• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 and others. First he insists upon a historical approach toward the definition of the faith:

I do not hold to the opinion of those (and there are indeed many of them) who view the events of Jewish history from a strict dogmatic standpoint and who know exactly whether some phenomenon or another is “Jewish” or not. Nor am I a follower of that school which proceeds on the assumption that there is a well-defined and unvarying “essence” of Judaism, especially not where the evaluation of historical events is concerned. The internal censorship of the past, particularly by rabbinical tradition, has tended to play down or conceal many developments whose fundamentally Jewish character the contemporary Jewish historian has no reason to deny.

We are frequently as surprised by the level of vitality inherent in these developments as we are by their boldness and radicalism of thought…. The “Jewishness” in the religiosity of any particular period is not measured by dogmatic criteria that are unrelated to actual historical circumstances, but solely by what sincere Jews do, in fact, believe, or—at least—consider to be legitimate possibilities.

Scholem’s quarrel is with historians who, for example, went to great pains to dissociate the apocalyptic from Judaism and to lay it entirely at Christianity’s door; with the Orthodox, who have often sought to bridle those more explosive elements in Judaism which would have menaced their authority; and, interestingly, with Judaism’s modern philosophers, whose practice has too often been to embellish an idea of “essence,” gleaned from German philosophy, with compatible rabbinic citations.

In sum, Scholem’s is a historian’s opposition to a priori definitions in Jewish history—a method that was defended for the study of Jewish sources by the great German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen. The substance of Judaism, Scholem maintains persuasively, must instead be induced from the scrutiny of all its sources, which will, in turn, show that there is not, and never has been, a single idea called “Judaism.” That name should instead be given to the many and divergent spiritual modes which Jews in different historical predicaments have used to interpret their traditional religious texts.

Scholem’s revival of the Kabbalah thus brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s equally willful revival of German baroque tragedy in his first major work: both were intended partly to flout a notion of decadence, a view of Jewish or literary history which imperiously assigns values to its various episodes.4 Furthermore, because of his commitment to the plurality of Jewish forms—Judaeus sum—Judaei nil a me alienum puto—Scholem’s scholarship can be both resoundingly Zionist and untendentious. Zionism, he argues, may in some respects be heir to ancient messianic energies, but in crucial respects it differs. One will look in vain in Scholem’s work for a discussion of messianism from Luria to Herzl, on the order, say, of Lucien Goldmann’s discussion of dialectical thought from Pascal to Stalin.

Along with Scholem’s belief in the fecundity of the Jewish tradition goes a kind of Romanticism, a view of its evolution as distinctive, organic, and self-impelled. When, a few years ago, a historian suggested that Israel Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism, culled essentials of his doctrine from nearby sectarians of the Russian Orthodox Church, Scholem reacted vehemently. It was, of course, a question of historical fact, and Scholem—among others—argued that the evidence warranted no such conclusions. But more generally the suggestion flew in the face of his broader view of the inner history of Jewish religious development.

That view is best illustrated by the modern history of Jewish mysticism. The version of the Kabbalah developed in the sixteenth century by Isaac Luria and his school merged the conventional theosophy of its mystical predecessors with messianic aspirations unleashed by the exile from Spain generations earlier. The unhappy state of the Jews Isaac Luria lifted into the very heart of his God, whom he depicted as likewise dispersed and in need of restitution. Redemption, then, became an obsessive focus of Jewish religious energy. The way was thus prepared for the mighty swell of Sabbatianism. The mystical theology of Sabbatai Sevi—more correctly, of his extraordinary “prophet,” Nathan of Gaza—consisted in fact in an extreme elaboration of Luria’s mystical messianism. Scholem calls it “the explosion of the Messianic element contained in Lurianic Kabbalah.” But when Sabbatai the Jewish “messiah” converted to Islam, he bequeathed his die-hard followers a rather demoralizing view of the holiness of sin.

In the aftermath of the Sabbatian disappointment, therefore, a way had to be found to retain the wondrous and still enthralling world of the Kabbalah while divesting it of the apocalyptic mood which had proved so dangerous. This dialectical twist was the work of Hasidism, which first appeared in just those regions which had been strong-holds of Sabbatianism. Inheriting from Sabbatianism its stress upon charismatic authority, Hasidism, as Scholem describes it, replaced the figure of the Messiah with that of the saintly and luminous Zaddik, or Rabbi; it proposed a new emphasis upon the individual soul in its relation to God, and a populist religious enthusiasm in no way millennial. What messianism remained became the utopian dream of a future too remote to tempt Jews to hasten it. In sum, and oversimply: the force that through Lurianic Kabbalah drives Sabbatianism drives Hasidism (but Zionism is not bent by the same wintry fever).5

Implied, too, by such an internal approach is a theory of cultural exclusiveness, of the relations between Jewish culture and its hosts. Scholem is keenly alive to non-Jewish influences when they occur; he gives a careful account, for example, of the appreciable Gnostic and neo-Platonic elements in Jewish mysticism. But these borrowings, he would argue, are precisely that: absorptions of foreign ideas and images into a system of religious meaning indigenous to the Jewish people.

