New Book Sheds Light on Kabbalah Scholar's Tragic Descent Into Madness

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"Gershom Scholem Ve'Yosef Weiss: Halifat Mikhtavim" ("Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss: Correspondence, 1948-1964" ), edited by Noam Zadoff. Carmel Publishing, 413 pages, NIS 103

"I notice on occasion that I lie a lot: I am in grave danger of writing a historical legend about myself and justifying it, a legend that in its essential parts - not its interior but rather its exterior - is nothing but a legend."

These words were written by Gershom Scholem - who was not yet 20 - in his private journal on January 4, 1917. And indeed, in the ensuing years, Scholem excelled at weaving and spreading historical legends about himself until everyone was captivated by their spell (himself included ). But here we shall deal primarily with a historical legend spun by his detractors, one that is refuted by this new book.

The German-born historian and philosopher's dominant personality, scientific authority, awe-inspiring wisdom, and a host of wonderful if intimidating qualities that placed him far and above any forum in which he participated, seemingly came together to create a larger-than-life figure that had his finest students striving hard merely to keep up with him. Some succeeded. Joseph Weiss, evidently the closest to him of all his students, and the one Scholem destined to inherit his seat, tried - and was burned like a moth drawn to a flame.

A few years after his death in 1982, things were published about Scholem that none would have rushed to print so long as the old lion was alive. His reputation was smeared time and time again because of his supposedly cruel treatment of Weiss. It was said of Scholem that he had disqualified the student's doctoral dissertation, thereby allegedly compelling him to leave Israel in 1950, as well as hastening his tragic death, in August 1969, when Weiss took his own life in England.

Before we turn to the affair of the disqualified dissertation, let us briefly get to know the persona and character of Joseph Weiss. He was born in 1918 into an assimilated family in Budapest, was drawn to Orthodox Judaism - like Scholem in his youth - and studied for two years at the Neological (Reform ) rabbinical seminary before he immigrated to Palestine to study the Jewish poets of medieval Spain at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. However, "the country is not interesting even a whit - or, to put it slightly less vociferously: interests me only a whit," he wrote on March 28, 1940, to poet and British Army paratrooper Hannah Szenes, among whose admirers he was, and added: "What disappoints one is that same Greek Fire of nationalism, which would have been better left behind in Europe ... The tradable Zionist ideology is, in most places, superficial or brutal, and it seems to me the time has come to freshen up a bit its way of thinking with the 'assimilating' ideology, 'of the previous century,' which is excoriated as old and unfounded."

Soon enough, however, Weiss came under Scholem's spell and became one of his closest students; Scholem even arranged to employ him under his auspices at the institute for kabbala research that operated within the Schocken Library in Jerusalem.

Weiss met with one success after another. In Haaretz, he published original articles about Hasidism, in particular about Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Many deemed him a rising talent. It appears that in those years he also sought to resemble his great mentor. Thus, for example, in his correspondence with Salman Schocken, owner of Haaretz and patron of the institute for kabbala research, he proposed that he prepare an anthology of Chabad literary sources - another area of Weiss' expertise - modeled on an anthology in German, "Mysteries of Creation According to the Zohar," edited by Scholem for a Schocken publishing series in German in 1935 (which was a great success ).

On April 1, 1945, Weiss drew up what he called a "report on my work" at the Schocken Library: "I have been working on the dialectic theory of Reb Nachman of Bratslav. His 'dialectical' thinking is based on a processed doctrine of dialectics ('the question' ). The antinomy is not a requisite state of human thought alone, but rather is a requisite state of reality in general. Standing in contrast to it is the paradoxical faith of the believer. The work seeks to ascertain the existential nature of Reb Nachman's thinking, which renders his doctrine a true 'dialectical theology.'"

These words - which indicate that Weiss was toiling on his doctoral dissertation as part of his work at the kabbala institute - reflect positions that Scholem was busy formulating in those same years, during which he wrote his great work, "Sabbatai Zevi: The Mystical Messiah" (1957 ). Evidently in the mind of the ambitious Weiss, Rabbi Nachman was about to be to him what Sabbatai Zevi was to his teacher.

Fierce arguments

And here a disagreement erupted. It was best described by another of Scholem's students, who was a close friend of Weiss' and among those who defended his name, Prof. Sara Ora Heller Wilensky. In a journal called Igra, she wrote about Weiss' severe conflict: He felt for Scholem "boundless love ... total love, sometimes accompanied by outbursts of envy and by anxiety about any sign of possible rejection by the father-teacher." At the same time, however, the two had fierce arguments about Weiss' interpretation of Rabbi Nachman's persona and path. To this was added Weiss' passionate desire to travel abroad to study general mysticism and religious studies, as well as a desire to turn his back on the burdensome State of Israel, which was hungry for conquests and steeped in nationalism - a desire that Scholem probably tried to moderate and rein in.

