Liberals tend to assume that the course of human events follows a trajectory of incremental progress. Human character and institutions are imperfect, but over time they get better, as experience shows us our flaws. The process allows us to judge our predecessors reliably even as we recognize that we ourselves shall be judged—and found wanting. The arc of history is long, as Barack Obama famously paraphrased Martin Luther King, who was himself adapting a remark by the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker. But it bends ultimately toward justice.
Jews should know better. Rather than consistent improvement, however halting, the Jewish experience is laden with reversal and catastrophe, with long periods of apparent stability disrupted by unforeseen threats—which are in turn sometimes redeemed by unanticipated benefits. The liberal conception of history allows for the consistent but impersonal guidance of general providence. The Jewish conception of history seems to reflect the presence of a transcendent yet unpredictable God—a God who can disrupt, meting out havoc and blessings alike.
Meir Kahane and Jacob Taubes were theorists, and, in a sense, prophets of that latter, unsettling vision. Cast by fate into a placid midcentury America, each tried to recapture what he regarded as the fundamental tension between biblical religion and the moral presuppositions of liberalism. As that order threatened to unravel in the late 1960s and 1970s, Kahane and Taubes demanded confrontation with a radical alternative: the disruptive God of the Hebrew Bible. In doing so, they revealed permanent tensions in liberalism—and also dangers lurking in its modern alternatives.
I. An Incongruous Pair
Admittedly, Kahane and Taubes seem like an incongruous pair. Kahane is remembered as an activist, media personality, and terrorist—the man who would employ violent means to focus America’s attention on the enslaved Jews of the Soviet Union, and the man who would make aliyah only to be banished from the Knesset and then assassinated back in New York. In addition to many controversial public appearances, his career included participation in conspiracies that earned him prison sentences in both the United States and Israel. Despite his reputation as a man of action, Kahane also wrote prolifically and effectively, reaching audiences that were unlikely to participate in law-flouting protests or actively to join an extreme political organization.
Taubes was anonymous outside small academic circles. Although his ideas aroused intense interest, they were expressed orally and impromptu more often than in print. Kahane was an icon of the far-right, whose rhetoric led Israel to ban the Kach party he founded; Taubes was a lifelong man of the left, who never joined any party but who expressed sympathy for an intellectualized form of Marxism. Calling for a revival of the stern nationalism described in the Hebrew Bible, Kahane made Jewish particularism the central theme of his religious thought. Taubes revered the Apostle Paul for rejecting binaries between Jew and Greek, pure and corrupt, friend and foe.
The differences between Kahane and Taubes extend to recent books devoted to their careers. The rabbi and Jewish-studies professor Shaul Magid’s Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Rebel is an intentional deconstruction of its subject—or at least of his reputation. Arguing that public memory is projected backward from Kahane’s Israeli phase to his origins in the United States, Magid contends that Kahane should actually be understood as a fundamentally American figure with counterparts among the Black Panthers and other 1960s New Leftists. The enterprise is part of Magid’s own efforts to defend an egalitarian, non-Zionist brand of Judaism. At times, Magid presents Kahane as the secret mastermind of rightward shifts among both American and Israeli Jews.
Jerry Z. Muller’s Professor of Apocalypse, a biography of Taubes, is a very different kind of work. A major scholarly achievement that draws on texts, interviews, and archives in several languages and countries, Professor of Apocalypse avoids judgments about the value of Taubes’s influence or thought. The result is an inversion of the novel of ideas: rather than bringing abstract debates in theology or philosophy to life through vivid characterization or stylistic effusion, Muller, a professor of history and politics, seems determined to bring his subject’s reveries back down to earth, sometimes draining them of the existential excitement that made Taubes a legendary figure.
But the differences between Kahane and Taubes, and the new studies of their lives and legacies, conceal some intriguing similarities. Kahane was about a decade younger than Taubes. Yet both men belonged to the first generation of Jews whose political, intellectual, and religious lives were conducted in the shadow of the Holocaust. Although they offered strikingly different interpretations of that event, it was rarely far from their minds.
Kahane and Taubes also display some similarities of background. Both enjoyed yikhes—good lineage. Both were the sons of prominent rabbis, descended from lines of rabbis that connected them to the scholarly dynasties of Eastern Europe and, in Kahane’s case, ostensibly to ancient sages. Both received thorough Jewish educations that, in later life, distinguished them from many of their admirers. Despite tensions between Orthodoxy and Zionism that were more pronounced before World War II than they would become later, both Kahane and Taubes were also both improbably raised in religious Zionist circles. The two men probably never met, but they did frequent some of the same events and locations in midcentury New York, including Joseph Soloveitchik’s lectures at Yeshiva University.
