Gershom Scholem
Gershom Scholem; drawing by David Levine

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.

And to shape it most immediately by the study of German-Jewish history. In numerous essays—as in his famous “Jews and Germans” included in the book under review—Scholem has propounded a view of the Jewish experience in Germany which forms as much the ideological underpinnings of his scholarship as it does the basis of his outspoken personal convictions. What Scholem concluded from German-Jewish history was, briefly, that Judaism could not be reinvigorated among the Germans. Never has he been enamored of that German-Jewish symbiosis which has held so many since the eighteenth century—including Buber and Rosenzweig—in its thrall. Quite the contrary: for Scholem the career of the Jews in Germany was an experience of unremitting indignity.

In an essay in 1919 on “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,” Thorstein Veblen observed that such distinction was purchased by the Jewish thinker always “by loss of allegiance, or at best by the force of a divided allegiance to the peoples of his origin.” This, Scholem has indefatigably contended, was tragically true in Germany. The brilliant and agitated Jews who notoriously contributed so much to German culture of the past two centuries had each, in his or her own way, to relinquish their Jewishness before they could take their places in the salons and the journals.3 At no point prepared to acknowledge the corporate character of the Jews, German society opened its doors only to individuals, and only to those who would extract themselves from their own heritage and follow traditions that were more shared and secular.

Veblen thought that the estranged European Jew, if he did not seek relief in uncritical acceptance of non-Jewish customs and beliefs, could still find respite in what Veblen called the “gentile republic of learning,” into which the Jewish intellectual was inducted as “a naturalized, though hyphenate, citizen.” No such possibility, however, existed for the venturesome German Jew. Not even those Jews who submitted themselves to the shocks of self-denial and conversion ever found a new German home. In 1832 the ill-starred journalist Ludwig Börne wrote bitterly: “Some reproach me with being a Jew, some praise me because of it, some pardon me for it, but all think of it.” A century later the art historian and connoisseur Max Friedländer noted that “baptized Jews suffer from mild, unbaptized Jews from severe, anti-Semitism.” And at about that time Jakob Wassermann, the renowned and gifted novelist, discovered that Germans would accept no celebrations of German lore, however accomplished, from a Jew; he turned then to autobiography, and left a telling record of his disillusion. Examples could be multiplied.4 The Jewish wager on Germany, in short, was always a losing bet. As Scholem puts it:

I deny that there has ever been…a German-Jewish dialogue in any genuine sense whatsoever, i.e., as a historical phenomenon. It takes two to have a dialogue, who listen to each other, who are prepared to receive the other as what he is and represents, and to respond to him. Nothing can be more misleading than to apply such a concept to the discussions between Germans and Jews during the last two hundred years….

To be sure, the Jews attempted a dialogue with the Germans, starting from all possible points of view and situations, demandingly, imploringly, and entreatingly, servile and defiant, with a dignity employing all manner of tones and a godforsaken lack of dignity….

Where Germans ventured on a discussion with Jews in a humane spirit, such a discussion, from Wilhelm von Humboldt to Stefan George, was always based on the expressed or unexpressed self-denial of the Jews, on the progressive atomization of the Jews as a community in a state of dissolution, from which in the best case only the individuals could be received…. To the infinite intoxication of Jewish enthusiasm there never corresponded a tone that bore any kind of relation to a creative answer to the Jews; that is to say, one that would have addressed them with regard to what they had to give as Jews, and not what they had to give up as Jews.

Like all unrequited love that will not be forsworn, the Jewish passion for things German became self-destructive. Scholem inveighs harshly against the readiness of many Jews to devise inflated theories of culture, particularly about their affinities with German culture, which called for suppression of their Jewishness. He is particularly severe toward historians who warped the Jewish past for the benefit of Germans who would anyway never accept it in any form. And most culpable of all were those who, after the emergence of anti-Semitism into German politics, and even as Nazism was beginning to appear, persisted in believing that the renewal of Judaism should be undertaken in Germany.

Scholem’s militant arraignment of German-Jewish life, it must be said, is in places at fault. One should not, for example, generalize so broadly as he does about the early generations of Jewish historiography. Scholars such as Abraham Geiger had indeed written off the national character of Jewish tradition in favor of a lofty and modish philosophical view of Judaism as an ethical mission. And Moritz Steinschneider, one of the most learned men of his time, did remark caustically that the task of modern Jewish scholarship was “to give the remains of Judaism a decent burial.” But not everyone concurred; there were times in Steinschneider’s long and fruitful life when he himself did not. In the 1840s historians such as Zechariah Frankel and Michael Sachs, not to mention the great Leopold Zunz—none of whom Scholem has treated at length—called for a fuller scholarly agenda more alive to the diversity of Jewish religious expression, whatever its offense to modernity. Pioneering studies of the liturgy and of medieval Hebrew verse were a result.

Most impressive of all, however, was Heinrich Graetz, whose eleven-volume History of the Jews bristles with a commitment to the national impulse in Jewish culture. Not even Graetz, to be sure, found room in Judaism for its mystics’ unreason, but then he lived in a temperate intellectual climate not kindly disposed to the more torrid spiritualities. Indeed, Scholem could himself disinter the Kabbalah when he did partly because his was an age quickened by the search for subterranean energies.

