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9 Ethics, Politics, and Messianism

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

In a well-known interview, Richard Kearney asked Emmanuel Levinas if the “ethical criterion of the interhuman” were not employed by him as a “sort of messianic eschatology.” Levinas objected to the expression “eschatology” and yet accepted the proposal that the “ethical relation with the other” is messianic, but only when properly understood. That is, he rejected the idea of a historical eschaton, an end or goal, whether we think of it as a face-to-face exposure to an absolutely other, God, or as the completion or perfection of our face-to-face encounters with human others. Ethics has no end; it is not about a historical telos. As he put it, “I have described ethical responsibility as insomnia or wakefulness precisely because it is a perpetual duty of vigilance and effort that can never slumber.” The key word here is “perpetual.” Love, he says, has something incessant and impermanent about it. He refers to the image of Talmudic sages going from meeting to meeting, always discussing the law, in this life and the next, without end. Love or the ethical is like this process that demands ongoing wakefulness and attention.1 If ethics is messianic, it is an episodic messianism that is never complete, and if politics ought to meet ethical standards, it too requires attention and correction, moment to moment.

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10 Levinas’s Notorious Interview

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

There may be no more controversial comments associated with Emmanuel Levinas than his remarks during a radio interview, broadcast on Radio Communauté on September 28, 1982, in the wake of the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon near Beirut. The interview was conducted by Shlomo Malka, and the interviewees were Levinas and Alain Finkielkraut. A transcript was published in Les Nouveaux Cahiers, but its notoriety, certainly for English-speaking audiences, was accelerated by the publication of an English translation, included by Seán Hand in his The Levinas Reader, published by Basil Blackwell in 1989.1 Introducing the transcript, Hand explains the circumstances that led the Israeli Defense Forces to occupy West Beirut in mid-September of 1982 and the events that followed:

While the move into West Beirut was supposedly made in order to protect the Muslims from the revenge of the Phalangists [after the September 14 bombing in party headquarters in East Beirut that killed twenty six, including Lebanon’s recently elected president, Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite,], the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) actually introduced Phalangists into the Palestinian camps with the mission of clearing out suspected fedayeem, or Arab infiltrators, who carried out hit-and-run raids inside Israel. The Christian soldiers massacred several hundred people in Sabra and Chatila camps over a period of nearly two days with no intervention on the part of the IDF. At first [prime minister Menachem] Begin refused to set up a judicial inquiry, commenting in the New York Times on 26 September that “Goyim kill goyim, and they immediately come to hang the Jews.”2

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14. Arthur A. Cohen’s Messianic Fiction

Michael L Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

Emily Kopley

In memory of Dan Walden, generous mentor and friend

We are too soon to be acclaimed for having given to the world a literature, but of one thing I am certain: we have the seismic faults, the pit in the heart, the long silence before the dawn to know that we draw upon the real stuff out of which literature comes, out of which the new narrative of God’s walk upon the earth and conversation with creatures is born.

—Arthur A. Cohen, “Our Narrative Condition”

In September 1977, Commonweal solicited Arthur A. Cohen’s recommendations for Religious Book Week. Among his choices was Gershom Scholem’s 1971 The Messianic Idea in Judaism. Cohen wrote, “Scholem is the fons vitae of Jewish mysticism . . . he defined the grammar and rhetoric of Jewish mystical thinking.”1 Cohen, in his turn, used grammar and rhetoric to define, or at least imagine, the Jewish Messiah. In his theological writing he fit words to intangible concepts held in faith, while in his fiction he rendered the abstract concrete by imagining messianic protagonists. Scholem noted in the title essay of The Messianic Idea, “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” that “the figure of the Messiah . . . remains peculiarly vague.”2 To Cohen, that vagueness was an invitation. Faced with the void of the Messiah’s individuality, he posited fictional messiahs who, he hoped, would hurry along their hazy exemplar.

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6. Messianism and Ethics

Michael L Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

Matt Goldish

Gershom Scholem’s argument that Jewish messianic movements are linked to antinomianism has gained widespread acceptance among scholars. A related question is whether Jewish messianism enforces ethics, threatens ethics, or has no relationship to ethics. I will attempt in this chapter to offer a working definition of ethics for the current discussion, then to argue that messianism sometimes threatens ethics or attempts to propose a new ethical system. For many people, the idea of an unethical Messiah or messianic movement might seem paradoxical or even farcical because the messianic age is described in the Bible as a time of ultimate justice and truth (e.g., Isaiah 11). Yet ethical breaches (by our standards) have indeed been a common part of Jewish messianism. Perhaps this is human nature, since the role of a Messiah is also a position of power. The ethical issues involved in messianic movements concern both the views and actions of the proposed messianic prophet or Messiah and the views and actions of his followers. The main factor at work here is a certainty on the part of all these actors that God reveals truths to the Messiah or messianic prophet that can transcend his society’s accepted ethics. This, in turn, is an extension of ethical issues in the Bible. I will thus treat the biblical questions briefly, then show how they reach forward in history through messianic movements and thought.1 I shall treat the two largest Jewish messianic movements to illustrate the point: that of Jesus of Nazareth and that of Sabbatai Zevi.

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3 The Third Party: Transcendental Ethics and Realistic Politics

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

Suppose we take the human condition primarily to involve the self or subject, on the one hand, and the world, on the other. The philosophical project of articulating the structure of human experience would be the characterization of all the ways in which self and world are related and interrelated. If so, then there are surely going to be relations that account for the way the self is related to nonhuman constituents of the world—from sense perception, observation and analysis, belief, and knowledge to desire, various modes of appetite and aversion, and so forth. And there will also be a host of relations such as the physical ones (e.g., the subject is far from the object, near the object, to the left or right of it) and social and economic ones (e.g., the subject is the owner of the object, is the occupant of the object, is using the object, has just paid for the object). With regard to human beings in the world, too, there will be a complex set of relations and relationships—momentary or briefly continuing relations, such as the subject’s being angry with another subject, and ongoing relationships, such as the subject’s being the father or mother of the other subject or the teacher of the subject. Let us take Levinas to be aware of all of this and to include it within the broad domain of human experience, which he would take Heidegger to have called the being of Dasein, and we might call the domain of ordinary, everyday human existence. Levinas’s distinctive claim is that an account of all of these aspects or dimensions of human relatedness to the world is by and large what we think of as our existence as natural beings, but it is incomplete and inadequate to characterize the totality of human experience. Something significant is here omitted, and it is what broadly we might call, after Wilfrid Sellars, the “space of reasons” or what we might refer to as the dimension of evaluative normativity, especially moral normativity. In Otherwise Than Being, with special reference to language, Levinas calls the former aspects of our natural existence “the Said,” and he calls the dimension or aspect that brings with it or introduces into human existence this evaluative normativity and especially moral normativity “the Saying.” The latter, of course, is the descendant of the face-to-face of Levinas’s earlier writings, and it is what he has called the relation with “transcendence” and “enigma” and the relation with the infinite, the face, and so much else.1

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