Kenosis, Emancipation, Pastness – Reflections From A Jew, Part 1 (Sarah Pessin)

The following is the first of a two-part installment.  This article can also be downloaded in PDF format from the Spring 2019 issue (Vol. 18, No. 2) of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

Claustrophobia at the Christian Table

This essay is in the broadest sense a reflection on the possibilities (or impossibilities) of social emancipation in an era of growing racism. But it is also—and relatedly so—a phenomenological reflection on what it is like as a Jewish scholar of Jewish thought to participate in the contemporary Euro-American (read: Christian) academic conversation about (the death of) God.

Generally speaking (and even in many cases where Derrida and other Jews are responsible for setting the table), apophatic, postmodern, and post-metaphysical atheological theologies (or encounters with religions without religion) operate in Christian spaces—or to put the matter more boldly: Most apophatic, postmodern, and post-metaphysical atheological theologies under discussion in the academy today are Christian. In this respect we can point to the very locution “death of God” (noting that in Jewish contexts, the search for an equally apophatic, postmetaphysical turn of phrase results in the simpler turn of phrase, “God”), as we can point to the “Christianless Christianity” (or as I would gloss, “Christian Christianless Christianity”) of Badiou and Žižek,[1] Vattimo’s “After Christianity”[2] with his emphasis on weak thought in expressly kenotic terms in his so-called post-Christian opening (which we might as well call “During Christianity”), and the cover of Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless[3] on which a cross comes into view as a negative space (itself brought into relief by myriad smaller crosses adorning the cover).

This is of course fine (or perhaps more to the point, unavoidable): Christians and those of us writing with the ink of Christian pens (including myself and anyone else communicating by way of language) can perhaps be expected (or even destined) to draw on Christianity even in remarks on its dissolution. But since this dynamic—the overwhelmingly Christian character of post-Christian encounter—will press more on some than on others (or at least will press on some on some occasions more than on others on other occasions), it is helpful to occasionally pause to point it out overtly.

For while the box in which we are thinking might already be unavoidably globalatinized, we still benefit from trying to find our way to critical (even if inescapably Christian) ways of reflecting on our entrapment. At any rate, I offer up these initial reflections in the hopes that they are in some small way relevant to working through some of the worst liberal stagnancies around race in contemporary political theory and civics. (I will add that this Jewish author’s decision to give her own ideas to voice ultimately in terms of kenosis carries its own host of complicated and claustrophobic implications that are, I believe, relevant to the critical task at hand).

From New to Old Testamentality: Levinas’ Phenomenology of Pastness and the Jew as Son

In his essay “Being Jewish,”[4] Levinas reflects on the Jew as a marker of origins and pastness, and as in this way an antidote to what we may call the “energies of the New and the Now” which he connects with modernity, science, Sartrean existentialism, and also Christianity—all examples for Levinas of forms of life which deemphasize origins in favor of absolute presence. In this respect (and in spite of Levinas’ own use of phenomenological method across his work), we can discern in this point a uniquely Levinasian critique of phenomenology: It is a critique of Sartrean being-for-itself as a focus on an absolutely free—and in that sense we may say present—project of consciousness, and it is a critique of Christianity as a religion of presence.

And it is precisely a critique of both qua “energies of the New and the Now” (related to what we may call a “New Testamentality”) in contrast to a concern with pastness and origins that we may identify as the “energy of the Old” (related to what we may call an “Old Testamentality”) at the heart—according to Levinas—of human subjectivity. Here presence and immediacy—i.e. what we are calling the “energies of the New and the Now”—are viewed in a negative light and are contrasted by Levinas with what we may call a phenomenology of pastness in which origins (and with it, “the Old”) matter. (Indeed, we might read his framing of Christianity in this way as a reaction to Sartre’s own claim in Anti-Semite and Jew—but also Rosenzweig’s thesis in Star of Redemption—that Judaism is unhistorical; here, in its connection to presence-without-origins, it is Christianity that appears unhistorical—at least in the phenomenological sense under description).