Kahane and Taubes were also similar in their extraordinary charisma. Taubes was routinely compared to Mephistopheles. In his memoir Power Struggle, the late educator and theologian Richard L. Rubenstein depicts Taubes, lightly fictionalized under the name Ezra Band, as a demonic figure who insinuated himself into Rubenstein’s marriage as almost the third member of a ménage à trois. In an autobiographical novel published shortly before her death by suicide, Taubes’s first wife Susan (née Feldmann) presents him as a compulsive philanderer, wielding almost mystical powers of attraction. Kahane’s personal magnetism was less distinctively sexual, although he too engaged in an extramarital affair that led to a suicide. Yet the journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, who was drawn to Kahane’s Jewish Defense League as a young man, describes him as strangely riveting despite a deceptively shy manner, at least when he wasn’t engaged in public debate or leading rowdy demonstrations. In both cases, those who encountered Taubes and Kahane found it exciting not merely to brush up against their provocative ideas but to see those ideas embodied in figures who built their lives around their political and intellectual projects.
These circumstantial parallels are suggestive, but not very significant by themselves. More than it is biographical, the connection between Taubes and Kahane is polemical. Despite their enormous differences in style and ideas, Taubes and Kahane were both defined, as thinkers, by what they were against. What they were against was liberalism. They opposed liberal morality, liberal politics, and especially liberal religion. In the United States, Israel, and elsewhere, this opposition led them to the extremes of political theology that liberalism tried to evade, and indeed was founded precisely in order to obviate.
II. Jacob Taubes and the Apocalypse
Jacob Taubes was born on February 25, 1923, in Vienna. His parents were Zwi and Feige Taubes, both descendants of prominent rabbinic families from the Eastern reaches of what had once been the Austrian empire.
The older of two children and only boy, Jacob was the family’s darling and considered his father’s natural heir. Due to his father’s position as leader of one of Vienna’s largest congregations, his bar mitzvah was given detailed coverage in the Jewish newspaper Die Wahrheit. Because the occasion fell on the Shabbat before Purim, Jacob recited the passage from Deuteronomy that commanded the Israelites: “when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget!”
Taubes’s reading of this passage was an accident of scheduling rather than an intentional choice. Still, Taubes, who was given to self-mythologizing, liked to credit it with a larger significance. According to Muller, he claimed that his later doubts about the biblical conception of divine law arose from his bar mitzvah portion, which seems to endorse a war of extermination. (Kahane, of course, would come to draw different conclusions about how to remember Amalek, the nation that was the fervent and recurrent enemy of the Israelites).
In 1936, the Taubes family moved to Zurich, where Zwi took a position as rabbi in the small Jewish community. It was a fortuitous move that saved them from the camps. In Switzerland, a famously polyglot country and oasis of peace in the middle of a war-torn continent, Jacob would cultivate a position as an alien and observer of unfathomable historical currents. There, Jacob hit on the topic that would define his intellectual career. His doctoral dissertation, his only book published during his lifetime, Abendländische Eschatologie (Occidental Eschatology), proposed a kind of secret history of Western civilization.
On the surface, Taubes contended, the history of Western civilization is a search for order. Both mainstream religion and philosophical rationalism seek to stabilize human experience, justifying institutions and norms of behavior as consistent with either clearly expressed divine will or intelligible nature. Although it takes a variety of theological and political forms, this enterprise is in a broad sense conservative, affirming the consistent and familiar dimensions of experience, defending the world as it is against upheaval.
But this conservative impulse is not universal. Despite every effort to maintain order, challenges to the goodness of the existing world are irrepressible. Taubes dubbed these challenges “Gnosticism” and “apocalypticism.” While Gnosticism seeks the perfection of the self, apocalypticism seeks the external transformation of the world. What these impulses have in common, Jacob argued, is that both are “antinomian.” In other words, they reject the constraints of law and authority, whether divine or natural, in pursuit of a transfigured reality.
Taubes’s main task in Abendländische Eschatologie is to trace outbreaks of “the revolutionary pathos of apocalypticism and Gnosis” from biblical times and their prophets into the 19th century. Despite their differences, he argued, the authors of the book of Daniel, the Zealots of the Second Temple period, early Christians whom later scholars would call the Jesus movement, medieval visionaries like Joachim of Fiore, radical Protestants, and eventually Marxists were all participants in the same counter-tradition. Positing a recurring pattern of revolution and retrenchment, Taubes proposed that the inevitable failure of apocalyptic movements promoted Gnostic retreats into the self, which eventually burst forth in new attempted revolutions. Utopianism and pessimism, in this view, are less opposed attitudes than elements of the same dialectic.
If the broad scope of Abendländische Eschatologie showed Taubes’s wide reading and brilliant abilities as a historical synthesizer, the work also displayed shortcomings that would mar his other work. As Muller notes, Taubes’s arguments were always more suggestive than systematic. They were also derivative of other thinkers (who were not always credited for their insights). In an assessment that would dog him for the rest of his career, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem pronounced that Taubes lacked the Sitzfleisch—the well-padded bottom—required for serious study.
Taubes refined and modified his ideas after his move to the United States in 1947. In particular, he devoted greater attention to the ambiguous character of Judaism, which seemed simultaneously to generate and to resist antinomianism. Taubes’s focus on Judaism was partly the result of his background and education, which included ordination as a rabbi. But Taubes was also forced, somewhat against his will, into the new field of Jewish studies that was beginning to coalesce after the Second World War. Unsuited by temperament and belief for the Orthodox world, he needed to find work in the secular academy.
