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The Revolt of Gershom Scholem

On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays

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

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” [Ranke]. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger…. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers…. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.

Thus did a desperate Walter Benjamin, not long before he took his own life in 1940, plead for the urgency of the historian’s calling. Benjamin’s target this time—he always had one—was historicism and its easy aristocratic detachment. He was arguing in the name of historical materialism (though his own had just been shaken by the Hitler-Stalin pact), and for a Marxist view that truth could be won only within a commitment. But his misgivings are worth more than their ideological sources. More generally they caution about the betrayal of history by a smug or timid objectivity. Of course precision remains the first duty of the conscientious historian. But there are times, Benjamin warns, when precision can be guaranteed best by passion. His own, he feared, was such a time. Afraid that tradition was being fatally traduced—he used mordantly to wonder if he would be “the last European”—Benjamin looked to historians to resist the disfiguring pressures of the present “enemy.”

In the dark days when Benjamin was writing, embattled humanists such as Erich Auerbach and Ernst Robert Curtius were at work on just such pleas for the endurance of the Western literary tradition. But Benjamin’s description of the historian as hero fits as aptly the designs and achievements of his friend Gershom Scholem (who has much to say about Benjamin in this collection of essays). Scholem has been the most original and influential Jewish historian of this century. For him, too, history has been all we have to go on. But he knows we may also be misled by it. The historian shoulders a terrible responsibility: he depletes the future if he truncates the past. It is to restore such a truncated past that Scholem has labored; his books and papers have been volleys discharged against an occluded view of the Jewish tradition, which, by egregiously dismissing some of its most vital features, would imperil it entirely. “A discussion of our past,” he once modestly remarked, “has something to do with our future.”

What Scholem strove to rescue from near oblivion was the Kabbalah, the long and lively traditions of Jewish mysticism which most historians had either impugned or ignored. In 1941, after more than two decades’ work amid forgotten manuscripts and spurned books, Scholem published Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, a masterful survey of the subject which has become a classic of Jewish and religious history. (It was dedicated to the memory of Walter Benjamin, who died the year before in flight from the Nazis.) In 1957 came Sabbatai Sevi, a remarkable study of a mass messianic movement, nurtured by the Kabbalah that preceded it, which transformed and unnerved seventeenth-century Judaism. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism appeared in 1960, a more “phenomenological” treatment of Jewish mysticism’s relation to authority, tradition, and myth. These works, and numerous studies in Hebrew, German, French, and English, created an entirely new field of research, fresh themes and methods, in which many are now working.

But embedded in Scholem’s erudition are more exhaustive views on the development and prospects of the Jewish tradition. Kabbalah had been ostracized by Jewish historians for extra-scholarly reasons, and has been returned by Scholem to its rightful place in the Jewish canon on grounds perhaps just as extra-scholarly. Against their theory of Judaism Scholem has erected his own. Against a Jewishness which he considers truant and self-destructive—the German-Jewish compromise—he has conceived the vision of a Jewishness more vibrant and honorable. This vision is set forth in the essays collected in his new book, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, which makes available to English readers one of the most formidable Jewish views of the world in our age.

Historical consciousness has held the Jews together for, well, as long as they can remember. Barring isolated scholarly advances in sixteenth-century Italy and eighteenth-century Poland, however, they did not have a strict historiography until early in the nineteenth century. It was then—when historical perception had become, as Nietzsche said, “a sixth sense”—and in Germany, where the academy was busy with historical criticism, that Jews undertook to study their own texts according to the rigors of historical and philological method. The discipline that emerged was known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Judaism—what we now refer to less optimistically as “Jewish studies.” But Jewish studies were not a promising and accredited pursuit, as they have now become. Jewish scholars found no place in the German university, where their discipline was disregarded and their “co-religionists” few. Instead they earned their livelihood as private tutors, as instructors in local Jewish institutions. Picture Renan teaching Sunday school, or Wilamowitz teaching children Greek.

The Jews of Germany had at last won some rights, and been given to hope that there might be room for them in the alluring expanse of German culture. But swiftly they learned that no statutes of toleration would undo the Christian and increasingly nationalistic cast of that culture. Many Jewish intellectuals turned to the writing of Jewish history. By the force of footnotes they sought to persuade skeptical Germans—and assure themselves—of the cultural respectability of Judaism. “The neglect of Jewish scholarship goes hand in hand with civil discrimination against the Jews,” wrote Leopold Zunz, the founder of Wissenschaft des Judentums, in 1832. “Through a higher intellectual level and more thorough knowledge of their own affairs the Jews could have achieved a greater degree of recognition and thus more justice.” For “more justice,” and to suit the spirit of their age, these early scholars gave to Judaism a distinctly rational countenance, intellectual sophistication and high moral earnestness. And from such a carefully distilled creed the grotesqueries of the mystical and the apocalyptic were summarily banished. Kabbalah would have been a liability.1

But promises of enfranchisement found these Jews at a loss. They exchanged old disabilities for new ones, old fears of persecution and expulsion for new and more corrosive anxieties about the substance—the very feasibility—of their identity. Once, at least, the distinction between Jews and non-Jews was unambiguous, if punishing; now Jews could never be sure how marginal they really were. And they could, for the first time, deceive themselves into believing they really belonged.

