Jerry Z. Muller: Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes Couverture du livre Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes
Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press
2022
Hardback $39.95 / £30.00
656

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

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.

Matthew Handelman: The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory

The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory Couverture du livre The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory
Matthew Handelman
Fordham University Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
256

Reviewed by: Françoise Monnoyeur (Centre Jean Pepin, CNRS, Paris)

The Mathematical Imagination focuses on the role of mathematics and digital technologies in critical theory of culture. This book belongs to the history of ideas rather than to that of mathematics proper since it treats it on a metaphorical level to express phenomena of silence or discontinuity. In order to bring more readability and clarity to the non-specialist readers, I firstly present the essential concepts, background, and objectives of his book.

The methodology of this book is constructed on the discussion of concepts and theoretical perspectives such as Critical Theory, Negative Mathematics, Infinitesimal Calculus, expression and signification of silence and contradictions in language. Borrowed from the mathematics or from the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, each of these concepts becomes refined, revisited and transposed by Handelman in order to become operative outside of their usual context or philosophical domain. The term Critical Theory was developed by several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a critical theory may be distinguished from a traditional theory as it seeks human emancipation from slavery, acts as a liberating tool, and works to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings (Horkheimer 1972). Handelman revisits what he calls a “negative mathematics”: a type of mathematical reasoning that deals productively with phenomena that cannot be fully represented by language and history, illuminating a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities.

In The Mathematical Imagination, negative mathematics encapsulates infinitesimal calculation, logic and projective geometry as developed by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). These three German-Jewish intellectuals were connected to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School but distinct because they found ways to use math in their cultural theory. The negative mathematics found in the theories of Scholem, Kracauer or Rosenzweig (inspired by their famous predecessors Salomon Maimon (1753-1800), Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)), are not synonymous with the concept of negative numbers or the negative connotation of math that we see in the works of the other members of the Frankfurt School.

Handelman’s objective is to present his book on the path of Scholem, Kracauer and Rosenzweig using math and digital technology as a powerful line of intervention in culture and aesthetics. The Mathematical Imagination investigates mostly the position of these three German Jewish writers of the XX century concerning the relationship between mathematics, language, history, redemption, and culture in the XX century and extending his analysis to digital humanities. Mathematics is convened metaphorically in their theory of culture as pathways to realizing the enlightenment promises of inclusion and emancipation. The silence of mathematical reasoning is not represented by language but by the negative approach that is to say absence, lack, privation, discontinuity or division like in the conception of the infinite. One example of this productive negativity is to look at how mathematics develops concepts and symbols to address ideas that human cognition and language cannot properly grasp or represent, and surfs metaphorically with the concept of the infinite (Monnoyeur 2011, 2013). The infinite calculation is a generative spark for theorizing the influence of math in culture as differentials represent a medium between experience and thought. For Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer, these mathematical approaches provide new paths for theorizing culture and art anew, where traditional modes of philosophical and theological thought do not apply to modern life or situation of exile.

In The Mathematical Imagination, Matthew Handelman wants to give legitimacy  to the undeveloped potential of mathematics and digital technology to negotiate social and cultural crises. Going back to the Jewish thinkers of the Weimar Republic, namely Scholem, Rosenzweig and Kraucauer, he shows how they found in mathematical approaches strategies to capture the marginalized experiences and perspectives of German Jews in Germany or exile at the beginning of the XX century. In doing so, he re-examines the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, specifically those philosophers who perceived in the mathematization of reason a progression into a dangerous positivism and an explanation for the barbarism of World War II. Handelman re-evaluates Adorno and Horkheimer‘s conception of mathematics, according to which math should not be treated as a universal science able to solve any problem because it is not able to rule the human world of culture, art and philosophy. For them, as for Adam Kirsch, who wrote in 2014 the article “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments” (published in New Republic), both mathematical and computational mechanization of thought exclude the synthetic moment of the intellect and cannot produce new or meaningful results.

The first chapter, titled “The Trouble with Logical Positivism: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and the Origins of Critical Theory,” recounts the debate that took place between the members of the Frankfurt School — Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)—, and members of the Vienna Circle, such as Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Mathematics, according to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, is in apparent opposition to language, since there is a dialectical tension between two forms of thought, one expressed in mathematics that circumvents representation and the other mediated by language and representation. Adorno gave, through the tension between mathematics and other forms of knowledge, the political dimension that we find in his works and his confrontation with the Vienna Circle. For Adorno, the attempt in mathematics to abandon meaning, the ability to signify something else, constitutes the philosophical flaw of the logical positivists’ proposal to reduce thought to mathematics.

