June 2, 2023

Zionism and the Sacramental Danger of Nationalism: Susan Taubes on Israel

By Elliot Wolfson

Photograph courtesy of Ethan and Tania Taubes.

Editor’s Preface

Few people know the name Susan Taubes. That will soon change. Elliot Wolfson’s new book, The Philosophical Paths of Susan Taubes: Between Nihilism and Hope, introduces us to a fascinating Jewish philosopher who, if known at all, is known as the first wife of the colorful and iconoclastic figure Jacob Taubes (1923–1987). But Susan (b. 1928) was a philosopher, poet, novelist, literary critic, and secular/religious thinker in her own right who wrote on figures such as Martin Heidegger and Simone Weil. The two were part of a Jewish intellectual milieu of mid-twentieth century scholars and writers that included Gershom Scholem (who was Jacob’s colleague—and eventually nemesis—at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem), Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Susan Sontag (with whom both Jacob and Susan had close and complicated relationships). Tragically, Susan Taubes took her own life in East Hampton, Long Island in 1969. Drawing from her published and unpublished works and the extensive correspondence with her husband Jacob, Wolfson deftly analyzes her complex relationship to nationalism, the land of Israel, and Zionism. These reflections are excerpted from the second chapter of Wolfson’s book, which was published in April, 2023 by Stanford University Press.1

—Shaul Magid


At a time of great peril for the state of Israel, a time when extremist political views threaten to challenge the moral fiber of the worldwide community of Jews, it seems particularly relevant to recall the attitude of Susan Taubes (1928–1969) toward Zionism, the land of Israel, and the ramifications of ethnonationalism on the spiritual temperament of Judaism. After many decades of relative obscurity, Susan Taubes is currently experiencing a renaissance with the publication of some of her literary works and several scholarly monographs and essays dedicated to her thought. 

The bulk of the documentary evidence that I will utilize to demonstrate my arguments is from the letters written to Jacob Taubes between 1950–1952, relatively soon after the establishment of the military, political, and socioeconomic complex that is the modern state of Israel. For a period of roughly six months, beginning toward the end of December 1949, Susan was physically with Jacob in Jerusalem, where she continued to work on her bachelor’s thesis on the relationship between myth and logos in Martin Heidegger’s work. This was done in preparation for what she considered at the time to be the subject of her doctoral dissertation on the mythical and theological elements of Heidegger, an idea that she eventually abandoned in favor of writing on Simone Weil under the supervision of Paul Tillich. Additionally, Susan likely studied informally with Hugo Bergmann, professor at the Hebrew University. Throughout these critical years when they were not together in either Jerusalem or in New York, a fair amount of their interchanges focused on the practicality of her rejoining him in Israel. In many of the letters, we find Susan dealing with Jacob’s frequent grievances about academic politics in Jerusalem; Scholem is especially singled out for bad behavior. 

It should come as no surprise that Susan tried to embolden Jacob, urging him to work in spite of his feelings of despondency triggered by difficult relations with other intellectuals and academics. Thus, in a letter from November 9, 1950, she wrote: 

And the Israeli atmosphere rather “unheimlich” that breathes in your words saddens me—because somewhere in my soul I yet pray that this land might, someday be a home or center for us. Ask your soul dear child what conditions you really need for your deep work of preparation. Here, the best conditions one hopes for is a “cubiculum” and library stacks—and to withdraw from the “busyness.”2 

Striking a similar note in a letter from November 17, 1950, Susan remarked: 

Your words on the “holy land” are deeply saddening . . . Are the people completely without soul? But I am afraid you do not know the “people” – only the “beards” and the academicians. And what is the matter with the Cananites?3 

These letters, and others that could have been cited, verify that early on Susan entertained the expectation that Israel might provide a genuine sense of home, a place to create a more meaningful life than just to escape the hectic nature of American capitalism by sequestering oneself in a sanctuary of books, and this in spite of Jacob’s experience of the environment there as unhomely (“unheimlich”), a sentiment that, in her opinion, was largely due to the fact that he fraternized predominantly with Orthodox Jews and academics. 

In due course, Susan grew more impatient with Jacob and less forgiving of his own shortcomings. As she wrote in the letter on April 11, 1952, “You will say your ‘hands are tied’ well, please untie them + act in a responsible way. I must say your behaviour in Jerusalem reflects atrociously on ‘human relation’ in Jewish society. Tied-hand, terror, impotence[,] neurosis. I am also fed up.”4 

Susan’s impatience was rooted in a profound disillusionment with the quality of human relationships in the Holy Land. Such a concern is already evident in her letter to Jacob from October 25, 1950: 

The day went with the unpacking and the sight and smell of our Jerusalem things filled me with deep nostalgias. I love just that wrathful land and I miss it, I must confess, more than the Parthenon. But we must know not only where our land but also where our people are, and where we have the possibility of a most responsible life.5

These words indicate a genuine love of Israel—not a blind love (as it is called the wrathful land)—but Susan was clear that the criterion to determine where one can find one’s home is the people, who make possible living a moral life, and not merely the physical space. 

