In Levinas's Politics, Annabel Herzog argues that Levinas's Talmudic readings embody a political pragmatism which complements, revises, and challenges the ethical analyses he offers in his phenomenological works.
2020 | 208 pages | Cloth $55.00
Political Science / Philosophy
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Note on Translations
Chapter 1. The Talmudic Readings: From Literature to Politics
Chapter 2. Levinas's Conception of Politics in the Talmudic Readings
Chapter 3. Levinas's Critique of Social "Indifference"
Chapter 4. On the Necessity of Political Violence
Chapter 5. Evil as Injustice
Chapter 6. On Nature
Chapter 7. Levinas and the Modern State of Israel
Chapter 8. Hegelian Dialectics and the Question of Messianism
Conclusion. Levinas's Concept of Laïcité
It could be claimed that Levinas's breathtaking ethical theory is reduced to nothing when confronted with the political question, and that this confrontation is intrinsic to his philosophy. To put it bluntly, Levinas's ethics seems to be doomed from inception because of the political.
Levinas's ethics describes the encounter with the other, that is, with any other human being, which takes place on a level distinct from both cognitive reason and aesthetic experience. This face-to-face encounter consists not of acknowledging the other but of being called to responsibility for the other. In ethics, the subject substitutes itself for the "face," a metaphor for the infinite otherness of the other—that is, that which cannot be grasped by concepts, represented by memory, or felt by emotions. It is a relationship "beyond essence" in which the ego is commanded by a transcendent order to take responsibility for the other person.
Politics, on the other hand, is an ontological praxis of mediation among at least three people: the ego, the other, and any third party (le tiers). Among three people, however, nothing can ever be absolute or transcendent; everything is thought, represented, or felt. It follows that while the ethical substitution has the authority of a religious command (TI 30, TI' 40; AE 139, OB 87) and implies the all-encompassing responsibility of the ego for the other, the relation between the ego and several others raises questions about duties and rights, namely, about sharing responsibility. Put simply, the presence of two people facing the ego inevitably leads to a calculation of what is due to each of them. Or to put it yet another way: ethical responsibility is anterior to all questions; politics means the emergence of questions about responsibility, and about everything else. The connection among three or more people "interrupts the face to face of a welcome of the other person, interrupts the proximity or approach of the neighbor" (AE 234; OB 150). In Levinas's oft-quoted words,
The third party [le tiers] is other than the neighbor but also another neighbor, and also a neighbor of the other. . . . What am I to do? What have they already done to one another? Who comes before the other in my responsibility? What, then, are the other and the third party with respect to one another? Birth of the question. The first question of the interhuman is the question of justice. Henceforth it is necessary to know, to become consciousness. Comparison is superimposed to my relation with the unique and the incomparable. (PP 345; PP' 168)It is difficult to grasp what appears to be the passage from the ethical relationship to the political situation. Indeed, "the entrance of the third party" seems to undermine everything Levinas has said about ethics. Why spend so many pages describing the unquestionable and absolute responsibility of the ego for the other when the ineluctable arrival of le tiers will necessarily break all ethical constructs, leaving us full only of questions about who is responsible to whom and who comes first? When, at the end of Otherwise than Being, Levinas says "Justice is necessary [Il faut la justice]" (AE, 245; OB, 157)—that is, responsibility must be shared—readers may feel they have been wasting their time. The "entrance of the third party," as such, brings a disturbing anticlimax to Levinas's emphatic ethical extremism. Not only does social life—even in its most harmless forms—put ethics in jeopardy, Levinas does not even seem to regret the entrance of the third party and the return of the ontological questions he attacked with such zeal in his ethical analysis. If all things are eventually reducible to ontological questions, why start by proclaiming a radical break from all ontological questions?
However, the problem with the "entrance of the third party" is not only one of chronology. In many texts Levinas affirms that le tiers is already present in the meeting with the other. In his words: "The third looks at me in the eyes of the other" (TI 234; TI' 213). And: "It is not that the entry of a third party would be an empirical fact, and that my responsibility for the other finds itself constrained to a calculus by the 'force of things.' In the proximity of the other, all the others than the other obsess me, and already this obsession cries out for justice, demands measure and knowing; it is consciousness" (AE 246; OB 158).
