Lost & Found

"I Am Impossible”: An Exchange Between Jacob Taubes and Arthur A. Cohen 

In the summer of 1977, Jacob Taubes ran into Arthur A. Cohen on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, outside of the famous Paris bookstore La Hune, and they found themselves arguing about Simone Weil’s critique of Judaism. Although they had been in touch only episodically, the two men had known each other since 1948, when Taubes was a brilliant, flamboyant, indeed scandalous, young post-doctoral instructor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Cohen was his Talmud student.

In the intervening three decades, Taubes had not gone on to become the great scholar-philosopher that Louis Finkelstein, the chancellor of JTS, and others, including Leo Strauss and Gershom Scholem, had hoped he would. Indeed, after his doctoral dissertation, Abendländische Eschatologie (Occidental Eschatology), which discussed messianic and antinomian movements from the Hebrew Bible through 19th-century Marxism in terms that were deeply suggestive but also often vague or vatic, Taubes never completed another book in his lifetime. Nonetheless, at Harvard, Columbia, and especially at the Free University of Berlin, where Taubes taught from 1961 until his death in 1987, students flooded his courses on the grand themes and broad patterns in the history of Western thought. It was in such lectures, which he delivered without notes, as well as in late-night conversations and long, often autobiographical letters such as the one to Cohen reproduced here, that he conveyed most of his insights, some real and some spurious, some original and some borrowed. 

Jacob Taubes and his first wife, Susan, ca. 1949. (Courtesy of Ethan Taubes and Dr. Tanaquil Taubes.)

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About the Author

Jerry Z. Muller is professor of history at the Catholic University of America and the author of Capitalism and the Jews (Princeton University Press). His biography of Jacob Taubes will be published by Princeton in 2018.


gwhepner on July 14, 2017 at 2:58 pm
Simone Weil once wrote: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” Perhaps in his defense of Simone Weil's status as an am ha'aretez Jacob Taubes was defending imaginary thinking, which is how a talmid chacham regard the thinking of an am ha'aretz, finding it more romantic, and less gloomy and monotonous, than real thinking, which is a category of thinking to which a talmid chacham thinks only he (or she!) is privy.
Here is a poem Simone Weil's dictum inspired me to compose.

Imaginary evil romantically is varied,
and since it is romantic, evil-fairied.
real evil, gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring,
is always endlessly, unfairly encoring.

Imaginary evil is spectacular, its wrong,
because imaginary, brief not long.
Real evil shares our bed, eats our table,
by fools regarded as a harmless fable.

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