Kleinberg writes new book on Levinas cultural heritage

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The first time Ethan Kleinberg, professor emeritus of history and literature in the class of 1958, immersed himself in the world of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas 20 years ago, he wrote a book.

“It was written like a traditional intellectual story and I found out that what I had done was completely turn off those aspects of Levinas’ thinking where he believes there are ethical guidelines coming to us from outside. of our own history, these transcendent ethical guidelines pierce every historical or contextual moment, ”Kleinberg said.

He didn’t like what he wrote, so he took an unprecedented step: he tore it up and started over over a decade later.

Kleinberg’s new take on Levinas’ cultural heritage, Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought will be published in October in the Cultural Memory in the Present series by Stanford University Press. Using a series of Levinas lectures on the Torah and the Talmud as points of contact, Kleinberg designed an exploration of his thought that encompassed aspects of Western philosophy, French Enlightenment universalism, and the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition.

Levinas, a man with strong convictions and a sense of humor, was born in 1906 in present-day Lithuania. Levinas was one of the first to bring the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger to France, and then fought against the German turn towards Nazism.

Levinas became a French citizen in 1930 and served in the French army during World War II. He was captured in 1940 and spent the remainder of the war in a German prison camp. He was isolated from the Holocaust because of his status as a prisoner of war. Levinas occupied a relatively protected position despite his religion. His family in Lithuania did not and was murdered by the Nazis.

Ethan Kleinberg

Ethan Kleinberg

While a prisoner, Levinas turned to Jewish sacred texts, which resulted in an evolution in his thinking. Initially a philosopher associated with the existentialists, his experience during the war led him to focus on what he called “being-Jewish”. He recounted his thoughts in a series of notebooks, which were recently published.

“He was trying to imagine a way to be Jewish. He tries to rethink his understanding of philosophy and Judaism in the POW camp. He’s not doing it right then, but you can see him grappling with it, ”Kleinberg said. “When he returns to France after the war, he realizes that not only his family in Lithuania perished in the Holocaust, but the whole community of his youth has disappeared. Lithuania’s famous Talmudic academies had disappeared. Jewish schools had disappeared. They were all destroyed during the Holocaust and I think that plays a huge role in this story.

During his post-war career as a philosopher and principal of a Jewish high school, Levinas divided his time and work between that of a secular philosopher and that of a Jewish teacher or sage. Nonetheless, in all of his writing Levinas grapples with the post-Holocaust reality of a hands-off God. In his Talmudic lectures we see the construction of a post-Holocaust understanding of Judaism where the power of God resides in the books God has given us. It is a more distant God who offered a set of ethical guidelines on how to live and empowered us to adopt those ethics.

“How do you maintain these beliefs? How to remain faithful to a certain notion of God after an event like the Shoah, the extermination of the Jews? He was trying to get back to something that was no longer there, ”he said.

Levinas believed the Talmud had everything one needed to live a righteous life – it just needed to be reactivated and transposed into our current cultural circumstances, Kleinberg said. The result of Levinas’s study is the feeling that listening to the needs of the other, despite the vulnerability it creates in a person, is a way of life. “It’s a lot more generous,” Kleinberg said.

Despite Levinas’ intense focus on ethics and what one needs to do to lead an ethical life, he has become a controversial figure due to the statements he made about the relationship between Israel and Palestine and the Asian and African thought traditions, Kleinberg said. “I’m addressing these issues and trying to determine if there are ways to extract his ethical teaching from his own problematic pronunciations,” Kleinberg said.

After about two decades of immersing himself in Levinas’s work, Kleinberg has his own takeaways. “A lot of times people view the past, past cultures, or alternative religious beliefs as strange or non-scholarly, but it made me realize that secular scholarship is just as strange as any other way of thinking. It allows you to be much more self-critical and aware of your assumptions. It really changed my way of thinking, ”Kleinberg said.


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