The attempt to reclaim traditions of Jewish spirituality, which I discussed in the first part of this review (NYR, March 31), was not the only response to the sclerosis of Jewish life in Germany at the turn of the century. Other forms of rebellion, more widespread and combative, were possible: socialism and Zionism. Gershom Scholem’s elder brother became a Communist deputy in the Reichstag and died for that in Buchenwald. Scholem himself became an ardent and articulate Zionist. In 1917 he was banished from his father’s house for his “antipatriotic” convictions.1 In 1923, while fellow Zionists across Europe hotly debated plans and principles, Scholem left for Palestine.

In considering the quality of Scholem’s Zionism and its decisive relation to his work, one should note that this was the Zionism of a German, not an Eastern European, Jew. Despite the gradual infiltration of Western ideas and manners into the towns of the Pale, Jewish life in Eastern Europe remained more or less uninterrupted; there was, at least, no internal break between the distant and the immediate past. 2 Zionism was, therefore, an ideology that encouraged discontinuity. Zionists associated suffering with tradition, and believed that to alleviate the one they had to disavow the other; instead they turned to secularism and often to radical socialist ideas as well. In Western Europe, however, Jewish traditions had been widely disavowed earlier in the processes of assimilation and acculturation which had not yet overtaken Eastern Europeans. Many Western European Zionists became conservative revolutionaries, seeking defiantly to regain a repressed patrimony and establish continuities with a moribund past.

Such a Zionism, then, though it firmly espoused the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, must have been more than a political awakening for Scholem and others of his generation.

We did not come to Zionism in search of politics. It is important to understand that for my contemporaries in Germany, Zionism was only to a limited degree (it would be wrong to say not at all) a political Zionism. Some of us, to be sure, went on to become real political Zionists, but the Zionist choice was a moral decision, an emotional one, an honesty-seeking response. The honesty did not express itself in the desire for a state, but in a revolt against the lie that Jewish existence was….3

Such a Zionism was, then, also cultural, but it ran still deeper: as the Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld put it, it was nothing less than a “post-assimilatory Judaism.”

Gershom Scholem’s Zionism consists essentially in an impassioned belief in the inner resources of the Jewish people. More specifically, by making his subject the Kabbalah and Jewish apocalypticism, Scholem aimed to demonstrate that Jewish tradition was more commodious than many had thought; that the “psychic range” (as one German historian put it) of the Jewish people was much wider than it would often have itself believed.

From this conviction springs Scholem’s theory of Judaism as he has expounded it in this book and others. First he insists upon a historical approach toward the definition of the faith:

I do not hold to the opinion of those (and there are indeed many of them) who view the events of Jewish history from a strict dogmatic standpoint and who know exactly whether some phenomenon or another is “Jewish” or not. Nor am I a follower of that school which proceeds on the assumption that there is a well-defined and unvarying “essence” of Judaism, especially not where the evaluation of historical events is concerned. The internal censorship of the past, particularly by rabbinical tradition, has tended to play down or conceal many developments whose fundamentally Jewish character the contemporary Jewish historian has no reason to deny.

We are frequently as surprised by the level of vitality inherent in these developments as we are by their boldness and radicalism of thought…. The “Jewishness” in the religiosity of any particular period is not measured by dogmatic criteria that are unrelated to actual historical circumstances, but solely by what sincere Jews do, in fact, believe, or—at least—consider to be legitimate possibilities.

Scholem’s quarrel is with historians who, for example, went to great pains to dissociate the apocalyptic from Judaism and to lay it entirely at Christianity’s door; with the Orthodox, who have often sought to bridle those more explosive elements in Judaism which would have menaced their authority; and, interestingly, with Judaism’s modern philosophers, whose practice has too often been to embellish an idea of “essence,” gleaned from German philosophy, with compatible rabbinic citations.

In sum, Scholem’s is a historian’s opposition to a priori definitions in Jewish history—a method that was defended for the study of Jewish sources by the great German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen. The substance of Judaism, Scholem maintains persuasively, must instead be induced from the scrutiny of all its sources, which will, in turn, show that there is not, and never has been, a single idea called “Judaism.” That name should instead be given to the many and divergent spiritual modes which Jews in different historical predicaments have used to interpret their traditional religious texts.


