“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.)

Impressionable students were not the only ones fascinated by Taubes. A partial list of distinguished intellectuals who relished his conversation stretches from the great talmudist Saul Lieberman to Susan Sontag; from the German radical conservative thinker Carl Schmitt to Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the German New Left; from Irving Kristol, who once described Taubes as the only truly charismatic intellectual he had ever met, to Jacques Derrida.

A tormented—and sometimes tormenting—figure, Taubes’s life was, by 1977, a mess, the subject of academic gossip, if not legend. His first wife, Susan, committed suicide shortly after publishing a coruscating novel depicting their lives together; his second marriage had fallen apart; during the previous two years he had been committed to sanitariums in Berlin and New York; and when he crossed paths with Cohen he was living in a monastery outside of Paris. 

Although the letter Taubes sent to Cohen following their conversation clearly, if implicitly, asserted his scholarly and intellectual superiority—something Arthur A. Cohen never contested—Cohen was, by that point, the more prominent figure. As a founder of Noonday Press and an editor at several other leading presses, he had published some of the most influential books of the postwar period. He was also an important liberal Jewish theologian, an accomplished literary critic, and a novelist of ideas, whose own books included The Natural and the Supernatural Jew: An Historical and Theological Introduction; The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, and Other Dissenting Essays; and In the Days of Simon Stern.


Taubes’s letter to Cohen begins “I am impossible,” although ostensibly this is only a remark about his peripatetic life. In response to Cohen’s dismissal of Simone Weil’s critique of Judaism as one made in ignorance, Taubes, the scion of many generations of rabbis and Cohen’s first instructor in Talmud, mounts an incisive, wide-ranging critique of the rabbinic monopoly on what counted as Jewish knowledge. He attacks the rabbinic valorization of learning and concomitant denigration of the “am ha-aretz,” or ignoramus, while making sure to remind Cohen that he himself is at home in rabbinic literature while Cohen is, by rabbinic standards, an am ha-aretz. Finally, Taubes questions whether “study,” in either the sense of traditional erudition or of modern academic scholarship, is truly capable of answering fundamental contemporary questions about the plausibility of Judaism. Erudition, he suggests, may be a way of fending off confrontation with ultimate questions. Taubes concludes by suggesting that Judaic scholarship, as it has developed in the United States, is vitiated by apologetics for a boring bourgeois form of Jewish life typified by his erstwhile academic patron Louis Finkelstein and the institution he led. There is much naming of names, but there is also a subtle hermeneutic intelligence at work.

There is a more personal dimension to Taubes’s argument with Cohen. As a student at the University of Chicago, Cohen had undergone a crisis of faith in which he had been tempted to convert to Catholicism; this led him to study Judaism with Milton Steinberg, the well-known rabbi of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, and eventually to JTS, where he met Taubes. And yet, part of what made Taubes exciting to worldly, philosophically sophisticated students like Cohen and Richard Rubenstein (whom he mentions in passing) was his fascination with Paul’s critique of Judaism as law. 

A few years later, Susan wrote her doctoral dissertation on Weil and published two essays about her, including “The Riddle of Simone Weil,” to which Taubes and Cohen refer. In that essay, written for a short-lived Greenwich Village literary magazine, Susan Taubes came close to endorsing Weil’s extreme rejection of the Hebrew Bible and of Judaism as a worldly, particularistic, tribalistic faith, writing that “greater familiarity with Jewish practices could only have proven to her the thoroughly historical and national character of Jewish cult”; and adding that “since the rise of Christianity, Judaism has tended to suppress precisely those elements in its spirituality which Christianity had seized upon and to stress its particularism by making the legal and ritual code the center of its religious life.” 

Of course, by the time Jacob Taubes and Arthur Cohen met in front of that bookstore in Paris, Susan Taubes was dead, Cohen was a leading post-Holocaust theologian, and Jacob was living in a monastery, a shattered man. So their jousting over Weil, the great Catholic philosopher-mystic who was famously a convert from Judaism, the value of Jewish scholarship and the limits of internal Jewish critique had a deeply personal dimension, of which both men were keenly aware. “I love your letters,” Cohen replied, “They move me with their tenderness and ferocity,” but he also hit back.

Beginning in the following year Taubes spent a portion of each year in Jerusalem, where he lived at the Lutheran Bible College, lectured on Paul to the monks at Dominican-run École Biblique, spent time with the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Neturei Karta in nearby Meah Shearim, and shared insights and anecdotes (many of them improbable, most, but not all of them, true) with younger Israeli scholars and intellectuals. He died in 1987 at the age of 64; Cohen had passed away six months earlier, at the age of 58, from leukemia.

Taubes’s letter, handwritten on 13 pages, is in the Cohen papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, as is Cohen’s two-page typed response. Taubes’s letter is transcribed here in its entirety. The main part of Cohen’s somewhat more scattershot and elliptical response is also reproduced. The text has been lightly edited to correct minor mistakes, though preserving Taubes’s sometimes idiosyncratic use of quotation marks. Hebrew terms have been transliterated. My additions are in square brackets. 


Dear Arthur,

I am impossible. I left my address book in Berlin, thus I only know Ethan’s and Tania’s addresses as well as [the publisher] Suhrkamp’s and, of course, tout Berlin. Therefore this note reaches you via Ethan.

One remark of yours “follows” me. You think that in the history of Jewish self criticism there is [a] principal difference between Spinoza who “studied” and Simone Weil who was “ignorant.” I doubt whether this difference is as crucial as you think, for we have to consider what “study” means and entails in the context we are envisaging.

1.That Jewish religion is a religion of study: ve-shinantem levanecha [“you shall teach them to your children,” Deut. 6:7] . . . ve-limadetem otam [“teach them,” Deut. 11:19] is not a “natural” quality of our experience, but deeply connected with [the] experience of Torah as Divine Word. Compare Psalm 1 uve-torato yehege yomam va-laila [“he shall take pleasure in the Torah day and night”] or similar, compare Psalm 19 where a praise of nature is suddenly interrupted (or cut?) and a hymnology on Torah is inserted as follows: torat Adonai temima, meshivat nefesh etc. [“The teaching of the Lord is perfect, renewing the soul.”] Compare the great hymn: Psalm 119, a eulogy on Torah and the student of Torah.

2.The other side of the coin: the am ha-aretz [the rural, unlearned person] is religiously devaluated: am ha-aretz ve-dalat ha’am [the rural and urban poor] in late Scripture and surely in the time of the formation of halakha. This process [was] not only an “intellectual” development but deeply socially tinged. Almost a difference in class or caste between the learned talmid chacham and the am ha-aretz.

3.The Pharisees, a group of scribes, contesting on the one hand the prerogatives of the priestly clans, kohanim (who in the “Written Law” are quite central) arrogate for themselves, as prushim [those set apart] in the chavurot [communities of scholars], the priestly qualities a) of study of Torah and b) of tahara [ritual purity] (in this “limited” sense a “democratising” quality which Louis Finkelstein makes a lot [of] ado about) but are concretely even more “separatist” than the old priestly clans (prushim: “kedoshim” tehiyu = “prushim” tehiyu [that is, “be thou holy,” is equated with “set yourself off,” in Rashi’s commentary on Lev. 19:2]), whose prerogatives were “natural” ones = by birth, and turn utterly hostile toward the am ha-aretz who is not only “unlearned” but also “unclean,” i.e., isn’t human at all. You must face up to the (usually suppressed) sayings on the am ha-aretz: whoever gives his daughter to an am ha-aretz etc. etc. [Taubes refers primarily to Pesachim 49a-b, in which the female am ha-aretz is likened to a beast and to vermin and the male to a ravaging lion.] You have some source books around to check concretely the sayings.

Striking for me [is] the “confession” of Rabbi Akiba who admits that while being an am ha-aretz he hated the talmid chacham [scholar] and wanted to tear him to pieces. Akiba left his “class” or group of am ha-aretz and joined the rabbinic group or caste (= a group who transfigured Jewishness into a ritually relevant caste system).

Elisha ben Abuyah, on the other hand, left the Pharisee-caste and joined the am ha-aretz. There are traditions about him that stress his antagonism to the rabbinic “way of study,” there are traditions about him that point to his “Gnostic” revolt. Nobody understood that these two “antagonisms” are sides of the same coin: Gnostics in the Middle Ages often “express” revolt against upper city classes, cf. the Bogomils in Bulgaria. Steven Runciman’s cursory The Medieval Manichee is sufficient for this point.

Louis Finkelstein even in his first (best) edition of The Pharisees didn’t understand the dialectics of Pharisaic Judaism, which is waging a war on two fronts: a) against priesthood trying to unsettle the Priestly Elite and b) against the am ha-aretz. There is very little “democratic” (a word Louis Finkelstein “loves”) sense in the Pharisees and their successors: the tannaitic Rabbis [roughly 70–220 C.E.]. I do not know [Milton] Steinberg’s novel [As a Driven Leaf] to say whether he grasped the double edge point of Elisha ben Abuyah, but the so called “scientific” literature is mute or idiotic on this issue.

4.When the gospel-traditions put together “scribes and Pharisees” they see it from the point of [view of] the am ha-aretz. There is a naturally “antinomian” quality in the acts and sayings of Jesus (this Morton Smith rightly stresses in his essay on Jesus).

5.When Paul joins the Christian messianic movement, he leaves the Pharisaic-tannaitic caste, becomes, as Brecht says, “a traitor to his class.” Whatever seemed before of highest value to him, he, Paul, considers now—after joining “the movement”—“shit” (his expression!). Paul is not “naturally” antinomian like Jesus and the early messianic Galilean community. But with a sense of genius (of hate? like Nietzsche suggests!) he captures the “latent” antinomian quality of Jesus’ life—and turns his death = crucifixion into a “manifest” antinomian symbolon [symbol]. A highly complex affair for which Freudian psychoanalysis isn’t sufficient a tool to grasp the dialectics (not to speak of [Richard] Rubenstein’s “My Brother Paul”!). Nevertheless, Freud in his Moses (in the appendix) has a few sentences on Paul that are worth a “theological” library!

I have mapped the landscape of the problem of “study” in the time of the formation of Rabbinic Judaism so concretely, because later, after the almost total victory of Rabbinic Judaism (going hand in hand with the total defeat of the Jewish people = am, especially of the am ha-aretz, the people of the land of Palestine), one hardly gets an inkling into vectors and motifs that constitute the act of “study.” Studying becomes a pneumatic or liturgical activity, a kind of Ersatz of living. Our martyrs are Torah scribes and die for Torah or the study of Torah. Read the medieval Eleh Ezkerah [a martyrological poem recited during the liturgy of Yom Kippur], read the introductions to the Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereshit on Simchat Torah and you get an idea of the central social and “emotional” value of study of Torah in the caste of Rabbinic Judaism, at least in the Middle Ages.

Arthur A. Cohen in an undated photograph. (Photo by William B. Ridenhour.)

In younger years I was “angered” by Max Weber’s use of the term “caste” for Rabbinic Judaism. I have come around to see that he was more justified using this term than he could know. You once read, study the seif or a paragraph of the Yoreh Deah with all its commentaries, including the Pri Megadim [an 18th-century rabbinic commentary by Joseph ben Meir Teomim] (of whom you never heard, but whose work is infinitely more “important” to discern not only about kosher and not kosher but of the “sensibility” of Rabbinic Judaism than all the contemporary shmalz-theology of the 19th and 20th centuries), then you become aware that even the Indian caste system is overshadowed by ours! What Weber did not see, is the internal struggle that went on during and after the formation of Rabbinic caste Judaism and the Jewish peoplehood. The Rabbinic victory was never total. Some loopholes remained. We get an inkling of it in some apocalyptic midrashim, in some messianic constellations: Hivi ha-balki [a Jewish rationalist and heretic of the 9th century] (do you know about him?), Karaitic heresy, some parts of Kabbalah (not all of it: error of those who hope from there a “renewal” of Judaism!), then at the dissolution of Rabbinic caste-Judaism which became socially and economically dysfunctional in the 17th century: the revolt of Sabbatean and of (not the same) Frankian heresy. Frank extols the prostak, the simple, unlearned man and some [of] this antinomian cast still flavors early Hassidism. Then the Rabbinic caste Judaism swallows the Hassidic movement. On Haskala and Zionism I pass over quickly because already in a complex way interacting with [the] modern world. But let me at the end of this excursion (before I come back to Spinoza and Simone Weil! I have not forgotten my starting point) point to a fascinating development in present day Judaism. [That is the] Revival of orthodoxy and orthopraxy not just “in general terms,” but [a] revival of almost medieval forms of social life in an industrial society or even postindustrial society of abundance and waste [a characterization of contemporary capitalism borrowed from Taubes’s friend Herbert Marcuse]. The old forms [of] marriage; son-in-law is on Kest as the Yiddish expression goes, on cost of his (rich) father in law for years goes on “studying” in a kolel like Lakewood (USA) or x variants of it in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. 17th century pilpul methods are returning and Jewish boys “excel” in “learning” thereby earning according to “degrees” (decision in the hand of the Rosh Yeshiva who basically “sells” the young man to the rich father in law who is seeking a talmid chacham). You are too much on the East side of Manhattan midtown to know what’s going on in Borough Park–Brooklyn, the “Jerusalem” of New York. It all started in Israel, I think, where yeshiva boys of [this] kind are free from military service, i.e., the others, the amei ha-aretz or the pure North Africans can go to defend the country, our new jeunesse dorée sits and “learns.” There is no study of this new phenomenon, almost 15 years old, neither from a sociological nor from an ideological angle. But the reality of this phenomenon is uncontestable, the kind of marriage fixing that goes on in “Jewish” circles with fixed prices [of] one, two, three years of Kest etc. is unbelievable but possible as an empty air pocket in the society of abundance and waste. And all the “values” of Rabbinic caste Judaism and its evaluations going strong.

What I am trying to say (beyond what speaks for itself) is that I take a dim view of the so called knowledge or “go-on-study” binge “we” are sending those who ask questions. Remember yourself how Louis the Great [Finkelstein] was treating you. Since you came with questions he could neither understand nor answer his routine was: “go-on-study,” you with Taubes, Taubes with Saul Lieberman and so on. But what if you reach the “highest” point: Saul Lieberman (whom Louis Finkelstein adores in a way like a goy adores an avoda zara [i.e., an idol]) and you find out that he introduces his great lecture at Brandeis with the words: Non-sense is non-sense, the history of nonsense is science. This as a prologue to some clever remarks on Gnosticism. Is this all the “hermeneutics” available on the top level? The lowest denominator a kind of defense of common sense. This as an answer or guide to the perplexities of an age of the Moscow trials, of Hitler, of Auschwitz, of Israel? 