I love just that wrathful land and I miss it, I must confess, more than the Parthenon. But we must know not only where our land but also where our people are, and where we have the possibility of a most responsible life.

Hopelessness of Hope: Estrangement in the Holy Land 

Notwithstanding the dissatisfaction with the academic scene in Jerusalem, and the repercussions this uncivility may have had on the nature of the intersubjective displayed therein, the initial letters, as I have already intimated, testify to Susan’s harboring the hope that Israel would provide not only a physical home but also a spiritual-intellectual center, a hope that regrettably never materialized. In the letter to Jacob from October 13, 1950, she explained her homesickness for the land in terms of a cyclical movement of time predicated on the reversion to the point of derivation:  

Now you are in the land that is indeed holy: favored by the gods of earth, sun and moon, and you shall suck in their power + feel the vigilance of the sun and the stars at night, and follow the raving of the mad moon. For in spite of our linear conceptions of time, history, progress, the world is a sphere and the great westward movement of civilization from the Euphrates to Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, Paris, London, N.Y., San Francisko [sic] must, if it keeps on moving return to the source. Write to me about the land and our friends. Slowly I grow home-sick.6

Curiously, the holiness of the land is framed in paganistic or mythological language that is antithetical to the traditional belief that the land derives its sanctity from the covenantal promise that the one true God bestows it exclusively upon the people of Israel. According to Susan’s heretical musings, the holiness is tied to the fact that the land is favored by the gods of the earth, sun, and moon. The appeal to the cosmic deities is cast as well in terms of privileging a cyclical conception of time as opposed to the linear conception that undergirds the more conventional idea of historical progress. 

Apart from the attraction to the land because of her desire to be with Jacob, Susan occasionally extolled the virtue of the state as a geopolitical reality that might enhance the welfare of the Jewish people. For instance, on November 2, 1950, she wrote to Jacob: 

At Yale I browsed around for some hours looking through books at divinity book-store – with “Christianity,” “Jesus,” or “Ethics” in every title. Nauseating. Israel will be good for the Jews if only to keep them from the contamination of Christianity.7 

Surprisingly, Susan adopted a rather parochial perspective in this comment, valorizing the insularity of the state of Israel as a location that would protect the Jews from Christian corruption. I surmise that this assessment is more indicative of her intolerance for Christianity than it is evidence of a spiritual narrowmindedness. Support for this contention may be gleaned from the letter written on December 20, 1950 wherein Susan commended the virtue of living in Israel as a means to attain a more wholesome and concrete existence, in contrast to the abstract superficiality and emptiness of living in America that she remarkably linked to a fascist propensity:

I would most like to be a “priestess” a humble one or shall we say a “rebezen” to cultivate the jidennes [Jews] into a nobler race. I shall come and perhaps the land shall give me an answer. The land is anyway a good thing. One should not live in abstracto at any rate it is most dangerous and the Usa vacuum has had a very bad effect on me; my nature “abhorrs” it—anything is better—if one is not a “healthy american” as I am not it drives one to fascism.8 

The state is portrayed as a place where Judaism can become a nobler race and where Susan might find an answer to solve the peculiar vagrancies of her own predicament. Other early letters indicate that Susan embraced a somewhat romantic view regarding Israel. Thus, in the letter from September 24, 1950, she reported the following to Jacob:

 My darling, I had a very nice dream about Israel: we went there for the first time and found it was “technicolor” whereas all the world is only “black and white” and people had “schwanzes” [tails]! Long and graceful, and snakelike like cat’s tails and I was very happy.9 

I cannot profess to understand the exact meaning of imagining Israeli citizens with the tails of cats, nor do I fully comprehend the additional description of those tails as snakelike. What is clear about the dream is the joy Susan evoked in thinking about Israel in technicolor as opposed to the rest of the world that is black and white. We can presume that this trope is meant to convey the vibrancy of the new state.  

