Since the publication of Die politische Theologie des Paulus at the beginning of the 1990s – the text of the seminar on the Letter to the Romans which Jacob Taubes held at Heidelberg in 1987 shortly before dying—a slow but progressive rediscovery began of this author, as ingenious as he is uncomfortable. Taubes, rabbi and philosopher, was born in Vienna in 1923. He studied in Zurich, escaping Nazi persecution. In 1949 he married Susan Anima Feldmann, with whom he had two children, Ethan and Tanaquil. After meeting Gershom Scholem in New York, he settled in Jerusalem from 1951 to 1953, then—after the abrupt break in relations with Scholem—he moved to the United States, first as a Rockefeller scholar at Harvard University, then as a lecturer at Princeton University, and finally as a professor of history of religions and philosophy of religion at Columbia University. From 1966 until his death in 1987 he taught at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where he married the philosopher Margherita von Brentano.
While in Berlin, Taubes participated in the mass protests of ’68. He also initiated a correspondence with the jurist and theorist of National Socialism Carl Schmitt. Their relationship caused a stir in post-war European culture; Taubes’s obstinate attempt to follow in Walter Benjamin’s footsteps and to read fascist literature ‘against the grain’, in a revolutionary sense, did not prove easy to accept.
For a long time Taubes’s reception was largely marked by a certain reluctance, particularly in Germany. After the Festschrift edited by his student Norbert Boltz (1983) and after the volume Abendländische Eschatologie: ad Jacob Taubes (2001), discussion of Taubes was limited to a few short essays and brief references to his work in broader contexts. It took some years before his disruptive thought began to circulate again and to have its effects (for example, in Sloderdijk, Agamben, and Esposito). Recently, his writings have been reprinted in Germany and translated into various languages, and several important collections of his letters and essays have appeared in print.
The peculiarity of Taubes’s thought resides in its capacity to push the limits of Jewish-German post-war culture to bring out the extreme consequences of those tragic events that marked the history of the twentieth century. The relationship between religion and politics is the core around which his reflection is concentrated, moved by the urgency of dealing with Nazism, the Jewish Holocaust, and the subsequent crises of history and politics in Europe after the Second World War.
Taubes’s reflections are part of a debate on modernity he conducts with Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, and Odo Marquard – as well as with Schmitt himself. The issue at stake in this debate concerns the theological presuppositions of the philosophy of modern history and its conditions of possibility after Hegel pronounced its ‘end’. The dismissed future of theology, effected by the modern era, is revealed equally by Löwith, Blumenberg, and Marquard, even if each proposes different solutions. For each, the problem is related to the connection between apocalypse and history, meaning the teleologically-oriented direction of historical time and its secularisation. Schmitt, however, approaches the problem differently, and for this reason Taubes considers him as an interlocutor distinct from the others.
In a number of ways, Occidental Eschatology (1947) anticipates this debate, even though it remains outside of it, almost forgotten. Its approach is different. Taubes does not attempt to confirm modernity’s detachment from theology. His interest, instead, is to understand effectiveness—the effectiveness of theology and more generally the effectiveness of religion—across different political and social forms elaborated by Western modernity. In this sense, one can say that his approach is similar to that used in Schmitt’s definition of political theology. Hence Taubes’s interest in the “uncomfortable” jurist, with whom he is not afraid to come into contact and clash on these issues. Particularly important in this is Taubes’s interpretation of Paul of Tarsus’s Letter to the Romans.
Taubes highlights the element in Paul’s text that exceeds the legal structure. Through this, Taubes proposes a new definition of political theology, one which contrasts with the ‘sovereign’ unity between the theological and the political proposed by Schmitt. Taubes does not identify theology with politics in order to legitimate certain forms of politics. Rather, Taubes allows that the two diverge. Starting from this divergence, Taubes argues that theology promotes actions that are themselves political because they critique power.
