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Gershom Scholem was one of the great scholars of the twentieth century. Almost single-handedly, he created the modern academic study of Jewish mysticism, a subject that had been scorned by earlier generations of historians. But that achievement, remarkable though it is, hardly explains why he remains such an object of fascination so long after his death in 1982. Other German Jewish intellectuals associated with Scholem, like Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, wrote about matters much closer to the mainstream of modern life—mass media or totalitarian politics. By comparison, one might expect a scholar of the ancient mystical treatise the Bahir or the seventeenth-century Sabbatian heresy to be of interest only to specialists.
Yet the studies of Scholem’s life and work show no sign of stopping: in the past year alone, he has been the subject of two new biographies, by David Biale and Noam Zadoff. There are also new English editions of his unpublished verse and of his correspondence with Arendt; and there is even a biography of his brother Werner, a Communist politician in Weimar Germany, who is remembered in large part because of Gershom’s fame. (These books follow George Prochnik’s passionate and personal 2017 memoir/biography of Scholem, Stranger in a Strange Land.) Clearly, Scholem has become one of those figures in which the modern world—in particular the modern Jewish world—sees its reflection.
That is because his life and work intersected with some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century: the birth of the State of Israel and the death of European Jewry. Not only did Scholem witness these developments, but his scholarship proved to be highly influential in the way modern Jews thought about the course of their history. Scholem’s scholarly work on Kabbalah, the tradition of Jewish mysticism, did not touch on contemporary politics at all, but was nonetheless deeply informed by them. In Kabbalah, Scholem found an expression of the collective hopes and traumas of the Jews over the centuries.
To use one of his favorite words, Scholem restored “the demonic”—in the sense of the irrational, the unconscious, the fateful—to the modern understanding of Judaism. In the twentieth century, this dimension of history seemed much more real than it had to the nineteenth-century scholars of “the science of Judaism,” who tended to see Jewish mysticism as the desiccated superstition of a benighted past. Scholem, on the contrary, believed that Kabbalah had been an authentic and vital expression of Jewish spirituality. “The mystics…were the true representatives of the living, popular religion of the [Jewish] masses,” he wrote in his magnum opus, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.
Scholem reintroduced modern Jews, including many scholars and writers, to the central elements of Kabbalah: the sefirot, the ten levels of God’s being; the sitra aḥra, the dark “other side” of God from which evil springs; and the Shekhinah, the female aspect of the divine. Indeed, to the extent that kabbalistic concepts and vocabulary have entered into the wider culture, it is primarily thanks to Scholem. In his introduction to Greetings from Angelus, Steven Wasserstrom writes, with permissible exaggeration, that “secularized ‘Judaic’ high-culture of the twentieth century is for all intents and purposes Gershom Scholem.”
The irony of Scholem’s life is that this symbol of Jewish knowledge was born into a family that completely lacked it. In his memoir From Berlin to Jerusalem, Scholem recalled the atmosphere in the home of his parents Arthur and Betty, who ran a printing business. Like many German Jews of their era, the Scholems were middle-class, assimilated, highly patriotic, and religiously nonobservant. (Arthur worked on Yom Kippur, and while Sabbath candles were lit on Friday nights, he made a point of using them to light his cigars.) At the same time, they lived in a completely Jewish social world. No non-Jews ever visited the family home, and when Werner Scholem announced that he was getting engaged to a Christian girl, his father cut off all contact with him. Yet when Gershom announced that he was a Zionist, his father cut him off as well. Any deviation from the line of cautious assimilation struck Arthur Scholem as a dangerous heresy.
Already as a teenager, Scholem was acutely aware of the contradictions and hypocrisies that reigned in this German Jewish milieu. His ideas about Judaism and Zionism evolved throughout his life, but he was utterly consistent in his belief that Deutschjudentum—German Jewishness—was based on a lie. In the 1960s, when he was asked to contribute to a volume on German-Jewish dialogue, Scholem let loose his famous sarcasm on the very idea:
To whom, then, did the Jews speak in that much-talked-about German-Jewish dialogue? They spoke to themselves, not to say that they outshouted themselves. Some felt uneasy, perhaps even dismal about it, but many acted as if everything were on the best way to being settled, as if the echo of their own voice would be unexpectedly transmogrified into that voice of the others they so eagerly hoped to hear.
