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The Master of Mysticism

I doubt whether there is anyone now writing who can analyze Scholem’s debt to German thought except Scholem himself. David Biale’s recent Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah and Counter-History,5 meritorious as it is in other respects, only confirms how remote most American Jews now are from nineteenth-century trends of German thought. For someone like myself who in the late Twenties and early Thirties read German books and talked to German friends in Italy, it is less difficult to overhear in the prose of Scholem and Benjamin the echoes of those German Romantics—Hamann, Humboldt, and von Baader—who were coming back into fashion. We often heard the dictum “Religion is a vowel and History a consonant,” which I later discovered to be a silly remark made in a letter by Rahel Varnhagen.

Not by chance, Rahel Varnhagen early caught the attention of Hannah Arendt for her mixture of Jewish guilt feelings and German metaphysical “Sehnsucht.” Another Jewess, Eva Fiesel (neé Lehmann), the extraordinarly able Etruscan scholar, summarized such Romantic tendencies in her book Die Sprachphilosophie der deutschen Romantik in 1927. Esotericism was in the air. Followers of Stefan George were multiplying among the younger generation of German Jews.

I was mildly amused when, in his by now famous review of the book by L. W. Schwartz on Wolfson of Harvard in the TLS of November 23, 1979, Scholem seemed to be surprised that Wolfson should boast to him of having delivered a little sermon for Harvard Chapel in which it was impossible to discover what, if any, religious belief he held. Was this so unprecedented in the circles in which Scholem moved in his youth? In his later American days, Leo Strauss, another great German Jew of the same generation, interpreted esoteric attitudes and double meanings as integral to the art of writing in an age of persecution. That persecution has something to do with esotericism is obvious; but the case of Leo Strauss himself—an addict of esotericism, if ever there was one, as those who have read the introduction to the English translation of his book on Spinoza (1965) must know—shows that persecution is not the whole of the matter.

Reticence, allusiveness, and ambiguity were characteristic of Walter Benjamin. Scholem for his part has excluded, even hunted down, any ambiguity or esotericism in the practice of scholarship, politics, or daily life. But he has fully endorsed esotericism as central to the ultimate objects of his life work. In “Towards an Understanding of the Messianic Idea” (1959), he wrote: “It is one of those enigmas of Jewish religious history that have not been solved by any of the many attempts at exploration just what the real reason is for this metamorphosis which makes knowledge of the Messianic End, where it oversteps the prophetic framework of the biblical texts, into an exoteric form of knowledge.” Even more uncompromisingly he wrote, in the “Ten Unhistorical Statements about Kabbalah” (never translated into English?): “The true language cannot be spoken.”

Such comments, however, do no more than suggest that “spirit of the age” which an older reader can recognize in Scholem’s writings. We are perhaps nearer to a real problem in the following observation. Scholem has always been an open, though respectful, opponent of the established German-Jewish science of Judaism, the influence of which went well beyond German Jews, as is evident in the work of Italian Jewish scholars from S.D. Luzzatto to Umberto Cassuto—the Biblical scholar for a while a colleague of Scholem’s in Jerusalem. What Scholem found wrong with this scientific approach is that it used categories of German Romantic thought without realizing that their creators (Herder, Humboldt, Savigny, etc.) were laying the foundation of a German nationalism that was incompatible with any autonomous Jewish culture inside the German nation.

He also reproached the Jewish scholars of the previous generations for being apologists, that is for expounding only those sides of Jewish life which the non-Jews were expected to like. Not only cabala and Hassidism, but also the less decorous aspects of ghetto life were kept out of sight. Not unnaturally Scholem has reserved his more negative judgments for the more recent offshoots of the old science: “Anyone who wants to become melancholy about the science of Judaism need only read the last twenty volumes of the Jewish Quarterly Review” (1959).

But one wonders whether Scholem’s reaction against that science is not itself rooted in other aspects of German Romantic thought that emphasized the magical and mystical potentialities of language and myth and indulged in negative dialectics. Nor were the German Romantics unaware of the rough and sordid sides of life. The hypothesis that both the old science of Judaism and the new science of Jewish Mysticism, which is identified with the very name of Scholem, reflect contrasting trends of German Romantic thought—one decisively Protestant, the other nearer to Catholicism—may help to establish the point in Scholem’s development where he turned his back on German thought and began to speak on behalf of a new Judaism.

Scholem has said more than once that if he had believed in metempsychosis he would have considered himself a reincarnation of Johannes Reuchlin, the Christian German humanist who in 1517 published De arte cabalistica, the main source of which Scholem himself discovered in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York in 1938. He has also constantly pointed out that his only predecessor in the study of the cabala to have lived in nineteenth-century Germany was the Catholic Franz Joseph Molitor. These are not casual remarks.

