Did a Famed Kabbala Scholar Foresee Israel's Troubled Future?

In his new book 'Stranger in a Strange Land,' George Prochnik takes up all the big questions – the meaning of life and of being Jewish, the state of Zionism – with Gershom Scholem’s echo serving as a guide

A soldier removes Israeli flag from a house as troops forcibly evict Jewish settlers from homes they illegally entered in Hebron, January 22, 2016.
Reuters

“Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem,” by George Prochnik, Other Press, 544 pp., $27.95

In his new book about Gershom Scholem, the great kabbala scholar, George Prochnik has created a masterful meditation on exile, and the search for one’s home in the world, set firmly against the ballast of history and Jewish identity within it. A beautiful tapestry of historical, personal and intellectual threads, Prochnik takes up all the big questions – the meaning of life and of being Jewish, the state of Zionism – with Scholem’s echo serving as a guide but not an absolute authority.

Like in his previous book, about Stefan Zweig, Prochnik provides an account of his subject’s life and intellectual development, and suffuses it with wider meaning and the implications of their trajectory. Prochnik vividly explores Scholem’s transformation into the modern world’s foremost kabbala scholar, and his outsized legacy. Prochnik writes that, “Harold Bloom, the literary critic, went further still, declaring that, for many contemporary Jewish intellectuals, ‘the Kabbalah of Gershom Scholem is now more normative than normative Judaism itself. For them, Scholem is far more than a historian, far more even than a theologian. He is no less than a prophet.’”

Taking on Scholem was clearly personal, and to an even greater degree than his book on Zweig, “Stranger in a Strange Land” is both biography and memoir. It is a deep excavation of Prochnik’s own life and Judaism, with home and exile, identification and alienation, past and present constantly reflecting and defining one another.  

Unlike Zweig, who felt Vienna flow in his veins and was devastated by exile, Scholem never felt at home in early 20th-century Berlin. Born Gerhard Scholem in 1897, from an early age, he felt that Jews were not equal partners in German society, openly defying his father’s claims to the contrary and his strident assimilation. Scholem was drawn to the aura of authenticity the Ostjuden arriving in Berlin offered, with their unapologetic embrace of tradition and defiance of middle-class German convention. He also began contemplating where and how Jews could rediscover their home in the world, and Zionism seemed the only logical response. He found answers in Martin Buber’s framing of contemporary Jews as Oriental, suffering through a tortuous Occidental diaspora that could only be reawakened in Palestine. In Scholem’s eyes, “[Buber] diagnosed and combated the ‘illness, distortion, and tyranny’ of a disfigured Judaism in exile.”

Buber also appealed to Scholem by providing a model of Judaism that did not necessitate being observant. While Scholem sought a deeper connection with Judaism than his father, the strict observance of Orthodox Jews did not resonate with him either. As Prochnik writes, Scholem had a “romantic revolutionary disdain for Jewish law, coupled with the vision of visceral faith he embodied.” In his search for a good Jewish “fit,” Scholem tried on various organizations and institutionalized ways of being Jewish, including Young Judea and very briefly Agudat Israel. The latter was far too religious, and the former was not quite Jewish enough.

Gershom Scholem
National Library of Israel

Still, for Scholem, the success of any Zionist project hinged on a fully realized, meaningful Judaism that was grounded in history and humanism, but informed by a Jewish spirituality. His journey toward a richer Jewish dimension began with the discovery, in a bookstall near a synagogue in Berlin, of a copy of the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. The book’s appearance in his life came amid the destruction of WWI and what to many was a radical upending of the rules of the modern world.

Europe’s youth was especially shattered – literally and figuratively – leading many to search for profound new truths that would mend their world and reject the failure of their fathers. Apocalypse and utopia both seemed within reach. And as Prochnik writes, “The messianic expression of this revolt was peculiar to its Jewish proponents. This new form of messianism was simultaneously secular and religious. It involved the repudiation of orthodoxy, or the nontheological Judaism of the middle classes, and of the religion of personal revival championed by Martin Buber. In place of these, Jewish artists, intellectuals, and activists found their own paths to the conviction that everything had to change.”

Walter Benjamin was another major catalyst in Scholem’s intellectual and spiritual transformation. The two met in 1915, when Scholem was 17 and Benjamin 23, marking the beginning of their intense influence on one another. In Scholem’s pursuit of the multiplicity of meaning through kabbala, Benjamin’s own journey into language and symbolism also gained clearer contours. The book beautifully recounts the forces of their friendship, transmogrified by the events of history and their own desire to reconcile their place within it.

