Things came to a head when Scholem unwisely confided to Taubes that he was concerned about another student’s mental health. Taubes reported this to his “friend,” whose wife he was also sleeping with. The poor unstable man was shattered, left Jerusalem and years later, after his wife’s suicide, committed suicide himself before a portrait of Scholem. Scholem broke off relations with Taubes and would later say that it was through him that he had come to know the reality of moral evil in the world.
Taubes, though, would remain obsessed with Scholem for the rest of his life, sending him passive-aggressive letters about a reconciliation while denigrating him to others. Scholem felt stalked and started keeping a file on him, developing a reciprocal negative obsession. Their relationship is the source of countless Taubes stories that circulate. Muller reports that once Scholem was visiting friends in Jerusalem when Taubes arrived unannounced, so he locked himself in the bathroom, refusing to come out until the monster left. Another story, not in Muller’s book, has it that Taubes once knocked on Scholem’s door, asking for his ex-teacher’s blessing. Scholem raised his hand and said, “May the sun of the Holy Land never shine on your face again.” This was the pattern of Taubes’s subsequent intellectual and personal relationships: courtship, consummation, disappointment, rebellion, betrayal.
The most significant of those relationships was with his wife, the novelist Susan Taubes, whom he married when she was just 21. At first they seemed to have a tantric hold on each other and drew others into their open erotic life, including Susan Sontag, who eventually made a movie based loosely but unmistakably on the couple, with the arresting title “Duet for Cannibals.” In the early 1960s Sontag even taught courses on eros and mysticism with Taubes at Columbia, where he had a cult following. But she also witnessed his cruelty and manipulation, especially of his wife. It was Sontag who identified Susan Taubes’s body after she drowned herself in East Hampton in 1969.
Yet through it all Taubes remained on the move, accruing posts in the United States and Europe while leaving emotional wreckage behind him. And everyone knew this: That is the remarkable thing. Befriending Taubes required a kind of inner dissociation, keeping apart knowledge of his character and the pleasure of his company. A first meeting with Jacob Taubes must have been an exhilarating experience. Over the years he had crafted a seductive theological-political patter in which terms like messianism, mysticism, eschatology, apocalypse, gnosticism, redemption and antinomianism swirled around in a gravity-free vacuum, never touching historical ground. Almost all his ideas were borrowed from others, yet they still left people impressed and sometimes enlightened.
Indeed, Taubes was extraordinarily well read in many languages and fields and had an excellent memory, which allowed him, at least for the duration of a conversation or lecture, to make everything seem connected and directed toward some ultimate resolution he never got around to articulating. Even conventional religion scholars who raised an eyebrow at his wilder ideas felt he sometimes understood matters from within and saw connections they had missed. As one put it, Taubes had “perfect pitch” for the religious imagination. The provocative essays and lectures of his that have been published since his death attest to this.
The most astonishing turn in his public life came in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was teaching at the Free University in Berlin. Muller, a specialist on Germany, is at his best in the Berlin chapters, weaving together perceptive accounts of the postwar intellectual scene and the political dynamics that led to radicalization and terror. Taubes, ever on the lookout for transgressive opportunities, had a central role in both. At one point the former yeshiva bochur declared himself a Maoist and could be found running teach-ins with the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. At the same time he was cultivating a relationship with the disgraced legal scholar Carl Schmitt, the antisemitic “crown jurist” of the Third Reich, whose works he promoted for their radical potential.