Emmanuel Levinas’ Talmudic readings are the quintessential meeting of Judaism and modernity. Through his free-wheeling, playful, philosophical, political and above all European commentaries, Levinas achieves his aim of translating the Talmud ‘into Greek’ i.e. into the language of the modern West. He draws on the central text of Judaism to discuss ideas as wide as land, destruction, revolution (in the wake of 1968) moral obligation, feminism and forgiveness, often drawing on the most obscure and inpenetrable texts to work his magic. His readings make the modern reader (Jew or otherwise) feel that in Judaism ‘everythimg has already been thought’, that its classical texts deal, in profound and non-simplistic ways, with all the issues that we wrestle with today. That rather than a text to be ignored by secularists or neutered by orthodox sacralization, the Talmud is the site of Jewish and human repair, the meeting place where we can learn to think and live with each other.
But is it justified? Is not Levinas simply engaged in apologetics, presenting modern ideas as if they are ancient ones, and in his own words (sollicitation) ‘forcing the text’? This is a serious and necessary objection, and can be answered not by an argument but by the name of a person. Chouchani. Chouchani was an extraordinary character who had already become mythological in his own lifetime. He is recorded as being tramp-like; Elie Wiesel described him as ‘dirty’, ‘hairy’ and ‘ugly’, and Levinas initially thought of him as a ‘clochard’. We have little information about his background – we know him only as a wandering mystic who knew and taught the entire Talmud by heart, and apparently knew the entirety of classical philosophy, sociology and phenomeology as well. For as Levinas put it “I can not tell what he knows, all I can say is that all I know, he knows”. According to his gravestone in Uruguay ‘His birth and his life are shrouded in enigma’ and the myth also has it that when he and Levinas first met the two remained talking until dawn. Can there be a more perfect figure? A man who comes from nowhere and therefore everywhere, a man who appears to be the lowest of the low but is in fact the wisest of the wise. One in whom all knowledge is found, one who knows all the classical sources of Judaism but reads them seemlessly into a universal modernity.
Levinas refers to him (sometimes simply as ‘master’) at key points in his writings. In the introduction to the first volume of Talmudic readings ,(quatre lectures talmudiques) he uses Chouchani to describe and justify his entire interpretive approach.
Mr Chouchani……has shown us what the real method is capable of. He has made a dogmatic approach based purely on faith or even a theological approach to the Talmud altogether impossible for us. Our attempt must attest to this search for freedom even if it does not attest to a freedom already possesed.
Elsewhere (L’Au-dela du Verset) Levinas uses his teacher to demonstrate multiple readings, presenting a reconciliation of Judaism and postmodernity.
My master claimed to be able to give 120 different interpretations of this phrase, whose literal meaning is, however, totally clear.
Finally, in Judaism and Revolution, he uses Chouchani to demonstrate the possibility of a Judaism that transcends race.
I have it from an eminent master, each time Israel is mentioned in the Talmud one is certainly free to understand by it a particular ethnic group which is probably fulfilling an incomparable destiny. But to interpret in this manner would be to reduce the general principle in the Tamlmudic passage, to foget that Israel means a people who has received the law, a human nature which has reached the fullness of its responsibilities and its self consciousness. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacon are human beings who are no longer childlike.
Levinas calls on Chouchani when he is at his most radical, needing to talk ‘in the name of his teacher’, to put his ideas of a tradition, be it real or illusory. Just at the point, when we might think Levinas is no longer grounded in Jewish classical texts, he uses the figure of his master to demonstrate a living, spoken tradition, one that can draw together the sacred and the secular, ecompass the bundists, communists and anarchists and give backing to Judaism’s long-standing ethical and humanist tradition
The idea of Chouchani is more important than the reality. He suggests that the intellectual, universal, ethical and non-parochial Judaism that Levinas promotes is part of an oral tradition, one that dates back to a utopian, paradigmatic Sinai. He gives us the possibility that a radical Judaism that roots itself in text, finds wider meaning beyond dense legalism, goes beyond the banality of much of Jewish life towards a programme founded on justice and ethical obligation, is actually traditional, rather than an invention of modernity. We all need to find Chouchani. The building of Jewish and human renewal demands nothing less.
I only just discovered the existence of ‘Mr. Chouchani’ while researching Enrique Dussel, who has been influenced by Levinas. Reading about this enigmatic Talmudist put me in mind of Shams i Tabriz, another enigmatic figure who transformed the life of the great Persian poet Rumi. I was also reminded of similar figures appearing in Tibetan Buddhist history, shabbily dressed and of apparently low status, who questioned great scholars and showed them that their understanding was empty.