By Emmanuel Levinas 

Interpretation of the Torah unfolds the meaning of all meaning-and discloses the inspired capacity of human speech to surpass the language in which it is expressed.

I am not trying to give an inventory of the figures of Jewish biblical hermeneutics in these few pages; that would call for the vast research required to take into account the diversity of periods and movements. It would also be a matter of establishing the credibility of interpreters, which is measured less by consensus than by individual intelligence and familiarity with tradition. Both Rabbi Yichmael's frequently cited "thirteen figures of Torah interpretation" and the familiar four levels of reading, whose vocalized sign becomes the word pardes-pchate (the obvious sense), remeze (the allusive sense), drache (the induced sense), and sod (the secret sense)-themselves call for exegesis and constitute aspects of rabbinism only in relation to the text. Only a modern formulation, which remains to be achieved, would put an end to misleading teachings in which traditional sources are cited as if, beneath the Hebraic letters that cover them, they all emerge from the same depth.

My purpose is more modest: to illustrate by example certain ways of reading-presenting a talmudic extract that produces, under the guise of argument, the exegesis of some biblical verses. This, however, will lead me to state a few more general propositions, since the extract I have chosen deals, in its last part, with the significance of exegesis. An exegesis of exegesis, it is a privileged text, even if it does not eliminate other possible insights into the same subject. This fits in with the pluralism characteristic of rabbinic thought which, paradoxically, aims at compatibility with the unity of Revelation: the multiple positions of the teachers constitute its very life, since they, too, are "words of the living God."

The talmudic passage on which I am going to comment will also lead us to consider the significance that commentary on Scripture can, in Jewish religious consciousness, have as a path to transcendence. It is perhaps essential to the very formation of this idea.

But a talmudic text that comments on some verses of Scripture calls in its turn for interpretation. Its intentions are not immediately apparent; its exposition can surprise a novice, and allows for several levels and dimensions of meaning. This calls for a third stage in the last part of my commentary: the interpretation of the talmudic exegesis of exegesis. For us, such a reading of the Talmud must make use of modern language, and hence obliges us to touch on contemporary problems. Mine is certainly not the only possible reading, but it has value as testimony, showing at least one way in which Jews today understand traditional Jewish hermeneutics, and especially how they understand it when they are looking for nourishment in regard to basic teachings.

Preliminary Remarks

The text that I am going to comment on is taken from one of the last pages of Makoth in the Babylonian Talmud. This short treatise, about fifty pages, deals with judicial punishments, one of which, referring to Deuteronomy 25:2-4, is flagellation (makoth=repeated blows). The passage has, as its immediate context, a theological-juridical discussion: can the penalty of flagellation-inflicted by a human court-redeem the penalty of "being cut off from one's people," which, according to the Talmud, has been handed down by the "heavenly court"? To be cut off from one's people is the gravest of theological punishments, excluding the individual from "the world to come," the ultimate limit of the eschatological order. (The messianic age, since it is still part of history, constitutes a penultimate stage of the end of time.) How can a human decision-in this case, that flagellation would redeem such a "cutting off"-intervene in a domain that transcends the human? How can it be sure it is in harmony with the divine will? These questions presume transcendence and a relationship which bridges this absolute gap. They touch on the possibility of such a relationship, a problem encountered by any exegesis that examines divine thought.

It may be useful, before taking up the text, to make a few general remarks about the special or "irrelevant" character which flagellation and "cutting off" present to an outside reader. The whole discussion of how many blows are to be given-and the notion of transgression and culpability that it takes for granted-can offend liberal sensibilities. Similarly, the reference to a "celestial court" can shock our modern intelligence with the outmoded or debatable vision of the world that it implies.

In order to arrive at a meaning that would survive despite apparently antiquated language, however, we must first patiently accept-as we do the conventions of a fable or a theatrical production-the specifics of the text in its own world; we must wait until these details begin to free themselves from the anachronisms and local color on which the curtain rose. In any case, this exotic or antiquated language should not hinder our thinking just because it includes the picturesque, or because we shy at the immediate meaning of the things and acts that it names. All that is going to change-often, after beginning with questions that seem incongruous and insignificant. The things specifically referred to will, without fading away into concepts, become enriched with the meanings and the many-sidedness of their concrete aspects. This is the paradigmatic modality of talmudic reflection: ideas, that may have been mere springboards, remain constantly in communication with or return to the examples, which are raised to the level of generalizations and are formalized in logical concepts. That is why there are multiple ways of understanding ideas in the Talmud. Far from being the result of equivocation, this translates the inexhaustible richness and innumerable dimensions of the concrete into a reality more concrete than our daily life, in whose immediacy this abundance is forgotten amidst the quest for usefulness or the practical finality of events, behavior, and situations. Perhaps our Western ideas detach themselves prematurely from the sensible order: "the impatience of the concept" is more frequent than its "patient suffering." Talmudic thought constantly returns to the example out of which the concept is born and delays over it in order to let ideas germinate and be able to start out in different directions, seeking new result.[1] The fresh meanings that rabbinic attension and imagination confer on the concrete content of experience are advantageous to concepts, which are never completely abstract.

