Academic Gossip

Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom.
Edwin Landseer, 1848

Academic Gossip

One of the seldom-mentioned pleasures of life in the academy – the House that Plato Built – is academic gossip.  It juxtaposes the life of ideas against real-life — whetting one’s appetite for both!

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes by Jerry Z. Muller, and can’t recall reading any nonfiction book so many of whose characters were personally known to me.  Despite my hundred-percent-ambivalent relation to Taubes, his biography is giving me one hell of a guilty good time.

The rabbis issued a prohibition against gossip, which they called lashon hara, the evil tongue.  In the harm it does, they compared it to murder.  To a certain extent, as I know from painful experience, they must be counted correct.  Social death, when brought about by social assassination, is equivalent to murder and has been known to occasion suicides as well as fatal illnesses.  This is gossip on the rough side.

On the other hand, conversation that deliberately avoids sharing views and stories about people becomes boring, sterile, and sanctimoniously “over-nice.”  Our true stories really are novelistic.  We don’t live them in isolation, but rather in our complicated human interactions.  We have a natural desire to share these stories, our own and those we’ve witnessed, to hear them and to figure them out.  

Here certain qualifications need to be kept in mind: secrets told in confidence ought not to be divulged; malicious rumors supported by doubtful evidence should not be spread about.  That said, there’s still a lot of real stuff to talk about.  And of course, biographies permit us to do that without worrying over lashon hara

Jacob Taubes — professor in the Religion Department at Columbia University, later at the Free University in Berlin, previously invited to be professor on one temporary basis or another at Harvard and Princeton – made sure to know everybody who was anybody on his philosophico-theological terrain – in the academic venues that spanned Europe and East Coast America.  

Wherever Taubes went, anecdotes followed.  As I go through the Muller narrative, I come across stories of people I’ve known in one capacity or another and, over morning brunch, have been sharing with Jerry some of the stories that the biographer left out.  So far as I can see, Muller’s only problem was forgetting to interview me!

For heaven’s sake – there’s Jack Neusner!  (Later the well-known Jacob Neusner, “an influential figure in Jewish Studies” in America.)   We must have met either in Taubes’s office or as fellow students taking a course in the Columbia Religion Department.

I doubt we hit it off in the boy/girl way, since we went out on only one date, one Saturday night, to see “Ben Hur” at the RKO movie theater on 86th off Lexington Avenue.  I don’t remember whether he paid or we each paid for our own tickets– my preference, even then.  I do recall being pretty irritated when Jack refused to go in till sunset, so as not to violate the Sabbath.  

When Taubes appointed me Secretary to the University Seminar on Hermeneutics, Neusner helpfully explained to me why I had been selected for that rather nice position, while he – by his lights obviously more qualified — had been passed over.  Unlike me, Jack was not a girl!

Since nobody thought Taubes was above such considerations, I did not try to talk Jack out of his view.  Anything I said would only have made it worse.

Not long after my appointment for the gig at the Hermeneutics Seminar, I got a phone call from Taubes.  Neusner, he told me, was buttonholing people in front of Philosophy Hall to lobby against Taubes!  I don’t remember what exactly Jack was lobbying for, but it had something to do the appointment of Abigail for the Secretaryship.  From his office window overlooking the mall, Taubes could see Jack busily at work talking to anyone he could get to stop and listen.

“This,” Taubes opined to me over the phone, “is not good.  Can you do something to stop him, Abigail?”

“Jacob,” I said truthfully, “I have no pull with Jack.”

Now I learn from the biographer that – nevertheless, in the long term — Neusner came to enjoy relations with Taubes that were both cordial and mutually beneficial.  Jack “received his rabbinical ordination [from Jewish Theological Seminary] and his doctorate, with a dissertation … supervised by Morton Smith … Taubes served on Neusner’s dissertation committee and thought highly enough of the younger man’s abilities to hire him to teach in the Columbia department.”

Traveling down the byways of academic gossip, I’d not been aware that my friend, the late Edith Wyschogrod, was drawn into her philosophy of religion major by Taubes, nor that Edith’s late husband Michael Wyschograd — in my view a significant theologian – had been his friend.  Edith became an authority on Levinas and, at one time, President of the American Academy of Religion.  Years later, it was Edith who called to tell me of Jacob’s death.  I suppose I must have taken for granted that New York Jewish intellectuals, if they were busy with religion, would have had some connection with Jacob, but I don’t recall ever asking Edith how she knew him.

The future psychic Jean Houston is someone else I once knew.  For the biographer, she illustrates Jacob’s “caring and compassionate” side.  He took an interest in her when she was going through a personal crisis, and was helpful to her – though she might have made short work of his likely concomitant attempts at seduction.  I’d known Jean at a distance for years, having first met her during Freshman Orientation week at Barnard.  Later she would become a successful contributor to the Human Potential Movement, the author of books and articles — at one time attracting public notice as an advisor to Hillary Clinton when the latter was First Lady.  

Long before this public moment, when Jean and I were both grad students at Columbia, for some reason she decided to regale me with the – to her risible — image of Jewish doctors, lawyers et al who’d been stripped for the Zyklon B gas “showers.”  I gathered she found that a case of Jewish intellectual pretense exposed.  

As it happened, I did not see it that way and might have repeated that conversation with Jean to my father who taught philosophy at a department to which, subsequently, Jean applied.  No doubt there were other candidates that my father and his colleagues thought better qualified.  In consequence, my father was not able to support her application.  When  Jean – who was a pretty big girl – next saw me, she backed me up against the wall of an apartment building on a New York city street and demanded to know why I had done that to her.  I denied knowing anything about it.

I deny it still.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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