such as in Beyond the Verse - Talmudic Readings and Speeches
(1982) and ln the Time of Nations (1988). In all these books Levinas kept the oral style
used in his readings. However, there are here and there some minor differences, which
are quite interesting such as the quotation brought hereinabove from his introduction to
his first reading, which does not appear in Difficult Freedom.
E. Levinas: Quatre lectures talmudiques p:16
E. Levinas. Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 4
Levinas is committed in this passage as well as throughout his Jewish writings to
normative Judaism. Unlike Martin Buber who criticized vehemently the normative
aspect of traditional Judaism (see for example his essay on Jewish religious practice
(1913) in his Selected writings on Judaism and Jewish Affairs, (in Hebrew published by
WZO's Zionist Library, Jerusalem 1984, pp:70-80), Levinas like Rosenzweig emphasize
throughout his oeuvre the importance of Mitzvoth and Halakha. This aspect of Levinas
has not yet been sufficiently addressed (or inadequately, e.g. Zeev Levy's book on
Levinas in Hebrew in which he misreads Levinas approach to normative Judaism, see Z.
Levy: The Other and the Responsibily Studies in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.
Magnes Press, Jerusalem 1997, pp:141-155, in Hebrew), and I hope to include it in my
forthcoming research on the Jewish side of Levinas' work.
On this topic I shall recommend three works: George Steiner: Martin Heidegger,
1978; Rüdiger Safranski: "Heidegger et son temps" Editions Grasset, Paris 1996 and
Luc Ferry & Alain Renaut: "Heidegger et les Modernes" Collection Figures, Editions
Grasset, Paris 1988.
The use of hyphens in the writing of specific word to convey a particular message or
to emphasize an idea is characteristic of Levinas (thus following stylistically
Heidegger). In this case, he clearly refers to the Latin root 'esse' i.e. to be, which is
preceded by the Latin prefix 'inter' i.e. meaning within, the combination of inter and
esse thus meaning to be within or in a philosophical context to be for oneself, while the
prefix 'des' comes to negate that being for oneself thus suggesting the possibility to be
for the other, a notion which Levinas tries to develop in his entire work.
E. Levinas: Nouvelles lectures talmudiques. Editions de Minuit. Paris 1996 pp: 85-86
ibid p.95-96
E. Levinas: Ëthique et Infini". Edition de Poche p:115
Maimonides: Letter to the Sages of Montpellier - Iggeret al guezerat hakohavim.
Translated I. Shilat. Maalyoth-Birkat Moshe Edition, Jerusalem 1988, Volume II,
pp.479-480 (in Hebrew).
W. Dilthey: Örigine et Developpement de l'hermeneutique" in Le Monde de l'Esprit,
Volume I, pp: 319-340
E. Levinas: Difficile Liberte, ibid p: 112
E. Levinas: Ä l'heure des nations" ibid, pp:32-33
E. Levinas: Ä l'heure des nations", ibid, pp:48-49, (italics are mine)
E. Levinas: "Quatre lectures talmudiques", p.22
E. Levinas: "Transcendance et Intelligibilite" Editions Labor et Fides, Geneve 1996,
idem, p.28
Hans Georg Gadamer: "L'art de comprendre II - Hermeneutique et champ de
l'experience humaine" Editions Aubier Paris 1991, p.65
Gadamer: "Verite et Methode - Les grandes lignes d'une hermeneutique
philosophique" Editions du Seuil, Paris 1960, p.451
Hans Georg Gadamer: "Truth and Method" Second revised edition. Continuum
Publishing Company New York, 1994, p.474
H.G. Gadamer: "Truth and method", ibid, pp: 475-476
H.G. Gadamer: L'art de Comprendre II, ibid, p.55
E. Levinas: "Nine Talmudic Readings" translated by Annette Aronowicz, University
of Indiana Press 1990, p. 75-76
See for example one of the most important commentaries on Tractate Sanhedrin by
the medieval Spanish Rabbinic scholar Rabbi Meir Halevy Abulafia (1170-1244) in his
Yad-Ramah. In this commentary, the exact word of ßahar" or crescent of the moon, is
singled out as the basis for the semi-circle form of the Sanhedrin, but no reference
whatsoever is made to the nature of the chosen text.
See E. Levinas: Nine Talmudic Readings, ibid, p.102 (with a minor change in the
translation, SW)
I have used the term quasi-totality in a precautious form, as there are more
commentaries than I have been able to check. Yet in all those I have checked none of
the commentators have raised the issue of suitability raised here by Levinas.
Nine Talmudic Readings, ibid, p.103.
Nine Talmudic Readings, ibid, p.81
Nine Talmudic Readings, ibid, p.82
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 10a
E. Levinas: L'au dela du verset, ibid, p:76
ibid, p.76-77

Monsieur Chouchani
Monsieur Chouchani (died 1968) is the nickname of an anonymous
and mysterious Jewish teacher who taught a number of highly
regarded students including Emmanual Levinas (pictured above) and
Elie Wiesel in Europe after World War II. Very little is known about
Chouchani, including his real name. His origins and entire life history
were kept a closely guarded secret. His gravestone in Montevideo,
Uraguay where he died reads: “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed
memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.” The text was
written by Elie Wiesel who also paid for the gravestone.

There is no known body of work by Chouchani himself, but he left a

very strong intellectual legacy via his students. Chouchani dressed
like a vagabond but was a master of vast areas of human knowledge,
including science, mathematics, philosophy and especially the
Talmud. Most of the details of his life that are known come from the
writings and interviews with his students.