In addition-and this has never been made clear, because it risks perpetuating the impression of a primitive or outmoded casuistry in Jewish thought-this paradigmatic conceptualization remains a theoretical process. Its hypotheses, boldly constructed with terms that refer to the sensible and imaginative order-that relate to the concrete and the "optic"-open up a dialectical field whose exchange-value in images can be phantasmagorical. This is not at all a matter of seeing in it the translation of situations and behaviors that the process produces, and to which the rabbinic texts bear witness as documents or pretend to regulate. To speak of a "letter of repudiation" engraved on the horns of a bullock that carries it to the wife who is repudiated arises neither from a desire to render a juridical decision on such a spectacular divorce, nor from a jurisprudence that practiced it. It is rather a way of constructing a conjunction of data in which the logical limit-case takes form and leads to a new arrangement of theoretical possibilities. The practical implications of such thinking are found in an intellectual process that is certainly not foreign to the freedom of theory, but with decisiveness brings an end to the play of possibilities and is especially concerned with the conditions of action. In rabbinic thought, there is a clear distinction between pure dialecticians and those who make decisions regarding the rules of conduct. In any case, ideas linked to the concrete leave a field to the play of theory different from one on which purely abstract concepts prevail.

These ideas are no more reducible to the anecdotal than notions of modern physics are chained to the schematic images through which they are visualized in textbooks. Rather, they graft the data of the vastest problems onto the particular. The apparently naive or superficial elements of talmudic texts should always be approached with an expectation of wisdom. There are examples of similar arbitrariness-which misled Spinoza, who was so severe with the rabbis-in the way the exegesis of the rabbis connected verses whose surface meanings seemed to have nothing in common, except, say, a similar word or verbal assonance. This freedom of exegetical thinking leads into worlds enclosed within the texts-worlds that a strict reading, aiming only at what is immediately signified, would not suspect lie behind the signifiers which, at first glance, carry all the weight of dead letters. But who is to say where their death begins and their life ends? Is it not legitimate to take as the context of each verse the totality of the canon, and help verses that seem unacquainted with each other to wake each other up? The rapprochement, seemingly coerced, between the scattered elements of Scripture, shines forth in a mode of thought that conducts its scrutiny by the secret light of hidden worlds. Suddenly, our world, imbedded or lost in signs, is illuminated by an idea that comes to it from outside, or from the other end of the canon, revealing new possibilities for exegesis which had somehow become immobilized in the letters of the text.

Tribunal and Love of Neighbor

Let us now return to our discussion of flagellation, being cut off from one's people, and the punishments of human and heavenly courts. Let us accept these ways of speaking and the juridical formalism of the process.

According to Rabbi Hanania teen Gamaliel, people guilty of certain transgressions that the Law of the Pentateuch punishes by cutting them off from the community may clear themselves of this damnation if they submit to flagellation imposed by the earthly tribunal. The earthly tribunal would in this way have recognized faults that humanity rejects as antihuman, and thus have repaired the irreparable. (God's tribunal would measure the gravity of the fault.) Can such a tribunal accomplish as much as divine mercy and grace? Does grace manifest itself to this court? Rabbi Hanania refers to Deuteronomy 25:3: "He may be given up to forty lashes, but not more; lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes." The word "brother" is essential here. It's a question of punishing without degrading: would a human tribunal and justice know the secret of the furthest limits of a difference that is distinctive? In any case, Rabbi Hanania, breaking with the shadowy mythological fatalism whose very possibility would indicate a religious tyranny, proclaims that there is no fault against heaven that, within the community of persons, cannot be expiated. Hence, in the tribunal the divine will for regeneration is made manifest. Violence is permitted, of course, but without the spirit of vengeance, scorn, or hatred. It is an action without passion, taken between brothers, arising from responsibility for the other. To be-in contrast to Cain's vision of the world-guardian of the other is the definition of fraternity. In a court that reasons and weighs events, the love of neighbor becomes possible. Justice rendered by the just becomes mercy, not through wanton indulgence, but by means of rendering judgment. God speaks with mercy born out of the rigor of the tribunal. An exaggeration? Certainly. Yet pure indulgence, gratuitous pardon, is always at the expense of an innocent party whom it ignores. Such a pardon is permitted only to the judge who personally bears its costs.[2] But it is fitting for an earthly judge, who as a man is the brother of the guilty party, to restore to human brotherhood those who have been excluded: to be responsible while responding to the freedom of another. Heteronomy within the context of autonomy in human brotherhood-in Judaism this is perceptively understood to arise from the category of divine paternity.[3] Divine justice is clothed in fraternity when it reveals itself in a human tribunal.