Muller ably tracks Taubes’s peregrinations from positions in Zurich to New York to Jerusalem to Berlin, and back again. But reviewing these facts of appointments and lecture schedules risks missing the qualities that made Taubes so memorable, despite a lack of publication that discomfited his academic patrons. Taubes was not only an electrifying teacher. He was a magnetic personality whose unconventional behavior seemed to reflect his antinomian interests.
Anecdotes followed, and often preceded, Taubes more like rumors of an occult guru than of a conventional scholar. The stories were often flattering without being exactly complimentary. One recurring element of Taubes lore recounts a prank where colleagues began a discussion of the obscure scholastic Bertram of Hildesheim when Taubes entered the room. Joining the conversation, Taubes offered a brilliant analysis of Bertram’s theory of the soul and its relation to the Thomist and Scotist perspectives. But the joke was on Taubes: no such person as Bertram of Hildesheim had ever existed.
Other stories are less humorous. Taubes’s obsessive pursuit of women was not always unwelcome to the objects of his affection. But it often was, and aggressive enough that male colleagues avoided inviting him to gatherings where their wives and daughters would be present. It wasn’t enough for Taubes to pursue sexual gratification despite the risk of causing distress. He called on his learning to justify his behavior, evoking the mystical principle of redemption through sin. Taubes also made a great show of flouting the traditional Judaism in which he raised and still intermittently practiced. He liked to pray fervently in the most Orthodox services he could find—and then refresh himself with whole roast pig or other flamboyant treyf.
One thing that was consistent about Taubes was his detestation of liberalism, which he understood as a pusillanimous substitution of convenience for ultimate meaning, rather than a genuine and often disruptive commitment to human freedom. He didn’t fit in at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he had his first American appointment, partly because he was contemptuous of the institute’s function of training pulpit rabbis for non-Orthodox congregations. Rejecting efforts to extract a new kind of Judaism more suitable to American life, Taubes insisted that Judaism was defined by halakhah, Jewish law. There was no such thing as “modern” Judaism, Taubes insisted. There was either Orthodoxy or Christianity, which sometimes masqueraded as secularism.
Beyond theological considerations, Taubes disdained Americans as vulgar, materialistic, and culturally infantile. “One can’t speak, with Marx, of ‘self-alienation,’” he wrote of them. “For there is no real ‘self’ to be alienated.” Although he expressed little interest in electoral dynamics or the specifics of any policy, he was drawn to the Frankfurt School critique of Western modernity as a “fully administered society.” Immune to piecemeal reform, such constraints could only be burst open by an eruption of antinomian energy.
Taubes saw little sign of antinomianism at JTS, Harvard, or Columbia, where he occupied a series of posts despite his dubious reputation and lack of publication. He eventually found what he was looking for in Berlin, where he joined the faculty of the Freie Universität. The German New Left gave Taubes what he wanted: an assertion of antinomian energy against the status quo. Taubes gave radical students what they wanted: a way of understanding their frequently inchoate rage that did not depend on the economistic formulas of traditional Marxism. Taubes’s status as a quasi-observant if highly unorthodox Jew was also important to his high status in Germany. In a country where public Jewish life had been almost eliminated, Taubes conferred a certain moral authority on the causes he supported.
Several of these causes had more to do with academic politics than the real thing. Although he later had second thoughts, Taubes was an enthusiastic supporter of the reorganization of the Freie Universität around students’ demands. He was more tentative when it came to international issues. Despite his concerns about the New Left’s antipathy to Israel, Taubes offered only a muted response, arguing that it was wrong to characterize the Jewish state as an expression of capitalist imperialism. Nevertheless, Taubes maintained personal relationships with members of the Red Army Faction, who hailed the terrorist murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics as a triumph of the worldwide revolutionary movement. Some of these figures, including the radical lawyer Horst Mahler, later became figureheads of Germany’s neo-Nazi far right.
Taubes’s tentative defense of Israel was not merely a temporary lapse of judgment. It reflected ambiguity of long standing. His father, Zwi, not only participated in the religious Zionist movement but was head of its operations in Switzerland. Despite some resistance within his Orthodox communities, Zwi Taubes insisted on the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the biblical promised land. As a result, he ensured that young Jacob was able to write and speak Hebrew for all practical purposes, not only religious ones.
For his part, Jacob was in the end convinced that the Jewish people were entitled to govern themselves in their historic and spiritual home. This conclusion was not justified solely by what he called the “catastrophe of European Jewry.” Yet he insisted anyone who interfered with a Jewish homeland in the shadow of the Final Solution was, intentionally or not, cooperating in Hitler’s work.