The positive outlook regarding Israel is also implied in the letter written to Jacob on November 28, 1950. Susan remarked that the attitude of Gershom and Fanja Scholem “is really insufferable and I really would not like to be involved in his circle. I think too highly of the holy land to treat it in this kind of stupid + adolescent chauvinism as the Scholems + co.”10 The alleged appalling conduct of the Scholems diminished the holiness of the land. Once more, we see the quixotic undercurrent of Susan’s attitude to Israel even as she had departed from any nomian normativity—the sacredness of the soil is to be measured by the moral demeanor of the individual Jew and not by his or her allegiance to the laws sanctioned by the covenant. Another example of a more affirmative attitude toward Israel is found in a startlingly candid and heartfelt effort to encourage Jacob in Susan’s letter from the next day, November 29, 1950: 

I am sick of words becoming defiled on my own lips, I am sick of learning the tactics of a war where my victory is my defeat, and I think I fear destitution, disease, dirt and death less than I fear devaluation, being in “bondage to strange lords” and to strange gods. What I see, my dear—and from looking at men in such enviable positions as Tillich or Weiss—that if we want to be successful we will have to sell ourselves: for that is simply what is meant by being a “professional.” There is no place for contemplation, and whatever shall be spoken from the silence of contemplation shall not be understood or wanted. The face of this land is sealed with cement and there is not one crack where spirit could break through: all is skin without pores: The only category of Being is being-outside, and all “inwardness” cast out is doomed to [be] a dead figure. . . . And where is it better? Nowhere. But there is one “place” where at least I can say with full conviction and authority that it “ought not be so.” For where is it written that America should not be [“]a face sealed to God” – ? . . . But about Jerusalem something is written. And to remember that is worthwhile at the price of a hard and drab existence and even at the price of ultimate defeat; and to remember what is written on Jerusalem and Israel is more worthwhile than all the possibilities of all the world.11

The appraisal of the academic scene in America is quite severe: the emphasis on being a professional bespeaks a lack of appreciation for the introspective life and for what is spoken from the silence of contemplation. The superficiality of America more generally is described by the arresting images of a land sealed with cement, in which there is no crack for the spirit to break through, or as skin without pores. American culture comports an externality that has no correlative inwardness. While it may be the case that nowhere would turn out to be better, Israel, and especially Jerusalem, held out the possibility of being different. No matter how hard the existential conditions, it is a place that is more worthwhile than all other places in the world. In this post-Holocaust moment, the declaration of Jewish pride as an antidote to the abomination that the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis is understandable and perhaps even excusable, but one is still shocked by Susan’s capitulating to such a prejudicial geocentrism, elevating the prestige of Israel above all other nations in the civilized world.   

Israel and the Politicization of the Theological

In contradistinction to these positive assessments of the Holy Land and the city of peace, we find more explicit criticisms of Zionist nationalism and the establishment of the state. Thus, already in a letter from October 16, 1950, Susan wrote to Jacob, “And I am sad I could not experience the land as a pioneer—and did not manage to get there before the ‘government.’ I read in the newspaper things are getting worse and worse.”12 A sobering estimation of the reality on the ground, so to speak, just twenty-nine months since the founding of the state! It is apposite to recall Jacob’s letter to Hugo Bergmann written on March 25, 1952, where he recounted his experience at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, and mentioned having met Susan amidst all the confusion he felt there. The burning issue for them was the question of “Jewish existence,” and Jacob spoke of his hope that in the land of Israel, the matter would settle down “as if by itself.” Unfortunately, as Jacob candidly admitted, during their time together in Israel, there were upheavals that broke them by bringing conflict after conflict that kept revolving around the religious-spiritual axis of Jewish existence. The turmoil with the material ways that Judaism was embodied, the “fleshly Israel,” led Jacob to embrace the abstract or disembodied ideal of the “invisible Israel.” Hence, instead of being able to swim safely in the newly established country, they were psychically drained, forced to steer the ship rudderless because the law did not present itself as an intrinsic way of life but something oversized, imposed from the outside, a sanctifying ritual that violated its sanctifying power.13

