Insight into Ethan Kleinberg’s Latest Publication: Levinas’s Talmudic Turn
Ethan Kleinberg is the Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor of History and Letters at Wesleyan University and Editor-in-Chief of History and Theory. Kleinberg’s wide-ranging scholarly work spans across the fields of history, philosophy, comparative literature and religion. In particular, Kleinberg engages with the ways that the past haunts our present and presses us toward the future, advocating for a deconstructive approach to better account for this complex temporal entanglement. He is also the author of Generation Existential: Heidegger’s Philosophy in France, 1927–1961
This past October, Kleinger’s most recent book, Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn, was published. In this rich intellectual history of the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic lectures in Paris, Ethan Kleinberg addresses Levinas’s Jewish life and its relation to his philosophical writings while making an argument for the role and importance of Levinas’s Talmudic lessons. Pairing each chapter with a related Talmudic lecture, Kleinberg uses the distinction Levinas presents between “God on Our Side” and “God on God’s Side” to provide two discrete and at times conflicting approaches to Levinas’s Talmudic readings. One is historically situated and argued from “our side” while the other uses Levinas’s Talmudic readings themselves to approach the issues as timeless and derived from “God on God’s own side.” Bringing the two approaches together, Kleinberg asks whether the ethical message and moral urgency of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures can be extended beyond the texts and beliefs of a chosen people, religion, or even the seemingly primary unit of the self. Touching on Western philosophy, French Enlightenment universalism, and the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition, Kleinberg provides readers with a ground breaking investigation into the origins, influences, and causes of Levinas’s turn to and use of Talmud.
We had the opportunity to interview Kleinberg to learn more about Levinas’s Talmudic Turn and his other works!
Can you share a bit about this book and its inspirations? What initially sparked your interest in this subject?
EK: I have been living with this project for a long time. In my first book, Generation Existential: Heidegger’s Philosophy in France, 1927–61, there are two chapters on the Lithuanian born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas but at that time my focus was entirely on the reception of Heidegger’s philosophy in France. As a result, I acquired a lot of material on Levinas and his turn toward sacred Jewish texts that simply did not fit. This all went into “desk drawer” as they say and remained there until after the Heidegger book was complete. When I did turn to Levinas I found the project to more conceptually difficult than I imagined especially when it came to engaging with Levinas’s thought on his own terms which involves a logic that transcends what history is or can do. This problem fascinated and perplexed me as much as the case study itself. So the question is, how does one write a history about something that professes to move beyond the confines of secular historical thought without confining it? This leads to your next question…
Emmanuel Levinas Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought is unique in that it is written from two sides, “God on Our Side” and “God on God’s Side.” Can you expand upon this? What exactly does this look like and what perspective did it require you to adopt? How did you reconcile conflicting views?
EK: On Levinas’s account, following the Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin who I discuss in the book, “God on God’s own side” refers to the infinite, and absolutely transcendent qualities of God that lie beyond our finite abilities to define, conceive, or even name God. “God on our side” references God as revealed in our finite and imperfect world and as such limited by that which we can conceive or imagine. There is a fundamental cleavage between the qualities of God and what we can know of those qualities. Following this logic, the danger is that we take the qualities we know about God “on our side” to be the essence of God or reduce God to a mere product of our imagination. The latter is what is at work in most academic scholarship.
To address this, and as noted above, the Levinas book is written using the deconstructive approach by means of what I call, following Derrida, a double séance or double geste. Thus the book is divided so as to provide an account of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures that comes at this history both from “our side” and from the “other side.” The architecture and presentation of this book is structured to facilitate this strategy as each chapter is written in two columns. The column on the left provides the intellectual history of Levinas’s Talmudic lectures from our side while the column on the right takes up a single Talmudic lecture from the other side. The two column approach allows for the two historical registers to unsettle each other such that every reader is forced to consider the underlying logic or assumptions that ground each interpretative strategy. This is to say that I embrace the conflicting and oppositional nature of the two accounts rather than attempt to synthesize them. This also ties this book to Haunting History in so far as the two column approach enacts the unsettling of singular historical accounts and/or the positing of a singular historical origin.
How does this piece differ from your previous works?
EK: In the years after Generation Existential, I wrote an almost complete draft of the Levinas book but I was dissatisfied with it. In many ways it looked like the earlier book and many other works of intellectual history which I think worked well to contextualize Levinas’s thought and turn to the Talmud/sacred Jewish texts but also served to dismiss a number of themes and moves in Levinas’s work that point toward an ethical understanding of the other which lies beyond the confines of secular thought. In the end, I more or less tore up that draft and started over.
As I was working out a means to address the problems I found so vexing, I found myself working out an alternative theory of history based on a deconstructive approach loosely following the writings of Jacques Derrida. This then led to my book, Haunting History: for a deconstructive approach to the past. In essence, I wrote that book in order to find a way to write the one about Levinas. The two books are thus linked: Haunting History lays out my deconstructive approach to the past and Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn applies that approach in practice.
How did this process challenge you as a writer, if at all?
EK: The structure of the book proved to be a challenge in a number of ways. First, it required for me to work out how the two texts or approaches should align and where they should meet thematically. The other issue was that I had to find a press adventurous enough to publish such an unorthodox approach to history and to commit the time and resources to the necessary typesetting and other practical matters. Fortunately, in Hent de Vries, Erica Wetter and the team at Stanford University Press I found editors who shared my vision. Of course, the last bit is whether the approach and the book works….I guess we wait to see though the initial reception has been very positive.
Could you share a bit about the relationship between philosophy and history? How does this book meet at the intersection of these disciplines?
EK: Well, I would add another discipline to the mix which is literature. My work has always operated at the intersection of Literature, Philosophy, and History which is why I feel so at home in the College of Letters. But to make the focus more clear, I do believe that historians should spend more time thinking with these other disciplines in pursuit of a more robust theory of history. I co-wrote an open access piece with Joan Scott and Gary Wilder called the Theses on Theory and History that lays out my thoughts on this. Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn is the direct result of my sustained investigation into the theory of history now applied to an intellectual history of Levinas and his work. The book moves between history, philosophy, and what one could also call religious or Jewish studies.
Generally, what would you identify as Levinas’s most significant cultural contribution? In other words, what is your greatest takeaway from your research?
EK: To my mind, the most important take away from Levinas’s work is his sustained engagement with what he calls “the other” in his attempt to build an ethical framework after the Holocaust. I am not saying he succeeds and in many ways this book addresses the places where he falls short because he cannot let go of a particular and privileged Jewish identity which seems antithetical to his ethics of alterity. Perhaps the fact that he continues the attempt while recognizing we are prone to failure is itself an important lesson. Our potential to transgress is a part of what makes us human but, for Levinas, this reality also points us toward our potential to do good. This is an election made up not of privileges but of responsibilities and as such it is an election oriented toward the future.