The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

The enfant terrible of post-war international Jewish philosophy is probably the best way to describe Jacob Taubes. Coming from a line of rabbis, a rabbi himself, a friend of Carl Schmitt, a great reader and commentator of Walter Benjamin, Jacob Taubes left no work uncited in his dissertation written in 1947, which, in accordance with the customs of the time, was 62 pages long. The few other writings that remain of this philosopher are essentially transcripts of his lectures and conferences, published posthumously. And yet… Between 1960 and 1980 everyone knew Taubes: Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt welcomed him to New York, Marcuse discussed world revolution with him, Scholem invited him to Jerusalem to take up a chair in Jewish philosophy, and students from all over the world came to listen to him as a professor at the Free University of Berlin. A tireless tracker of the theological in modern politics, it is not only Agamben who owes him everything. Admired and sought after by all his contemporaries, Taubes embodies a figure that is repeated in the history of thought: that of the genius without work. But Taubes does not exactly fit this image. For throughout his life, rather than a work, the genius left… a mixed impression. Scholem even hid in obscure corners when he was likely to come across him by chance, while others, not least, were eager to get to know him, even to support him. It is of this strange Mr. Taubes that Jerry Z. Muller has just written a major biography: Professor of Apocalypse. The many lives of Jacob Taubes[1]. For K. Mitchell Abidor offers a review that plunges us into the wild life of a character oscillating between Shlemiel and false messiah.

 

Jacob Taubes

The philosopher Jacob Taubes (1923-1987) was an impossibly difficult man who strived to unite the impossible to unite. Taubes, a philosopher of religion and politics, spent his life straining to unite Saint Paul, Jacob Frank, and Sabbatai Sevi in an antinomian and chiliastic mix. His ultimate aims were to overcome the insurmountable split between Judaism and Christianity, while also exploding existing society. For Taubes, the Law, following in the footsteps of Paul, was no more, having been overcome with the advent of Jesus. And yet, for all his antinomianism, in his own religious practice he was most attracted to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects in Brooklyn and Jerusalem, those most attached to the Law he denied intellectually and in daily practice.

In between academic praise and moral opprobrium

Scion of a long line of rabbis, Jacob was a brilliant scholar. And yet, after publishing his doctoral dissertation, Abenländische Eschatologie [Occidental Eschatology], in 1947 at age twenty-four, he never again produced a sustained work. His decades as a philosopher, tutor of philosophy, and professor of philosophy left a trail of scattered articles and transcripts of classes that were later assembled and published, enabling his name to achieve a resonance his production would otherwise have failed to assure.

Viewed in the most positive light, his lack publications could be viewed as Taubes having remained faithful to rabbinic tradition: the sage – the gaon – with his disciples gathered around him, drinking in and passing on his wisdom.

But this positive reading is difficult to sustain. Paradoxically, as we will see, for a man whose renown is owed to the most direct and personal of forms of transmission — his lectures and conversations — he was in many regards a hateful human being. Jerry Muller, in his enthralling new biography of Taubes, Professor of Apocalypse, tells us that some who knew the man refused to speak to him, preferring to allow his memory to sink from human memory. “Demonic”, “Mephistophelian”, “schemer” – the latter a word employed by his first wife Susan – are among the dozens of negative adjectives used to describe him.  Hannah Arendt called his “mendacious” and the sociologist Philip Rieff, once a close friend of Taubes, along with many others, considered him “evil.”

Author Muller turns a life of fractured friendships and marriages; of poor parenting; of pointless and endless academic battles and personal treachery into an engrossing epic of a life that more or less came to naught. Professor of Apocalypse is a cross between Dostoevsky and David Lodge with more than a dash of Budd Schulberg’s shameless egotist Sammy Glick in his novel What Makes Sammy Run?

