Woody Allen’s 1983 movie Zelig portrays an individual with an uncanny ability to adapt to his environment to the point that, like a chameleon, he transforms and becomes one with his surroundings. Examined by a psychiatrist, he declares himself a psychiatrist and starts using psychoanalytic terms. In the company of Irish customers in a bar during St. Patrick’s Day, his physiognomy changes, and he becomes Irish. But he is neither a psychiatrist nor Irish.
To some extent, this biography of Jacob Taubes (1923-1987), rabbi, philosopher of Judaism, and sociologist of religion who wandered from Vienna to Zurich, from Zurich to New York, Jerusalem, and Berlin, who cultivated close links with scholars both from the left and from the right, reads like the history of the Zelig character, never totally to ease with his milieu.
To disclose the secret of this enigmatic character and to paint a rich picture of his times is the aim of this book, six hundred pages strong, which documents Taubes‘ life and works in exquisite detail. Muller worked on published books —including Taubes’ first wife’s penned Divorcing— archival materials and dozens of interviews with Taubes’ friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.
Muller mentions that he spent over ten years researching Taubes, trying to unveil the secret of his Zelig. This undertaking may raise some eyebrows, as Taubes‘ contribution to scholarship is scarce, and some, including Muller, consider it derivative. When he died in 1987, Taubes left behind one book, published forty years earlier, and papers, book chapters, and reviews from the later fifties and early sixties of the last century. It fell to Muller to balance Taubes‘ many personal failings, both as an individual and as a scholar, with his contributions to the study of apocalyptic religion as a form of social criticism. To some extent, Muller performs this balancing act by invoking Taubes‘ less than stellar mental health, which in his late years exploded into full-blown clinical depression. It begs the question of why Muller, skeptical of the contents of Taubes‘ ideas, invested ten years in writing Taubes‘ intellectual biography. At least part of the answer can be found in the credits and acknowledgment section at the book’s end. Muller mentions there having met Taubes in Jerusalem. Muller was at that time looking for a subject to write his Ph.D. thesis. He was interested in processes of radicalization and de-radicalization of intellectuals, particularly of a group of New York intellectuals who had espoused leftist views but eventually became hard-core members of the neoconservative movement. Muller finally dropped the subject, writing a thesis on the case of sociologist Hans Freyer and his transition from Nazi sympathizer to liberal democrat. His approach, in this case, seems similar.
Muller’s account is thorough and starts with a portrait of Taubes‘ family, which traced their roots to Talmudic scholars and Hassidic rabbis on both sides of the family. Taubes‘ father, Zwi Taubes, was an orthodox rabbi, but his education also included secular studies. Taubes‘ mother trained as a teacher of Judaic subjects. Muller takes time to explain the differences and nuances between traditional and the different streams of modern Jewish orthodox education. Finally, he refers to Zwi Taube’s main teachers and hints at some continuity between their teachings and Jacob Taubes‘ lifelong fascination with early Christianity.
Jacob Taubes started his Jewish education early at home and later at a school that integrated secular and Jewish subjects. With his family, he left Vienna months before the Anschluss for Zurich, where his father took over the spiritual direction of a synagogue. There Taubes attended university while pursuing studies of Talmud and Jewish law at home and with private tutors. He also spends a period at Montreux’s yeshiva. He qualified, eventually, as a rabbi and teacher. In 1947 he also completed the requirements for a doctorate under the direction of sociologist René König. His thesis became the first and only book he published in his life, Occidental Eschatology. Occidental Eschatology grew from an interest in Marxism and religion; it „created a usable past for contemporary radicals, for religious folks inclined towards radicalism“ (71). Muller traces the origins of Occidental Eschatology to a paper that Taubes wrote for René König’s seminar on „Karl Marx’s Justification of Socialism“. Taubes claimed that the appeal of Marx’s doctrine was not its professed scientific claims but irrational longings. Unless we postulate a divine plan for the world leading to harmony, the mere development of the productive forces does not justify the triumph of harmony rather than meaninglessness or anarchy. The pathos of Marxism rests upon a theory of human salvation and the messianic vocation of the proletariat (72).
