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The Master of Mysticism

From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth

by Gershom Scholem, translated by Harry Zohn
Schocken, 178 pp., $12.95

In September 1923 two young German Jews embarked together at Trieste on their way to settle in Palestine. One, Gerhard (Gershom) Scholem, born in 1897, was soon to become the greatest Jewish historian of our century. The other, Fritz (Shlomo Dov) Goitein, born in 1900, was perhaps slower in developing, from a conventional Arabist into a student of the Jewish-Arabic symbiosis of the Middle Ages and beyond. Yet the volumes of A Mediterranean Society, which Goitein started to publish in 1967, amount to a revolutionary picture founded upon new sources (mainly from the repository of documents of the old synagogue of Cairo) that bears comparison with Scholem’s achievements.

Such was the beginning of the second science of Judaism, no longer in Germany, where the first “Wissenschaft des Judentums” had developed a century before, but in the land of the Fathers—yet still through the agency of Jews born and educated in Germany. The new Wissenschaft, like the old one, is characterized by the exploration of recondite texts with all the resources of a rigorous philological method. It has, however, disclosed aspects of Judaism overlooked by the old Wissenschaft. Scholem has recovered the gnostic and cabalistic trends of thought and action never absent from Judaism since the Hellenistic age. Goitein has changed our knowledge of the intricate economic and social relations between Arabs and Jews.

The comparison between Scholem and Goitein could be continued at length, for both similarities and differences. Scholem came from an assimilated Berlin family where Hebrew had been forgotten: he started as a mathematician and acquired either on his own or with the help of traditional Jewish scholars the mastery of languages and techniques of analysis which was necessary for his success. Goitein, the scion of a rabbinical family, apparently learned Hebrew in his Bavarian home and Arabic at the University of Frankfurt. Scholem has not overlooked Islam (how could he, as the biographer of a Messiah converted to Islam?), nor has Goitein overlooked Christianity. But Scholem remains the historian of the European Jews living within the boundaries of Christendom, while Goitein’s special attention is reserved for the Yemenite Jews and for the contacts between Jews and Arabs through the ages, which gave the title to the most popular of his books (1955).

While we can only hope that Goitein will develop the short autobiographical sketch published as an introduction to A Bibliography of the Writings of Professor Sh. D. Goitein by R. Attal (Jerusalem, 1975), we can now actually read Professor Scholem’s autobiography for the years from 1897 to 1925. The original German text, Von Berlin nach Jerusalem, published by Suhrkamp in 1977, has now been translated into English by Harry Zohn.

There is no nostalgia or forgiveness in this book. Now, as fifty years ago, Scholem is determined to speak out. Now, as then, he is primarily concerned with the Jewish assimilated society with which he broke violently—and he broke, first of all, with his father, a Berlin printer. Secondly, he reiterates, at every step, that there was no place for a Jew, qua Jew, in German society and culture when he decided to leave, though Hitler was still for him nonexistent. Scholem remains Scholem, not a nationalist, not even a religious Jew, but a man who is certain that the beginning of truth for a Jew is to admit his Jewishness, to learn Hebrew, and to draw the consequences—whatever they may be (which is the problem).

Yet in this book he returns from Jerusalem to Berlin, to the parental house and to the maternal language, the tone of which, in its specific Berlin variety, is still unmistakable today in whichever language Scholem chooses to speak. Scholem is a great writer in German. Emigration has saved him from the distortions of German vocabulary and syntax which Hitlerian racism and the post-Hitlerian disorientation produced. The book is therefore untranslatable, in the precise sense in which Scholem declared Franz Rosenzweig’s Der Stern der Erlösung (“The Star of Redemption”) to be untranslatable until the day when the text will require interpretation for those who are able to read the original.1 It would be ungenerous to find fault with a translation which is competent and helpful, but was doomed to be insensitive. When Scholem says, “Die Tora wurde seit jeher in 53, in Schaltjahren 54 Abschnitte geteilt” (p. 128), he cannot mean: “The Torah has always been divided in fifty-three sections—fifty-four in leap years” (p. 98). Professor Scholem can be expected to know that according to academic opinion the division of the Torah into sections does not go back to Moses our Master.

The book ends with Scholem’s appointment to a lectureship in Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the strength of the recommendation of Immanuel Löw, the author of a five-volume work on the Flora der Juden who had found in Scholem’s first book two excellent pages on the bisexuality of the palm tree in cabalistic literature. Scholem’s concluding remark is pure Wilhelm Busch: “So kam Lenchen auf das Land.” The translation substitutes, “Thus began my academic career.”