The second chapter, titled “The Philosophy of Mathematics: Privation and Representation in Gershom Scholem’s Negative Aesthetics,” revisits the relation between language and mathematics in the context of Kabbalist culture. In his writings on the language of lamentation, “On Lament and Lamentation,” Scholem explores the dilemma of saying the ineffable and the oscillations between spoken and unspoken language, in order to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in language (Scholem, 2014). At the heart of these paradoxes lies the deep dialectic between openness and secret, concealment and revelation. He underlines a common privative structure of communication in mathematics and laments that it negatively communicates language’s own limits, but it also reveals an aesthetic strategy. For Scholem, the philosophy of math deals with the problem of language by omitting its representation, and its inexpressibility represents the privation of life in exile with the possibility to recover a productive vision of mathematics. Math is done to speak purity, privation, a language without representation, and it deals with the shortcomings of language. According to Gershom Scholem, this fruitful approach lies beyond language within the sphere defined by the signs of mathematical logic. Scholem understands math, history, and tradition metaphorically, as characterized by silences and erasures that pave the way for the acknowledgment of historical experiences and cultural practices which rationalist discourses, majority cultures, and national, world-historical narratives may marginalize, forget, or deny.

The third chapter analyses the relation between infinitesimal calculus and subjectivity/motion in Franz Rosenzweig’s Messianism. Rosenzweig’s (1886-1929) major work, The Star of Redemption (1921), is a description of the relationships between God, humanity, and the world, as they are connected by creation, revelation, and redemption. He is critical of any attempt to replace actual human existence with an ideal and, for him, revelation arises not in metaphysics but in the here and now. He understands knowledge not as what is absolutely proven, but rather what individuals and groups have verified through their experience. For Rosenzweig, verification did not mean that ideas substantiated in experience automatically counted as knowledge; neither does it imply that theoretical statements become meaningful when verified by experience, as Carnap later argued. He analyzes thus how concepts such as subjectivity, time, and redemption are central to critical theory and avoided by the official languages of philosophy and theology. Rosenzweig’s thought is an example of how cultural criticism can borrow from mathematics to illuminate its concepts without mathematizing culture. For instance, the way infinitesimal calculus linked nothingness with finitude represented a tool that could be used to reorient epistemology around the individual subject. For him, mathematics possesses the ability to resolve a fundamental problem for both theology and philosophy, which is the creation of something from nothing. Calculus is motion over rest, reveals multiplicities of subjectivity and representation, and shows how the theoretical work done by mathematics offers epistemological tools useful for cultural criticism. These tools could help theorists to think through concepts that remain obscure in aesthetics and cultural theory, as fractal geometry illuminates the theory of the novelty. Mathematics helps us to construct more capacious versions of these concepts as well, and conceptual tools exist that allow us to intervene more immediately in a project of emancipation, in the service of theories of culture and art, and where they are at work.

Chapter fourth presents geometrical projection and space in Siegfried Kracauer’s Aesthetics. In The Mass Ornament, written in 1921 but published in 1960, Siegfried Kracauer reads the ephemeral unnoticed and culturally marginalized phenomena of everyday city life as an ornament.  His attention to the quotidian leads him to decipher in urban life a hidden subtext referring to biblical figures that comfort his experience of intellectual exile. Improvisation constitutes a key category in Kracauer’s critical engagement with metropolitan experience and modern culture; improvisation, with its invocation and representation, lies at the confluence of Kracauer’s preoccupation, the contemporary cityscape. In this book, he decodes the surface meanings of the new city phenomena in their shallowness, personal and political significance. These collected essays dream wild about the ultimate meaning of the banal and the beautiful in cities and gather a diverse range of observations such as boredom and bullfights, dance crazes and detective novels, to reviews of sociology, theology and Biblical translation. The Mass Ornament offers an opportunity to reflect historically on culture and connects the theoretical or philosophical discourse to the passing flux of fashion and the inexorable demands of quotidian life in the city. As a report from the past, this book invites us to renewed reflection on the relation between theory and history, fashion and tradition. Kracauer, in relation to the entire range of cultural phenomena, includes fascinating portions of history and situates man’s relation to society and time. By rearranging the language and textual space as a projection of rationalization, Kracauer explores the point of transference where geometric projection and the metaphors of space become a natural geometry in cultural critique. For Kracauer, geometry is a bridge across void because the mathematical study of space bridges the void between material reality and pure reason. The logic of mathematics informed his readings of mass culture, which sought to advance, rather than oppose, the project of the Enlightenment. For him, geometry enabled a literary approach to cultural critique in which the work of the critique helped to confront the contradictions of modernity and, through such confrontation, potentially resolve them. In The Mass Ornament, geometric projection turned into a political mode of cultural critique, projection, and the metaphors of space became aesthetically operative in the exploration of the rationalized spaces of the modern city.

