Cain and Abel: According to Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas was in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, he enlisted in the French army. In 1940 he was captured and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps. Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. Levinas  eventually became one of the greatest ethical philosophers of the 20th century.

In one of his books, Levinas writes a special dedication that reads: “To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions of all nations,  victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-Semitism” [1]

According to Levinas, whenever a human face calls out to me. I can only respond with the words, “Here I am ….” We might wonder: “Why should I feel responsible in the presence of another person’s face?” But that is precisely why Cain asks of God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain was not being sarcastic or coy with his question to God. Quite the contrary: Cain’s question reveals to us that he is a man who has yet to learn and appreciate the importance of human solidarity. Cain feels as though each person lives solely for oneself and that everything is permitted. He has no idea what it means to be responsible for another human being.

Although Cain’s answer is sincere, his question reveals that he lacks a conscience; he is out of touch with his own humanity. He doesn’t understand that the human face is special because it bears a trace of God in each person. Yet, God holds Cain accountable—not because of any verbal commandments instructing how not to behave toward his brother. Levinas writes, “The human face is different speaks out and speaks to me without words, ‘Look at me, I am a human being much like yourself. Respect me as you would want to be respected.’”

Even without hearing a divine commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” certain truths are embedded within the soul. Whenever we see a human face suffering, we ought to perceive the Word of God telling us, “You shall not kill” and respond with the gift of presence, “Here I am …. how can I help?”


[1] OB, vii.

Conversation with Spinoza II

In his writings, Spinoza sometimes operates on the assumption that there is essentially one interpretation of the Tanakh, which in essence denies the polyvalence of a  text’s meaning. Modern hermeneutics expands the nature of interpretation far more comprehensively than Spinoza could have ever imagined possible. In addition, language is not as monocular as Spinoza envisioned.

Perhaps if Spinoza witnessed the birth of psychoanalysis (Freudian and Laconian) and depth psychology (of the Jungian variety), undoubtedly he would have acknowledged the importance of not taking a classical text like the Bible, or for that matter any classical work, as if it had only one layer of interpretive meaning.

Had Spinoza been privy to Lévinas’s concept of first philosophy and theology is ethics, Spinoza might have realized that morality is rooted in God’s capacity to be or act “personally” with Creation. I wonder whether Spinoza might have agreed with Lévinas’s theory of ethics.

From the writings of Jung, Eliade, Levi-Strauss, Spinoza could have immensely benefited from the wisdom that the sacred is discovered within the space of interpretation in a manner that transcends both the text and the person who is reading it. Spinoza certainly would have benefited from modern hermeneutical theory as well—especially from the ideas of M. Bakhtin and H. G. Gadamer, not to mention the various other thinkers developed hermeneutical thought over the last 300 years.

Nevertheless, despite these limitations, Spinoza’s questions and theological assumptions demand thoughtful refection and answers. In many respects, Spinoza is the prototype of the modern secular Jew who, like Spinoza, challenges the basic beliefs underlying contemporary faith.

Just as excommunication was a failed response in Spinoza’s case, neither will marginalizing Spinoza’s spiritual descendants who find themselves asking the same essential questions today that the great Dutch philosopher raised centuries ago.

Questions like:

* How do we know when it is the word of God that Scripture is speaking or whether it is the word of God we as human beings retroject into the Scriptures only to be made sacrosanct by tradition?

* What are we to do when the word of God commands us to do what violates not only common sense and reason, but also morality itself?

Fortunately, Judaism has always valued the great questions of the ages. A good question is better than a sloppy answer. There are no easy answers. Let’s keep an open mind and explore these questions together.