In response to:
The Master of Mysticism from the December 18, 1980 issue
To the Editors:
In his review of Gershom Scholem’s memoirs [NYR, December 18], Arnaldo Momigliano cites my Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History as an instance of “how remote most American Jews now are from nineteenth-century trends of German thought.” He goes on to write: “For someone like myself who in the late Twenties and early Thirties read German books…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.” If Professor Momigliano had read my book more carefully, he would have found that all three of these German Romantics (and others as well) are mentioned prominently. Although I did not read German books in the Twenties and Thirties, I believe I overheard these echoes through historical research.
Professor Momigliano seems to hold the curious belief that history can only be written by those who were on the spot. He writes: “I doubt whether there is anyone now writing who can analyze Scholem’s debt to German thought except Scholem himself.” This is roughly like saying that only a triangle can understand mathematics. If historians—including Professor Momigliano—followed such advice, they would soon find themselves looking for another profession.
Binghamton, New York
Arnaldo Momigliano replies:
If Professor Biale had reread his own book with the same care with which I read it he would perhaps be less reluctant to admit that it does not contain any coherent analysis of the revival of Romantic thought about language in Weimar Germany which is a key to Scholem’s intellectual position. Even less does Biale’s book examine the differences between Catholic and Protestant thinkers about language. At no point does he seem to be aware that Molitor, whom Scholem chose as his predecessor, was, like von Baader, a Catholic, though this fact is of course stressed by Scholem in his article on Molitor in Encyclopaedia Judaica. Whoever talks about modern German culture without registering the distinction between Catholics and Protestants must start again.
As for “the curious belief that history can only be written by those who were on the spot,” this was the belief of Herodotus and Thucydides. Much of my work on historiography seeks to explain why we can no longer share Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ belief. Professor Biale should really not confuse me with Herodotus nor himself with Scholem. There are things which only Herodotus and Scholem can do.
April 30, 1981