In his final historical book, titled The Last Things Before the Last (1969), Kracauer presents mathematics as a web of relationships between elements abstracted from nature (Kracauer, 1969). The surfaces Kracauer describes are not an objective reality in the sense of the natural sciences describe them; surfaces exhibit innate breaking points built into by the phenomenology of his approach of a reality stripped of meaning. For Kracauer, the study of history had to mediate between the contingency of its subject matter and the logic of the natural sciences. Nonetheless, this type of cultural critique, enabled by negative mathematics, must resonate with those of us who live in a world of new media, one ever more mediated and controlled by computers and other digital technologies. Kracauer assessed popular culture on its own terms, with a mind open to new technology and communications, and articulated a still valid critique of popular culture.

In his last chapter, titled: “Who’s Afraid of Mathematics? Critical Theory in the Digital Age,” Handelman concludes that digital technology with textual analysis is engaged in social emancipation and can give an answer to the crisis in the humanities. In his analysis of Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, and Siegfried Kracauer’s project, he develops the concept of Negative Mathematics in the tradition of Maimon, Mendelson, and Cohen to show how certain mathematical features and concepts can express the unexpressed part of language. In this endeavor, he focuses on infinitesimal calculation and reveals how culture, emancipation and social life can benefit from mathematics. That is to say, the seemingly tautological repetition of mathematics or digital technologies can act as a cultural aesthetics and interpretative medium. Handelman considers that mathematics and digital technology are by nature able to be a tool of liberation and emancipation if a good use is made of them. According to Handelman, if critical theory accepts the way Horkheimer and Adorno associate mathematics with instrumental reason and politics of domination, it risks giving up the critical potential of mathematics and any other interpretive tool such as technology or computer science.

Handelman poses the question: what happens if we allow mathematics to speak with analogy and image, to work with the integral of tradition, the continuity and derivative of truth? What if we applied mathematics more directly to cultural criticism? What possibilities, if not also, dangers, arise in using mathematics as an instrument of cultural thought?

Conclusion

Handelman’s choice to focus on Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer’s approach to mathematics in order to reveal pathways through the apparent philosophical impasse and an opportunity to realize the Enlightenment promise of inclusion and emancipation is exhilarating. His endeavor to build on the thought of these three lesser-known German-Jewish intellectuals of the interwar period can help move today’s debates that pit the humanities against the sciences. By locating in mathematics a style of reasoning that deals productively with something that cannot be wholly represented by language and history, The Mathematical Imagination illuminates a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities. Furthermore, this volume explores mathematics as more than just a tool of calculation but one that is a metaphorically powerful mode for aesthetics and cultural analysis. Handelman reintroduces critical theory in the benefice of mathematics as access to culture and expression of the inexpressible. In other words, Handelman revitalizes a forgotten field of research at the intersection of language, math, history, and redemption, so as to capture the irrepresentable presence and interpretation of the complementarity of silence, and the language to express what was forgotten by the official language and culture. He also questions Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School as unremitting opponents to mathematics. Instead, negative mathematics offers a complement to the type of productive negativity that Adorno, in particular, had located originally in the Hegelian dialectic. Negative mathematics reveals prospects for aesthetics and cultural theory neither as a result of being opposed to language, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggested, nor because it uses the trajectory of history or the limit of tradition. Instead, negative mathematics constitutes its own epistemological realm alongside history and mysticism, illuminating, based on its problematic relationship to language, in the dark corners and hidden pathways of representation. In this sense, it is positive because it deals successfully with what cannot appear in normal use of language or disappears behind official discourse. To this point, Handelman maybe meets the critical and social purpose of the Frankfurt School and fulfills his ambition to produce a theory both critical and mathematical, and even digital.  If we take the Frankfurt School main critique regarding mathematics, according to which mathematical and computational mechanization of thought excludes the synthetic moment of the intellect and thus cannot produce new or meaningful results, we have to question then if Handelman’s negative mathematics can actually produce new and meaningful results? Handelman’s negative mathematics does not propose a general way to social critique as a block but rather opens space for the expression of what is suppressed, forgotten, hidden or impossible to realize because of official culture. Silences, disruption, movement, fashion, improvisation, news and materiality occupy the world of culture and are brought to existence by adapted mathematical processes. In this sense, the special treatment of mathematics does not repress the synthetic moment of the intellect but gives a voice to what could not exist before. Common, traditional, usual and politically dominant ideologies cannot resist or foresee this new critical mathematical cultural theory. Of course, this perspective is limited and is not enough to prepare a general critique of society as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School pursued it but improves significantly cultural and critical analysis.

