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A Philosopher in the Eye of the Storm: Monsieur Chouchani and Lévinas's “Nameless” Essay

  • Hanoch Ben-Pazi (a1)

This article considers the role of the individual during crises in humanism and the ethical responsibility with which the individual is charged in such times of moral calamity. In a narrow sense, the article explores Emmanuel Lévinas's “Nameless” (“Sans nom”), an essay that appears in his book Proper Names, and proposes viewing it as his personal reading in honor of his unique, unaccounted-for teacher Monsieur Chouchani. From a broader philosophical perspective, the article attempts to consider the meaning of ethics and the assumption of responsibility in times when doing so appears to offer no benefit and hold no significance whatsoever. From an educational perspective, it endeavors to better understand the ethical role of the teacher in both tranquil and tempestuous times. And finally, it also offers another profound observation of what Lévinas's article refers to as the “Jewish condition,” not in a national historical sense but as a model of crisis-oriented ethical challenge.

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1. Lévinas Emmanuel, “Nameless,” in Proper Names, trans. Smith Michael B. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 119–23.

2. Ibid., 120.

3. Ibid.

4. On the meaning and treatment of the concept of education in Lévinas's writings, the reader is first encouraged to consult the following article by Aronowicz Annette: “L’éducation juive dans la pensée d'Emmanuel Lévinas,” Pardès 26 (1999): 195210 ; or in English, Jewish Education in the Thought of Emmanuel Lévinas,” in Abiding Challenges: Research Perspectives on Jewish Education; Studies in Memory of Mordechai Bar-Lev, ed. Rich Yisrael and Rosenak Michael (London: Freund, 1999), 65100 . See also Bouganim Ami, “Lévinas pedagogue,” in Emmanuel Lévinas—Philosophe et pédagogue (Paris: Éditions du Nadir, 1998), 5564 ; Catherine Chalier, “Lévinas maître,” in Emmanuel Lévinas—Philosophe et pédagogue, 65–70; Standish Paul, “Ethics before Equality: Moral Education after Lévinas,” Journal of Moral Education 30 (2001): 339–47; Child Mark et al. , “Autonomy or Heteronomy? Lévinas's Challenge to Modernism and Postmodernism,” Educational Theory 45 (1995): 167–89. Much has been written on the importance and responsibility of education in the writings of Lévinas. See for example: Ben-Pazi Hanoch, “Rebuilding the Feminine in Lévinas's Talmudic Readings,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 12, no. 3 (2003): 132 ; Ben-Pazi , “Establishing the Future: Educational Meanings of Revelation and the Messianic Idea according to Lévinas” [in Hebrew], Hagut—Jewish Educational Thought 5–6 (2004): 89114 ; Chalier, “Lévinas maître”; Katz Claire Elise, “Teaching the Other: Lévinas, Rousseau, and the Question of Education,” Philosophy Today 49 (2005): 200207 ; Katz , “Educating the Solitary Man: Lévinas, Rousseau, and the Return to Jewish Wisdom,” Lévinas Studies 2 (2007): 133–52; Katz , Lévinas and the Crisis of Humanism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012); Meir Ephraim, “Jewish Dialogic Philosophy and Its Implications for Education” [in Hebrew], Hagut—Jewish Educational Thought 1 (1998): 127–41; Nordtug Birgit, “The Welcoming of Lévinas in the Philosophy of Education—At the Cost of the Other?,” Theory and Research in Education 11 (2013): 250–68.