Imagine concretely Simone Weil in New York, going to Hebrew Teachers College [an institution of the Jewish Theological Seminary]and because she is extraordinarily gifted—once invited by Louis Finkelstein for [a] lukewarm Shabbes meal—being granted the “grace” to study with—pick your name: Moshe Davis, Bernie Mandelbaum, or since she is interested in “theology” with Seymour Siegel, or because she reads English well: to study Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization or [Max] Kadushin’s foolish books on some “organic” I do not remember what, do you seriously think she would have had reason to change one iota of her notes? After all, we had, we both knew a experimentum crucis [decisive test] on this issue: Susan Taubes, who had the “benefits” of a marriage in the chapel of the Seminary officiated by Louis, Saul Lieberman and my father who never forgave me the asinine English speech of Simon Greenberg [acting chancellor of JTS at the time of Taubes’s wedding] which she considered disgracing the old ritual [of breaking the glass], who was at seders at Lieberman, who experienced Scholem rather closely; do you think it changed her sentiments on key issues? Remember her essay in Exodus? I am not defending the essay per se, but I am arguing that by knowing—to speak of contemporaries—Ruth Hyman-Salinger or the Commentary group she had no reason to get away from the Simone Weil perspective. Forgive me to speak so drastically and ad hominem, but I want to prevent you to fall into the pit [into which] they threw you (and me) [namely to] to go on “studying” since they did not [know] what you or I (and it surely was different stuff) were talking about. I am just touching the surface of the question, but see that my letter is extending to an epistle to a Galilean at Mallorca [where Arthur Cohen had a home] or a supernatural Jew at the East Side uptown.

I am arguing that the whole enterprise of Jewish scholarship, Wissenschaft des Judentums á la 3080 Broadway [that is, JTS] [and] American Academy of Jewish Research is a fraud keeping a status quo of the lowest common sense philosophy going with some talmudic quotations, not asking even a historical question in a radical manner. More than anything I detest the Judah Goldin cosmetics for that kind of Judaism. He knows better than what he beautifies in a kind of intellectual acceptable English.

Thus Simone Weil cannot be rejected on grounds of her “ignorance.” There must be different and more profound reasons to say why she went wrong.

I miss you, really.


Dear Jacob

 . . . I love your letters. They move me with their tenderness and ferocity. Beginning with the first about life with the Jesuits, obviously preferable to life with the sociologists, but then there must be a vade mecum [a guidebook]. Rumor circulates that you converted in Jerusalem to which my reply is that no city other for a conversion, but then I could care less. That is to say, I could not care if you converted, since I regard such as a statement about one’s relations to God. I would only be obliged to trounce converts if they proceed to reconstruct my relations with God according to their own. Which is only to say, theologically, I become animated; gossip interests me not in the least. As I have told you several times, if it relieves the burdens of your life, gives you sanguinity and focus . . . 

Stay outside the church and ring the bells if you wish like that other splendid lady [Simone Weil]. I think your comments about her are to the point. I have such observations to make, but the difference I suspect is that I could never—not now, not after the inundation of Jewry—belabor the petit-bourgeois Jewish sensibility as she did, however its truth, however its wisdom in germ. The point for me is forbearance. It is too easy, by far, being a wise and learned Jew to spill one’s rage before Israel and before the nations. I dislike liberals as much as you and she, but I cannot conduct the enterprise as though there has not been a caesura, a rupture of trust which demands vastly greater reparation (not on God’s part whom I hold in no way accountable for the black holes of the universe) than it can bear greater assault. I understand you too well, but I cannot go that route. Recently I thought—really as an extension of The Myth of the J-C Tradition, to write a little book called On the Further Justification of Anti-Judaism, but I realized that even though it would work out an aspect of my own messianic dialectics, it is a work to remain unpublished, perhaps even unwritten. You know Schechter’s lovely remark: You have to love the Jews a great deal in order not to hate them. I would prefer to work harder on loving them, since after all, to love them is at the very least to like oneself.

. . . I take the same argument as Scholem took with Hannah Arendt—a defect of ahavat Yisrael [love of Israel, i.e., fellow Jews], which I agree with Scholem is a decisive social category of Jewish existence and one virtually absolute (although not, repeat NOT, without critical valent and not without the obligation to chastise, but even that is yisorei ahavah [chastisements of love]—both of which Simone Weil lacked and which Susan lacked in her essay . . . 

Love to you.


  1. gwhepner

    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.

    [email protected]

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