Matthew Handelman noticed that many humanists nowadays have turned to mathematics and digital technologies and tries to forge new paths for modernizing and reinvigorating humanistic inquiry. The Mathematical Imagination presents mathematics and digital technologies as providing a key to unlock the critical possibilities hidden in language to give a voice to silenced communities. Handelman’s book improves cultural and critical analysis, and results into a new and thought-provoking Critical Theory bridging humanities and digital/mathematical technologies. His methodology and ideology are deliberately provocative, and he intends to develop a post-academic approach to fix the weaknesses of traditional and official discourse. His endeavor is also fruitful from the perspective of the history of the science as it shows the relation between various mathematical processes, such as the infinitesimal calculation and everyday phenomena that remain unexplored.

References

Horkheimer, M. 1972. Critical Theory. New York: Seabury Press.

Kirsch, A. 2014. “Technology Is Taking Over English: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” New Republic, May 2, Article 117428.

Kracauer, S. 1969. History: The Last Things Before the Last. New York: Oxford Univ Press.

Monnoyeur, F. 2011. Infini des philosophes, infini des astronomes. Paris: Belin.

Monnoyeur, F. 2013. “Nicholas of Cusa’s methodology of the Infinite.” Proc. Conference on History & Philosophy of Infinity, Cambridge: University of Cambridge. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1595.0881

Scholem, G. 2014. “On Lament and Lamentation.” In Ferber I. & Schwebel P. (Eds.), Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives, 313-320. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Matthew Handelman: The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory, Fordham University Press, 2019

The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory Couverture du livre The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory
Matthew Handelman
Fordham University Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
256

Marie Luise Knott (Ed.): The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem

The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem Couverture du livre The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem
Marie Luise Knott (Ed.). Translated by Anthony David
University of Chicago Press
2017
Cloth $45.00
336

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

Those familiar with the names of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem are likely aware that they were on opposite sides of the polemics around Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial. But they may be less acquainted with the extent of the intellectual and deep personal relationship between them.  As it is explained in Marie Luise Knott’s useful ‘Introduction’ to this volume, only when we take into consideration the whole series of letters that they had exchanged over the years, ‘does a fuller portrait of their friendship emerge’ (vii). The value of this exchange is not merely biographical. Both Arendt and Scholem witnessed, at times participated in, and overall reflected on some of the more dramatic events of the first half of the 20th century. Their reflections at time intersected, and at time influenced each other, sometimes in imperceptible ways.

In 1963, Gershom Scholem wrote to Hannah Arendt a letter harshly condemning Arendt’s positions in her recently published Eichmann in Jerusalem. The controversy created by her book and its influence on the life and work of Arendt was recently dramatized in Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt (2012).

Scholem points out that Eichmann’ in Jerusalem really deals with two subjects: (1) Jews and their behavior during the Holocaust (Scholem writes: the ‘Catastrophe’); (2) Eichmann and his responsibilities (Letter 132, p. 201). Regarding the question of the behavior of the Jews, Scholem mentions the many years which he devoted to this question, and not just in the context of the Holocaust, but the course of Jewish history in general, and its prior catastrophes. On this question, his position is that:

There are aspects of Jewish history (and this is what I have occupied myself with for the past fifty years) which are hardly free of abysses: a demonic decay in the midst of life; insecurity in the face of this world (in contrast to the security of the pious, whom your book, bafflingly, does not mention); and a weakness that is perpetually confounded and mingled with trickery and lust for power. These have always existed, and it would be odd indeed if they didn’t come to the fore in some form at times of catastrophe (201).