For Levinas, therefore, the framework of all relationships can be considered to be always, and necessarily, political. There is no passage from the ethical duo to the political trio, because the trio exists from the very beginning. As Madeleine Fagan puts it, "Ethics and politics are not separable realms that corrupt one another but are necessarily inseparable and contained within one another." If so, we are tempted to ask again, why bother with ethics at all? If the basic structure of human existence is sociopolitical life, namely, if life consists of ontological relationships between three or more people, why focus on the ethical face to face and define it as preceding all relationships? There seems to be a serious contradiction or paradox here, one that is acknowledged by Levinas himself: "If everything terminates in justice, why tell this long story about the face, which is the opposite of justice?" (PM 175). Levinas offers three reasons for this contradiction:
The first reason is that it is ethics which is the foundation of justice. Because justice is not the last word; within justice we seek a better justice. That is the liberal state. The second reason is that there is a violence in justice. When the verdict of justice is pronounced, there remains for the unique I that I am the possibility of finding something more to soften the verdict. . . . The third reason is that there is a moment when I, the unique I, along with other I's, can find something else which improves universality itself. (PM 175)In this book, I take as a starting point Levinas's three answers to the paradox of the "entrance of the third party" and discuss them in light of a close reading of the Talmudic readings—that is, Levinas's "Jewish" works. I argue that this procedure is effective because it is precisely in his Talmudic commentaries that Levinas developed the implications of these answers. There may be many reasons—historical and philosophical—for Levinas's choice to confine the gist of his political thinking to this unfamiliar genre. Here, I suggest the following: (1) for Levinas, the questioning that characterizes the Talmudic hermeneutic is, by definition, political; (2) the Talmud provides Levinas with paradigmatic cases that give his abstract ethics a concrete substrate; and (3) in Levinas's œuvre, the readings constitute a different kind of writing, which disturbs his ethical philosophizing: as such they are, in themselves, political. The first two reasons will be elucidated all along the book. The third is developed in the first chapter.
A Critique of the "Religious" Readings of the Readings
Until a few years ago, scholars of Levinas tended to separate his work into two corpuses, the philosophical-phenomenological and the Talmudic. One group regarded Levinas as a philosopher and focused on his philosophical books, turning occasionally to the Talmudic readings for an illustration. The other saw him as an exegete of the Holy Scriptures, responsible for a renewal of theological concerns in the secularized Judeo-Christian world. Some radical readers, like Benny Levy, even contended that the philosophical and the Talmudic works contradict each other.
In response to this polarization of Levinas studies, recent publications have argued for reading all of Levinas's works together. According to this new understanding, the differences between the two sets of works are matters of style, not of essence. That is, beyond the formal differences in language and style that differentiate philosophical treatises and textual exegesis, there is no contradiction between the two corpuses, which convey convergent meanings, supporting and completing each other. Indeed, for this scholarship, Levinas's purpose was precisely to give modern expression to the concord between philosophy and Judaism. Levinas himself left the question open, claiming that both corpuses are philosophical, yet insisting on the distinction between them, as expressed in his choice of different publishers for the two bodies of work and in his calling the readings his "confessional" writings.
