Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

Jerry Z. Muller writes in this new book:

* The German-speaking Jews of Germany and of the Habsburg Empire often referred to the Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia as Ostjuden—“Eastern Jews.” The distinction was not only one of geography: it also referred to a cultural, social, and economic gradient that descended as one moved eastward. Western Jews characterized themselves by their manners and respectability, which included Western styles of dress and deportment; by their attachment to Western high culture; and by their movement beyond “traditional” Jewish occupations, such as peddling, characteristic of a more backward economy, into shopkeeping, banking, journalism, and the learned professions. The distinction was also reflected in their conceptions of Jewish identity. That the Jews were both a nation and a religious group was taken for granted in the East, while in the West there were movements of religious reform that jettisoned the national element of Judaism and expunged references to it from
the prayerbook.2 Religious services in the East were frequent, disorderly, and emotional. In the West, they were
rarer, more orderly, and somber. But the distinction between Eastern and Western Jews was evanescent. Western Jews were often Eastern Jews who had moved westward a generation or two earlier and had assimilated to their new circumstances.

* The Jewish tradition drew a typological link between the inveterate enemies of the Jews in the times of Moses and of Samuel and their later enemies, as recounted in the Book of Esther, which is read on Purim. It was typically understood as a promise that God would destroy the enemies of his people. 64 But the radicalism of the commandment to the Children of Israel to destroy in their entirety the descendants of their erstwhile enemy
had long troubled readers, especially because a few chapters earlier, in Deuteronomy 20:15–18, God demands a similar extirpation of the seven peoples of the Land of Israel, “lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent
things that they have done for their gods.” Later in life, Jacob would claim that his bar mitzvah portion had sowed the seeds of his suspicion of the Law.65

* The Jews of Switzerland in the 1930s were few in number and far less prominent in Swiss life than were their counterparts in Germany, Austria, or France—and the Swiss were committed to keeping it that way. Even in Zurich,
where the largest concentration of Jews lived, they made up only 1.7 percent of the population, compared to 10 percent in cities like Berlin and Vienna.11 Numbering about 20,000 across the country, Jews constituted less than ½ percent of the Swiss population. Of those, only half possessed Swiss citizenship, while the rest were classified as foreigners (Ausländer).12 Switzerland, a federation of provinces with a strong republican and regionalist tradition, was sparing in granting citizenship rights, especially to Jews, and to Jews of Eastern European origin least of all. In 1894, the Swiss government had banned the kosher slaughter of meat, ostensibly on grounds of animal protection, but actually as a way of discouraging the ongoing migration of Jews into the country. In 1912, the canton of Zurich enacted regulations to block the granting of citizenship to Jews from Eastern Europe — the
Ostjuden. These regulations were further tightened in 1920, and in 1926 they were extended to the Swiss Federation
as a whole. By the 1930s, Jews were required to show residency in the country for twenty years before they could apply for citizenship, and the quota of Jews permitted to receive the status of citizen was set at twelve per annum for all of Switzerland.13 These special regulations for Ostjuden were contested by the Jewish community and canceled after 1934, as such laws came to be identified with Nazism. But citizenship remained extremely difficult for Jews to obtain.

* “A religion that one understands is, for he who understands, no longer a religion. For by comprehending it, he stands above it; he surveys its conditions and possibilities, and to the extent that he does so he no longer feels like the unconditional object of religious demands. One can be possessed and awe-struck only as long as one does not understand how and why that occurs.”

* JTS was headed by Louis Finkelstein, an American-born rabbi and professor of Talmud, who was named president in 1940 (his title was later changed to chancellor). At a time when antisemitism was rife in the United States, and when many Jews were falling away from Jewish identification, Finkelstein sought to convince both Jews and Christians of the ongoing relevance of Judaism, and of its consonance with American liberal democracy.3 In short, he “turned Jewish survival into an American good.”4 Indeed he believed that American Jews would only return to greater Jewish identification and observance once Judaism had attained legitimacy in the broader culture. To that purpose, he founded an Institute for Religious Studies and the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion, to bring Jewish scholars together with their Christian and secular counterparts. It was in these precincts that the notion of “the Jewish-Christian tradition” was birthed, together with the idea that American democracy sprang from Judeo-Christian values.

* Jacob made a striking impression on the Finkelstein family, and not least on Emunah, who found him fascinating… But no romance developed: Jacob seems to have acted in a way they regarded as “taking liberties” with the young girl, which put an end to any further courting, and cast a pall over Jacob’s relationship to
Emunah’s father.

