Academic Year 2010-2011
Andrea Cooper is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. She received her combined honors B.A. in English Literature and Contemporary Studies at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, receiving the medals for highest achievement in both departments upon graduation. Since 2005 she has been a Ph.D. student in NYU’s Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, studying with Professor Elliot R. Wolfson, and since 2006 in NYU’S certificate program in Poetics and Theory. She was recently the 2010 NYU-Cambridge Mainzer Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge, a research visit that culminated in presenting her work on eros and gender in the thought of Rosenzweig and Levinas to the Cambridge Multi-Disciplinary Gender Research forum.
Her research interests include modern Jewish thought, 20th century continental philosophy, theories of literature, psychoanalysis and gender.
From Agamemnon to Abraham: Levinas on an Ethics of Sacrifice
(Mentored by Professor Elliot Wolfson)
My research project will focus on the ethical and normative issues as embodied in the Binding of Isaac (Akedah) in Genesis, focusing on the interpretation of this arresting episode by the twentieth-century thinker Emmanuel Levinas.
Levinas, who is known for his move beyond the tradition of ontology towards a philosophy of ethics centered on responsibility for the other person, disagrees with Søren Kierkegaard’s well-known philosophical reading of the Akedah story, which regards Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son in obedience to God’s command as the ultimate act of faith. While Kierkegaard applauds Abraham’s conduct, thereby transcending the ethical sphere in favor of faith, Levinas argues from a post-Holocaust perspective that it is rather Abraham’s response to the ethical call to halt the sacrificial act that must be praised. He thus maintains that a religion that praises murder as sacrifice and obedience over morality cannot be considered ethical.
Within his thought Levinas often suggests that the Hebraic approach can serve to subvert the Greek tradition. With this in mind, to illuminate Levinas’s interpretation of sacrifice, I will compare the Akedah story to the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy.
As I see it, this research’s significance lies in its consideration of the question of justice and the relation of individual ethical responsibility to the greater political realm, and the coinciding implications to constructions of gender—existential issues which have cross-cultural significance, and address the application of normative ethics across literary, religious and socio-cultural boundaries.