The first time Ethan Kleinberg, the Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor of History and Letters, immersed himself in the world of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas 20 years ago, he wrote a book.
“It was written as a traditional intellectual history and I found that what that I had done was to completely deactivate the aspects of Levinas’ thought where he believes that there are ethical guidelines that come to us from outside our own history, these transcendent ethical guidelines puncture any historical or contextual moment,” Kleinberg said.
He didn’t like what he’d written, so he took an unprecedented step—he tore it up and started over again over a decade later.
Kleinberg’s new take on Levinas’ cultural legacy, Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought will be published this October in the Cultural Memory in the Present Series from Stanford University Press. Using a series of Levinas’ lectures on the Torah and the Talmud as the touchpoints, Kleinberg has crafted an exploration of his thinking that encompasses aspects of Western philosophy, French Enlightenment universalism, and the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition.
Levinas, a man of strong convictions and a sense of humor, was born in 1906 in present-day Lithuania. Levinas was the among the first to bring philosopher Martin Heidegger’s work to France, and later wrestled with the German’s turn toward Nazism.
Levinas became a French citizen in 1930 and served in the French military during World War II. He was captured in 1940 and spend the remainder of the war in a German prison camp. He was insulated from the Holocaust because of his status as a prisoner of war. Levinas held a relatively protected position despite his religion. His family in Lithuania did not, and were murdered by the Nazis.
While a prisoner, Levinas turned to sacred Jewish texts, which prompted 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 chronicled his thoughts in a series of notebooks, which were recently published.