Brilliant Scholar or Predatory Charlatan?: On Jerry Z. Muller’s “Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes”

June 27, 2022   •   By Steven E. Aschheim

Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

Jerry Z. Muller

MANY READERS OF LARB and other literary journals may very well never even have heard the name — let alone be aware of the thought and personality — of the idiosyncratic philosopher and religious thinker Jacob Taubes (1923–1987). Why, then, would the distinguished intellectual historian Jerry Z. Muller dedicate many years to writing a highly detailed, nuanced biography of this apparently obscure figure? It would be sufficient to show that, in the second half of the 20th century, Taubes was an immensely well-connected and putatively brilliant man, an exotic, animating presence in the Western intellectual firmament, restlessly traversing Europe, the United States, and Israel. But what gives this study its special flavor is the fascinating, quasi-erotic, well-nigh demonic nature of the man’s personality and Muller’s tantalizing connection of these features to Taubes’s philosophical ruminations and religious and historical pursuits. Given his intensity and radicalism, his wildly vacillating moods and relationships, his unending contempt for cozy and settled bourgeois liberalism, and his search for some kind of messianic universal future, the title Muller has chosen for his biography, Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes, could not be more apt.

With his mercurial restlessness, his reputedly mysterious persona, and his exciting (if often dubious) intellectual presence, Taubes, from early on in his life, was able to attract or connect with an astonishing array of scholars and thinkers, from the left, right, and center. An exceedingly partial list includes such names as Paul Tillich, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Susan Sontag in the United States; and Martin Buber, Hugo Bergmann, and Taubes’s hero and later arch-enemy, Gershom Scholem, in Israel. In Germany while engaged with and intrigued by Ernst Jünger, Armin Mohler, and, above all, Carl Schmitt (all on the radical right), he was equally connected to left-wing critical theorists like Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas — not to mention many others in-between. He taught — almost always controversially — at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, the Hebrew University, the University of Zurich, and — most turbulently — the Free University of Berlin. Through the lens of Taubes’s volatile and mobile life, then, Muller is able to provide an intriguing panoramic portrait of 20th-century intellectual life in the West and the eminent institutions in which it was nurtured.

Taubes was the scion of a distinguished rabbinical family (his often concerned and dismayed father was chief rabbi of Zurich). It is no wonder then that throughout his life he was driven by a fervent and knowledgeable religiosity. But what surprised his respectable bourgeois parents (and virtually everyone who met him later in his life) was his radically transgressive conception of religious practice and faith and the degree to which a stout antinomianism — sexual as well as theological — stood at its center. Despite his explosive volatility (and ultimate psychotic breakdown), Taubes really had only one great animating insight, albeit with numerous variations and applied in different contexts. This combined his interest in theology (and religious practice), politics, and secularizing modernity with his abiding fascination for the apostle Paul (whom he regarded as an essentially Jewish figure with a message of trans-ethnic appeal). Taubes spent a lifetime studying, and critically admiring, apocalyptic moments and antinomian movements that recurred throughout history, and the normative legal structures upon which they were dependent and against which they revolted. The roots of these moments and movements, he argued, were to be found in a tension within Judaism itself: between the notion of the Law as eternal and the messianic claim that it would be suspended at the end of days. This, he argued, was equally true for the Jewish Sabbatean and Frankist movements, for Paul and later Christian developments, and even for subsequent modern political faiths such as Marxism. Most intriguingly, as Muller perceptively notes, these transgressive moments — like the sacrilegious Sabbatean notion of “redemption through sin” — were not just of academic interest to Taubes but were woven into the very texture of his personality.

Taubes’s 1947 doctorate on “Occidental Eschatology” — the West’s ultimate concern with death, judgment, the soul, and the final destiny of mankind — reflected this lifelong interest in antinomianism and apocalypse, as did the many related projects he later undertook but was seldom able to complete. Always interested in grand narratives, he found common ground with Hans Jonas’s pioneering work on Gnosticism, with its rejection of the present evil world, and Karl Löwith’s writings on the philosophy of providential history. Yet, for all of Taubes’s widespread knowledge, there was always doubt, not just about its depth but also about his own intellectual honesty. While Muller is generous about the ways in which Löwith and Taubes mutually influenced each other, this is not the way Löwith himself saw it. Muller leaves unmentioned the fact that, when Jonas (who previously did not know Taubes) asked Löwith whether Taubes’s work was any good, he laughed and replied, “Oh, it’s a very good book. And that’s no accident — half of it’s by you, and the other half’s by me.”