I propose to reconcile these divergent views. It is clear to me that for Levinas, there is no irreducible difference between the philosophical and Jewish traditions, and that for him, they differ primarily in the realm of style and language. For Levinas, philosophy speaks Greek, by which he means both Western philosophical language and an interest in essence or ontology. By contrast, the Jewish tradition speaks Hebrew, by which he means both the rabbinic mode of interpretation and a concern for transcendent otherness, which he called "ethics." Both philosophy and the Jewish tradition, however, deal with the relationship between the thrust toward sameness and the concern for otherness, that is, between ontology and ethics. At the end of the day, their central questions are very close. For instance, Levinas underlined the ontological necessity perceptible in Scripture when he wrote, in the first pages of Difficult Freedom, "Here Judaism feels very close to the West, by which I mean philosophy. It is not by virtue of simple chance that the way towards the synthesis of Jewish revelation and Greek thought was masterfully traced by Maimonides, who is claimed by both Jewish and Muslim philosophers; that a profound respect for Greek knowledge already fills the wise men of the Talmud; that education for the Jews merges with instruction and that the ignorant person can never really be pious" (DL 29; DF 15). However, he also pointed to the ethical anxiety perceptible in Plato: "It is true that in certain traits the Greeks were, if I dare say, 'biblical.' Plato . . . places Goodness above Being, which is extraordinary." In other words, Levinas's claim to "express in Greek those principles about which Greece knew nothing" (ADV 232-233; BTV 200) cannot be accepted uncritically.
This being said, it seems to me that Levinas's emphasis on the distinction between the two kinds of works should be taken seriously. For one thing, as Michael Fagenblat is right to remind us, in his phenomenological writings "Levinas accepted the rules of the game of French philosophy and went at lengths to downplay or even deny the religious element of his thinking." Yet beyond the constraints imposed by the French tradition, there are positive, substantive reasons to distinguish between the phenomenological and Jewish writings. The difference between them is not a function of the difference between Greek and Hebrew, or between the philosophical and Jewish traditions. Rather, the difference relates to the distinction between two philosophical concerns, namely ethics and politics. That is, the phenomenological books present a utopian and impracticable ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought. In a quite paradoxical way, therefore, Levinas's ethical philosophy is formulated in what looks like a "Greek" body of work, whereas politics, which Levinas put in the category of the ontological, is conceptualized in writings that, at first sight, focus on texts that are very clearly "Hebrew."
This book is a study of Levinas's Talmudic readings from a political perspective. Seen from this perspective, the readings manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas's phenomenological works—Totality and Infinity, Otherwise than Being, Of God Who Comes to Mind, and related essays. My claim is that there is a distance between Levinas's "ethics as first philosophy" and the political thinking underlying the readings.
A few words about the body of work discussed in this book. In the corpus of Talmudic readings studied here I include Difficult Freedom, Nine Talmudic Readings (i.e., Quatre lectures talmudiques and Du sacré au saint), Beyond the Verse, In the Time of the Nations, and New Talmudic Readings. Some of the essays published in these volumes are not "Talmudic readings" stricto sensu, in that they do not analyze Talmudic extracts, but Levinas considered them to belong with his "confessional writings," the category in which he placed the Talmudic readings. I also include in this corpus several essays, such as "La laïcité et la pensée d'Israël" and "Idéologie et idéalisme," which were not published in volumes of collected readings but which discuss the Talmud. What I call the "Talmudic readings," then, is the body of texts related to the Talmud and other Jewish sources, which look different from Levinas's phenomenological work. I turn to the phenomenological books, namely Totality and Infinity, Otherwise than Being, and Of God Who Comes to Mind, along with interviews and articles published in various volumes, to document my interpretations of the readings, thereby inverting the traditional approach to Levinas's work.
It should be clear from the start that this book challenges the common understanding of the Talmudic readings as "religious" texts, or as texts (re)introducing religion into Western thought. This understanding pertains to both the phenomenological and the Jewish scholarly camps, as well as to those who have called for reading the two bodies of work together: all agree that the "Jewish texts" are Jewish and that Levinas's intention in writing and publishing them was to honor and follow the Jewish tradition. As a result, most studies of the Talmudic readings focus on the Talmud, wondering whether or not Levinas's interpretations were faithful to Judaism in terms of method as well as of content and trying to understand his claim that he was translating Hebrew into Greek.
