Many readers may be unfamiliar with Jacob Taubes (1923 – 1987), a New York/Berlin intellectual who hobnobbed with the likes of Susan Sontag, Theodor Adorno, Martin Buber, and Herbert Marcuse. Jeffrey Z. Muller’s exhaustive biography of Taubes fills a gap on the bookshelf.
Muller takes us through Taubes’s life from his birth into a respected rabbinical family in Vienna to his well-attended deathbed in Berlin. With his yichus and his yeshiva training, not to mention his secular education, Taubes could have secured a prestigious pulpit — if his contrarian tendencies had not made spiritual commitment impossible. Instead, he became an academic. From the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, to Harvard, Columbia, and the Free University of Berlin, Taubes taught religion, philosophy, hermeneutics, and everything in between. The looser the boundaries, the better. Taubes was not as interested in specific disciplines as much as he was in discourse.
While having a biography of Taubes is important, the greater value of this work may be the context (both intellectual and personal) for Taubes that Muller provides. Theological scholars may readily understand Taubes’s thoughts on Gnosticism, Sabbatianism, Paulinism, or eschatology, but the rest of us need Muller’s quick glosses to understand various controversies. Likewise, since Taubes networked more than he published, the reader is helped by Muller’s introductions to the scores of major and minor scholars who appear in the book.
The more we learn about Taubes himself, the less sympathetic he becomes. An academic who would barely skim a book and then talk as if he’d read it, who would spill confidences if it gave him a strategic “in,” who would seduce students or colleagues’ wives as if it were his moral duty, who would publicly humiliate his own wives and beat his son — Taubes isn’t easy to like. So how did he make a career for himself? Apparently, his disregard for social conventions had its appeal, particularly in the counter-cultural milieu he frequented. His ideological inconsistencies could be seen as a deliberate strategy of bringing right-wingers into conversation with the left. And even though his personal life was problematic, Taubes’s intellectual contributions did have substance, Muller argues, particularly his insights into the teachings of Paul the Apostle and the challenges of early Christianity.
Well-documented and largely nonjudgmental, Muller’s study of Taubes’s life and times will be useful for scholars of twentieth-century thought.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.