Gershom Scholem and the Fate of the Jews

On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays

by Gershom Scholem, edited by Werner J. Dannhauser
Schocken Books, 306 pp., $16.50

The attempt to reclaim traditions of Jewish spirituality, which I discussed in the first part of this review (NYR, March 31), was not the only response to the sclerosis of Jewish life in Germany at the turn of the century. Other forms of rebellion, more widespread and combative, were possible: socialism and Zionism. Gershom Scholem’s elder brother became a Communist deputy in the Reichstag and died for that in Buchenwald. Scholem himself became an ardent and articulate Zionist. In 1917 he was banished from his father’s house for his “antipatriotic” convictions.1 In 1923, while fellow Zionists across Europe hotly debated plans and principles, Scholem left for Palestine.

In considering the quality of Scholem’s Zionism and its decisive relation to his work, one should note that this was the Zionism of a German, not an Eastern European, Jew. Despite the gradual infiltration of Western ideas and manners into the towns of the Pale, Jewish life in Eastern Europe remained more or less uninterrupted; there was, at least, no internal break between the distant and the immediate past. 2 Zionism was, therefore, an ideology that encouraged discontinuity. Zionists associated suffering with tradition, and believed that to alleviate the one they had to disavow the other; instead they turned to secularism and often to radical socialist ideas as well. In Western Europe, however, Jewish traditions had been widely disavowed earlier in the processes of assimilation and acculturation which had not yet overtaken Eastern Europeans. Many Western European Zionists became conservative revolutionaries, seeking defiantly to regain a repressed patrimony and establish continuities with a moribund past.

Such a Zionism, then, though it firmly espoused the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, must have been more than a political awakening for Scholem and others of his generation.

We did not come to Zionism in search of politics. It is important to understand that for my contemporaries in Germany, Zionism was only to a limited degree (it would be wrong to say not at all) a political Zionism. Some of us, to be sure, went on to become real political Zionists, but the Zionist choice was a moral decision, an emotional one, an honesty-seeking response. The honesty did not express itself in the desire for a state, but in a revolt against the lie that Jewish existence was….3

Such a Zionism was, then, also cultural, but it ran still deeper: as the Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld put it, it was nothing less than a “post-assimilatory Judaism.”

Gershom Scholem’s Zionism consists essentially in an impassioned belief in the inner resources of the Jewish people. More specifically, by making his subject the Kabbalah and Jewish apocalypticism, Scholem aimed to demonstrate that Jewish tradition was more commodious than many had thought; that the “psychic range” (as one German historian put it) of the Jewish people was much wider than it would often have itself believed.

From this conviction springs Scholem’s theory of Judaism as he has expounded it in this book…

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