Rabbi Hanania teen Gamaliel offers a second a fortiori argument. If the transgression of certain prohibitions "cuts off a human being from his people," the accomplishment of the Law ought, with all the more reason, restore him to them. Now, in submitting to the whipping the court has decided on, the guilty person is obeying the Law to which he is subject. But why "with all the more reason"? Because divine mercy is even more certain than divine rigor. This theme, to which Rabbi Hanania is referring implicitly, is present everywhere in rabbinic thought. It is written (Exod. 34:6-7): "A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, rich in steadfast kindness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of fathers upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations for their fathers' wickedness" (Exod. 34:6-7). The rabbis gloss this: "a thousand generations, at least two thousand!" For at least two thousand generations favor is accorded to merit; for four generations the misdeed cries for justice: hence mercy is five hundred times stronger than divine rigor. Behind this arithmetic of grace lies moral optimism: the victory of evil is only temporary; from the victory gained over evil or goodness, nothing is ever lost.

This is the basis for the intervention of Rabbi Schimon on the merit attached to obeying prohibitions. In addition to its theological significance, his declaration defines a conception of human life: "Whoever remains steadfast without falling into transgression is rewarded just as if he carried out the positive commandments." The constraint imposed on the spontaneity of life, as explained in the negative commandments of Leviticus 18 (whose sexual prohibitions constitute a special example), is affirmed by Rabbi Schimon as a guarantee of rewards. A negative commandment represents constraint par excellence, restricting those spontaneous tendencies, especially the blind excesses of sexual desire, in which life becomes a driving force. According to Rabbi Shimon, observance of the commandment brings a promise of reward. Just as we can denounce its spirit of repression, we can certainly expect this promise to fulfill the hopes of the common people's faith: longevity, eternal life, or earthly happiness. But we might also understand that the reward for a life which accepts certain limits is that very life; by limiting its wild vitality, we awaken from the spontaneity of sleepwalkers, sober up, and open ourselves to the other. This is a life that Judaism recognizes: wild vitality is limited by Law; and this restriction is accepted as the best portion-as a reward.[4] Instead of a life intoxicated by an untamed appetite of desire and domination that nothing can halt, one chooses the fullness of meaning in responsibility and justice.

Rabbi Schimon-bar-Rami bases the reward for those who do not break the commandments on the promise made in Deuteronomy (12:2325) to the one who abstains from drinking blood: if an abstinence that accords with natural repulsion is rewarded, how much more so will be resistance to what is desirable! (The horror of blood perhaps has a meaning here that is not merely gastronomic.) Resistance to the appetite for sexual excess or plunder is a fortiori meritorious. All this balancing of merits and rewards, however, has a larger meaning. A lively, natural life may well begin in a naivete whose tendencies and tastes remain in conformity with ethics; it ends, if given free rein, in loveless debauchery and exploitation established as the social norm. The human begins at the point that such vitality, innocent in appearance but potentially murderous, is controlled by prohibitions. Does not authentic civilization, whatever its biological failures or political defeats, consist in restricting the naive breath of life, remaining thus awakened "for posterity and for all generations"?[5]

In this way we understand the idea put forward by Rabbi Hanania teen Aquachia at the end of the Mishna (the oldest part of our Talmud, which goes back to the tanaite doctors, before the end of the second century): "The Eternal wished to confer merit on Israel by multiplying his commandments..." and "has made his doctrine great and glorious" (Isa. 42:21). Not, certainly, in order to create artificial merit, or to preside over an obstacle race. Commandments are necessary for the grandeur of justice and for God's glory, in contrast to a life that is lived as "an irrepressible force." And they are needed even where, as in the horror that one can experience at consuming or at shedding blood, nature seems to preserve us from evil. There is no natural tendency so healthy that it can't be corrupted. Holiness is necessary for the health of the saint.[6]

