Rav Hutner and Emmanuel Levinas, Panim el-Panim

Nose, mouth, eyes.  Forehead, ears, dimples. Wrinkles. Irises, cheekbones, eyebrows. For both Emmanal Levinas and Rav Yitzchok Hutner these features combine to produce a unique face for every living person which has rich philosophical value. These parts of the human face are “The epiphany of a holy language,” according to Levinas.[i] The infinite combinations of these features create a perfectly unique face and this uniqueness is holy. For Rav Hutner, this holiness commands respect, dignity and solidarity.

Anyone who has opened the Pahad Yitshak, Rav Hutner’s magnum opus on the holidays, has surely been awed at the fluidity with which Rav Hutner (1906-1980) weaves Hassidism and Zionism, methodology and philosophy, sensitivity and perceptivity. As a young man, Rav Hutner attended the Slabodka Yeshiva, headed by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He was quickly recognized for his outstanding erudition and joined a group of students who eventually established a yeshivah in Hebron.[ii] As a student in Hebron, he narrowly escaped the 1929 massacre of the students at Hebron when he left yeshivah to visit his mentor, Rav Kook, for Shabbat. Hutner later traveled to New York where he eventually became one of the most important scholars for Orthodox Jewry. Throughout his life Rav Hutner continued a close correspondence with Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He became the Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Rav Chaim Berlin and was a mentor to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Noah Weinberg and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. He also taught Rabbi Saul Lieberman, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and David Weiss Halivni.[iii]

Rav Hutner’s writing is infused with traditional rigorous Talmud scholarship and motifs gleaned from the Mussar movement’s humanistic approach to the human condition. This blend appears in appears in the works of another great Jewish thinker, Emmanuel Levinas.”.

For Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), philosophy is not the “love of wisdom” but the “wisdom of love.”[iv] Levinas received a traditional Jewish education in Lithuania before the outbreak of World War Two. He too received a rigorous training in Talmud but instead of moving to Palestine, went to study in Freiburg University in Germany, eventually becoming a student of Martin Heidegger.[v] Levinas later made Heidegger the foremost object of his critique of philosophy after witnessing the role that his philosophy played in Nazi ideology during the Holocaust. Levinas strongly believed that Judaism, and the Talmud in particular, could serve as a counterweight to what he saw as the Nazis’ attempt to place pure, sterile reason over human emotion, empathy and solidarity.[vi] Levinas developed these ideas further as a lecturer at the Sorbonne and at the University of Paris, where he taught until he retired in 1979. Throughout his life, he was involved with building Jewish primary and secondary schools in France and cultivating Jewish French intellectualism. His published works centered around three areas of thought: Talmud in Nine Talmudic Readings and Beyond the Verse, Judaism in Difficult Freedom and Essays on Judaism, and philosophy in Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism and Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence.

These two scholars represent significantly different circles of thought and experience.[vii]  One was immersed in building Orthodox yeshivot, the other, with building community Jewish schools. One published tracts on tractate Nazir, while the other published works on ontology. And yet, their intellectual lives intertwined. They both spent most of their lives delving into hermeneutics, phenomenology, and philology – one in the body of philosophy, the other in the great corpus of rabbinic law. Their texts are at times esoteric and at times lucid. They both saw mussar, or ethics, as the beginning of philosophy. Schwartzchild, in “An Introduction to the Thought of R. Isaac Hutner,” introduces the methods of Rav Hutner and discusses the “striking resemblances” of the two thinkers.[viii] They share similar thoughts about atonement, unity, metaphysical truth, the divine name and relationship of an individual to other. For two scholars to show such unusual resemblance may reveal either a case of plagiarism or a case of cosmic significance. More likely, however, both philosophers lived during the same time, were educated in European institutions, and were influenced by the same texts and ideas.

