Nomad Philosopher

Faculty Profile

An intense, bushy-haired young professor could frequency be seen ambling through the crowded streets of Jerusalem two years ago, carrying on extended conversations with rabbis and refugees, artists and intellectuals. After searching out the colorful inhabitants of Israel's metropolis, Jacob Taubes felt he had found "deeper wisdom among semi-literates than among many college graduates."

Although Taubes chose to spend his Rockefeller fellowship at Harvard for the past two years primarily because of the library, he insists that his main interest in life is not books, but people. His habit of always meeting a student or colleague for lunch and then talking for hours has caused friends to compare him to the Dostoyevsky characters who carry on coffee-shop dialogues for thirty pages.

His faith in unsophisticated workers was justified, he feels, when he taught an intensive course of adult education in Israel. His students were mainly farmers and artisans, but he found among them a burning interest in fundamental issues. This experience taught him his greatest lesson in teaching--"not to lecture as if students are of the leisure class, for even students have to deal with the most urgent matters."

This sense of urgency fills his lectures, and has made even his course on abstruse nineteenth century philosophy remarkably popular. While Taubes demands hard work from his students he is unrelenting in setting his own schedule. In addition to his philosophy course, Taubes teachers a Humanities course in "Freedom and the Spirit of Heresy," a Humanities 3 section, and writes prolifically on Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel.

Taubes is accustomed to a full schedule, however. Ever since his childhood flight from Vienna in 1936, a few weeks before the Nazis overran Austria, the thirty-year old lecturer has filled his life with more activity than most men twice his life wit more activity than most men twice his age. The scion of an old rabbinical family, Taubes worked from 1943 to 1945 with Jesuit priests and the great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in a network of underground groups centered in Zurich.


After the armistice, Taubes began his brilliant academic career. He studied first at Zurich and later earned his Ph.D. at Basle under his old underground compatriate, Karl Barth.

In 1946, when he was 22, Taubes published a study of philosophies of history since Augustine. Scholars praised his initial work, and among them Carl J. Friedrich described it as an extraordinarily brilliant books for one of his age to write, and one which I should be proud to have written at any age."

When the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York awarded him a fellowship, Taubes realized he would have to learn English, so he bought a copy of the King James Bible. He knew the German and Greek Bibles so well that he was able to puzzle out the new language by studying the English text verse by verse. By the time he reached the Book of Revelation, he felt that the new language by studying the English text verse by verse. By he time he reached the Book of Relation, he felt that he knew English well enough to try it out on a date with an American exchange students who was soon leaving for the U.S. After she politely explained to him that Biblical language is no longer used, ("How was I to know it was archaic?" said Taubes) she described a friend it was archaic?" said Taubes) she described a friend of hers who was "brilliant and beautiful, and locked herself in the library at night to study." Taubes arrived in American and met an American girl to whom he was soon engaged. When he told the exchange student that he was engaged to a Bryn Mawr girl Susan Anima, "she nearly fainted," said Taubes. "It was the same girl she had described to me in Switzerland."

In the same year, Taubes became a close friend of Paul Tillich, with whom he studied, and of Yale's famed philosopher, Paul Weiss Martin Buber secured him a position as Research Fellow and Lecturer in Social Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the following year. Taubes found that his course on Hegel and Marx was violently controversial in Jerusalem, for a group of remarkably well trained Marxist debaters was in the student body, and the left-wing press soon began to attack him. But Taubes had to admit that the Communists in Israel have a uniquely trained cabal of students who excel both in study and in debate.

A Rockefeller Foundation fellowship brought Taubes back to America in 1952, and he spent last year doing research in his "beloved stacks" at Widener. His wife is also studying at Harvard; she surprised some professors by becoming the first woman student in history to enroll at the Harvard Divinity School.

It is very typical of Taubes that his favorite picture, the only print in his tiny, book-lined study, is an etching by Brueghel which pictures the artist and an onlooker. On he artist's face is all the agony and triumph of creation, while the insipid expression of the onlooker reflects only passive, exploitative enjoyment. Never content with passivity, Taubes is always he supremely ambitions artist.