The Cult Following of Gershom Scholem, Founder of Modern Kabbala Research

Israeli academia has a new, independent stream of Jewish studies. Its prophet: Gershom Scholem

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Gershom Scholem.
Gershom Scholem. Credit: National Library of Israel
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

I spoke recently with a Jewish studies professor who teaches in Germany. A few years ago, he was invited to spend a sabbatical at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He lived here for a year with his family and thus became familiar for the first time with actual life in the Jewish state. He was surprised by some aspects of Israeli society, but one thing flabbergasted him: Hardly any Israeli he met knew who Gershom Scholem was. For decades, throughout his career as a teacher and a scholar, he had believed that Scholem was modern Judaism’s most important figure, and that the same went for Israel’s intellectual life too. Israeli academics he spoke with were also preoccupied with Scholem.

But when he got to Israel, he was taken aback to discover that his hero is largely forgotten in Israel’s cultural life. Scholem’s house in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood is rundown, his works are not taught in high schools, and no important street is named for him in the big cities. Even more serious: The Israelis he met, for example, the parents in the preschool his children attended, didn’t even know how to pronounce his name. “Shulem”? the asked him. “Who the hell is Schulem?”

Indeed, Scholem’s figure delineates an absolute divide between two types of people. For regular Israelis – young or old, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, lacking education or partially educated – the name Scholem is all but meaningless. In contrast, for most of those who are engaged in Jewish studies, or in the humanities in general, Scholem is a veritable universe. A scholar of Judaism and the founder of modern kabbala research, he is the subject of countless studies, articles and lectures.

In cafés in the Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, local professors still whisper juicy anecdotes about the esteemed scholar,who died in 1982, usually referring to an interjection he uttered or did not utter during a lecture by his colleague and rival Martin Buber. At many Jewish studies conferences, “Gershom Scholem” is a category unto itself, bearing the same status as central issues in the field such as Bible, Hasidism or liturgical poetry.

Gershom Scholem studies have become a concrete academic field. It would not be an exaggeration to say that alongside Orthodox Judaism and Reform and Conservative Judaism, a separate stream of academic Judaism has sprung up in the humanities faculties both in Israel and abroad, whose chief prophet is Scholem. But all this resonates very faintly, if at all, outside the seminar rooms of academia.

These thoughts occurred to me in connection with the publication, by Magnes Press, of a Hebrew translation of a new, short biography of Scholem by David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Davis. The book joins the biography “From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back,” by Noam Zadoff (Brandeis, 2017; Hebrew edition 2018), and another biography, by Amir Engel, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2017.

This surge of biographies is noteworthy, given the fact that Scholem actually lived the regular life of a Jerusalem professor and pedant. For almost 60 years, from his immigration to Palestine in 1923 until his death, he was a reclusive scholar surrounded by books, busy publishing his studies, correcting footnotes and engaged in intra-academic politics. Although a political dimension is hinted at in several of his works, he did not propound a philosophical method or put forward ideas going beyond the realm of Jewish history. Unlike another well-known Jerusalem intellectual, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Scholem did not express controversial political opinions, at least not in the final decades of his life. And in contrast to other distinguished yekkes – German-speaking Jews – such as Salman Schocken, he had no children and did not establish a famous dynasty.

In fact, since his death, several kabbala scholars have severely critiqued Scholem’s historical theories and have dismantled them, brick by brick. But the very fact that he produced grand and ambitious theses ensures his ideas a longer life than those of his critics. Moreover, the secret of Scholem’s charm apparently lies in the dark sides of his personality. Even though he dealt with seemingly esoteric philological questions, his studies stirred fierce passions.

For example, the literary critic Baruch Kurzweil hurled poisoned barbs at him in the pages of Haaretz, arguing that Scholem was drawing close to a “mysticism of nihilism,” primarily because of his ostensibly sympathetic approach to Shabbetai Zvi, the false messiah. Kurtzweil found a demonic-anarchistic side in Scholem, and one of his critical articles included a kind of satirical skit about Scholem and his sycophantic followers.

Something of the dark, satanic forces that Scholem described in his studies radiated in his personality as well. A number of the people in his circle committed suicide – friends, students, colleagues – and even though allegations of his indirect responsibility for the disasters were refuted one after the other by historians, a certain specter of dark mystery clung to him nevertheless. But that is precisely what made him an interesting figure – after all, it’s hard to think of a contemporary Israeli professor whose persona is similarly capable of igniting the imagination and the emotions.

Indeed, Scholem’s life has become a form of mythology. Like the adoring fans of a rock band, the proponents of the genre know by heart the peak moments and will quickly seek them out in every new biography. Scholem’s father throws him out of the house for lacking German patriotism during World War I; Scholem has his first conversation with Walter Benjamin, in the catalog room of the university library in Berlin; in a letter to Franz Rosenzweig, Scholem warns that one day the religious power latent in the Hebrew language will rise up and destroy its speakers; Hannah Arendt informs Scholem that Benjamin committed suicide; Scholem discovers that his wife had an affair with the philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann; after reading Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Scholem accuses her of being deficient in “love of the Jewish people”; and so on.

The famous names that crop up in Scholem’s biography also help explain the secret of his magnetism. Scholem carried in his body a lost world of German Jewish intellectuals – an environment in which some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century flourished. He documented and published the story of his intimate friendship with Benjamin (Biale raises the possibility that their relations had a homoerotic side), so that the aura around Benjamin illuminated him as well. Scholem may have been a professor in Jerusalem, but he could pick up the phone and call Carl Gustav Jung or Theodor Adorno. All this is very meaningful for the self-image of Israeli academics today, who on an everyday basis have to cope with narrow-minded administrators, indifferent students and boorish politicians. Scholem allows them to imagine for a moment that the intellectual world revolves around them.

In this connection, it’s worth quoting Arendt’s amusing remarks about Scholem in a 1957 letter, as quoted in Biale’s book: “He is self-absorbed… He fundamentally thinks that: the center of the world is Israel; the center of Israel is Jerusalem; the center of Jerusalem is the university; the center of the university is – Scholem. And the worst thing is that he seriously thinks that the world has a center.”

One day, Israeli culture in general will recognize the worth of Gershom Scholem. The life of the Jerusalem scholar will be the inspiration for a rock opera. And if not, at least a song in Hanukkah children’s festivals.

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