The confusions were often calamitous. Many Jews went to the baptismal fonts, thirsting for total deracination; some committed suicide or died insane. Large numbers melted into the arms of German art, and in the place of Torah and Talmud took up Goethe and Schiller. For most, however, the abdication of Jewishness was a gradual and less zealous alteration of manners. Prosperous Jews came to emulate the ways and sentiments of the German middle class. (“Jewish inartistic millionaires,” Evelyn Waugh said, as he would.) They called themselves deutsches Staatsburgers judischer glaubens, German citizens of the Jewish faith. Their faith itself was diminished to a grandiloquent ethical universalism, the frail and flaccid confession of businessmen and bankers; the attenuated ideals of this Jewish middle class informed much of the scholarship of their day. Jewishness became more and more vestigial, an increasingly bewildering pattern of social responses and personal bias. These were the assimilated, smug, and patriotic Jews whom Kurt Tucholsky epitomized with venom in the satirical monologues he put in the mouth of his “Herr Wendriner.”

Into this milieu Scholem was born, and against it he revolted. He was not alone. Many young German Jews in the early decades of this century were repelled by the lifelessness of their bourgeois origins. Those for whom their Jewishness still mattered sought more than newly stirred spirits; they demanded revived varieties of Jewish spirituality. They found all this in mysticisms and theologies of personal relations. In 1912 Martin Buber lectured with singular passion and imprecision on “The Spirit of the Orient and Judaism”; shortly thereafter he renounced the blandishments of mystical immersion for the more restrained kindling of the “I” in its earthly meeting with the “Thou.” But whether of this world or another, religion for his generation was basically experience, and the amplification of inwardness. (“Even the Torah has been turned into an Erlebnis,” Scholem complained in 1918.) Jews of this generation yearned for a whole and deepened Jewish character, for a seamless Jewish community retrieved from both the assimilation of their forebears and the dislocations of modern life.2

To that end they called, too, for a dramatic return to Jewish sources, and so the premises of prior Jewish learning came under attack. “Since the time of [Moses] Mendelssohn and Zunz,” wrote Franz Rosenzweig, the most commanding Jewish thinker of his day, “our Jewish learning no longer has the courage to be itself, but instead runs at a respectful distance behind the learning of ‘others.’ ” Disavowing the apologetics of the Wissenschaft des Judentums—and with it the very project of scholarship (“life itself has no need of books”)—Rosenzweig envisaged a more immediate and spiritually adventurous rapport with the sacred text. His own explorations into the liturgy and medieval Hebrew poetry—not to speak of his wizardry as a translator—were marvelously perceptive, as in his glosses on the poet Judah Halevi. In lesser hands, however, Rosenzweig’s intuitive approach remains a kind of exegetical romanticism, according to which sources are not systematically studied so much as ceremoniously encountered, and in all the intellectual indigence that term implies.

Scholem, too, was deeply unhappy about the Wissenschaft‘s selective appraisal of Jewish tradition. As Robert Alter has observed, there is present in his work, too, the intention deftly to épater les bourgeois: the bizarre Kabbalah must have jarred the practical reasoning and stolid respectability of the Jewish middle class. (Speaking of Judaism’s ancient documents, Scholem once wryly commented that the “originals are often quite un-bourgeois.”) But Scholem’s revolt was not that of Buber or Rosenzweig. He disliked the narrowing of critical distance implied by their ideals of religious participation. Their way to Judaism was supremely ahistorical; Rosenzweig had gone so far as to deny the Jews any stake in history whatever. They are, he believed, already an eternal people, subsisting in a completed and ordered universe of piety no longer in need of such terrestrial trappings as a land or language of their own. (Rosenzweig’s assessment of Judaism and his deep ambivalence about Zionism were not unrelated.) Scholem, however, became a historian, not a mystic. “Intuition and faith are fine in their place,” he writes. But “whoever denies the method of historical criticism and mocks its conclusions, or attempts to escape them, builds on nothing, and will, in the end, pay the price of his indifference.” It is by the study of history, not theology, that Scholem wanted to shape his Jewishness.

  1. 1

    Like the history of historiography in general, the history of Jewish historiography is much neglected, except that about Jewish historians there exists not even a bad book. A beginning was made, however, in the somewhat over-looked work of Max Weiner, in his book Jewish Religion in the Age of Emancipation (Jerusalem, 1974; a Hebrew translation of the German original). In English there is his essay “The Ideology of the Founders of Jewish Scientific Research,” in the YIVO Annual, 1950.

  2. 2

    More decisive even than Buber’s I-Thou philosophy was his popularization of Hasidism; the unmannered, unlettered, and supernally pious Ostjuden, so abhorred by genteel parents, became a minor cult for rebellious children. (Scholem has shown convincingly the extent to which Buber’s image of Hasidism was tailored to his own religious needs, in The Messianic Idea in Judaism, Schocken, 1971.) Buber has had a great impact upon many equally soulful and delicate Jews of my own generation, and they, too, are having a romance with Hasidism: one has only to leaf through The Jewish Catalog (Jewish Publication Society, 1973), replete as it is with votive photographs of Hasidic Jews, to see how fervently the offspring of non-Orthodox or assimilated American Jews wish to bask in such reflected authenticity. But who among that book’s many admirers would exchange their own celebrations of Hasidism’s charm for its strenuous and hermetic regimen?

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