This Day in Jewish History

1897: A Man Who Made Kabbala Accessible Is Born

Gershom Scholem is widely credited with turning kabbala into a legitimate academic subject and wrote many popular books on the topic.

National Library of Israel

On December 5, 1897, Gerhard Scholem was born in Berlin to an assimilated Jewish family. Yet he became fascinated with Jewish history and culture, most famously with Jewish mysticism, and is widely credited with turning kabbala into a legitimate academic subject. Scholem would also become the first professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His father, Arthur, was a printer, a German patriot and was not religious. His mother, the former Betty Hirsch, was more tolerant of observance and Zionism.

Scholem and his three brothers were all politically active, in different directions. Scholem’s brother Werner served in the Reichstag from 1924 to 1928 as a representative of the Communist Party. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1933 and in 1938 he was sent to Buchenwald, where he was killed in 1940.

In 1915 he was expelled from high school for writing an anti-war pamphlet that was circulated by a Zionist group.

The brothers were not sent to a Jewish school but in 1911 Scholem began studying Hebrew and the Talmud at a Jewish community school. He became fascinated by kabbala, albeit from an academic rather than a purely religious perspective. His fascination with Zionism and Jewish studies eventually led to a deep rift with his father. Scholem, who had already changed his first name from the German Gerhard to the Hebrew Gershom, left home in 1917 with just 100 marks from his father. He moved into a Berlin boarding house filled with Jewish intellectuals and Zionists — including the future Zalman Shazar, who went on to become Israel’s third president, and the author S.Y. Agnon. It was here that Scholem composed his first book, a translation from Yiddish of memorial essays to Jews who were killed in Arab riots in Palestine.

After several years of preparation — including a two-month stint in the German army, from which he was discharged as mentally unfit — Scholem immigrated to Israel in September 1923.

After a brief flirtation with math he returned to studying Zionism and Judaism, especially Jewish mysticism. He found work notably its mystical aspect. He found work at the newly renamed Jewish National and University Library, and began collecting and cataloging kabbalist manuscripts. He went on to teach at the Hebrew University, where he worked for more than 30 years.

Meanwhile he was becoming known around the world for his ground-breaking works on kabbalah. In the late 1930s he made a splash in New York with a series of lectures in English. They were published in 1941 as “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism,” which marked a turning point in kabbala studies in America. Another landmark book was “On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism,” from 1965, a guide to the central themes of kabbala.

He would eventually write more than 40 books and some 700 academic articles, on subjects ranging from Jewish civilization to mysticism and politics.

Gershom Scholem died on February 21, 1982 in Israel.