Gershom Scholem was one of the great scholars of the twentieth century. Almost single-handedly, he created the modern academic study of Jewish mysticism, a subject that had been scorned by earlier generations of historians. But that achievement, remarkable though it is, hardly explains why he remains such an object of fascination so long after his death in 1982. Other German Jewish intellectuals associated with Scholem, like Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, wrote about matters much closer to the mainstream of modern life—mass media or totalitarian politics. By comparison, one might expect a scholar of the ancient mystical treatise the Bahir or the seventeenth-century Sabbatian heresy to be of interest only to specialists.
Yet the studies of Scholem’s life and work show no sign of stopping: in the past year alone, he has been the subject of two new biographies, by David Biale and Noam Zadoff. There are also new English editions of his unpublished verse and of his correspondence with Arendt; and there is even a biography of his brother Werner, a Communist politician in Weimar Germany, who is remembered in large part because of Gershom’s fame. (These books follow George Prochnik’s passionate and personal 2017 memoir/biography of Scholem, Stranger in a Strange Land.) Clearly, Scholem has become one of those figures in which the modern world—in particular the modern Jewish world—sees its reflection.
That is because his life and work intersected with some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century: the birth of the State of Israel and the death of European Jewry. Not only did Scholem witness these developments, but his scholarship proved to be highly influential in the way modern Jews thought about the course of their history. Scholem’s scholarly work on Kabbalah, the tradition of Jewish mysticism, did not touch on contemporary politics at all, but was nonetheless deeply informed by them. In Kabbalah, Scholem found an expression of the collective hopes and traumas of the Jews over the centuries.
To use one of his favorite words, Scholem restored “the demonic”—in the sense of the irrational, the unconscious, the fateful—to the modern understanding of Judaism. In the twentieth century, this dimension of history seemed much more real than it had to the nineteenth-century scholars of “the science of Judaism,” who tended to see Jewish mysticism as the desiccated superstition of a benighted past. Scholem, on the contrary, believed that Kabbalah had been an authentic and vital expression of Jewish spirituality. “The mystics…were the true representatives of the living, popular religion of the [Jewish] masses,” he wrote in his magnum opus, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.
Scholem reintroduced modern Jews, including many scholars and writers, to the central elements of Kabbalah: the sefirot, the ten levels of God’s being; the sitra aḥra, the dark “other side” of God from which evil springs; and the Shekhinah,…
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