More important—and of this Scholem is much less guilty than many who have been influenced by his indictment—the full story of the Jewish community in Germany will elude historians who look for it only in the history of the Germans. Not everything the Jews did in Germany was reactive or apologetic, or at least no more so than elsewhere. Recently the Jewish historian Gerson D. Cohen has argued incisively for a more “inner-directed” view of German-Jewish intellectual and communal activity. “Obviously,” he writes, “it is quite impossible to determine with any measure of precision how much of any German-Jewish activity was governed by considerations of the wider German milieu and how much by inner Jewish drives and aspirations.” Still, he contends, Jewish scholarship, philosophy, and theological reform of the last century can plausibly be seen as responses in Germany to challenges of modernization faced by Jews in other parts of Europe as well, as legitimate and dignified attempts to accommodate the Jew to the world beyond the Judengasse, which, however unnerving, could be ignored no longer. About the fortifying role of the historians Cohen writes:

German-Jewish scholarship was at least as inwardly-oriented—indeed, I believe it can be argued, far more so—as outwardly. German-Jewish scholarship sought to provide a new spiritual framework for German Jewry by rediscovering a colorful, variegated and coherent Jewish past that would also provide the rationale for variety, change, and orderly development within the modern Jewish community. German-Jewish scholarship was a massive effort aimed at reinfusing vitality into what many Jews had understandably come to regard as a fossil that was totally irrelevant to contemporary spiritual life. In the reconquest of the past and in the mastery of the dynamics of history—of law, liturgy, philosophy—the scholars hoped to provide the rationale and the motivation for adherence and the guidelines for a spiritual rebirth and future creativity.

Much of that creativity, it is true, would be unleashed by the electrifying encounter with Germans, but that is not to say that all of it was therefore diverted from the Jewish community itself.5

There is a further and more disturbing feature of German-Jewish life which many present-day students sense only feebly, and that is the effect of anti-Semitic hostility upon the individual Jew. I refer to that terrible demoralization, ranging from exacerbated self-consciousness to the collapse of self-esteem, sustained by people who sense that they live in a universe to which they are wholly contemptible. It is, perhaps, hard for some Americans and Israelis to understand or feel empathy for such difficulty. Europeans may be more likely to do so. Perhaps that is why the most unsettling moment in Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien—most unsettling, at least, to this viewer—comes when Lucien’s girlfriend France, a Jewess in hiding from the German police, confesses in tears that she is tired of being Jewish. In 1935 Arnold Schoenberg, lately arrived in the United States, made the point discomfitingly at a reception for the Hebrew University:

And now here is the point where you can recognize the terrible influence of racial theories—not on Aryans, but on Jews. The latter, deprived of their racial self-confidence, doubted a Jew’s creative capacity more than the Aryans did. They were at best cautious and believed only when supported by Aryans, as, for instance, in the cases of Einstein and Kreisler. But generally they preferred to believe in Aryans and even in mediocre ones, so that, unfortunately, this lack of self-confidence led often to disdain of Jewish things. “He is only a Jew” (only!), “he cannot be of any importance.”

Schoenberg knew very well what he was talking about; he had himself returned to Judaism only three years earlier, and in recoil from the hatred he experienced in very prominent quarters. He supported the scientific and cultural endeavors of the Hebrew University, he concluded, because

I personally believe in the moral effect of such aims on Jews. To restore the Jewish self-confidence, to restore faith in ourselves, the belief in our creative capacity, the belief in our high morality, in our destiny.

Scholem would agree. His essay on “Jews and Germans” authoritatively recounts the complex and pernicious psychological ordeal whereby Jews came to see themselves through others’ eyes and strip themselves of their own birthright. But the prevailing wisdom concerning German Jewry, conceived partly under Scholem’s influence and combined with the superior airs of a confident Jewishness, is not nearly so sensitive. We hear accusations of defection and mendacity, of Jewish self-hatred, as if our own distaste explained anything. Historians would do better to rouse their imaginations—as one has so profitably for the study of the Marrano Jews in Spain6—and recapture for themselves the disagreeable feeling of what it must have been like to be a German Jew.

Such a historian will, furthermore, appreciate the continued pertinence of the German experience to Jewish convictions today. I refer not to the much discussed homelessness which some have admired in German-Jewish life, nor to the erosion of Jewish values and interests accompanying the embourgeoisement of the German Jews. It hardly needs to be said that not every Jew in Germany was a Herr Wendriner. There were many who lived according to ideals of personal cultivation, of moral and artistic discipline, which, for all the injustice they endured, and even in light of the catastrophe which brought their community to an end, cannot be so easily ignored. The aspirations of many Jews in embracing German culture were understandable ones: they sometimes expressed a nobility of character and a fineness of sensibility which Jews, even in ethnic America, impugn at their own risk.

“Upon many of us the German language, our mother tongue, has bestowed the gift of unforgettable experiences,” as Scholem wrote: he need not be persuaded of the greatness of Germany’s better self because he himself was partly formed by it. He is, indeed, to the culture of his origins somewhat what Thomas Mann was to the culture of Germany as a whole—its final summation as well as its sharpest critic. But his criticisms must not be taken to mean that the Jewish turn to a wider experience was in principle invalid. It could be argued that a more creative Jewish life today needs something like the serious and uncondescending engagement with the achievements of others that took place in Germany. Of course the social and political situation in Germany was flawed from the start, and in the end vitiated German Jewry’s claim to have successfully had it both ways. But to disavow, on those grounds, the experiment itself, to conclude that there was something misguided about the very receptivity to other influences, would be to let present-day Jews off too easily.

But my criticism of Scholem’s account—and its influence—stops here. German-Jewish identity was what he says it was: deeply inconsistent and finally futile. It could never have worked, in part because Germans never intended to let it—even the liberals among them required that Jewishness be shed—and in part, and most painfully, because Jews were surrendering their amour propre in the attempt. Eventually they surrendered their lives.7

(This is the first part of a two-part article on Gershom Scholem.)

This Issue

March 31, 1977