Sunday, July 26, 2009

Truth at The Risk of Atheism in Levinas Thought and Understanding of Judaism.

I am reading Difficult Freedom – Essays on Judaism - by Emmanuel Levinas and came across a very illuminating and interesting idea.

“For Judaism, the goal of education consists in instituting a link between man and the Saintliness of God and in maintaining man in this relationship. … Judaism has decharmed the world, contesting the notion that religions apparently evolved out of enthusiasm and the sacred. Judaism remains foreign to any offensive return of these forms of human elevation. It denounces them as the essence of idolatry.

The numinous (supernatural – DG) or the Sacred envelops and transports man beyond his powers and wishes, but a true liberty takes offence at this uncontrollable surplus. The numinous annuls the links between persons by making beings participate, albeit ecstatically, in a drama not brought about willingly by them, an order in which they founder. This somehow sacramental power of the Divine seems to Judaism to offend human freedom and to be contrary to the education of man, which remains action on a free being. Not that liberty is an end in itself, but it does remain the condition for any value man may attain. The Sacred that envelops and transports me is a form of violence” (Emphasis in the original).

Believing in the supernatural and what Levinas terms the Sacred and making it part of life denies human freedom of will, denying the concept of actions and consequence, being that the interference of a supernatural power plays a greater decisive role in the outcome of any action. This understanding of the supernatural is experienced through the ecstatic, where the intellect relinquishes control. Violence denotes submission to the control of another by giving up voluntarily or involuntarily control of self. Levinas then uses this idea to explain Echad, the uniqueness of God.

“Jewish monotheism does not exalt a sacred power, a numen triumphing over other numinous powers but still participating in their clandestine and mysterious life. The God of the Jews is not the survivor of mythical gods. … Monotheism marks a break with a certain conception of the Sacred. It neither unifies nor hierarchizes the numerous and numinous gods; instead it denies them. As regards the Divine which they incarnate, it is merely atheism.”

In other words, by denying the concept of the divine of the religious forerunners of Judaism, it is seen as atheism. It reminds me of the reaction I get when I deny that there is a supernatural – “are you a believer, a Maamin?” I may be an atheist in the questioner’s eyes but he unfortunately is misled clinging to idolatrous notions.

“ … And one frequently encounters curious Talmudic texts which try to present the nature of Israel’s spirituality as something which lies in its intellectual excellence. They do this not through any Luciferian pride of reason, but because intellectual excellence is internal and the “miracles” it makes possible do not at all wound, like thaumaturgy [the working of miracles or magic feats – Wikipedia dictionary], the dignity of the responsible being; and above all because these “miracles” do not ruin the conditions for action and effort.”

The “miracles” in Judaism are connected to the prophet, a person of intellectual excellence. They are therefore the result of action and effort. The “supernatural” in Judaism does not take away human control but is the result of human effort, an understanding of his environment and taking advantage of it. A little further on Levinas confronts the risks that this thinking entails.

“The rigorous affirmation of human independence, of its intelligent presence to an intelligible reality, the destruction of the numinous concept of the Sacred, entails the risk of atheism. That risk must be run. Only through it can man be raised to the spiritual notion of the Transcendent. It is a great glory for the Creator to have set up a being who affirms Him after having contested and denied Him in the glamorous areas of myth and enthusiasm. It is a great glory for God to have created a being capable of seeking Him or hearing Him from afar, having experienced separation and atheism.”

One has to deal with reality using one’s intellect in the search for Truth. There are no shortcuts and it is not simplistic “faith” nor the ecstatic experience brought about by the imagination that will allow a man to attain Truth. It is the painstaking search, even at risk of atheism that will eventually allow for a true understanding of God’s transcendence.

This is my first encounter with Levinas and is at a very early stage. So far I liked what I read.


  1. Thanks for the post!


  2. I would appreciate hearing your reaction to Levinas' lecture on "Permitted or Promissed Land" , which appears in the compilation Nine Talmudic Readings.