Of course, it is not wrong to say that Levinas's interpretations of the Talmud are Jewish. However, this should not be considered the only or even the main reason for their importance. Levinas repeatedly refused to be called a "Jewish thinker," acknowledging his Jewishness but firmly rejecting a formula by which "one understands something that dares to establish between concepts relations which are based uniquely in religious traditions and texts, without bothering to pass through the philosophical critique." For him, the readings were a philosophical product. Moreover, while it has been rightly argued that Levinas popularized the Talmud by offering his readings to a public of intellectuals often ignorant of Jewish sources, it is also quite clear that the readings do not make the rabbinic method less opaque to the untrained reader. In fact, Levinas neither uses nor explains the rabbinic method, despite occasional comments on the context and method throughout the Talmudic readings and their prefaces. A student hoping to learn what the Talmud is all about would be well advised not to begin with Levinas. To put it differently, Levinas's project is not to make rabbinic literature accessible to a wide audience but to use this literature to say what he wants to say, using his own (i.e., not Talmudic) style: "We strive to speak otherwise" (DSS 9; NTR 92). As Samuel Moyn claims, "For the dominant interpretation of Levinas's relationship to the Jewish past and the Jewish religion, the conventional wisdom presents it as linear and continuous. But it works only on the basis of mistaken assumptions, one about Judaism itself and the other about the nature of Levinas's biographical and philosophical relationship to it." Indeed, Levinas's Lithuanian Judaism is, "if we may say, a 'metaphor' which is not a given but a retrospective 'construct.'" Levinas himself emphasized again and again that he studied Talmud only very late, after World War II, in Paris, with the mysterious itinerant teacher Chouchani. He did not grow up in an atmosphere of Lithuanian rabbinic studies. One of the goals of this book is to determine what Levinas took from the Talmudic tradition and how he applied it to formulate his own ideas.
Commentary and Political Philosophy
In both Otherwise than Being and "Peace and Proximity," the appearance of the "third party" is accompanied by a similar phrase: "Birth of the question." The "first question," says Levinas, is the "question of justice," meaning the distribution and sharing of responsibility. Hence, the situation presented by Levinas is double: an ethical call of responsibility that exists without question; and a question that stems from the copresence of a multiplicity of people to whom one is ethically responsible. This model of an absolute command (i.e., a command that brooks no question) met by a body of questions about that very command is the model of the written Torah (the Bible) versus the oral Torah (the Talmud): the Talmud is a collection of interpretations of the divine apodictic law.
I believe that Levinas had this model in mind when he drew the distinction between his two sets of works, the phenomenological books and the interpretive Talmudic readings. The ethical philosophy published in the phenomenological books expresses an unconditional and immemorial call that can be considered "prophetic." One hears the call and accepts it as it is. The readings are commentaries that question, discuss, and catalogue the possible meanings of the call. As Levinas wrote, "Bible and Talmud, prophecy and critical spirit" (ADV 76; BTV 58). The irony, of course, is that the Talmudic readings are commentaries on the Talmud, namely, commentaries on commentaries, as well as commentaries on Levinas's own ethical works.
It has been argued that Levinas's hermeneutics is "ethical," namely, that his commentary is a way to face the other, meaning the innumerable other meanings of a given text. As Levinas wrote in his 1974 reading "The Will of God and the Power of Humanity," "the adventure of the Midrash [Talmudic commentary], the very possibility of hermeneutics, in its rigorously formal advance, do they not already belong to the very way in which another voice is heard among us—the very way of transcendence?" (NLT 32; NewTR 68). At the same time, however, the formulations "birth of the question" and "critical spirit" add complexity to the ethics of hermeneutics. Indeed, for Levinas everything that has to do with questioning, with critique, and, accordingly, with "comparison, coexistence, contemporaneousness, assembling, order, thematization, the visibility of faces, and thus intentionality and the intellect, and in intentionality and the intellect, the intelligibility of a system" (AE 245; OB 157) is related not to ethics but to ontology. Interpretation is therefore an ontological means to defy the infinite and the transcendent. The recourse to the Talmud as a framework for a set of commentaries is recourse to a set of questions as a framework for a new set of questions; hence, it is redundantly concerned with ontology. In contrast to Robert Bernasconi, who argues that in the philosophical writings "the ethical is always associated with a certain questioning that extends even to morality itself, but, even though that dimension is not absent from the confessional writings, it is less pronounced there," I show in this book that the Talmudic readings are permeated with endless questioning in which ontology and politics are no less central than ethics.