Taubes was a man who alienated his idol Gershon Scholem, who had played a key role in obtaining financing for Taubes’ presence at the Hebrew University. So great would Scholem’s distaste for Taubes grow that Scholem did all he could to avoid any contact with his erstwhile disciple. Their differences had many reasons, and they can serve as a stand-in for the many difficulties Taubes had with colleagues and friends. Taubes’ failure to produce any serious work seriously vexed Scholem, who told a friend, concerning Taubes’ lack of discipline, “We’re all smart, but there’s no substitute for scholarly endurance”—the discipline to stay seated, pore over texts, and write.”  Taubes’ wife Susan was so distressed by this character trait that she even wrote, futilely, to Scholem to “Please make Jacob work.”

The final straw for Scholem was the receipt of a letter from a former student informing him that Joseph Weiss, a student of Scholem’s, had received a letter, clearly form Taubes, telling him that Scholem had found signs of insanity in his doctoral dissertation. This letter had set off a crisis in the Weiss household that resulted in the hospitalization of Weiss’ wife for depression and Weiss saying that Scholem’s lack of faith in him had shaken the very foundation of his existence.

Scholem had, indeed, made the remarks he was said to have made, but had done so to Taubes in confidence. Scholem was enraged by Taubes’ betrayal, which included spreading confidences the latter had shared with him about a colleague, including to the person in question. The result was Scholem’s breaking off relations with his young acolyte and the end of Taubes’ Israeli career in 1951. Scholem wrote in a letter to Taubes: “For however extraordinary I have regarded your intellectual potential; I’m convinced that nothing good can come from an association in which the moral impetus would be so glaringly lacking.”

Gershom Scholem en 1925, Wikipedia Commons

Scholem grew to hate Taubes so intensely that late in life he refused to allow a festschrift in his honor to be published if Taubes were in any way involved in it. He even went so far as to hide in the kitchen of a house he was visiting when Taubes arrived at the door.

Being close friends with the young Susan Sontag and her husband Philp Rieff did not prevent Taubes from cruelly mocking and criticizing his friend Rieff to the head of Beacon Press in order to take over Rieff’s post there. He failed, unaware that the publisher had Rieff pick up the extension to hear what his supposed friend was up to.

Taubes was untrustworthy to the ultimate degree, both intellectually and personally. He had a way of ingratiating himself with and then alienating great thinkers. Scholem was not alone in growing to despise him, since he was joined in this by Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt.  Here was a man who included on his CV two published books that were never anything but hopes. Even so, some scholars could describe him as “one of the most prominent scholars of his generation,” and another that he was “lovely, engaging, bold and thoughtful.” Il faut de tout pour faire un monde.

Taubes was by all accounts a thrilling conversationalist, a man who seemed to know everything and everybody. At least he acted as if he did. As one academic colleague said, “Before there was Google there was Taubes.”

Redemption through sin: theory and practice

Reading Professor of Apocalypse one wants to be able to concentrate on Taubes’ ideas, on his novel explorations of tried and true paths, and to leave behind this catalogue of personal flaws. But with Taubes this is impossible: his love for antinomianism looks, the deeper we get into his biography, increasingly like an excuse for his worst tendencies.

This is clearest in his obsessive womanizing. Muller describes examining this element of Taubes’ life as a way of exploring “the relationship between theory and practice.” Taubes’ interest in antinomianism and “redemption through sin” was, we are told expressed in his relations with women. Scholem described “redemption through sin,” an idea that recurs throughout his oeuvre, as an essential element of the messianism of Sabbatai Sevi and Joseph Frank. Taubes’ attachment to these two apostates made “redemption through sin” a central element of his thought and life. As Scholem wrote in his book on Sabbatai Sevi: “It is …left to the Redeemer, the holiest of men, to accomplish what not even the most righteous souls in the past have been able to do: to descend through the gates of impurity into the realm of the kelipot and to rescue the divine sparks still imprisoned there. As soon as this task is performed the Kingdom of Evil will collapse of itself, for its existence is made possible only by the divine sparks in its midst. The Messiah is constrained to commit “strange acts” (ma’asim zarim; a concept hereafter to occupy a central place in Sabbatian theology), of which his apostasy is the most startling; all of these, however, are necessary for the fulfillment of his mission.”

