Jacob Taubes, Scatologist

Jacob Taubes, Scatologist

Jacob Taubes, Scatologist

In 1947, Jacob Taubes arrived at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as a 24-year-old Orthodox rabbi with a recent Ph.D. in philosophy from Zurich, and with the nervous self-assurance of having begun to solve the mystery of Western culture. His first book, “Western Eschatology,” a dramatic study written in German on the influence of the messianic ideas of the Bible in modern times, had just been published and promised nothing less than to explain the “essence of history” encompassing “the whole Western existence “.

As a scholar of Judaism and Christianity, Taubes dealt only with the most provocative and weighty issues, which made him an unbearable selfish, but also one of the most fascinating thinkers of the mid-twentieth century in intellectual life bean. “Western eschatology” was finally published in English last year and this year a collection of his essays on modern religion has appeared under the title of “Cult of Culture”.

Son of a prestigious rabbi, Taubes was born in Vienna in 1923 but survived World War II in neutral Switzerland. There he obtained his rabbinic ordination upon completing his doctorate, in addition to attending the readings of a famous Swiss Catholic theologian. But Taubes had little desire to stay long in a Europe where many of his finest academics and students were absent.

Already in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, he encountered a generation of post-Holocaust American Jewish intellectuals once again preoccupied with European ideas and anxious to reconnect with the lost Jewish tradition. For them, Taubes was a true revelation, a young embodiment of the world of his parents. He taught the Talmud to people of the stature of Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol in New York, and enthralled a young Susan Sontag with his Harvard readings on the secularization of Christian ideas and how that process had determined the course of Western thought.

Many of the students wandering around Taubes stood out in addition to their erudition, the presence of a mysterious and disturbing sexual magnetism. “He was thin and short, with sallow complexion … seldom free of grain,” says the theologian Richard Rubinstein in recalling his first teacher of the Talmud. It was “fascinating to some class of cultured women who were perhaps more interested in exploring its unusual and mysterious character than in openly celebrating the pleasures derived from physical love.”

Apparently Taubes’ “resource”, both intellectual and sexual, was rooted in his will to push the boundaries. They knew him for coming to the synagogue with a ostentatiously large prayer shawl and for constantly talking about the value of transgressing Jewish law.

Perhaps it was Taubes’ fascination with these transgressions that led him to dedicate more and more time to the apostle Paul of Tarsus, historically the most famous of Jewish transgressors. This is evident when one reads “Western Eschatology” and the “Cult of Culture” and it is shown how the apostle Paul was never far from the mind of Taubes, even when he wrote on topics as far away as surrealism and psychoanalysis . It was in Paul that Taubes believed he had found the key to the mystery of Western culture. And over time, Taubes was getting closer and closer to the image that Paul gave his academic work. His version, of course, did not correspond to the Christian interpretation. For him, Paul was not the first Christian, but a “radical and jealous” Jew, or as he once said, an “arch-Jew.”

At first glance, the Paul of Taubes was not so radically different from the image we have received from the apostle. Paul was still that Pharisee who initially condemned the cult of Jesus to later radically change his position and reject the Mosaic law, which he knew so well, and address the gathering of the congregations of followers of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean arc, and this With the expectation that the end of time was near.

Taubes wondered what remained of a Jew in Paul after his “conversion.” His messianism was clearly of Jewish origin, but what about the law? Traditionally, Paul is regarded as the figure who replaced the Jewish law by faith and the circumcision of the body by the circumcision of the soul. But according to Taubes, it was crucial that Paul consider faith not only as an annulment, but also as the fulfillment of the Mosaic law.

According to Taubes, Paul believed that faith arose naturally outside the Mosaic tradition as its “self-cancellation,” and that it was in fact abnormal that such a message of law enforcement could be extended to the realm of non Jews. According to this reading, Paul was a messianic celestial of the law, an evangelical Jew.

This certainly had political consequences. “The dilemma can not be avoided,” wrote Taubes in 1979, “or messianism is nonsense and dangerous,” or “makes sense to the extent that it reveals an important facet of human experience.” It is what he sought to achieve in what he called his “intellectual testament,” a series of lectures on Paul held in Heidelberg a few months before his death in 1987 (he had re-taught in Germany since the 1960s).

