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A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism, by Michael Fagenblat.  Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.  320 pp.  $70.00 (c); $24.95 (p); $24.95 (E-book).


In his elegant book, A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism, Michael Fagenblat negotiates the two bodies of Levinas’s writings and argues that instead of viewing the phenomenological readings in opposition to the Jewish readings, we should instead see the phenomenology as offering not simply a philosophy of Judaism, but a phenomenology of Judaism. As Fagenblat rightly articulates, simply describing the ethical relationship phenomenologically does not explain its origin. Since it is the case that many people claim not to experience the obligation as described, responding to the opposition might take more effort and different explanations than have been recently provided. His methodology allows us to consider “origin” in Levinas’s conception of ethical subjectivity and responsibility.

In the first three chapters, Fagenblat offers a close examination of the role of creation in Levinas’s project. He turns to Levinas’s use of the il y a, first articulated in his 1946 essay by the same name (p. 211, n.9), and argues that the il y a is a “phenomenological interpretation of the famous elements in Genesis 1:2 that are already there before the act of creation: the tohu wa’bohu, variously translated as the ‘unformed and void,’ ‘a formless waste,’ or ‘welter and waste’” (p. 37). Fagenblat then mobilizes this interpretation to support his argument that for Levinas the il y a signifies a time before ethics. That is, the story of chaos preceding creation is not a story about natural creation; it is a story that provides a moral account of the origins of the world (p. 37). Putting this claim more strongly, Fagenblat asserts that Levinas’s famous and most widely used phrase, “ethics precedes ontology,” is “best understood in terms of the covenantal structure of creation” (p. 65). It is not that creation is simply ethical but rather that creation in Levinas’s understanding of the term, and that of Judaism, implies a covenant. Fagenblat concludes this interpretation of creation with the following claim: “What matters for Levinas is not whether this structure of ontological culpability is called secular or religious but that the covenantal structure of creation is acknowledged” (p. 66).

In Chapter Five, “Secularizing the Covenant,” Fagenblat recalls that his book is making the following argument: that “what Levinas calls ‘ethics’ is best understood not as a secularized philosophy of religion in general but as a secularized moral theology of Judaism in particular” (p. 140). That chapter argues that “the term ‘religion’ itself, in Levinas’s philosophical writings, hermeneutically draws from a specifically Judaic understanding of the term” (p. 140). The significance of this point is that many scholars point to Levinas’s use of the term “religion” as signifying something other than Judaism, that is something other than religious. They say that if he had meant religious in a conventional sense, he would have used “God,” which of course he does, but those references are often dismissed as irrelevant. To be clear, Levinas is not stating that morality or ethics derives from God in the way that we often hear the relationship between religion and ethics discussed.

My point, and I believe this is Fagenblat’s point, is not to say that Levinas is offering a theology. He is not. But to concede that this is not a theology, that is that God is less important or not important in the origins of the ethical, does not also mean that religion in some traditional or specifically Jewish sense of the term is rendered insignificant. Connecting this chapter back to his discussion of creation, we can see that Fagenblat’s argument ties together the fundamental and indispensable role of religion in Levinas’s own understanding of the ethical and thus we are led back to the question of how one becomes an ethical subject in the sense that Levinas means. 

Fagenblat’s argument relies on the significance of covenant within the Jewish tradition, and which Levinas explores in his Talmudic reading, The Temptation of Temptation. At some point—mythically or not—a group of people stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah. Yet, it was not only that they accepted the Torah, but also how they accepted the Torah that made them Jews. The key is the reversal of our modern understanding of moral action—knowing and then doing. For Levinas, the emphasis should be placed on “doing before hearing,” which distinguishes him from the philosopher who puts consciousness, or reason, or the ego, first. Those who became Jews assented to this covenant, and thus the warrant, if you will, for the subjectivity that Levinas describes is embedded in this originary acceptance.

The difficulty, it seems to me, is what this means for everyone else. It is not clear that the non-Jewish community has assented to anything comparable, and Levinas’s ethical project is clearly intended to include non-Jews. The most similar kind of common origin would be a social contract, but even if that were the case, it is not the case that everyone has agreed to the same contract. Moreover, there are fundamental differences between a covenant and a social contract. At the very least, there are differences between the covenant that guides Levinas’s thinking and the kind of social contract that is familiar to liberal political theorists. Describing the significance of covenant for Levinas’s project, Fagenblat writes “[A]s in ‘ethics,’ so it is in the covenant—exit amounts to an abrogation of life. Within covenantal faith there is no such thing as life prior to moral life, for life itself always already implies ethics” (pp. 151–52). To refuse the covenant, to refuse my responsibility for the other, is “to refuse the good of life itself” (p. 152). Incorporating Levinas again, Fagenblat’s discussion follows directly the rabbinic reading of the midrash on the receiving of the Torah in which that covenant is first established. His invocation of the covenant draws out the point that the phenomenologists have overlooked. The Other as a source of my life, that is, the “fact” that my life is a life only because of an other, does not imply an ethical relation unless one assumes this kind of covenantal faith. That is, the phenomenologists want us to have faith that the relationship with the Other implies a responsibility for the Other, but they cannot establish this point, nor do they admit that they are relying on faith. If that is the case, what does this mean for those who are outside Judaism? What does it mean that Levinas has secularized the covenant? Fagenblat’s book provides a valuable context in which to consider these questions even if in the process of addressing them more questions appear that are increasingly difficult to answer. His scholarship in this book would be helpful not only for those who incorporate Levinas’s writings on Judaism into their own work but also for those who read Levinas strictly as a phenomenologist.

Claire Katz

Texas A&M University