As an indication of the crisis, Weiss hastily completed his dissertation and rushed to leave the country without saying a word to Scholem. It also appears that Weiss did not submit each chapter to Scholem, as is customary, but rather the entire thesis - and fled, in 1950. Did he find it difficult to go on arguing with his mentor (for reasons he kept to himself )? Or perhaps he felt exceedingly self-confident and thought Scholem would not dare fail him?

In his crucial evaluation, sent by Scholem on March 14, 1951 - proof of the lengthy time the dissertation was in his possession and of his deliberations - he found several reasons to praise "The Dialectic Doctrine and Faith of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav": "The first three chapters constitute an important and highly original contribution... and were they to constitute a self-contained unit, I would recommend that they be accepted as a doctoral dissertation because of the depth and originality of interpretation they contain." However, "unfortunately, I cannot say the same of the final, crowning chapter of the dissertation, let along about a large share of the appendices ... Additionally, I must say that especially Appendix C develops assumptions and excessively far-reaching opinions for which the author did not bring any reasonable proof. I view this chapter, as in several other pages here, a very dubious deviation from the path of scholarship and a pursuit of the most fantastical nonsense ... Since the author has left the country, I do not see any possibility of conducting a personal discussion with him, as was called for, so that the work be amended in a manner acceptable to my mind."

One can also not help but note that the work in question is rather brief (138 pages ), without a table of contents, without an abstract in English (and without a real conclusion ); in general, it reads like a first draft written in haste, not like a dissertation intended for submission to a teacher known to be a stickler: There are hundreds of typographical errors: On page 116 alone, in the "notorious" Appendix C, there are more than a dozen. Was Weiss' penury so great that he was forced to print three pages (135-137 ) on graph paper? And why is his name on the title page "Georg" (as he was called in Hungary )? Did he think this was the appropriate place to announce he had failed to integrate into his new home and intended to leave?

Professional rehabilitation

The problematic dissertation opened a deep rift in the relations between the teacher and his adoring student. Weiss' psychological and academic problems were severe and grew even more profound due to his financial difficulties in England, where he and his first wife, Miriam Wiener-Weiss, barely subsisted. Eventually he swallowed his pride, and missing his beloved teacher, after a heavy silence, reestablished contact with him, and recounted his distress. And Scholem did not disappoint: He arranged for his most beloved and talented student to receive the prestigious Warburg scholarship (which does not require study at any specific university), thereby ensuring the start of his professional rehabilitation; on top of this he wrote large numbers of recommendation letters which helped Weiss find suitable academic positions in the UK.

Only thanks to Scholem's absolute support was a collection of articles by Weiss about Rabbi Nachman, including ones based on the superb, first three chapters of his dissertation, recognized as a doctoral dissertation in 1961 - an unusual but acceptable proceeding in most European countries - and he was able to embark on an academic career, which he aspired to with all his heart. That year Weiss also married again.

The 201 letters gathered in this volume (along with several well-chosen appendices ), which are properly elucidated and annotated, give us a picture of a deep friendship between two scholars, who regularly exchange innovations and compete with each other, as it were, with jests and witticisms. To this writer it appears that at least in this area the student outshone his teacher: Weiss' Hebrew, which he began to acquire at approximately the same age as Scholem - in their teens - is more flowing, vivacious and natural than Scholem's, even though the latter had been speaking it for decades.

Of course, the volume is rich, and how could it not be, with gossip: Who was promoted to what. Who published what. Who said what about so-and-so. And on and on. In it, Weiss, the junior partner in the correspondence, comes across as going to great lengths to win his teacher's heart and amuse him, but does so in a natural manner and so charmingly that it is hardly felt. During this period, 1948-1964, the number of letters from Scholem to Weiss is nearly double the number of those from Weiss to Scholem (though, as we see later on, this ratio was destined to change ).

From all the puns and quips too numerous to count in this correspondence, we will make do with those in the closing paragraph of Weiss' letter from January 6, 1957, which starts off with: "I heard here in England from people-in-the-know and the most veteran Zionists in Vienna, that when a dispute arose between the elderly Herzl and the young Buber [who was, along with Chaim Weizmann, among the leaders of the opposition Democratic Faction in the Zionist Organization] on the editorial staff of Die Welt [the German-language organ of the Zionist movement] in Vienna, Herzl angrily said to the other staff members: 'Buber is not a surname, but rather a Komperativ.'" The meaning of bub in German is "boy" or "youth," and hence "Buber" signifies someone who is "more of a boy," in other words "childish" or "childlike." Such things would surely have amused Scholem, who from a young age was prone to finding flaws in his first important mentor in Judaism and Zionism, and never bothered to hide this.

Despite the joking and witticisms in the letters of both Scholem and Weiss, a heavy shadow lies over them: Weiss' mental illness, schizophrenia. At the request of Weiss' second ex-wife (Erna, a German student who converted to Judaism to marry him ), Noam Zadoff, the volume's editor, who teaches at the college of Jewish studies in Heidelberg, describes his grave disease in a sensitive introduction, and he brings the collection of fascinating correspondence to an end with mention of eruption of the disease. But it is impossible to overlook the earliest signs of the darkness that would descend upon him. Thus, for example, in a letter to Scholem from March 10, 1953, Weiss wrote: "A few weeks ago doctors suggested that I enter a hospital because of black bile, acute melancholy in English, and I managed with great difficulty to defer the decree, for the time being at any rate. But now I am returning to my strength.

Of no less concern was the fact that Weiss' first wife, Miriam, likewise a student of Scholem's, developed the same mental illness that Weiss had later, in such a severe manner that she had to be hospitalized. From Zadoff, we learn that Weiss' journals indicate that he married her even though he knew she had a history of psychiatric hospitalization (and therefore refused to have children, to his chagrin ).

Abyss of madness

Three years after he married his second wife, Erna, and after their son Amos was born, when everything ostensibly was moving along smoothly and the future looked bright - Joseph Weiss' deterioration into the abyss of madness began. One sign of this was his suspicion that his colleagues wished him ill, were slandering him, working to undermine his advancement, or wanted to get rid of him. And here the volume ends, although the exchange of letters went on, and with greater and greater intensiveness. During his illness, up to his suicide, years in which Weiss experienced ups and downs, he grew increasingly dependent on Scholem emotionally. And Scholem was responsive to Weiss' plight. Now there was no longer an asymmetry in their correspondence as in the past: Scholem always found the time to write him letters, some fairly long, every two or three weeks.

The volume before us has many good qualities and we have briefly discussed only a few. But one should not ignore the fact that it draws a substantial part of its power from what is not written in it - from the attraction, perhaps against our wills, that we feel at the sight of a drowning man who is crying out for help, a man who seals his fate with his own hands, in spite of his good qualities.

As in a real tragedy, we watch the two fearless heroes, who act out of noble motives, but whose fates - or, at least, the fate of one of them - are nevertheless sealed.

The correspondence between Weiss and Scholem continued for some five years after the collection before us breaks off abruptly, because of the deterioration in Weiss' condition. But Weiss had subsequent periods of mental health, which ended in further descents into darkness followed by the regaining of his health, and the shifts between letters that are entirely marked by his illness and letters in which he is completely sane, and letters that are a mixture of sanity and insanity - these shifts do away with the supposedly clear-cut barrier between these two distinct mental states.

Here is the text of the last letter Scholem wrote to Weiss, on letterhead from the Fifth World Congress of Jewish Studies - No. 134 among the letters he wrote to his young friend from the beginning of 1964:

August 26, 1969

Dear Prof. Weiss,

How my heart broke when I saw from your letter that you continue to suffer the tribulations and threats of illness, and I thought based on what someone told me during the conference in Jerusalem that you came out of the hospital long ago and that you were there for just a few days. You see that we receive incorrect information ...

I hope that your fears about your future are exaggerated and even unfounded in the main. I know how hard a life of solitude is for you. I know how hard it is to know whether this solitude comes from your having pushed away people who sought your company or because it was decreed from within, because you chose it.

I cannot answer that, and you, when you miss the company of friends, you are mired betwixt walls of solitude, and woe to us from the solitude of the spirit. On the other hand, I was told by two or three people who saw you in London, that you were unreservedly glowing and brilliant in your conversation... and you see that you are capable of overcoming and gaining strength, and people who informed me of their conversations with you knew nothing whatsoever about that prison of shells that you feel or find yourself in....

I wish you all the best, a speedy recovery and a Happy New Year and to all of Israel.

Gershom Scholem

Joseph Weiss committed suicide on August 25, 1969.

Zadoff ends the introduction to his book with these words: "In February 2008, when this book was in the process of being readied for publication, Amos Weiss, son of Joseph and Orna Weiss, committed suicide after years of terrible mental anguish. This book is dedicated to his memory."

Henry Wasserman is a professor of Jewish history at the Open University..

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski

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