Wednesday, October 13, 2004

# Posted 7:36 AM by Patrick Belton  

AMONG THE HEAPS OF GENERALLY DISAPPOINTING appreciations of Derrida and his work, one which stands out as worthy of interest is the Chronicle of Higher Ed's depiction of him as at essence a latter-day talmudist encouraging us simply to take texts more seriously, in a tradition including such other companion exegetes as Gadamer.
In interviews and autobiographical texts from his final decade, he began to speak about growing up as a Jew in Algeria during the Vichy period. More and more of his writing began to take the form of an overt dialogue with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish thinker who worked at the intersection of Heideggerian philosophy, ethical reflection, and biblical commentary.

"The idea of something of unconditional value begins to emerge in Derrida's work -- something that makes an unconditional claim on us," said Mr. Caputo. "So the deconstruction of this or that begins to look a little bit like the critique of idols in Jewish theology."

In 2002 Derrida gave the keynote address at the convention of the American Academy of Religion, held in Toronto. Speaking to a crowded auditorium, the philosopher said, "I rightly pass for an atheist" -- a puzzling formulation, by any measure.

Mr. Caputo recalled that other scholars asked Derrida, "Why don't you just say, 'Je suis. I am an atheist'?" Derrida replied, "Because I don't know. Maybe I'm not an atheist."

"He meant that, I think, the name of God was important for him," said Mr. Caputo, "even if, by the standards of the local pastor or rabbi, he was an atheist. The name of God was tremendously important for him because it was one of the ways that we could name the unconditional, the undeconstructible."
He indeed hints respectfully at his own lineage as a talmudist in the ending passage of Writing and Difference, where he closes with a quotation attributed to a rabbi named Derrisa.
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