For Taubes, in the wake of Paul, the only political theology possible is messianism, which he understands as the definitive ‘liquidation’ of political theology itself: theology is ‘liquidated’ as it is messianically achieved. Taubes’s interpretation of messianism has generated more than a few detractors, even within Judaism, as evidenced by his confrontation with Scholem. According to Taubes, messianism is not a reaction to the ongoing crisis in Pauline communities, as Scholem believed (cf. Zum Verständnis der messianischen Idee im Judentum, 1959). Messianism, rather, arises on its own. For Taubes, since the coming of the Messiah and in a seemingly unchanged world, messianism is a form of life capable of coping with the critical situation in which we are found without a coercive power, in the Schmittian sense, and without even experiencing this state as a failing condition, in Scholem’s sense. (Scholem speaks of the ‘price’ which the Jewish people would have to pay for having given the world the messianic idea.) For Taubes, the crisis comes from Paul at the centre of a new form of life, as it constitutes the experience itself of messianic life. The experience of messianic life involves humans feeling connected to their activity, not because of ‘works’ performed in accordance with the law but because of ‘faith’. For Taubes’s Paul, the messianic event is not realised at the end of a linear and continuous process of history as a mere accumulation of ‘works’. The historical event of Christ produces a very peculiar relation with the present ‘hour’ capable of splitting the empty progress of time.
Something similar is in play in the messianic conception of time taken up by Walter Benjamin in the Theses on the Philosophy of History. Taubes dedicated one of his last courses at the Freie Universität to Benjamin’s Theses. In these lectures, Taubes shows the affinity, as well as the radical difference, between the Benjaminian vision of history and Schmittian political theology. Taubes also outlines the unity of the Benjaminian trajectory, which goes from the youthful Theological-Political Fragment to the late Theses on the Philosophy of History. In this sense, Taubes pioneers a way of reading Benjamin opposed to the readings of Gershom Scholem and Theodor Adorno, who sought to mark the discontinuities in Benjamin’s trajectory, just as they for a long time ignored his intellectual ties with Schmitt.
Taubes took to its extreme the resumption of and the overturning of the Schmittian theological-political dispositif first put into effect by Benjamin. His correspondence with Schmitt is illuminating in this respect. In light of the extermination of the Jews at the hands of Nazism, Taubes moved away from the concept of the political proposed by Schmitt, interrogating anew the role of law and politics in the search for a new nomos and a new form of community. Taubes theorizes law in force without needing to legitimise itself through a coercive power, and thus law messianically fulfilled.
Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, translation and preface by D. Ratmoko, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press 2009.
Written at the age of twenty-three, it was the only book Taubes published in his lifetime: an entirely original reflection on the sense of history in the Western world after the Shoah catastrophe. The volume is divided into four books: 1) On the Nature of Eschatology; 2) The History of Apocalypticism; 3) The Theological Eschatology of Europe; 4) The Philosophical Eschatology of Europe.
Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, translated by D. Hollander, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press 2004.
This is the text of the lectures on Paul’s Letter to the Romans that Taubes gave a few weeks before his death. The text contains philosophical readings of important European thinkers including Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Karl Barth, Theodor W. Adorno, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. It also includes an important excursus on Jewish ritual of Yom Kippur and the spiritual crisis of Paul connected with the foundation of a new people of God.
Jacob Taubes, To Carl Schmitt: Letter and Reflections, translated by Keith Tribe with an Introduction by Mike Grimshaw, Columbia University Press 2013.
The volume is a slim collection of letters and lectures on Carl Schmitt by Jacob Taubes. The concept of political theology is at the core of this confrontation. Taubes acknowledges Schmitt’s reservations about the weakness of liberal democracy yet critiques Schmitt’s rigid, hierarchical social ordering.
Elettra Stimilli, Jacob Taubes: Sovereignty and Messianic Time, Bloomsbury Press, London (in press).
This is the first monograph on Jacob Taubes, from Occidental Eschatology to the 1987 Seminar on Paul. It compares Taubes to some of the greatest representatives of twentieth-century philosophy and theology, such as Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Schmitt. At the heart of this intellectual biography are philosophy of history, theology’s relation to ontology, political theology, and messianism.