I’m reading a tiny bit of Emmanuel Levinas to try and pilfer some ideas, and I stumbled upon this quote:
“To leave men without food is a fault that no circumstance attenuates; the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary does not apply here” – Rabbi Yochanan
This quote is really, really interesting to me. For several complex reasons. 1) How is this order of responsibility distributed, or how does it deal with distribution? When one human (I am substituting ‘men’ for the more general ‘human’) is left without food are we “all” responsible, in that no circumstance including our lack of both knowledge and proximity assuages us? 2) What form does that responsibility appropriately take – guilt, action, grief, spiritual damnation, etc? 3) Why does this order of responsibility seem to implicate nonhumans also, such that the circumstance of (say) “Being a grain of wheat” but not spontaneously and circumstantially comporting oneself into a loaf of bread along with ones comrades seems not to be forgiven? 4) This seems rather pointed an implication of God for a Rabbi to be making, especially as one with sovereign domain over all circumstance.
Of course Levinas’ application of this quote (of a Rabbi from an unknown point in history – the quote just references the ‘Treatise Sanhedrin’ book of, what I presume is the Talmud?) is isn’t writing from the same frame as me whatsoever, he’s responding to the phenomenologists and the particular situation of post-WWII philosophy, etcetara. But it’s interesting just how tied up in knots this kind of ethical imperative gets as soon as I begin to include or ascribe agency to nonhumans.
Also we could say that the good Rabbi was limiting his address to human readers… still, it’s incredibly interesting to think about, and a powerful quote. Even limited to just humans, it makes a case for a strong ethical force that binds all humanity together to one another. It makes a case for a total knowledge of all humans via all-seeing surveillance, too I would suppose…
But obviously it’s not proposing any of those things and it’s hyperbole and rhetoric and polemic and a damn good example of all three.