Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Light of the Face: Levinas and the Interview Process

On a plane returning from Israel to New York, I struggle to take in this week’s parasha, Mishaptim, but all I can see are the faces of the 75 candidates we interviewed over the past week for Amitei Bronfman. It is Admissions season at the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, on both ends of the Atlantic. In a few weeks, we will be encountering another batch of faces, this time from North America. Each new face is an extreme encounter, an overflowing, and despite the gruesome nature of any selection process, there is an authentic sweetness to each face to face encounter.
Encountering the Face of the Other is the unique brand of Emmanuel Levinas, whose philosophy I struggle to comprehend, but whose ethical imagery is deeply engrained in my mind. For Levinas, encountering the Other is an encounter with infinity:
To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught. The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic reaction, an ethical relation: but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a Teaching. [Totality and Infinity, pg 51]
Emanuel Levinas
Encountering the Other is necessarily an experience of overflowing, of infinity. In that infinite encounter there is also a claim on us, an infinite responsibility, an ethical relation. When we are open to the encounter, teaching can occur. The human encounter is Revelation: an extreme experience of overflowing (which is how medieval philosophers described prophecy) which bears in it an ethical message, a claim, a charge.
This week’s parsha represents a similar move from infinity to ethics. Immediately following the giving of the Ten Commandments the Torah shifts its focus from Revelation to Ethics, enumerating the basic ethical tenets of human encounters. This is the essence of Mishpatim, civil laws: Don’t steal, don’t discriminate (rich or poor), act responsibly towards subordinates (slaves, employees), return lost property… and the list goes on. Recognizing the boundaries of where my property ends and the Other’s begin does not lead to an atomistic competition but rather creates a bond of responsibility within the community. This community is widened to include a higher level of responsibility to the disenfranchised (Exodus 22:20-21) as well as to those you might otherwise hate (and their modes of transportation! Exodus 23:4).
For Levinas the encounter with the face of the Other is what Sinai is all about. It is in itself the encounter of Torah, Revelation. In one of his Nine Talmudic Readings, “The Temptation of Temptation”, he describes the acceptance of the Torah as a “most adult moment”:
The Torah is given in the Light of a Face. The epiphany of the other person is ipso facto my responsibility toward him: seeing the other is already an obligation toward him. A direct optics – without the meditation of any idea – can only be accomplished as ethics… such a knowledge is one in which its messenger is simultaneously the very message.
“The voice calls out from Sinai each day!” claims the midrash. ”Then why don’t we hear it?” ask the Hasidim. Perhaps because nothing is more exhausting then overflowing encounters. We guard our boundaries closely, use civil law to define the limits of our responsibility. We keep our head down, not looking too deeply into other people’s eyes. In a way, that is the responsible thing to do, wary to spread our responsibility too thin. Knowing I will end up having to “reject” so many of the faces I encountered this week, I was afraid to look too deeply, nervous to be overflowed again and again without the ability to respond properly. But Levinas and the voice from Sinai invite us to open ourselves up to encountering the Other as a Revelation, to be overflowed, even as we know it means not always being able to live up to that responsibility.