Revelation in the Jewish Tradition

Emmanuel Levinas

~ • ~

12. Revelation in the Jewish Tradition


First published in the collected volume of essays entitled Révélation (Bruxelles: Editions des Facultes universitaires Saint-Louis 1 977), pp . 55-77, and subsequently incorporated into L’Au-Delii du Verset (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1 982), pp. 158-81, 'Revelation in the Jewish Tradition' is one of Levinas's most important articles on the relevance of Law, or Torah, to the Jewish tradition. The fact of revelation (which has been contrasted with reason ever since the medieval writings of Saadya , often called the father of Jewish philosophy) leads Levinas to present the Bible as the model of ethical transcendental philosophy. The book is an espace vital (the importance of Levinas's use of this phrase is discussed in note 2) whose form and structure emphasize the polysemy and ambiguity of the message, obliging the reader to become an active interpreter, within the context of history's readings . This structure of oral and written law is further divided into Halakhah and Aggadah (see Glossary). The prescriptive approach which this adds up to confers a sense of unity that encourages rather than silences further discussion. In content also, the obligation to follow the Most-High which is related must be interpreted by each unique reader in terms of his or her responsibility for the other. Given that, in both structure and content, the prescription of prescriptions is the actual study of the written or oral Law, this obedience to the Most-High confers freedom on the individual. At the same time, this face-to-face response to God's commandment breaks open immanence. Being-there is transcended by the responsibility of interpretation; the closed order of totality is opened up by a different rationality, one based on an unfilfillable obligation.
As the chapters in this section discuss Jewish identity in terms of reading and saying, we have sought to preserve their more oral and discursive tone, and have retained all references to conferences or papers which have provided the startingpoint for Levinas. All quotations from the Talmud are taken from The Babylonian Talmud, under the editorship of I. Epstein (London: Soncino Press, 1 948).
Levinas's concept of Law is dealt with in a fascinating way in an article by Jean-Fran<;ois Lyotard, 'Levinas' Logic' in Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard A . Cohen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1 986), pp. 117-58, especially sections VI to VIII.

The Content and its Structure




I think that our fundamental question in this conference is less concerned with the content attributed to revelation than with the actual fact - a metaphysical one - referred to as the Revelation. This fact is itself the first content, and the most important, to be revealed by any revelation. From the outset we are told that it is an abnormal and extraordinary relationship, able to connect the world we inhabit to something which is no longer of this world. How is it thinkable? Which model can we appeal to? Our world lies before us, enabling us, in its coherence and constancy, to perceive it, enjoy it (jouissance), and think about it; it offers us its reflections, metaphors and signs to interpret and study. Within this world, it appears that the opening of certain books can cause the abrupt invasion of truths from outside - from where? - dated according to the 'chronology' of Sacred History, the history related by the Bible! And, in the case of the Jews, this sacred history leads, without any break in continuity, to the 'historian's history', which is profane history. Herein lies without doubt the originality of Israel and its relationship to the Revelation, whether that relationship be one of reading the Bible, forgetting it, or harbouring memories or feelings of remorse even after it is forgotten: most of the history which, to the Christian West, is 'sacred' is the ancient history of a people still here today, retaining a unity, however mysterious, in spite of its dispersion among the nations or perhaps in spite of its integration within them. In contrast to the mythical status - degradation or sublimation - which always threatens to befall the 'far distant times' of the Revelation, there is the astonishing fact of Judaism's continuing existence today as a collective human reality. And even if this entity is small in number, constantly eroded by persecution, enfeebled by half-heartedness, temptation and apostasy, it remains capable, even in its irreligiosity, of founding its political life on truths and rights drawn from the Bible. And, in actual fact, chapters of sacred history have been reproduced in the course of profane history by ordeals which constitute another Passion, the Passion of Israel. For many Jews, those who who have long since forgotten or never learned the narrative and the message of the Scriptures, the only available signs of the received Revelation - and the muffled calling of its exaltation - are to be found in the traumatism of events experienced long after the point at which the Biblical canon ends, long after the Talmud was put into writing. (The Talmud is the other form of the Revelation, distinct from the Old Testament which Christians and Jews have in common.) For many Jews, the only meaning of sacred history and the Revelation it brings us is to be found in their memories of the stake, the gas chambers, and even the snubs dealt to them publicly in international assemblies or implicitly in the refusal to allow them to emigrate. Their experience of the Revelation is transmitted through persecution!

We have heard Paul Ricoeur take up Emil Fackenheim's expression and talking of "history making events"1 But surely these events must refer us to the Bible, which remains their espace vital?2 It is through reading that references take on reality; through reading, in a way, we come to inhabit a place. The volume of a book can provide the espace vital! In this sense, too, the people of Israel are the people of the Book, whose relationship to the Revelaton is unique. Even their land rests on the Revelation. Their nostalgia for the land is nourished by texts, and owes nothing to any organic attachment to a particular piece of soil. Clearly, this kind of presence to the world makes the paradox of transcendence less anomalous.

For many Jews today, both as individuals and communities, the Revelation is still understood in terms of a communication between Heaven and Earth and corresponds, therefore, to the most obvious interpretation of the Biblical accounts. Many excellent souls have accepted this view, as they travel through the desert of today's religious crisis, finding fresh water in the literal expression of the Epiphany at Sinai, in God's Word calling upon the prophets, and in their trust in an uninterrupted tradition, to which a prodigious history bears witness . Orthodox Jews, individually or in communities, untouched by the doubts of th􀋮 modern age even though they sometimes participate, in their professional lives, in the feverish world of industry, remain - despite the simplicity of the metaphysics involved - spiritually attuned to the highest virtues and most mysterious secrets of God's proximity. This enables these men and communities to live, in the literal sense of the word, outside History, where events neither come to pass, nor join those that belong to the past. For modern Jews, however - and they are the majority - whose concern with the intellectual destiny of the West and its triumphs and crises is not simply borrowed, the problem of the Revelation remains pressing, and demands the elaboration of new modes of thought. How can we make sense of the 'exteriority' of the truths and signs of the Revelation which strike the human faculty known as reason? It is a faculty which, despite its 'interiority', is equal to whatever the world confronts it with. But how can these truths and signs strike our reason if they are not even of this world?

These questions are indeed urgent ones for us today, and they confront anyone who may still be responsive to these truths and signs but who is troubled to some degree - as a modern person - by the news of the end of metaphysics, by the triumphs of psychoanalysis, sociology and political economy; someone who has learnt from linguistics that meaning is produced by signs without signifieds and who, confronted with all these intellectual splendours - or shadows - sometimes wonders if he is not witnessing the magnificent funeral celebrations held in honour of a dead god. The ontological status or regime of the Revelation is therefore a primordial concern for Jewish thought, posing a problem which should take precedence over any attempt to present the contents of that Revelation.



None the less, we shall devote this first section to an exposition of the contents of the Revelation, and the structure they present within Judaism. Some of the inflections of this structure already suggest a way in which the transcendence of its message can be understood. I think that this exposition is also useful because the general public is unfamiliar with the forms in which the Revelation appears to Jews. Ricoeur has given a magisterial account of the origins of the Old Testament which Judaism and Christianity have in common.3 This dispenses me from the need to talk further about the various literary genres of the Bible: its prophetic texts, the narration of historical founding events, prescriptive texts, the Wisdom literature, hymns and forms of thanksgiving. Each genre has its own revelatory function and power.

But perhaps, for a Jewish reading of the Bible, these distinctions cannot be established quite as firmly as in the pellucid classification we have been offered. Prescriptive lessons - found especially in the Pentateuch, the part of the Torah known as the Torah of Moses - occupy a privileged position within Jewish consciousness, as far as the relationship with God is concerned. Every text is asked to produce such lessons; the psalms may allude to characters and events, but they also refer to prescriptions: Psalm 119:19 says, notably, "I am a sojourner on earth: hide not thy commandments from me!" The texts of the Wisdom literature are prophetic and prescriptive. Cutting across the 'genres' in all directions, then, are allusions and references which are visible to the naked eye.

I would also like to add this: our studies must take us, in every case, beyond the obvious or most immediate meaning of the text. Of course, we can know that meaning, and recognize it as the obvious one, completely valid at that level of investigation . But it may be less easy to establish what that meaning is than the translations of the Old Testament lead us to suppose. We must leave the translations, however worthy of respect they may be, and return to the Hebraic text to reveal the strange and mysterious ambiguity or polysemy which the Hebrew syntax permits. In this syntax the words co-exist, rather than falling immediately into structures of coordination and sub-ordination, unlike the dominant tendency in the 'developed' or fu nctional languages . The return to the Hebraic text certainly makes it harder than people think - and the difficulty is legitimate - to decide on the ultimate intention of a verse, a fortiori of a book, of the Old Testament. And indeed, the specifically Jewish exegesis of the Scriptures is punctuated by these concerns: the distinction between the obvious meaning and the one which has to be deciphered, the search for this buried meaning and for one which lies deeper still, contained within the first. There is not one verse, not one word, of the Old Testament, if the reading is the religious one that takes it as Revelation, that does not open up/an entire world, unsuspected at first, in which the text to be read is embedded. 'Rabbi Akiba used to interpret even the decorations on the letters of the Holy text' says the Talmud . These scribes and doctors known as slaves to the letter, would try to extort from the letters all the meanings they can carry or can bring to our attention, just as if the letters were the folded wings of the Holy Spirit, and could be unfurled to show all the horizons . which the flight of the Spirit can embrace. 'Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this' : this fragment of verse 11 of Psalm 62 proclaims that God's Word contains innumerable meanings. That is, at least, if we are to believe the rabbi who, in the name of this pluralism, is already exercising the right - to subject the text to scrutiny - which this very verse teaches him! This exegesis of the Old Testament is called Midrash, meaning exposition or research, or interrogation. It was well under way before grammatical investigations - which, arriving late on the scene, were nevertheless well received - joined in the deciphering of these enigmas, even though they are enclosed within the gramma of the Scriptures by means very different to those of grammar.

This lively attention to the text of the Old Testament did not overlook its diversity of style and its contradictions. They were the pretext for new, more penetrating interpretations, for renewals of meaning which could match the acuteness of the reading. Such is the breadth of the Scriptures. Their Revelation can also be called mystery, not the kind of mystery which banishes clarity, but one which demands greater intensity.4

But this invitation to seek, to decipher, to the Midrash, already marks the reader's participation in the Revelation, in the Scriptures. The reader is, in his own fashion, a scribe. This provides a first indication of what we may call the "status" of the Revelation: its word comes from elsewhere, from outside, and, at the same time, lives within the person receiving it. The only "terrain" where exteriority can appear is in the human being, who does far more than listen. Which means, surely, that the person, the uniqueness of the "self", is the necessary condition of the breach and the manifestation which enter from outside? Surely it is the human, fracturing the identity of substance, which can, "by itself", enable a message to come from outside? Not in order to collide with a reason which is "free", but to assume instead a unique shape, which cannot be reduced to a contingent "subjective impression". The Revelation has a particular way of producing meaning, which lies in its calling upon the unique within me. It is as if a multiplicity of persons - and it is this multiplicity, surely, that gives the notion of 'person' its sense - were the condition for the plenitude of 'absolute truth', as if each person, by virtue of his own uniqueness, were able to guarantee the revelation of one unique aspect of the truth, so that some of its facets would never have been revealed if certain people had been absent from mankind. I do not mean that truth is anonymously produced within History, where it finds its own 'supporters' ! On the contrary, I am suggesting that the totality of truth is made out of the contributions of a multiplicity of people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carries the secret of the text; the voice of Revelation, in precisely the inflection lent by each person's ear, is necessary for the truth of the Whole. The fact that God's living word can be heard in a variety of ways does not only mean that the Revelation adopts the measure of the people listening to it; rather, that measure becomes, itself, the measure of the Revelation. The multiplicity of people, each one of them indispensable, is necessary to produce all the dimensions of meaning; the multiplicity of meanings is due to the multiplicity of people. We can now appreciate in its full weight the reference made by the Revelation to exegesis, to the freedom attaching to this exegesis and to the participation of the person listening to the Word, which makes itself heard now, but can also pass down the ages to announce the same truth in different times.

