The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who was both a philosopher and an educator and one of the founders of modern Jewish thought, has in recent years received increasing interest in Israel and his translated works have become bestsellers. Less well-known is his educational activity among the Jews of France. Eli Schonfeld describes one of Levinas’ unique educational projects which involved short talks on Rashi every Shabbat morning at the Jewish high school in Paris where he was the principal. This tradition continued for close to three decades and left a strong impression on numerous generations of students.
Emmanuel Levinas is known as one of the predominant French philosophers of the 20th century and as an important Jewish thinker. In Israel, he is known primarily through his Talmudic readings. These took the form of wide-ranging interpretative discussions of Talmudic texts contained in lectures he gave over a period of three decades at an annual conference organized by French-speaking Jewish intellectuals following the Second World War. The Talmudic readings were also published and four of the five volumes have been translated into Hebrew over the last decade (two were included in "Nine Talmudic Readings" published by Shocken in 2001 and one was included in "New Talmudic Readings" published by Shocken in 2004, both translated by Daniel Epstein, and "Beyond the Pasuk" translated by Elizabeth Goldwin, published by Shocken in 2007) and are widely read in Israel.
However, Levinas’ educational activities among the Jewish community in France following the Second World War have received far less exposure. This is in spite of the fact that most of his life was devoted to activity of this type. Apart from his work at the Institute for Teacher Training of the Alliance Network in Paris, Levinas served as the principal and as a teacher at ENIO, the Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale, from 1947 to 1974 or in other words for one-third of his adult life. As a principal and a teacher, Levinas educated generations of young people in the spirit of an emerging modern version of Judaism which he had a part in shaping. This was Judaism that was open to the world, to literature and to academic research but which saw itself as committed to halakhic Judaism.
Emmanuel Levinas. Photo: Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger
One of the most original educational activities of the school came to be known as Levinas’ "Rashi talks". These talks took place in the school each week immediately following the Shabbat morning service. At first, it was mainly young students who came to hear "Mr. Principal", as he was nicknamed and who was also the school’s philosophy teacher, explain a verse from the weekly Bible portion with the help of Rashi’s commentary. Over the years, the weekly lesson became a kind of institution unto itself, an intellectual-learning event that attracted people from all parts of the Jewish community in Paris and even many non-Jews, who were also welcome in the Beit Midrash.
Shlomo Malka, one of Levinas’ biographers who was also one of his students during the ENIO period, describes the talks in his book (Emmanuel Levinas – a Biography translated by Daniela Yuval; Resling Publishing 2008). Malka describes how the teacher would sit at the head of a large table with students in the first circle around the table and other participants seated around them in concentric circles. Each Shabbat, Malka writes, one of the school’s students was appointed to read a verse chosen by Levinas, as well as Rashi’s commentary on it. This exercise was apparently part of Levinas’ attempt to encourage the students to learn Hebrew and to become familiar with writings in their original language. When the student had finished, Levinas would interpret the material drawing from literature (Dostoyevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, Agnon, etc.) and philosophical works. These were short talks that lasted no more than 20 minutes after the reading of the verse and Rashi’s commentary on it; however, the explanation of Biblical verses in light of Rashi’s commentary by a first-class philosopher created an original interpretation, which combined Jewish scholarship (Levinas would connect his interpretations to relevant sections from the Talmud) and universal knowledge. In general, Levinas felt that all literature, which deals with fundamental questions of human existence, has within it "Rashimo", the Kabalistic concept that describes the leaving of footprints or an echo of the qualities found in the Holy Books, and therefore it is possible and even worthwhile to use this literature in understanding the verse. Essentially, this was already a certain application of his philosophy, which sought to translate the messages from the Hebrew source – from Judaism – into the language of philosophy – a universal language. This was not necessarily in order to reconcile the two traditions but rather to emphasize both the distance and the proximity between them and to better understand both "Greekness" and "Jewishness"; both the Western spirit and the Jewish one.
It is possible that these talks constituted a type of Beit Midrash along the lines of the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus (the Free Beit Midrash) which was founded in Frankfurt after the First World War by Franz Rosenzweig, one of the most important influences on Levinas. There is no doubt, however, that like the Talmudic reading, these talks – though they were a type of weekly “miniatures“ whose goal was educational – were an expression of Levinas’ innovative interpretative style, of a unique way in which to approach the Jewish texts and of the importance he attributed to the public dimension of these talks in front of an audience of listeners by choice. Though he gave these talks for many years, he never put them into writing. Essentially, all that is preserved of them are the memories described by his students and the notes written down by one person or another after Shabbat – since writing during these talks was not allowed because it was Shabbat. It is interesting therefore that the few talks that were published (in, for example, Malka’s biography) do not leave the same strong impression that is described by those who were present. The unique aspect of the talks, the feeling of the listeners that in each and every talk they heard some new innovation, that they had been exposed to a unique viewpoint or had experienced the spark of a new insight – this aspect of the talks is somehow lost when put into writing. Apparently, this was the Oral Law in the full meaning of the term.
Eli Schonfeld is a PhD student in Philosophy at the Hebrew University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. For several years now, he has taught Jewish Philosophy in the Department of General Studies and in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. His book, The Wonder of Subjectivity – A Study in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, was published by Resling Publications in 2007.