Pro­fes­sor of Apoc­a­lypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

By – August 8, 2022

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.

Discussion Questions

Jer­ry Muller’s Pro­fes­sor of Apoc­a­lypse is an expan­sive and well-researched study of Jacob Taubes, a for­got­ten char­ac­ter who seem­ing­ly knew every­one of impor­tance in the intel­lec­tu­al world from the 1940s to the 1980s. Taubes was a com­pli­cat­ed per­son with a bril­liant mind and a key fig­ure in cross-pol­li­nat­ing ideas across con­ti­nents at a time when ideas moved only as fast as let­ters and per­son­al trav­el. It was in his trav­els to Amer­i­ca, Europe, and Israel that Taubes, infu­ri­at­ing peo­ple wher­ev­er he went, cir­cu­lat­ed the lat­est in schol­ar­ly thought.

Taubes was the son of a rab­bi and had a robust yeshi­va edu­ca­tion, but he was also well-versed in sec­u­lar ideas. He wrote rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle, which accounts in part for his obscu­ri­ty, but Muller has res­ur­rect­ed his let­ters, papers, and con­ver­sa­tions from the time when he was a force in the world of schol­ars and thinkers. From intro­duc­ing the ideas of Leo Strauss to Irv­ing Kris­tol and the nascent neo­con­ser­v­a­tives to bring­ing the con­cepts of the Frank­furt School to Amer­i­ca, Taubes was the Zelig of the intel­lec­tu­al world over a cru­cial four-decade period.