Is this to say that, for Levinas, any corpus of questioning, any hermeneutic system, would be political, at least in part? The answer is yes, by definition. Moreover, the two questioning systems with which Levinas worked—the Talmud and the philosophical tradition that issued from the Platonic dialogues—were political, or more exactly, they were the only "politics" left to two elites that had lost concrete sovereignty: Plato founded the Academy after giving up all hope of reforming the polis, and the rabbis wrote down the oral law after losing all hope of reestablishing political power in the Land of Israel. One could here object that given these conditions both the Talmud and philosophy are eminently non-political, or even anti-political. Even a superficial reading of Levinas's work, however, makes clear that he puts philosophy and politics in the same ontological category. Similarly, his insistence on the political character of basic questioning, at least from a certain point of view, puts the Talmud—by contrast with prophetic ethics—in the same category as politics. This explains Levinas's choice of the Talmudic commentaries to convey his political thinking, but only partly, because traditional philosophy is also a questioning system. Thus, we need to inquire into other possible explanations.
The Talmud, as Whitehead might put it, is a commentary on the Torah somewhat in the way that European philosophy is a commentary on Plato. The Talmud, however, does something that philosophy often neglects: it examines the law in the light of particular cases. The Talmud confronts the apodictic law with concrete situations. As Levinas writes, "The Talmud, according to the great masters of this science, can be understood only from the basis of life itself" (QLT 20; NTR 8). As such, Talmudic commentary does not merely explain the Law but deconstructs it, tests it, strengthens it, and sometimes overturns it. Likewise, Levinas's Talmudic commentaries reinforce and confront the ethical call with particular situations. Levinas calls this method "paradigmatic modality": "Without fading before their concepts, things denoted in a concrete fashion are yet enriched with meanings by the multiplicity of their concrete aspects" (ADV 127; BTV 103). The readings ask the question: What does ethics mean in situations that involve more than the ego and the other? What does ethics mean, therefore, in concrete situations that are, by definition, non-ethical? Levinas chose not to take his examples from contemporary everyday life but borrowed cases drawn by the rabbis from the everyday life of their time or from their imagination. For Levinas, these cases become paradigms.
In short, another reason Levinas focuses on the Talmud to formulate his own political thought is his need for paradigms: specific cases that he can use to concretize and test—or try—his absolute ethics. This trial of ethics is of the utmost importance. According to Levinas, general and absolute ideas must be tested by particular cases in order to avoid becoming ideologies:
The great strength of the Talmud's casuistry is to be the special discipline which seeks in particular [cases] the precise moment at which the general principle runs the danger of becoming its own contrary, namely, [the discipline that] watches over the general in light of the particular. This protects us from ideology. Ideology is the generosity and clarity of the principle, which have not taken into account the inversion that awaits this generous principle when it is applied. (ADV 98-99; BTV 79)The pages that follow constitute a commentary on Levinas's commentary on another commentary. My approach is textual and interpretative more than historical; I search for the "overall unity" and the "central ideas" (NLT 11; NewTR 50) of Levinas's thinking in the readings. As he said about his own reading method, "Our first task is therefore to read [this corpus of work] in a way that respects its givens and its conventions, without mixing in the questions arising for a philologist or historian" (QLT 15; NTR 5). Through this process, I will aim to elucidate Levinas's often obscure language in the readings and show that despite many digressions and contradictions, the readings display a coherent political thought.
Overview of This Book
As noted earlier, I take as a starting point Levinas's three answers to the paradox of the "entrance of the third party" and discuss them in light of a close examination of the Talmudic readings. I show that the Talmudic readings embody a political pragmatism that complements, revises, and challenges the utopian analyses offered in Levinas's phenomenological works, namely, in his ethics.