Occidental Eschatology takes these ideas and develops them further. Taubes‘ work shows the influence of, among others, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar’s theses about the importance of apocalypticism in Christianity’s history and the teachings‘ role of Joachim de Fiore in the secularization of eschatological thinking. According to Muller, Taubes was also influenced by Karl Löwith’s book, From Hegel to Nietzsche, and Hans Jonas‘ book on Gnosticism. Taubes borrowed extensively from both. Muller also founds influences from Heidegger’s On the Essence of Truth. Ultimately, Muller concludes that the aspirations of the work exceeded its execution (75-6).
The next chapter in our story deals with Taubes‘ move to America. Taubes was able to get an invitation to pursue post-doctoral studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), which he attended between 1947-49. There he was tutored in Talmud by Saul Lieberman and in the thought of Maimonides by Leo Strauss. JTS’s mission was to educate and ordain rabbis subscribing to the Conservative movement’s beliefs. But Taubes was not interested in becoming a rabbi. Eventually, he was offered to continue postdoctoral studies in Jerusalem under the supervision of the Kabballah scholar Gershom Scholem.
Jerusalem was the background for the first of the many crises that would punctuate the life of Taubes. Taubes and Scholem had a falling apart. Scholem accused Taubes of having revealed to another student information that Scholem had shared with Taubes in confidence. The story is well known and has been told before. What is new is that Muller shows that the break between Scholem and Taubes was not as complete as it was previously understood to be (173-179; 322-323). We will see below how the personal conflict between Taubes and Scholem spills over to a conflict about how to interpret the legacy of Walter Benjamin.
Taubes returned to the USA, managing after a while to secure appointments first in Princeton and later in Columbia. In terms of publications, this period was the most productive in his intellectual life. It was also a period of intensive networking that put Taubes in touch with a generation of young Jewish New Yorker intellectuals. For example, Muller refers to a Passover seder at the Taubes‘ home in 1955, attended by Susan Sontag, Phillip Rieff, Stanley Cavell, Herbert Marcuse, and the Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, an occasion that Cavell and Stendahl recalled half a century later. But immediately, Muller adds that some suspected that such performances were a show and that there was no real faith and commitment (226-7). Muller also quotes from a letter written by sociologist Daniel Bell to his wife, describing an encounter with Susan and Jacob Taubes. Bell writes that the Taubes couple was full of interesting talk, but they seemed to lack „a sense of the concrete“ (227). The letter that Muller quotes show the gap in their political positions, with some of the arguments presented by Jacob Taubes referring to the ideas developed in Occidental Eschatology. While Taubes referred to the political potential of the eschatological dimension of religion, Bell worried about the risks of false messianism. To this, Jacob Taubes seems to have answered: „When you believe in prophecy, you run the risk of false prophets“ (228). Apparently, Bell did not think highly of Taubes. Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt concurred in their evaluation (228). But among senior scholars, he gathered enough support to get an assistant professor position to teach History and Sociology of Religion at one of the best Universities in the USA. Muller accessed the records of the ad-hoc nominating committee, and he presents an impressive list of scholars who, in general, supported Taubes‘ candidature, though they were some reservations. Muller explains the novelty of the academic study of religion, which was controversial at that time. In Columbia, Religion was granted the status of a department only in 1961. At the time of Taubes‘ hiring, it lacked a well-defined undergraduate curriculum, and its graduate program lacked a unifying principle. This suited Taubes fine. His courses dealt with 19th and 20th thinkers that were not taught in Columbia mainly because they fell out of the disciplines as they were then defined. Characteristically, the chapter dealing with Taubes‘ Columbia years is titled „The merchant of ideas.“ A later chapter, this one dealing with his work in Germany, has the title „impresario of Theory.“ A provisory title for the book was, apparently, „Jacob Taubes: Merchant of Ideas and Apostle of Transgression“ (according to a CV dated 2019).
Muller emphasizes the role of Taubes as a ‚merchant of ideas‘ rather than an original thinker or a profound scholar. Muller writes: Taubes knew what was going on in various contexts (241-2). Much of what he knew he learned in conversation. His knowledge was wide but lacked depth. While Muller does not tire of emphasizing the shortcomings of Taubes, he also recognizes that he had a talent for making connections between ideas from different sources and was generous in sharing his knowledge with his friends. He also had the talent to organize intellectual encounters, of which Muller cites three in Columbia, which were very successful. One was a conference with Martin Buber that led to creating a permanent Colloquy on Religion and Culture. A second project became a forum for Religion and Psychiatry, and a third was a Seminar on Hermeneutics.