The Kabbalah, in other words, was not uncertain of its roots. Almost always studied or practiced in concert with prescribed ritual observances, Kabbalah was an authentically Jewish creation, a genuine and largely self-originating adaptation of tradition to adversity. Not so Jewish philosophy, which, for all its considerable intellectual distinction, was attacked in its own medieval day as a graft of alien Aristotelianism upon the interpretation of sacred Scripture. Philosophy has, by almost all accounts, been something Jews learned from goyim, whether Greek, Arab, or German.

More significantly, and as even Judaism’s greatest thinker Maimonides himself conceded, philosophy could not keep piety alive among the Jewish masses. And it is precisely the Jewish masses that most deeply interest Scholem. As an engaged Zionist historian, Scholem is concerned finally with survival, with the existence and continuing vitality of the tradition that is his own. The most urgent theme of his work—and that which has forced it upon the attention of students of religion everywhere—has been, therefore, the dynamics of religious change itself, the adaptive capacities and historical conditions which enable religious culture to undergo the reformations required for its perseverance. How is it, he asks, that Judaism is still around?

By fixing, in all their colorful excesses, upon Kabbalistic texts, Scholem has done more than make up for his precursors’ oversights; he has more ambitiously suggested that without these texts—without the religious modifications they proposed and the cultural formations they reflected—Judaism might not have survived, might have failed to respond to the needs of its harassed Jews. The great rupture of the Spanish expulsion of 1492, for example, was met by Isaac Luria’s epic of creation and redemption, which adjusted Jewish perspectives to the injured new reality. Religious consciousness and the culture it inhabits are, according to Scholem, nourished not by ideas but by images and symbols, by audacious and forceful myths which bind individual fate to forces much greater than itself. Reason, he declares with a certain reassuring reluctance, “is a great instrument of destruction,” admirably equipped to criticize and disabuse. Religion, however, requires a link with the sacred, a share in mystery which only the imagination can confer.

  1. 1

    Papa threw me out of the house…. He sent me a registered letter ordering me to leave his household by March 1, 1917”—now that is Judentum acting like Deutschtum if ever it did. The Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann, later first president of Israel, also had a brother who was a socialist, and his mother’s attitude toward her two agitators is worth comparing to the elder Mr. Scholem’s intolerance: “Even in the difficult days she was cheerful and optimistic. She would say: ‘Whatever happens, I shall be well off. If Shmuel is right, we shall all be happy in Russia; and if Chaim is right then I shall go to live in Palestine.’ ” Living in Russia, Mrs. Weizmann was of course ruffled less by revolution than by poverty and pogrom.

  2. 2

    To be more precise: an internal break had come during the seventeenth century when the movement that followed the false messiah Sabbatai Sevi revolted against the norms of rabbinic Judaism; Scholem has speculated that the antinomian energies of the Sabbatians—and of their most feverish offshoots, the eighteenth-century disciples of Jacob Frank—did in fact feed the subsequent currents of enlightenment and reform in Western Europe. Whatever the merits of such a suggestion, the Sabbatian crisis was successfully weathered by the Jewish community in Eastern Europe, which developed more or less at its own traditional pace until the nineteenth century.

  3. 3

    Scholem’s politics are elusive. In the 1920s he joined Brit Shalom (known in English as The Peace Association), a society of prominent intellectuals which favored a binational state in Palestine to be administered equally by Jews and Arabs. “The Arab question was a controversial one,” he recalls, “and our approach to it caused us to be suspected [by right-wing Revisionist Zionists] of liquidating Zionism—a charge I think is unjustified.” Elsewhere he remarks: “It isn’t popular to say that Zionism has fascists, too. But I think it does, even in Israel.” Concerning the politics of Jewish culture, however, Scholem opposed certain cosmopolitan or solely humanist interpretations of Zionism: “I have always considered secular Zionism a legitimate way, but rejected the foolish declaration about the Jews becoming ‘a nation like all the nations.’ If this should materialize, it will be the end of the Jewish people.”

  4. 4

    Charles Rosen has impressed upon me the debt Benjamin owed in this connection to the art historian Alois Riegl, whom Benjamin described as a principal influence on his thought, and to Riegl’s demonstration that the pulse of antiquity could be detected even in late Roman belt buckles; as Henri Zerner has written, “Where his predecessors had seen in that period only the decadence of classical art, Riegl observed in it the emergence of new values.” Zerner’s excellent essay “Alois Riegl: Art, Value, and Historicism,” is in Daedalus, Winter 1976.

  5. 5

    Scholem has described these developments in detail in The Messianic Idea in Judaism (Schocken Books, 1972, pp. 1-142).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print