The Voice That Speaks in My Soul

By Susan Taubes
Friday, March 8, 2013

Franz Kafka waited until 1919 before he wrote a letter to his father blaming him for the endless frustration, guilt, and alienation that he felt as a Jew.  And even then, when he was 36, his father loomed so large in his eyes that he could not actually send this now famous diatribe.  Today, this unmailed letter is something of a rallying call for large numbers of American and European Jewish young people who are expected to endure, with proper reverence, Jewish rituals and ceremonies that have little or no meaning for their bourgeois assimilated parents.  

By no means as well known is Susan Taubes’ (1928-1969) confessional letter of protest sent to her forceful and domineering husband, Jacob Taubes (1923-1987), in the summer of 1949.  Armed with rabbinic ordination and a Swiss Ph.D. in philosophy before he came to the United States in 1947, Taubes was a budding and charismatic European intellectual, historian, philosopher, and scholar of religion.  Susan had emigrated from Hungary to the United States in 1939 with her father, Sándor Feldmann (1889-1972).  They settled in Rochester, New York, where Sándor resumed his career as a psychoanalyst.    Susan received a liberal arts education at Bryn Mawr College, followed by graduate studies in philosophy and religion, culminating in a Ph.D. at Harvard University under the guidance of the German Protestant theologian Paul Tillich.    

Susan’s biting depiction of the scene in the synagogue, her demand to retain her personal integrity, and her desperate attempt to seek something true and authentic are all reminiscent of Kafka.  In her letter, however, unlike in Kafka’s, the addressee is not her father but the husband who expected her to become immersed in the world of Judaism.  And her critique is much more far-reaching than Kafka’s, encompassing liberal Judaism, American Orthodox Judaism, and all contemporary conventional understandings of religions that are determined by “any mass belief and tradition.” 

This letter is republished by permission of Wilhelm Fink, publisher of Susan Taubes, Die Korrespondenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951, edited by and commented on by Christiana Pareigis with the cooperation of Almut Hüfler, and with the permission of Ethan Taubes and Tanaquil Taubes. We present the text exactly as it was written.—Eugene R. Sheppard  

Darling—I am very sad without you and troubled about many things and my meditations this evening lead me to feel very hopeless about there ever growing an understanding between us.  And as to prayer I can only pray to an unknown light to save me from the nightmare of what men call religion. 

We went tonight to the orthodox service and afterwards to the reform temple.  I went with a very open heart and I wanted so deeply to come into my temple and participate in a service the thought of which I felt was noble and holy but I walked into a very awful farce instead and I felt very embittered.  The whole room was illuminated with lightbulb-lightbulbs even on candles and full of the din of chattering people—all around me the women were gossiping during the service—the rabbi had to use a microphone even though it was quite a small temple and there was such noise that he had to ask the people to shut up several times.  People were running around, nobody listened and they looked utterly brutal and stupid—not one measure less than the Puerto Ricans you detest.  The singing was monotonous and unmoving.  The sermon was below the level of pulp magazines.  The reform service was at least tolerable.  The people were quiet the organ played well and Rabbi Bernstein at least did not presume to bring in God but spoke simply and humanly.  But it was quite unnecessary. 

It is clear to me that I must follow the voice that speaks in my soul and not to deceive myself by any Talmudic or Jesuitical rationalization that I can attach and commit myself to any mass belief and tradition.  It simply is not true—what I believe and what the laws and scriptures and traditions uphold are two different things they are of different dimension and I am not at the moment concerned with how to discipline the masses or how to keep priests and rabbis employed and although there is nothing I desire more than to worship in community and not in loneliness I will suffer my loneliness rather than to give myself to hypocrisy and falsehood.  I don’t think you have a right to force me to repeat and repeat the same process of decision.  I am tired of being deceived in the same thing again and again.  Because I love you and because we must build out lives together I want to see truth where you see truth and I strain many times in myself to open myself to it and every time I find that it is deception.  I cannot go on in this endless repetition I want to build my own altar.  It is awful, it is perhaps the most frightening thing not to be able to worship and live in the tradition of any people—it is truly death—but we must live this awfulness and not make sentiment or political compromises.  This is my belief at least, and the few people I know of both semitic and non-semitic strain believe this.  And I can no more keep to the laws of the Bible and the exile traditions than I can cross myself or take the sacrament because I would perjure myself and my honesty and my nakedness is all I possess. 

There is only one sin and that is to deny the image of God.  Believe does not matter—ultimately where we have ceased to be children faith is not a spiritual matter.  We would like human beings to wear the image of God in their lives, in their being, their acts and their handiwork.  Calendar days for rest and atonement and being holy are simply a caricature of how a man ought to live.  The law of the Torah may make life more simple, it saves us from searching all the time to distinguish between the holy and the unholy by an arbitrary rule; and it is easier to fast one day a year than to abstain from swinishness every day of the year and to judge our actions every moment of our lives; and it is more simply to dedicate one day of the week to rest quietude than strive for quietude and dignity every day of the week; but I cannot live by this kind of logic and I cannot participate in the traditions of a people who live by it.  And this is the last time I want to dwell on this thing. 

I would be deeply hurt if you would expect that because you are good to me I must compromise my beliefs and to please you go along with the ritual.  This would be very cheap.  You cannot threaten me with love because there is a more awful thing than to be without human affection—hypocrisy, rottenness, damnation.  I am not wise and I am not “looking out for my interests” or interested in playing a part or saving my face.  I feel I am writing to a rock and not to you—because I want you to be a priest, and I think you must withdraw very far from politics and people in the mass and find your own way with God because otherwise you have no right to talk to the people. 

And if your whole life and truth is the Torah and your whole aim to build a life and family according to its law you were unjust not to make your conditions clear to me before because you will not be able to force me in this mold.  I am just sick from it and you must admit that this was not the basis on which we married and I am simply terrified. 

Eugene R. Sheppard is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish History and Thought and Director of the History of Ideas Program at Brandeis University.

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