Scholem’s revival of the Kabbalah thus brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s equally willful revival of German baroque tragedy in his first major work: both were intended partly to flout a notion of decadence, a view of Jewish or literary history which imperiously assigns values to its various episodes.4 Furthermore, because of his commitment to the plurality of Jewish forms—Judaeus sum—Judaei nil a me alienum puto—Scholem’s scholarship can be both resoundingly Zionist and untendentious. Zionism, he argues, may in some respects be heir to ancient messianic energies, but in crucial respects it differs. One will look in vain in Scholem’s work for a discussion of messianism from Luria to Herzl, on the order, say, of Lucien Goldmann’s discussion of dialectical thought from Pascal to Stalin.

Along with Scholem’s belief in the fecundity of the Jewish tradition goes a kind of Romanticism, a view of its evolution as distinctive, organic, and self-impelled. When, a few years ago, a historian suggested that Israel Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism, culled essentials of his doctrine from nearby sectarians of the Russian Orthodox Church, Scholem reacted vehemently. It was, of course, a question of historical fact, and Scholem—among others—argued that the evidence warranted no such conclusions. But more generally the suggestion flew in the face of his broader view of the inner history of Jewish religious development.

That view is best illustrated by the modern history of Jewish mysticism. The version of the Kabbalah developed in the sixteenth century by Isaac Luria and his school merged the conventional theosophy of its mystical predecessors with messianic aspirations unleashed by the exile from Spain generations earlier. The unhappy state of the Jews Isaac Luria lifted into the very heart of his God, whom he depicted as likewise dispersed and in need of restitution. Redemption, then, became an obsessive focus of Jewish religious energy. The way was thus prepared for the mighty swell of Sabbatianism. The mystical theology of Sabbatai Sevi—more correctly, of his extraordinary “prophet,” Nathan of Gaza—consisted in fact in an extreme elaboration of Luria’s mystical messianism. Scholem calls it “the explosion of the Messianic element contained in Lurianic Kabbalah.” But when Sabbatai the Jewish “messiah” converted to Islam, he bequeathed his die-hard followers a rather demoralizing view of the holiness of sin.

In the aftermath of the Sabbatian disappointment, therefore, a way had to be found to retain the wondrous and still enthralling world of the Kabbalah while divesting it of the apocalyptic mood which had proved so dangerous. This dialectical twist was the work of Hasidism, which first appeared in just those regions which had been strong-holds of Sabbatianism. Inheriting from Sabbatianism its stress upon charismatic authority, Hasidism, as Scholem describes it, replaced the figure of the Messiah with that of the saintly and luminous Zaddik, or Rabbi; it proposed a new emphasis upon the individual soul in its relation to God, and a populist religious enthusiasm in no way millennial. What messianism remained became the utopian dream of a future too remote to tempt Jews to hasten it. In sum, and oversimply: the force that through Lurianic Kabbalah drives Sabbatianism drives Hasidism (but Zionism is not bent by the same wintry fever).5

Implied, too, by such an internal approach is a theory of cultural exclusiveness, of the relations between Jewish culture and its hosts. Scholem is keenly alive to non-Jewish influences when they occur; he gives a careful account, for example, of the appreciable Gnostic and neo-Platonic elements in Jewish mysticism. But these borrowings, he would argue, are precisely that: absorptions of foreign ideas and images into a system of religious meaning indigenous to the Jewish people.

The Kabbalah, in other words, was not uncertain of its roots. Almost always studied or practiced in concert with prescribed ritual observances, Kabbalah was an authentically Jewish creation, a genuine and largely self-originating adaptation of tradition to adversity. Not so Jewish philosophy, which, for all its considerable intellectual distinction, was attacked in its own medieval day as a graft of alien Aristotelianism upon the interpretation of sacred Scripture. Philosophy has, by almost all accounts, been something Jews learned from goyim, whether Greek, Arab, or German.

More significantly, and as even Judaism’s greatest thinker Maimonides himself conceded, philosophy could not keep piety alive among the Jewish masses. And it is precisely the Jewish masses that most deeply interest Scholem. As an engaged Zionist historian, Scholem is concerned finally with survival, with the existence and continuing vitality of the tradition that is his own. The most urgent theme of his work—and that which has forced it upon the attention of students of religion everywhere—has been, therefore, the dynamics of religious change itself, the adaptive capacities and historical conditions which enable religious culture to undergo the reformations required for its perseverance. How is it, he asks, that Judaism is still around?