Scholem intimates that this is indeed an important and grave subject, much more important thanthe question why the Jews did not defend themselves against the Naziaggressor. But, we lack the required historical perspectiveto address this subject. He finds that Arendt in her book ‘addresses only the weakness of Jewish existence’, and that to the extent that weakness there was, her emphasis was ‘completely one sided’ (201). Furthermore, her account obscures the problem. The form of the narrative substitutes itself for the content. It is Arendt’s language, more than the content itself that makes people angry with the book. Scholem points out to the ‘lighthearted style, by which I mean the English word “flippancy,” that you employ all too often in your book. It’s inappropriate for your topic, and in the most unimaginable way.’ But, if Scholem finds parts of the book frivolous, it is, first and foremost, because of a ‘lack of love of Israel’, a lack of empathy for her own people, which Scholem claims is quite common among Jews which had been members of the Left.

Arendt replied with a letter that curtly dismisses Scholem’s criticism. She rejects as uninformed the idea that she had ever been a member of the Left (Letter 133, p. 205). And regarding the more general claim that she lacks ‘Ahavat Israel’, Arendt responds unambiguously that she never hides the fact that she is Jewish: ‘That I am a Jew is one of the unquestioned facts of my life’ (206). But, for Arendt this fact belongs to the realm of the pre-political. She cannot refrain herself from antagonizing Scholem and asking about the history and meaning of ‘Ahavat Israel’ (love of Israel), a question that certainly would not contribute to mend fences with Scholem. She goes on and rejects the notion of love to a collective or to an abstract idea. She finds the idea of ‘loving of Israel’ baffling, as if loving herself, something that she claims to find impossible.

This exchange of letters and their publication by Scholem ended thirty years of mostly epistolary relationship between the political thinker and philosopher and the leading scholar of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah. Between 1939 and 1964, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem exchanged close to 140 letters, ranging in content from the mundane to dealing with the tragic events of the thirties and forties, and to their early efforts for the salvaging and reconstruction of the remains of Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe after the Holocaust.

Walter Benjamin first brought them together. And Benjamin’s tragic death, the fate of his unpublished work, and the pious will to eventually publish his work and rescue it from oblivion cemented their relationship and is an invisible thread stitching the letters together.

In the immediate postwar period, both Arendt and Scholem were personally involved in a complex process to reclaim the Jewish cultural heritage from the ruins of Europe. Many letters in this volume reflect their travails in this period, ranging from official memorandums to more personal letters in which they exchange information about the progress in their joint work.

Arendt and Benjamin became friends during their exile in Paris. Arendt fled to Paris in 1933, after having been briefly detained by the German police. The same year Benjamin left Germany, first for Paris and then for Ibiza, returning finally to Paris. Some of the earliest letters in this book refer to Benjamin. Letter 1 makes this shared connection clear:

I’m really worried about Benji. I tried to line up something for him here but failed miserably. At the same time, I’m more than ever convinced how vital it is to put him on secure footing, so he can continue his work. As I see it, his work has changed, down to his style. Everything strikes me as far more emphatic, less hesitant. It often seems to me as if he is only now making progress on the questions most decisive for him. It would be awful if he were to be prevented from continuing. (3)

Letter 4 shows the confusion and hopelessness of the refugees, trying to make sense of the defeat of the French army and the capitulationof the Third Republic. Writing from New York, Arendt shares with Scholem the information she has about Benjamin’s suicide, and the events preceding the tragic outcome. The letter ends with a reference to a question that will surface again and again in the correspondence: the fate of Benjamin’s literary estate, who has it, and to whom it belongs. To ponder on those questions at that time may seem totally irrelevant as Benjamin was virtually unknown outside of Germany. The undercurrent to this preoccupation is, at that point, Arendt and Scholem antipathy for Adorno (referred in this letter by his real last name: Wiesengrund), and their suspicions that the Institute for Social Research will try to bury Benjamin’s legacy deep into their archives.