Yet there is indeed a point beyond which Scholem becomes unclassifiable according to any school or any category of German thought. That point is where his Zionist and his cabalistic pursuits intersect. For Scholem the primary meaning of Zionism, so far as intellectual life is concerned, is to make it possible for the Jews to recover all their past history and consequently to call into question all the aspects of their heritage. It is this freedom of movement into the past of the Jewish people that characterizes for Scholem the movement into the future called Zionism.

This radical and total reckoning with the past is obviously far more dramatic and painful in relation to recent times than to the Middle Ages. Scholem becomes correspondingly more drawn to value judgments when he turns his attention from the origins of the cabala to Sabbatai Zevi, the Polish-Jewish adventurer Jacob Frank, and Hassidism, not to speak of his comments about the “German-Jewish dialogue which never took place.” A book like Ursprung und Anfänge der Kabbala (1962) basically belongs to the history of ideas. Other books by contemporary German scholars—say Aloys Dempf’s Sacrum Imperium (1927) or H. Grundmann’s Religiöse Bewegungen im Mittelalter (1935)—can be compared with it in method, though not in depth of analysis. But all the researches leading to his great book on Sabbatai Zevi (published in English translation) are without any precedent in Germany.

There Scholem faces the entire destiny of modern Jews, and more particularly of himself. The sudden mad convergence of cabalistic speculations and Messianic hopes in Sabbatai Zevi and his prophet Nathan of Gaza attracted vast numbers of educated Jews who were longing for liberation and a new start within the Jewish tradition itself. In what is perhaps one of his greatest essays, “Redemption through Sin” (1937), Scholem went so far as to argue that the movement which led to the collective conversion of Frank’s followers to Catholicism in 1759 had its place within Judaism: “One can hardly deny that a great deal that is authentically Jewish was embodied in these paradoxical individuals, too, in their desire to start afresh and in their realization of the fact that negating the exile meant negating its religious and institutional forms as well as returning to the original fountainheads of the Jewish faith.”

There are pages of Scholem’s writing which give the impression that he recognized something of himself in the destructive and anomic personalities of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank and drew back from the abyss. As a collective phenomenon, Zionism has therefore become for Scholem the constructive answer to the purely negative conversions to Islam and to Catholicism of Zevi and Frank and many of their followers. Just because Zionism means to Scholem the opening of all the gates of the Jewish past, it is absurd to expect a specific religious message from him. Part of his case against Buber is that Buber misused scholarship in his religious message. The substantial correctness of Scholem’s exegesis of Buber is confirmed by Buber’s autobiographical fragments,6 which show that his discovery of the “I-Thou” religion is independent of his interpretation of the Hassidic tradition.

Nor can I see any evolution in Scholem’s thought. On the contrary, he seems to me remarkably constant in his intellectual attitudes, as he is in his political reactions to the daily problems of Israel. But it also seems to me that only as long as he tries to understand the cabala is he justified in considering himself a reincarnation of Reuchlin. When the cabalists turn into apostates or illuminists or, finally, Zionists—and then gather in the streets to march into a promised land—no model and no tradition can serve Scholem. He is left on his own, the first Jewish historian able to take full cognizance of the new situation. It is indeed possible that his precocious development prevented him in later years from grasping the full implications of what the Nazis have done to the Jews. Who, after all, is sure even now of what these implications are—or will be?

Other limits of his historical thought, easier to define, are suggested by the symbolic departure from Germany in the company of Shlomo Goitein. For it was Goitein, the more traditionally minded Jew, who penetrated the complexities of social relations between Jews and Arabs and entered into the mentality of the Jews of the Islamic world who, as Scholem is the first to acknowledge, were far from the center of Zionist attention. Even Fritz (Yitzhak) Baer, Scholem’s colleague and friend, who has given us so much original research and thought on many fields of Jewish history, never went beyond the Jews of Christian Spain during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it is difficult to appreciate adequately all the patience that Scholem, who is not famous for patience, has put into understanding his own relation to Christian thought, and especially to modern Germany. This is inseparable from his effort to understand his friend Walter Benjamin, who in his attempt to preserve his links with Germany and German culture finally chose Marxism or what he believed to be Marxism. It is no consolation to anyone to recognize that by carrying on his dialogue with Scholem to the end (and we have just now been given by Scholem their correspondence of the years 1933-1940) Walter Benjamin, that sad and noble victim of Nazism, contributed in ways he perhaps never suspected to securing for Israel and for the world one of the most remarkable historians of our century.


Herodotus and Scholem April 30, 1981

  1. 5

    Harvard University Press, 1979.

  2. 6

    Begegnung, 1960, pp. 36-38.

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