The grandeur of the justice evoked by Rabbi Hanania teen Aquachia, which conditions a life in obedience to the many commandments, is also the glory of the tribunal and the judges. To render doctrine glorious! Only judges who themselves practice these multiple commandments can be part of the glorious assembly in which God's will is willed. The judge is not simply a jurist expert in the law, but obeys the Law that he applies and is formed by this obedience; the study of the Law is itself the essential form of this obedience.[7] Only then can earthly punishment reduce the heavenly punishment, so that one can repeat with the psalmist that "God is present in the divine assembly" and "in the midst of the judges He judges" (Ps. 82:1). Only then can we justify the judgment delivered and the punishment inflicted by one person on the other-that is, the responsibility of one for the other, the strange ontological structure that it presumes in which one person takes on the destiny and existence of the other, responding for what is not his doing. Here responsibility precedes liberty, which means precisely belonging to God, a unique belonging which, though prior to liberty, does not destroy liberty, and thus defines, one might say, the meaning of that exceptional word: God; God appearing in the name of an assembly of the just, itself called divine; God as the very possibility of such an assembly. And inversely, an assembly of the just that is not exclusively the ultimate source of its own judgment: another will is present within it; the decision of the judge is more than human spontaneity-it is inspired. That is what our text will go on to say. Justice is not decided by means of an order that it imposes or restores; nor does it emerge from a system whose rationality commands, without distinction, both men and gods, revealing itself in human legislation like the structures of space in geometry. Such a justice is what Montesquieu calls the Logos of Jupiter, a metaphor that rescues religion but eliminates transcendence. In the justice of the rabbis, however, the difference between divine and human retains its significance. Ethics is not the simple corollary of the religious, but is, by itself, the element in which religious transcendence receives its original meaning.

Transcendence and Exegesis

In the talmudic extract that we are considering, the text concerning transcendence comes right after one discussing the powers a human tribunal has to modify in some way the decisions of Heaven and to be certain of remaining in agreement with the absolute Tribunal. Here are the terms in which the problem is posed: "Rav Yossef says: 'Who has mounted above, has returned from there, and spoken?'"

The response is given by another doctor, Abbaye, in the name of Rabbi Yehochoua teen Levi: "Three things were decreed by courts here below to which the Tribunal on high consented. [You ask] 'Who has mounted above, has returned from there, and spoken?,' but these are verses to be interpreted. Let us, then, interpret the verses." Rabbi Yehochoua teen Levi, accordingly, located the power of forcing the secret of transcendence in the interpretation of the verses, which the rabbis call midrash (the appeal of meaning).

Here are the three things that have been decreed by earthly courts whose exegesis shows they are in agreement with the heavenly will. There is, first, the institution, under the direction of Mordecai and Esther, of the liturgical reading of the "roll of Esther" at the feast of Purim. This is justified by a biblical verse (Esther 4:27): "The Jews recognized and accepted." Why are there two almost synonymous verbs in this verse? It is because recognition is distinct from acceptance: acceptance is here below, recognition in heaven.

Next, authorization is given to invoke the name of God when saluting a human person. In Ruth (2:4), Boaz, whom the rabbis class among the judges, salutes the harvesters, "The Lord be with you"; in Judges (6:12), the angel says to Gideon, "The Lord is with you, O champion."

Finally, there is the instruction to bring the tithe (destined for the Levites) within the precincts of the Temple, which, according to Nehemiah (10:40), is an institution of Esdras. This is confirmed by the prophet Malachi (3:10):

Bring the whole tithe into my storehouse That there may be food in my house, and try me in this, says the Lord of hosts:
Shall I not open to you the floodgates of heaven, To pour down blessings upon you without measure?

And the Talmud adds, "What does 'beyond all measure' mean? Rabbi bar Rav says, 'Until your lips become accustomed to saying, enough.'"

Do not such "proofs" presuppose the inspired origin of the whole biblical canon? Do they not present the required notions of grandeur and transcendence, and even the idea of God as clear and distinct?

Otherwise, the question of Rav Yossef, in its apparent naivete, is extremely bold, putting in doubt the mythical significance of the transcendence and revelation that it seems to acknowledge. Otherwise, its questioning of someone "mounting above" even extends to the great challenge of Exodus 24:12: "Come up to me on the mountain and, while you are there, I will give you the stone tablets on which I have written the commandments intended for their instruction." This is a challenge whose reality would ultimately be attested to only by a text similar to the proclamation of the truth that it should be able to establish: a begging of the question that contains a premonition of today's historical criticism. But Abbaye already responds to his questioner at that higher level. And that response-instead of grounding exegesis in some kind of traditional metaphysical dogmatism that is adopted as a truism-establishes a new meaning of transcendence, and of the old vocabulary. It grounds exegesis in the structure of the book of books as admitting exegesis, and in its privilege of containing more than it contains-that is, of being, in precisely that sense, inspired.