A passage in Exodus (25:15) prescribes the way in which the Holy Ark of the Tabernacle is to be constructed, and anticipates the poles on which the ArWwill be transported: 'The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it' . The Law carried in the Ark is always ready to move; it is not att.ached to a particular point in space and time but is transportable at all times, ready to be transported at any moment. This is also brought to our attention by the famous Talmudic apologue about Moses's return to earth in the time of Rabbi Akiba. He enters the Talmudic doctor's school, understands nothing of the lesson being given by the master, but a voice from heaven tells him that this teaching, so poorly understood, was none the less received from him: it was given "to Moses at Sinai". This contribution of the readers, listeners and pupils to the openended work of the Revelation is so essential to it that I was recently able to read, in a very remarkable book written by a rabbinical doctor at the end of the eighteenth century, that the slightest question put to the schoolmaster by a novice constitutes an ineluctable articulation of the Revelation which was heard at Sinai.

The individual person, unique in his historical position, is called upon: this means no less than that the Revelation requires History, which means, whatever theosophical 'wisdom' may have to say, that our God is a personal God - for surely the first characteristic of any God calling upon persons must be that he is personal? By what means, however, can this calling upon a diversity of people guard against the arbitrariness of subjectivism? But perhaps it is essential that a certain risk of subjectivism, in the pejorative sense of the term, should be taken by the truth

That does not at all mean that in the Jewish spiritual tradition the Revelation is left to arbitrary and subjective fantasms, that it has no authority and no definite characteristics of its own. Fantasms are not the essence of subjectivity, even if they are a by-product . Without any need for a magisterium, an authority on doctrinal matters, the 'subjective' interpretations of the Jewish Revelation have managed to maintain, in this people, the consciousness of their unity, despite their geographical dispersion. There is, moreover, a means of discriminating between personal originality brought to bear upon the reading of the Book and the play of the fantasms of amateurs (or even charlatans): this is provided by the necessity of referring subjective findings to the continuity of readings through history, the tradition of commentaries which no excuse of direct inspiration from the text allows one to ignore. No "renewal" worthy of the name can dispense with these references; nor, equally, can it fail to refer to what is known as the oral Law.

Oral Law and Written Law


This allusion to the oral Law leads us to point out another essential feature of the Revelation in Judaism: the role of the oral tradition as recorded in the Talmud. It is presented in the form of discussions between the rabbinical doctors. These took place in the period which begins with the first centuries before the Christian era and ends with the sixth century after Christ. From the historians' point of view, these discussions are an extension of more ancient traditions and reflect the shift which was taking place in the centre of Jewish spirituality, away from the Temple towards the house of study, from worship to study. The discussions and teachings relate, in the main, to the prescriptive part of the Revelation - matters of ritual, morality and law - although, in the guise of apologues about man's entire spiritual universe, they are also concerned, in their own way, with philosophy and religion. The keystone of it all is prescription. The image which people outside Judaism - or within a Judaism which has lost its Jewish character - have of the prescriptive, assimilating it to the mean-spiritness of a regulation that demands respect, or to the "yoke of the law", does not portray it accurately.

On the other hand, and contrary to what is often thought, the oral Law cannot be reduced to a commentary on the Scriptures, however important its role in this area may be. In religious thought, it is traced back to its own source in the Revelation at Sinai. We have, therefore, alongside the written Torah, an oral Torah whose authority is at least equal.5 The Talmud itself claims this authority, which is acknowledged by religious tradition and granted by the philosophers of the Middle Ages, including Maimonides. For the Jews, it constitutes a Revelation which completes that of the Old Testament. It is able to articulate principles and provide information, things which are missing from the written text or passed over in silence. The Tannaim, the earliest doctors of the Talmud, whose generation ends towards the close of the second century after Christ, speak with sovereign authority.

It remains true, of course, that the oral teaching of the Talmud is inseparable from the Old Testament. It is a guide to the interpretation of the Old Testament. Its way of reading, scrutinizing the text in the literal manner described above - something to which the Hebrew of the original Bible lends itself so wonderfully - defines the entire Talmudic approach. All the prescriptive part of the Torah is 'reworked' by the rabbinical doctors, and the narrative part is amplified and placed in a particular light. Thus it is the Talmud which allows us to distinguish the Jewish reading of the Bible from the Christian or 'scientific' reading of historians or philosophers. Judaism is indeed the Old Testament, but read through the Talmud.

In reality, the guiding spirit o f this reading, which i s naively called "literal", is perhaps one that tries to keep each particular text within the context of the whole. The comparisons which can seem merely verbal, to depl!nd upon the letter of the text, actually demonstrate this attempt to make'the 'harmonics' of a particular verse resound within other verses. The aim is also to keep the passages which are entirely to our taste - in their talk of spiritualization and interiorization - in contact with the tougher texts, in order to extract from these, too, their own truth. And, by developing those remarks which seem most severe to us, we may also bring the most generous moments of the text closer to its hardest realities. The language of the Old Testament is so suspicious of any rhetoric which never stammers that it has as its chief prophet a man "slow of speech and of tongue" In this disability we can see more than the simple admission of a limitation; it also acknowledges the nature of this kerygma, one which does not forget the weight of the world, the inertia of men, the dullness of their understanding.

