Messianism and the Moral Struggles of Politics and Zionism: 1Excerpts from Emmanuel Levinas’ The State of Caesar and the State of David
WHO WAS EMMANUEL LEVINAS AND WHAT WERE THE BASIC PRINCIPLES THAT UNDERLAY HIS
Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1906 in Lithuania and died in 1995 in Paris, living a life that spanned the turbulent and dynamic political and philosophical histories of the twentieth century. The event that most impacted his life and his thought was the Holocaust, during which he lost his entire family with the exception of his wife and daughter.
In the context of his professional, academic career, Levinas is noted for bringing the philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger into the French academy. His thought did not come into major focus until the 1980‘s when questions of ethics and politics came back into the forefront of the world of philosophy, after the predominance of Marxist, Maoist, and post-structuralist thought waned. His introduction into the American academy mostly came via the philosophy departments of Catholic universities, and eventually spread to non-Catholic universities in a variety of fields: political theory, Jewish studies, philosophy, theology, aesthetics and pedagogy. Levinas‘ works are considered to be uniquely pliable and multifaceted because they rely as much
upon Talmudic analysis they do the works of Heidegger and other authors‘ continental
philosophy. Another reason that his thought has garnered so much attention over the past two decades is that his philosophy addresses a wide range of experiential topics that transcend the abstract and theoretical, such as birth, life, and death.
Contrary to how he is often described, Levinas did not see himself as a Jewish philosopher, rather as a philosopher and Jew that was Orthodox. Nonetheless, he uses Judaism and the Jewish experience as the basis of a universal ethics. Undoubtedly a result of his experience as a Jew in Europe, the central idea of his ethical works was that ethics is a form of philosophy, and entails endless responsibility to the ―Other‖ person. We have a fundamental, infinite responsibility to make ourselves available to the neediness and suffering of the other.
Levinas‘ political theory is filled with a variety of statements regarding the ―Jewish‖ and the ―universal‖ that seem to be in essential contradiction. He did not see them as being at odds, however, because he, like many European Jewish thinkers before him, believed that Judaism is a religion that is particular in its universalism. Also, since his ethical thought was largely based upon the universal application of Jewish experience, he saw every individual as being a ―Jew‖ of sorts. In other words, every person is an ―other.‖ As Hilary Putnam writes in the Cambridge
Companion to Levinas, Levinas‘ attitude inevitably led to his assertion that all hatred of the other is anti-Semitism and vice versa. This is one of the ways in which he translates the Jewish experience and tradition into universal terms and ethical standards.
Levinas believed that intersections of Judaism and politics contain many insights and principles that can contribute to the greater discourse of political theory. The following excerpts are from Levinas‘ essay The State of Caesar and the State of David, a work which contrasts what
he considers to be monotheistic, Jewish conceptions of politics versus those of the pagan/Christian, Greco-Roman world. The concept of Messianism is used in order to show the complex relationship that Judaism must have to earthly politics. Judaism is at once striving for
1 Taken from: The Levinas Reader ed. Sean Hand. Basil Blackweel Inc. 1989 pp. 268-277
the highest form of ethics and justice that can only ostensibly be achieved by a heavenly transcendent force, but salvation must come from earthly action and political activity. This dynamic is represented by the example of the Messiah who is concomitantly a messenger of G-D and supreme ethics, while at the same time being a descendent of David, and person of flesh and blood. Sean Hand, editor of The Levinas Reader, writes thusly:
‗The State of Caesar‖ examines the tense relationship which historically Judaism has had to
endure between political power and divine order. Levinas shows how key passages in the
Bible and the Talmud constitute a charter for political power, while seeking to safeguard the
moral principles and particular identity of Israel against the corruption and idolatry of the
State. The monotheist politics that would ideally result is therefore one that can only be
constructed by a patient and vigilant practice. The culmination of Zionism, since based on
my ethical responsibility for the other, is therefore also the moral goal of all History. (Hand,
