In her famous work “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), Virginia Woolf imagines a sister of Shakespeare, whom she names Judith. Woolf explores the reasons why so few women have made their mark in literature and other media. The imagined sister of Shakespeare, Woolf hypothesizes, was as talented as Shakespeare. But, unlike him, she died destitute and unrecognized, having suffered humiliation and pain. Silenced prematurely, the gifted sister was never heard.
Woolf’s book propelled her work to a paradigmatic moment in feminist consciousness or analysis. In the intervening years, many women emerged to fill in some of the lacunae. But none accomplishes what the letters of Susan Taubes do: expose the multiple dimensions of a woman who is brilliant, articulate and in love, as she explores the relationship between theology, philosophy and the sacred along with her own passionate, erotic relationship with her equally brilliant lover/husband.
The stunningly beautiful Judit Zsuzsanna Feldmann, better known as Susan Taubes (1928-1969), reminds the reader of Shakespeare’s imagined, talented sister, whose destiny ended in oblivion.
Her equally talented husband, Jacob Taubes, went on to glory, becoming a well-recognized professor whose publications continue to influence discourse on topics such as political theology. But Susan Taubes languished. Her Harvard doctoral dissertation on Simone Weil was never published. She committed suicide at 41.
It took decades for her work to come to light, and it did so thanks to the efforts of Sigrid Weigel, director of Berlin’s Center for Literary and Cultural Research, who tracked down and located Susan Taubes’ son. Together, they unlocked what is a veritable treasure chest: a suitcase filled with Susan’s philosophical and poetic manuscripts, as well as her letters to her husband, the earliest of them now available in “Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951,” edited with an introduction by Christina Pareigis (Wilhelm Fink, 2011). A second volume, for 1952 just came out, and more is to follow.
Although the book’s title is in German, the magnificent letters are all in English.
They begin with a quest to connect with the sacred. Here, Susan explains to her beloved rabbi husband why the Jewish traditions that she finds in the synagogues fail her, and shows how desperately she longs for authentic spirituality, for the “noble and holy.” What follows are persistent attempts to give form to, encounter or create sustaining modes of spiritual and intellectual life. The letters, above all, are passionate love letters to her husband, who is away in Zurich and Jerusalem. Susan tells him about her dialogue with major thinkers of the time — both in person and through their work: Martin Heidegger, Plato, Martin Buber, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt. Her letters display deep and profound wrestling with fundamental questions of life’s meanings through literature, philosophy, religion and eros, with a wholeness of body and soul.
Although she objects to much of organized religion, she draws heavily upon philosophers, mystics, theologians and the Bible.
Susan Taubes is important because she gives us something new in her passionate weaving of the intellectual, physical and spiritual in a dialogue between brilliant lovers. She is important because none of her writing remains merely academic. Her quest is always woven with the erotic life with her husband and the practical lives around. No, not merely woven, but wrested out of a deep commitment to questions about life.
Other talented women, coupled with talented men, also shared insights with sensual and intellectual intensity — Heloise and Abelard, Arendt and Heidegger, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But none of them sheds as much encompassing light on the meetings of great minds, bodies and souls.
Susan Taubes is important because she allows us to see the unfolding of an extraordinary woman as she engages deeply with persons and ideas of her generation and fills in the void that Woolf decries.
Susan Taubes’ letters transport readers to the heart of New York’s cauldron of ideas and personalities, to cafés in Paris, and to Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in its formative era, where Susan engages with leading intellectuals (Arendt, Daniel Bell, Camus, Louis Finkelstein, Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Tillich, to mention but a few). The list of her famous or infamous conversation partners is long and dazzling, making the letters a veritable discovery of “who’s who,” and a crash course in a number of intellectual disciplines.
The letters are also full of longing for the one she loves: “You are all the gates of my life and so many days yet I must wait till they shall be opened to me” (159), brimming, too, with contagious excitement about the worlds she explores.
Exile and evil haunt much of her writing, even as she is immersed in her great love. Her response is a perpetual quest for the good in the midst of the great absence, and love as antidote to fragility. She writes on Nov. 12, 1950: “I will not fail because although I am fragile too — I have you and through you my roots have grown deep into the earth so that I am connected with all life and draw all the strength of life” (95). With barely a pause she then turns to Heidegger’s work, confesses to a seduction, and ends with “I come to you in my sleep, to my only one … I could die now for eternity and would have had what there is to have. I embrace you my eternal bridegroom” (96).
Susan Taubes is important because the questions she raises and the answers she rejects open a space for new insights that she boldly probes. She is important because the contradictions she tries to reconcile are still with us. She is important as much for what she did as for what has failed.
The fact that life and love failed her in the end, resulting in her suicide, is all the more reason to listen to Susan Taubes, as we would have needed to listen to Shakespeare’s sister. The challenge she poses for us, about the quest for truth and goodness in a world within which the fragility proves too great a burden, has grown more, not less, urgent.
The letters between Susan Taubes and Jacob Taubes are the subject of the program on “Women in Exile,” March 29 at 4 p.m. at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, to be introduced by Sigrid Weigel (Berlin and Princeton) and read by distinguished actors Karola Raimond and Christoph Dostal. For more information, contact Margit Kleinman, director, Villa Aurora, 520 Paseo Miramar, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, (310) 454-4231; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is an award-winning professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles Campus. Her book “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” received the 2008 National Jewish Book of the Year Award (with Andrea Weiss). Her books include “Levinas and Biblical Studies” as well as the JPS commentary on the Book of Ruth, winner of the 2011 National Jewish Book Award for Women Studies.