Gershom Scholem is, for many students of cultural studies, something of a spectral figure, best known mainly by indirection given his close and often-cited friendship with the much better known Walter Benjamin. Their relationship leads many to shorthand Scholem’s vast scholarly contributions, often by passingly referring to his lifelong interests in kabbalistic mysticism – thus, for Benjamin students trying to figure out whether his perspective was mainly Jewish theological or Marxist philosophical, Scholem’s belief that WB was mainly an adherent of Jewish messianism who mistranslated it into Marxist vernaculars contends with alternative accounts, such as Jurgen Habermas’ view that in trying to reconcile Marxism and Judaism, Benjamin was simply attempting the impossible.
The relationship with Benjamin was of course a significant one and my point isn’t to disparage it – his first meeting with Benjamin in July 1915 is often cited as a turning point for both young men, and WB and his wife became substitute parents to Scholem (“Dora,” wrote GS, “will be my mother”) in a way that even seemed to survive subsequent intellectual disillusionment. But others episodes probably mattered more (GS himself wrote in 1937 that “the most decisive period” was 1916 to 1918), including the weird decision of Scholem’s father to throw him out of the house (a day after having lunch with Gershom — then actually called Gerhard — the father mailed him a certified letter telling him to get out in two weeks). Arthur had had enough of the son’s bookish obsessions and as the patriarch of an assimilationist family was also appalled by Gershom’s strong interests in Zionism. These interests were less political than culturally essentialist, rooted in the view that Jews were animated by different spirits than others and that Zionism’s main contribution was to reanimate Jewish identity. His interests in kabbalism were partly prompted by his efforts to conceptualize the great narratives of Jewish history, later articulated in his big books: Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941) and Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (1957). But more than this, Scholem was offended by the efforts of some German/Jewish historians to rationalize Jewish experience as a way (he felt) to make it non-threatening – he found this move the equivalent of “the suicide of Judaism.”
This tragedy that many smart cultural critics know so little about Scholem is only now being undone by the publication of Scholem’s early diaries (Harvard University Press has released the 1913-1919 diaries in a volume edited and translated by Anthony David Skinner of of a German-language two volume set first appearing in 1995 and 2002). Scholem died in 1982 after an acclaimed career – in the late 1960’s he was made president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, for example, and received the Israel Prize. But these late honors can risk obscuring the more human drama of his early years – his painful separation from family, his exodus from Germany in 1923, the production of his well received dissertation, his arrival in Jerusalem at age 25 (astonishingly, only two years later at Hebrew University he was named the first Professor of Jewish Mysticism, although some might also point out that HU had just been organized). My own interest arose after reading an essay by Daniel Weidner called “Reading Gershom Scholem,” which appeared in the Jewish Quarterly Review (Spring 2006, pgs. 203-231).
Apart from the particular interests of those connected to Jewish theology or history (on his death, Hyam Maccoby called Scholem “the foremost Jewish scholar of our age”), why should Scholem be more closely read today? One reason lies in his own conflicted relationship with European modernism. Given important recent work that sees European modernism as hopelessly constituted out of anti-Semitism (which is a major argument of Jeffrey Alexander’s recent book on civil society), and given attempts to square modernism’s larger themes with attention to mysticism, or to put it more mundanely, to the possibilities of mystery in a world dominated by rationalism, Scholem offers an instructive intellectual path. As one reviewer (Paul Reitter) has put it, contrasting Scholem with Nietzsche, “One of the leitmotifs in Major Trends is the dialectic of rational and irrational tendencies within the Kabbalah, and although Scholem once stated that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra always left him cold, one can find diary passages in which he praises the book, tries to emulate its style, and expresses a desire to ‘write a Zarathustra for the Jews.’” He thus “saw in all forms of Jewish mysticism a paradox of rebellion and conservatism” (Maccoby, pg. 39). As Robert Alter has argued, speaking of this relationship, “Scholem’s ability to see meanings in the myriad manifestations of Jewish mysticism and the power with which he repeatedly evoked what these mystics had wrought from the perspective of an embracing vision of culture and its relation to spiritual reality explain why his work has commanded such broad interest, as has the work of no other specialist in this esoteric field.”
SOURCES: Paul Reitter, “Irrational Man: Gershom Scholem’s Decisive Years,” Harper’s, May 2008, pgs. 87-94; Lamentations of Youth: The Diaries of Gershom Scholem, 1913-1919, edited and translated by Anthony David Skinner (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007); Abraham Socher, “Revelation in the Ropck: Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem and the Stones of Sinai,” Times Literary Supplement, 21 March 2008, pgs. 13-15; Hyam Maccoby, “The Greatness of Gershom Scholem,” Commentary 76.3 (September 1983): pgs. 37-46; Robert Alter, “Scholem and Modenism,” Poetics Today 15.3 (Fall 1994): 429-442; David Kaufman, “Imageless Refuge for All Images: Scholem in the Wake of Philosophy,” Modern Judaism 20 (2000): 147-158.