In letter five, Scholem complains to Arendt of the lack of response from Horkheimer and Adorno to his questions regarding Benjamin’s estate.  In letter seven, Arendt tells Scholem of the small mimeographed homage to Benjamin prepared by the Institutein 1942. She notes that the only part of the estate that it contains is the Theses, a copy of which was given to Arendt by Benjamin. Scholem in the following letter complains of not having received anything from anybody. Arendt replies promising to send Scholem her only copy of the Theses and refers to her conversation with Adorno and with Horkheimer.  The latter confirmed to her that the Institute has a crate with Benjamin papers, that they are kept in a safe, and that the Institute does not know what is inside, something that Arendt does not believe to be true. The same complaints return time and again throughout the correspondence. Their misgivings are not only consequence of misinformation (Benjamin entrusted several of his manuscripts to friends in Paris, and some were only recovered in recent years, while other papers were apparently lost or destroyed) but also ideological suspicion.  Scholem makes it clear to Arendt that he believes that Horkheimer’s analysis of antisemitism—probably a reference to Horkheimer’s 1939 The Jews and Europe —is ‘an impudent, arrogant, and repulsive load of nonsense without a shred of intelligence or substance’ (20). In another letter, Arendt mentions to Scholem that ‘meanwhile, the [American Jewish] Committee has charged Mr. Horkheimer with the task of battling anti-Semitism. Putting the fox in charge of the henhouse is only one of the many amusing aspects of the story. Incidentally, aside from his repulsiveness, Horkheimer is even more half-witted than even I had thought possible.’ (Letter 13, p. 25). This is a reference to the project which resulted in the publication by Adorno and others of The Authoritarian Personality (1950), and of several monographies on the nature of antisemitism and authoritarian tendencies in general and in America in particular.

Several letters in the late 1940’s deal with a failed attempt to bring an edition of Benjamin collected writings in English. While Arendt agreed to put together the volume, she declined to write an introduction and requested one from Scholem. After invoking different excuses, she gets to the real issue: ‘I still haven’t been able to come to terms with Benjamin’s death, and therefore over the subsequent years I’ve never managed to have the necessary distance one needs to write “about” him’ (72). Indeed, she will only write about Benjamin in the short introduction to her edition of his collected works in English, published in 1968.  Benjamin collected works were finally published in 1955 in Germany, edited and introduced by Adorno (Letter 112, p. 183), followed by an edition of his letters, edited by both Scholem and Adorno.

 Many of the letters document Arendt’s and Scholem’s involvement with efforts to rescue Jewish cultural and religious objects that were looted by the Nazis and stored in different locations, particularly in what become the American military occupation zone. Arendt participated in this effort as Executive and Field director of CJR, Inc., a not for profit organization which acted as cultural affairs executor for the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), an organization established by the leading Jewish organizations in the US, Mandatory Palestine, Britain and France to assist in the restitution of ownerless Jewish property in Germany and the occupied countries of central Europe. The ‘Introduction’ presents a detailed reconstruction of this period in Arendt’s life that is not well documented in her standard biography by Young-Bruehl.Arendt involvement started with a study about the Nazi’s policies to pillage and destroy Jewish culture commissioned by historian Salo Baron 1942. In her study she documented not only the pillaging in Germany and Austria, but also in occupied Poland and France. She later worked between 1944-1946 as a researcher in the European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (CEJCR), an organization created by Baron. Her task was to gather information and prepare a list of Jewish cultural organizations existing in axis-occupied Europe, which included also information on the properties owned by these institutions. Three years later, Baron hired Arendt as executive secretary of a successor organization, the JCR.

If Arendt’s role in the work of the JCR was at the organizational level, Scholem participated as a scholar of Judaism, as an individual personally familiar with the holding of the major Judaic libraries in Europe before the war, and as a representative for the Hebrew University in the just recently established State of Israel. Benjamin wrote in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (a copy of which he entrusted with Arendt before his failed attempt to cross the French-Spanish border) that ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious’.  Scholem’s and Arendt’s efforts, as well as the efforts of their many partners in this mission, were directed to prove Benjamin wrong on this count, by rescuing whatever could still be rescued, and by making sure that the intellectual and cultural treasures recovered did not become mere archaeological remnants but played a renewed role in a living history.

This section of the letters alternates between the businesslike to the personal. Accordingly, someof the lettersare formal, others relaxed and friendly. Some, combine both aspects. In letter 5, Arendt reports on different matters related to their common work in JCR, but then the letter ends with a copy of an early poem by Benjamin.  While a detailed study of these letters will only be of real interest for an historian of the post-war Jewish communities in Europe, even a superficial reading conveys both the gloom and the determination of those involved in this project to do whatever possible to salvage the material remains of European Jewish culture. The book includes also four extant field reports (Number 12 through 18) and a final report to the JCR Commission.

