Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Levinas & Democracy: Democracy Doesn’t Rest Only On Institutions, But Discussion

When the great 20th century philosopher, Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was asked if his philosophy was messianic, he responded his understanding of “messianism” from the doctors of the Talmud was that “discussion shall never cease in this life or the next.” That simple phrase is not only very Jewish, but is also the most radical critique of illiberal democracy and autocracy. When there is no discussion, pluralist democracy dies. When there is no discussion, genocidal ethno-nationalism comes to life.

We would not expect discussion to cease at a political conference full of speeches with endless streams of words, but putting an end to discussion is, in fact, what we saw last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). CPAC is a must go for Republicans hoping to win national office. What has become necessary is for them to showcase their love for illiberal democracy or hatred for liberal democracy. This message is hard to miss. For example, a year or two ago, CPAC built a stage designed in the shape of a Nazi symbol (which they claimed was an innocent mistake). Nevertheless, they didn’t change the design once the fact was pointed out.

Last year, it held the annual conference in Hungary, where they gushed like teens at a 1964 Beatles concert. They could not get enough of their heartthrob, ethno-white-nationalist prime minister, Victor Orban who recently said, “We are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race… countries where this was seen as acceptable are “no longer nations.”

This speech was so overtly racist and Nazi-inspired that one of Orban’s ministers resigned, yet CPAC invited him back to address their gathering this year. We know where Jews stand in Orban’s projected caste system, and it is not a place that is without historical precedent: close to a half million Hungarian Jews were shipped to Auschwitz over a few weeks.

Jews are knotted to unceasing discussion. The old joke is that if you have two Jews, you get three opinions. We disagree with each other. It is what we do. Yet, we embrace each other as well. The authoritarian orientation is the opposite. Orban knows that respectful yet passionate disagreement in which we are open to hearing each other and learning from other perspectives is the root of liberal democracy. That is why Orban, in lockstep with Vladimir Putin, has taken over Hungary’s media. The ceaseless discussion that Levinas tells us is the real lesson of the Talmud is the enemy to making us all the same, the goal of ethno-nationalists like Orban, Putin, and those at CPAC.

Unceasing conversation with people who disagree with you is often uncomfortable. It is challenging to remain open-minded when confronted by those who have reasons that oppose your standpoint. But without it, novel approaches, fresh insights, and opportunities for wisdom die. Without these new possibilities that upend the same old thing, we lose the transcendent opportunity to become more than we are, to be more than what was, or what has been.

For example, look at the environment. On the one hand, a couple of decades back when scientists notified us of a hole in the ozone layer, we listened, we discussed, and we acted which solved the problem. On the other hand, regarding global warming, we keep worsening it by not listening to the scientists, not having real policy conversations, and continuing to do what we did yesterday. This is killing the future of humanity, absconding the responsibility once given to Sarah and Abraham when told future worlds would emerge from them. We should learn from their care and carefulness, the future again depends on us just as our present once depended on their care.

The US is fighting for discussion, for liberal democracy, against discussion ending forces like illiberal CPAC. Can the far left, centrist, center right democrats & never Trump Republicans save American democracy? I don’t know. It’s a fight whose conclusion is uncertain. About 20% of American Jews have made clear they don’t understand the assignment in their idolatrous embrace of CPAC darling, Donald Trump. I stand with the approximately 80 percent of American Jews who are fighting for liberal democracy. We understand the assignment. Talmud, like liberal democracy, teaches us to love and create never-ending discussion, for as the doctors of Talmud prescribe, we must ensure discussion shall never cease in this life or the next.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern is the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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