Born to Jewish parents in Lithuania on January 12, 1906, the life path of Emmanuel Levinas led him across several countries and through two world wars before he passed away on December 25, 1995. He became a citizen of France in 1930 and was called to War a decade later. His dear friend, writer and philosopher, Maurice Blanchot, helped his wife escape to a monastery upon the German invasion, but her mother and brothers were not so fortunate.

Like many of his contemporaries facing the travesties of two world wars, Levinas faced incredible loss. Readers can easily detect how this suffering informs the ethical dimension of his work. He foregrounds a radical dedication to the Other throughout his life.

Emmanuel Levinas
Face to Face With Emmanuel Levinas

In a collection of essays called Face to Face With Levinas, thinkers confront Levinas’s move from truth to goodness and his call to philosophers to do the same. He calls philosophers to take greater responsibility for their thought. In a dialogue within the collection, Irish philosopher Richard Kearney asks Levinas to reflect on the origins of the religious dimensions of his thinking.

“I was born in Lithuania, a country where Jewish culture was intellectually prized and fostered and where the interpretation and exegesis of biblical texts was cultivated to a high degree. It was here that I first learned to read the Bible in Hebrew.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Face to Face With Levinas

He began intentionally studying the text only after the second world war.

“It was at a much later date, however, that I became actively interested in Jewish thought. After the Second World War. I encountered a remarkable master of Talmudic interpretation here in Paris, a man of exceptional mental agility, who taught me how to read the Rabbinic texts. He taught me for four years, from 1947 to 1951, and what I myself have written in my Talmudic Lectures has been written in the shadow of his shadow. It was this postwar encounter that reactivated my latent -I might even say dormant – interest tn the Judaic tradition. But when I acknowledge this Judaic influence, I do not wish to talk in terms of belief or nonbelief.

Emmanuel Levinas, Face to Face With Levinas

Levinas benefits from the rich inheritance of his family’s beliefs, but he does not ride on their coattails like the Protestant protagonist in Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is tempted to do. Resistance to God, for Levinas, does not even happen at the level of individual soul. Resistance to God is collective and is evident in the Israelites grumbling and complaining in the desert as well as the mass genocide of the holocaust. Levinas recognizes belief can never be about some vague entity reigning down from afar. Instead, faith in God is lived out in relation to the Other in the tiny moments of everyday life.

“Believe is not a verb to be employed in the first person singular. Nobody can really say I believe – or I do not believe for that matter – that God exists. The existence of God is not a question of an individual soul’s uttering logical syllogisms. It cannot be proved. The existence of God, the Sein Gottes, is sacred history itself, the sacredness of man’s relation to man through which God may pass. God’s existence is the story of his revelation in biblical history.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Face to Face With Levinas

The way God reveals himself unfolds through time.

After attending the University of Strasbourg where he began his life-long friendship with Maurice Blanchot, he visited the University of Freiburg for two semesters to study with Edmund Husserl, the German philosopher and mathematician and the father of phenomenology.

It was here that he met Martin Heidegger and was blown away by the newly published Being and Time. Levinas considers Henri Bergson’s work on duration the first major influence on his thought. He admits Bergson primed him, and most of his contemporaries, to embrace phenomenology.

“Phenomenology represented the second, but undoubtedly most important, philosophical influence on my thinking. Indeed, from the point- of view of philosophical method and discipline, I remain to this day a phenomenologist.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Face to Face With Levinas

What phenomenology offers is a method of connection between consciousness and phenomena. Levinas helped transport phenomenology from Germany to France. Jean Paul Sartre’s entry-point into phenomenology was the work Levinas wrote on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology.

Aside from his broad influences in the philosophical fields of ontology, existentialism, and theology, Levinas offers a profound approach to phenomenology that is deeply ethical and manifests in a regard for one’s neighbor as well as the stranger. His dedication to the Other characterizes his writing throughout his life.

Ethics of the Infinite: The Origins of Radical Responsibility in the Thought of Emmanuel LevinasEthics of the Infinite: The Origins of Radical Responsibility in the Thought of Emmanuel LevinasEthics of the Infinite: The Origins of Radical Responsibility in the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas