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The Professor of Apocalypse

Jacob Taubes’ deeply penetrating and profoundly mischievous thoughts on the evasions of liberalism and the irreconcilable nature of Messianic expectation strike a chord in the present moment

Blake Smith
February 22, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Jacob TaubesTablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Jacob TaubesTablet Magazine

The publication of Professor of Apocalypse, the first comprehensive biography of Jacob Taubes in English, seems likely to fuel a revival of the reputation of one of the most significant yet underappreciated thinkers of the late 20th century. In his day, Taubes was hardly obscure, as evidenced by his relationships with figures like Carl Schmitt, Gershom Scholem, Leo Strauss, Susan Sontag, Emil Cioran, and many luminaries he influenced or enraged. As his papers and correspondence are translated, the challenge of Taubes’ thought will only grow greater and more urgent, pressing uncomfortably on those who wish to hold onto both the promises of the God of the Bible and to our heritage of political liberalism.

A scholar of religious history, and the son of Zurich’s chief rabbi, Taubes was an expert on Jewish and Christian ideas about the end of the world, and a wide-ranging political thinker. His rootedness in core Western ideas about messianism and God made him an uncomfortable interlocutor for those who wished to burnish political liberalism by showing how it could be extricated from, or coexist happily with, ideas about a divinity who would redeem mankind through a chosen messenger.

In a series of lectures to an audience of Protestant scholars in Heidelberg, Germany, a few weeks before his death on March 21, 1987, Taubes argued that the most important political question is the question of Messiah. The pattern of our political and religious life together, and the meaning of our individual lives, depend on its answer. The question is not who, among the many candidates put forward by various communities of believers, he is—nor whether he has already come, is still alive, is yet to appear, etc. These questions will appear important only if we have already answered the question of whether, in the first place, we want Messiah. Against such a desire stands all our yearning, often unspoken but constant and strong, for things to remain the same, our complicity with the powers of the present world.

These lectures were, in many ways, given under questionable auspices. Taubes had been invited to speak on the apocalypse, his area of expertise, for a conference on the theme “Time is Pressing.” He began by informing his audience that time was indeed “pressing, for me, because of an incurable disease.” Given that this would be his last chance to speak to an audience, he would, therefore, talk not so much about the apocalypse as about the Messiah, as understood by a thinker whom, Taubes insisted, exemplified Jewish messianism: Paul of Tarsus.

Taubes acknowledged both the presumption of “carrying water to the river” by telling a Christian audience about Paul, the most important Christian figure after Jesus, and the unusualness of claiming Paul as a Jew. He raised the stakes still further by adding that he had been, as it were, commissioned to give these lectures by Carl Schmitt, the infamous Nazi jurist, legal theorist, and Catholic political theologian.

Taubes had visited Schmitt, with whom he maintained a long epistolary relationship, the year before the latter’s death in 1985. In that meeting, he and Schmitt had read together Paul’s letter to the Romans, debating whether the text founded—as Schmitt believed it did—enmity between Christians and Jews. Taubes argued against Schmitt’s interpretation of Paul, which seemed to give scriptural justification for the murderous antisemitism Schmitt had endorsed as the leading legal thinker of the Third Reich. He gave his own reading of the text, and “when I had finished explaining everything to him,” Taubes said, Schmitt insisted that Taubes must, before he died, reveal it to the world.

Obeying the wish of the eminent, dying Nazi, Taubes, now dying himself, would speak about Paul, “as a Jew, not as a professor, a title to which I don’t attribute much importance.” This was not to be a scholarly exercise, but an existential confrontation with the question of Messiah—and of his enemies. The latter, Taubes argued, are those who seek to “hold back” the end of the present world, who believe that it can get along for itself without a “living God” who appears unpredictably into history and into our lives. He calls these people, with contempt, “liberals.” Paul, he argued, was “more Jewish than all the liberal or reformed rabbis” who prayed only half-heartedly for Messiah.

Indeed, Taubes’ lectures represent one of the most powerful critiques of liberalism, understood not only as a political philosophy, but as a spiritual disposition, or rather a spiritual desiccation, by which liberals neutralize the radical promises of faith. His final lectures, published as The Political Theology of Paul, are a challenge both to those of us who, from whatever vantage, claim to desire Messiah, and those—often the same people—who seek to preserve political liberalism in an increasingly illiberal world.

Taubes’ polemic against liberalism emerged out of a complex triangular relationship with Schmitt, on the one hand, and, on the other, Gershon Scholem. Taubes admired and attacked both men. Through his relationship with Schmitt, partially documented in the collection To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, Taubes appropriated many of the Nazi jurist’s critiques of liberalism, while insisting—with an honesty of which many of Schmitt’s modern followers of the right and left are incapable—that at the center of Schmitt’s thought burned a hatred of Jews. But, precisely because of this hatred, Schmitt saw more clearly than other thinkers that politics turned on such hatreds, on the identification of friends and foes.

In such prewar writings as Legality and Legitimacy and The Concept of the Political, Schmitt had argued that liberal regimes, like the Weimar Republic, then tottering under assaults from both extremes of the political spectrum, are premised on the idea that all conflicts can be resolved through rational discussion. Their leaders imagine that politics is merely a kind of debate club in which ideas are exchanged, secured by a framework of universal rights that applies neutrally to all. They are unable to see that some groups cannot be accommodated within this framework, and, demanding more than the mere right to be heard, pose a mortal threat to the regime. Politics, in essence, was about defending the “homogeneity” of the political community and eradicating its internal enemies—and for Schmitt, there were no greater enemies for Germany or Christianity than Jews.

In his postwar writings, Schmitt emphasized a different dimension of conflict, elaborating a vision of world history in which forces of anarchy and revolution had been held at bay by various forces of order, such as the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire (the Third Reich, he implied, had been their abortive heir). The latter were manifestations of what he called the principle of katechon, or the one who “holds back.” This concept, before Schmitt a minor aspect of Christian theology, was drawn from a verse in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, in which Paul had claimed that before Jesus could return to reign as Messiah, the Antichrist would appear, once the “one who holds back” his advent released him.

Christians, in principle, ought to be eager for the release of the Antichrist, insofar as that event hastens the return of the Messiah. Schmitt, however, saw the Antichrist not so much as the terrifying but necessary prelude for the messianic era, but as a principle of disorder, of which Marxism was the preeminent modern instrument. Advocating “counter-revolution,” Schmitt argued that preserving the world meant identifying the katechon of our times and supporting its struggle against evil.

Schmitt’s vision was inherently anti-messianic. He explained this to Taubes through the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. In this story, Jesus reappears on earth, but is arrested by the Catholic Church, whose agent, the Grand Inquisitor, informs Jesus that his presence is unwanted and will only disturb the church’s work. The Messiah is not desired as an immediate, living reality that overturns the known order of our lives, only as a continually deferred possibility for the sake of which ecclesiastical institutions rule over the faithful. Schmitt transferred that anti-messianic allegiance to the Catholic Church to a counterrevolutionary faith in the totalitarian state. Christians like Schmitt, Taubes claimed, “pray for the conservation of the state, because if the state is not secured, God forbid, then chaos begins, or, what’s still worse, the Kingdom of God!”

Taubes took from Schmitt the lesson that politics, and religion, are founded on our choice for or against God’s coming kingdom. Either we seek to preserve the existing order of things, siding with the Grand Inquisitor, or we insist that the promises of a better world made to us by the Scriptures are not mere metaphors or visions, but realities to which we must continue to aspire. There is an unavoidable conflict raging, not so much between our regime and its enemies, or between counterrevolution and revolution, but between those who fear Messiah’s coming and those who welcome it. Liberalism, for Taubes, is a misguided attempt to refuse that choice, to resist Schmitt’s dangerous truth that we cannot avoid making the distinction between friends and enemies—and that, more radically, we must declare ourselves friends or enemies of Messiah.

Taubes’ decision to turn Schmitt on his head, using the Nazi’s attacks on liberalism not, as Schmitt intended them, to support antisemitism and counterrevolution, but to defend Jewish messianism, was also an extension and a daring inversion of the thought of Gershon Scholem, whom Taubes claimed as his “master.” Taubes had met Scholem early in his scholarly career, shortly after completing his dissertation, Occidental Eschatology, in which he argued that the very idea of history as a linear process, breaking with ancient worldviews that imagined time to be an endless rhythm of cycles, emerged out of Jewish and later Christian apocalypticism. He then, from 1951 to 1953, went to work at Hebrew University under Scholem, whose studies were restoring Kabbalah and the early modern messianism of Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) to the mainstream of Jewish history, back from the margins to which scholars had relegated them as obscurantist, irrational deviations. Scholem, however, soon broke with Taubes, scandalized by his views and behavior.

After Scholem’s death in 1982, Taubes would write a series of papers attacking his former mentor. Scholem, he argued, had rightly seen Zevi and his right-hand man, Nathan of Gaza—who announced Zevi’s messianic status in writings disseminated throughout Europe and the Middle East—as expressing longings fundamental to Jewish faith. But, Taubes argued in a paper given just after Scholem’s death, whatever could be said of Zevi and Nathan could also be said of Jesus and Paul.

Scholem had tried to distinguish Jewish and Christian forms of messianism, arguing that they had distinct characteristics. But his 1957 biography of Zevi is full of statements noting the obvious parallels between the lives of Jesus and Zevi; particularly, both purported messiahs’ spiritual careers were cut short in ways that initially baffled and horrified their followers (Jesus was crucified, Zevi converted to Islam), but were explained respectively by Paul and Nathan as paradoxical victories over evil. “Borrowing a metaphor from an earlier but in many ways analogous movement,” Scholem had written, Nathan of Gaza was the “Paul of the new messiah,” showing how an apparent humiliation for his believers was in fact a triumph. In Taubes’ eyes, Scholem had been too timid and conservative to take this thought to its logical conclusion, to see Christianity itself as an expression of Jewish messianism, and Paul as a Jewish thinker. “It is at this moment that little Jacob Taubes comes on the scene,” he said of himself, to “repatriate the heretic” Paul, reclaiming him for the Jewish messianic tradition.

This repatriation of early Christianity into the fold of Judaism was important for Taubes not (or at least not primarily) because it corrected the historical record or scored points in an intellectual rivalry with his mentor. Paul was, for Taubes, a model of messianic faith. He was a “fanatic, a Zealot, a Jewish Zealot … totally ‘illiberal’” who opposed what Taubes described as the liberal currents in the Judaism of classical antiquity. We do not often speak of “liberalism” as a premodern phenomenon, but for Taubes, liberalism is a principle that can be found “in antiquity, in the middle ages, or in modernity.” Its essence is the pursuit of compromise between irreconcilable opposites through discussion, or indeed through dissembling.

The “liberal Judaism” of antiquity was embodied in the “Judaism of Alexandria,” where a large community of Jews, speaking Greek and educated Platonic philosophy, tried to reconcile the God of the Bible with the philosophical concept of law, nomos, an impersonal, rational, universal force that gave order to the universe. This Judaism, Taubes argued, was an attempt to convince Greeks, Romans, and other gentiles that Jews did not believe anything incompatible with reason, as the pagans understood it, and therefore deserved toleration. Philo of Alexandria, “the court-lackey philosopher,” who gave elaborate allegorical interpretations of the Bible, was the leading figure of this movement, which, for Taubes, abandoned the key belief of Judaism: that God is a “living God.”

It is of crucial importance that the “God calls himself ‘the living God’” in the Bible, Taubes insisted. The term “living” is “a polemical” epithet, one that distinguishes the biblical God from others. For God to be “living” means that he can suspend “law.” The physical laws of the universe are suspended in miracles, and even the moral laws we might take to be the essence of religion are suspended when God makes shocking demands on those who believe in him. Abraham is commanded to kill his son, Hosea to marry a prostitute. That God is “living” also means that he can change his mind, can go back on his own commandments and covenants, can be appealed to in our desperation and bewilderment. If not, what would be the point of prayer? Finally, it is only insofar as God is “living” that he can create “a new heaven, a new earth” with the advent of Messiah.

Liberals, in every era, are for Taubes those who cannot understand or admit that the God of the Bible is “living,” that belief in him is irreconcilable to “law.” They wish instead to have a God who has created an orderly, predictable universe, the regularities of which can be studied, and a fixed, definite system of moral precepts obedience to which constitutes goodness. Such a God appeals to the rulers of the world, who can imagine themselves as his lieutenants, or him as the guarantor of stasis, or of a calm, foreseeable sort of progress. In antiquity, “liberal” Jews transformed the living God into an abstract, impersonal creator compatible with Greco-Roman beliefs and domination; in the modern era, “reformed and liberal rabbis” in late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany reshaped Judaism into something compatible with Protestant ideas of rationality and loyalty to the German state. But in every era, liberals are the same, trying to convince themselves that they can both believe in God and forget that he is “living,” active in history, and will send Messiah to undo the present world. They are the useful idiots of the katechon and the unconscious enemies of Messiah.

In the traditional Christian telling, Paul was opposed to the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders whom Christians imagine to have stuck to the “letter of the law,” fulfilling their religious obligations without “spirit.” Taubes, however, argued that Paul, and early Christianity generally, were not a reaction against the Pharisees or against religious law, but rather against the “liberal Judaism” of Alexandria that had given up on the possibility of a messianic event by which God would show himself to be living. It was important to recuperate Paul as a Jewish thinker because he, like the Sabbateans a millennium and a half later, refused to thus resign himself. Whether Jesus or Zevi were worthy candidates of such messianic irresignation was not the most important question—or rather, the question could only be important at all for those who hope for Messiah’s coming.

While he urged his listeners to seek Messiah without succumbing to the compromises of liberalism, Taubes also warned against thinking that we could influence the Messianic event. “The drawbridge” by which Messiah arrives, is raised; it can only be lowered “from the other side.” We cannot change the world by ourselves, “to liberate ourselves autonomously … when you’re at my age and in my condition, you can only be astonished that anyone, except professors, takes that seriously.” We must put our hope in God to lower the drawbridge, refusing in the meanwhile the temptations either to compromise with katechon and preserve the world as it is, or to imagine that human efforts have brought Messiah.

Some Jewish thinkers, such as Henri Bergson, have tried to reconcile messianism and liberal democracy, seeing liberal democracy as combining order and openness to prophetic revelation. Others, such as Benjamin Fondane, have argued that modern liberalism is worth preserving precisely because it is a kind of disorder in which we can encounter the living God. If it is possible to escape the dilemma posed by Taubes—the choice between Messiah and katechon, between a living God and liberalism—it will, perhaps, only be through a renewed attention to this neglected current of modern thought.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.