His philosophy is taken to the practical level when describing the moral responsibilities and necessarily ethical character of the modern State of Israel. In relationship to the Palestinians, both those inside and outside of the borders of Israel proper, Israel is by definition held ―hostage to the other‘s vulnerability, for it is a state that must embody a prophetic morality transcending any purely political thinking.‖ (Hand, 267) Levinas‘ Zionism is underscored by the belief that the State would bring an end to assimilation, safeguarding the future of the Jewish people, and in turn, being allowed to embody a form of politics that transcends universal ethics. Hand describes this seemingly contradictory attitude and set of expectations:
Judaism is not seen as an extra dimension to be added to such a state, or part of an
universal civilizations, but rather an excess of responsibility towards humanity whose
singularity leads beyond any universal value. A withdrawal into itself on the part of
Jewish identity of a Jewish State would therefore be the prelude to an exemplification of
a Jewish singularity revealing a moral beyond to the universal. As such the State of
Israel will mark the end of assimilation by bringing us far beyond the concept in a
spiritual and so in a political, sense. (Hand, 267-268)
The complexities of Levinas‘ thought surely cannot be fairly represented or adequately explored in one short, beit midrash session. If you are interested in additional, introductory texts, I suggest: The Levinas Reader, edited by Sean Hand, The Cambridge Companion to Levinas
edited by Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, and Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas,
Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation, by Leora Batnitzky.
Yes to the State
What is the major distinction that Levinas is making between Christian and Jewish attitudes toward political power?
In the Judaism of the rabbis, during the centuries, immediately preceding the birth of Christianity, as in post-Christian rabbinical doctrine, the distinction made between the political and the spiritual orders – between the terrestrial City and the City of G-D is not so clear-cut as is suggested by the evangelical formula: ‗Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar‘s, and to G-D
the things that are G-D‘s.‘ (Luke 20:25) In Christianity, the kingdom of G-D and the earthly
kingdom remain separate, bordering each other without touching and, in principle, without dispute between them. They divide up the human between themselves, giving rise to no conflict. This political sense of indifference may be the reason why Christianity has so often served as a State religion.
Certainly it would not be true to say that, for Israel political power and the divine order are identified. Nor is it because they were unable to expect of G-D anything other than their nation‘s salvation and the deliverance of Judea from Roman oppression that the Jews remained untouched by the message of Christianity. Being beyond the State was an era which Judaism could foresee without having to accept, in an age of States, that a State would be free from the rule of Law, or believe that the State was not a necessary path, even as it led beyond the State. The doctrine of the prophets was perhaps no more than such an anti-Machiavellism, anticipated in their refusal of anarchy. (268)
What is the dialectic that Levinas is establishing between the earthly and heavenly aspects of Messianic rule? What is his political ideal and how is Judaism, and specifically Torah, integral to it?
The Messiah founds a just society and delivers humanity after having delivered Israel. These messianic times are the period of a kingship. The Messiah is king. The divine empowers History and State, it does not suppress them. The end of History retains a political form. But the Messiah is descended from David. A genealogical tree of David‘s stock can matter little to the Messiah, who is justified by his own justice. But it is of the highest importance to David himself and to the political structure signified by his name. The Davidic State resides in the finality of Deliverance. The epoch of the Messiah can and must result from the political order than pretends to be indifferent to eschatology and preoccupied solely with the problems of the day. This political world must therefore remain related to the ideal world. The talmudic apologue is here singularly suggestive‖ King David wars and governs by day; at night when men rest, he 2gives himself up to the Law: a double life designed to remake the unity of life. The political actions of each passing day begin in eternal midnight, they derive from nocturnal contact with the Absolute.
2 Brachot, 3b
Beyond the State
What are the characteristics that define an ethical polity according to Levinas? What is the moral contradiction/danger of sovereignty?