Taubes’ affection for carnal sin and its intimate connection to messianism was manifest throughout his life. He was a man who, while married to his first wife, Susan born Feldmann (who would later commit suicide, after writing a scathing portrait of her husband in her novel Divorcing) lived with another woman in Berlin, had an affair with another in New York, while carrying on yet another relationship with the great writer Ingeborg Bachman. Here we have the ideological version of the chicken and the egg.

Susan Taubes, née Feldmann.

To what extent were Taubes’ dalliances a fruit of his beliefs, and to what extent were his beliefs adopted to intellectualize and justify his dalliances? Or did they have no actual relationship and were simply another part of the performance of being Jacob Taubes.  Taubes would describe his affairs in terms borrowed from the kabbalah and took especial pleasure in seducing religious women with high moral standards. His love for two works. Scholem’s essay “Redemption Through Sin” and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Satan in Goray more than hint at an identification with the false messiahs Jacob Frank and Sabbatai Sevi. Perhaps he was sincere in all this; perhaps he felt he was doing God’s work as Jacob Frank did. Or perhaps he was simply an a- or immoral person and sugar-coated his sexual predilections with a philosophical-religious veneer. How can we decribe a man who invites a religious woman to his home, telling her to enter so she can find him in bed with his wife and Susan Sontag?

Imposture and political ambivalence

When he was born, Taubes, the eldest of two children, was greeted as his father’s kaddish. Taubes has many of the worst traits endemic to firstborn Jewish sons, especially in traditional households. All hopes are invested in him; he is the object of veneration. All is permitted him. This sums up Jacob Taubes.

In the staid world of academia, particularly in the 1950s when he was at a university like Harvard, Taubes’ unadulterated chutzpah led to jealousy and backstabbing on the part of his colleagues, for whom Taubes was a blowhard and phony, a man profoundly unserious and shallow. Which is more than partially true. These professors were not alone in judging Taubes harshly. Gershom Scholem said of Taubes that “After 2 ½ years of observing him close up, I am unfortunately deeply disappointed with Taubes,” he wrote to Leo Strauss. “He makes use of his undoubtedly great talents to engage in philosophical games that I regard as wholly unserious, rather than working with self-discipline and self-renunciation. [The result is] rhapsodies on themes of others and hugely pretentious twaddle, lacking solidity. I haven’t been able to change this young man.”

His glibness led to one of the most notorious tales told about Taubes. Two colleagues (Muller tells us that who they were is a matter of conjecture) began a discussion of Bertram of Hildesheim, a medieval Thomist, when Taubes entered the room. Taubes then proceeded to elaborate on the ideas of Bernard, placing him brilliantly in his context. Unfortunately for Taubes, Bernard of Hildesheim did not exist. Here, for his academic foes, was proof that Taubes was a fraud. Muller points out that there is another way to look at this: it also shows Taubes’ brilliance, his broad (though not deep) knowledge of all subjects, for based on just snippets of information he was able to construct the ideas and world of a non-existent thinker. The analogies to Bernard-Henri Lévy’s notorious gaffe in citing the Paraguayan lectures of the fictional philosopher Jean-Baptiste Botul are obvious.

Taubes’ flaws didn’t prevent his from teaching at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, including Harvard, Princeton, the Hebrew University, and the Free University of Berlin…

A self-described man of the left, Muller says of Taubes that he was a “paradoxical combination of egalitarianism in theory and elitism in practice,” grading his students based on his opinion of them, not the content of the work, and being swayed by their lineage: a student who was the child of prestigious intellectual parents had a leg up on the rest.

This is a relatively slight matter compared to Taubes’ affection for thinkers and figures not just on the right, like Leo Strauss and Friedrich Hayek, but for out and out Nazis, like Ernst Jünger, the Swiss Armin Mohler, Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger.

