Jul 312016

Elisabeth Goldwyn, Reading Between the Lines: Form and Content in Levinas’s Talmudic Readings, trans. Rachel Kessel. Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 2015; 222 pages. ISBN: 9780820704838.

Reviewed by Michael Maidan, Independent Scholar

From 1957 onwards, Emmanuel Levinas delivered Talmudic lessons during the annual Colloque des intellectuels juifs de langue française (CIJLF). Later collected and published in book form, these lessons were extremely popular. They become a feature of the CIJLF meetings and an important aspect of Levinas’s intellectual legacy. Goldwyn’s objective is to clarify the interpretative strategies deployed by Levinas in his lessons. She claims that Levinas’s Talmudic commentaries are “philosophical in content” and affiliated “with his philosophical writings”; they direct philosophical questions at the text and look at all aspects of the text through this prism. (1)

Goldwyn defines midrash as a technique that allows an interpreter to produce additional meanings from a canonical text (the Bible) beyond their literal meaning. When those meanings refer to Jewish law, it is referred to as midrash halakha. Non-legal matters are referred to as midrash hagadah, which include commentaries of biblical verses not pertaining to legal and ritual issues, ideas, folklore, stories, parables, moral discussions, etc. These two forms, the legal and the more philosophical, coexist in the Talmud side by side.

Goldwyn claims that the midrash establishes dialectical relationships between text and interpreter, and between tradition and innovation. The midrash is a mechanism whereby these tensions can be managed. (16) The midrash follows a number of axioms: (a) every detail of the Bible is meaningful; (b) the biblical text is considered to be unitary and synchronic; (c) any gap in the text is an invitation for a midrash; (d) “organic thinking”; (e) interpretation is not a mere intellectual enterprise, but subordinated to life—real life with its demands remains the center of attention. (20) And as midrash developed (as the oral study of a holy written text), it retains traces of its origin in a discursive relationship. Midrash is a pluralistic and open regime of interpretation.

In Chapter Two, Goldwyn addresses the relationship of midrash and prophecy in Levinas. The sages who elaborated the Talmud believed that, in earlier times, God revealed himself directly or through prophecy, but that in their times such immediacy was no longer in effect. Only interpretation of the revealed text enables access, albeit indirectly, to revelation. But what was Levinas’s understanding of this relationship, in light of his abstract and non-ontological understanding of God? According to Goldwyn, revelation, for Levinas, occurs in the encounter between oneself and another person. (35) This reveals an important problem, because the kind of revelation that Levinas has in mind seems to make the study of sacred texts a redundant enterprise. Goldwyn follows Catherine Chalier’s interpretation, concluding that, for Levinas, interpretation and midrash are prophecy: “they involve an openness to the transcendent Other and are a formulation of the contents revealed in the encounter with otherness.” (37) She then addresses the question of the content of revelation and of the relationship between the interpreter and revelation. While the interpreter needs the text, the text also needs an interpreter. (44) Language is conceived by Levinas primarily as a manifestation of the encounter with the other. Drawing on a long extract from Beyond the Verse, where Levinas reflects on the nature of interpretation and the relationship between text and interpreter, Goldwyn concludes that interpretation, far from being a necessary evil, has a creative role: “Exegesis is not an explicatory technique but a necessary partner for inspiration.” (58)

Goldwyn proceeds, in Chapter Three, to describe in detail Levinas’s interpretative technique. Levinas sidelines both the traditional and the historic-philological approach to the Talmud. Regarding the first, Levinas believes that it is foreign to his particular audience, which is composed of intellectuals schooled in the contemporary sciences and arts but estranged from their Jewish heritage. Regarding the historical-philological method, Levinas states that it misses the essence of the text and diverts our attention from its content. (77)

Levinas’s Talmudic lessons were delivered as part of the meetings of the CIJLF, and relate, sometimes elusively, to the central theme of that year’s meeting. Goldwyn exemplifies this with the 1970 lesson “The Youth of Israel,” for which Levinas selected a Talmudic section dealing with the laws governing the “Nazirite” (Numbers 6:1–21). This lesson reflects on the student uprisings of May 1968. In spite of the apparent incongruity between the theme of the meeting and the section chosen, Levinas “refers to the text as it is, in an effort to not only understand it and hear in it an echo or traces of the infinite but also to translate it into philosophical language and to find within it new meaning that hold significance for his worlds and ideas.” (68–9) The main teaching that Levinas elicits from the detailed discussion of the ritual matters in this section is “that there must be a nazirate in the world—a source of disinterestedness.” (quoted on 71) Goldwyn concludes that the “midrash formed by Levinas creates a logical link between those parts…that at first glance seem completely unrelated.” (71) The institution of the Nazirite may seem foreign to our contemporary experience, but on Levinas’s account, it acquires a meaning (“disinterestedness”) that refers to and illuminates current problems. According to Levinas, when the Talmud discusses abstract principles, it does so always in the form of concrete examples, actions to be taken, and tangible objects. (74) This approach is similar, claims Goldwyn, to Levinas’s own approach to philosophical language (75), which does not dissolve the phenomena or people into abstract determinations. There is a good fit between the midrashic language of the Talmud and Levinas’s thought. (76)

Chapters Four and Five explore, respectively, the relationship between exegesis and reality and Levinas’s interpretative pluralism. Exegesis is not an intellectual exercise, but is motivated by and attempts to influence reality. The plurality of interpretations that the Talmudic text contains and also elicits may be correlative with Levinas’s own philosophy. This raises the question of whether there are criteria for an interpretation, or if any interpretation is acceptable.

Goldwyn highlights some unique features of Levinas’s midrash. Levinas’s lesson intends primarily to expound on the ethical meaning of the Talmudic text. For Levinas, the Talmudic text has universal meaning, but at the same time, is the particular expression of a culture. Goldwyn dedicates a number of pages to explore the potential contradiction between the universal and singular aspects of Jewish culture. (161–169) Levinas also claims that the Talmud is not an inspired or revealed text but a rational one, a text generated using rules through rational debate. Therefore, it can be interpreted using rational tools. (170)

In the Afterword, the author raises the intriguing idea that we may apply to Levinas’s Talmudic readings the same midrashic hermeneutics that he uses with the Talmud. “I can testify,” writes Goldwyn, “that when teaching these lessons orally within different groups this methods proves creative and stimulating.” (190; emphasis added) She also speculates on the potential influence of Levinas’s Talmudic teaching on the future of Israel. This book will be of interest to anybody interested in the work of Levinas. It provides a fresh insight into an aspect of Levinas’s thought that he certainly cherished but chose to keep separate from his academic production. It will be also of interest to readers interested in contemporary Jewish philosophy, Talmud studies, and contemporary Israel.