Levinas's first response to the paradox of the "entrance of the third party" is that ethics is the "foundation of justice" and the source of a "better justice" to be found within justice. This point raises the question of precedence: Who comes first—the ego, the other, or the third party? But also what comes first—ethics or politics; transcendence or essence? Throughout his work, Levinas makes it clear that precedence does not mean temporal anteriority, because ethics is a relation to an "immemorial past" (TA 277; TO 355). In other words, the precedence of ethics does not contradict the chronological anteriority of ontological questions. Levinas's originality lies partly in his moderating chronological anteriority by ethical precedence. He is also original in his ability to moderate ethical precedence by chronological anteriority. Indeed, if, in the phenomenological works, ethics always seems to be stopped or reduced or, at least, put to trial by the entrance of the third party, in the Talmudic readings ethics most often appears within the framework of politics' chronological anteriority. In the readings, I show, Levinas tried to do two things that he could not do in the phenomenological books: first, prevent politics from bringing about the failure of ethics; and second, construct politics positively, and not as the interruption and collapse of ethics.
Chapters 1, 2, and 3 analyze the main processes in this construction of a concept of politics that uses ethics but goes beyond it. In Chapter 1, I deconstruct Levinas's writing endeavor and show that in the context of his thought, the readings have the function of "the other writing." Having in his youth ventured into literature, and then chosen philosophy to express the rupture of ontology, Levinas still felt the need for a mode of expression distinct from that of traditional philosophical works, one that would disturb ethics itself. This is, therefore, a third reason why Levinas chose the Talmud to express his political thought: the readings constitute a genre subject to different constraints and impositions compared with Levinas's phenomenological style. This disturbance in form sustains a disturbance of content: the readings are political, and interrupt ethics.
Chapter 2 formulates Levinas's conception of the political in the Talmudic readings. The political is viewed as concern for the other's hunger, a concern that Levinas associates with the "liberal state." To a large extent, however, this concern constitutes a reversal and a criticism of the liberal problematic of rights, and leads to the expression of another kind of social contract, based on Levinas's idiosyncratic understanding of justice. For Levinas, justice, politics, and the law sometimes seem almost synonymous. It is important to note, however, that Levinas's understanding of justice changed from the time of Totality and Infinity to that of Otherwise than Being (PM 171). In the earlier texts, justice means the ethical relation, namely, the infinite responsibility of the ego for the other. In the later texts, justice means the consideration of the third party, namely, the calculation of what is owed to and expected by each side in the relationship. Justice in the Talmudic readings, however, is synonymous with neither ethics nor politics but consists in the relationship between the two. Therefore, it does not constitute a fixed category but rather forms an evolving correlation, the process of a "justice which desires a better justice" (PM 177)—an equitable order responsive to particular cases—that I will call a nonindifferent or merciful justice.
In Chapter 3, I establish the distinction between Levinas's conception of politics and his understanding of the social. In his resolute criticism of the social, Levinas strongly condemns certain aspects of the liberal tradition and of the indifferent individualism that characterizes modern urban life. Politics, however, appears to be the only possible solution to the anonymity and absence of solidarity that pervade the social.
Levinas's second response to the paradox of the "entrance of the third" is that justice contains a necessary violence. In Chapters 4, 5, and 6, I analyze Levinas's understanding of political violence, which is distinct from the evil that appears in various situations of collective life and in nature—from political domination to the vegetal and animal indifference to suffering. Chapter 4 shows that, in the Talmudic readings, Levinas is no pacifist: political violence—expressed in repression and thematization—is never evoked as a reason to reject political institutions, which are necessary to build a society promoting a non-indifferent justice: a justice that will moderate its own violence. By contrast with violence, however, evil, in the readings, is resolutely rejected as the manifestation of injustice and as the impossibility of justice. As I argue in Chapter 5, political violence contributes to fighting evil and must not be confused with it. Evil, in the Talmudic readings, appears in three contexts: (1) it is related to a certain conception of deprivation and privacy, namely, it is identified with a misappropriation of homes and nations; (2) it is related to deception, namely, to ideology and idolatry; and (3) it is linked to animality, namely, to a certain idea of essence. In Chapter 6, we see how Levinas's understanding of evil in nature may help us build what we can call a cautious environmentalism. It enables a reassessment of our relationship to nature that avoids both egoistic anthropomorphism, which destroys nature, and the romantic enthusiasm that regards all things natural as more "authentic" and morally superior to anything made by human beings.