Despite these successes, and his good performance as a teacher, Taubes‘ felt that his position at Columbia was not strong enough. Besides, his wife Susan was not happy in New York. Starting in 1959, he began looking for a position in Germany. And already in 1961, he was appointed visiting professor at the Berlin Free University (FU). Muller provides abundant information and background on the supporters of Taubes and their moves, on the idea of a chair to study Judaism in the FU, and on the circumstances of the FU itself, in the context of the Cold War. While the position was initially a summer assignment, negotiations were on track for establishing an institute of the Science of Judaism to be directed by Taubes. There were also talks about creating an additional position as head of a Division for Hermeneutics. But initially, he did not commit himself and shuttled between Columbia and FU on alternate semesters. Finally, he obtained an even better deal. The chair was renamed Judaistik (Judaism), and he also added to the title the label „Sociology of Religion“. To add to the exceptionality of the situation, Muller mentions that Taubes was not a German citizen, a prerequisite for a position in a public university in Germany, and he was not required to have a Habilitation, usually conferred after completing a second research project and additional requirements (270).
Chapter nine reviews Taubes‘ interlocutors in Berlin and Germany in general. To put it briefly, Taubes was in dialogue with probably most of the leading and would-be leading intellectuals of this period. People like Dieter Henrich, a known specialist in German Idealism, who first learn through Taubes of Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, and Eros and Civilization, and who will visit for the first time the USA with Taubes‘ help. He also interacted with Habermas, with whom he shared a position as reader and editor for the influential publisher Suhrkamp. Taubes convinced Peter Unseld, the managing director of Suhrkamp, to publish books that were broadly sociological, covering both American and French authors. The quantity, quality, and variety of books that Taubes managed to recommend for publication led Muller to ask how Taubes related to books. He infers that there is a relationship between his brilliance and a certain superficiality (282-283). Taubes had also close relationship with several other intellectuals, such as Peter Szondi, Gadamer, Eric Voegelin, Ritter, Adorno, etc. All these interactions Muller characterizes as belonging to the realm of merchant or impresario of ideas, not of real scholarship or intellectual communion of ideas.
Of this period, one of the rare publications from Taubes, The intellectuals and the University, is the one he was most proud. Muller refers to the history of this lecture, its previous versions, and contents. To some extent, this lecture parallels Occidental Eschatology, with a broad exploration of the notion of the university and its development in different countries to arrive finally at a diagnosis of the institution and of the intellectual in contemporary society. The diagnostic section parallels Taubes‘ Four Ages of Reason (1956, republished 1966). It draws on ideas of the Frankfurt School, though Taubes‘ version seems more radical than what was advocated by Horkheimer and Adorno at that time (284-6).
Taubes was interested in movements that were unconventional and transgressive, such as Gnosticism and apocalypticism. And, in a rare coherence of theory and practice, he also had an uncommon relationship with women. Muller lists and depicts some of his love partners, starting with his wife, Susan, whom he divorced and later committed suicide, Margherita von Brentano, who chaired the philosophy department at FU and later quarreled with Taubes, Judith Glatzer, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, and many others. A review of this book by Mark Lilla in the New York Times carried the title „The Man Who Made Thinking Erotic“. While some of his womanizing would be considered predatory by today’s standards, Muller brings many examples in which Taubes seem to have helped and supported many young women in their academic careers.
Chapter ten explores Taube’s activity as a fully committed faculty of FU, starting in 1966. As a teacher at FU, he was appealing to students that were politically engaged, intellectually curious, and disdainful of disciplinary boundaries. But Taubes was not very interested in the routines of academic work. He was not a good advisor for dissertations and habilitations, as he did not lay down clear guidelines to help his students to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time. But Muller acknowledges that this problem was not only Taubes‘ but was common among the more charismatic teachers. He was indeed a charismatic teacher, and Muller describes in some detail his presentation mode (310-311). He also taught courses with colleagues that became leading German intellectuals, such as Dieter Henrich, Michael Theunissen, and Rolf Tiedemann (who will edit for Suhrkamp the work of Walter Benjamin). For many of his classes, he relied on his teaching assistants. Apparently, he had a flair for identifying and coopting up-and-coming intellectuals that he integrated into his classes. Taubes‘ weakness in his teaching, as in his writing, was the systematic explication of concepts. But his talent for concretizing concepts, for making them seem relevant and vital to his students, was unmatched. He could explain Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety (Angst) in a more vivid way than an expert on Kierkegaard could (312).
