Talmudic Thinker / The Loneliness of the Ethical Philosopher

This biography of the man who popularized the idea of the individual's responsibility disappoints in not telling us enough about his thought, but it does succeed in capturing the complexity of Levinas' personality.

Emmanuel Levinas: Biografia by Shlomo Malka (Emmanuel Levinas: La vie et la trace, by Salomon Malka; translated into Hebrew by Daniel Yoel), Resling, 312 pages, NIS 94 (Published in English in 2006 as "Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy," translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree; Duqu esne University Press, $21.50)

For most of his life, the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was quite an anonymous figure. He taught in educational institutions, but was not considered a man of academia. His primary work was running a preparatory school for Jewish teachers of Mizrahi background - those whose families came from the Middle East or North Africa - even though Levinas was a European Ashkenazi Jew through and through, having been born in Lithuania. In philosophical circles, he was known for his translations into French of the writings of Edmund Husserl, his philosophical mentor, rather than as an independent thinker.

Fame came to Levinas only in the 1980s, after he had already reached old age. Prior to that, he was known as an educator and thinker only among members of the Jewish community in France, largely as a consequence of his annual "Talmudic readings," which he delivered at a conference of Jewish thinkers. At each gathering, Levinas would delve into a hot intellectual topic by way of a refreshing midrashic interpretation of a Talmudic subject.

But the tide turned in recent decades; Levinas came into vogue as a star in the world of philosophy and his books were translated into many languages. Some of France's most important Jewish thinkers, such Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, view him as a spiritual mentor (as did the late Jacques Derrida, who conveyed how deeply indebted he was to Levinas). Universities and religious institutions began to offer courses on Levinas, and his "Nine Talmudic Readings" became an international best seller.

The Levinas fad in Israel was reinforced further by the release of a first biography of him in Hebrew, written by the French journalist Salomon (Shlomo, in Hebrew) Malka, himself a student of Levinas at the Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale, in Paris, and the director of Radio de la Communaute Juive, a Paris-based radio broadcast service for the French Jewish community. Malka, who has already published a book on Levinas' teachings, focused this time on the story of the philosopher's life, one that renders his subject's experiences as typical of the ordinary Jew in the last century. This approach derives partly from the fact that Levinas' life spanned most of the 20th century, but also works because it includes two central elements: the Holocaust and the tension between tradition and modern life.

Levinas grew up in a traditional Jewish family in Lithuania, and he observed religious commandments throughout his entire life. Yet his family's escape from Lithuania to France after World War I kept him from receiving a comprehensive Jewish education, and until after World War II, most of his education revolved around general philosophy, with a focus on phenomenology.

During World War II, Levinas served in the French army and was taken captive by the Germans. His status as a French soldier saved him from being murdered as a Jew, but he did witness firsthand the horrors of the Nazis, something that heightened his philosophic interest in ethics to the point that he developed a worldview championing total "responsibility for the other." The concept of the other has become a significant one in the philosophical and ethical discourse of recent decades, and it owes much of that prominence to the centrality with which it was viewed by Levinas.

Following the war, there were two other developments that determined the course of his life: Levinas' decision to dedicate himself to Jewish education at the teachers' preparatory school and his relationship with "Monsieur Shoshani" (Chouchani, in French), a mysterious rabbinic genius who was said to have known the entire Talmud by heart and who wandered around the world after the Holocaust before settling in France. There, he taught Talmud to Levinas (and, separately, to the writer Elie Wiesel). Levinas always acknowledged that the Talmudic education he received, along with the guidance that enabled him to provide the Talmudic commentaries for which he became known throughout the Jewish world, was in essence obtained from Monsieur Shoshani, whose real name and origin remain unknown more than four decades after his death.

Malka does not claim to present a chronological account of Levinas' entire life, nor does he attempt to come off as an omniscient storyteller. On the contrary, this is a biography with an annotative theme. It does touch on the key periods in Levinas' life, yet it does not offer a complete picture of that life. Rather, it includes general notes on the period in question and its significance for the protagonist. The structure of the book also highlights this annotative nature; whereas the book's first part is dedicated to various periods in Levinas' life, as is customary in all biographies, its second part focuses on significant figures in his life. It includes a number of quotes from interviews with those figures or with others who provided details about them.

The most conspicuous weakness of the book is its failure to delve into its subject's thought process. It's reasonable for the biography of a philosopher to center on his life story rather than his philosophy, but such a biography cannot make do with citing the names of his books while dedicating barely a single word to their content. In a number of instances, Malka cites "Totality and Infinity" as Levinas' most significant book, yet he does not tell us anything about it. The book also lacks an analysis of the significance of the concept of the other.

It is not only the philosophy that is shortchanged. On numerous occasions, Malka's book lacks the full, exact context of key events in the life of the philosopher. The reader learns of the significance of the Shoshani-Levinas relationship from Levinas' perspective, without being told much about the circumstances of how the two met, how often they met, the nature of their study sessions or the duration of their relationship. On the other hand, there is also an advantage to Malka's method of writing, which emphasizes the complexity of Levinas' personality. A conservatively written biography in which the story is told in chronological order would likely have allowed that to get lost in the details, but in Malka's work, the complexity is impossible to avoid. It is evident that he values, even adores, Levinas, yet he does not shy away from sketching problematic elements of his character. He describes the man whose philosophy was guided by ethics and responsibility for the other as someone who in practice was demanding and difficult, someone who detested mediocrity and who tended to mock and act cruelly toward those closest to him.

Levinas is also described as a man who was "difficult to live with; a man whose entire existence centered around his head, and who struggled to meet the demands of the real world." Malka quotes Levinas' son, Michael, who discusses the writer's anxiety and solitude that plagued his father. Speaking soberly, Michael is firm in describing the dilemma of a thinker who was not a member of the academic establishment, "a man for whom one telephone conversation with a figure of the establishment was for him a drug that restored his self-confidence."

Toward the end of the book, Malka returns to the dramatic turnaround in Levinas' standing, tying it to the social changes underway in France in recent decades, which moved various groups in the Jewish community, as well as Catholic institutions, to seek out Levinassian ideas. Malka argues that Levinas' philosophy became more popular because it fit well into an era that had begun to loathe grand ideologies. Emmanuel Levinas was able to view the world through a prism that saw ethics as being dependent not on the big "isms," but on each person's obligation to the individual standing before him.

Yair Sheleg is a commentator on religious affairs for Haaretz.