It seems that it was very important for Taubes to give his will to a German audience, not only because it was his mother tongue, but because he thought there had been a long and extensive history of Paul’s misinterpretations that had encouraged disastrous consequences for that country, When religious prejudices are translated into political practice. The transcript of these lectures was published in English in 2004 as “The Political Theology of Paul,” and since then the Jewish version of the apostle proposed by Taubes has been receiving a long and extensive attention.

In these Heidelberg lectures, Taubes particularly analyzes the Jewish character of the Letter to the Romans. Unlike the other epistles of Paul (Galatians, Ephesians and Corinthians, for example), the letter to the Romans was addressed to a congregation of followers of Jesus composed of Jews and Gentiles, and located in the capital of Roman empire. When Paul wrote to them and told them to abandon “the law (nomos),” Taubes points out, “it was undermining not only the authority of the halacha but also that of the Roman state, whose Gentile laws were regarded as divinely ordained through the emperor, A representative of the gods on earth. ” In that sense, says Taubes, “the Epistle to the Romans is a political theology, a political declaration of war against Caesar.” And it was a “political declaration of Jewish war” because it celebrated a universal law superior to those other arbitrary ones dictated by an emperor who claimed to be a god.

Taubes’ reading of Paul was undeniably influenced by the experience of National Socialism and by his constant aim to be smarter than Carl Schmitt, the jurist who had presided over Nazi legal theory from 1933 to 1936, and who Taubes said to the Students of his lectures at Heidelberg, was “the greatest legal theorist of our time regarding the legal and juridical conformation of the state.” This praise should not be misunderstood. In his only meeting with this ex-Nazi in 1979, Taubes said that he and Schmitt were “opposed to death,” but that they took “splendidly”, at least “talking about the same subject.” Subject that was “political theology” – a phrase coined by Schmitt to argue that all theological metaphors have political implications, just as all legal systems are based on articles of faith.

During their visit, the two men sat down as in a Hevruta-process in which a pair of Talmudic students collaborate and become absorbed in the study -, and they read from the Epistle to the Romans the chapters IX to XI, those passages in the That Paul makes allusion in the most explicit way to the relationship between the followers of Jesus and the Jews faithful to the old law. Schmitt laid much of his reputation among the Nazis on this argument, largely inspired by a Catholic version of the apostle who represented him as a declared enemy of the Jews, and where the “unlawful orders of a leader who resembles God By faith deposited in him by the people, could not legitimately be violated. ” Taubes suggested he won controversy over Schmitt – “he always wins,” wrote Susan Taubes of his ex-husband in his autobiographical novel “Divorced” – but we will never be sure of that because there is no transcript of the conversation.

Taubes’ commitment to political theology has troubled some liberals who wished to keep the two kingdoms hermetically sealed together. For example, in a rather carefree review of recent literature on Paul in the New York Review of Books, Mark Lilla blames Taubes for “harassing” (ie claiming) reactionary thinkers like Schmitt in the eyes of German leftist students in The 1960s and 70s.

If it were alive today, it is likely that Taubes would have responded that if all thinkers who have detected a link between theology and politics were banned, most of The ones that make up the western canon of our basic curriculum.

If Taubes bequeathed anything in his intellectual testament, it was not a revaluation of Schmitt, but the inherent potential in Sigmund Freud’s work, the one Taubes explicitly calls a “direct descendant of Paul.” From psychoanalysis of Freud argued that he had approached the Pauline Jewish legacy in a “self-conscious” way, demonstrating the universal forces of guilt and repression that work both in the Mosaic law and in “bourgeois moral laws.”

For Taubes, to be a “Jew Partisan of Paul “meant to be a fanatical universalist. This did not mean trying to translate religious ideals into good government, but rather to preserve “religiously inspired universalism” as a sort of “realm of constant criticism of authority.” Hopefully, the new English translations of Taubes’ work will rekindle some of the enthusiasm it initially aroused, when it reached the US coasts, at a time when personal relationship with Judaism was an existential issue of political principle.