One of the Zelig-like characteristics of Taubes was his ability to insinuate himself into different intellectual projects. One example that Muller explores in some detail is Taubes‘ participation in the multidisciplinary project Poetik und Hermeneutic, where scholars of literature, philosophy, history, and other disciplines met every two years to explore a topic together. Papers were circulated ahead of the meeting, and they were discussed face to face. The oral presentations were taped, transcribed, edited, and eventually published in a volume. Muller describes the leading participants and their background, which in many cases was very different from Taubes‘. Taubes did not contribute but three papers to the colloquium, but his oral participation seemed to have been well received.
Taubes was involved also in another research project, this one focusing on the idea of political theology. Three volumes were published, with introductions by Taubes.
Chapter 11 deals with Taubes and his partner von Brentano’s role in supporting the „new left“ movement and the radicalization of the FU’s students in the 1960s. Taubes was not the only one taking the side of the students against the administration and the West Berlin municipality, but apparently, his role was prominent. There is information in the chapter about Taubes‘ activities, his invitation to Kojève to lecture in FU on the „End of History“, and the presence of Marcuse, who lectured on the „End of Utopia“. Marcuse is displayed in a photo with Taubes and other intellectuals (342). According to Muller, Taubes sought to influence the student movement and steer its energies away from the more anarchistic tendencies. In a letter to
Hans Robert Jauss, a member of the Poetik und Hermeneutik circle, Taubes wrote: „no stone should be left unturned to save the SDS [the socialist German student union] from the precipitous path of left-wing fascism“ (344). At the same time, Taubes and von Brentano were involved in a struggle with other members of the philosophy department around the political orientation of the department.
Chapter 12 covers the period between 1969 to 1975 and is supposed to document the de-radicalization and crisis of Taubes. But a large part of the chapter is devoted to aspects of Taubes‘ private life. Late in the chapter we learn about the conflict between Habermas and Taubes (369-372). Muller retraces the complex reaction of Habermas to the SDS and the student movement. Taubes advised Habermas to have a more conciliatory attitude towards the movement’s leaders, advising that Habermas apparently did not follow. Another section in the chapter talks about an indirect connection between Taubes and the founding members of the „Red Army Fraction“ terror group, which brought Taubes to the interest of the police (372-373). There is also a section on a counteroffensive of the Professors (373-377).
The section „Deradicalization“ starts early on, in 1971, with a story about Taubes‘ colleague at FE, Peter Szondi’s suicide. While not likely the reason, it seems that many in FU suspected he was led to take his life by pressure from leftist groups. Taubes himself, who was one of the most active supporters of the activist students among the members of the chaired professors, felt by 1972 that students had become intellectually rigid and dogmatic. He even discouraged Marcuse from visiting again, fearing that he may be boycotted by the activists. There is also information on internal fights in the philosophy department about appointments. Apparently, Taubes was ambivalent, supporting critiques of the increasing influence of the Marxist-oriented candidates and advising colleagues and students to overcome their tendency to sectarianism. In this, Brentano was more radical than Taubes. The remaining section of the chapter deal with family and personal matters: Taube’s divorce from von Brentano and a serious episode of mental crisis that required his hospitalization.
Chapter 13 describes Taubes‘ wanderings between Berlin, New York, and Jerusalem and his struggles against his colleagues in the philosophy department who wanted to force him into retirement. Muller chooses to illuminate this period in Taubes‘ life through his acrimonious fight against fellow philosopher Michael Landmen (398-408), who was one of his original sponsors when he came to Berlin. During this period also, his association with the publisher Suhrkamp was terminated. One of the reasons, besides his inability to continue to perform his duties because of his mental health, was his insistence that the collection he and Habermas edited in Suhrkamp publish books by right-wing historian Ernst Nolte. Surprisingly, Suhrkamp kept Taubes on its payroll for several years, though not as co-editor of the Theorie library. When he was finally sacked, it was because of Suhrkamp’s financial difficulties.