* Jacob’s propensities to open-ended speculation, to interest himself in everything but the scholarly subject at hand, and the lack of scholarly productivity that flowed from it, would remain the bane of his life.

* …the disdain [Saul] Lieberman exhibited toward Conservative pulpit rabbis, whom he considered as little more than ill-learned social workers—a sentiment shared by not a few of the leading faculty at JTS.

* Most people are more likely to obey such rules if they believe that the rules are “laws” of divine origin, such that transgressing the laws will result in ultimate punishment, and obeying them will result in ultimate reward. But it is the nature of philosophy to call into question the divine origin (and hence validity) of such rules, and, in the quest for more reliable knowledge, to challenge the reigning opinion upon which ordered political
life depends. So understood, the theological-political predicament entails the recognition of a tension between the philosopher’s open-ended quest for knowledge and the normative demands of any polity for consensus, order, and restraint. The philosopher is an atheist, or at least a skeptic when it comes to received opinion. But (so
Strauss asserted) a polity can only handle a limited amount of skepticism: demonstrate to most men the contingency of the rules by which they live, and they will either slip the yoke of decent behavior or set out for new, more radical, and potentially dictatorial sources of authority. Because not all truths are harmless, the challenge for the philosopher is to engage in the skeptical pursuit of philosophical truth without openly calling into question the truths that his society regards as “self-evident.”

That led Strauss to an exploration of the phenomenon of esoteric writing: the various methods by which potentially dangerous messages can be conveyed to philosophically inquiring minds without destroying the normative basis of political order by undermining society’s received truths.

* “The conservative suspects that the truth, which gives life and dignity—and power—to an aristocracy or elite, might bring catastrophe if allowed to permeate the lower layers of society.”

* In time, [Morton] Leifman and [Wolfe] Kelman too became alienated by Jacob’s extreme behavior, which seemed to them on the border between the neurotic and the psychotic—behavior that was in keeping with some of the characteristic features of manic depressive illness in its milder, hypomanic form. Jacob seemed to have no sense of boundaries, propriety, or private property. When his clothes got dirty, he would throw them into his closet.
The smell permeated the room, and eventually the maid refused to enter because of the stench. When he ran out of socks, he simply appropriated them from others. He was also boastful about his sexual escapades, which he described in graphic terms that shocked the rabbinical students. And he combined this violation of sexual norms with elements of ongoing religious piety, explaining that he would not sleep with a woman unless she obeyed
the laws of ritual purity, and recounted the fact that one such woman, not wanting to be seen in the ritual bath (mikva) as it would reveal her erotic relationship, went and immersed herself in the Hudson River for the occasion. Jacob conveyed the impression that he thought himself so smart that he could get away with anything. His was a kind of Gnostic posture.

* Taubes appears in [Richard L.] Rubinstein’s memoir under the pseudonym “Ezra Band.”

In spite of his display of piety, he talked a great deal about blasphemy, the holiness of sin, and mystical
antinomianism. At one of our earliest meetings, he made the accurate prediction that I would soon find more meaning in the pagan gods of Canaan than in the Lord of Israel. . . .

[Rubenstein’s wife] Ellen and I were simultaneously attracted and repulsed by him. One day Ellen was preparing for a Bible lesson in an empty room in the seminary dormitory. I entered the room while she was engrossed in study. She did not notice me. I came up behind her, put my right hand on her breast and fondled it. She relaxed
and became limp. We continued for a few minutes until I broke the erotic atmosphere by speaking.

“My God,” she said, “I thought you were Band [Taubes]. I felt hypnotized and couldn’t resist.” Band had a seductive, disturbing effect on both of us.

* Kelman, Leifman, Wigoder, and Rubenstein all came to see Taubes as a brilliant, perverted, demonic manipulator. Here was an aspect of Jacob’s personality that many others would discover over time. He had an almost animal-like
instinct for human weakness and how to exploit it. Just as an animal knows the softest spot of its prey in which to sink its teeth, Taubes could quickly discern individual vulnerability and use it to his own purposes. These
qualities correspond to some of the classic characteristics of manic depression in its milder, hypomanic phase:
enhanced liveliness, interpersonal charm, the ability to find vulnerable spots in others and to make use of them, and unusual perceptiveness at the subconscious or unconscious level.

* In a letter addressed to “My most beloved [13 years older] Gerda,” Jacob wrote, “A great orgy has overtaken us. Love can bear all and forgives all. . . . I sin only against myself, and matters proceed according to the dictum of my dear friend Paul: that which I will, I do not do; that which I would not do, I do.” Paul’s declaration eased Jacob’s sense of being unable to resist temptation, especially erotic temptation.

