The Text

Reading and Revelation
  • Martin C. Srajek
Part of the Contributions To Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 32)


On the first two pages of his essay “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition,”1 Levinas discusses two of the most striking aspects of the Jewish religion’s relationship to revelation. For one, he says revelation is the impact of an exteriority on an interiority; it is “the abrupt invasion of truths from outside,”2 triggered through the opening and reading of a book or a couple of books. Moreover, this revelatory reading generates more than just new interpretations and aspects that were inherent in the text; the act of reading creates an “espace vitale” a space in which the Jewish people may live. This term is Levinas’ translation of the German “Lebensraum” a term used also by the National Socialists to justify the invasion of Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. but also to legitimize the extermination of the Jews in concentration camps. Levinas seems to be saying that reading provides a whole people with that kind of space which other nations have only been able to acquire through expansionist warfare. It would be negligent to underestimate the materiality which is designated by the term “espace vitale” in this context. The Jews are a people whose existence is synonymous with the words “exile” and “dispersion,” yet Levinas claims that they have found, and always had found, a perfect plane of existence within the texts and subtexts of scripture and the long list of its traditional commentaries. He goes even further and asserts that this espace vitale would exist for the Jews even if the relationship with these books was one not of repeated reading but of continuous forgetting, or of memorizing merely some impressions and feelings. In other words, the mere chronology of events that one would normally just call sacred history has always been espace vitale for the Jews.


Sacred Text Jewish People Ritual Practice Passive Obsession Jewish Tradition 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Emmanuel Levinas, “La Révélation Dans La Tradition Juive,” L’Au-Dela Du Verset: Lectures et Discours Talmudique; “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition,” trsl. and ed. by Sean Hand, The Levinas Reader, pp. 190–211. Henceforth referred to as “Revelation,” p. French/English.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Revelation, p. 158/191.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Revelation Ibid, p. 162/194.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The term “modern” is practically synonymous with what Levinas calls “Greek” elsewhere. Robert Gibbs in his paper “‘Greek’ in the ‘Hebrew’ writings of Emmanuel Levinas” points out that for Levinas “Greek represents the style of that language, which is universal, conceptual, anti-metaphorical and philosophical.” (p. 3)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Cp. Charles Taylor, Hegel, pp. 3–51.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Revelation, p. 160/192.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Emmanuel Levinas, Autrement qu’etre ou au delà de l’essence, p. 226 trsl. by Aphonso Lingis, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, p. 179. Page references from hereon as “Autrement, p. French/English.”Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Autrement, p. 30/24.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ibid p. 20/17.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
  11. 11.
    One might want to say that Levinas’ whole project is based on a misunderstanding of Plato’s theory of forms as it was critiqued in Plato’s Parmenides. Parmenides’ argument with Socrates is that the latter assumes that a form covers all its material instances like a blanket. Parmenides responds that not every part of the blanket can be with every form. Does all matter then participate in the same form? Possibly Levinas is mistaken in his analysis of Being as creating a totality which eventually envelopes everything. Somehow in this understanding he presupposes a thinking based on Plato’s theory of forms. In this dialogue Parmenides points out to Socrates that if one understood a form to be like a blanket covering all material instances which belong to it, then one would have to admit that each instance is covered by a different part of the blanket, and thus that form is divisible. The question is why does Levinas fail to take this fact into account? Would an Aristotelian theory of forms— the one that actually does away with forms as infinite, unchangeable and indivisible—solve Levinas’ problem? It would at the least provide the disconnections necessary to open up the gaps and fissures which Levinas needs to think ethics.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    In an interview with Edith Wyschogrod in 1982 (distributed as hand-out at the AAR-meeting in Chicago in 1988), Levinas picks up on the question of oneness which he understands as a Neo-Platonic concept. “For the Neo-Platonists plurality was always a privation of actuality... Discourse was always less than the unity of the One.”Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Revelation, p. 160/193.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Emmanuel Levinas, “Language and Proximity,” trsl. by Alphonso Lingis, p. 109. Henceforth referred to as “Language.”Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Interview with Wyschogrod, Levinas stresses in this interview that his interest in language is not to be understood as a “Kehre” away from phenomenology. Language is instead grounded in phenomena but does not have any revelatory power by itself in the way Heidegger suggests that “Die Sprache spricht.”Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Cf. also Jacques Derrida, ‘”Genesis and Structure’ and Phenomenology,” Writing and Difference, trsl. by Alan Bass, p. 155: “The phenomenologist, on the contrary, is the ‘true positivist’ who returns to the things themselves, and who is self-effacing before the originality and primordiality of meanings. The process of faithful comprehension or description, and the continuity of explication must dispel the shadow of choice.” Steven S. Schwarzschild, The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild, p. 231f. is rather disconcerted about this move to the things themselves, since in his view it is constituted by “the complaint that Cohen’s [thought], and rationalist ‘critical’ thought in general, was too abstract.” Schwarzschild includes Bergson as well as Husserl in the list of people guilty of this charge, without mentioning that the former (through his understanding of the dynamic but infinite grasp of the ineffable through intuition) but even more so the latter (through his conception of philosophy as an infinite task) included concepts into their systems that are reminiscent of the Kantian regulative idea and, if one does not want to call them Cohenian, one has at least to call them neo-Kantian.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Language, p. 123.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    LanguageIbid, p. 120.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    LanguageIbid, p. 125.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Levinas, “Reality and its Shadow,” p. 1.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Levinas, “The Ego and the Totality,” p. 41.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Interview with Wyschogrod.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    I will use this distinction again in the last chapter on Derrida where he makes a similar distinction between law and justice.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Previously I mentioned how the status of the text could be called “ambiguous-in-the-non-ambiguous.” I suggest this term because it indicates the dual nature of the text with respect to meaning, which resembles the dual nature of subjectivity as other in the same. Furthermore, the term indicates the fractured condition of the text itself. It is this condition which makes the text available for reading and penetrable for interpretation.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Revelation, p. 159/192.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Interview with Wyschogrod, pp. 10, 11.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    The point which Levinas makes comes through clearly in Eilberg-Schwartz’ study “Who’s Kidding Whom.” Eilberg-Schwartz explains the differences between Hebrew and other languages by using a model borrowed from chemistry. Whereas most of the functional, linear languages are based on an atomistic model—i.e., we analyze them according to the sequences of their letters—Hebrew follows a molecular model. Within molecules the sequence of atoms can change, bringing about different kinds of chemical elements and compounds. Eilberg-Schwartz suggests that it is exactly this kind of change which a successful interpretation of the Hebrew texts should bring about as well. Any Hebrew word contains a certain number of meanings which is dependent on the number and kind of letters which the word contains. In Eilberg-Schwartz’ interpretation, revelation would be an event intended at the creation of the Hebrew language. Moreover, revelation is limited to the amount of possible meanings that can be derived from a particular word or passage. It is by no means infinite and it cannot be associated, he asserts, with the free-play-methodologies of recent post-structural interest in the Hebrew texts. Eilberg-Schwartz does indeed provide a very insightful scheme for the structural and philological aspects of the Hebrew language. Yet, it is obvious that Levinas’ interpretation and use of the sacred texts goes beyond that.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Revelation, p. 166/197.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Ibid, p. 167/198.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Ibid, p. 166/197.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    The word “inquire” is a translation of the Hebrew root “d-r-sh” of which “Midrash” is a derivative form.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Revelation, p. 162/194.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash. p. 15, interprets midrash to be a product of the heterogeneity of the Bible which in itself entails a heterogeneity of interpretations. The midrashic interpretations either double the heterogenous elements found in the texts or they attempt to fill the gaps between them. In both cases the goal is to obtain an interpretation that preserves the text as a single document in marked contrast to the emphasis of historical critical research on different strata of the so-called source hypothesis. A reading of those texts must necessarily be a strong one, that is equipped to gloss or explain the gaps and fissures of the text. Boyarin suggests that that is done through the conjecturing of intertexts which reflect “the culture in which aggadah [is] produced.” Boyarin is not sure whether midrashic discourse must be