In relation to Sartre, Levinas offers up his insights as both a general critique of Sartrean existentialism and (in related fashion) as a critique of Sartre’s anemic sense of what “the Jew” is—even when taken (as is charitable to do in one’s approach to Sartre’s talk of “the Jew” in Anti-Semite and Jew) as a marker for a phenomenological modality of human subjectivity. Reading Sartre’s take on “the Jew” charitably (and in any case, in the way Levinas seems to read it) as a phenomenological placeholder for a modality of human subjectivity (as opposed to what would essentially amount to an entirely unresearched—and failed—attempt on Sartre’s part to provide a historically accurate picture of Jews), “the Jew” emerges—in Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew—as the product of the Anti-Semite’s discourse. Levinas finds value in this, but notes that there is something else that “the Jew” signals.

While Levinas’ own writing in this essay (and in other essays) works at the complex intersection of socio-historico-political and phenomenological inquiry, if we focus on “the Jew” in Levinas’ “Being Jewish” (on par with Levinas’ reading of “the Jew” in Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew) as a phenomenological marker for a modality of human subjectivity (and not as a historical point about Jews), then we can understand Levinas’ critique of Sartre on “the Jew” as follows.

Whereas Sartre sees in “the Jew” (as a marker for a deep element of human subjectivity) an existentialist point about human “situation” and the ways we must navigate our freedom from within limiting facticities (including subjugation to unjust systems), Levinas sees in “the Jew” (as a marker for a deep element of human subjectivity) a very different (he here says “religious,” but we can hear in even this pre-ethical writing a glimmer of the Levinasian “ethical”) sense of “creation” and “election”.

Where Sartrean existentialism (in its energy of “New and Now”) stops at the facticity of “situation,” Levinas asks us to go deeper than existentialism to “creation” and “election” as a grounding in origin (related, we may emphasize, to an energy of “the Old”): Drawing on the religious lexicon of Judaism (in ways that resonate with (a) Rosenzweig and (b) Levinas’ own later ideas of “Time of the Other” and the ethical temporality of diachrony), Levinas speaks of a human subjectivity that—as “created” and “elected”— is grounded in a prior origin:

To exist as a creature…is to refer in one’s very facticity to someone who bears existence for you, who bears sin, who can forgive.  Jewish existence is thus the fulfillment of the human condition as fact, personhood and freedom. And its entire originality consists in breaking with a world that is without origin and simply present. It is situated from the very start in a dimension that Sartre cannot apprehend. It is not situated there for theological reasons, but for reasons of experience. Its theology explicates its facticity.[5]

Here we find a perhaps unexpected move from origins (and what I have called “the Old”) to pardon. Leaving aside the implications and details of this arresting link to pardon (in short, it is a grounding desire for something that can only come from outside of oneself), it is helpful to reflect on how the overall sense of “the Jew” (and “Jewish existence”) as marker of origins (and pastness, in special relation to pardon) implicates a set of claims about Christianity (or perhaps we are better served to say “Christianity” or “the Christian”) in this same essay.

Speaking of “the Jew” in way of signaling something about the deepest ground of human subjectivity (in all humans, and in relation to a grounding need for pardon), Levinas at once identifies and valorizes “the Jew’s” relationship to the Father (a lifting up, we might say, of a testament which breathes precisely in its relation to “the Old”), as he in this same sense critiques “the Christian’s” sense of absolute freedom and distance from the Father (its engagement, we may say, with a testament that is only always New).