The techniques of reading that we have just seen at work suggest, first, that the declaration that is being commented on goes beyond the "intention to say" from which it proceeds; that its "ability to say" is greater than its "intention to say"; that it contains more than it contains; that a surplus of meaning, perhaps inexhaustible, remains enclosed within the syntactical structures of the phrase-in this group of words, in these terms, phonemes, and letters, in this whole materiality of speaking, which almost always bears a sign. Exegesis will come to liberate a captive meaning in these signs, a meaning that flows under the characters or is coiled within this whole literature of letters.[8]

Some people, understanding rabbinic hermeneutics superficially, think of it as neglecting the mind; but the intention of the signified by the signifier is not the only way of indicating significance. In its other modes, the significance of the signifier responds only to the mind that seeks it, thus becoming part of the process of signification; interpretation necessarily includes that seeking without which the non-said, inherent in the texture of what is declared, would be extinguished by the weight of the texts and sink into their letters. Such a search emanates from persons, eyes and ears alert, attentive to the entire work from which the extract derives, and equally open to life-the city, the street, other people; it emanates from persons in their oneness, each capable of extracting meaning from signs, which are always inimitable; it emanates from persons who are themselves part of the effort to find the signification of the sensible. This is not the same as identifying exegesis with incidental impressions and subjective reflexes that audible words permit, or arbitrarily classifying them as external to meaning. It amounts, rather, to understanding the very plurality of persons as an unavoidable instance of the significance of meaning and as somehow justified by the destiny of the inspired word, so that the infinite richness of its not-said should be spoken; or so that the meaning of what it says, according to the technical expression of the rabbis, can be renewed. Should not Israel, people of the Book, for whom the required reading of the Scriptures belongs to the most solemn liturgy, also be the people of continued revelation?

But, if this is so, language that contains more than it contains would be the natural element of inspiration, in spite of or prior to its being reduced to its usefulness in transmitting thoughts and information (if it is ever entirely reduced to that). One might ask whether the human being, the animal endowed with language, is not above all the animal capable of inspiration, the prophetic animal. One can ask whether the book, as book, before becoming a document, is not the modality in which what is said offers itself to and calls for exegesis-whether its meaning, immobilized within its characters, is not already tearing at the text that contains it. In propositions that are not yet-or are no longer-verses, and are often only radiant phrases, there reverberates another voice, a second sonority that drowns out or tears apart the first. The vast life of texts that survive through the lives of the men and women who hear them-this is the primary exegesis of texts that are dubbed a national literature; to that exegesis is grafted the hermeneutic of schools and universities. Beyond the immediate meaning of their utterance, the style of such texts is inspired. The fact that meaning comes by way of the book attests to its biblical essence. The comparison between the inspiration attributed to the Bible and the inspiration referred to in the interpretation of literary texts is not intended to compromise the dignity of Scripture, but it confirms the dignity of national literatures.

But what is it that establishes one book as the Book of Books? Why is one book made the Bible? How is the divine origin of the Word signaled-how is it signed-in Scripture? And does not this signature, more important for a contemporary than the "thunders and lightning" of Sinai, betray the faith of the common reader?

Inspiration: an other meaning that drills below the immediate meaning of the "intention to say," another meaning that offers a signal for an understanding that listens to more than what is heard, an awakened awareness. This other voice takes on the appearance of message because of this resonance. In its purity as message, it is not just a certain way of speaking, but controls the content. The message as message awakens listeners to the intelligible that is unimpeachable-to the meaning of meanings, to the face of the other.[9] The awakening is precisely to this proximity of the other.[10] The message as message in its manner of awakening is the modality-the how-of an ethics that upsets the established order of those who impenitently continue their way of being. [11] And the original figure of the beyond is there, liberated from the mythology of other worlds, [12] through submission to the reading, to the book-but no less marvelous for that.

Surely one teaching to draw from the passage on which I am commenting is that the loftiness of ethics is not determined by the height of the celestial sky; and that by means of ethics and the message constantly breaking through-hermeneutically-the texture of the Book par excellence, all nobility derives its transcendent meaning.

Curiously, the biblical text in favor of the agreement between the earthly court and the heavenly court (cited earlier by Rabbi Yehochoua teen Levi) is taken from the book of Esther, in which, one might say, God has withdrawn to His name, to the word by which He is designated. But the message suddenly emerges from within the events related in terms of their "natural" motivation and the chance blows of fate. The liturgical institution by Murdock and Esther made it possible to understand these events as related to Sacred History-this is the miraculous surplus of their place in the divine plan. The historical order of facts-their established order-rises, and perceptions awaken at the decisive ethical moment in which Esther upsets royal etiquette, consenting to her destruction in order to save others. An upheaval of order by means of this awakening takes place during the insomnia of the king. A midrashic text from the treatise Meguila assimilates the insomnia of Ahasuerus with the insomnia of God, as if, in this inability to sleep, the ontological repose of being is torn apart and absolutely brought down to earth. Is not this extreme awareness the relationship to transcendence?