Taubes soon achieved a kind of mocking multi-version notoriety as a kind of charlatan. On one occasion, some Harvard professors began a discussion about the theory of the soul of Bertram of Hildesheim, whose notions, they posited, were an intermediate form between the Thomistic and Scotist schools. After listening intently, Taubes went on to expound brilliantly and in detail about Bertram, astonishing all present with his profound and comprehensive knowledge — until he was informed that no such person existed. It is, of course, easy to ridicule such pretension, but Muller, while aware of Taubes’s many dubious qualities, is always at pains to point out as well his acumen and insight. The Bertram incident, Muller notes, “also reflects his talent for placing a book or thinker in a field of intellectual coordinates, and deducing what the key tenets ought to have been. To pull off the stunt he actually had to know a great deal about Thomism (i.e. the followers of Thomas Aquinas) and Scotism (i.e. the followers of Duns Scotus).”

From very early on, Taubes’s transgressive sexual predilections were also evident. His first erotic affairs were deliberately with shocked — but fascinated — religiously Orthodox women old enough to be his mother (Muller thankfully spares us too much psychoanalytic speculation here apart from observing that Taubes — unworldly and unclean in his hygienic habits — needed maternal looking after). His subsequent serial seduction of countless women (including on one occasion bedding a clearly underaged babysitter) was, typically, couched in religious and spiritual imagery. He would quote the Kabbalistic notion of the separation of male and female elements at creation and their later ecstatic fusion. He could also couch his insatiability as a form of redemption through sin or, alternatively, could quote Paul’s dictum, “that which I will, I do not do; that which I would not do, I do,” thus conveniently rationalizing his inability — or unwillingness — to resist temptation.

Despite this seemingly unquenchable sexual appetite, Taubes was twice married. His first (compulsively philandering) marriage, to the remarkably beautiful and intelligent Susan Feldmann, was marked by great passion but also by fundamental differences, ending in their divorce in 1966. One important tension consisted in their differing evaluations of Judaism. As Muller puts it, Susan found Judaism entirely alien, despite coming from a Jewish background herself, whereas for Jacob it was fundamental. Even though he “took pleasure in rattling the cage of the Law,” Muller writes, “it was the cage that gave him an object to rattle.” (This duality was always present. To shock and demonstrate his apostasy he would demonstratively eat pork, yet at other times he would visit the most traditional Jewish synagogues, be moved by their intensity and authenticity, wrap himself in traditional prayer shawls, and pray with fervor, sometimes to the point of weeping.) The fact that the couple brought up their son Ethan entirely bereft of both traditional Jewish education and practice was a source of contention and pain to Jacob, perhaps contributing to his habit of hitting the boy. Susan Sontag played an important role in the couple’s life, befriending both partners. Jacob Taubes taught various classes with her, and they had a brief affair (Sontag reported that Taubes was “unexpectedly good + sensitive sexually”). She even documented their triple friendship in her 1969 film Duet for Cannibals, where in one scene all three are pictured in bed together.

Susan Taubes died by suicide in November 1969. Jacob Taubes’s second marriage — to a radical German woman of remarkable lineage, Margherita von Brentano — was as volatile and explosive as the 1968 German student revolution that provided its excited context. Internationally restless as he was, Taubes was nevertheless most at home in the German intellectual and cultural tradition, even though the Holocaust affected him deeply. By the time he had talked himself into a position at the Free University of Berlin (in the absence of qualifying documentary evidence, he almost always landed his teaching posts in this persuasive way), the great student uprising had erupted. Taubes was ecstatically ignited by these events. This at last seemed to be the apocalyptic moment for which he had long waited. After all, his great existential template consisted of eschatological movements whose origins may have been rooted in Jewish, Paulinian, and Christian traditions but which, in the modern age, could take on secular, universal messianic form. Through his charismatic teaching and activist exhortations, Taubes became the Free University’s spiritus rector. Although he later became somewhat disillusioned with the movement’s lowering of standards and clearly grasped its shortcomings, he was included in a November 1968 list of the revolution’s eminences, a few places below Mao and just above Karl Marx!

