Levinas and Toldot: Some Thoughts

According to Emmanuel Levinas, a 20th century Jewish philosopher, the face-to-face encounter is essential to the formation of ethical relationships. “For Levinas, responsibility is the imperative addressed in the concrete act of facing…the relationship with the other, the ethical relationship, breaks out in the face to face position in which language takes place.” (Alphonso Lingis, Introduction to “Other Than Being, Or Beyond Essence”, Duquesne University Press, 1998).

The Levinasian conception of ethics is interesting when contrasted with that of the Torah portion of Toldot.  In that Torah portion, Isaac and Rebecca are barren. Isaac prays and Rebecca conceives twins.

    In Genesis 25:21 it says,   “And Isaac entreated God while facing his wife, and God entreated Isaac, and Rebecca became pregnant.”

    In this scene, Levinas’s conception of responsibility is at work: It is Isaac’s facing Rebecca that imbues him with the responsibility to pray for children on her behalf. At the same time, Isaac faces God as an ethical being, and this face-to-face (so to speak) encounter with God is defined by each facer taking responsibility for the fac-ee: Thus, just as Isaac “entreats” God, so too, God “entreats” Isaac, by answering his prayer.

    Contrast this with a later scene: Coming home exhausted and hungry from a day of hunting, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob in exchange for lentil stew, reasoning in Genesis 25: 32, “I am going to die anyway, of what use to me is a birthright?”

Thee Torah censures Esav’s actions, saying “Esau despised his birthright”. (Genesis 25:34) The birthright blessing was designed to help Esau fulfill his potential as a human being, but Esau, being tired from his hunting career, did not feel up to the challenge, so he gave up on it, ate and went to bed.

    Why did the first face-to-face encounter result in responsibility, while the second resulted in an evasion of responsibility?   

    The answer lies in the presence of God in each encounter: Isaac faces Rebecca as a man who stands before God, thus imbuing him with responsibility towards his wife qua his relationship with and responsibility towards God. Whereas for Esau, God is not in the picture. (If one wants to get Soloveichikean about it, one could argue that Isaac is homo religiosus, Esau is cognitive man, and Jacob is halachik man. Think about it.)

    This is where the limits on the applicability on Levinas’s coneption of responsibility come into play:  For Levinas, the face-to-face encounter in it and of itself becomes the imperative for responsibility, while in the Torah, the human face-to-face encounter is not enough; it is the encounter with God that turns the human face-to-face encounter into the moral imperative.

    As humans constantly face exhaustion and the temptation to be like Esau:  How many times, faced with the obligations of everyday life, is it so tempting to give up on whatever it is that is really important to us, whether it is religion, fighting genocide in Darfur, or spending time with friends? It is important to remember however, that ultimately our humanity is most important and to not give up on our goals for ourselves as people in the course of pursuing success.

    Secondly: We come into daily face-to-face encounters with multitudes of people. Do we use these encounters to engage in responsibility and ethical relationships with people, or do we, like Esav, seek to evade responsiblity?


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