The Jewish Studies Workshop is delighted to (virtually) host
Andrew K. Bush (Professor, Department of Hispanic Studies and Program in Jewish Studies, Vassar College)
to lead a discussion of two talmudic lectures by Emmanuel Lévinas.
Tuesday, May 19, 2020, 5:00 PM Central Time, via Zoom
The readings will be posted to this website. Note that this is a seminar-style event, not a lecture, so participants should read the texts in advance. The Zoom link will be emailed to the Jewish Studies Workshop listserv; to be added to the listserv, please visit the “Subscribe” tab of this website.
Andrew K. Bush is Professor of Hispanic Studies and Jewish Studies at Vassar College. He joined the Vassar faculty in 1983 after receiving his PhD in comparative literature from Yale University. At Vassar, he helped design the Jewish Studies Program, for which he was the first director, and has taught in various interdisciplinary programs including American Studies and Urban Studies. He teaches courses on Peninsular literature, Jewish textuality, the Holocaust, and German-Jewish culture, among numerous other topics, and he has served as director of the Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Spain. Currently, Prof. Bush is a co-editor of the “Key Words in Jewish Studies” book series from Rutgers University Press, in which he published Jewish Studies: A Theoretical Introduction in 2013. His other publications include The Routes of Modernity: Spanish-American Poetry from the Early Eighteenth to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Associated University Presses, 2002).
Below, we have included a note from Prof. Bush to introduce the readings and discussion.
First, I am no Talmudist. Lévinas himself typically began his Talmudic lessons at the annual conferences of French Jewish intellectuals by saying that it gave him pause to speak to an audience in which some were true scholars of the Talmud—how much more so, I. But neither need one be a Kabbalist to study Scholem. Lévinas, too, is an exemplary figure for a theory of Jewish Studies in his engagement with and transformation of what he calls “the Jewish Reading of Scriptures” in another of his Talmudic lessons (“De la lecture juive des Écritures,” in L’au-delà du verset).
In “The Youth of Israel,” Lévinas is more explicit than usual in articulating his understanding of the hermeneutic underpinnings of Talmudic commentary and also in situating the philosophical cast of his own approach in relation to that tradition. The lecture also introduces some of Lévinas’ consistent philosophical issues, above all, his critique of ontology in favor of ethics (here, under his typically idiosyncratic heading of “disinterestedness”), hence, of the freedom of the self of Western politics in favor of covenantal responsibility.
I choose “Cities of Refuge” as a way of focusing on the relationship between teachers and students as the embodiment of the hermeneutic process of continuation (perhaps what Scholem would call Kabbalah, reception, and Derrida hospitality, which he himself receives from Lévinas and transforms). The notion of refuge may well have changed for most of us, now that it is the common experience of the quarantine, which makes “Cities of Refuge” pertinent in a new way. I am aware that the same conditions also make it hard to continue in any sense—that is to find the material and mental space to read, attend, think clearly about anything other than how to disinfect the groceries—so I could limit the study of “Cities of Refuge” to just a few of its pages, focused specifically on the student-teacher relationship: sections 4, 5 and 10 (pp. 40-43 and 46-48, in the English version), which are keyed to paragraphs 1-2, 3-4, and 7 in the extract from the Talmud distributed by Lévinas on the occasion and cited in full at the beginning of the text.
One possible link between the two Talmudic lessons would be to think of the youthfulness of youth as the student-ness of the student, at any age. Another possibility would be to seek what the Talmudic rabbis call a harmonizing verse—in this case, American Jewish poet Philip Levine’s “What Work Is.” It will appear, I think, to be not only different in kind, but outside the scope of Lévinas’ concerns, though quite close to us in its representation of unemployment. The task, then, is to see if we can stretch the tent pegs far enough to invite Levine in: “We may be sure that they are being extended through us,” writes Franz Rosenzweig, “for could anything be allowed to remain outside permanently?”