* Taubes sat in on the [Gershon Scholem] seminar, and, typically, did not hide his light under a bushel. As one participant remembers, “Whatever he knew was paraded before you.”

* No doubt to try to shock [Jewish nationalist Geula Cohen], when they passed by Terra Sancta, Taubes took her into the library, pulled off the shelf a book by a German author, and began translating the writer’s nationalist sentiments to her. Cohen found them moving. At which point, Taubes informed her that it was written by a Nazi thinker (probably Carl Schmitt).

* Seeking to develop a constitution for the new state, the Israeli minister of justice (the German-born and -educated Pinchas Rosen, born Felix Rosenblüth), had put in an urgent request to the Hebrew University library for Schmitt’s 1928 book Constitutional Theory (Verfassungslehre).

* Even when he was living in Jerusalem and studying with Scholem, much of Taubes’s intellectual energy was directed toward engaging the philosophy of Heidegger.

* At the origin of the modern, historicist understanding of the Bible was Spinoza, who, in the seventh chapter of his Theological-Political Treatise (1670), “Of the Interpretation of Scripture,” set out canons for the interpretation of Biblical texts that remain the hallmark of modern Biblical scholarship. The first of these
is the assumption that the Bible is to be treated like any other book, and to be analyzed using the rules of evidence that we bring to any other work written long ago and far away. Rather than reading later concepts, doctrines, and concerns into the text—including our own—we must strive to understand the text on its own terms. That means that we need to master the original language, to understand its grammar, and to grasp its characteristic literary figures of speech. It means that we need to compare the usage of words within the text to determine their meaning. So too, we ought to compare all the pronouncements on any given matter to see whether
the text conveys a single understanding, or many, perhaps conflicting views. Attention must be paid to the speaker, his audience, and the occasion for his statement. It means that we ought to look first at internal, textual evidence, and to any reliable external facts, to see what we can determine about the authorship of the work in question. In judging the veracity of the events reported, we ought as nearly as possible to reconstruct the mindset of the author, his cultural assumptions, and even personal psychological dispositions. Last but not least, we should try to reconstruct the history of the text itself, to determine where and how it was redacted and canonized, and whether spurious insertions have been added.

* In common with many universalistic intellectuals, she [Susan Taubes] was disdainful of nationalism, and in common with Christian understandings, she regarded the whole notion of a particularist faith as retrograde. Jacob’s identification with the past and future of the Jewish people, and his worries about the Jewish state, struck her as fundamentally irrelevant. “The center of the ‘crisis’ is not in the ‘Jewish problem,’” she wrote, “the question is not posed, nor can it be solved within Judaism. Retreat into the clan, into national enthusiasm, preoccupation with national problems, is an evasion, because we were not only the ‘victims’ but the accomplices as well of European history.” Living in Israel struck her as no more than “tribalism,”113 and Jacob’s concern for Judaism and the fate of the Jews as “belly-button-worship.”114 She was particularly fearful of the consequences of combining religious and national identity: “The existence of the Jewish state may improve the status of the Jews all over the world, personally it makes me feel ill at ease. Unless, the state means the renunciation of the jew’s religious pretensions as a group. But it doesn’t mean that.”115 As for Zionism: “The experiment may succeed,
but can the people worship any other god than the one that created them as a people, can they do otherwise
than to deify their success? They will be like all the other peoples, only more proud and pretentious.”

* Jacob told [Susan] that as an outsider to Judaism she misunderstood its laws as nothing more than arbitrary decrees. A cult cannot be created by an act of will, he contended, and religious practice made most sense within a historical religion.120 Susan, by contrast, was only interested in a form of spirituality unlinked to history, to revelation, or to any particular historical group.121 When Jacob argued the need for connection to a people
and to its past, she rejected the claims of historical fidelity, which, she thought, destroys the possibility of a new beginning. “Faithfulness to the memory of the dead” was no basis of identity, she responded.

* Susan, however, was more adamant than ever: she insisted not only that Jacob leave Israel, but that she did not want Judaism to play a role in their home.