By fixing, in all their colorful excesses, upon Kabbalistic texts, Scholem has done more than make up for his precursors’ oversights; he has more ambitiously suggested that without these texts—without the religious modifications they proposed and the cultural formations they reflected—Judaism might not have survived, might have failed to respond to the needs of its harassed Jews. The great rupture of the Spanish expulsion of 1492, for example, was met by Isaac Luria’s epic of creation and redemption, which adjusted Jewish perspectives to the injured new reality. Religious consciousness and the culture it inhabits are, according to Scholem, nourished not by ideas but by images and symbols, by audacious and forceful myths which bind individual fate to forces much greater than itself. Reason, he declares with a certain reassuring reluctance, “is a great instrument of destruction,” admirably equipped to criticize and disabuse. Religion, however, requires a link with the sacred, a share in mystery which only the imagination can confer.

Scholem’s emphasis upon myth and symbol—though he is not a Jungian, his weightiest lectures on Kabbalah have been delivered at Eranos conferences—illustrates strongly the impact of Zionist confidence upon the writing of Jewish history. The Wissenschaft des Judentums had clearly reflected the Idealist historical theories and methods of such contemporary German thinkers as Humboldt and Hegel and Ranke. But Idealism was only a single current of historical interpretation in Germany; alongside flowed more restlessly the Romantic speculations of Brentano and the Grimms, of Creuzer and the Schlegels, whose subjects were precisely the myths and symbols of the nations.

Yet virtually no trace of such explorations survives in the writings of German-Jewish historians. A reason instantly suggests itself: Romantic historiography was usually wedded to reactionary politics, and the Jews, for better or worse, had to cast their lot elsewhere. Then came Zionism, and the bid for real political power and cultural autonomy. No longer bound to what others believed was good for Jews, historians such as Scholem could, among other things, address themselves to less decorous but more elemental urges of the Jewish psyche. And myth, which many belittled as unbecoming to Judaism, could be readmitted in all its singular potency.

Scholem’s appraisal of the contours of Jewish religious history has been a pervasive and liberating influence upon succeeding generations of historians. Not all, however, could accept the grand pattern in all its details. Hasidism’s putative dependence upon the volatile Sabbatianism which preceded it has, in particular, come under criticism; scholars have argued that the differences between them are enormous (these, in all fairness, Scholem has never tried to fudge), and have tried to show that there were other equally formative—but still Jewish—influences upon the early Hasidim. Moreover, some have observed that Scholem, for all his fruitful and unwavering insistence upon the interplay of religious structures and historical events, is primarily an intellectual historian, in whose generous vision social and economic activities find no place. With respect to Scholem’s method this is by and large true; one of the more interesting conclusions of Sabbatai Sevi was that an explanation in exclusively social or economic terms of the vast messianic movement initiated by Sabbatai is impossible. Sabbatianism, Scholem shows, cut across countries and classes—the present volume confirms his disdain for Marxism as much in history as in politics—and from this wide appeal we may conclude only that Sabbatianism took fire because it addressed itself to larger and more primordial needs governing Jews in strikingly different environments.

Which is to say, there exists a momentous and intimate relationship between a Jewish historian’s methodology and his assessment of “the Jewish difference.” For Scholem that difference can be traced in the literature, in symbols and the picture of the world they display, in the messianic profession—in the orbit, therefore, of Judaism’s intellectual history. (By intellectual history I mean, of course, to include conceptions different in kind from strictly philosophical ideas.) No doubt social and economic historians have much to say about Jewish uniqueness: the communal organization or economic affairs of the Jews in any given period certainly reflect their special destiny. But these are Jewish differences, not the Jewish difference—that heritage of texts and dilemmas to which Jews in their different ways have obdurately referred. Societies and ideas die separate deaths; ideas easily survive their own origins, and travel across time and space flexibly enough to found very distant identities.

No social or economic history of medieval Jewry, for example, can have a great effect on Jewishness today—things, after all, have really changed. But, as Scholem skillfully shows in his “Reflections on Jewish Theology,” included in this book, the theological strategies available to contemporary Jews were already indicated, with no mincing of discords or difficulties, in the conceptual panoply of medieval Judaism. It is Jewish intellectual history that can produce, for inspection or more, the peculiar consciousness which divided Jews from others; intellectual history that can, to the extent that history still matters at all, keep Jews Jewish. And keeping Jews Jewish is for Scholem, as it has been for many historians and not all that many Zionists, a professional responsibility.

Perhaps the most arresting feature of these tough, finely crafted (and miserably translated) essays is the imperturbable—though never demagogic—self-assurance with which they were written. The clarity and self-possession that have characterized Scholem’s work throughout his long life are remarkable: since his own and this century’s youth, and in Germany, Scholem has always been railing against confusion. He seems to have been spared the experiences of ambivalence and anguish which were so common to the German Jews I described in the first part of this review. Of nobody, however, is this less true than of Scholem’s brilliant friend, Walter Benjamin, the subject of two long essays in this book.