In the final analysis, Jacob believed that he found a homeland in Israel, and yet he grumbled that it was no home and not even a homeland (“ich fand Heimat, aber kein Heim und sie nicht einmal Heimat”). Moreover, he acknowledged that even though he was apprehensive of the danger of tearing Susan from her roots in America and leading her into a “wandering life,” he calculated that in spite of everything, he was certain they belonged in Israel “because in this country (in all the chaos) we can create a community.” To be sure, the community (Gemeinschaft) was to be based on the “truth of unbelief” (Wahrheit des Unglaubens), but such a truth, as precarious as it might be, was still superior to a religious community grounded only on social foundations. The great risk of normalizing the ritualistic-halakhic practice of Judaism in the Holy Land was the possibility of the tradition becoming a “political religion.” The only defense against such a politicization was to advocate that the ultimate rationale of the religion was to be sought in existence as such and not in politics. The social conflict notwithstanding, Jacob maintained a modicum of optimism in his suggestion that the remnant of the Jewish nation in Israel may be compared to a seed that must perish before it bears fruit.14 In an undated letter to Bergmann, but which was likely written sometime in 1951, Jacob elaborated on his hope that the Zionist renewal of the state would not be concerned primarily with the “preservation of the Jews or the Jewish nation” but with the establishment of the “Kingdom of God”—that is, the political entity that could fulfill the mission appropriate to the fact that the Jewish Volk as such is a non-Volk, a people whose peoplehood is universalistic in its particularity.15 This perspective seems to be reflected in Susan’s literary fragment entitled “Notes for the Return.” Framed as a dialogue between Ezra and Esther as they were riding a bus to Jerusalem, Susan wrote: 

The promised land is not a piece of earth he said to his wife.

– What then? She laughed. A piece of sky? An idea?

– It’s the community of the just, the saints.16

Just as Jacob had written that the virtue of Israel was that it was a place in which a community could be created, Susan similarly diminished the topographical aspect of the state and avowed that the promised nature of the land is related to the possibility that it could serve as the habitation to nurture the community of the just.  

Despite her efforts to support Jacob by imagining the possibility of settling in Israel, based not only on the desire to be together but on a genuine sentimentality regarding the holiness of the land and the sanguinity that it might serve as a potential home, we can cull from Susan’s letters consternation about the uncertainty and the instability of the sociopolitical situation in the newly formed state. Consider Susan’s remarks from a letter written to Jacob on May 3, 1951. Swayed by Hannah Arendt’s warning that it would be “sheer madness” for the two of them “to remain in Israel without U. S. papers,” Susan confronted Jacob: 

I hope you will consider whether you are really inwardly decided to be shut in within a crazy frontier in a totally unpredictable + uncontrollable situation. I am exasperated with paradoxes. I appreciate the security implied in a job at the H. U. [Hebrew University] but in the context of the general situation this security is a joke.17 

Beyond worrying for their safety, some letters proclaim Susan’s ambivalence about the putative merit of modern Jewish nationalism on realistic and idealistic grounds. Suggestively, on November 24, 1950, Susan wrote to Jacob that in Israel she “experienced a positive hopelessness because hope stood there only raped at every turn. Here there is a sheer hope-less-ness, hope cannot even form itself.”18 Hopelessness characterized Susan’s experience in both Israel and the United States, but the latter yielded more dejection insofar as the diasporic hopelessness was predicated on the fact that hope could not even take shape, whereas in the Holy Land, the hopelessness resulted from the hopefulness constantly being assaulted by the threat of the Jewish state “bringing about a new era of terror,” characterized as rape, which is to be distinguished from the ritual fetishism tied to mourning the destruction of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazi savagery.19 

The experiment may succeed, but can the people worship any other god than the one that created them as a people, can they do otherwise than to defy their success? They will be like all the other peoples, only more proud and pretentious.

On December 29, 1950, Susan disconsolately expressed concern that the “bad ones” had gained the patrolling power in Israel, and she wondered if it were not feasible for a resistance to develop so that the new political entity would learn a lesson “from the history of the rise of police-states.”20 In time, Susan would answer her own question with a resounding pessimism about the dream of Zionist utopianism, as is shown clearly in the letter to Jacob from January 19, 1952: 

The existence of the Jewish state may improve the status of jews all over the world, personally it makes me feel ill at ease. Unless, the state means the renunciation of the jew’s religious pretensions as a group. But it doesn’t mean that. The devil is a master at “syntheses.”21

Here it is pertinent to mention an exchange between Jacob and Susan regarding the lingering impact of the carnage of the Holocaust on the state. In a letter written from Jerusalem on January 7, 1952, Jacob remarked that the country of Israel was “deeply troubled” because the government was negotiating for reparations from Germany, and in the process, pictures of the concentration camps revealed how grave was the wound inflicted on the Jewish people. In a personal vein, Jacob confessed that these horrors gave him pause about moving around the elevated places (Höhen) of German philosophy. Jacob candidly and emotively concluded:

The events of National Socialism are part of the cross of our time and they also speak to us. I still stand without a shadow of an answer—all my compass is destroyed because the rift between “Europe” and my people is a rift that is through me. It is easy for those in the church!22 

Several days later, on January 13, Susan addressed the point by offering her reflections on the Marxist logic of the philosopher György Lukács:

There can be no “third way” between Idealism and Materialism; Idealism failed, it is false; any point of view in which the ideality of the external world can be admitted is false and dangerous. My logic is even cruder; my criterion of judgement for any theory or point of view is whether the new kind of terrorism can or cannot be admitted on the ground of its presuppositions. Perhaps we are not yet able fully to comprehend the nature of this new terror; but so much I know: it is not just “another Jewish persecution” (the Jewish reaction to the KZ [Konzentrationslager] experience is understandable but false); one of its main characteristics is to surpass the callous brutality of “brute nature” not out of “brutishness” but for sublime ends. The end may justify the means for god – and then god and Moloch are one – but not for man . . . And on the very concrete point of what men living in the same community may or may not do against one another – in the name of any “collective body”– prof. Lukacs is as evasive as prof. Heidegger. Heid. must endorse anything if the “holy openness of the Open, opens itself to it.”23

Admittedly, Susan’s jarring assertion that the Jewish reaction to the experience of the concentration camps (Konzentrationslager) is “understandable but false” strikes the ear as insensitive. However, her point was that to comprehend this incomprehensible terror, we must move beyond focusing on the ruthlessness directed only at one ethnos—just another Jewish persecution—lest we succumb to the allure of arguing that a sublime end justifies an abhorrent means. To concentrate on the Jewishness of this cataclysm is, in a perverse way, to reify the distorted logic buttressing Nazi antisemitism and its focus on Jewish ethnocentrism and the purported degradation of the Gentile. Such a tactic would effectively efface the difference between God and Moloch, but it is an unacceptable option for the moral struggle that human civilization must continuously wage. This stance, moreover, would be homologous to the amoral position of Heidegger, according to which holiness is determined solely by the criterion of the openness of the open.  

In the wake of the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis and the establishment of the modern state of Israel to serve as security against any future catastrophe of this magnitude, Susan boldly insisted in the letter to Jacob written on January 17–18, 1952: 

The center of the “crisis” is not in the “Jewish problem”: the question is not posed, nor can it be solved within Judaism. Retreat into the clan, into national enthusiasm, preoccupation with national problems, is an evasion, because we were not only the “victims” but the accomplices as well of European history.24

The valor shown in this cautionary evaluation of the ethno-nationalism promulgated by the state of Israel, surely less rare now than when it was uttered, can still be deemed atypical in its intrepid and daring honesty. It is evocative of Hannah Arendt’s premonition that the ideology undergirding Zionism, as a political response to antisemitism, could itself become the Jewish version of European colonial imperialism, which is preoccupied with statehood and thus fails to achieve the goal of establishing a national entity wherein the Jew would be exemplary of the need to foster diversity and tolerance.25 

At the most basic level, it is obvious that the Holocaust was more than a Jewish problem from the fact that a myriad of non-Jews were slaughtered as a consequence of the Nazi cruelty and disregard for humanity. But the philosophical import of Susan’s point is more far-reaching. To think of the Holocaust as a Jewish problem is misguided for two primary reasons, according to Susan. First, the moral and political challenges raised by this historical event cannot be resolved wholly within the parameters of Judaism. Second, to categorize it in this hypernationalistic way obfuscates the fact that the Jews were accomplices in the drama of European history and not merely its victims.26 This is not meant to raise even a smidgeon of doubt about the innocence of the Jewish martyrs, or to distrust the unjustifiable nature of their suffering. It does, however, complicate the story by shifting the character of the tragedy from a parochial to a more universal understanding of Jewishness as it pertains to the ravages of the Second World War. 

More importantly, Susan’s point was that focusing predominantly on the Jewish nature of the tragedy invariably validates the exclusionary tendencies of the state of Israel, which over time have led to the constant emphasis on maintaining political autonomy, territorial self-determination, ethnic majority, and tyrannical control over a large portion of the population of Palestinian Arabs. This phenomenon in Israel is referred to as “Holocaustia,” that is, the anxiety of the threat of annihilation that serves both as the template for Jewish life in a gentile world and as justification for the prejudicial and genocidal leanings of Israel’s ethnonationalism.27 In this regard, Susan anticipated more recent Zionist historiography that has pinpointed a Holocaust-centrism in Israeli society, which has instigated the rationale to defend the despotic mistreatment and occupation of the Arab-Palestinian other in the name of national security.28 This sense of danger has recently been used to sanction the invocation of the cultural need to forget what has been provocatively dubbed “Holocaust messianism.”29 Susan gave voice to the potentially perilous correlation of the bloodshed of the Shoah and the existence of the Zionist state: the overly nationalistic emphasis of the former inevitably vindicates the overly nationalistic emphasis of the latter.

Perhaps the most profound trepidation expressed about the moral implications of the nationalistic drive of Zionism can be culled from the letter Susan wrote to Jacob on February 26–27, 1952: 

If there is one thing that draws me to that part of the world it is the land, a harsh and obscene and inhuman land, whose cruelty, indifference and silences haunt me, so that I would like to return again and again and be refused again and again the secret of the sphynx. Therefore I hate all the more the willful vision of a people that is driving out the silences, and is resolved to conquer the desert in order to realize their will “to be a people.” . . . Misery and injustice may be the lot of man; but a programmatic misery and planned injustice is the worst of all; one cannot breathe one can neither revolt nor consent because everything is “necessary.” One is robbed even of the knowledge of the senselessness of misery and the stupidity of injustice because all the evils are essential for the realization of the ideal. The experiment may succeed, but can the people worship any other god than the one that created them as a people, can they do otherwise than to defy their success? They will be like all the other peoples, only more proud and pretentious.30

From this extraordinary passage we learn not only about Susan’s attitude to the country of Israel but also about her psychological constitution. The very harshness of the land—experienced as obscenity and inhumanity—is what drew her to it so that she could be repeatedly rejected. I assume the reference to the mythical sphinx is meant to underscore the inscrutable but treacherous riddle that is Israel. Ambivalent about the nationalist objective of Zionism, Susan expressed her contempt for the Jews whose willful vision is to conquer the desert in order to realize the will to be a people, that is, to be a political entity like all other modern nation-states.  

In a lyric that Susan included in the letter to Jacob written from Paris in May 1952, she criticized the mechanized effort of the inhabitants of Israel to dominate the land:

Let us go to Galilee + watch the lilies grow 
– Do lilies grow in Galilee?
     – There are no lilies in Galilee, Oh, no.
With a hey + a ho the bulldozers big 
Build Babel on Galilee’s shore
     – there are probably no bulldozers either in Galilee 
but the spirit of bulldozers (technic).31

Susan bewailed the disappearance of the lilies from the Galilee. This image may have been inspired by Jesus’s reference to the “lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:28, Luke 12:27), but in Susan’s case, the specific example of this wildflower, the Lilium candidum—sometimes offered as the translation of shoshannim (Song of Songs 5:13, 6:2), or in the singular shoshannah (2 Chronicles 4:5), coincidentally Susan’s Hebrew name—represents vegetation more generally. Hence, the hyperbolic language served as a denunciation of those who would build a tower of Babel—the cipher for the industrialized state—on the shores of the Galilee, the conquest of nature by the machinations of humanity. The reference at the end to “technic” and the “spirit of bulldozers” is reminiscent of Heidegger’s reproach of technology in Die Frage nach der Technik (1953), and even more specifically, the distinction he made between the unfolding of the essence of technology and the instrumental and anthropological definition of technology.32 From Susan’s comment, we can presume that she considered the spirit of technology even more damning than the tools of technology.  

Given Susan’s obvious disapproval of the corrosive effects of technology, the coercive consequences of bureaucratization, and the exploitation of the industrialization of mass society, it is all the more relevant that she viewed the modern state of Israel as yet another example of the capitalistic commodification of culture. The audacity brandished by Susan in her condemnation of the programmatic misery and the planned injustice—in both the ecological and the intersubjective spheres—generated by the fledgling country is notable. The failings of the Jewish people in Israel cannot be excused by appeal to the fact that this is the inexorable lot of humankind. In pursuit of the goal for self-sufficiency, acts of immorality, indecency, and environmental abuse are readily justified. Susan acquiesced that the experiment of building the state might succeed, but she predicted that it would come at a great cost as Zionist ideology might very well morph into a form of idolatry. In the process of worshiping the God who made them into a distinct and holy nation—the theological raison d’être offered to justify the establishment of the state—the Jewish people will become just like all other peoples, albeit more proud and pretentious. A disparaging analysis that inauspiciously proved to be prescient. 

Apart from loathing the academic scene in Jerusalem, Susan, together with Jacob, harbored the fear that the state of Israel could provide the pretext to justify political power theologically under the guise of religious necessity. Consider her remark in a letter from October 26, 1950, after having finished Arthur Koestler’s novel Thieves in the Night: Chronicle of an Experiment (1946). Recognizing that the circumstances in Israel-Palestine would probably worsen as the immigration of Jews increased, she lamented that “the only gnostic answer to history is to bathe one’s self in blood,” a calculation that she startlingly linked to the proclamation of the “war-cries” in Deuteronomy 32:42. The repetitiveness underlying the realization that “nothing changes” confirms the futility of history and its inability to foster its own redemption.33 The judgment that the only gnostic answer to history is to bathe one’s self in blood implies that inasmuch as the historical arena cannot produce its own meaningful resolution, the resultant liability is that the mayhem of war could be invoked as a justifiable means to deal with one’s enemies.