Yet Taubes was also disappointed by the emerging reality of the Jewish state. The condition of normality, much desired by some Zionists, seemed to Taubes a poor substitute for the visions of messianic redemption that inspired the prophets. In one of the paradoxes that defined his conduct, Taubes expressed his longing for a revival of Jewish antinomianism by associating with anti-Zionist ḥaredi communities, including the Satmar Ḥasidim. (Taubes had a family connection due to his father’s role in rescuing the Satmar Rebbe from Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1944.) Apart from romantic affinities for what he regarded as vanishing Jewish authenticity, his reasoning seems to have been that in upholding the Law against the secular state, the Satmars and other religious anti-Zionists held open messianic possibilities that modern syntheses of religion and nationalism foreclosed.
Taubes’s search for alternatives to liberalism were not limited to the secular New Left or insular ḥaredi communities. He also turned to the European radical right. Taubes met Armin Mohler soon after the conclusion of the war, when both men were students in Switzerland. In background they had little in common. Taubes was a resident alien and the scion of a religious Zionist power couple. Mohler was a native Swiss who flirted with the left before crossing the border to Germany, where he attempted, unsuccessfully, to join the Waffen SS. After completing a brief prison term due his illegal attempt to join a foreign army, Mohler turned to academic study of “conservative revolutionary” thinkers who had prefigured national socialism. With his apologetic interpretation unpopular in postwar Switzerland, Mohler crossed the border again and acquired a position as secretary to Ernst Jünger, a leading conservative revolutionary who had reconciled himself, politically if not spiritually, to the Allied victory.
Mohler was important to Taubes partly because he symbolized Taubes’s determination to flout distinctions between legal and illegal, sacred and profane. He did not seem to care that Mohler was, at minimum, a Nazi sympathizer. To the contrary, this demonstrated the same indifference to liberal moralism that Taubes was so eager to display in other areas of life.
Mohler was also crucial, though, because he acted a go-between for Taubes and other pariahs of the right. Among these was Carl Schmitt, whose conception of “political theology” as an arbitrary distinction between friend and enemy influenced Taubes’ s dissertation. The men corresponded through Mohler beginning in the early 1950s. In September 1978, Taubes joined the aged Schmitt at his home in Plettenberg for a three-day visit.
On a personal level, the visit extended Taubes’d practice of unilaterally koshering what more conventional minds would regard as anti-Semitism. As in his relations to the New Left, he understood that his presence as a self-described “arch-Jew” would legitimize Schmitt to otherwise squeamish interlocutors. In fact, the process had begun decades earlier. While living in Jerusalem in the early 50s Taubes wrote to Mohler claiming that the Israeli minister had consulted Schmitt’s 1928 Verfassungslehre (Constitutional Theory) as part of his research on constitutionalism. As Taubes likely expected, Mohler passed on the letter to Schmitt—who distributed copies to no fewer than 33 friends and colleagues.
Taubes’s encounter with Schmitt was more important on an intellectual level, though. At ninety, Schmitt insisted that Taubes expound his interpretation of Paul of Tarsus before he too should die. It was a topic that had preoccupied Taubes since his dissertation and lay in the background of his rejection of liberal Judaism. Taubes believed Paul correctly asserted that law was the essence of Judaism. His achievement, surpassing that of Jesus, was to redefine the people of Israel as a universal category based on inner belief, rather than a political unit constituted by law.
Taubes would not keep his promise until the very end of his own life. In January 1987, when he was suffering from terminal cancer, he delivered a four-day seminar on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in Heidelberg, partly from the intensive-care unit of the local hospital. Recorded by his friends, the Egyptologists Jan and Aleida Assmann, the talks were transcribed and published posthumously in 1993 as The Political Theology of Paul. His first book since Abendländische Eschatologie, The Political Theology of Paul was Taubes’s intellectual testament.
Like much of Taubes’s work, it is a dazzling but perplexing work. There are insights—or apparent insights—on every page. But it’s often hard to follow the structure of the argument. Well-informed readers will also notice an element of pastiche. Many of the claims can be found in other texts by other authors, though Taubes is not necessarily eager to explain where.
Still, it’s possible to discern genuinely original themes. In The Shipwrecked Mind, Mark Lilla boils the argument down to two deeply provocative points. The first is that Paul’s rejection of the law is, paradoxically, an affirmation of the law. After all, if he did not believe in the law’s significance, Paul could merely recommend its adaptation to changing circumstances, like the Hellenizers of the ancient world or the liberal Jews of the 20th century. The fact that Paul insists on liberation from the law, Taubes holds, makes him at once a Christian and a more faithful Jew than any liberal compromiser. Paul perceived that a choice was necessary between law and grace—and he picked the latter.
Taubes’s insistence on the necessity of an existential choice between radical alternatives reflected one aspect of Schmitt’s conception of political theology as an arbitrary decision that establishes a distinction between friends and enemies. Taubes’s other major argument extends this argument to the meaning of the people of Israel.
On the one hand, Paul sets up an adversarial relationship to the Jews who adhere to the law. Although he holds out hope of their eventual redemption, for immediate purposes they become “enemies” of the gospel. In this respect, Taubes confirms traditional interpretations of Paul as the progenitor of theological anti-Judaism if not racial anti-Semitism, even though Taubes insists that the enmity of respect is preferable to the pacifism of indifference.