The freedom of exegesis is upheld at this Talmudic school. Tradition, running through history, does not impose its conclusions upon us, but it does demand that we make contact with what it sweeps before it. Does it constitute an authority on doctrinal matters? Tradition is the expression, perhaps, of a way of life thousands of years old, which conferred unity upon a collection of texts, howeyer disparate historians say they were in their origins. The miracle of this confluence is as great as the miracle of the common origin attributed to the texts - and it is the miracle of that life. Just as the strings of a violin are stretched across its wood, so is the text stretched across all the amplifications brought by tradition . The Scriptures are therefore far from being a source of exercises for grammarians, in complete submission to the philologists; rather, their mode of being is such that the history of each piece of writing is less important than the lessons it contains, and its inspiration is measured in terms of what it has inspired. These are some aspects of the 'ontology' of the Scriptures.

We said that the oral Torah is committed to writing in the Talmud. So the oral Torah is in fact written . But it was put into writing belatedly. This event can be explained by contingent and dramatic circumstances in Jewish history, extrinsic to the true nature and manner of its message. However, the style of the oral Torah retains, even in its written form, the character of oral teaching; the direction and energy of the teacher addressing his disciples, who listen and ask questions . In its written form it reproduces the variety of opinions expressed, always taking great care to give the name of the person contributing or commenting upon them. It records the multiplicity of views and the disagreements between the doctors . The big disagreement which runs throughout the Talmud between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai (in the first century BCE) is called a discussion or disagreement 'for the glory of heaven' Despite its anxious concern to find agreement, the Talmud repeatedly applies the well-known formula both to the disagreement between Hillel and Shammai and to the divergent currents of ideas which stem from it, through successive generations of doctors: "These words and the others are all words of the living God". The discussion or dialectic remains open to its readers, who are only worthy of the name if they enter into it on their own account. The consequence - which is reflected even in the typography - is that the texts of the Talmud are accompanied by commentaries, and by commentaries on and discussion of those commentaries. Through these continuously overlaid pages the life of the text - which may be weakened or reinforced but still remains 'oral' - is prolonged . In this way the religious act of listening to the revealed word can take on the form of a discussion, which aims always to be open, however daring the problems it raises may be. So true is this that the messianic age is often referred to as the epoch of conclusions. Which does not prevent discussion, even of this point! A text from Berakoth (64a) says: "R. Hiyya b. Ashi said in the name of Rab: The disciples of the wise have no rest either in this world or in the world to come, as it says, They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion." (Psalm 84:7).6 This movement of ever increasing strength is attributed by the sovereign authority of R. Hiyya to the doctors of the Law. And the eleventh-century French commentator Rashi, whose explanations guide all readers, even modern ones, through the sea of the Talmud, adds by way of comment: "They are advancing from one house of study to another, from one problem to another." The Revelation is this continual process of hermeneutics, discovering new landscapes in the written or oral Word, uncovering problems and truths locked within each other. As such, it is not only a source of wisdom, the path of deliverance and elevation; it is also the food of the life of knowledge, and the object of the enjoyment (jouissance) which goes with it. Thus Maimonides, in the twelfth century, could attach the same pleasure and happiness to the hermeneutics of the Revelation that Aristotle attaches to the contemplation of pure essences in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

If Israel is the 'people of the Book' by virtue of its land, an extension of its in-folio manuscripts and scrolls, it also earns this title in another way: it is books that have nourished Israel, almost in the physical sense of the tenn, like the prophet who swallows the scroll in chapter 3 of Ezekiel. A strange diet, indeed, of celestial foods! As we have said, this does not involve the existence of a doctrinal authority. The strict fonnulations which - in the form Of dogmas - could unify the mUltiple and sometimes disparate traces of the Revelation in the Scriptures are absent from the spirit of Judaism. No Credo influences the reading of the texts or dictates its method, in which even those discoveries which renew the reading and lend new meanings to the/ verses resemble, in their effect, the pouring of new wine into old goatskins, where it retains its ancient shape and even its former bouquet. The fonnulation of articles of faith is a philosophical or theological genre which came to Judaism late. It only appears in the Middle Ages, when religious life had already been ordered and was two thousand years old (if we believe historical research, which is continually bringing forward the date at which the spiritual role of texts developed, even as it continues to push their genealogy further back, rooting them in myth). Two thousand years already divide the first fonnulations of the Jewish Credo - in which even the number of essential points varied - from the flowering of the prophetic message of Israel in the eighth century BCE (when much of the Mosaic content of the Pentateuch was written down); and these fonnulations are separated by more than one thousand years from the end of the Biblical canon, and by several centuries from the writ􀁩g down of the Talmudic teachings.



But if the contents of the Revelation are not summed up in the dogmatism of a Credo, there is another form in which the unity of the revelation is expressed for the Jews. Cutting across the distinction - specific to Judaism - between the written Revelation and the oral Revelation, there is a second distinction, to which we have already alluded. This distinction separates the Halakhah - those texts and teachings which relate to conduct and formulate practical laws, which constitute the real Torah, and are recognizably 'prescriptive' in Ricoeur's sense - from those texts and teachings of homiletic origin which, in the form of apologues, parables and amplifications of Biblical tales represent the theological and philosophical part of the tradition, and are grouped together under the concept of Aggadah. The first of these gives the Jewish Revelation, written and oral, its characteristic physiognomy and, like a physician, has kept the Jewish body from fragmentation, even in its dispersion, and down through history. From the outset the Jewish revelation is one of commandment, and piety lies in obedience to it. But this form of obedience, while it accepts the practical decrees, does not bring to a halt the dialectic which is called upon to fully determine them. This dialectic continues, and is intrinsically valuable for its style of open discussion.