Ernst Jünger et Carl Schmitt, en France, en 1941.

Schmitt was far from the intellectual star he now is in wide philosophical circles when Taubes discovered him. Taubes tried to understand how men like Heidegger and Schmitt could have been so deeply implicated in Nazism. Yet despite their proclivities during the Reich, Taubes was able to find the political and legal theories of a Nazi legal specialist like Schmitt exemplary. He explained this by their shared opposition to liberalism, as “the two extremes touching.” For Taubes there was much to be learned from even counter-revolutionary opponents of the bourgeois order. And no doubt he is right. Taubes did not deny Schmitt’s Jew-hatred, but explained it as a fruit of Schmitt’s Catholicism, quoting from a conversation with the philosopher: “The Church only exists because the Jews have not accepted, because they do not live in belief. The Church is consciously ambivalent, I am a Christian, there is no other way to be a Christian without a touch of anti-Semitism.”

But he did go too far in his justifications. In Taubes’ posthumous To Carl Schmitt, we read this apologia for Schmitt that can only be described as outrageous: “We [Jews] had no choice, and he who has no choice – I mean, I had nothing against Hitler, it was he who had something against me – who ever had no choice had a limited capacity for judgment, cannot judge what fascinates others who stumble…” Yes, there is a need to understand the situation in which existential decisions are made, but at the same time, people are responsible for those choices. And judging the choice of backing Hitler seems an essential act of moral judgment. But this would have required disqualifying Schmitt totally, which Taubes could not do.

The philosopher’s millenarian moment would seem to have arrived in the 1960s, when Berlin and the Free University at which Taubes taught were the heart of left-wing activity in Germany. In Muller’s telling, Taubes did embrace the student cause, enthusiastically and even fervently. He did so in terms Taubes borrowed from his areas of interest. The leftists were accused of inciting violence after having published a pamphlet calling for the burning down of department stores in protest against capitalist consumerism. Their actions were said by Taubes to be “an object for the history of religion and literary scholarship, but not for the public prosecutor and the court.” Students debating the ideas of Herbert Marcuse were described by Taubes to have “an intensity that recalls the earnestness with which devotees of the Talmud used to interpret the text of the Torah.”

And yet, despite these statements and Taubes’ many acts in support of student disruption and violence, even here Taubes lacked consistency. At this antinomian moment he felt the students were going too far, and he claimed that he had taken upon himself “the thankless task of purifying the rational elements from the relics of romanticism in this circle. I do so without great hope of success.” Far from being a consistent ally of the far left he is sometimes taken to be, he warned of the threat of the German radical student group SDS embarking on the path to “left-wing fascism.” Yes, he supported the left, but only up to a point: the antinomian Taubes signed a letter in 1968 telling students to demonstrate, but not break the law. This Saint Paul of the student left often blinked when the chips were down. And his contradictions continued. At the same time that he was trying to instill reason in the student revolutionaries he was defending classroom occupations and disruptions. He implausibly described himself as a Maoist. It is hard when reading of his activities during the heyday of the student left not to see this as yet another case of Taubes playing a role, performing leftism for the crowd and press. It was inconceivable, given Taubes’ character, for the world’s eyes to be focused on the students and for him not to be the figure at their head, waving the red flag.

Jacob Taubes avec une pipe, assis à côté d’Herbert Marcuse, le 12 juillet 1967 à l’Université libre de Berlin.
The inventor of a renewal of Pauline theology?

Taubes is best known to us for his writings and talks on Saint Paul. This life-long interest in Paul is eloquent in many ways, but it is a non-political phrase of Paul’s that explains the major flaw among the many possessed by Taubes: his failure to produce a single major work after his doctoral dissertation. Paul lament in Romans 7:19 that “The good that I will, I do not,” describes Taubes perfectly. He lacked self-discipline in every regard, intellectually, romantically, and even hygienically. He was a man overflowing with ideas, ideas that could have filled volumes. But he lacked the will to produce them. One feels justified in fearing that had he actually written them, though, they would have descended into the abstruse and abstract depths of many of the works he did produce.