At the same time, though, Paul joins Jews and Christians together in opposition to all secular authority. As a consistent antinomian, he releases the people of God not only from the constraints of halakhah, but also from the statutes of Rome. There might be prudential reasons to obey either in the moment, but ultimately the only hope for justice lay in messianic redemption rather than the institutions of any possible state. “Compared to that,” Taubes concludes, “all the little revolutionaries are insignificant.”
Taubes’s interpretation of early Christian thinking is not altogether credible as an historical reconstruction. Even sympathetic scholars, like the Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl, argued that Paul’s cancellation of the law was intended to apply only to Gentile converts, not Jewish Christians like himself. Taubes’s emphasis on Paul’s antinomian qualities is also hard to square the apostle’s own injunction, in the epistle’s most famous passage, to obey “the powers that be, for they are ordained of God.” As a Christian who was also a Jew, an antinomian who revered the law, a revolutionary who disdained normal politics, Taubes’s Paul seems less like an historical figure than an idealization of everything Taubes hoped to be. He failed. But that is always the fate of the apocalyptic.
III. What To Do About Amalek?
On February 25, 1994, Purim of that year, Baruch Goldstein, an American immigrant to Israel, murdered 29 Muslim men and boys engaged in prayer in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Goldstein did not explain the reasons for his act before the survivors beat him to death. Whether intentional or not, though, the timing was symbolic. Purim celebrates the vengeance of the Persian Jews against their oppressors, led by the evil vizier Haman. The book of Esther identifies Haman as a descendant of Amalek, whom Deuteronomy commands the people of Israel to blot out from memory in defense of themselves and their lands.
At his bar mitzvah in 1936, Jacob Taubes was disturbed by this passage. Although he did not know it at the time, the biblical instruction prefigures, in a way, the political theology of Carl Schmitt that would obsess him in later life. For Schmitt, the political domain is defined by the possibility of mortal combat. Because this possibility cannot be eliminated by education or moral progress, the most important political question is the distinction between friends, who are expected to fight on the same side, and enemies who are, in principle, liable to extermination.
Taubes’s account of the political theology of Paul is an answer to Schmitt. While Schmitt seemed to revel in enmity, Taubes’s Paul imagines a world in which all men are brothers. The persistence of Jewish law is a religious obstacle to the realization of that goal, and the Roman empire is a political one. But these obstacles can be overcome, Paul claimed, by the second coming of Christ. From enmity arises redemption—or so Taubes described Paul’s messianism.
We cannot know what Goldstein would have made of these views, which, as Taubes emphasized, are simultaneously derived from Judaism and hostile to it. But Meir Kahane, whom Goldstein had followed for years, was hardly less obsessed with revolutionary eschatology. In Paul and other antinomian sources, Taubes sought alternatives to the blotting out of Amalek. Kahane, on the other hand, embraced that imperative. Although he presumably never read Schmitt, Meir Kahane developed a version of political theology that Schmitt would have recognized. Against liberal attempts to avoid violent confrontation with mortal enemies, Kahane depicted existential combat as, literally, God’s work.
The explanation is partly biographical. Jacob Taubes was an archetypal luftmensch—an intellectual who seemed to live in the clouds. A long-term resident of four countries and visitor to several others, he had no real homeland and was not a citizen of any state until he was naturalized in the U.S. in his early thirties. To varying degrees, he was competent in the ancient languages of biblical Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. But he also reveled in his knowledge of modern languages, taking questions at public events in English, modern Hebrew, German, French, Yiddish, and Polish.
Kahane, on the other hand, reveled in his image as a “street Jew,” a defender of his people who could match the strength and aggression of its enemies. The cover photo of Magid’s book depicts “the Reb,” as he was known, conducting an interview on a New York corner, brandishing the clenched fist more usually associated with black militants. He is flanked by one of his young followers—“chayas,” or animals, as he liked to call them—dressed in the mustache, workwear, and dark glasses of the contemporary New Left. These are tough guys, whose affect and sensibility don’t resemble familiar forms of Jewish religious expression.
Appearances can be deceiving, though. Like Taubes, Kahane received a thorough education in traditional Jewish texts and methods. Like Taubes, he was also an ordained rabbi, although, again like Taubes, one uncomfortable with American-style pulpit duties. Despite his combative persona, Kahane also published far more than Taubes, writing not only as a topical commentator but also as a scholar. Although his argument that Kahane’s thought owes more to American race politics than to Judaism is ultimately unconvincing, Magid deserves credit for taking Kahane seriously as a man of ideas.
IV. Meir Kahane and Jewish Pride
Meir Kahane was born Martin Kahane in Brooklyn, on August 1, 1932, nine years after Taubes. His father, Charles, was head of the Rabbinical Board of Flatbush and was also prominent in the Revisionist Zionist movement led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who sometimes visited the Kahane home. Although they were located thousands of miles away, these American Ashkenazi Orthodox circles were not so different from Taubes’s in interwar Europe. Both men had yikhes—and believed that it suited them for leading roles in Jewish life.