The distinctions between oral Law and written Law, on the one hand, and Aggadah and Halakhah on the other constitute, as it were, the four compass points of the Jewish Revelation. The real motivation of the Halakhah, let me repeat, is still under debate. This is because its discussion of rules of conduct is shot through with thought of the most searching kind. Its concern with obedience and casuistry leads to more intellectual issues. This is very important: the thought generated by prescriptive problems goes beyond the question of which material act should be carried out, although, true to its dialectical nature, it does also state which conduct is the correct one, the H alakhah. The decision it makes cannot, therefore, be strictly seen as a conclusion. It is, rather, as if the decision rested with a specific tradition, although it could never have been reached without discussion, and does not nullify that discussion in any way. In company with the dialectical antinomies, which cause the waves in the 'Talmudic sea', there are the "decisions" or "decrees". And, shortly after the completion of the Talmud, the 'decision manuals' made their appearance, and fixed the form of the Halakhah. This project lasted several centuries and culminated in the definitive code entitled Shulhan Arukh, the "prepared table", which fixes the life of the faithful Jew to the last detail.

The Jewish revelation is based on prescription, the Mitzvah, whose rigorous execution seemed to Saint Paul to impose the yoke of the Law. In any case, the unity of Judaism depends on the Law, which is never experienced as some kind of stigma or mark of enslavement. The unity it brings is quite distinct, in its consequences for the religion, from any doctrinal unity, and in any case is the source for all formulations of doctrine. Rashi's first rabbinical commentary, with which all 'Jewish' edi tions of the Pentateuch begin, expresses astonishment at the first verse of the Torah : why does it begin with the account of Creation, when the prescriptions only begin in verse 2 of Exodus 12: "This month shall be for you the beginning of months"? In response, Rashi tries to explain the religious value of the account of the Creation. The Jewish people are united by their practice. This unity still exerts an influence on the consciousness of contemporary Judaism, which recognizes its antiquity and continues to acord it great respect, even when the Law, in the strict sense, is poorly observed. One would not be wrong in claiming that it is the unity conferred on the Jews by the Law - which at one time was observed by everyone - which sustains, although they are unaware of this, those Jews who have ceased to practise but still feel a sense of solidarity with the Jewish destiny. Finally, it is worth remarking that the study of the commandments - the study of Torah, the resumption of the rabbinical dialectic - is equal in religious value to actually carrying them out, just as if man, through this process qf study, came into mystical contact with the divine will itself. The highest action in the practice of the prescriptions, the prescription of prescriptions which equals all of them, is the actual study of the (written or oral) Law.

Beside these Halakhic texts we have just discussed, which unify the prescriptions of the Law, and in which one can find ethical laws side by side with ritual prescriptions - texts which define Judaism, from the outset, as an ethical monotheism - there are the apologues and parables known as Aggadah which constitute the metaphysics and philosophical anthropology of Judaism. In the Talmudic texts, the Aggadah alternates with the Halakhah. The Aggadah also contains special collections of texts, of varying age and quality, which have given life to Judaism, and which are treated - without any awareness of historical perspective - as if the wisdom they offered were equal to that of the Halakhah which unifies the religion. To know the system of thought with which Judaism survived as a unity, retaining its religious integrity throughout the centuries (which is not the same as knowing its historical development), it is necessary to consider these texts from different epochs as if they were contemporary. The lucid research of historians and critics - both Jewish and non-Jewish - which explains the miracle of the Revelation or that of the national spirit of the Jews by means of the multiplicity of influences which they underwent has no spiritual significance when the hour of crisis strikes - as it has frequently struck in the course of two thousand years - for post-exile Judaism. The voice which speaks out then, and is immediately recognized, belongs to what we referred to earlier as the miracle of confluence; and the thought and sensibility through which it reverberates understand it at once, just as if they were already expecting it.



But so far we have talked only about the form or structure of the Revelation in Judaism without saying anything about its contents. Our task here is not to provide a body of dogma, a task which resisted the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages. We want to set out, quite empirically, some of the relationships which are established between, on the one side, Him whose message is carried by the Bible and, on the other, the reader, when he agrees to place the verse he is examining in the context of the entire BiblIcal text - that is, when he takes the oral tradition as the point of departure for his reading of the Bible.

Of course, the invitation extended is to follow the highest path at all times, to keep faith with the Unique alone, and to distrust the myths which force upon us the fait accompli, the grip of custom and of terror, and the Machiavellian state with its 'state reasons' But to follow the Most High is to know, also, that nothing is of greater importance than the approach made towards one's neighbour, the concern with the fate of the "widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor man", and that no approach made with empty hands can count as an approach. The adventure of the Spirit also unfolds on earth among men. The traumatism of my enslavement in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, that which draws me closer to the problems of the wretched of the earth, to all persecuted people. It is as if I were praying in my suffering as a slave, but with a pre-oratorial prayer; as if the love of the stranger were a response already given to me in my actual heart. My very uniqueness lies in my responsibility for the other; nobody can relieve me of this, just as nobody can replace me at the moment of my death. Obedience to the Most High is defined for me by precisely this impossibility of running away; through this, my "self" is unique. To be free is simply to do what nobody else can do in my place. To obey the Most High is to be free.

But man is also the irruption of God within Being, or the bursting out of Being towards God; man is the fracture in Being which produces the act of giving, with hands which are full, in place of fighting and pillaging. This is where the idea of being chosen comes from, an idea which can deteriorate into pride, but originally expresses the awareness of an appointment which cannot be called into question; an appointment which is the basis of ethics and which, through its indisputability, isolates the person in his responsibility. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for your iniquities." (Amos 3:2). Man is questioned at his judgment by a justice which recognizes this responsibility; mercy - the rahamim -, the trembling of the uterus in which the Other (L’Autre) gestates within the Same, God's maternity, if we can call it that, attenuates the rigours of the Law (without ever suspending it in principle, although it can go so far as to suspend it in fact). Man can what he must; he shall master the hostile forces of History and bring into being the messianic reign foretold by the prophets. The awaiting of the Messiah is the duration of time itself - waiting for God - but here the waiting no longer attests to the absence of Godot, who will never come, but rather to a relationship with that which is not able to enter the present, since the present is too small to contain the Infinite.