Living responsibly, inside history

Worshippers of kabbala, or Jewish mysticism, at a conference in Tel Aviv.
AP

Prochnik deftly weaves in his own experience of looking for a moral, spiritual and professional foundation – his own search for a personally meaningful life in the modern world. His longings and experience offer a regular refrain to every question Scholem wrestled with and sought to answer: the meaning of coming to Israel to live as a Jew; finding personal meaning in embracing a more fully Jewish identity; trying to reconcile the problems of Israel, and the modern world more generally, by grappling with one’s own connection to Judaism, its history and spirituality. And not unlike Scholem, Benjamin opened a door for Prochnik who found Gershom through reading Walter first.

Prochnik folds his and Scholem’s stories into their experience with Zionism. Scholem’s biography extends from the seeds of Zionism to their eventual flowering and complex afterlife, from his immigration to Palestine in 1923, when he changed his name to Gershom, until his death in 1982. Prochnik, who converted to Judaism as a young adult, turning to the faith and culture of his father’s Viennese origins, moved to Israel in 1988, eventually leaving in 1996. For both, the survival of the Zionist project relies on an honest engagement with the spiritual foundations of Judaism, and the imperative of “living responsibly, inside history.”

Both also chased a religious anarchism that allows for a direct and personal connection to God, without the shackles of dogmatic law. For Scholem, the study of kabbala enabled this. As Prochnik writes, to Scholem, “Kabbalah preserved the frame of monotheism while shattering the idol of monolithic truth.” Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish mystic and rabbi from Safed, considered the father of modern kabbala, captured how it opened the gate to Jewish identity: “Every word of the Torah has six hundred thousand ‘faces,’ that is layers of meaning or entrances, one for each of the children of Israel who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Each face is turned toward only one of them; he alone can see it and decipher it. Each man his own unique access to Revelation.”

Prochnik and his then wife, Anne, arrived in Israel somewhat seduced by a place that appeared to provide an antidote to the disappointing excess of 1980s ”Greed is Good” New York. It also seemed to offer the only avenue toward realizing an individually defined Jewish identity. Rather than having to join a congregation with a collective character, Jerusalem and the Jewish state seemed to house the full multiplicity of Jewish expression. Yet, not unlike Scholem, Prochnik increasingly found himself alienated by the changes of the city and country surrounding him: Jerusalem becoming more observant, and less tolerant of those who are not; Israel becoming more materialistic, more emulative of America and, tragically, also more nationalistic and fanatical.

When Scholem arrived in Israel, he was also seduced – but by his own blueprint for a spiritual Jewish experience and its translation into Zionism. He staked out a permanent claim for kabbala through his post at the newly founded Hebrew University, becoming its first professor of Jewish mysticism and almost singlehandedly transforming it into an academic discipline. This fusion of spiritual, historical and modern, in Palestine, seemed a manifestation of the path he was charting.

However, Zionism’s own agenda superseded his. The violence in Palestine in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and the growing tide of Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms, and then the Nazis, increasingly shaped the Zionist camps. The Zionism Scholem sought and recognized faded before it had a chance to fully form – if it ever really had a chance. He was a member of Brit Shalom, the short-lived group that sought a peaceful coexistence with the Arabs and a binational state. However, the group, which never numbered more than a 100, but included Jewish giants such as Arthur Ruppin, Martin Buber, Hugo Bergmann, and Henrietta Szold, and had the support of Albert Einstein, never quite lived outside its own intellectual bubble. It certainly did not include Arab voices or even really engage with them. Scholem’s own involvement with Brit Shalom mostly served his own visions of Zionism, rather than a real desire to fight for peaceful coexistence. As Prochnik writes, “The course of his later life suggests that for Scholem, ‘getting to Zion,’ also required looking past the physical setting of Palestine.”

Author George Prochnik
Elisabeth Prochnik

While he remained outspoken about Israel’s political trajectory, especially the dangerous role of messianism, Scholem withdrew from any real political activity, behind the doors of his massive library. But his thoughts resonate even today, like when Scholem asked “whether or not Jewish history will be able to endure this entry into the concrete realm without perishing in the crisis of the Messianic claim which has virtually been conjured up – that is the question.”

Scholem seemed to accept that his answer to exile may not be complete, or even an answer. In 1930, in a poem titled “Encounter with Zion and the World,” he wrote, “The dream twists into violence/and once again we stand outside/and Zion is without form or sense.”

Yet despite Scholem and Prochnik’s pessimism about modern-day Israel, the book, at its heart, seems a search for undiscovered possibilities. The book is impressively, almost impossibly, erudite – all texts, subjects, people and histories are explored at the service of opening more doors and meanings. It is easy to see why Scholem and kabbala took hold of Prochnik – their kaleidoscopic potentialities make it possible to live within history and the somewhat dire predicament of our world. As Prochnik writes toward the end of his book, Scholem fundamentally believed, “This absolute freedom to reinvent its nature was the definition of the Jewish historical project.”