The years-long personal conflict between Taubes and Scholem played out also regarding their interpretation of Walter Benjamin. As Benjamin became in the 1960s an icon of the left, and as the close friendship that bound both thinkers became known, some of the recognition given to Benjamin transferred to Scholem. Scholem was well known in West Germany in the small circle of specialists in the history of religion and Jewish studies. But with the publication in 1966 of Benjamin’s letters to Scholem, Scholem’s publication of interpretative essays that explored the Jewish dimension of Benjamin’s thought, and particularly with the publication of his memoirs Walter Benjamin: Geschichte einer Freundschaft (1975), and a few years later From Berlin to Jerusalem (1977), contributed to bring the figures of Benjamin and Scholem closer. The interest in Benjamin among the German young intellectuals led to discussions about how to interpret his legacy and how Scholem and Adorno handled the publication of his letters and unpublished manuscripts. Taubes was particularly interested in a few of Benjamin’s writings, including the „Political-Theological Fragment“ and the „Theses on The Philosophy of History“, which he explored at a seminar in 1968. Taubes had written a letter to the Suhrkamp publishers objecting to a possible transcription mistake in one of Benjamin’s letters and complaining that Scholem and Adorno had disregarded the importance of Asja Lācis —a communist militant close to Brecht that was Benjamin’s lover at one point— for Benjamin’s intellectual development. Scholem reacted in a letter to Adorno, characterizing Taubes as laden with ressentiment (384).
The last act in the tragedy between Scholem and Taubes took place in 1977 and had to do with Taubes‘ proposal to participate in a Festschrift in honor of Scholem, something rejected outright by Scholem. Finally, Taubes participated in a congress in Scholem’s honor in Jerusalem, where he presented a paper entitled „The price of messianism“, which is critical of Scholem’s approach.
Chapter fifteen is dedicated to Taube’s fascination with the ideas of the jurist and unrepentant former Nazi supporter, Carl Schmitt. Taubes was not only interested in Schmitt’s ideas. He also tried and ultimately succeeded in meeting Schmitt face to face. This is a complicated chapter in Taubes‘ life, which puzzled friends and acquaintances, and is one of the components of the complicated appeal of his personality. Muller list several grounds for Taubes‘ interest in Schmitt. One is Schmitt’s claim that there is an inextricable link between theology and politics. Second, Schmitt’s erudition, his knowledge of intellectual history, and long-forgotten intellectual debates. Third, according to Taubes‘ recollections, he turns to Schmitt’s concept of constitutional law to have a better understanding of modern philosophy. Another motivation was understanding how intellectuals of Schmitt’s caliber could have been involved with the Third Reich. But there was also a shared disdain for bourgeois mentality and for liberalism. Finally, Muller finds „another factor, difficult to evaluate but impossible to overlook, was that in many of the circles in which Taubes traveled (though not all), his professed admiration for Schmitt served to scandalize, thus allowing him to engage in an exhibitionist performance as a bad boy“ (454). Some of the main lines of the story are well known, as they were published in a small volume published in 1987, and Taubes refers to his relationship with Schmitt in his lectures on Paul, which were published posthumously. Muller adds to the story a portrait of the person who served as an intermediary between Taubes and Schmitt, the radical German nationalist Hans-Dietrich Sander (456-460). Taubes was not the only intellectual to be in touch with Schmitt. Hans Blumenberg, among others, was also corresponding with Schmitt. But probably no major intellectual not identified with the right-wing was making it publicly.
There is another reason for the interest of Taubes in Schmitt, one that probably influenced the future reception of Schmitt among left-wing intellectuals. From Sander, Taubes learned of a supposed connection between Walter Benjamin and Schmitt. Sander shared with Taubes a letter from Benjamin to Schmitt, in which Benjamin claimed to have based his book on the Origins of Baroque Drama on Schmitt’s discussion of the idea of sovereignty. Benjamin also used Schmitt’s idea of the ’state of exception‘ in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History (Thesis 8). However, the role of this expression in Benjamin’s argument is totally different from the one used by Schmitt. After Schmitt’s death, Taubes gave a lecture entitled Carl Schmitt – Apocalyptic Prophet of the Counterrevolution. In his lecture, Taubes discussed Schmitt’s relationship to the Third Reich and a series of anecdotes about Taubes‘ encounters with Schmitt’s work, beginning with his student years in Zurich. Muller is quite severe with the content of this lecture, showing several inconsistencies, mistakes, and wild claims.
