Finally, This Author Puts the Great Gershom Scholem in Context

A new Hebrew biography is the first to place the philosopher-historian’s remarkable breadth in a historical light, while offering a coherent understanding of his professional and political development.

Nitzan Lebovic
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Gershom Scholem.
Gershom Scholem.Credit: National Library
Nitzan Lebovic

“From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back: Gershom Scholem Between Israel and Germany,” by Noam Zadoff (in Hebrew), Carmel Books, 119 shekels

Gershom Scholem’s world is positioned on the threshold between German and Hebrew, science and religion, the known and the unknown, Berlin and Jerusalem, the promise of Zionism and its disillusionment, and messianism and secular nationalism. Scholem’s thinking hovers above an abyss that portends the existence of chthonic powers that could swallow us whole, but also the existence of a glimmer, a ray of light (“ziv”) shining from the darkness.

Scholem (1897-1982) himself moved back and forth between the before and after of two potentially destructive moments: his immigration to Palestine in 1923 and the Holocaust. The first occurred under the sign of hope; the latter silenced him for a long time. His decision to immigrate to Palestine was grounded in a cultural and a theological understanding of Hebrew – not so much the territorial promise of political Zionism, but a spiritual and intellectual attempt to reach the bleeding core of the sacred language itself. For him, the physical move seemed to counter the exilic drive toward assimilation, alienation and denial of the self.

Scholem identified the “German-Jewish symbiosis,” or the emancipation of Jews in Europe, as an illusion doomed to fail. Already in the early 1920s he warned that stagnation and catastrophe awaited the European Jews, and chose a version of cultural Zionism that, he thought, could keep a vital pendulum swinging between the people and its history, without reducing both into simplistic forms of nationalism.

This new biography by Noam Zadoff is the first attempt to place Scholem’s remarkable breadth in a historical context, and it is an excellent one. It fills many crucial gaps, mostly about professional (institutional) and political matters. It opens, in medias res, with Scholem’s immigration to Palestine in 1923. Scholem was 26 years old at the time, and, much like other intellectuals of that generation, he identified immigration as an act of personal and collective fulfillment.

Upon arrival, a few months after his wife, Escha, he was hosted and helped by Hugo Bergmann, who had emigrated to Jerusalem in 1920 and became the director of the National Library. Bergmann helped Scholem get a position as a librarian and supported his academic ascent. In spite of Bergmann’s long love affair with Escha, which led to her divorce from Scholem and marriage to Bergmann (who had divorced his own wife), the two men stayed close friends and academic collaborators for the rest of their lives. During those early years, Scholem refined his research and became the world’s leading authority on the science and history of the kabbala.

The biography focuses less on Scholem’s personal life – it ignores, for example, the story of his wife’s affair – but develops a coherent understanding of his professional and political development. For Zadoff, Scholem’s story leads “From Berlin to Jerusalem,” as Scholem titled his own autobiographical account of his life and of his friendship with Walter Benjamin, but also along a path that led back to Berlin (hence the title of the book). His story leads from his political commitment, during the 1920s, to Brit Shalom – the first peace organization in the Middle East, which called for a binational state in Palestine – to his commitment to the search for lost Jewish libraries after the Holocaust. The biography also explores his friendships and rivalries with well-known intellectuals, and devotes much attention to Scholem’s involvement with the Eranos Circle in Switzerland, which brought him together with a small group of thinkers who were interested in similar topics. They included C.G. Jung, Karl Kerényi, Mircea Eliade, as well as Scholem’s colleague Martin Buber, and his protégé Yosef Weiss (Zadoff edited the correspondence between Scholem and Weiss, in Hebrew).

The narrative, even beyond the biographical details, is shaped by the history and rhetoric of spiritual Zionism and the hope for the revival of an ancient and secret language; Scholem extended his understanding of kabbala to Hebrew as a whole.

Zadoff follows Scholem through his endeavors to institutionalize his philosophy of language and history of kabbala. Scholem did both as a leading scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where his influence and reputation grew exponentially following his appointment, but nevertheless failed to cross the intellectual-political Rubicon and win adherents among the political elite. Being unable to cross that threshold, and watching helplessly the rise of messianic forms of Zionist nationalism, convinced Scholem that his intellectual path should turn back to Europe.

Zadoff interprets Scholem’s gradual return to the Continent, in general, and to Germany, in particular, as the other half of the journey begun in 1923; the biographical-intellectual road that began under the dark clouds of the coming storm in Europe, and a promise of revival in Zion, changed course. The narrative pleads with the reader to resist the temptation of escapism and normalization, and rather than ignore the decline of spiritual Zionism, to look again at exilic life as an alternative to Zionism and national redemption.

The Israeli-born Zadoff, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, seems to have fulfilled this idea himself, and has contributed to a growing body of critical literature about Zionist and Israeli intellectual life written in the Diaspora.

Descent into danger

Scholem explained such ideas early in his career, connecting the biographical and the intellectual. In a famous letter to Franz Rosenzweig in 1926, he explained his position: “Fraught with danger is the Hebrew language! It cannot remain and will not remain in its present state! If and when the language turns against its speakers? and this has occurred already on bitter and unforgettable occasions [] will we then have a youth which can exist in and survive the revolution of a holy language?”

