On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays
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 …