Their most striking similarity seems to be their discussions of the human face, the most visibly important aspect of the personal encounter with the other. Schwartzchild sees this supreme importance of the panim, the face of “the other,” expressed in Hutner’s term, “the doctrine of the human countenance”[ix] and Levinas’ doctrine of “le visage.[x] What is the “face” for Hutner and Levinas?

Levinas, in his work Totality and Infinity, advances the thesis that all ethics are derived from a confrontation with the other. The first encounter is face to face: “the way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the Other in me, we here name the face.”[xi] From this meeting derives two ethical principles. The first places the human being within the totality of humankind: “In discourse, which is always face to face, the world is constituted not for me, but for us.”[xii] The second ethical principle derived from the face is that the “the dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face.”[xiii] The encounter in which we see the infinite combination of possibilities within the human face and the uniqueness in each face is meant to move us to sacred solidarity with the Ultimate Other.

It is from this face of the divine within the human face that we derive ethics: “This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, in his face is the primordial expression, is the first word: ‘you shall not commit murder.’”[xiv]  Not only do we derive a negative commandment to refrain harming the other, but from the face to face meeting we also derive pro-social behavior, or voluntary conduct to benefit another person. “The proximity of the Other, the proximity of the neighbor…His very epiphany consists in soliciting us by his destitution in the face of the Stranger, the widow, and the orphan.” For Levinas, the face serves as the basis of philosophy and the foundation of ethics.

In his eight-volume collection Pahad Yitshak - Divrei Torah be-Inyanei Hilkhot De’ot ve-Hovot ha-Levavot (The Fear of Isaac: Torah Lessons in the Laws of Belief and in the Duties of the Heart), in Ma’amar Kaf Bet,[xv] Rav Hutner begins his derashah for Shavu’ot by speaking about the nature and destiny of man.[xvi] As an introduction, Rav Hutner references the line in the Shemoneh Esreih, “Bless us our Father, all of us together as one in the light of your face.” This benediction, he writes, is unique in its conception of unity. Rav Hutner sets up a contradiction between a voice that proclaims a common source for the uniqueness of man and a voice that advocates for the unity of mankind. For Rav Hutner, how it is that man be both a sui generis being, a unique individual, and at the same time be just one of countless anonymous individuals brought together under the banner of “mankind?”

The first voice that proclaims, “we are all the sons of the same father,”[xvii] that we are all fragments of a whole, a part of totality, is derived from the fact that when we die, the world continues to exist without us. This fact undermines the self-confidence and arrogance of every individual, as they are humbled before the vastness of their species and the insignificance of their individual contribution. The other voice proclaims, “For if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the supreme King of Kings fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: “The world was created for my sake.”[xviii] The source of this uniqueness can be found in the countenance of the other. The Sages said, “Just as faces do not resemble one another, so neither do our beliefs.”[xix] Rav Hutner writes, “The light of a man’s face is the only place which, in a small and very indirect way, reveals man’s singularity to us in our situation.”[xx] We now understand how from the face we may derive two conflicting notions of the place of humans in humankind.

Rav Hutner then concludes:

We understand that the light of the face is the chosen place where we recognize man’s singularity, and we have previously seen that human singularity and human unity were created together and that they function as one. From this it follows that when we pray for the blessing of the light of God’s countenance, we must include in it this prayer for unity, which is chiseled into and inextricable from the significance of the light of faces.[xxi]

Rav Hutner does not resolve the dialectic and conflict; rather, he transcends the tension by painting the face of God onto the face of mankind. Rav Hutner universalizes the message of the high priest’s gold plate, etched with the name of God and worn on the forehead; God is now in the face of every human.