But perhaps it is in the ritual which regulates every action of everyday life, in that famous 'yoke of the Law' that we find the most characteristic aspect of Judaism's difficult freedom. There is nothing numinous about ritual, no element of idolatry; in ritual a distance is taken up within nature, towards nature, which constitutes perhaps the very act of awaiting the Most High. An awaiting which is a relationship to Him; or, if one prefers, a deferring to Him, a deferring to the beyond (l’au-delà) which has given rise, here, to our concept of a beyond (au-delà) or a towards-God (à-Dieu).

The Fact of the Revelation and Human Understanding


I come now to the main question: how does a Jew 'explain' to himself the very fact of the Revelation, in all its extraordinariness, which tradition - in keeping with the literal interpretation of the Scriptures - presents as coming from outside this world, and belonging to another order? It will not have escaped the reader's attention that the account of the contents, and especially of the structure of the Revelation given so far has enabled us to make some progress towards answering this question.



Let us stay, for the moment, with the literal sense. We may note a few significant facts. The Bible itself tells us that its origin is supernatural. Some men heard the voice from heaven. The Bible also warns. us against false prophets. Thus prophecy is suspicious of prophecy, and the person who commits himself to the Revelation runs a risk. We can see here a warning to be vigilant; this is an essential part of the Revelation, which does not leave worry behind. There is a further important point: when Moses recalls the Epiphany at Sinai in Deuteronomy 4:15, he says: "Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire". The Revelation is a saying (dire) in which the uprightness of the relationship between man and God is drawn without mediation. In Deuteronomy 5:4, we read: "The Lord spoke with you face to face". These sentences allow the rabbinical doctors to confer prophetic status on all the Israelites that were present at the foot of Sinai, and to suggest by this that, in principle, the human mind is inherently open to inspiration and that man is inherently able to become a prophet! Let us look, too, at Amos 3: 8: 'The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?' The receptivity of the prophet already lies within the human soul. Can we not see, in this possibility of listening - of obeying, that is - that subjectivity is the very fracturing of immanence? But the Master of the Revelation emphasizes, in the text quoted from Deuteronomy, that the Revelation is of words and offers no image to the eyes . And if the words which describe the Revelation in the Scriptures borrow from the vocabulary of visual perception, what you perceive of God is a divine verbal message (devar elohim) which is, more often than not, an order. It is commandment rather than narration which marks the first step towards human understanding and is, therefore, the beginning of language.

The Old Testament honours Moses as the greatest of the prophets . Moses has the most direct relationship with God, described (in Exodus 33:11) as "face to face". And yet, the vision of the divine face is refused and, according to Exodus 33:23, only God's "back" is shown to Moses. It may be of some interest, if we are to reach an understanding of the true spirit of Judaism, to mention the way in which the rabbinical doctors interpret this text about the Epiphany: the 'back' which Mqses saw from the cleft in the rock where he stood to follow the passage of the divine Glory was nothing other than the knot formed by the straps of the phylacteries on the back of God's neck. The prescriptive teaching appears even here! Which demonstrates how thoroughly the entire Revelation is bound up with the ritual practices of each day. And this ritualism confirms the conception of God in which He is welcomed in the face-to-face with the Other, in the obligation towards the Other. It confirms it to the extent that, by suspending the immediacy of one's contact with Nature's given, it can determine, against the blinding spontaneity of Desire, the ethical relationship with the other person.

The Talmud affirms the prophetic and verbal origin of the Revelation, but lays more emphasis on the voice of the person listening. It is as if the Revelation were a system of signs to be interpreted by the auditor and, in this sense, already handed over to him . The Torah is no longer in heaven, it is given to men; henceforth, it is at their disposal. There is a famous apologue in the tractate Baba Meẓi’a (59b) which is telling on this point: Rabbi Eliezer, disagreeing with his colleagues about a problem arising from the Halakhah, finds his opinion is lent support by miracles and, finally, by a voice from heaven, or the echo of such a voice. His colleagues reject all these signs, and the echo of the voice, with the irrefutable argument that, since Sinai, the heavenly Torah has been on earth and calls upon man's exegesis, which thereafter deprives all echoes of voices from heaven of their power. Man is not therefore a "being" (etant) among "beings" (etants), a mere receiver of sublime messages. He is, at the same time, the person to whom the word is said, and the one through whom there is a Revelation. Man is the site of transcendence, even if he can be described as "being there" or Dasein. Perhaps, in the light of this situation, the standing accorded to subjectivity and reason should be entirely revised. In the event which constitutes the Revelation, the prophets are succeeded by the hakham; the sage, or doctor, or man of reason, who is also inspired, in his own way, since he bears 'the oral teaching. As someone who is both taught and teaching, he is sometimes given the suggestive name of Talmid-hakham; the disciple of a sage, or disciple-sage, who receives, but also subjects what he receives to scrutiny. The Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, notably Maimonides, do trace back the Revelation to the prophetic gifts. But, rather than thinking of these in terms of a heteronomous inspiration, they assimilate them - to various degrees - to the intellectual faculties described by Aristotle. The Maimonidean man, like the Aristotelian man, is a 'being' situated in his place in the cosmos; he is a part of being which never leaves being behind, in which there never occurs any fracture of the same (même), that radical transcendence which the idea of inspiration and the whole traumatism of prophesy seem to involve in the Biblical texts.



Now we come to the main problem. It is not at all a problem of apologetics, the defence of a religion, which would require the authentification of the various contents revealed or confessed within the religions wruch are called "revealed". The problem lies in the possibility of a fracture or opening in the closed order of totality, of the world, or equally in the self-sufficiency of reason which is its correlative. This fracture would be produced by a movement from outside but, paradoxically, it would not entail the loss of that rational self-sufficiency. If the possipility of a fissure of this kind within the hard core of reason were thinkable, the main part of the problem would be solved. Our difficulty here stems from our habit of thinking of reason as the correlative of the possibility of the world, the counterpart to its stability and identity. Could it be otherwise? Could we account for intelligibility in terms of a traumatic upheaval in experience, which confronts intelligence with something far beyond its capacity, and thereby causes it to break? Surely not. Unless, perhllps, we consider the possibility of a command, a "you must", which takes no account of what "you can". In this case, the exceeding of one's capacity does make sense. In other words, the type of reason corresponding to the fracture we have spoken of is practical reason.

