Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Rabbi Ira F. Stone

Rabbi Ira F. Stone of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, has been leading Talmud discussions for many years, basing his interpretive style on that of the great French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas, long known in Europe, has recently become the subject of intense American scholarly interest. And while many of Levinas’s works have been available in translations for years, Stone’s Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud is the first major effort to explain him to the general public.

Rabbi Stone begins with a “Levinasian Dictionary,” intended to convey the main thrust of Levinas’s philosophy. In this he succeeds well, given his limited space.

Levinas was highly critical of the path of Western philosophy. He believed that it was too inclined to try to explain everything by comprehensive systems of thought. He also believed that it concentrated too much on the self, the individual consciousness, and its being. Levinas saw the antidote to these problems in the argumentative, often inconclusive style of the Talmud, and its emphasis on responsibilities to others. His task was to translate Talmudic thought into the language of Western thought.

Levinas wrote in a dense style, almost impenetrable to casual readers, and even to many serious ones. More accessible are his shorter articles on Talmudic subjects. For these, Levinas would take a sugya, or subject of discussion, and interpret it as a metaphor for philosophical inquiry. The result is a series of brilliant lectures that are well worth the effort to understand. About 14 of them have been published in two books, Nine Talmudic Readings and Beyond the Verse.

Rabbi Stone takes us through this process as he practices it, with a short example. He brings with him immense respect for the text on its own terms. And in doing so, he raises the stakes in Talmus study. No longer is the game only to understand the legal arguments. Now, we also try to understand the larger points the Rabbis were making about our relationship to God, the world, and each other.

Make no mistake: this interpretive reading makes rigor and detail all the more important. Every Biblical reference and its context, every argument followed, and every argument not followed, frame the debate. The whole enterprise becomes much more alive.

Stone might have taken several of Levinas’s articles and explained them. Certainly they would have given us legitimate insight into Levinas’s ideas. Instead, Stone chose his own sugyot, and his own interpretations of them, leaving us to wonder what Levinas himself thought. The end result is a conceptual disconnect. Having spent half the book persuading us to care about Levinas, Stone delivers himself instead.

At this point, a reader familiar with the text might be advised to pick up some of Levinas’s original lectures on his own. However, Rabbi Stone’s own articles are both short enough and substantial enough to interest and encourage the beginner. Any reader should come away wanting to study more, and wanting to learn more about this remarkable and original philosopher.


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