In provocative contrast to Christological thematics, Levinas in this context overtly identifies “the Jew” as the Son: In her relation to the Father/Law/Origin as a “fettered, responsible freedom” (which will be developed in his later works as the “difficult freedom” that is tied in responsibility to the radical alterity qua alterity of one’s neighbor and never opened into the solipsisms of the New & Now), “the Jew” emerges as the son-born-always-of-a-Father: Whereas God (as Son) is the Christian’s brother, God is the Father of the Jew (as Son). Countering a phenomenology of Newness/Nowness as the grounding vision of human subjectivity, Levinas finds in “the Jew” a fuller picture of human subjectivity in terms of a past-with-origin that communicates its way into the present with “the gravity of a fact,”[6] with “the weight of existence,”[7] and with “the emotional schema of personhood as a son”[8] in the spirit of Isaiah 53’s Suffering Servant.

It is not Christ-as-son but human subjectivity as son (signaled by “the Jew,” which is to say, the human qua created and elected) that suffers servitude and in this way signals the difficult freedom—not an unfettered, New/Now freedom—of human subjectivity. This, for Levinas, is what grounds subjectivity; and it is precisely this difficult freedom of origin that is “lived in a halo of affectivity”[9] and that opens us to the true passive vulnerability of human subjectivity itself.

That Same Anti-Semitism: On the Phenomenology and Socio-History of Being’s Irremissibility

Read as an exploration of human subjectivity in a motion of “Old over New,” “the Jew”—and the Old Testament narrative of creation and election that accompanies her—signals the most fundamental element of human subjectivity. Looking beyond the Bible—in a move that is (1) clearly not meant to be merely historical (based, that is, on the last line in the quote below) and (2) not methodologically dissimilar to (though certainly different in content from) the most charitable reading of Sartre’s own goals in Anti-Semite and Jew—Levinas turns to the role of the Anti-Semite in the reality and identity of the Jew as a way of thinking about human subjectivity:

The recourse of Hitlerian anti-Semitism to racial myth reminded the Jew of the irremissibility of his being. Not to be able to flee one’s condition…Granted this is a human condition, and in this the human [subject] is perhaps naturally Jewish.[10]

As in his dedication to Otherwise Than Being in which he draws a direct link from the millions of Jews murdered by Hitler to “the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism,” Levinas here directly draws a link from “the Jew” to the human subject more broadly. But whereas the Otherwise Than Being dedication speaks at the socio-historico-political level (referring, that is, to other groups of oppressed and massacred people), his first focus here (in the spirit of what we’ve seen to be his overall engagement with Sartre on “the Jew”) is human subjectivity: “The Jew”—qua a “being reminded,” we may say, of the “irremissibility” (i.e. the unpardonable-ness) of being—sheds light on the condition of human subjectivity for any human subject.

We can move, in other words, from “the Jew” in “Being Jewish” as an insight about human subjectivity to the socio-historico-political space of the Jew as the object of anti-semitism in the Otherwise Than Being dedication (as well as in other parts of the “Being Jewish” essay).  At the phenomenological level we may say that each human resides in something of a creation/ election/ origin/ desire-for-pardon in response to the “irremissibility” of her being; and so in a phenomenological register, “the Jew” can be seen to signal the grounding element of human subjectivity in all humans. That said, at the socio-historico-political level, actual Jews together with actual members of other racialized, marginalized, and oppressed groups—the millions and millions of all confessions and nations in the dedication to Otherwise Than Being—are targets of hatred and violence (perhaps we may here speak of a very different historical sense of “election”) in ways that make their experience of the “irremissibility of being” different than that of human subjects in general; and so in a socio-historical register, “the Jew” can be seen to signal each person who is part of any racialized, marginalized, oppressed minority.

Bridging from “Being Jewish” to Otherwise Than Being, we may say that each such person—each member of a minoritized, racialized, despised group—also signals in a heightened way this very same “irremissibility of being” (and need for pardon at the ground of human subjectivity) which existentialism misses and towards which Levinas points—an irremissibility, furthermore, that at the political level implicates us in the work of justice (including the needs for and limits of pardon at the level of human history).[11]

Time Hegemony: From Christian to Liberal Presence (or: How Not to Approach Pastness)

We have seen the Jew—and, we have added, other minoritized, racialized others—signal the “irremissibility of being” in relation to a phenomenology of pastness (itself in relation to “the Old”, origins, and pardon). Within this register, we have seen that “the Christian” (or “Christianity”) signals the flight of “the New and the Now” which emphasizes what we might call a “moment self” less structured around its origins than around what we may call its “now-future.” Here too we may of course speak at the phenomenological and historical levels.