Kahane’s political career started at fifteen, when he smashed the car windows of the visiting British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin to protest the British mandate in Palestine. Already recognized as a brilliant yeshiva student, Kahane joined Betar, the youth movement led by Jabotinsky’s acolyte Menachem Begin, as a teenager. There were perhaps more promising scholars in midcentury Brooklyn, and there may also have been more aggressive Zionist activists. But few if any combined those qualities in the way Kahane would make his signature.
Kahane himself didn’t seem to know what to do with his unusual combination of interests and abilities. Ordained as a rabbi after study at the Mir Yeshiva—one of the institutions of East European Jewry transplanted to the United States—he also earned degrees in political science, law, and international relations at local colleges. In 1958, he accepted a position as rabbi of the Howard Beach Jewish Center in Queens. The Orthodox leader of a Conservative congregation, Kahane immediately encountered tension with the membership, which he pushed toward more rigorous observance. His bond with the young was already notable. In what must be among the odder coincidences in American cultural history, Kahane prepared Arlo Guthrie—son of the folk legend Woody Guthrie and later a well-known musician himself—for his bar mitzvah.
But Kahane was soon bored by the duties of a congregational rabbi, which offered few outlets for his political instincts. In the early 1960s, he began writing tracts under the pseudonym Michael King, which he used until he founded the paramilitary Jewish Defense League in 1968, an organization that began as a response to street crime committed against Jews and over decades transformed into a quasi-terrorist league aiming itself against targets as various as neo-Nazis and Arab-American activists. Writing as King, Kahane emphasized his passionate anti-Communism, apparently in the hope of being noticed and employed by the Washington intelligence community.
In fact, anti-Communism was the original motivating issue for Kahane. (This is something of a problem for Magid, who presents Kahane as a product of the radical domestic ferment of the late 60s.) Even in the JDL, the USSR was Kahane’s main target, culminating in a plot to kill or assassinate a Soviet diplomat that earned him a prison sentence. While Taubes could not shake a romantic attached to Marxism, which he saw as a secularized expression of apocalyptic longing, Kahane recognized Communism as a prison for Jews. The Jewish and secular sides of this persona merged in 1967, when he published The Jewish Stake in Vietnam, a defense of the American war effort credited to Meir Kahane, Michael King, and Joseph Churba, the latter a real person who went on to play important roles in the Reagan administration. Even before he entered the public eye, then, Kahane was that rare thing in American life—a genuinely right-wing Jew.
Even when it led to anti-Communist positions, though, the core of Kahane’s early politics was not inalienable liberty but hadar—Jewish pride. Calling for self-defense under the slogan “every Jew, a .22,” he drew different conclusions to Taubes. Yet Kahane’s arguments were driven by a similar contempt for the affluent suburbs that American Jews were moving to—suburbs that both men claimed were seducing Jews into abandoning their birthright.
At least in his American years, therefore, Kahane oscillated between two contradictory fears.
One fear was that America didn’t love Jews enough to protect them, particularly in the neighborhoods where most of his working-class followers lived. Kahane’s case for Jewish self-defense wasn’t only a case for the protection of lives and property, although it was partly that. It was an argument that Jews were entitled to appear in public as Jews without the threat of attack or harassment that they were too-often subject to. Like Taubes’s Paul, who affirms the centrality of the law by criticizing it, Kahane offered an indirect endorsement of the American ideal by protesting its apparent failure.
Still, despite street violence and country-club exclusion, it was never really plausible that America would turn systematically against its Jews as Germany had in the 1940s. Therefore, Kahane worried more about a different kind of annihilation. America might not love the working-class or Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn enough to protect them, especially from attackers whose poverty or minority status supposedly mitigated their deeds. But it very well might love the Jews of Scarsdale or Great Neck enough to melt them into communal non-existence. Although he preferred to emphasize dramatic physical threats, Kahane perceived that cultural and religious assimilation was the ultimately greater risk to American Jewry.
Magid presents Kahane as the source of a wide variety of contemporary American Jewish worries, thereby making them seem sinister and implicitly violent. Yet Kahane didn’t cause the present anxiety about rates of intermarriage, congregational membership, and other indicators of communal Jewish consequence. Instead, he recognized a danger that the mainstream leadership of his time was reluctant to acknowledge, but has since become conventional wisdom. (Indeed, Taubes expressed the same concern during his troubled stint at the Jewish Theological Seminary.)
There were precedents for Kahane’s appeals to pride and national consciousness in the early Zionists Jabotinsky and Max Nordau, who hoped to replace enervated Luftmenschen with Muskeljuden. But Kahane’s was more a specific response to the American scene. In the immediate postwar era, Jews and other minority groups in America were reluctant to emphasize any ethnic, religious, or cultural differences. The liberal ideal encouraged the privatization of particularity—for public purposes, one should strive to look, act, and sound like everyone else. Even in the best case, that involved a sharp distinction between the domestic sphere, where religion could theoretically flourish behind closed doors, and the worlds of business, politics, and culture. More often, though, it meant renouncing Jewish practices and learning in favor of a consistently American way of life.