Attunement to the vulnerable moment of Jewish history after the devastation of the Holocaust did not blind her from seeing what many others were not capable of seeing, or were unwilling to express.

Susan’s gradual distancing from Israel and Zionism very much turned on the viability of what is often celebrated as the Jewish return to history in the second half of the twentieth century, as is substantiated in the following comment to Jacob:

I must confess that I am very far from “Jerusalem” in many respects. My problem is how the center of man’s humanity can be rescued from history: how history can be “denied,” (that is how the view that man realizes his specifically human, spiritual possibility in history can be denied) without a gnostic denial of the world as such and without a naturalistic denial of man’s spiritual, a- or trans-natural being. “Israel” insofar as it is taken to be seriously (insofar as it is not an “Algiers” where one may start, as Camus, but where one doesn’t go if not for very private reasons) has already decided in favour of “history”; now it needs men to back its decision with the corresponding “ideology.” Not me.34

Notwithstanding the fact that Susan situated her position about history between the gnostic denial of the world and the naturalistic denial of supernaturalism, the view she proffered is closer in tenor to the former as is attested in her stated wish to rescue humanity from history. Precisely the desire to be released from the vortex of historical contingencies is why she was disheartened with Israel’s having decided already in favor of history. Although the political gesture was reinforced by the Zionist creed that Susan rejected, the establishment of the modern state as an affirmation of history is a logical outcome of what she identified as the “historical obsession” whose source lies in Judaism. Astonishingly, Susan went on to say that this fixation, while naïve and optimistic for the Jews, is what drove the Occident into nihilism, and hence there is an intrinsic correlation with respect to

what has happened between the healthy, if crude, self-glorification of the children of Israel and the tortured historical mysticism of Heidegger. The history of the Jew in the Occident may be one of torture but the history of the Occident itself is self-torture; the jew has a problem only within the Occident, once “at home” he is content with himself: The Occident is problematic to itself.35  

The common denominator that conjoins the Jews and Heidegger is the esteem accorded to history and the torture that ensues therefrom. However, there is a critical difference. In the case of Judaism, the torture comes from the external Occidental power and thus when the Jew is at home—which, paradoxically, means when the Jew accepts the itinerant nature of being homeless and thereby rejects any nationalistic sovereignty as a legitimate expression of autochthony—the problem dissipates. Conversely, in the case of Heidegger, exemplifying the Occident more generically, the torture is self-inflicted and irresolvable because the nationalism becomes determinative of the destiny of a particular people concretized in time and space. Heidegger’s historical mysticism encapsulates the mystification of history as the domain that imparts meaning to human finitude. For Susan, Zionism is another link in the chain of historicism coupled with the theistic conception of a just God exercising providence, an idea that has prevailed from biblical times to the present.

In a letter to Jacob written on January 25, 1952, Susan leveled the following criticism against Albert Camus and Simone Weil: 

But Judaism exists and the meaning of its holy scripture has been so radically modified by centuries of interpretation . . . that when Camus and S. Weil try to take the text “literally” they in fact ally themselves with the worst of Zionist zealots who make the bloodthirsty passages of the Torah their slogans. An objective attack or defense of the Torah based on the “letter” is as questionable, if not impossible, as an objective evaluation of the Veda or Babylonian books. S. Weil is guilty of both absurdities. If there can be any understanding, not to say judgment, of Judaism it must be in its historical totality.36

For our purposes what is especially noteworthy is Susan’s assertion that the hermeneutical mistake of reading Scripture literally is akin to the bellicosity of the Zionist zealots, who justify their militarism by making the bloodthirsty passages of the Torah their slogans, a proclivity that has only increased exponentially over the decades as Israel’s growing political and martial prowess has created a greater gap between herself and the Palestinians. Susan did not hold back in her criticism of Zionist terrorists (Irgun and Stern Gang), who justify their penchant for war based on Scripture even though some of them were avowed atheists, rejecting the religion of Judaism. The motivation for their warlike predilection is ostensibly biblical, but in truth it is national-socialist. Camus and Weil incorrectly equated nationalism and religious fervor. Uncharacteristically, Susan attributed a positive quality to the devout Jews who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist establishment of the secular state, praising them for standing up for their principles and not becoming citizens even at the expense of foregoing material benefits. Needless to say, with the passage of time, the members of ultra-Orthodox communities that have rejected the state—in some cases avoiding compulsory military service—have done so without relinquishing such government assistance. However, it is revealing that in 1952, Susan considered it an act of civil disobedience on the part of Jews to oppose the state on the grounds of its moral failure and likelihood of oppressing others in the name of securing the freedom of the Israeli citizens. 