Surely, then, our model of revelation must be an ethical one?

This makes me wonder if many aspects of Judaism might not, equally, point to this type of "rationality", a reason far less turned in upon itself than the reason of the philosophical tradition. For example, there is the primordial importance in Judaism of the prescriptive, which is the keystone of the entire Revelation (even the narrative), according to both the written teaching (the Pentateuch) and the oral teaching. There is also the fact that the attitude in which the revealed is received is one of obedience, so that the phrase in Exodus 24:7: "All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will be obedient (listen to it)" in which the expression for obedience is placed before the expression referring to understanding, exemplifies, in the eyes of the Talmudic doctors, Israel's greatest merit, the "wisdom of an angel" The rationality appearing here is not that of a reason "in decline"; to understand it in its plenitude the irreducible 'intrigue' of obedience must be taken as the starting point. This obedience cannot be assirililated to the categorical imperative, where a universal suddenly finds itself in a position to direct the will; it derives, rather, from the love of one's neighbour, a love without eros, lacking self-indulgence, which is, in this sense, a love that is obeyed. Or equally, it stems from responsibility for one's neighbour, the taking upon oneself of the destiny of the other, fraternity. The relationship with the other is placed right at the beginning! Moreover, it is towards a relationship of this kind that Kant hastens, when he formulates the second version of the categorical imperative by a deduction - which may be valid or not - from the universality of the maxim. This obedience, which finds its concrete realization in the relationship with the Other, points to a reason which is less nuclear than the reason of the Greeks, which is seen from the outset as the correlative of stability, the law of the Same (Même).

The rational subjectivity bequeathed to us by Greek philosophy (and the fact that I have not begun with this legacy does not mean that I am rejecting it, nor that I will not have recourse to it later, nor that I am caught up in "mystical slumbers") does not feature that passivity which, in other philosophical essays, I have identified with the responsibility for the Other. A responsibility which is not a debt that can be limited by the extent of one's active commitment, for one can acquit oneself of a debt of that sort, whereas, unless we compromise our thought, we can never be clear of our debts to the Other. It is an infinite responsibility, a responsibility which does not suit my wishes: the responsibility of a hostage.8

We are not suggesting, of course, that the actual contents of the Bible - Moses and the prophets - can be deduced from this responsibility. We are concerned, rather, to formulate the possibility of a heteronomy which does not involve servitude, a receptive ear which still retains its reason, an obedience which does not alienate the person listening, and to recognize, in the ethical model of the Bible, the transcendence of understanding. No such move towards acknowledging an irreducible transcendence can occur within the dominant conception of reason held by the philosophical profession today; a reason which is solid and positive, with which all meaning (sens) begins and to which all meaning must return, to become assimilated to the Same (Même), whatever appearance it may give of having come from outside. Nothing can fissure the nuclear solidity of this power of thought, which is the correlative of the positivity of the world, whose starting point is the vast repose of the cosmos; a thought which freezes its object as a theme, always adopts its measure, which thinks knowingly. I have already wondered whether this reason, refusing to be moved by the excessive disproportion of transcendence, can adequately express the irruption of man within Being, or the interruption of Being by man - or, more exactly, the interruption of the alleged correlation of man and Being in essance,9 where the figure of the Same (Même) appears; just as I have wondered if the worry generated in the Same by the Other (l’Autre) might not be the meaning of reason, its very rationality. This worry is induced in man by God's Infinity, which he can never contain, but which inspires him - inspiration being the original mode of worry, the inspiration of man by God constituting man's humanity; and the "within" of this "disproportionate within the finite" only becomes possible through the "here I am" of the man welcoming his neighbour. Listening to the muse dictating one's songs is not the original form of inspiration; instead, it lies in obedience to the Most High by way of the ethical relationship with the Other.

We said this right at the beginning: the subject of our enquiry is the very fact of the Revelation, and the relation it establishes with exteriority. This exteriority, - unlike the exteriority which surrounds man whenever he seeks knowledge - cannot be transformed into a content within interiority; it remains "uncontainable", infinite (infinie), and yet the relation is maintained. The path I am led to follow, in solving the paradox of the Revelation, is one that claims we may find a model for this relation in the attitude of non-indifference towards the Other, in the responsibility towards him; and that it is precisely through this relation that man becomes his "self" (moi), designated without any possibility of escape, chosen, unique, not interchangeable, and - in this sense - free.10 Ethics provides the model worthy of transcendence and it is as an ethical kerygma that the Bible is Revelation.



What we should also like to suggest and, albeit very briefly, to justify, is the idea that the openness to transcendence shown in ethics does not entail the loss of rationality, that which makes sense (sens) significant. Rational theology is a theology of Being which equates the rational with the identity of the Same, and is suggested by the firmness and positivity of the firm ground beneath the sun. It belongs to the ontological adventure which, adopting the standpoint of the positivity of the world, swept along the God and man of the Bible and dragged them towards the 'death' of God and the end of the humanism - or the humanity - of man. The notion of a subjectivity which coincided with the identity of the Same, and the rationality which Went with it entailed the gathering together of the world's diversity within the unity of a single order that left nothing out; an order produced or reproduced by the sovereign act of Synthesis. The idea of a passive subject who, in the heteronomy of his responsibility for the Other, differs (différant) from every other subject, is a difficult one. The Subject who does not return to himself, who does not meet up with himself in order to establish himself triumphantly, in the absolute repose of the earth beneath the canopy of heaven is unfavourably regarded as the product of Romantic subjectivism. The opposites of repose - worry, questioning, seeking, Desire - are all taken to be a waste of repose, an absence of response, a privation, a pure insufficiency of identity, a mark of self-inequality. We have wondered if the Revelation might not lead us to precisely this idea of inequality, difference and irreducible alterity which is 'uncontainable' within gnoseological igtentionality, a mode of thought which is not knowledge but which, exceeding knowledge, is in relation with the Infinite or God. May we not see, in the intentionality which - through the noetic-noematic correlation - can 'measure' its object, a sign, on the contrary, of its insufficiency, of a psychic structure more impoverished than the question, which, in its purity, addresses a demand to the other and thereby enters into relation with an object which can never offer an investment? And perhaps the attitudes of seeking, desiring and questioning do not represent the emptiness of need but the explosion of the 'more within the less' which Descartes called the idea of Infinity, and demonstrate a psyche which is more alert than that of intentionality, or a knowledge adequate to its object.