No less remarkable is the second text in which God's epiphany is invoked, in the human face. The face of others, an irreducible difference, suddenly bursting into everything that is given me, everything that I understand and that belongs to my world, is an apparition that un-makes, that dis-organizes the world-disturbs me and awakens me. That is what is suggested in the linkage between Ruth 2:4 and Judges 6:12. There is transcendence both in the text where exegesis finds more than the writing seems to say, and in the ethical content, the message which manifests itself in this way.

The third moment-the transfiguration of the tithe by its being brought to the Temple-would signify the transformation of giving itself into an absolutely gratuitous generosity; the donor, not knowing the beneficiary's identity, will not understand the expression of personal gratitude.[13] Is not that one of the meanings, almost the figure, of worship itself? What sophisticates might criticize as obligation to "an empty heaven" is, enigmatically, the absolute opening of the soul- the opening of dis-inter-estedness, sacrifice without reward, discourse without response or echo-that "confidence in God" and prayer have the power to attain. This opening of the self to the infinite-which no confirmation can equal-proves itself only by its very excess. This is the abundance to which our lips are never sufficient, growing parched with saying the "Enough" of which Rami bar Rav spoke in his strange hermeneutic of Malachi 3:10. Something beyond discourse. An infinity of receiving perceived in the dis-interested generosity of giving, such a reversal is an opening on the infinite.


Are we right in detecting, in this reading of the talmudic passage, in the inspiration and exegesis that opens it up, the spirituality of spirit and the very figure of transcendence? Are we then correct in recognizing in ethics at the level of the tribunal, understood as assembly of the just, the very place where the spirit breathes and the Other penetrates the Identical? Moderns will resist this by reducing the transcendence of inspiration, exegesis, and moral message to human inferiority, to the creativity of our unconscious: for them, ethics is basically autonomy. In order to challenge these modern forms of resistance, might it not be necessary to interpret them as the reasons of reason in its work of reasoning, in which philosophy, following its logic, acknowledges the reign of identity, which nothing other could disturb, let alone control?

That is precisely what the last part of the talmudic extract we are dealing with suggests. Rav Elazar intervenes to confirm in his way the general thesis of page 23b of Makoth on the possible agreement between earthly jurisdiction and heavenly justice. He refers to Genesis 38:26, where Judah, son of Jacob, recognizes the injustice of the accusation he has brought against his daughter-in-law Tamar (the latter "would have been passed," according to our text, to the tribunal of Sem, son of Noah, who is still alive). Rav Elazar refers to 1 Samuel 12:3-5, where all of Israel bears witness at the tribunal of Samuel to the disinterestedness of the judge Samuel; he refers to 1 Kings 3:27, where King Solomon (at his own tribunal) is able to ascertain which of two women who argue over a child is the actual mother. Confession of the guilty party, testimony of the people, sentence of the king-under the varied pretexts of verses that he attributes to the echo of a heavenly voice, Rav Elazar grasps at each of these human words (incontestably human in the verses quoted) in the name of a sovereignly audacious exegesis (probably also in the name of bold thinking). Will the holy spirit then be present in human tribunals?

An interlocutor, Rabba, protests this extravagance: there is no need to make voices intervene in speeches when reason is sufficient for understanding. But it is the lesson of Rav Elazar that the talmudic text retains-and, in the name of tradition, retains without discussion: hence there is inspiration in the very exercise of reason. Even the logos is prophetic. Through the uncertainties and presumptions of rational thinking the light of evidence arrives, just as it does under the trauma of Revelation. By all evidence a message is declared.

Certainly. But it should be underlined that, in spite of tradition, the editors of the talmudic text have also recorded the rejected opinion-the scepticism of Rabba. It remains written-as if ambiguity should persist in the conclusions of the high debate that has just unfolded in talmudic style, with propositions that apparently admit no contrarieties-"guided without seeming to be."

But shouldn't contemporaries be able to recognize in such ambiguity the alternating movements of their own thinking?