Levinas's final answer to the paradox of ethics and politics involves the possibility of "improving universality itself." At stake here is the relationship between the conception of a non-indifferent justice and the self-definition of political entities—namely, the link between nonindifferent justice, general laws, and national aspirations. Chapters 7 and 8 focus on these questions, first through the highly debated question of how Levinas understood Zionism, and then through the general issue of political messianism, which includes Levinas's treatment of the concepts of Law and History. In both chapters, I show that Levinas's political thinking is indebted to Hegel and, indeed, that Levinas's conception of messianism is the foremost expression of his dialogue with Hegel.
The final chapter sums up the original political story told in the Talmudic readings. Here, I discuss the possible links between this story and the two major political trends of modernity, socialism and liberalism. I conclude by arguing that Levinas's political thinking was a reconceptualization of the French notion of laïcité, reworked by Levinas's idiosyncratic understanding of religion.
A Technical Note on the Talmud
This book deals not with the Talmud per se but with Levinas's work and rhetoric, and deep knowledge of the Talmud is not a prerequisite for engaging with the following chapters. Nevertheless, a few words about the Talmud will be helpful for readers not familiar with this work.
The Talmud comprises two corpuses of texts—the Mishnah and the Gemara (both terms come from roots meaning "to study," in Hebrew and Aramaic, respectively). In the Jewish tradition, these texts are called the Oral Law, because they began as oral teachings that were written down and edited at a time of persecution and dispersion. The Mishnah, a restatement of biblical legal teachings, was completed at the beginning of the third century CE, and it consists of the teachings of generations of rabbinic sages called Tannaim. It is divided into six "orders" (sedarim), which themselves are divided into "tractates" (mesekhtot), then further subdivided into "chapters" (perakim) and, within those, paragraphs called mishnayot (sing.: mishnah). Therefore, the term "Mishnah" means both the book itself and (with a small "m") its smallest unit, which consists of a specific idea or legal opinion with, sometimes, an accompanying terse debate.
The Gemara is a body of commentaries on the Mishnah. One version was written and redacted in the Land of Israel (the Jerusalem Talmud) and the other, better known and more studied, in Babylonia, modern Iraq (the Babylonian Talmud), by generations of sages called Amoraim. They were completed in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. In modern publications of that immense book, which comprise twenty huge volumes, the smallest unit is a double-sided printed page, or folio, identified by a page number with the letters a and b to indicate the two sides (recto and verso.) The Gemara is organized as a set of commentaries on the various mishnayot, which are quoted within the text of the Gemara. These commentaries fall into two categories: halakhah and aggadah. The former is made up of law-oriented controversies aimed at delineating specific rulings, while the latter constitutes a corpus of stories, myths, folklore, and anecdotes. The two kinds of commentaries are interwoven within the text, and both often range far from the mishnah under discussion, sometimes contradicting it and frequently raising apparently unconnected themes.
Another word readers will encounter in the following pages is "midrash." A midrash is an exegesis of biblical verses, whether in the realm of halakhah (where the midrash comprises a story that leads to a legal ruling) or aggadah (a story aimed at conveying a lesson or moral). Collections of midrashim exist outside the Talmud, but many midrashim can be found within the Talmud (i.e., the Gemara) itself, as part of both the halakhic and aggadic literature. The important point, as we look at Levinas, is that a midrash or commentary is never a paraphrase but a development of meaning that goes in unexpected directions. As Levinas puts it:
The strict contours of the verses outlined in the Holy Scriptures have a plain meaning which is also enigmatic. A hermeneutics is invited whose task is to extricate, from within the meaning immediately offered by the proposition, those meanings that are only implied. Do these extricated meanings have enigmas themselves? They in their turn must be interpreted on different modes. And in the search for new teachings, hermeneutics incessantly returns even to those verses which, though already interpreted, are inexhaustible. (ADV 7; BTV x)