5. Lévinas, “Nameless,” 119.

6. Emmanuel Lévinas, “Honneur sans drapeau,” Les nouveaux cahiers 6 (1966).

7. Lévinas, “Nameless,” 106–9.

8. Ibid., 110–18.

9. Although the mysterious Monsieur Chouchani has been the subject of numerous texts, the riddle remains. On this, see first and foremost Malka Salamon, Monsieur Chouchani: l’énigme d'un maître du XXe siècle: entretiens avec Elie Wiesel, suivis d'une enquête (Paris: JC Lattès, 1994); Lescourret Marie-Anne, Emmanuel Lévinas (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), 142–45; Poirié François, Emmanel Lévinas: Qui êtes vous? (Lyon: La Manufacture, 1987), 125–30; Wygoda Shmuel, “Le maître et son disciple: Chouchani et Lévinas,” Cahiers d'etudes Lévinassiennes 1 (2002): 149–83. See also Harvey Zev, “Chouchani on the Prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu ” [in Hebrew], in The Paths of Peace: Studies in Jewish Thought Presented to Shalom Rosenberg, ed. Ish-Shalom Benjamin and Berholts Amihai (Jerusalem: Beit Morashah, 2007), 459–65, and see also the sources in notes 1–2 and 14; Masha Turner, “One Evening with M. Chouchani: An Act That Occurred” [in Hebrew], in Ish-Shalom and Berholts, Paths of Peace, 467–68.

10. Lévinas Emmanuel, “Signature,” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Hand Seán (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 291 .

11. On Chouchani's identification as Hillel Perlmann, see the editorial (apparently by Moshe Nachmani), Great Insights on the Mysterious Genius R. Hillel Perlmann: M. Chouchani, a Student of R. Abraham Isaac Kook” [in Hebrew], ’Or ḥadash 15 (2011): 617 ; Yoav Sorek and Uri Paz, “The Sting of the Giant of Knowledge: On Mr. Chouchani,” an interview with Prof. Shalom Rosenberg on Monsieur Chouchani [in Hebrew], Hagut yehudit (Rosenberg's website for Jewish thought)

12. Elie Wiesel is the source of the unique inscription on Chouchani's gravestone in Montevideo: “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.”

13. This is a reference to Mikhail Lermontov's “The Sail”:

The sail is whitening alone / In blue obscurity of sea:

What did it leave in country own? / What does it want so far to see.

The wind is strong, the mast is creaking, / The wave is playing with the wave …

But not a fortune is it seeking, / Nor from this fortune is its way.

By it a stream is bright as azure, / By beams of sun it's warmed and blessed

But it is seeking gales as treasure, / As if the tempests give a rest.

14. Lévinas, “Nameless,” 122.

15. See Annette Aronowicz's work on the meaning of education in Lévinasian philosophy: “L’éducation juive dans la pensée d'Emmanuel Lévinas,” and, in English, “Jewish Education in the Thought of Emmanuel Lévinas.” See also Bouganim, “Lévinas pédagogue”; Chalier, “Lévinas maître”; Standish, “Ethics before Equality”; Child et al., “Autonomy or Heteronomy?”

16. This approach was first suggested to me by Jacques Rolland, one of Lévinas's closest students during a private conversation that took place in 2000 during a period of research in Paris. Rolland passed away due to illness in September 2002.

17. In this context, Rolland regarded Lévinas as someone who was guided by the figure of Maimonides and someone whose written philosophy appears first as a philosophy of teaching.

18. On the meaning of the discussion of Lévinas's intended philosophical recipient, see Annette Aronowicz's introduction to her English translation of the Nine Talmudic Readings. Emmanuel Lévinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), ix–xxxix.

19. Ben-Pazi Hanoch, “Establishing the Future: Educational Meanings of Revelation and the Messianic Idea according to Levinas” [in Hebrew], Hagut—Jewish Educational Thought 5–6 (2004): 89114 .

20. An extremely similar description of the importance of the teacher in the establishment of the Jewish pact is found in Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's article The Community,” Tradition 17, no. 2 (Spring 1978): 724 .

21. Deuteronomy 33:1.

22. On Moses's role as a teacher in Jewish thought, see Neher André, Moses and the Vocation of the Jewish People, trans. Marinoff Irene (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959); Buber Martin, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1988).