In a letter from 1942, Scholem informs Arendt that his book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism has been recentlypublished, and copies sent to United States. He asks Arendt to read the book and invites her comments, not as an expert in the subject matter, but as a ‘reflective reader’. Two years later Arendt mentions having sent a review to the journal Menorah (276, note 4), which she claims she wrote for Scholem’s eyes, but decided to publish because, even if she felt inadequate to the task, other readers would have been even less adequate (22).   The review was never published, and the manuscript apparently did not survive. Arendt will have the opportunity to discuss the revised second edition (1946), in her Jewish History, Revised (1946). Arendt reads Scholem’s metahistorical conclusions drawn from the history of Jewish Mysticism in the light of her own hypothesis about the failed nature of Jewish emancipation and assimilation to the majority cultures of Eastern and Central Europe which she elaborated in her biography of the Berlin Jewish salonnière, Rahel Varnhagen and in her essay ‘The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition’ (1944).

Arendt’s critical assessment of Jewish emancipation brings into play three ideal types of modern Jews: the pariah, the parvenu, and the conscious pariah. She adopts from Max Weber the notion of pariah peoples, i.e., ethnic minorities characterized by a specific social and economic role and kept separated from mainstream society. But she does notconduct her analysis on sociological, economical or historical terms, but through the mediation of literary characters which incarnate these ideal types. Hence her reliance on Heine and Kafka, which represent—according to her interpretation—forms of rebellion against the pariah status and of rejection of the ways of the individualistic parvenu. These thinkers and artists reject assimilation, including assimilation by identification with revolutionary struggles, as many Jews did in the early 20th century. Arendt concludes her essay with the following reflection, which exposes the tensions within her view of politics:

only within the framework of a people can a man live as a man among men, without exhausting himself. And only when a people lives and functions in consort with other peoples can it contribute to the establishment upon earth of a commonly conditioned and commonly controlled humanity (Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: The Hidden Tradition, Jewish Writings, 2007, 297).

Scholem is skeptical. He rejects Arendt’s interpretation: ‘I’d really like to lead off with a discussion of your thesis of the pariah’ he writes to her and adds: ‘to my inner “Rashi”—a reference to one of the most important medieval rabbinical interpreters of both the Bible and the Talmud—the texts speak a different language’.  He adds that ‘in order to squeeze them into the concepts you employ you end up leaving many things out that don’t fit.’ (24). He rejects Arendt’s interpretation of Heine and Kafka, two authors and are central to Arendt’s thesis. But Scholem excuses himself of any detailed discussion, adducing exhaustion and lack of energy at that time to engage in any serious intellectual dispute.

The intellectual, political and emotional differences between Arendt and Scholem emerge clearly in their disagreements about the nature of Zionism. Arendt seems to believe that Scholem is close to her position or at least understands sympathetically her point of view. On close reading, nothing seems to be farther from the truth.

Arendt’s criticism of Zionism is twofold. She criticizes the transformation of the Zionist idea into an ethno-political nationalism. On this point, she feels close to Scholem’s ideas of a cultural Zionism. Her other criticism relates to the strategy of the Zionist movement vis a visthe Palestinian Arab population. Also, in this matter she felt that she could expect a warm interlocutor in Scholem, who was one of the founders of the short-lived Brit Shalom (Peace Alliance) movement, who advocated for Jewish and Arab peaceful coexistence in Palestine.  Her main essay on this matter was published in 1944, under the title ‘Zionism reconsidered’. In her article, she criticizes the positions adopted in by ‘the largest and more influential section of the World Zionist Organization’in 1944, advocating the establishment of an independent Jewish national state in Palestine. Scholem’s reply comes in a letter from early 1946, several months later.  He thanks her for the paper, but expresses his concerns about her essay, which he dismisses outright.  ‘In vain I asked myself what sort of credo you had in mind when you wrote it’ he,writes. ‘Your article has nothing to do with Zionism but is instead a patently anti-Zionist, warmed-over version of hard line Communist criticism, spiced with a vague Diaspora nationalism’ (42). He continues refuting each of Arendt’s central claims in a detailed way, concluding in a stern although amicable way.