The Germans never responded to the Jews; they ignored them or they hated them, and finally they murdered them.
Not everyone saw it that way in the 1910s. In his memoir, Scholem observed that he was one of four sons whose lives, taken together, represented the full spectrum of possibilities for German Jews of his generation. His oldest brother, Reinhold, was an ultra-patriot who fought proudly in World War I and considered himself a German nationalist even after he was forced by the Nazis to flee to Australia. (“I’m not going to let Hitler dictate my views to me!” he insisted.) Meanwhile, Werner Scholem, the third brother, took a directly opposite course, joining the many Jews of his generation who looked to communism to abolish all kinds of injustice, including anti-Semitism. “Every thinking Jew becomes a Socialist,” Werner wrote to Gershom in 1914.
In her biography of Werner, which was published in Germany under the title The Red Job, Mirjam Zadoff shows that he reaped only bitter fruits from his ideological commitment. He emerged from his army service a committed leftist and won election to the German parliament as a Communist deputy. He gave fiery speeches on the floor of the Reichstag, often in the face of loud anti-Semitic abuse. But his enemies weren’t only on the right: after several years of prominence, he was purged from the German Communist Party, along with other Jewish intellectuals, as part of the process that brought the party under the control of Stalin.
As a well-known Jewish Communist politician, Werner Scholem figured prominently in Nazi hate-propaganda, and he was arrested after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Initially released after a few days, he inexplicably failed to flee the country, believing perhaps that his status as a Great War veteran would protect him. He was soon rearrested, and while he was acquitted by a court—the charges involved an alleged plot to spread Communist propaganda in the army—he was immediately placed under “protective custody,” the Nazi euphemism for indefinite detention in a concentration camp. He spent years in a succession of camps, where he suffered from both the hostility of the Nazi guards and the ostracism of the Communist Party cadres who were usually the most influential prisoners. Finally, in 1940, he was killed at Buchenwald, apparently shot by guards—a terrible end to a life that was indeed Job-like in its perpetual ordeals.
And then there was the youngest son, whose path was the most unusual of all. Born in Berlin in 1897, Gershom Scholem was exactly the same age as the modern Zionist movement, which held its first congress in Basel that same year. Scholem came to Zionism as a teenager, and he embraced it with the same radical fervor that Werner brought to communism. In his appealingly written and deeply knowledgeable short biography, published as part of the Yale Jewish Lives series, David Biale quotes a passage from Scholem’s teenage diary, in which he wrote about himself in the third person:
The young man…believed deeply that the soul of Judah wandered among the nations and in the Holy Land, awaiting the one presumptuous enough to free it from banishment and from the separation from its national body. And he knew in his depths that he was the Chosen One.
As that passage suggests, there was something quasi-mystical about the young Scholem’s understanding of what Zionism meant. Crucially, Biale emphasizes that he was not particularly interested in the political Zionism associated with Theodor Herzl. Rather, he belonged in the camp of the so-called cultural Zionists, who saw settlement in Palestine as a way to create a nucleus for a worldwide renewal of Judaism. As Scholem would write much later:
The reason I embraced Zionism was not that the establishment of a Jewish state (which I defended in discussions) as the main goal of the movement seemed urgent and utterly convincing to me. For me as for many others, this aspect of the movement played only a secondary role, or none at all, until Hitler’s destruction of the Jews.
Rather, “for me Zion was a symbol that linked our origin and our utopian goal in a religious rather than a geographical sense.”
While Scholem was still living in Germany, Zionism gave him the spiritual energy he needed to create an authentic Jewish life. From the very beginning, he was clear that this project involved losing any illusions about being German. To underscore the point, Scholem, whose given name was Gerhard, adopted the Hebrew name Gershom, which means “sojourner”: though Germany was his native country, he saw himself as only marking time there until he could leave for Palestine. This meant that he felt no obligation to serve in the German army in World War I, which he opposed wholeheartedly from the very start. According to his memoir, Scholem got out of army service by feigning psychosis; Biale suggests that he was unlikely to be able to fool a military doctor, and hypothesizes that “perhaps Scholem was simply exaggerating symptoms that were already present.”