To a large extent, Taubes‘ posthumous fame hangs on the lectures on Paul that he presented shortly before his death. Muller details the process that led to the preparation of the lectures, starting with a lecture in 1986 at a Lutheran research center in Heidelberg on the experience of time, a seminar in Salzburg, and an interview published in a collective published by Suhrkamp. In this intervention, Taubes defended the interpretation that what marked the experience of time of the West is neither time as eternal nor the recurrency of time but an experience of urgency. From Paul, Taubes takes not the theological substance of his teachings but Paul’s emotional stance towards the world. It is the idea that the Kingdom of God is nearby. A few months later, Taubes was invited again to lecture at the Lutheran center. But by the time he had to give his seminar, his health had declined further. He prepared his lectures with the help of Aleida Assmann. She also arranged for the lectures to be taped and transcribed. Besides the framework, Muller provides a general description of the contents and a summary of Taubes‘ lectures (488-494). Muller characterizes the lectures as follows: „Taubes had been thinking about Paul since at least the time of his father’s 1940 sermon, which prefigured some of Taubes’s own themes, and he poured into his Heidelberg lectures nuggets of learning and speculation gathered over a lifetime. It was this range of reference that made the lectures an intellectual feast to some but a chore to others. Taubes developed his themes in good part through stories about the figures with whom he had discussed Paul over the course of his life… All of which added an air of exoticism and cosmopolitanism to the presentation. It made for an intellectually sparkling brew“ (494).
A final chapter recounts the story of how Jacob Taubes‘ legacy was preserved and multiplied in the years after his demise. Muller starts with the obituaries by Aleida and Jan Assmann, which characterized him as a Jewish philosopher, an „Arch Jew, and Primordial-Christian.“ In the same newspaper, a second obituary was published by Peter Gäng, Taubes‘ last doctoral student, who wrote about the difficulty of classifying Taubes from a political point of view. Muller notes other obituaries, but in his view, the most important one was by Taubes‘ old friend Armin Mohler. Mohler, who was well acquainted with Taubes‘ life story, mentioned it in his article Susan Taubes‘ Divorcing. In Muller’s view, the reference to Divorcing set off a chain reaction that would contribute to the posthumous reputation of both Susan and Jacob (499). That means, again, that it was not what Taubes taught, thought, or wrote that made his posterity but a series of unforeseeable events. With the demise of “really existing socialism,” left-wing intellectuals, such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek, turned to Taubes‘ interpretation of Paul as a model for a post-Marxists theory of revolution. Even if Badiou does not mention Taubes directly, the references in his book clearly align with Taubes‘ position. Only in one issue did Badiou diverge from Taubes. While Taubes always emphasizes Paul’s Jewish background, Badiou adopts a neo-Marcionite position, claiming that Paul broke completely with the religion of the Hebrew bible (509-10). Agamben’s book on Paul was published two years later, and it was dedicated to Taubes (510-511). Finally, Žižek does not directly quote Taubes but refers to him implicitly raising the issue of Paul in several of his books (511-12). And around this idea, a cottage industry of translations (515-6) and interpretations developed, first in Europe and later in the USA. Muller explains the success of ideas taken from or inspired by Taubes as a symptom of a double crisis. On the one hand, a crisis in the appeal of the Christian faith in large parts of Western Europe, while at the same time, there is a crisis of confidence among the radical and left-wing intelligentsia (512). Muller’s account ignores other reasons for a renewed interest in the intersections between religion and politics, some older, such as liberation theology, and some newer, such as the rise of fundamentalism.
Undoubtedly this is an exceptional book, both by the quality and quantity of the research supporting it and by its lively style. It would be of interest not only for people interested in the life and works of Jacob Taubes but also for those interested in the intellectual life both in the USA and in Germany in the period between the end of WWII and the crumbling of the Berlin wall.