The debate over Benjamin’s deepest allegiances continues. Did he, as Hannah Arendt and others have claimed, end up a Marxist, converted by Brecht in the Thirties? Or was Brecht’s a baleful and partial influence, and were Benjamin’s real concerns, as Scholem contends, often Jewish in origin, and he a kind of Zionist in the making? Or was Benjamin’s vocation comparable to Baudelaire’s, as Benjamin described it, that of an aesthete, a critic of literature in the service of beauty? Or could his roots have lain in the line of Kant and Schelling, in that uniquely German approach to art through metaphysics?

It is a measure of Benjamin’s stature that everybody should so want to claim him. But he belongs to all and none. Adorno has written of the digressiveness of Benjamin’s thought, but his life itself was digressive, a cunning sequence of hesitations and disavowals. In two letters to Benjamin, written from Palestine, which appear in this volume, Scholem demands characteristically that “we go on to make it clear to ourselves where we stand.” He wants to know, in 1930, whether Benjamin’s interests had taken him “altogether beyond that Jewish world” which had once deeply engaged him. If that is so, Scholem writes, distressed by “the divergence in the course of our lives,” then no more “false illusions about coming to terms with Judaism,” no more talk about “a way to Hebrew,” should any longer be entertained. A year later Scholem writes bluntly that the leftward drift of Benjamin’s work “perpetrates a self-deception,” that his unmatched insights into bourgeois discourse—Benjamin’s pioneering experiments in Ideologiekritik—have little in common with a dialectical or economic critique of culture: he has only to join the Communist Party, Scholem warns, to discover how foreign are his thoughts to genuine Marxist analysis.

Benjamin’s true calling, acording to Scholem, was rather to metaphysics, to the philosophical analysis of those charged moments of culture when history and art converge. As Scholem puts it in his complex and moving essay “Walter Benjamin,” in this collection, his friend was “a theologian marooned in the realism of the profane,” whose criticism of literature and society was made possible primarily by a lucidity about his world born of a religious detachment from it.

Scholem was right about the highly idiosyncratic nature of Benjamin’s Marxism; like his other loyalties, Benjamin’s materialism was very personal, as much spleen as idéal. And Benjamin did have a long-standing interest in Judaism, particularly in Jewish theology and its language. He had read Rosenzweig, learned something of Kabbalah from Scholem (who was to him “Judaism in living form”), and composed difficult and original commentaries on early portions of Genesis. His reply to Scholem (omitted from this book) was evasive, however, and in character: “The question of how I stand toward Judaism is always the question of how I stand—I will not say towards you (that would make my friendship hang on a decision)—toward those forces which you have deeply touched in me.” He tells Scholem of “the tangle of my existence” (he had just been divorced), and of “that highly strained hesitation which…is the nature of my being.” But that “Gordian knot—as you rightfully called things Hebraic” will, he promises, be disentangled soon.

It never was, and could not have been. “I came into the world under the sign of Saturn,” Benjamin wrote in 1933, “the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays.” Benjamin never went to Palestine, as he had contemplated, for precisely the reason he never joined the Party. Affected, and deeply, by diverse and even antithetical systems of explanation and action, he gave himself entirely to none, because no single theory or program he encountered was adequate to the enormity and complexity of the troubles he knew. The unflagging yet wavering qualities of Benjamin’s interests were more than a matter of temperament, the inability of the flâneur he wrote about (in his unfinished study of nineteenth-century French culture) to stay in one place. His, rather, was a principled reluctance to be redeemed, because no redemption he could envisage would restore the world in his own day to the wholeness from which it fell—to that plenitude of experience which once made storytelling possible.

The “divergence” between Scholem and Benjamin, I would suggest, was largely a divergence in their understandings of history. Scholem, impatient with flânerie of any sort, looked to history for directives; Benjamin would have been happy enough to find there only hope. Scholem contemplated action as a conclusion appropriately deduced from history; Benjamin felt all such remaking of history was itself historically inappropriate.