Phenomenologically, we may say that “Christianity”—in its relation to God as brother, itself temporalized as a “Now” modality—signals a free, unfettered, virile element of human subjectivity that is not yet its ground. Socio-historico-politically speaking (at least within certain times and places, including both Levinas’ time and place and this author’s time and place), we may add that Christianity (and here we might specify, White Christianity—in relation too to Male and other dominant positionalities) functions as a hegemonic frame in any number of senses—including framing the bodies and lives of those who are not White Christians, and including in related spirit the comparatively less violent—but still disruptive—work of framing not only discourses of theology but even discourses of a/theology (to return to my earlier reflections on claustrophobia at the Christian table).

Working within and expanding the temporal register that we have found in Levinas above, we may shorthand this as a kind of White Christian “time hegemony” (of a “New/Now” over an “Old/Origin”). As the framer of power, possibility, and pardon (which is to say, as framer of bodies and discourses), White Christianity speaks. And it in this way speaks (1) for and (2) through many of the rest of us.

Sarah Pessin is Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Thought at the University of Denver. She works on Levinas, Phenomenology, Greek and Medieval cosmologies and ethics, philosophies of religion and race, and interfaith civics. She is the author of Ibn Gabirol’s Theology of Desire (Cambridge, 2013), and is currently working on a book on Levinasian “pausal subjectivity” and its relation to politics of responsibility.


[1] See Carl Raschke, Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016).

[2] Gianni Vattimo, After Christianity, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[3] Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in in Political Theology, (London; New York: Verso, 2014).

[4] Emmanuel Levinas, “Being Jewish” in Cont Philos Rev, 40, (1947/2007), 205-10.

[5] Levinas, “Being Jewish,” 209.

[6] Levinas, 209.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 210.

[9] Ibid., 208.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The relation between phenomenological and historical pardon—as well as implications for (a) rethinking and (b) placing limits on historical pardon—is part of my longer study in progress on Levinas’ “pausal subjectivity.” Turning specifically to my extension above of “the Jew” to signal all minoritized and marginalized humans, we should add that in “Being Jewish” Levinas remarks that if “Judaism can give occasion to [hateful] reactions, this hatred is distinctly different from that provoked by a persecuted race or any given minority” (Emmanuel Levinas, “Being Jewish,” in Cont Philos Rev, 40, (1947/2007), 205-10.). In my own extension of this point about anti-Jewish hatred to a point about hatred against all marginalized groups, I am not primarily concerned with whether (and why or why not) Levinas—in the 40s or in the 90s—would approve this extension; I am, rather, concerned to engage myself and my readers in such an extension. That said, I am inspired in any case by much of the spirit of Levinas’ own work—including his Otherwise Than Being dedication where he overtly extends “anti-semitism” to include hatred against all marginalized groups. Reflecting for a moment on Levinas’ apparent decision in the 1947 essay to isolate anti-Jewish hatred in a unique category, we may offer two initial thoughts: (1) It would seem that even the most minimal principle of charity ought allow us to cut Levinas a break for feeling, as a Jew in 1947 Europe, as if there is a special hatred of the Jew; (2) beyond that, it seems that the meaning of this line within the context of the essay deserves further consideration in relation to further reflections on the implications of  Levinas’ (and Sartre’s) use of compresent historical and phenomenological registers—including in relation to broader questions about the relationship between politics and ethics in later Levinas, and between facticity, temporality, and history in Levinas and in a range of other continental philosophers.

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