Volume 42, Issue 4, December 2002
Lévinas’s Critique of the Sacred
Lévinas’s harsh criticisms of the sacred have irked not just his critics but even some who sympathize with his work. Taken at face value, some of Lévinas’s comments concerning the sacred appear prejudicial towards non-monotheistic religions. But a closer reading of his analysis of the sacred shows that his preoccupation with the sacred has to do with a questionable “temptation” or disposition found in every human being. Drawing on the insights of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Lévy-Bruhl, Lévinas shows how this temptation involves a primitive wish to escape one’s responsibilities as a human being. For Lévinas, the phenomenon of the sacred promotes the illusion of a direct and immediate experience of the absolute or the Infinite. Genuine transcendence, for Lévinas, is possible only within the ethical drama of self and Other. The apex of human life involves not the eclipsing of the self—the fundamental motivation behind the sacred—but a heightening of the self’s radical uniqueness that only moral engagement makes possible.