If there is no nostalgia, there are tenderness and gentleness in this book, and a remarkable avoidance of the most acute controversies and crises in which the author was involved. The book is full of friends rather than enemies. Ambivalent feelings are given a positive twist, as in the case of Franz Rosenzweig, who, if he had lived longer, would have been the only scholar capable of challenging Scholem’s interpretation of Judaism. Scholem’s brief account of his relations with Rosenzweig is a good sample of his writing in this book:

Every encounter with [Rosenzweig] furnished evidence that he was a man of genius (I regard the abolition of this category, which is popular today, as altogether foolish and the “reasons” adduced for it as valueless) and also that he had equally marked dictatorial inclinations.

Our decisions took us in entirely different directions. He sought to reform (or perhaps I should say revolutionize) German Jewry from within. I, on the other hand, no longer had any hopes for the amalgam known as “Deutschjudentum,” i.e., a Jewish community that considered itself German, and expected a renewal of Jewry only from its rebirth in Eretz Yisrael. Certainly we found each other of interest. Never before or since have I seen such an intense Jewish orientation as that displayed by this man, who was midway in age between Buber and me. What I did not know was that he regarded me as a nihilist. My second visit, which involved a long conversation one night about the very German Jewishness that I rejected, was the occasion for a complete break between us. I would never have broached this delicate topic, which stirred such emotions in us both, if I had known that Rosenzweig was then already in the first stages of his fatal disease, a lateral sclerosis. He had had an attack which had not yet been definitely diagnosed, but I was told that he was on the mend, and the only thing left was a certain difficulty in speaking. Thus I had one of the stormiest and most irreparable arguments of my youth.

Scholem’s father and Martin Buber (whose interpretation of Hassidism it was one of the life tasks of Scholem to repudiate) are not spared, but he has no harsh words for them. The book deliberately avoids entering into the details of the story of how Scholem freed himself from military service during World War I. Readers can turn to his interview with Muki Tsur, published some years ago, where he describes how, to avoid military service, “I put on an act without knowing what I was acting.”2

Scholem also avoids any deeper probing into his relations with Walter Benjamin and his wife Dora. The fact that Scholem had previously written a book and many papers on his friendship with Benjamin would not have made it superfluous to say something more definite in his autobiographical account, if the tone of the book in general had allowed it.

The book as it is can give us some first impressions about the wealth of emotional and intellectual stimuli Scholem collected in Germany before going to Jerusalem for good. It is not, however, an account of his intellectual formation, and therefore it cannot help to define the presuppositions of his work which were to remain constant throughout the next sixty years or so.

There is no question that Scholem left Germany at the age of twenty-six as a mature man with a program, a method, and a system of references which remained fundamental to his future activity. He may not have known that himself when he left Germany. He says that he then intended to devote only a few years to the study of Jewish mysticism; he expected to earn his living by teaching mathematics. But it turned out that the method for the study of Jewish mysticism he had expounded in his first articles on the subject in Buber’s journal Der Jude in 1920 and 19213 and his dissertation of 1923 (a critical edition of the mysterious gnostic text Bahir)4 would guide all his life work. More precisely, his concern with language in relation to mysticism, with analytical commentary in relation to sacred texts, and with anomia, or lawlessness, in relation to Torah, developed, in foreseeable directions, from these early studies.

Scholem tells us that he abandoned an earlier project of a dissertation on the linguistic theories of the cabala because he realized that he had first to bring cabalistic writings under philological control through critical texts and commentaries. What he did not do as a research student, however, he accomplished fifty years later in his essay on the name of God and the linguistic theory of the cabala (it is included in Judaica III, 1975).

Scholem’s book concludes with his appointment to a job in Jerusalem in 1925. He thus says nothing about the explorations he made in European libraries, especially during his momentous travels of 1927 (which was also the last time in which he had weeks of direct conversation with Benjamin: in 1938 it was only a question of days). In 1927 Benjamin was the first to be told about his discoveries in the manuscripts of the British Museum and of the Bodleian at Oxford about the antinomian trends of the theology of Sabbatai Zevi’s followers. But he did all this with the tools of interpretation he had brought with him from Germany. Nothing indicates more clearly the continuity of his method and the gradual clarification of the issues than a comparison between his prodigiously precocious article on the cabala in the German Encyclopaedia Judaica Vol. X, written in 1931, and the article on the same subject about forty years later for the new Encyclopaedia Judaica, written in English and published in Jerusalem.

  1. 1

    See his letter in M. Buber, Briefwechsel II, pp. 367-368.

  2. 2

    In On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (Schocken, 1976).

  3. 3

    Der Jude 5, 1920, pp. 363-391; 6, 1921, pp. 55-69 (cf. his letter to Buber in the latter’s Briefweschel II, pp. 86-88).

  4. 4

    In its published form (Das Buch Bahir, Leipzig, 1923) the dissertation contains only the German translation of the text and a commentary.

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