To say that the ideas about transcendence and the very idea of transcendence itself come to us through interpreting writings is hardly to offer a subversive opinion. Nevertheless, it is less than dogma for moderns. For one thing, it suggests that language, at the moment of its ethical truth-that is, of its full significance-is inspired, is able to say more than it says, and that therefore prophecy is not a matter of genius, but of the spirituality of the mind that expresses it, that it indicates the capacity of human speaking to go beyond the initial intentions it bears. Possession by God, perhaps, and by whence the idea of God comes to us. But this language applied to transcendence is also the object of philology; the transcendence that is spoken through it may only be an illusion, sharing in the prestige of influence that history will demystify. We prefer, say the philologically inclined, the genesis of every text to its exegesis, the certitudes of given signs to the hazards of mysterious messages, the combinations of shadows in the Cave to the uncertain appeals from Outside! There is also a science, sometimes admirable, for destroying false prophecies.

Alternative or alternation. And even an alternation of alternations facing the letters of Scripture. The latter are still able to maintain, for those who respect them as well as for those who complain of them, the dogmatism of a God, a power stronger than others, interrupting (as monstrous power or heroic person) the necessities of nature. Then these letters, through a science they nourish by their presence as vestiges, strike their readers, of both camps, and tear them away from mythologies, affirmed or denied. But in this sudden leap, there is a new alternation of movements: they extend from the traumatism of meaning that seems unknown and alien to the grammar which-on another level-reestablishes order, coherence, and chronology; and then a movement of return-from history and philology to the understanding of meaning that comes from behind the literature of letters and anachronisms, meaning that affects and awakens, taking us away from the preconceptions and routine ideas that offer protection and reassurance.

This alternation bears witness, certainly, to the hesitation of our weak faith, but clinging to it is also a transcendence that does not contradict itself by its coming, and, in inspired Scripture, awaits a hermeneutic-that is, it shows itself only by hiding.


[1] In order to give a preliminary idea of this, even if it does not show the extent of the dialectical possibilities that are available to such thinking, look at a short meditation, also taken from the last pages of Makoth, and which is very close to the passage we are going to consider:

Does the verse, "You will be lost among the Gentiles, swallowed up in your enemies" (Lev. 26:38), announce the end of Israel? Ravah says, "I dread the beginning of that verse, 'You will be lost among the Gentiles.' Rav Papah responds, "but isn't it a matter there of a destruction that means 'that which was looked for'?" as in Psalm 119:78, 'I wander like a lost sheep, set out in search of your servant.' The idea of a destruction is thus restored in a context in which it becomes hope and announces all the affective surplus-the grace-of reunion! Is it not rather the end of the verse which is fearful, 'swallowed up by your enemies'?" Mar Zoutra answers, "Perhaps they will devour us like one devours cucumbers, while leaving the pits. A harsh subsistence, an unpleasant survival. But the whole hope of rebirth begins with this 'remainder of Israel.'"

[2] ". . . the judge has pronounced his judgment, he has acquitted the innocent and has condemned the guilty party, and he has then perceived that the one who has to pay is a poor man, and he has therefore reimbursed him with his own money. That is both justice and charity" (Treatise Sankedrin, 6b).

[3] It is against the paganism of the idea of the Oedipus complex that the apparently edifying verse--"Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son" (Deut. 8:5)-is directed. Here paternity has the meaning of a category established by good sense, not through alienation. On this point, at least, psychoanalysis bears witness to the profound crisis of monotheism in contemporary sensibility, a crisis which can't be reduced to the rejection of a few dogmatic propositions. It contains the ultimate secret of antisemitism. Mme. Amado Levy-Valensi has vigorously insisted throughout her work on the essentially pagan character of the Oedipus myth.

[4] Curiously, in the last lines of the pages we are studying in the treatise Makoth, we hear distant rumors of the triumphant, non-repressed life of Rome. "One day, Rabbi Gamaliel, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehochoua, and Rabbi Aquiba were on the road. They heard the noise of the city of Rome, of the capitol, at the distance of a hundred twenty thousand leagues. The others began to weep, but Rabbi Aquiba began to laugh. They asked him, 'Why are you laughing?' He asked them, 'Why are you weeping?' They said, 'The villains who adore false gods and offer incense to idols live in peace and enjoy tranquility, and we, the foundation stones of the Lord, are burned, why should we not weep?' And he said, 'That is the reason why I laugh. Those who resist His will have their happy outcome. And we, all the more reason.'" Does this mean, all the more reason we will one day be rewarded, or all the more reason that our fate is, here and now, the best in spite of our misfortunes? When one is en route and tired out, it's all very well to be Rabbi Gamaliel, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehochoua-the greatest of the great-the noises of Rome can for a while place in question, in one's mind and at one's nerve ends, the fairness of a just life. Only Rabbi Aquiba knows how to laugh at it: in spite of setbacks, he is certain that his is the best portion. He is certain of it, not because of the experience of his senses, which is painful, but by means of a fortiori reasoning which in this case is not the guarantee of a promise but of a value.

