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Learning from my Students: Re-thinking Levinas after Thirty Years

Thursday 31st May 2018
Dr Tamra Wright's blog on Levinas

“Rabbi Hanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.” (Taanit 7a)

One of the most interesting books I have read this year is George’s Vaillant’s 'Aging Well', which draws on the Harvard Grant Study, begun in 1921, and other projects tracking individual development from adolescence through old age.

Emmanuel Levinas (Left), Dostoevsky (Right)

Interestingly, one of the questions in this area that was asked as part of the interviews with older participants was “what have you learned from your children?” Those who were able to answer the question thoughtfully and positively were generally the participants who were found to be flourishing in their later years.

Although some of the interviewees Vaillant quotes were stumped by the question, this is one where I am confident I would score well. Like R. Hanina (l’havdil!), I have learnt an enormous amount from my students, and from my children (from the generic – if you don’t how to do something, google it – to career advice – “Mum, you should write another book but next time don’t put ‘hermeneutics’ in the title”). Most recently, my son Joe and I have developed a shared interest in Emmanuel Levinas’s relationship to Russian literature.

Levinas is not a new interest for me. My first – and most frequently cited – academic publication, “The Paradox of Morality: An Interview with Emmanuel Levinas”, appeared 30 years ago, when I was a graduate student; and The Twilight of Jewish Philosophy: Emmanuel Levinas’s Ethical Hermeneutics (see above re how not to write a best-seller) was published in 1999. But it was only when Joe began to study Russian language and literature that my passive awareness of the importance of the great Russian writers to Levinas became an active interest – so active that I recently took my husband to a three-hour performance, in Russian (a language that, sadly, neither of us speaks), of a stage adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (a 20th century War and Peace) – and was riveted.

Joe and I have given sessions on Levinas and Russian literature at Limmud (2016 conference) and Yakar Jerusalem (Tikkun Leil 2018). Our three-part course at LSJS is a chance to look at some of the themes in greater depth, particularly the influence of Dostoevsky on Levinas, and Levinas’s affinity with Grossman. This will lead us to consider the nature of morality and religious belief, and – in the wake of the Holocaust – to look at Levinas's approach to the problem of evil and the viability of ethics.

Although there is now a vast secondary literature on Levinas (unlike in the 1980s when I first read Totality and Infinity), relatively little has been written specifically on his relationship to Russian literature. We will be drawing on Val Vinokur’s important study The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas, and Steven Shankman’s fascinating recent book Turned Inside out: Reading the Russian Novel in Prison.

To book for this course, click here.

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