Scholem’s escape from military service marked an important point of divergence from the path of his brother Werner, who served for years on the eastern front and was seriously wounded. Perhaps if Gershom had undergone the same ordeals, he might have ended up being more sympathetic to revolutionary Marxism. As it was, however, he was free to spend the years from 1916 to 1923 in cultivating his Jewish knowledge. At this time, there was no such thing as academic Jewish studies in Germany, and Scholem had to seek instruction wherever he could find it. A sympathetic teacher gave him his first Hebrew lessons, and he mastered the language on his own—a step that few German Jews, even Zionists, ever managed (just as few American Jews master it today). An Orthodox rabbi offered training in the Talmud, even though Scholem was not, and never became, religiously observant.
When he grew interested in Kabbalah, however, Scholem was basically on his own. In his memoir, he recalls that in the early 1920s the whole subject of Jewish mysticism was dominated by charlatans and gurus, who drew on kabbalistic ideas to decorate their teachings. At best there was a figure like Philip Bloch, a professor who collected kabbalistic manuscripts. When the young Scholem admired the collection and said, “How wonderful, Herr Professor, that you have studied all this!,” Bloch replied, “What, am I supposed to read this rubbish, too?” “That was a great moment in my life,” Scholem wrote ironically. It showed him just how little anyone cared about Jewish mysticism, and thus how large a field was open for his discovery.
In 1923, with his doctorate in hand, Scholem finally emigrated to Palestine. A decade later, the rise of Hitler would send tens of thousands of German Jews on the same journey; but to go from Berlin to Jerusalem in the early 1920s was an extremely unusual choice, made only by the most committed Zionists. Not only was Scholem exchanging a comfortable life in one of the most advanced countries in Europe for a hardscrabble existence in a poor, remote province. He was also, he believed, giving up any chance of an academic career. There was no university in Palestine at the time, and Scholem’s hope was to become a math teacher in a high school. As luck would have it, however, he was offered a job in the embryonic National Library as a curator of Hebrew books—a subject about which few secular scholars knew as much as he did. Two years later, when the Hebrew University was founded in Jerusalem, Scholem was one of its first faculty appointments. He would spend the rest of his career there, becoming a highly influential figure in the development of Israeli academia.
But Scholem’s utopian version of Zionism meant that he was destined to be disappointed by the reality of Jewish life in Palestine. Seen in broad outline, Scholem’s life was a Zionist dream: he escaped Germany in time to avoid calamity, built a successful new life in Jerusalem, and made important contributions to the building of the Jewish state and to Judaism itself. But as Noam Zadoff shows in his biographical study Gershom Scholem: From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back, Scholem’s attitude toward both his homelands was always complicated. Far from forsaking German culture entirely, he continued to write books and articles in German as well as Hebrew. Starting in 1949, he took part in the annual Eranos Conferences in Switzerland, where he was able to address a European and German scholarly audience. His memoir, whose title Zadoff suggestively revises in the subtitle of his own book, was written in German and made him an intellectual celebrity in Germany.
Zadoff’s book is less a full biography than a study of certain themes in Scholem’s life, chief among them his ambivalence toward Jewish Palestine and Israel. Scholem hinted at this ambivalence more than once, as when he explained why he concluded his memoir with his arrival in Palestine, rather than continuing the story of his life there:
It was much less difficult…to write critically about matters from my youth, than about the difficult developments in the Land of Israel during the past fifty years. There is no lack of great episodes that I do not wish to present to a German readership.
This public reticence disappeared in Scholem’s most private writing, the German verse he produced throughout his life. The poems collected in Greetings from Angelus were never intended to be published; at most they were written for an audience of one. Often this was Walter Benjamin, whom Scholem met in 1915 and soon turned into a close friend and intellectual idol: in his diary, he wrote of this “absolute, splendid relationship with one man, who has influenced my life not by his teaching, but by his being.” Biale speculates, inconclusively, on whether there was “a homoerotic component” to this friendship; what is clear is that in this crucial period of Scholem’s intellectual development, Benjamin was a key stimulus to his thinking about language, myth, and Judaism. Their student days are commemorated in a piece of light verse, an abecedarium describing the imaginary “State University of Muri,” named for the Swiss village where Scholem and Benjamin lived while pursuing their studies at Bern during World War I. But the most serious poems Scholem wrote concerned his spiritual disappointment in Zion, as in “Media in Vita,” a lament written in 1930:
I have lost the faith
that brought me to this
And in the wake of this
night is my surrounding
I don’t know how long I’ll
hold my own
keeping watch on the edge
of the abyss
in the stifling prospect of
sunk into such an
Zadoff excels at explaining just how the course of events in Palestine disappointed Scholem’s expectations. As an intellectual whose interests were strictly spiritual and cultural, Scholem looked down on most of the practical activity that was going on in Palestine. “Now we are dwelling here in a Zion which is not one: 500,000 people (Jews)—so one must perhaps say—and of them maybe 50,000 of those we were thinking about,” he wrote harshly in his diary in 1943. “The rest are lies and deceptions.”
Scholem was especially dismayed by the hostility between Jews and Arabs. As a member of Brit Shalom, a tiny but influential group made up mostly of Central European intellectuals, Scholem believed in a binational state. Only this solution, he thought, would avoid encouraging Jewish nationalism, which he saw as a betrayal of the cultural Zionist dream. Eventually, the course of events—above all, the fact of the Holocaust—changed Scholem’s conception of what Zion was for; he became more sympathetic to the idea that the Jews needed a refuge as much as a spiritual center. But he remained a disappointed idealist, and after the early 1930s he made it a principle never to intervene in political controversies.
Zadoff’s insights help to explain one of the rare exceptions to this rule: Scholem’s clash with Hannah Arendt over her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial, which is documented in their newly translated Correspondence. Scholem and Arendt met in Paris before World War II, and while they were never very close, they had an important link in Walter Benjamin, whom they both cherished. Their letters during and after the war dealt primarily with Benjamin, and with their attempts to find a publisher for the scattered manuscripts he left behind after his suicide in 1940. Later, Scholem and Arendt were both active in the effort to locate Jewish cultural artifacts in postwar Europe. Scholem’s mission, as a representative of the Hebrew University, was to bring as many ownerless books and manuscripts as possible to Jerusalem.
The dispute that ended their friendship took place in 1963, after the publication of Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. In a scathing exchange that was later published in Encounter, Scholem took issue not just with Arendt’s judgments, but above all with her tone in writing about the Holocaust: “the heartless, the downright malicious tone you employ in dealing with the topic that so profoundly concerns the center of our life.” This ironic style betrayed Arendt’s lack of what Scholem called ahavath Israel, “love for the Jewish people.” In her frank response, Arendt confessed to the charge: “I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective,” she wrote.
The question of collective loyalty and identity was the real bone of contention between them. While Scholem’s criticisms of Zionism and Israel were profound, he remained what Michael Walzer calls a “connected critic,” attached to what he rebuked. In a late essay, he wrote:
It is certainly true that throughout my life I have believed in the rebirth of the Jewish people through the Zionist movement, but within the framework of that belief…I belonged much more to the group of those who posed questions than to those who knew how to give answers.
What must have infuriated Scholem is that Arendt posed some of the same questions about Israel that he himself had in the past; but she did so in an unconnected spirit, from the vantage point of New York, not Jerusalem.
This episode points directly to some of the paradoxes at the heart of Scholem’s identity, which Biale and Zadoff do much to illuminate. He was a man who spent his whole life in the study of Judaism yet never practiced it, while still claiming to believe in God; who dedicated his life to Zionism yet was disappointed in what Zionism created; who wrote about obscure texts and ideas yet made them feel dramatic and urgently relevant. “There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition,” Scholem once wrote, and perhaps that is the best way to think of him: as a treasure hunter who found in Judaism all the resources he needed to live a twentieth-century life.
June 28, 2018
December 6, 2018 issue
Adam Kirsch is an Editor at The Wall Street Journal’s weekend Review section and the author, most recently, of the essay collection Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? (September 2020)
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