By Jerry Z. Muller
This well-crafted, exhaustively researched, intellectually balanced biography of Jacob Taubes may be on its way to becoming the talk of the town. Since its subject is an academic who cannot be said to have contributed one well-worked-out insight, scholarly discovery, or theoretical breakthrough in his triune fields of religion, philosophy, and political science, the fact that a 519-page biography should be written about him at all — much less appear under the auspices of Princeton University Press — provokes wonder. The publication of such a biography would certainly gratify Taubes himself (1923-1987) — wherever we might imagine him to be right now. But Muller did not become his Boswell on that account.
Why then this biography? In his Introduction, “Why Taubes?” Muller names some of the glittering public intellectuals whose careers and lives crossed paths with his subject. Thus his life was “a mosaic of twentieth-century intellectual life and an intellectual Baedeker, that is, a guide to key figures, ideas, schools, and controversies.” He was ”an intellectual conduit and a merchant of ideas between the American and German intellectual contexts … “ France and Israel are also on the map of his peregrinations.
These qualities suggest comparison with the 17th-century Jesuit, Father Marin Mersenne, in his role as a central communicative hub for “the moderns” who were coming to philosophic terms with Galileo and Kepler. Since the biographer reports that the people he interviewed who knew Taubes, whether friends or foes, often used words like “demonic” or “satanic” to describe him, he might be seen as a Mephistophelian version of Father Mersenne.
The list of public intellectuals who crossed paths with, liked, hated, or collaborated with Taubes is stunning. We meet Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Thomas Altizer, Reinhold Neibuhr, Leo Strauss, Gershom Scholem, Stanley Cavell, Michael and Edith Wyschogrod, Krister Stendahl and Eric Voegelin. There are more, but you get the idea.
Though many who dealt with him over time were disillusioned, morally or intellectually, he didn’t disappoint them all. Voegelin recognized him as “a real, live Gnostic,” which did not prevent that anti-gnostic from enlisting Taubes for “reading through and correcting the proofs of Voegelin’s book,” Israel and Revelation. Their relationship spanned decades and remained friendly, though intermittent.
Krister Stendahl met Taubes at Harvard, where the latter had a Rockefeller fellowship, and found talking to him “an intellectual feast.” When Jacob’s ex-wife, Susan, committed suicide, their son Ethan went to live with the Stendahls.
The philosopher/theologian Michael Wyschogrod stayed friends with Taubes through all his mental and moral vagaries, winding up his insurance chores when he left Columbia for the Free University of Berlin. When Taubes was disabled by depression, Wyschogrod, in cooperation with Ethan, brought him back to New York for psychiatric treatment– at least till his eventual paranoia led him to refuse Wyschogrod’s further help.
All these collegial relationships were not just responses to the Taubes charm. One has to have some thesis or noteworthy viewpoint, to keep company with people of this stature. On the intellectual front, what was Taubes’s main idea? It was that overturning the laws of this world would unleash creativity as a concomitant of that revolutionary change. His prime example of what he supposed was this recurrent antinomian feature of history was the Apostle Paul.
Is there any merit to this thesis? Not that I can see. The biographer points out other passages in Paul where the apostle urged conformity to the governing authorities. Revolutionary ferment can make way for creative work but does not always or necessarily do so. Creativity, by definition, departs from some previous pattern but, when successful, introduces its new form in a highly disciplined way. Libertine Gnosticism’s claim that the mere destruction of social norms will deliver a world situation of redemptive creativity is not backed by evidence that’s clear, unambiguous, or compelling.
Taubes was bright enough to know this. His antinomian principle looks more like a pretext than a seriously-meant hypothesis. Under that pretext, he was promiscuous without letup, betrayed collegial friends by undermining them to others behind their backs, sometimes selecting one as his particular enemy and persisting in cunning and deliberate efforts to make his life unbearable. By allying himself with student radicals in Berlin, he helped to undermine academic standards but later reproved the sub-standard results, meanwhile taking no responsibility for his previous actions. He would have preferred an academic career in Israel but chose an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist synagogue for his religious refuge when he was in Jerusalem. He actually boasted of the suicides to which he had driven people. When he learned that his cancer was terminal, he had misgivings about meeting God weighted down with so much guilt. He did some fervent praying on his own behalf, but meanwhile staged one curtain call after another, farewelling friends and admirers at restaurants and seminars and at their homes.
How is one to understand such a story? The readiest explanation would merely cite the fascination exerted by transgressors. The parlor psychologists would say that reading about an outsized outlaw like Taubes enables normal readers to live out vicariously their own otherwise repressed, forbidden impulses.
I have a certain mistrust of that kind of psychologizing. It does not seem to me to account for people of the caliber of Eric Voegelin, Krister Stendahl, or Michael and Edith Wyshogrod admitting a man like that into their working lives.
Since I was not as charmed by Jacob Taubes as some claimed to be, I must cast about for other explanations more consistent with my own experience of him. He’d been helpful to me professionally – and this in spite of getting nowhere erotically with Abigail. Had I been simply indifferent to the surface layers of erudition and charm that appealed to so many? It puzzled me. After we parted, I seldom thought about him. He didn’t visit my dreams or represent anything in my imagination. What really had been going on?
Experimentally, I decided to revisit the one incident that had prompted me to stop having anything more to do with Jacob Taubes: my near-heart attack. I attributed it to him although, for the life of me, I can’t remember the incident that triggered such a reaction in me, which was unprecedented and never recurred. When I left Columbia to take my doctoral degree at Penn State, I met a middle-aged European philosopher there who asked me if I’d known Taubes at Columbia and unhesitatingly attributed to him his own full-fledged heart attack. Likely there were others who could have made that claim, or did. If a reaction that I attributed to Taubes might have killed me, then clearly I was not as indifferent to his influence as I supposed. What had been going on along the trajectory of that almost-heart attack?
In search of an answer, I decided to relive it in memory. Oh, I thought. I see. From inside the experience, it’s all quite clear. Let me explain. There was something Jacob did, more blatantly with some, more covertly with others. With his rabbinic lineage and ordination, he drew people toward himself with the suggestion that he spoke for the covenant – from within the covenant – and then betrayed their most sacred yearnings. My body had felt that and reacted accordingly.
I’m not a ritually observant Jew, but I’m very much Jewish. For me, the covenant between God and Israel is the unsurpassable event in human history. There is a category in the history of Israel (Leviticus 22:32) as in rabbinic Judaism, that is called
the Desecration of the Name.
It denotes acts that appear to reflect badly on God, bringing the Name of God into disrepute, occasioning juicy or malicious gossip at God’s expense.
Nothing atones for it – not suffering, not the Day of Atonement, not even effortful, conscious repentance.
Jesus, no doubt from within the same tradition, says something very similar: “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven …” (Matthew 12:31).