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A Brief Review of

A Covenant of Creatures:
Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism
.
Michael Fagenblat.
Paperback:
Stanford University Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed By Shaun C. Brown.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) was a Lithuanian born, French educated philosopher and Talmudic commentator.  Levinas also studied for a short time at Freiburg University in Germany under phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.  While there, Levinas also attended a seminar with Martin Heidegger.  Levinas published some of the first works in French pertaining to the work of Husserl and Heidegger (due to Heidegger’s later support of the Nazis, Levinas grew increasingly critical of Heidegger).

Despite his Jewish upbringing and education and his confessional writings, Levinas argued, “I am not a particularly Jewish thinker, I am just a thinker.”  To distance his philosophical work from his confessional writings, Levinas published both with different presses and denied “in several published interviews and discussions, that his philosophy was in any way based on faith” (xiv).  Fagenblat argues, “Denying the Jewish element of his thought was quite simply the price of its admission into the arena of French philosophy” (xiv).  Fagenblat also argues that Levinas’s Judaism cannot be separated from his philosophy, even in his two major philosophical writings for largely non-Jewish audiences, Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being.  Fagenblat acknowledges that his perspective is not unique.  Gabriel Marcel and Paul Ricoeur both “suggested that Levinas secretes his Judaism amid his philosophy” (2).

Throughout A Covenant of Creatures, Fagenblat discusses Levinas’s philosophy of Judaism in dialogue with two figures, Maimonides, a twelfth century Jewish philosopher, and despite their differences, Heidegger.

Levinas focused upon ethics as “first philosophy.”  Levinas’s ethics were in a sense based upon Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative, but rather than centering the imperative upon Reason as Kant did, Levinas developed a phenomenology of the moral imperative focusing upon “the face of the Other” (xix).  In the earlier Levinas (which Fagenblat calls Levinas 1), the face of the Other is “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” while “Levinas 2 abandons the attempt to base ethics on a descriptive account of the character of the other” (99).  Levinas believed that theology should not justify evil, but instead respond to evil with covenantal faithfulness to the Other.

Fagenblat argues that Levinas, like Heidegger, viewed philosophy as hermeneutics, “situated within a tradition that determines the very horizons of thought,” rather than in a search for an “atemporal field of knowledge” (15).  This led Levinas to critique metaphysics and develop an ethical negative theology which binds a person to the other.

Fagenblat argues that Levinas privileged religion and orthopraxy over theology and orthodoxy.  Using the Hebrew word emunah, the Greek pistis, and the Latin fides, which can be translated “faith,” “belief,” or “trust,” Levinas and Fagenblat argue that a person of faith should “trust and be trustworthy” (147).  While they are correct that faith involves more than intellectual assent to propositions, Levinas and Fagenblat neglect the ways in which beliefs impact the way people live.  Fagenblat even says, “Nothing that I have said suggests that the ethics of faith implies belief in God” (169).

Throughout Covenant of Creatures, Fagenblat notes the ways in which Levinas’s philosophy was not independent of his faith as a Jew, which is a helpful concept in this post-secular world.  At the same time, however, Fagenblat largely focuses on the ways in which Levinas universalized or secularized his Judaism.  Many Christians would reject a move to secularize Christianity, and thus would not follow Fagenblat to his conclusions.  At the same time, Christians have much to learn from A Covenant of Creatures.

A Covenant of Creatures is not written for a general audience.  A background in continental philosophy and Judaism would be helpful for interested readers.

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Shaun C. Brown is Associate Minister of Youth at Central Holston Christian Church in Bristol, TN, where he lives with his wife Cassandra and cat Tonks.