Some Thoughts on Levinas and Orthodoxy

In the essay on “Judaism and Christianity” from In the Time of the Nations, Levinas recalls a story mentioned by Hannah Arendt. When she was a child, she said one day to the rabbi, “’You know, I have lost my faith.’” And he responded: “Who’s asking you for it?’” Levinas says, “The response was typical. What matters is not ‘faith,’ but ‘doing.’ Doing, which means moral behavior, of course, but also the performance of the ritual. Moreover, are believing and doing different things? What does believing mean? What is faith made of? Words, ideas? Convictions? What do we believe with? With the whole body! With all my bones (Psalm 35:10)! What the rabbi meant was: ‘Doing good is the act of belief itself.’ That is my conclusion” (Levinas 148).

I am positive that you see here the beauty of Levinas’ thoughts. But I think you can also see the danger: if one perceives oneself as the source of “doing good,” one is already in the pit of self-idolatry, of creating a god of himself. Certainly, one can make something bad out of anything good, and my last statement may just do this. But there remains the question of what it might mean to do good. One may say that this question belongs to the discourse of the West, the language of philosophy. Indeed, in the same essay quoted above, Bishop Hemmerle, Levinas’ interlocutor, says, “I often wonder whether I am not betraying him, even when what I do seems right at the moment I am doing it” (149). And indeed such a question deals with a truth that can be checked, verified–a truth that, I think, is criticized in Levinas.

In fact, when I approached Levinas, I always felt that I could not recognize myself, an Orthodox Christian, in the Christianity that sometimes was put down during the discussions I had with my peers. The “scientific truth” of the Bible was never an issue for me. Whether the Bible is or not the Truth was an incomprehensible question, for I had not applied truth and falsity to the statements in the text, but rather to that which was beyond the mere words. There is no sense in claiming that, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus opened Luke’s and Cleopas’s eyes to be able to understand Scripture unless truth is beyond statements. So the question whether I am betraying him who calls upon me to act (as asked by Bishop Hemmerle)  is relevant only as long as one sees oneself as the source of one’s actions and thus can in any moment blame or idolatrize oneself.

Eastern Orthodoxy perceives things differently. Kenosis, the emptying of oneself, is seen in the East as a making space for energies that are not of oneself, but rather of a radical Other. In kenosis, one becomes truth by acting as truth–by believing with all of one’s bones. Perhaps this would mean taking the same road with him who calls upon my responsibility—giving yourself to the other.


There is an icon (icons in Orthodoxy are not objects of worship, but windows of the soul) where Jesus knocks at the door of a house. On the other side of the door, people busy themselves with their human lives. But there is a striking difference between the two sides of the door: it cannot be opened from the outside; it does not have a handle. The call of the Other is always there, but it is only you who can give up yourself. In order to open the door, you have to be prepared to give yourself to the Other, to the point where it is no longer you who live, but the Other lives in you. If the Other lives in you, then you can no longer perceive yourself as the source of your actions. If you are the source, then you are also object of idolatry—I am giving myself to the other and I am fully proud of it. Opening the door to Christ in Eastern Orthodoxy means allowing Christ to act in you. In other words, you become yourself an embodiment of the Torah.


Now think of this icon that I just described as a text with gaps–perhaps we need a midrash to read it. Father Arsenie Boca, a Romanian priest and monk who suffered immensely during communism – people of all faiths were imprisoned simply because they did not renounce their faith – said in one of his homilies, published under the title Living Words (the title itself is suggestive for the way in which Orthodoxy understands texts – if these texts are of any value, it is because they are alive and, as people do, live and call upon us), that the reason why we do not open the door to Jesus, to the Other, is because we do not even find this door anymore. What we do in life is creating a God in our image; we posit things about God, we surround ourselves with beliefs, our little own gods, our mirrors, and we busy ourselves with contemplating these images, these creations, further closing us up in our own caves. In a room full with furniture (Father Thomas Hopko may have said something along these lines a while back, I think), our furniture, the door is no longer seen. And thus the call of the Other is no longer even perceived because we answer only to the call of what we take to be another when we look in mirrors. This so-called “other” is nothing but us.

I mentioned above the story of Hannah Arendt confessing the loss of faith. Allow me to tell you another story from someone’s confession. A friend of mine once went to confession and summed up the courage to tell her priest that she did not like to go to church and participate in the liturgy, but she preferred to do things for others. This could be taken in two ways. On the one hand, it must sound good, Levinasian: “Doing good is the act of belief itself,” so perhaps the priest should have congratulated her. On the other hand, participating in liturgy, or being part of the church (the body of Christ), is an important part of being a Christian, so the lady was right to fear some scolding from the part of the priest. But he did not do any of these things. He only asked her, “what do you do for them, then?”

At that very moment, my friend started to cry. You must know that tears during confession are a good sign because they are seen as a new baptism. In her case, my friend’s tears were her realization that the refusal to participate in tradition was itself a worship – a worship of the self. “I am above liturgy; I am above tradition; I know what is good – doing things for others.” But the priest’s question revealed to herself that this was only a show because she was not doing anything. Perhaps the occasion was not present. Or the “hineni,” the “Here I am,” was absent from her bones, including in reference to the liturgy.

Perhaps Orthodoxy and Levinas’ philosophy are not that far away from each other.  In both we find a faith of the bones, a lived faith. In the words of Father Arsenie Boca, whom I mentioned before, the Kingdom is present here, on earth, in what we do for one another. There is no life in the Kingdom of Heaven unless we already live in it here, on earth. Allow me to emphasize this: not believe in it, but live in it.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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