23. The phrase “the stuttering child” is borrowed from Ronny Someck's poem “Revenge of the Stuttering Child,” which is devoted to Moses.

24. Exodus 4:10.

25. Lévinas, “Damages due to Fire,” in Nine Talmudic Readings, 181.  Emphasis mine.

26. Lévinas addresses the meaning of rhetoric separately from the meaning of eloquence. See Langage quotidien et rhéthorique sans eloquence,” in Hors sujet (1987; Paris: Le livre de poche, 1997), 183–94. In English, see Everyday Language and Rhetoric without Eloquence,” in Outside the Subject, trans. Smith Michael (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 135–43. Rhetoric as a special type of teaching that either does or does not reflect honesty was already discussed by ancient philosophy. See Aristotle , Rhetoric, trans. Roberts W. Rhys (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004) and Perelman Chaim, The Realm of Rhetoric, trans. Kluback William (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).

27. In the talmudic reading “The Temptation of Temptation,” Lévinas explains that the burden of the world sometimes falls on the shoulders of one man. The talmudic example of this dynamic is Moses, but Lévinas links this idea to the figure of his teacher Monsieur Chouchani. See “The Temptation of Temptation,” in Nine Talmudic Readings, 30–50.

28. Lévinas , “The Nations and the Presence of Israel,” in In the Time of the Nations, trans. Smith Michael B. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 97 . In the Talmud, the term “Israel” is understood as referring to universal content. “Precisely the opposite of what is typically said. The Talmud transcends the historical events of Israel, or at least expands them within the universal” (taken from the discussion following Lévinas's lecture about messianism). See La conscience juive,” in Données et débats (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963), 228 . See also Rolland Jacques, “Quelques propositions certaines et incertaines,” Pardès 26 (1999): 174–75.

29. Lévinas, “Judaism and the Revolution,” in Nine Talmudic Readings, 98.

30. Ibid.

31. Lévinas, “Temptation of Temptation,” 44.

32. Lévinas's words here refer to two types of responsiveness and sin: that which stem from the tempting nature of being tempted and that which stem from the temptation itself. Ethical responsiveness stems from a willingness to do good, in general, and is not extinguished by practical failure: “Sin itself does not destroy Temimut, the integrity which expresses itself in the ‘We will do’ preceding the ‘We will hear.’ The sin here responds to temptation but is not tempted by temptation: it does not question the certainty of good and evil. It remains an unadorned sin, ignorant of the triumph attained by faults liberated from scruples and remorse. Thus a path back is available to the sinner. The adherence to the good of those who said ‘We will do and we will hear’ is not the result of a choice between good and evil. It comes before it. Evil can undermine this unconditional adherence to the good without destroying it. This adherence is incompatible with any position beyond or above the good, whether it be the immoralism of esthetes or the supra-moralism of the religious, all that moral extraterritoriality opened up by the temptation of temptation.” Lévinas, “Temptation of Temptation,” 43.

33. Lévinas, “Temptation of Temptation,” 44.  Emphasis mine.

34. Lévinas, “Beyond Memory,” in In the Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 88.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid., 76–91.

37. Ibid., 89.

38. Lévinas citing Grossman in “Beyond Memory,” 91.

39. Lévinas “Beyond Memory,” 90.

40. Ibid.

41. Naḥmanides's interpretation of Exodus 6:10. Ramban (Nachmanides), Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, trans. Chavel Charles (New York: Judaica Press, 2005).

42. Lévinas Emmanuel, “The Pact,” in Beyond the Verse, trans. Mole Gary D. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 80 .

43. Ibid.

44. Lévinas, “Nameless,” 121.

45. Ibid. Also see above on the manner in which Lévinas employs the metaphor of the tomb with regard to Mr. Chouchani.

46. Lévinas, “Nameless,” 121.

47. Ibid., 121–22.

48. Ibid., 122.

49. Ibid., 123.

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