chapter  5
Before the law
Buber and Levinas – totality vs. transcendence
WithEhud Benor
Pages 51

The chapter examines Buber’s I-Thou and Levinas’s “God and Philosophy” (the concepts of “substitution” and “the face of the other”) as philosophical accounts of a bitter, modern kabbalist dispute – between Hasidim and Mitnagdim – about the question of whether infinitude implies divine immanence and a corresponding acosmism, or a transcendence so radical that traces of divinity can only be found embodied in the text of the Torah. The chapter shows that, for Buber and for Levinas, the idea of Torah, as an experience of command and responsibility, is unintelligible apart from an account of what the nature of reality (infinity) truly is: immanence or transcendence. According to Buber, encountering the Torah, one is addressed and commanded, not by one or another of its commandments, but by the creative energy that brought the Torah into being. That inspiration, which once brought “Judaism” into existence, can now and again bring about its renewal. For Levinas, too, though on antithetical grounds, the Torah represents the only mode of being in which one is addressed and commanded. Only “the God of whom the bible speaks” – transcendence – has a genuine power to command and to impose the unconditional duties that Levinas calls “ethics.”