[5] Rabbi Schimon-bar-Rami's intervention comes after the last words of the talmudic text: "He who abstains will have gained merit for himself and for his posterity through all generations."

[6] In regard to prohibitions, it would be interesting to cite the lines that follow our text on pages 23a and 23b of Makoth: "Rabbi Simiai taught: 'Six hundred thirteen commandments were given to Moses: three hundred sixty-five negative commandments, corresponding to the number of days in the year, and two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, as many as there are parts in the human body.' Rabbi Hanania says, 'Which verse teaches us this?'-'It is for us that He dictated a Torah to Moses, it will remain the heritage of the community of Israel' (Deut. 33:4). According to the numerical meaning of its Hebraic letters, Torah is equivalent to six hundred eleven. If we add the first two commandments of the decalogue announced at Sinai, and which we heard from the very mouth of the Eternal, that makes six hundred thirteen."

This seems a crazy kind of arithmetic; in reality, it presents at least three teachings:

a) Every day lived under the sun is a virtual deprivation: it demands a new prohibition, a new vigilance that yesterday's cannot guarantee.

b) The life of each organ of the human body, of each tendency (what does the exactness or the arbitrariness of the anatomy or the physiology that arrives at two hundred forty-eight mean, since it is the number of the positive commandments that explains its secret?) is the source of possible vice. Force which is not justified by itself ought to be dedicated to the Most High, to a service.

c) In the code containing the six hundred thirteen commandments the number that gives the total of the numerical value of the letters composing the word Torah is not enough. It is not a system justified uniquely by its coherence: it establishes the order of life only because its transcendent source is personally affirmed as word. True life is inspired.

[7] See our Quatre lectures Talmudiques (Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1968).

[8] The word of the "rabbinic doctors," the word announcing or commenting on the Torah, is compared to the "burning embers," according to a saying of the Pirque Avoth, the Treatise of Principles in the Babylonian Talmud. A remarkable talmudist, the disciple of the Gaon of Vilna-one of the last great masters of rabbinical Judaism, on the eve of the nineteenth century, the Jewish "Enlightenment"-Rabbi Haim of Volozine, interpreted this very similarly: "The embers are brought to life by breathing, the strength of the flame which thus begins to live depends on the duration of the breath of the one who is interpreting.

[9] Book of the sensible par excellence. This can be said without yet validating the testimony which for millennia a people has rendered this book, nor the interpenetration of its history with the book, even though such a communication between history and book is essential to the authentic Scripture.

[10] See our study, "Conscience and Awakening," which appeared in French in the Dutch review Bijdragen 35 (1974): 235-249.

[11] Ethics-appearing as prophecy-is not a region, a level or an ornament of being. It is, of itself, dis-inter-estedness, which is possible only through a traumatism in which presence, in its imperturbable equality of presence, is disturbed by the other. Disturbed, awakened, transcended.

[12] In the texts invoked, well-defined situations and beings-equal to themselves, holding themselves in definitions and frontiers that integrate them in an order and make them rest in the world-are traversed by a breath that arouses and ignites their drowsiness or their identity as beings or things, dragging them away from their order without alienating them, taking away their contours-as in paintings by Dufy. A miracle of beings presenting themselves in their being and stirring in new awakenings, more profound and down-to-earth. It cannot be doubted: at the same time as it is an overthrow of order, a tearing at the identical by the Other, it is the miracle, the structure-or de-struction-of inspiration and transcendence. If miracles of pure thaumaturgy seem spiritually suspect to us and admissible only under the title of simple figures of epiphany, it is not because they alter the order, but because they don't alter it enough, because they are not sufficiently miraculous, because the Other reawakening the identical is not yet through them sufficiently other.

[13] On the importance attached to this modality of the gift, see Bab-Bathra, 10b.

By Emmanuel Levinas

translated by Joseph Cunneen

EMMANUEL LEVINAS is one of the most distinguished Jewish philosophers of the century. Among his many books, the following have appeared in English: Difficult Freedom. Essays in Judaism (Johns Hopkins), Ethics and Infinity (Duquesne), Existence and Existens (Kluwer), New Talmudic Readings (Indiana), Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Existence (Kluwer), The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology (Northwestern), Time and the Other (Duquesne), Totality and Infinity (Duquesne), and Collected Philosophical Papers (Kluwer). The present article first appeared in Lumiere et Vie, no. 144 (September-October 1977). The ideas offered here have been presented, in a different form, in a bulletin of the Consistoire centrale Israelite in 1974; the last section is the basis for an article in Melanges Georges Vajda (1978).

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter94/95, Vol. 44 Issue 4, p488, 17p.

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