The contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton describes the human face as the portal through which the other becomes apparent as a subject and not an object. According to Scruton, animals may have eyes, ears, a nose, mouth, but these elements do not combine to create a face. There is something unique and ephemeral about a human face that points to an interiority. When we look deeply into the face of the other, we sense something beyond mere physical physiognomy. This is indicative in the very language we use to describe this experience. We look into someone’s face, not merely at it. And this is why we use the term to deface, when describing the striping away the interiority of something.
No artist has done more for me in capturing the ephemeral interiority of the human face, than Jusepe de Ribera. This Baroque artist manages to show within the physical features of his subject’s face, something of another realm. There is something of the soul – for lack of a better word – peering out of the faces he paints. When looking at a Ribera painting you are not looking at a face you are looking into it.
When looking at a Ribera painting you are not looking at a face you are looking into it.
This interiority may help explain the profusion of references, in the opening of Parshat Vayishlach, to the face.
In instructing his messengers, Jacob tells them to say the following when encountering his estranged brother Esau:
And you shall say, ‘Look, your servant Jacob is actually behind us.’ For he thought, ‘Let me placate his face with the tribute that goes before my face, and after I shall look on his face, perhaps he will show me a kindly face.’ And the tribute passed on before his face, and he spent the night in the camp.
And the next morning upon waking:
Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen God face to face and I came out alive.”
Finally, at the much anticipated encounter, Jacob says to his brother:
To see your face is like seeing the face of God.
Why all this talk of the face?
Perhaps on one level, Jacob is rendering himself vulnerable to his brother, by drawing attention to his exposed face. Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote extensively about the human face, saw in its very vulnerability, a demand for compassion.
Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote extensively about the human face, saw in its very vulnerability, a demand for compassion.
“The first word of the face is the ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me. However, at the same time, the face of the Other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all.” (Ethics and Infinity, pp 89)
On a deeper level, though, I believe that Jacob is not merely assuming a passive, defensive stance vis a vis his brother, but that rather, he is seeking a genuine encounter.
Up until this point, the relationship the brothers shared, could best be described as transactional, or in Buberian terms, as an ‘I- it’ relationship. Theirs was not an ‘I –Thou’ relationship in which the full sense of the other is recognised. Rather, each is objectified by the other. This is apparent in the way they treat each other, and it is also supported by the objective language the bible uses to describe the two; the ‘hairy one’ and the ‘smooth one’, the ‘hunter’ and the tent dweller’. There is nothing to describe their interiority.
And so perhaps after all the lost years, and all the pain, Jacob seeks a different type of relationship. One that centres on the face, an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, which can only be built on an appreciation of the full personhood of the other.
And there is the wonderful ambiguity of the name Jacob gives to the place on the morning of this encounter – Peniel. Is it to mean ‘Face of an Angel?’ ‘Face of God?’ Or perhaps it is in anticipation of the very human encounter he is about to experience with his brother, so that in fully encountering another one comes closest to encountering the divine.
in fully encountering another one comes closest to encountering the divine.
Finally, the Hebrew word for face Panim, is plural. There is no singular construct. Could this point to the multiple layers of the human expressed through the face? Or could it even point to a human-divine fusion, apparent if one looks deeply enough into the face of the other? That in seeking the face of God, one need look no further than the face of a human being?
This immensely rich Torah passage invites us to seek the face of the other by transforming our transactional postures with others into relational ones. Perhaps then, we might be able to see in the face of the other, a subject who contains multitudes.