Buber, Levinas And The Election


Like many people here and around the country, the results of the election on Nov. 8 plunged me into a deep depression. The ramifications of a Trump administration are not yet fully known, but some of its contours are beginning to take shape: Republicans, with the president-elect at the helm, will control both houses of Congress; Trump will make a nomination to the Supreme Court almost immediately upon taking office (he has said he will appoint a pro-life justice); his cabinet may feature Sarah (“Drill, Baby, Drill”) Palin as secretary of the interior; and he has already put a host of corporate lobbyists in equally incongruous roles.

Of course, every setback contains within it the seeds of a teaching opportunity. (Don’t you just loathe the cheerful people who say things like that? Me too.) I learned something useful from my black mood, which persisted for the better part of the remainder of the week. It even turns out to be a lesson with a distinctively Jewish component.

Simply put, there is a significant difference between being in touch with friends and like-minded colleagues by email, Facebook postings and the other paraphernalia of social media, and actually being in touch with friends. This may seem like a less-than-startling insight to many readers but it brought me up short.

Even for a journalist, the writing life is an isolating one. In the end, after you’ve done all the interviewing and been to the movie or concert, it always comes back to you and the blank computer screen. If you maintain an active Twitter feed (my primary concession to the 21st century) or visit your Facebook page, often you begin to mistake your tweets for actual conversation with “followers,” and your Facebook posting for coffee with actual rather than virtual friends.

Last week it didn’t help. By and large my spirits didn’t lift until I spent a couple of afternoons with old friends, drinking real coffee and eating real sandwiches.

I should have anticipated that. I’ve read and written on Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, two of the foremost Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, on several occasions, and Levinas in particular has always resonated with me.

Buber, of course, always posited the centrality of dialogue with both human and Divine beings to our existence and our chances of tikkun olam and redemption of our wounded world. In his best-known work, “I and Thou,” Buber reimagined the traditional relationship between human and Deity, distinguishing between the I-It relationship typical of most human-to-human interactions, asking for an elevated dialogue between two acting subjects, I and Thou. Such a dialogue would require manifested mutuality, openness, directness and human sympathy. Those are difficult qualities to achieve under the most perfect circumstances, but are absolutely essential to the formation of human values.

They are, I believe, impossible to achieve without direct contact. Even the telephone — heck, even Skype, which adds the simulacrum of the visual presence of the Other — is not sufficient.

Here is the critical juncture at which the thought of Levinas comes to the fore. At the heart of Levinas’ thought is the concept of alterity, the Other, and the obligation each human has towards the Other. In Levinas’ thought, that obligation is ethical; he famously wrote, “ethics is the first philosophy.” Unlike Buber, for whom the voice of the Other is a vehicle for the dialogue principle, Levinas finds primary significance in a literal face-to-face encounter. It is the face of the Other that reminds us of our own humanity, of our involvement with another individual and with the edict, “Thou shalt not murder.”

This is all very high-flown. One could just as easily say that it is only when we have a full set of cues — auditory, visual, sensual — that we can understand and share someone else’s pain. Regardless, the very Jewish lessons imparted by Buber and Levinas resonate more powerfully in the face of a new political reality that seems to be based in no small part on denying the humanness of a large slice of the American community.

It’s an idea that makes me feel better, too.

George Robinson covers film and music for the paper. His Culture View column appears every other month.