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Levinas Studies

Volume 3, 2008

Lawrence Vogel
Pages 193-208
DOI: 10.5840/levinas2008311

Emmanuel Levinas and the Judaism of the Good Samaritan

Any thoughtful reading of Levinas must grapple with what is implied by his notion that the Other is “higher” than the self — that the Other is “one for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all”? (EI 89). At least two evident issues arise when we wonder what it would mean to live with and by this notion. Without fail, newcomers to Levinas’s ideas raise these two issues. The first centers on the question: What is my responsibility to strangers? That is, if I “owe all” to a stranger in need to the point where his or her welfare and life come before mine, how can I possibly address the interests of my loved ones, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens, not to mention my own needs? Moreover, is Levinas suggesting that we have a moral duty to be saints? The second issue revolves around the question: What is the responsibility of a victim toward her persecutor? This can easily lead to asking, is Levinas implying that a Jew being herded off to Auschwitz “owes everything” to his Nazi captor? Also, what can it mean for a victim to encounter the face of a rapist and to “substitute” herself for him? And should she? I shall approach these persistent issues by first explaining how Levinas grounds his claims that the face-to-face-relationship is asymmetrical and that “I am responsible for the Other, without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it” (EI 98).

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