Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Teaching Jewish Thought

Jonathan CohenThe Concept of Responsibility in Levinas and Soloveitchik: Implications for Jewish Education

Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity makes for an interesting comparison to Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik. This should not be surprising as they both came from the Lithuanian tradition. Levinas has three different types of people. Soloveitchik, his essay “Confrontation” is similar. The first level for Soloveitchik is the natural man. Levinas, similarly, has the level of enjoyment. These are the unmediated imbibing of the environment. At this level there is no reflection. The next level for Soloveitchik is Adam the First; he is a dignified planner. For Soloveitchik there is no dignity without responsibility. One cannot assume responsibility as long as one cannot live up to his commitments. Levinas has man engaging in labor. He plans for the future and sets means and relations to ends. Soloveitchik’s Adam Two is devoted to total sacrifice to the other. Levinas has the man forced to sacrifice in the face of the other. For Soloveitchik, communication becomes a redemptive act while for Levinas one is commanded by the mere face of the other.

The major difference between Soloveitchik and Levinas is over the issue of responsibility. To be responsible, for Soloveitchik, is to take charge. For Levinas it is the readiness to respond to the other. This does not require power. On the contrary, human beings, by definition, are not powerful. This is the basis of Levinas’ attack on Paul and Christianity. As we fulfill commandments we take on more responsibilities so we can never fulfill them all. We are by definition inadequate; we are always late. This leaves us in a state of insomnia as we need to be in a state of perpetual readiness.

To apply this to education. Soloveitchik seems to follow the Dewy education system. Education should be a microcosm of the real world. If one wants a democratic system you have to bring democracy into the classroom and teach the students the sort of responsibility and restraint necessary for a democratic society. Levinas would need a different educational strategy. One that takes into account the perpetual debt to the other and perpetual guilt. This would require a system that works counter to what we want; much as art and sports education run counter to what we want. We want spontaneity, but to get that we need drill. For Levinas, we need to give students a sense of empowerment even though we intend to depose the ego.

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