How are we to assess a life so full of tensions, paradoxes, and ambivalences, a psyche liminally poised between Judaism and Christianity, between scholarly skepticism and fervent religious belief, between theoretical abstraction and naked carnality? Muller is remarkably non-judgmental in his appraisal, leaving it to readers to render their own verdict on this complex character. He stresses Taubes’s role in numerous intellectual worlds and the leavening ways in which he functioned as a facilitator, a promoter, and a connecting node of ideas. He was able to do this, Muller writes, because he embodied intellectualism as a way of life: a person who not only thought about ideas but who could impart them with verve.

His breadth of knowledge, brilliance of insight, and sharpness of wit could dazzle. […] [H]e was anything but a typical professor — nor did he seek to be. He aspired to be less a scholar than a seer. His self-appointed role was that of a gnostic, apocalyptist, or revolutionist — a man who fed on crisis, constantly on the lookout for signs of the impending destruction and transformation of a world perceived as evil or corrupted. To some that made him inspiring, to others frightening, to some a treasure, to others a purveyor of fool’s gold.

As a friend and lover, Taubes could exhibit both great kindness and shocking cruelty. As a teacher, he exerted a kind of magically seductive, almost hypnotic effect. Yet at the same time, many sensed in him a kind of perverted, even demonic manipulator. He had, Muller writes, an almost predatory instinct for human weakness and how to exploit it. Some found him simultaneously fascinating, alienating, and unnerving. When Taubes asked a student to “tell me about yourself,” he proceeded to show a preternatural depth of insight that his interlocutor found positively frightening. His knowledge even of the most arcane things was clearly impressive. “Before there was Google,” Walter Sokel, the literary critic, later quipped, “there was Taubes.” Yet almost everyone also recognized his use of (not systematically formulated) ideas as a form of self-exhibition. Aware of his charlatanry, people would nevertheless listen with fascination. As one observer exclaimed: “Dear Taubes, I don’t believe a word you say, but it’s really great to talk with you.” He was an exciting explicator of ideas yet was incapable of sustained analysis and seldom completed proposed projects. His erotic and personal life skimmed the line between liberation and degradation. Perhaps his theatricality, his assumption of multiple identities and loyalties, emanated from a deep sense of loneliness. Eventually he succumbed to these tensions and experienced numerous mental breakdowns, including full-blown psychosis.

Muller concludes his prodigiously researched study by considering the critical reception, the “afterlives,” of Jacob Taubes. Most prominently, he discusses Taubes’s posthumously published notes and lectures on Carl Schmitt and the political theology of Paul. Muller suggests that contemporary leftist critics such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek took from Taubes the notion of Paul as a radical, spiritual critic of the existing order and a model for a community free from domination. Taubes, to be sure, had some influence in these configurations, but it should not be exaggerated. These thinkers, quite unlike Taubes, have emphasized Paul’s break from the Jewish tradition, the way he undermined rather than expanded it. Indeed, the other examples of Taubes’s influence cited by Muller seem to me to be restricted to a small number of initiates and specialists. In a highly unscientific survey that I conducted, almost none of the university-educated people I asked had even heard the name of Jacob Taubes. It is true that some German critics tried to annex him into the canon of great 20th-century German Jewish thinkers, yet this campaign has clearly not succeeded. Both in terms of his posthumous reputation (or perhaps infamy) and the substance of his thought, Taubes has not been integrated into the company of thinkers and scholars that includes Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Martin Buber, and Gershom Scholem (with all of whom, in various — often complicated — ways, he was personally acquainted).

For all that, this comprehensive biography is an important one. Muller has brought to life a unique and fascinating German-speaking Jewish figure who — more than other conventional thinkers — sought, in particularly intense and sometimes bizarre form, to negotiate the great post-Holocaust intellectual, political, and religious tensions of his time. Taubes’s special qualities, Muller suggests, were the result of hypomania, a condition characterized by enhanced liveliness, interpersonal charm, a high degree of perceptiveness, and an uncanny ability to identify vulnerable spots in others. While depression is part of the condition, it can also be a source of intellectual energy, creativity, and personal effervescence. Yet Muller never reduces the man to his psycho-physical symptoms. His cogently documented biography, empathic in its presentation and judgment, goes a long way in helping us put mortal flesh on the charismatic puzzle that was Jacob Taubes.


Steven E. Aschheim is emeritus professor of history at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. The author and editor of numerous books, most recently Fragile Spaces: Forays into Jewish Memory, European History and Complex Identities (2018), he has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, The Jewish Review of Books, and Haaretz.