zaterdag 28 juli 2012

Levinas’s obligations

This time it was, in my view, Rick Jacobs’s turn to fall into error. Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the American Reform movement. On June 9 he held his installation speech and emphasized that – unlike the prejudice often is – also Reform Judaism knows its mitzvot, ie has its obligations.

To me nothing seems wrong with that remark, but it bothers me that Jacobs for support of that statement turns to my favorite philosopher Levinas. He says: “The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that we come into the world already obligated by the mere gaze of the other, a gaze that demands a response from us. By this, Levinas means that relationships always come with obligations”.

Here Levinas, as so often, is being presented as a moralist, a philosopher of duty ethics. And that’s a shame, because if you want to remove the sparkling elements out of his work then that’s is what you should do. To present Levinas as our contemporary raised finger.

Whereas there is ample space to view Levinas in a different light. You can also read him as a philosopher who not so much prescribes but rather describes. Because he provides descriptions of the peculiar phenomenon that, in the middle of our legitimately self-centred existence, we suddenly may feel responsible for someone else. Surprisingly enough.

If that’s the way you read Levinas yet another thing may strike you. Namely that he breaks with a conception of the world, which is conventional among philosophers, as composed of several layers some of which are more fundamental and others are more superficial, with all hierarchy that comes with that. If it is true that selfishness and altruism can alternate in a completely unpredictable way, then there is no question any longer of such a hierarchical structure.

But in that case it is equally impossible any longer to speak, as Jacobs does, of being “already obligated” or about relationships that “always” come with obligations, as if a pre-given system of eternal truths would exist. That does not do justice to the surprises and the utterly transcendent lightnings which Levinas in my view primarily speaks about.

Also see Levinas and egoism