Monsieur Chouchani (French pronunciation: [m?sjø ?u?ani]; Hebrew: ; January 9, 1895 - January 26, 1968), or "Shushani," is the nickname of an otherwise anonymous and enigmatic Jewish teacher who taught a small number of distinguished students in post-World War II Europe and elsewhere, including Emmanuel Levinas and Elie Wiesel.
Not much is known about "Chouchani," including his real name, a secret which he zealously guarded. His origins are completely unknown, and his gravestone (located in La Paz, Canelones, Uruguay, where he died in January 1968) reads, "The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma." The text is by Elie Wiesel who paid for this gravestone. The name "Shushani," which means "person from Shushan," is most probably an allegorical reference, or possibly a pun. Elie Wiesel hypothesizes that Chouchani's real name was Mordechai Rosenbaum, while Hebrew University professor Shalom Rosenberg asserts that Chouchani's actual name was Hillel Perlman. An article published by Yael Levine in 2015, based on genealogical research, brought documentation supporting the view that Chouchani was none other than Perlman, a native of Brest-Litovsk (Brisk).
Although there is no known body of works by Chouchani himself, there is a very strong intellectual legacy seen in the influence on his pupils. By all accounts, Chouchani had the appearance of a vagabond and yet was reputed to be a master of vast areas of human knowledge, including science, mathematics, philosophy and especially the Talmud. Most of the biographical details of Chouchani's life are known from the works and interviews of his various students, as well as anecdotes of people whom he encountered during his lifetime. Chouchani appeared in Paris after the Second World War, where he taught between the years of 1947 and 1952. He disappeared for a while after that, evidently spent some time in the newly formed state of Israel, returned to Paris briefly, and then left for South America where he lived until his death.
A French journalist named Salomon Malka wrote a 1994 book about him, entitled "Monsieur Chouchani: L'énigme d'un maître du XXe siècle" (Mister Shushani: The enigma of a 20th century master).
Emmanuel Levinas's first encounter with Chouchani and their subsequent relationship is summarized as follows:
The influence of Chouchani on Levinas is most strongly felt in Levinas' famous series of Talmudic Readings. Levinas did not acknowledge his influence until late in his life. Levinas was powerfully impressed by Chouchani's total mastery of the texts, commentaries and meta-commentaries, as well as Chouchani's ability to "widen" the scope of the Talmud, using creative, dialectic methodology. One hallmark of the "Chouchani Style" in Levinas' work is the method by which the interpretation of a text is understood not just by the words of a particular citation, but rather the entire context of that citation. Levinas' hermeneutical expositions on the Talmud, which he credits to his "master," manage to be simultaneously traditional and radical in feeling. As a result of his studies with Chouchani, Levinas saw the ancient text of Talmud and its multiple layers of subsequent commentary not merely as a place where "all that can ever be thought has been thought of already," but also as a framework for his reconciliation of ethics, phenomenology and postmodernity.
Elie Wiesel described his initial 1947 encounter with Chouchani in "Legends of Our Times" (Chapter 10). Wiesel writes that Chouchani was "dirty," "hairy," and "ugly;" a "vagabond" who accosted and berated him in Paris in 1947, and then became his mentor. Wiesel wrote of him again in his memoir "All Rivers Run to the Sea" (pp. 121-130). Wiesel credits Chouchani as being one of his most influential teachers.