We will never have to experience Taubes’ awful traits: we will, for example, be forever spared the awful stench in his room at the Jewish Theological Seminary caused by his irregular washing and the clothing he left unwashed, piled in his closet…

Muller’s focus on Taubes’ foibles and failings are essential to understanding the man who produced the slim body of work he did. But the core of Taubes remains his lifelong attention to Paul.

This, though, is stained by a trait of Taubes’ that appeared and reappeared throughout his life: his appropriation of the ideas of others. Taubes’s first real exposure to Paul was in a talk given by his father, the chief rabbi of Zurich. The ideas expressed by Taubes father laid the groundwork for Taubes’ Pauline political theology, and for his life. Taubes’ father explained (in quoting from Muller) that “Paul saw himself as an apostle to the gentiles, not to the Jews. Indeed, Paulinism was nothing more than the attempt to give new form to the main religious motifs of the Jewish Ten Days of Atonement, and to spread them among the heathens. Jacob, then seventeen years of age, must have heard this lecture, and probably read it as well. He certainly took it to heart. The themes of eschatology (the end of days) and of movements of religiously inspired renewal would be the subject of his doctoral dissertation. And his interests were not purely historical, for Jacob aspired to become the philosopher of a spiritual revival that would draw upon Judaism but go beyond it. He came to identify himself with the Apostle Paul, who would take elements of Judaism and reformulate them for a larger audience.” Jacob Taubes would reformulate and expand on these ideas all his life, and they would provide the basis for perhaps his most important posthumous work, The Political Theology of Paul.

Taubes’ first wife, Susan, a Hungarian Jew who wanted nothing to do with the Jewish religion, which she scorned and dismissed out of hand, had little use for her husband’s Paulinism. In a striking formulation, she characterized Paul’s apostolate as “a plan for ‘international religion’—by making the whole world a little Jewish and the Jews a little less Jewish.” She found Paul’s obsession with “the law” (and Jacob’s) to be infantile and a distraction from the real world: “Paul (I mean all Pauls) was too engrossed in masturbation to see the wonder of the phallus. The world of the ‘law’ is also an infantile world. It is for the child that every object is associated with a ‘may and may not.’ The adult comes directly in contact with things.” In short, she found Paul “a successful charlatan.”

Taubes, in his tacking and twisting, in his search to expand the boundaries of beliefs and to unite the disparate through his ingenious analyses, in the end had one object of worship: Jacob Taubes.

Taubes’ egotism, his betrayals, his irreligious life carried out in the name of religion and disguised under religious display, and his personalized form of antinomianism, help explain his affection for Paul. Muller gives us a man aware of his own genius, but less so of his failings. He wanted, Muller says, “to become one of those Jewish thinkers who would contribute to the creation of a new universalist message – precisely the terms in which he thought of Paul.” His self-assigned mission was no less than to “combine the rational and the irrational to create a myth appropriate to the modern age.” The contradictions in Taubes’ thought were infinite, for “he rejected Jewish particularism while hoping to renew the religious core of Judaism.”

These messianic tasks were not placed on his shoulders by anyone but himself. That he took them on himself and thought them possible explains his impossible personality. But is there yet another, more disturbing possibility? Was the madness that struck Jacob Taubes late in life the generator of the “hypomania” Muller describes Taubes to have been prey to his entire life?

The writer and editor Leon Wieseltier, who knew Taubes and who is quoted in Professor of Apocalypse just might have summed up Jacob Taubes most accurately and succinctly. Taubes, he told me,was “an incompletely socialized human being.” Everything about him likely flows from this.


Mitchell Abidor

Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-born writer, translator and historian. He has published over a dozen books and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books and many other publications.

Notes

1 Princeton University Press, 2022

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