The political implication of this view, as Magid points out, was a kind of right-wing multiculturalism. Although he saw contemporary defenses of black and other racial identities as practical challenges for Jewish self-assertion, Kahane respected them in principle as applications of the same idea, as Jabotinsky had claimed to do with regard to Israel’s Arab neighbors. His problem was not that blacks sought power, pride, and autonomy. It was that their efforts could interfere with the Jewish pursuit of the same things. Although he would later urge American Jews to make aliyah before it was too late, Kahane remained, in this period, an outspoken defender of American institutions and ideals, which he claimed that he wanted to work as well for Jews as for anyone else.
But why should Jews care about the preservation of Jewish communities and traditions once their physical security was ensured? Hadar alone was not a satisfactory answer. Jews’ cultural and political achievements were not obviously superior to those of other peoples.
The only secure criterion for separating and defending the Jewish people, Kahane therefore insisted, was religion. It was not descent or superficial cultural affinities, but Torah and Jewish law that distinguished Jews and justified claims to autonomy. Much like Taubes’s Paul, but in the opposite direction, Kahane argued that the law was the insuperable barrier between Israel and the nations. Jews who abandoned the law had no right to speak on behalf of those who upheld it.
The same dialectic drove Kahane’s intellectual revision of Zionism in Israel, where dozens of arrests and a series of prison sentences, for crimes including a plot to blow up the Libyan embassy in Brussels in retaliation for the 1972 Olympics massacre, gave him ample opportunities to cultivate Sitzfleisch. Kahane rejected conventional arguments that a Jewish state should be the basis of normality, providing Jews with the lands, institutions, and security enjoyed by other peoples. Instead, the basis of Zionism “must be the knowledge and faith that the Jewish people have a divine destiny that cannot be denied and that the state of Israel is the culmination of that destiny.” Rather than a step toward “assimilation” to international norms of peace and prosperity, that destiny meant standing apart, in truly unique fusion of religion and state based on Torah. Anything less was a 20th-century counterpart to the Hellenizing assimilation that ancient Jewish rebels had combated.
Kahane’s Zionism is not wholly original. There are precedents for his emphasis on military strength and territorial maximalism in Jabotinsky. His designation of the state of Israel as a vehicle for redemption overlaps with the religious Zionism of Abraham Isaac Kook. The best chapters of Magid’s book, though, detail Kahane’s development of a distinctive eschatology centered on divine retribution. For Kahane, it was essential not simply that the state of Israel exist but also that it enact revenge against its enemies. If the official organs of the state were unwilling to do that, warriors from among the people would have to arise to bear the responsibility of punishing anyone who desecrates God’s name by opposing God’s will for the people and the land of Israel. That included the Israeli Arab population, whose very presence Kahane saw as a violation of the divine promise.
This is all very distant from Taubes’s intellectualized and probably sanitized depiction of religious antinomianism. Yet it is striking how the development of Kahane’s political theology, at least in Magid’s interpretation of Kahane’s two-volume book Or Hara’ayon (published in English as The Jewish Idea), pursued that dialectic of Gnosticism and apocalypticism that Taubes investigated in Abendländische Eschatologie. Like the Gnostics, Kahane pursued self-perfection, adopting musar traditions of piety that emphasized Torah study as a form of personal discipline. In particular, Kahane emphasized the importance of obedience to the commandments without pursuing their meaning as a way of cultivating self-sacrifice and submission. For Kahane, attempts to justify or understand the law were tantamount to subjecting divine majesty to merely human convenience. In that respect, he also sounds rather like Schmitt, who derived the concept of sovereignty from God’s power of arbitrary decision—the ultimate alternative to the liberal understanding of authority as the product of rational consent.
Magid argues that Kahane collectivized and externalized the pursuit of spiritual perfection. The goal for the pious was not simply to pursue true wisdom through obedience to the Lord. It was to pursue a collective project aiming at the upheaval of normal reality in deference to divine commandments. For Kahane, the desecration and the sanctification of God’s name were not merely categories of personal behavior. They were the bases of the necessary political distinction between friend and enemy—a distinction ultimately realized violence.
These are among the ideas that circulated in the milieu that included Baruch Goldstein. It is not known whether Kahane, who was himself assassinated in 1990, provided direct inspiration to Goldstein’s act. Although Goldstein was a long-time follower of Kahane, there were other apocalyptic teachers active in radical religious Zionist circles. And Kahane’s own ideas were subject to discussion, modification, and adaptation by admirers, critics, and fellow-travelers.
Still, Kahane was and remains prominent among the figures who recognized the same apocalyptic potential in Judaism as Taubes. But the two drew entirely opposite conclusions. While Taubes recoiled from the injunction to blot out Amalek to secure the people and land of Israel, Kahane and his allies embraced it. In parallel ways, however, Taubes and Kahane both appealed to God’s unaccountable will to break down the constraints of habit, routine, and indifference that seem to define modern politics and religion—including in the state of Israel. That is the promise, and the danger, of political theology.