“The greatness of the Zionist movement,” Scholem asserts in the present volume, “has been that it was a movement which accepted historical responsibility, that undertook tasks and accepted responsibility for our actions before others, without any messianic pretensions.” He has persistently underscored the thoroughly secular and nonmessianic character of Zionism. Messianism meant “a life lived in deferment”; it was predicated upon Jewish powerlessness, and the willingness to lead a provisional, unfulfilled existence. Zionism acquitted itself of the utopian messianic consciousness when it set its sights on immediate and concrete rewards. By acting on the past it relieved the present of its sacred dimension of hope.6

But that dimension—personal, artistic, Jewish, Marxist—was Benjamin’s element. “It is for the sake of those without hope,” he wrote, “that hope has been given to us.” Benjamin was a creature of exile, with Kafka among the most wounded and discerning students of estrangement. Much as he envied a former world its measured and unreflective meaning, redemption would have so transformed his own as to make it, for him, virtually meaningless. Adrift Benjamin was at home, uncounseled and in full power; at home he would surely have been adrift.7

Scholem’s argument was cruelly borne out by subsequent events. Had Benjamin acted on his friend’s promptings he might still be alive. Jews have always paid what Scholem likes to call a “high price” for retaining their faith and ideals: they consented to devastations they believed would pass. Faced with the devastations of this century, however, many might not have been as ready as their forebears to pay such a price. In September, 1940, Benjamin took his life in a Spanish border town, believing he would be forced to return to occupied France; the morning after he died refugees were in fact allowed into Spain. Benjamin might also have believed that the price—of dying for one’s ideals—was still worth paying, that there was no longer a place for him in a world in which all his values were being destroyed. Of this, however, we will never be sure.

But the verdict of history, as always, teases. Scholem was right, but Benjamin was not wrong. Modern life, as Benjamin foresaw, has not been healed by the socialist or the Zionist revolutions. Zionism has not been the translatio imperii it set out to be. In a far-ranging interview in the book under review, Scholem lingers uncharacteristically long over the spiritual—even mystical—aspects of the Zionist ideal. He advances the intriguing notion of a secularism itself not secular, but fed by religious vigors; the temper of Jewish life, he suggests, will one day come to rest somewhere beyond both Orthodoxy and revolt. Perhaps. Meanwhile, he concedes, Zionism has failed to shape new and appropriate values continuous with the tradition it would revise—the lamentable consequence, he believes, of its shunning the eschatological. The Jewish spirit remains perplexed, and nowhere more so than in Israel, where the contest between old and new hardens and Zionism’s boldest dreams are mocked. The fantastic political and cultural energies of Israel have yet to cope with the moral and spiritual quandaries into which the Jew of this century has been thrown. And if, as Scholem puts it, Zionism has indeed “neutralized” messianism, Israel has often, and no less effectively, neutralized Jewishness itself.

Something else is wrong, and this, too, was understood clearly by Benjamin. In a letter to Scholem in 1938 Benjamin sketched a view of Kafka which perfectly illustrates his own intellectual incandescence. “Kafka’s work presents a sickness of tradition,” he wrote.

It is [the] consistency of truth which has been lost. Kafka was far from being the first to face this situation. Many had accommodated themselves to it, clinging to truth or whatever they happened to regard as truth and, with a more or less heavy heart, foregoing its transmissibility. Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility….

“Kafka’s writings,” therefore, “are essentially parables.” That is, the content of truth no longer within reach, Kafka will not let go of its form. Tenaciously he clings to the special attentiveness, that reverent kind of listening, required to receive tradition’s law, or at least to hear “the rumor about the true things.”

Judaism since the eighteenth century is replete with proposals for outfitting its Law to modern life. But each of these makeshift accommodations will have to stand Kafka’s test: can it be taught to children? Not least among Orthodoxy’s strengths is that its form of Jewishness can. Zionism’s character as a tradition, however, its capacity for binding Jews to a moral or spiritual discipline, is more equivocal. One can easily enough encourage one’s children to be Israelis. But can one make them Zionists? And what, in the deepest sense, would that mean? Perhaps I should add that the ideological uncertainties of Zionism do not undermine its political or cultural legitimacy: as a classical formula has it, there is the fate of the Jews and the fate of Judaism. The first has been tackled dramatically; the other remains in doubt. Beholden to his fathers, the Jew is still, as R.P. Blackmur said, in search of a son.

Gershom Scholem’s account of Judaism’s religious development, including the interpretation of Zionism he drew from it, has been, for its quality of mind and unrivaled erudition, probably the strongest secular vision described by a contemporary Jew. It remains, however, the vision of a single, remarkable man. Like many eminent Jewish thinkers since Moses Mendelssohn, Scholem’s enterprise has been his own, capable of inspiring but not quite of legislating. But if the specific vision cannot be translated into a shared faith, if it is indeed the fate of the modern Jewish intellectual to fend for himself, to cast his own Jewishness in his own time and hope it will cohere with the others and the old, still Scholem imparts something of the highest value—an exhilarating and noble concern for Jewish greatness.

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

This Issue

April 14, 1977