Scholem’s answer predicted a dark future for Zionism and Hebrew: “Our children will have to pay for this predicament, which none other than we have imposed upon them without forethought and without question.” (The letter is quoted in “Ghostly Hebrew, Ghastly Speech: Scholem to Rosenzweig, 1926,” an article by William Cutter, Prooftexts 10:3, Sept. 1990.)

In 1926, Scholem was already living in Palestine. The biography follows his descent into the “danger” of the Hebrew language, a danger he – much like other German-Jewish friends of his – always found to belong to an esoteric layer hidden from the layman’s eyes. Scholem united his intellectual skills with a keen understanding of political conditions, trying to look at both from a critical perspective he called “religious anarchism.”

Scholem’s greatness lies in his ability to unite his close reading of the “secret” kabbalistic texts with an overall understanding of the principles – historical, philosophical and political – of interpretation. Looking at language, religion and politics from this angle meant, for him, to confront “the horrifying experience of God’s absence in our world [which] collides irreconcilably and catastrophically with the doctrine of a Creation that renews itself.”

According to Scholem, the movement between renewal (tehiya, in Hebrew) and absence is not self-contradictory but permanent and unavoidable. He believed that this existential movement occupied the heart of thinking itself. From his earliest texts, Scholem – much like his friend Benjamin – put a strong stress on destruction as an instigation to radical thinking. It is the threat of obliteration, or the existence of nothingness, that enables us to keep the hope of a secret, or a creation ex nihilo – a glimmer of hope in the midst of absolute darkness. Scholem called it the “zero point of revelation.”

All that sounds pretty abstract, but as Scholem put it in different essays, whenever he discussed the many forms and shapes of the messianic idea, “There is something deeply personal about all this.”

Zadoff argues that during the late 1960s and early '70s, Scholem completed the course he started out on during the early '20s, explaining his growing distance from Zionism in similar terms to those he used to condemn German nationalism. Writing shortly before his death, he admitted, in Benjaminian language: “The power that Zionism connected itself with, in its victories, was the visible and aggressive force. Zionism has forgotten to connect with the hidden, oppressed force that is due to reveal itself in the coming future.”

For Scholem, responsibility for the collapse of the spiritual dream lay mostly on the shoulders of the followers of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the “climbers on the iron wall” – an allusion to Jabotinsky’s article from 1923 calling on his right-wing followers to erect a figurative iron wall that would separate Jews and Arabs. Zadoff ties this critique back to a letter to his friend Werner Kraft, in which Scholem wrote: “Metaphysically, we lost in the Land of Israel the battle that Zionism won in the world.”

This last quote demonstrates Scholem’s more general understanding of Zionism. In another letter he admitted: “It does not matter anymore, how we interpret Zionism, after its face has been revealed (and now is the time of decision, we cannot disillusion ourselves any longer), even when it is turned against itself, like the face of the Gorgon.”

The biography does a remarkable job tying up loose ends – scholarly, political, and institutional – together. It is detailed and well researched and, no less important, wonderfully written. Zadoff moves between different historical layers and religious or political discourses freely, even virtuosically.

I would, however, make one last point, as an extension to his argument. The heart of Zadoff’s biography and argument concerning Scholem relates to his political identification and philosophical realization. Yet, it is in that context that a certain incompleteness is revealed on Scholem’s part.

While Scholem turns out to be highly critical of Zionism, mostly of the right-wing version, he unintentionally reproduces its normative discourse by urging critics, himself included, to “not wash the dirty laundry in public.” As Zadoff implies, this is the reason for Scholem’s harsh critique of Hannah Arendt’s “cold tone” in the debate following publication of her “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (published as a book in 1963).

In two letters Zadoff analyzes, he shows Scholem to “express himself emotionally, and in both [letters] debate Arendt’s argumentation, due to its commitment to left-wing German circles.” In other words, Scholem identified Arendt’s “coldness” toward her people with her willingness to share her critique with German Marxists and to see Zionism from the outside. When thinking about Scholem’s attack on Benjamin’s friendship with Bertolt Brecht, or his open disgust with Max Horkheimer’s Marxism, it is hard to miss Scholem’s own bias, or where his critique of Zionism fell flat in discursive terms. If that is the case, then any future research should pay attention to the gap between Scholem’s commitment to political and intellectual critique, and his commitment to the form of a “normative” discourse he objected to otherwise.

Undoubtedly, Scholem’s powerful impact and intellectual contributions will continue to occupy us, even haunt us. This exceptionally tall man with protruding ears called himself “a metaphysical clown,” and prepared his own legacy by planting hints and secrets in his own texts, thereby promising a wealthy suggestive world to his followers “[or at least ] those of them who have a sixth bibliographical sense which is a must for the keepers of secrets.” After all, he admitted to Weiss (in a letter written March 31, 1960), [“I have] planted signs like one of the figures hiding in the well-known paintings.”