The Revelation, described in terms of the ethical relation or the relation with the Other, is a mode of the relation with God and discredits both the figure of the Same and knowledge in their claim to be the only site of meaning (signification). This figure of the Same, this knowledge only reflect a certain level of intelligence, where it is prone to become embourgoisé, and fall asleep, satisfied with its own presence. Reason, here, is continually led back to seek repose, appeasement and conciliation - all of which imply the ultimate status or priority of the Same - and has already resigned from life. Not that the lack of plenitude, or the non-adequacy of the self is more valuable than self-coincidence. If we were only concerned with the self (soi) in its substantiality, equality would be better than lack . We are not recommending the Romantic ideal of un satisfaction in preference to a full selfpossession. But does the Spirit reach its limit in self-possession? Are there not grounds for imagining a relation with an Other (Autre) that would be "better" than self-possession? Is there not a certain way of "losing one's soul" which comes from deference to something greater or better or 'higher' than the soul? Perhaps it is only in this act of deference that the very notions of "better" or "higher" are articulated and manifest their sense (sens), and that seeking, desire and questioning are therefore better than possession, satisfaction and answers.

Should we not go beyond the consciousness which is equal to itself, seeking always to assimilate the Other (l’Autre), and emphasize instead the act of deference to the other in his alterity, which can only come about through the awakening of the Same - drowsy in his identity - by the Other? The form of this awakening, we have suggested, is obedience. And, surely, the way to think about the consciousness which is adequate to itself is as a mode or modification of this awakening, this disruption which can never be absorbed, of the Same by the Other, in his difference. Surely we should think' of the Revelation, not in terms of received wisdom, but as this awakening?

These questions concern the nature of the ultimate and put into question the rationality of reason, and the very possibility of the ultimate. Faced with a thought which aspires, as if to its repose, to the identity of the Same, should we not be wary of stupor and petrifaction? The idea that the other is the enemy of the Same is an abuse of the notion; its alterity does not bring us to the play of the dialectic, but to an incessant questioning, without any ultimate instance, of the priority and tranquillity of the Same, like an inextinguishable flame which burns yet consumes nothing. And the form of this flame, surely, is the prescription of the Jewish Revelation, with its 00- fulfillable obligation. An unfulfillable obligation, a burning which does not even leave any ash, since ash would still be, in some respect, a substance resting on itself. The 'less' is forever bursting open, unable to contain the "more" that it contains, in the form of 'the one for the other'. Here the word "forever" (toujours) keeps its native force, its sense of great patience, diachrony, temporal transcendence. There is a sobering of the spirit which reaches "forever" deeper and is, in this way (sens), the spirituality of obedience. We may ask questions about the manifestation of these things within what is said (dit). But can we convert transcendence as such into answers without losing it in the process? And in the question, which also calls into question, do we not hear the true resonance of the voice commanding from beyond?

  1. Paul Ricoeur, 'Hermeneutique de l'idee de la Revelation', in Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, et al., La Révélation, (Bruxelles: Facultes universitaires Saint-Louis, 1984), p 20.
  2. Espace vital, means, literally, 'living space' . The term reflects the German word Lebensraum and is also used, in French, with the sense of that term: to refer to territory believed by a people or State to be essential to its development and well-being. There is no word for this concept in English, which simply borrows the German word rather than translate it. We have left the term in French, rather than impose the connotations of German expansionism which Lebensraum brings, connotations which are not necessarily, or not as inescapably, implied by the French. This has been confirmed by Levinas in a private correspondence with the editor: 'The expression "espace vital". evokes the "nourishing terrain" of the book to which the land, in the geographical sense of the term, refers in Judaism, and so draws out its spiritual meaning. It does not necessarily refer to the biological Lebensraum' .
  3. Paul Ricoeur, 'Hermeneutique'.
  4. It invites our intelligence and protects it, at the same time, by the mystery which is its source, from the 'dangers' of its truth. A Talmudic apologue, commenting on Exodus 33:21-2 ('And the Lord said: "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by"') says: 'Protection was needed, because the destructive powers had been given full powers to destroy. ' The moment of truth is when all interdicts are lifted, when the questioning spirit is forbidden nothing. At this supreme instant, only the truth of the Revelation can protect against evil, for it is in the nature of all truth to risk giving evil, too, its freedom.
  5. Torah is the name given to the twenty-four books of the Jewish Biblical canon; in its narrower sense, the Torah of Moses is the Pentateuch. In its widest meaning, Torah refers to the Bible and the Talmud together, including their commentaries and even the collected pieces and homiletic texts known as the Aggadah.
  6. Tractate Berakoth, translated by Maurice Simon, in The Babylonian Talmud.
  7. On this theme, see also ch. 3 of my Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, and the essay entitled 'Sans identite' in my Humanisme de l'autre homme (Fata Morgana, 1972), pp. 85-101.
  8. See Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence.
  9. I write this as "essance", an abstract noun used to indicate the verbal sense of the word "etre" (Being).
  10. Freedom means, therefore, the hearing of a vocation which I am the only person able to answer - or even the power to answer right there, where I am called.
Translated by Sarah Richmond