Arendt replied a few months later. She first alludes to an attempt to publish some of Benjamin writings in English. After concluding the business that ‘the two of us can agree on’, she moves to their disagreements about Zionism. She first attempts to establish a ground level for their discussion, explaining her two main concerns. On the one hand, a rejection of any ideology or worldview, which she opposes to a ‘political standpoint’. She rejects ‘Zionism’ as an ideology but approves of Scholem’s decision to emigrate to Palestine (which is the practical content of the Zionist idea!). And while she rejects Zionism, she claims that her rejection is grounded in her concern with the Jewish settlement in British mandatory Palestine and not because of any ideology. Having established that, she proceeds to restate her arguments in Zionism Reconsidered, the main being her rejection of the concept of an ethnically based nation-state (49-50), the idea of the identity between state, people and territory. She even states that her opposition to the idea of a Jewish state is not limited to the issue of the Arab population and their opposition to such a Jewish state, but because a multinational state ‘is the most rational political organization’ (50). She also re-states her position regarding the failure of the Jewish organizations to stand behind the call for a Jewish supranational army combatting Germany alongside the allies, somewhat along the lines of the free armies of the German occupied countries that combated under their own uniforms within the allied forces.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: An essay on the banality of Evil markthe final break between Arendt and Scholem. To the letter we discussed earlier, Arendt replied with a strong rebuttal in Letter 133.  Arendt rejects Scholem’s characterization of her as being a former leftist. She claims not be interested in her youth on history or politics, but only in philosophy. And that only recently she had the opportunity to study Marx. Furthermore, she claims to have never negated her Jewishness, which she interprets as a ‘brute fact’.  Nevertheless, this does not translate, as Scholem’s seems to imply, into a form of generic solidarity with other Jews, what Scholem described as ‘Ahavat Israel’ (love or concern for the fate of other Jews).  Arendt claims that she has never experienced such abstract love for any‘collective’. Furthermore, such ‘love’ would have been suspect to her, as a sort of self-love. She illustrates her point with an anecdote from a conversation she had with Golda Meir. Arendt expressed to Meir her concern about the lack of separation between the State and religion in Israel, whereas Meir answered that while she herself does not believe in God, she believes in the Jewish people. And Arendt adds:

This is a horrible comment, in my view, and I was too shocked to offer a response. But I could have replied that the magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God—that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself! What’s going to become of this? (207)

The underlying question is, as Arendt puts it clearly, one of patriotism.  And for Arendt patriotism is not possible without criticism, i.e., without considering that ‘that injustice committed by my own people naturally provokes me more than injustice done by other’ (207). The letter addresses then a number of claims  made against the book which she considers to be invalid: that she turned Eichmanninto a Zionist, that she asked why Jews in axis occupied countries did not defend themselves, that instead she really addressed the question of the collaboration of the Jewish appointed authorities during the period of the ‘final solution”, that if Jews had no material possibility to defend themselves in an active way, they should have embraced a policy of complete refusal to collaborate.  The only point in which Arendt claims to agree with Scholem is Eichmann’s sentence. She agrees that it should have been carried out, even if she disagrees with most other issues.  In fact, Scholem disagreed with the carrying out of the sentence (213).

The letter concludes with a discussion of the idea of ‘banality of evil’.  Arendt explains her idea: evil is not radical, it is shallow, even if some sorts of evil can be extreme (209). She promises to develop later this idea, which she does, at least in part, in her study of Kant.

Scholem responds to Arendt’s option of non-collaboration in a long paragraph in Letter 135.  Scholem observes that, first, such a notion is used by Arendt to create a moral and political yardstick that is totally unfounded: ‘By presenting as a feasible humane and political strategy, and not for individual Jews but for millions of them, you end up elevating into a kind of postfestum measuring stick of judgment’ (212).  But he leaves open the door to a discussion of evil, which he interprets in terms of bureaucratization of behavior, although he makes clear that he believes that this idea is an unrealistic description of the actual events: “The gentlemen enjoyed their evil, so long as there was something to enjoy. One behaves differently after the party’s over, of course (214).

The next exchange of letters is cordial but more reserved. Finally, the exchange ends with a letter from Scholem announcing a trip to New York to speak on Benjamin at the Leo Baeck Institute. Did they meet? In any event, no further letter is extant.