The two philosophers use the idea of panim, face, to link literal and figurative interpretations. “The face of God,” a term used throughout Tanakh, is a figurative term for God’s spirit.[xxii] The seemingly incongruous term is used as a hermeneutical jumping point for both Levinas and Hutner.  When we understand that no two faces are alike, we understand that every human is unique. When we see the unique face of a person, we ultimately engage in a meeting with the divine that imposes on us the imperative not to do harm to our fellow man.[xxiii]

A beautiful example of the face to face ethics of Rav Hutner and Levinas can be applied to the climax of the story of Ya’akov and Esav in Genesis. When Ya’akov finally meets Esav after stealing his blessing and running away, he implores Esav to accept his gifts, saying, “Please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.”[xxiv] Ya’akov sees in the face of Esav, his mortal enemy, the face of God. In the next verse Ya’akov offers Esav “birkhati - my blessing,” a double-entendre alluding to both his own gift-offerings as well as the blessing Ya’akov stole from Esav. Seeing the face of the divine within the human face becomes an ethical imperative, spurring Ya’akov to give back what he wrongfully took.

For Levinas and Rav Hutner, the beginning of ethics, the source of worth for the individual, comes from the face to face confrontation, the panim el panim interaction between human beings. We construe our personal uniqueness and our personal attachment to humanity as a whole from these encounters. In a time of hester panim, hiding of the face, a time when we are not always certain of God’s presence, humans must look towards the face of the other to find God. For guidance we must turn to the derashot of Rav Yitzchok Hutner and the eloquent writings of Emmanuel Levinas. And then turn towards each other.


Gavi Brown is a sophomore at YC majoring in English, and is the design editor for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969), 111

[ii] Hillel Goldberg, “Rabbi Isaac Hutner: A Synoptic Interpretive Biography,” Tradition 22 (Winter 1987): 18–46, at pp.18-22.

[iii] Ibid, 20.

[iv] Corey Beals, Levinas and the Wisdom of Love the Question of Invisibility (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2007), 1-3.

[v] Seán Hand, Emmanuel Lévinas (London: Routledge, 2009), 12.

[vi] Shira Wolosky, “From Interpretation to Text: Levinas on Exegesis,” Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at Yeshiva University, New York, NY, September 14, 2011.

[vii] Interestingly, they both spent time in prison, Levinas as a German prisoner of war during WWII and Hutner as a hostage in an airline hijacking by a Palestinian terrorist organization.

[viii] Steven S. Schwarzschild, “An Introduction to the Thought of R. Isaac Hutner.”Modern Judaism 5.3 (1985): 235-77, at p. 235 and 245.

[ix] Yitzhok Hutner, Pahad Yitshak - Divrei Torah be-Inyanei Hilkhot De’ot ve-Hovot ha-Levavot  (Brooklyn NY: Mossad Gur Aryeh], 1965-1982), Volume 3, p. 333. Translation my own.

[x] Emmanuel Lévinas and Nidra Poller, Humanism of the Other (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2003) xlv (Translator’s note).

[xi] Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority, 50.

[xii] Ibid., 89.

[xiii] Ibid., 79.

[xiv] Ibid., 199.

[xv] Hutner, 332.

[xvi] For an English translation see Steven S Schwartzchild, “Two Lectures of R. Isaac Hutner,” Tradition 14:4 (Fall 1947): 90-109.

[xvii] Genesis 42:11. All translations in this article are my own unless otherwise noted.

[xviii] Sanhedrin 37a.

[xix] Berakhot 58a.

[xx] Pahad Yitshak, 334.

[xxi] Translation in Schwarzschild, 245.

Here, Rav Hutner seems to reference a famous story about his family’s rabbi, the Kotzker Rebbe. The story tells of a rabbi who sought to understand his appropriate place in the universe.  To keep a balance between hubristic self-confidence and self-diminution, he had two notes, one for each of his two pants pockets.  One note read: “For me the world was created.”  The other note read: “I am nothing more than dust and ashes.” As recorded in: Michael Rosen, The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim (Jerusalem; New York: Urim Publications, 2008) 184.

[xxii] See Psalms 27:8, 105:4; Chronicles I 16:11.

[xxiii] David Bigman, “The Face of the Other in the Thought of Rav Hutner and Levinas,” Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, December 10, 2011.

[xxiv] Genesis 33:10.