Emmanuel Levinas says we can’t talk to God, only each other. When we care for others in words and deeds, we come as close as we can to God.
Emmanuel Levinas is popular among philosophers because “he introduces God into the scene without making so much ontological noise,” as Ryan Urbano puts it (p 75). In other words, Levinas lets us talk about God without talking about God. It’s true, but it’s not because he is shy about using the G—word.
For Levinas, God is experienced in the ethical encounter with the other. Religion is Levinas’ term for this ethical relationship. For Levinas, there is no direct relationship with the Divine.
The Divine can only be accessed through the human other to whom the self is infinitely responsible. (Urbano, p 51)
We know God when we act ethically toward another person. We do not keep God alive by trying to prove his existence, a waste of time. Everything I can ever know about God is experienced in caring for others.
No theology, and a face with no face
Levinas is not fond of theology. Theology is too abstract and metaphysical, as though it could grasp God by an act of thought. We can never know God, but only his presence in the face of the other, who asks all I have to give and more. Through giving we make religion live.
Levinas writes a lot about the face as bearing the trace of God. This has led many to believe that he is referring to the actual human face. He’s not.
It would be a radical misunderstanding of the transcendence of the face to construe it as a visible instantiation of the sacred. Such an interpretation confers upon the face the status of an idol. (Wyschogrod, p xii)
“The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the color of his eyes,” says Levinas (Ethics, p 85).
Levinas has it wrong here, not about religion, but about the face. One thing he has wrong is his focus on the face at the expense of the body. Levinas explains that the face is the most exposed, particular, and vulnerable aspect of the other person. But if one doesn’t even notice the color of the other’s eyes, how unique can the other be?
The most intimate way in which we care for others is to care for their bodies, whether it is through erotic love, or caring for someone who is ill. Sometimes all it takes to care for another is a word or a touch.
The problem is that Levinas wants the face to do double duty: as the sign of the particular other, and as the trace of God. The situation doesn’t get any better if we talk about bodies, not just faces. Bodies are vulnerable, particular, and expressive. We experience ourselves and others as embodied, not enfaced.
The Holocaust and God
Levinas survived the Holocaust in a prison camp for French officers. His wife and daughter were hidden in a monastery. The rest of his family was murdered. Levinas has spent much time and energy trying to understand a world seemingly abandoned by God. His answer is that
God renounces any manifestation of himself that would give succor, and calls on man in his maturity to recognize his full responsibility. (DF, pp 82-83)
Levinas calls Judaism a religion for adults (DF, pp 11-23). As opposed to a religion that promises magic, marvels, and salvation.
An interesting comparison with Christianity emerges when one considers Levinas’ keen response to a short story by Zvi Kolitz, “Yosi Rakover talks with God.” In his letter, written shortly before his death in the Warsaw ghetto, Yosi says that while he loves God, he loves the Torah more.
I love Him. But I love His Torah more. Even if I were disappointed in Him, I would still cherish His Torah. God commands religion, but His Torah commands a way of life. (p 18)
Kolitz’s story fascinates Levinas because it puts our proper relationship with each other before our relationship to God (DF, pp 142-143). Yosi can be angry at God, but that doesn’t change how we should treat each other. How we care for others is almost always partly within our control. Even if we are about to be murdered by evil men, as Yosi was, we can often care for those among us who share our fate, perhaps with a word, touch, glance, or gesture.
But who am I to talk about what the victims of the Holocaust could or couldn’t do? I’ve viewed hundreds of hours of survivor testimony, and many talked about the value of the smallest gesture. I doubt I could care for others in such a desperate and terrifying situation, but some did. Fortunately, most situations are not so desperate.
Properly approached, Jesus Christ plays much the same role as Torah in Judaism. If Christ is the word made flesh (John 1:14), then we learn how to treat each other by attending to Christ’s teachings, as well as his example, in so far as humans can.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
Jesus will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:35-40)
God is refractory to thought, as Urbano puts it (p 65). To think about God almost always results in confining him within our concepts. Christ is easier to think about than God, the Torah easier to follow. Neither is easy to obey, but both can be thought about without trying to constrain the infinite. Jesus Christ is God constraining himself so humans might know him. Not everything we learn is comforting.
God, Nature, and the Book of Job
Levinas seems mistaken in his assertion that had the Israelites refused the Torah, this “would have been the signal for the annihilation of the entire universe.” (Nine Readings, p 41)
Consider the Book of Job. God is proud of his creation, which he talks about in terms of the grandeur and power of nature, from the oceans to the stars to the horse and antelope. The point of the Book seems to me that humans are part of this creation, but not its reason for being. We are not quite so important as all that. God’s speech from the whirlwind is essentially nature poetry (38.1–41:25).
A Jewish friend tells me that seeing God in nature is a Christian thing. Maybe. I suspect it’s more complicated. In any case, nature plays almost no role in Levinas’ account. Understood as God’s creation, not as something to be exploited, nature puts humans in our place. We have a purpose and a place in this world, but the world is not made for the human being, or at least not exclusively for the human.
As for me, I experience the feeling of God’s presence in the wind on the waters. I think this fits the Book of Job, where we are asked to marvel not at God, but at the wonders of his creation. People come first, as Levinas reminds us, but the grandeur of nature is not far behind.
Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks to God. New York: Vintage, 2000.
Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1985.
Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990.
Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. [DF]
Michael Purcell, Levinas and Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. [Though I did not cite him, Purcell’s book was helpful.]
Ryan Urbano, Approaching the Divine: Levinas on God, Religion, Idolatry, and Atheism, 50-80. Logos, vol. 15 (1), 2012.
Edith Wyschogrod, Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics, 2nd edition. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.