After many years of neglect, Susan Taubes is finally receiving the attention she richly deserves. I have tried to make the case that she is one of the more extraordinary figures in the twentieth-century history of Jewish thought, Western philosophy, and the study of religion. In many subjects, Susan was well ahead of her time even as her thinking was deeply rooted in that time, as is often the case with brilliant minds. At some point, she gave up on an academic career and turned her attention to other pursuits. However, the writings she left behind clearly attest to her superior intellect. Unfortunately, she has been overshadowed by Jacob Taubes, but there does seem to be a sea change.

The reflections on Zionism that I chronicled in this essay illustrate how clairvoyant Susan was in understanding the potential pitfalls of the modern state of Israel. Attunement to the vulnerable moment of Jewish history after the devastation of the Holocaust did not blind her from seeing what many others were not capable of seeing, or were unwilling to express: the historical return of the Jewish people through the ideologically driven formation and maintenance of a state would have serious repercussions for world Jewry. Sadly, time has proven her correct, and whether the tide can turn remains yet to be seen. What can be pronounced more confidently is that the warnings Susan offered decades ago still need to be heeded no matter what the discomfort they may bring in what appears to be the increasingly polarized mindset that has infected many countries, including Israel and the United States.

Footnotes

  1. Elliot R. Wolfson, “Zionism and the Sacramental Danger of Nationalism,” chap. 2 in The Philosophical Pathos of Susan Taubes: Between Nihilism and Hope (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2023), 101–127.
  2. Susan Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950–1951, ed. Christina Pareigis (Munich: Fink, 2011), sec. 31, p. 85. The text of these informal letters has been reproduced as they were written by Susan Taubes, including idiosyncrasies of spelling and punctuation.
  3. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950–1951, sec. 37, p. 104.
  4. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, edited by Christina Pareigis (Munich: Fink, 2014), sec. 225, p. 190.
  5. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950–1951, sec. 22, p. 66.
  6. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950–1951, sec. 14, p. 50.
  7. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 27, p. 77.
  8. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 60, p. 153.
  9. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 4, p. 23.
  10. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 44, pp. 119–120.
  11. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 46, p. 124.
  12. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 16, p. 55.
  13. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 268, p. 261. 
  14. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 268, p. 262.   
  15. The letter is cited in Jerry Z. Muller, Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022), p. 154–155.
  16. Cited from the Susan Taubes Archiv 59, Zentrum für Literatur- und KulturforschungBerlin, in Christina Pareigis, Susan Taubes: Eine intellektuelle Biographie (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2020), p. 199.
  17. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 237, p. 215. 
  18. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 41, p. 114.
  19. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 66, pp. 163–164.
  20. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 66, p. 164. 
  21. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 149, p. 52.
  22. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 139, p. 30.
  23. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 142, pp. 38-39.
  24. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 149, p. 50. 
  25. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken, 2004), p. 155; Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings, eds. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken, 2007), pp. 372–373, 384–385, 389–390, 393–394, 401.
  26. What I mean here, and what Susan may have meant, gestures to Hannah Arendt’s thesis in the first part of her The Origins of Totalitarianism where she suggests that the rise of antisemitism in modernity includes various kinds of complicity among Jews that contributed to the negative stereotypes about them.
  27. Ian Lustick, Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), pp. 27–53. 
  28. Berel Lang, Post-Holocaust Interpretation, Misinterpretation, and the Claims of History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), pp. 128–136.
  29. Omri Boehm, Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel (New York: New York Review of Books, 2021), pp. 64–96, esp. 70, 75, 77–78.
  30. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 186, p. 113.
  31. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 241, p. 220.
  32. Elliot R. Wolfson, The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), pp. 162–163. 
  33. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, sec. 23, pp. 68–69.
  34. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 150, p. 54 (emphasis in original).
  35. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 150, p. 54. 
  36. Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1952, sec. 156, p. 64.

Elliot R. Wolfson, a fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Distinguished Professor of Religion at University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of many publications including most recently The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism and the Jewish Other (2018); Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis (2019); Suffering Time: Philosophical, Kabbalistic, and Ḥasidic Reflections on Temporality (2021); and The Philosophical Pathos of Susan Taubes: Between Nihilism and Hope (2023).


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