English-speaking biblical scholarship would do well to allow itself to be cross-fertilized by the French intellectual tradition to a greater extent than has so far been the case. Have you read anything by Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Ellul, Jacques Lacan, or Emmanuel Levinas? I was introduced to all of them while a student at the Waldensian Theological Seminary in Rome.
We read these giants in French or in Italian translation. It is immensely preferable to read Lévinas in a Romance language. There are bigger names than Lévinas, like Barthes, Derrida (who gave one of the eulogies at Lévinas’s funeral), and Foucault. But if I had to choose, I’d rather read something by Lévinas than by the names just mentioned.
Emmanuel Lévinas received a traditional Jewish education in Lithuania where he was born (January 12, 1906). He studied Talmud again after WW II, and taught and eventually directed the École Normale Israélite Orientale in Paris. It is impossible to understand his thought apart from its rootedness in Jewish tradition. Yet the tradition Levinas draws from is by no means limited to that passed on in a traditional yeshiva. As stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The history of Jewish philosophy, from Philo and Sa'adya Gaon to Maimonides, and then from Cohen to Rosenzweig, alone clarifies Levinas's strategies and figures.”
Lévinas is (also!) a western philosopher in the strict sense. A student of Edmund Husserl, he developed a philosophy which, like that of Husserl, is phenomenological and descriptive in nature. Lévinas describes the face-to-face encounter in which one person is called by another and responds to that other. As stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
For Levinas, intersubjective experience, as it comes to light, proves ‘ethical’ in the simple sense that an ‘I’ discovers its own particularity when it is singled out by the gaze of the other. This gaze is interrogative and imperative. It says “do not kill me.” It also implores the ‘I’, who eludes it only with difficulty, although this request may have actually no discursive content.
Lévinas’s two most important works are Totalité et infini: essai sur l'extériorité (1961) and Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence (1974); in English, Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, respectively.
I don’t see how a biblical scholar can avoid these works. In Otherwise than Being, Lévinas develops the following figures: “obsession,” “persecution,” “recurrence,” “too tight in its skin,” “exile,” “maternity,” “love,” “expiation,” and “kenosis.” A key quote: “there is substitution for another, expiation for another. Remorse is the trope of the literal sense of sensibility. In its passivity is erased the distinction between being accused and accusing oneself” (Otherwise than Being, 125).
An article by Lévinas entitled “De la lecture juive des Ecritures” appeared in the Dominican journal Lumière et Vie 144 (1979) 5-23. Translated by Joseph Cunneen, it appeared in Crosscurrents 44 (1994/95) 488-505 under the title “The Jewish Understanding of Scripture.” For the full text, go here. Here is a choice quote:
The apparently naive or superficial elements of talmudic texts should always be approached with an expectation of wisdom. There are examples of similar arbitrariness - which misled Spinoza, who was so severe with the rabbis - in the way the exegesis of the rabbis connected verses whose surface meanings seemed to have nothing in common, except, say, a similar word or verbal assonance. This freedom of exegetical thinking leads into worlds enclosed within the texts - worlds that a strict reading, aiming only at what is immediately signified, would not suspect lie behind the signifiers which, at first glance, carry all the weight of dead letters. But who is to say where their death begins and their life ends? Is it not legitimate to take as the context of each verse the totality of the canon, and help verses that seem unacquainted with each other to wake each other up? The rapprochement, seemingly coerced, between the scattered elements of Scripture, shines forth in a mode of thought that conducts its scrutiny by the secret light of hidden worlds. Suddenly, our world, imbedded or lost in signs, is illuminated by an idea that comes to it from outside, or from the other end of the canon, revealing new possibilities for exegesis which had somehow become immobilized in the letters of the text.
Lévinas died on December 25, 1995.