V. A Sense of Unraveling
“The greatest enemy of modern man,” Kahane wrote, “is boredom.” In placing a kind of holy war at the center of “the Jewish idea,” Kahane made his own daring attack on this enemy. Wrong, offensive, and dangerous Kahane might well have been. But he was never boring.
The same could be said of Jacob Taubes. Despite fears of his “demonic” influence, associates routinely described him as the most exciting person they had ever encountered. Where more responsible scholars emphasized the details of historical setting, textual composition, and philological characteristics, Taubes arrayed his sources in an apocalyptic war of ideas that prefigured without predicting the next eruption of antinomian currents.
The war on boredom is central to their continuing influence—and to the recurrence of political theology more broadly. As Leo Strauss (who was initially friendly to Taubes but came to doubt his character) observed in his critique of Carl Schmitt in the 1930s, the primary audience for radical politics is not the traditionally devout, no matter how heavily it draws on religious language and concepts. Instead, political theology appeals to young people who are bored by modern life. Both Taubes and Kahane were experts in appealing to these audiences.
Boredom is a genuine weakness of liberalism. Committed to a conception of authority as a necessary evil established through negotiation among competing interests, liberalism can offer neither the perfectionist discipline of submission to divine will nor the thrill of radical antinomianism and rebellion. In different ways, both possibilities call on their followers to risk everything on an unprovable premise about the nature of mankind, history, and reality itself. Liberalism, suspicious of the unprovable, tries to avoid or at least conceal such daring acts of faith.
That is not to say there aren’t real problems posed by the liberal emphasis on peace and security over existential purpose. Kahane and Taubes both excelled in posing what Kahane called “uncomfortable questions for comfortable Jews.” Could universal principles really protect Jews from the unique brand of hatred they’ve faced for millennia? Could American Jewry survive the pressures of cultural assimilation, and the privatization of its public obligations? Could a Jewish state also be a modern democratic one, insofar as that rested on the support of a majority that might not always be Jewish? In the absence of belief in an unfathomable act of divine election, what did it even mean to be a Jew? The excitement of these 20th-century Jewish political theologians is their insistence that these questions could not be contextualized or evaded. They had to be confronted with courage—a virtue that liberalism struggles to understand or deploy.
Yet the originality of Taubes and Kahane lies less in their questions, which have been posed by many others, than in their specific answers. Reaching beyond the mundane realm of material interests and civic responsibility, they invoked the possibility of redemption that transcends our puny cares, reducing all the states and princes to nothing under the power of the Lord. That messianic hope is, as Taubes showed, a hidden motor of history and, as Kahane both acknowledged and promoted, often soaked with blood. Indeed, Kahane died a victim of much the same passion that he tried to arouse and redirect among Jews. In 1990, he was murdered in a Manhattan hotel by El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen who turned to terrorism out of disgust with American culture and who was later convicted of participation in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Kahane remains relevant in other ways. Although it might have seemed an old-fashioned or already accomplished goal as crime rates dropped in recent decades, the more recent rise in attacks on visible Jews are a powerful reminder that Kahane’s doubts about the capacity or will of the public authorities were not without justification. As in the past, moreover, the victims tend be politically and morally unfashionable Jews who suffer not only from outright attacks, but from the indifference or hostility of the mainstream Jewish community. Kahane’s urgent response to that particular situation seems understandable today—even though his rhetoric could be cruel and the actions he proposed could be disturbing.
More generally, Kahane prefigures the sense of unraveling that has become inescapable. As in the late 60s and early 70s, expectations for gradual reform and emergent consensus have foundered on the stubborn contradictions of American life and, perhaps, human character. Like the Black Power theorists whom he opposed but also mirrored, Kahane recognized the longing for purpose, commitment, and risk that liberal societies rarely offer. In different ways, the nationalists, integralists, and neo-pagans of the New Right all respond to this demand. Kahane would have understood their appeal, even if he rejected some of their non-Jewish premises.
For all his prescience, though, it is hard to imagine a full-scale Kahanist revival any time soon. In the end, his political theology was too extreme and eccentric to attract many followers, particularly after it flowered into terrorism. The increasing strength of the Jewish right over the last three decades has more to do with recurring waves of violence in Israel and mounting anti-Zionism in the rest of the world than with any direct influence by Kahane.
For his part, despite his fundamental political and religious disagreements with Kahane, Taubes would not have been surprised by the combination of public repudiation and private fascination that have characterized Kahane’s afterlife. Rather than as a constant presence, he saw the apocalyptic as an eternal possibility that occasionally breaks through the stabilizing structures of society only to recede from view. The enduring service of these Jewish political theologians was to expose fundamental forces that we would prefer not to see. How to manage them without succumbing to the temptation to revel in chaos, war, and destruction is a problem that neither was able to solve.