published on August 5, 2020
For It Is God’s Way to Sweeten Bitter with Bitter
Prayer in Levinas and R. Hayyim of Volozhin
In accounts of Emmanuel Levinas’s relationship to the Jewish theological tradition, scholars often analyze Levinas’s essays about Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, and specifically his 1824 book Soul of Life (Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim). This article treats two essays that Levinas wrote in the mid-1980s on that book, and shows that Levinas’s praise for that book involves coming close to endorsing its theology of suffering, a theology that strikes this article’s author as obscene. In Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim, those who suffer deserve their suffering, their suffering is in proportion to the sins that gave rise to it, and their suffering purifies and atones for their sin—in the language of the Jewish theological tradition, “it is God’s way to sweeten bitter with bitter.” This marks a departure from Levinas’s standard treatment of issues of theodicy in essays such as “Useless Suffering” (1982). In the article’s conclusion, the possibility is raised that Levinas’s account of divine illeity liberates theologians from problems of theodicy.