I've been working on my presentation for the North American Levinas Society conference, which will be held in Toulouse, France, July 3-9. The conference centers thematically on Levinas's Difficult Freedom--a collection of his essays on Judaism, and a book that gets a reading from me simply because of its magnificent title. It's easier, and cleaner, to long for freedom, rather than experience it. When we have it, we rail against it, knocking our heads against the responsibility that always accompanies it.
My presentation is basically a reading of the photography of both Zion Ozeri--whose work I've been a fan of for many years--and Adi Nes, whose work is interesting but problematic for me. Levinas says that "The face speaks," and when I first encountered the faces in Ozeri's work, I knew that I would one day do a Levinasian reading of his work, which I found so completely and utterly compelling.
But I've been re-reading bits and pieces of Difficult Freedom as I think through this new project. And tonight, as I absentmindedly flipped through the book, I began to read "An Eye for an Eye." Leviticus 24:17 reads:
"He who kills a man shall be put to death. He who kills a beast shall make it good, life for a life. When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured..."
This "eye for an eye" phrase might very well be the most destructive phrase ever, given the way it has enabled and justified vengeance and malice throughout the centuries. We imagine that there's something good about this perverse understanding of balance--that wrongs are somehow righted or obliterated if they are carried out on a parallel plane of some sort. Let's say a man kills my child, and is given a death sentence as a consequence. It still isn't balanced, not with regard to me anyway. He took my child. Who will take his?
What we think is a morality lesson about justice and balance is really a complex moment in Torah that begs another re-reading. Rather than show us how to balance the scale of transgressions, the phrase "an eye for an eye" actually shows us that balance is impossible to obtain.
You blind me, and in turn you are, at my insistence, blinded. Are we equal? Perhaps. But I have now taken something from your lover. I have stolen from her those rare moments when you would gaze on her face--the only moments in which she understood the depth of your love for her. Who will avenge her? Who will give her an eye?
A fracture for a fracture: it ruptures us all to the very core, splitting us wide open.
In a move, near the end of the essay, that sounds dangerously close to the words of the New Testament's Paul, Levinas writes:
We must save the spirit of our codes by modifying their letter. The Bible reminds us of the spirit of kindness. The Bible speeds up the movement that brings us a world without violence, but if money or excuses could repair everything and leave us with a free conscience, the movement would be given a misinterpretation. Yes, eye for eye. Neither all eternity, nor all the money in the world, can heal the outrage done to man. It is a disfigurement or would that bleeds for all time, as though it required a parallel suffering to staunch this eternal haemorrhage ( 148).
There is no balance, no justice, no reparation--not really, anyway. Nothing "can heal the outrage done to man." Perhaps we might look for something other than healing or balance or justice.