But the State of Caesar, despite its participation in the pure essence of the State, is also the site of corruption par excellence and, perhaps, the last refuge of idolatry.
According to certain doctors of the Talmud, oppression by great States, the chiboud
malkhoyoth, constitutes the sole difference between the Messianic epoch and our own, The State of Caesar reaches its apogee, or a state of hypertrophy that is in some sense natural, without any hindrance to its world, the pagan State, jealous of its sovereignty, the State in pursuit of hegemony, the conquering, imperialist, totalitarian, oppressive State, attached to a realist egoism. As such it separates humanity from its deliverance. Unable to exist without adoring itself, it is pure idolatry. This striking vision arises independently of any text; in a world of scruples and of respect for man derived from monotheism, the Chancellery with its realpolitik comes from
another universe, seal off from sensibility, or protest by ‗beautiful souls‘, or tears shed by an ‗unhappy consciousness.‘
Talmudic wisdom is entirely aware of the internal contradiction of the State subordinating some men to others in order to liberate them, whatever the principles embodied in those who wield power. This is a contradiction against which even the person who refuses the political order has no protection, since, by abstaining from an collaboration with power, he makes himself a party to the obscure powers repressed by the State. (274)
Towards a Monotheistic Politics
How is Levinas applying his thoughts about earthly politics and moral leadership to Zionism and the State of Israel?
What are the problems and benefits of Levinas’ application of these principles to
contemporary politics and an expectation that Israel will be their harbinger?
The culmination of the State of David in the messianic state, and the going beyond the State implied in the notion of the ‗world to come‘ may appear utopian, and, at any rate, premature. Is the political philosophy of monotheism just a summary improvisation, even if – as
seems obvious – utopia has claims to make of any thinking worthy of the name? This indiscreet question is put, paradoxically, in certain religious circles to be found in the State revived in the Holy Land, for which the tradition of Israel is the source of all meaning. The question is not put in order to lay claim to the idolatrous politics of the world, the only politics, actually, that exists and one which Christian monotheism has been unable to destroy. Instead, the question is to obtain from Zion the formulation for a political monotheism that no one yet has managed to formulate. Not even exercised over the promise land for Abraham‘s posterity, should allow his heirs to confront the formulae with facts, and so patiently to construction a political doctrine that will suit monotheists.
Recently, in Paris, I attended a lecture given by Dan Avni-Segre, an Israeli of Italian origin, professor at the law faculty in Haifa, where he conducts a seminar on the new politics
with the participation, notably, of several Arab students. Let the testimony give there serve as a conclusion to the present note. Professor Avni-Segre sees the whole return to Zion in a perspective that restores it to sacred History. He emphasizes not the achievements of the young State but the possibilities for political innovation that it opens up. In the midst of daily conflict, the lived experience of the government—and even the painful necessities of the occupation –
allow us to derive lessons as yet untaught in the ancient Revelation. Is a monotheistic politics a contradiction in terms? Or is this, on the contrary, the culmination of Zionism? Beyond the concern to guarantee a refuge to the persecuted, is this not the great task? Is there nothing to be found somewhere between having recourse to the methods of the Caesars, an unscrupulous idolatry whose model is the ‗imperial oppression‘, the chiboud malkhouyoth, and the facile
eloquence of an incautious moralism, that seems blinded by its own words and dreams, and condemns those disperse people who had been brought together to a rapid destruction and a new diaspora. For two thousand years, Israel did not engage with History. Innocent of any political crime, pure with a victim‘s purity, a purity whose sole merit is perhaps its patient endurance, Israel had become unable to conceive of a politics that would put the finishing touches to its monotheistic message. Now such a commitment does exist. Since 1948. But all this is only a beginning. Israel is no less isolated in its struggle to complete its incredible task than Abraham was, four thousand years ago, when he began it. Beyond solving any particular problem, whether rational or familiar, therefore, this return to the land of our forefathers marks one of the greatest events of history and, indeed of all History. (276-277)