The Philosophical Pathos of Susan Taubes
Between Nihilism and Hope
Elliot R. Wolfson


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Memory and Heeding the Murmuring of the Israelites
chapter abstract

After providing a brief biographical sketch of Susan Taubes, the Introduction lays out the purpose of the book: to provide a philosophical analysis of her thought and to demonstrate that she should be taken seriously as a thinker who has contributed generally to the study of philosophy and religion and particularly to Jewish philosophy in the period right after the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. This book's attempt to reclaim the legacy of this extraordinary figure for the history of Judaism should not be construed parochially. On the contrary, for Susan, the Jew attests figurally to the fact that the general must always be measured from the standpoint of a particularity that withstands collapsing the difference between self and other. The marker of being Jewish, consequently, is not primarily religious, cultural, or political, but is rather the ethical directive to uphold the dignity of the other.

1 Ghosts of Judaism and the Serpent Devouring Its Own Tale
chapter abstract

This chapter explores Susan's complicated relationship to Judaism and her estrangement from the community to which she belonged by not belonging. As a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, Susan likened herself to a nomad who has no roots in the social structures of family, peoplehood, or nation. Susan maintained that the abiding nature of Judaism is not to be assessed from its historical legacy, but rather from a more primitive affirmation of the intrinsic merit of life in the present. This is expressed in her positing a secular ritual ground in mythologic fervor. Susan's promotion of a ritual observance unencumbered by halakhic interdictions embraced an erotic nature, epitomized in her reference to kindling the Sabbath candles as lighting the serpent or alternatively as breathing the holy. In lieu of rabbinic orthopraxis, Susan posited a sense of ritual informed by the hypernomian axiom of obeying the law by extending beyond its strictures.

2 Zionism and the Sacramental Danger of Nationalism
chapter abstract

This chapter discusses Susan Taubes's attitude toward Zionism, the land of Israel, and the ramifications of ethnonationalism on the spiritual temperament of Judaism. Early on, Susan entertained the expectation that Israel might become a place to create a more meaningful Jewish existence. The initial enthusiasm that Israel would provide not only a physical home but also a spiritual-intellectual center was offset by explicit criticisms of Zionist nationalism that informed the embryonic character of the state. Some of Susan's letters express consternation about the uncertainty and the instability of the socio-political situation in the newly formed state, and others proclaim ambivalence about the putative merit of modern Jewish nationalism on realistic and idealistic grounds. In time, Susan would offer a resounding pessimism about the dream of Zionist utopianism, viewing the modern state of Israel as yet another example of the capitalistic commodification of culture.

3 Gnosis and the Covert Theology of Antitheology: Heidegger, Apocalypticism, and Gnosticism
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on Susan Taubes's engagement with Heidegger in comparison to the interpretation that may be elicited from Jacob Taubes. Susan's major contribution is her insight regarding gnosis as Jewish heresy and the effort to retrieve Heidegger's atheological theology through utilizing symbols and images culled from ancient Gnosticism. Most relevant to the gnostic interpretation of Heidegger was his use of the themes of thrownness and homelessness to explain Dasein's estrangement in the world, a philosophical analogue to the understanding of Gnosticism as a denial of the integral meaning of the world and hence the need to escape therefrom. The ancient gnostics and Heidegger share the belief that there is no redemption in time but only redemption from time. Deviating from Jacob, Susan did not posit an apocalyptic-gnostic eschatology that held out the hope of a novum breaking into history.

4 Tragedy, Mystical Atheism, and the Apophaticism of Simone Weil
chapter abstract

Tragedy is marked by the quality that it cannot be integrated within a mythical, religious, or rationalistic worldview. Historically, ritualistic patterns of sacrificial purification may have been the impetus for the formation of the tragic sensibility, but ideationally, tragic mimesis is distinguished from ritual mimesis inasmuch as the former centers on a human protagonist defiant in the face of the noumenal powers dreaded and mollified by the latter. Susan maintained that the pledge that life must go on is the deceit that tragedy and mysticism share. The paradox of tragedy resists a dialectical sublation of antinomies, and in its place, it upholds a perilous balance that leaves the door open to nihilism as well as to faith. In her criticism of Weil, Susan argued that the impossible task that religion imparts to us is to speak dialogically to the nothing without succumbing to the theopoetic tendency to personalize the holy.

5 Facing the Faceless: Poetic Truth, Temporal Oblivion, and the Silence of Death
chapter abstract

The battle against the nihilist challenge of meaninglessness and the allure of death as a plausible escape plagued Susan throughout her life. Poiēsis instructs us that the goal of knowledge is the knowledge of death, a knowledge that is a thinking that thinks the surplus of what cannot be thought. In the knowledge accrued from this nonthinking, eros and logos are bound together in the jouissance of the wavering between sexual suffering and satisfaction. The true possessor of gnosis is the agnostic, the one who knows that knowledge consists of knowing that one cannot know.