* Scholem’s greatest source of dissatisfaction with Taubes, however, was the younger man’s lack of scholarly productivity, which Scholem attributed to his lack of personal and intellectual self-discipline… That, indeed, was Jacob’s Achilles Heel, as many who knew him were to testify throughout his life. Susan’s letters to Jacob were
studded with admonitions to apply himself, and Susan even wrote to Scholem urging him to “please make Jacob work.”142 But no one could get Jacob to engage in systematic research and writing. Jacob was not lacking in ideas—if anything, he had too many of them. But most of those ideas found expression in lectures, in conversation, and in his letters. Those that made it into publishable articles were often stimulating, but rarely fleshed out coherently and systematically. Scholem took pleasure in sitting in his study and working his way through difficult texts (often in manuscript), hour after hour, day after day, year after year. He was an industrious, meticulous, and exacting scholar.143 Though he had rebelled against his bourgeois, German origins, Scholem’s style of life was in many respects Prussian and proper. Just as Scholem’s scholarship reflected his personality, Jacob’s flights of speculation and lack of disciplined scholarship reflected his. In that respect, the two were polar opposites. And the contrast in their personalities extended further. Scholem’s scholarship on Kabbalah and Sabbatianism revealed a fascination with the transgressive and the erotic—but for Scholem, eroticism and transgression were matters of the head, the subject of scholarly inquiry. Neither his marriage nor his relationships were markedly erotic. (After his death, his wife would confess that Scholem’s only great love had been his friend, Walter Benjamin.144)
Jacob and Susan Taubes, by contrast, were bohemian, certainly by the standards of their day. Susan wore bareback dresses that were jarring in the staid milieu of Jerusalem in the era of austerity.145 Scholem was scandalized
by aspects of their behavior. He claimed, for example, that Susan had walked around Jerusalem in a trench coat, with nothing underneath. And he characterized Jacob’s erotic adventurism as “moral insanity.”

* While Strauss’s students in Chicago reflected upon the political functions of religion, they were not inclined to investigate actual religious experience in the neighborhoods around their university. Taubes, by contrast,
was religiously adept: he had an interest in, taste for, and ability to empathize with a wide range of religious experience. He provided the Straussians with a novel encounter when he suggested that they attend a Sunday service
at a local African-American church.

* …all relation to external reality breaks down if you take certain passages of the New Testament in dead earnest; in these, a spirit is reflected that considers the world to be a strange and alien place. Church and theology have done their best, however, to mitigate and obscure this original Christian experience of total alienation from the world; in nineteen centuries they have transformed an originally ‘nihilistic’ impulse into positive ‘social’ or ‘political’ action.”12 That led to a perennial conflict between the canonical texts of the faith (the New Testament) and subsequent theological commentary on it, a “conflict between the eschatological symbols and the brute fact of a continuing history.” The main way this was eased was through the use of allegorical interpretation, the insistence that the Biblical text ought to be understood in a nonliteral way.

* “Theology must remain incognito in the realm of the secular and work incognito for the sanctification of the world.”

* “Taubes’s essays of the mid-fifties became almost a sacred text to many younger theologians who were being
drawn in a radical direction by the very problem which lies at the center of these essays.” Taubes had formulated the central dilemmas of contemporary Christian theology with extraordinary acuity.

* Nihilism is the eternal secret history of the spirit. . .

* Taubes wrote about Judaism as he wrote about Christianity: from the perspective of an external scholarly analyst. He took for granted the results of modern scholarly inquiry that the Pentateuch was comprised of multiple
sources composed by multiple authors.24 Divine Revelation at Sinai, like the Christian doctrine of Incarnation, was a mythic symbol, whose continuous reinterpretation was subject to scholarly analysis.

“In the Old Testament, everything turns on generation [Geschlecht], on “from generation to generation.” Sarah, Rebecca, Rachael, Hannah—all decisive actors in holy history—are related to the birth of children. All the women
plead for a child. That continues up through the beginning of the New Testament: the genealogy of John (and perhaps Jesus). What is striking about Jesus’ acts of healing is that never does an infertile wife ask for a son: that is, the recurrent historical theme of the Old Testament never reoccurs. The illnesses of those who come to Jesus to be cured come from a different zone: the blind, the lepers, the seemingly dead, and so on. In the Pauline epistles, marriage is scorned, sex is treated only as rutting. That is no accusation, only the statement of
a difference. In the New Testament man stands on his own, not part of a series of generations—he is an “I,” a lonely atom of late antiquity. The philosophy of Geschlecht in the double meaning of the term (from generation
to generation, and of male and female) has no place in the New Testament scheme of things. From the early Christian communities to monasticism is a straight line.”

* since the consciousness of the masses was manipulated, parliamentary politics was no longer an effective form of radical transformation. Instead, the APO should transform itself into a decentralized movement of “urban guerrillas”—a concept that would soon serve as the theoretical justification for left-wing terrorism in the 1970s…

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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