understood as historiographic in character or whether it is nothing but a reflection of the “interpretive strategies which the Bible itself manifests.” However, in at least one case he states unequivocally that “the materials which provide impetus for the gap-filling are found in the intertext in two ways: first in the intertext provided by the canon itself, the intertext and interpretive interrelations which exist and which can be made to exist between different parts of the canon and second, within the ideological intertextual code of the rabbinic culture” (p. 17). Boyarin’s reading of midrash is congruent with that of Stern and Kugel. David Stern, “Midrash,” Contemporary Jewish Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements and Beliefs, ed. by A. A. Cohen and P. Mendes-Flohr, pp. 621-27. And James Kugel, “Two Introductions to Midrash,” Midrash and Literature, ed. by G. H. Hartman and S. Budick, pp. 77-105. Stern sees the two main functions of midrash to be (1) representing a certain ideology of a certain rabbinic school, and in (2) solving the lexical and grammatical problems given through the text. Based on these premises Stern and Kugel elaborate on what Levinas calls the lack of a unifying dogma. Midrashic discourse can draw on any part of the Bible to explicate or refute the passage or word in question. In doing so, Kugel states, the midrashic interpreter enters the past while keeping one foot in the present. Midrashic discourse is about building interpretive bridges between past and present.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Revelation, p. 160/192.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Levinas uses the terms “orthodox” and “modern” in this way in his essay. My own sense is that rather than reflecting on the actual distinctions between certain Jewish groups he just uses them to indicate a certain relationship to the Jewish faith in general.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Revelation, p. 160/192.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
  39. 39.
    Revelation, pp.162–163/194.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Ibid, p. 172/202.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    This claim is so important because with it Levinas contradicts much of the traditional rabbinic stance on revelation since the beginning of the common era. The traditional read is that revelation ended with the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Interview with Wyschogrod, p. 15.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    For this cp. Levinas essay “God and Philosophy,” ed. by Sean Hand, The Levinas Reader, pp.166-190 and the second chapter of this dissertation “Infinite Ethics: Cohen, Rosenzweig, Levinas.”Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Revelation, p. 168/199.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Ibid, p. 174/204.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Ibid, p. 163/195.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Levinas thus merges the concepts of two phenomena, revelation and inspiration, which were traditionally kept apart in Jewish Theology and considered different phases of Jewish history. Cp. K. Köhler, Jewish Theology, pp. 39–40.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Autrement, p. 227/180.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    For this cp. chapter IV of part I of this dissertation where I discuss the relevance of Levinas’ concept of the face in connection with Moses request to see God.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Cp. “Interview with Wyschogrod,” p. 5.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Franz Rosenzweig, Der Stern der Erlösung, trsl. by William W. Hallo, The Star of Redemption, pp. 36-39, (henceforth referred to as “Stern, p. German/English”), seems to imply the same kind of fracturedness when he describes the mythic God who needs to reveal himself in order to end his loneliness.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Tamra Wright, Peter Hughes, Alison Ainley, “The Paradox of Morality and Interview with Emmanuel Levinas,” The Provocation of Levinas, p. 169.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Revelation, p. 178/207.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
  55. 55.
    Levinas’ stance on ritual reflects very much that of Franz Rosenzweig. The latter sees in ritual the one force strong enough to unite the Jewish people as a whole independent of where they are in the world and how Jewish they think they themselves are. Cp.Rosenzweig, Stern, part III, book I.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Judah Goldin, “The Freedom and Restraint of Aggadah,” ed. by Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, pp. 57–77, esp. pp. 68-69. In Goldin’s view aggadah and halakha have equal value. The “ein somekhin al ha-aggadah” (one may not invoke aggadic sayings as support) seems to have no relevance for him. Goldin claims that the aggadah had virtually no authority when it came to implementation into a real life context.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    This, actually, is the heart of his whole philosophy.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Revelation, p. 172/202.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Ibid, p. 176/206.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
  61. 61.
    Ibid, p. 178/207.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin C. Srajek
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignIllinoisUSA

Personalised recommendations