‘The Passion of Israel’: the True Israel According to Levinas, or Judaism ‘as a Category of Being’

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Across four decades of writing, Levinas repeatedly referred to the Holocaust as ‘the Passion of Israel at Auschwitz’. This deliberately Christological interpretation of the Holocaust raises questions about the respective roles of Judaism and Christianity in Levinas’ thought and seems at odds with his well-known view that suffering is ‘useless’. Basing my interpretation on the journals Levinas wrote as a prisoner of war and a radio talk he delivered in September 1945, I argue that his philosophical project is best understood as an ontological rendering of Judaism that accounts for the opening or transcendence of sense and intelligibility. Judaism provides Levinas with a salient critique of liberal and idealist philosophies of the subject and an alternative to fundamental ontology. I show how Levinas’ account of the ‘Passion of Israel’ can be read within the exegetical history of Jewish accounts of divine suffering and thereby effects a reversal of the Christian typological gaze. I conclude by suggesting that Levinas’ recourse to Judaism as a philosophical category does not assume a dogmatic origin to philosophy but ‘formally indicates’, in the Heideggerian sense, the phenomenological origins of normativity. In this respect, the ‘Passion of Israel’ involves not only a reversal of the Christian typological gaze but also a deconstruction of Judaism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)297-320
Number of pages24
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.


  • Christianity
  • Formal indication
  • Heidegger
  • Israel
  • Judaism
  • Levinas
  • Midrash
  • Passion
  • Shapira (the Piaczeno Rebbe)


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