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The paradoxical intellectualism of Gershom Scholem

Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) is widely known as the founder of the academic study of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah. In the nearly thirty-five years since his death, Scholem’s star has continued to shine brightly in the intellectual firmament and perhaps even more brightly now than in his lifetime. This year alone, two books about Scholem are appearing in English, with a third scheduled for next year, and several more in the pipeline. What accounts for this growing fascination with a figure whose field of research was highly esoteric, and inaccessible to those without specialized knowledge?

The answer to this question is both sociological and intellectual. Scholem occupied an unusual place among German intellectuals of the twentieth century. A committed Zionist, he left Germany for Palestine in 1923. But, from a cultural point of view, he never really left. He continued throughout his long career to write and publish in German. When Hitler came to power, and a flood of German Jewish refugees came to Palestine, Scholem played a central role in the intellectual circles of the intellectuals among them, such as Hans Jonas, George Lichtheim, and Martin Buber. But Scholem also forged strong friendships with intellectuals who found refuge in America, notably Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt. Although he and Adorno differed on many issues–notably dialectical materialism–they found much common ground, since Scholem was deeply rooted in German philosophy and literature, in addition to the Jewish tradition. He may have made his home in a Middle Eastern backwater, but from his apartment in Jerusalem, he inhabited a dense network of intellectuals stretching from Europe to America and beyond. Indeed, at times it even seems as if he was at the center of this network.

The rhetorical passion with which Scholem wrote is another reason why his work continues to speak so powerfully to readers. Consider, for example, the conclusion of his 1937 essay, “Redemption Through Sin,” on the messianic Sabbatian movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:

Even while still “believers” – in fact, precisely because they were “believers” – they [the Sabbatians] had long been drawing closer to the spirit of Haskalah all along, so that when the flame of their faith finally flickered out they soon reappeared as leaders of Reform Judaism, secular intellectuals, or simply complete and indifferent skeptics … Those who survived the ruin were now open to any alternative or wind of change; and so, their “mad visions” behind them, they turned their energies and hidden desires for a more positive life to assimilation and the Haskalah, two forces that accomplished without paradoxes, indeed without religion at all, what they, the members of “the accursed sect,” had earnestly striven for in a stormy contention with truth, carried on in the half-light of a faith pregnant with paradoxes (“Redemption Through Sin,” in Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York, 1971), 140-141).

Gershom Scholem in 1935 by Jonund. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Gershom Scholem in 1935 by Jonund. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We have a sense here of a scholar able to inhabit the minds of his subjects and convey the inner contradictions and paradoxes of their beliefs. Although more recent scholars may have challenged any number of his conclusions, Scholem’s extraordinary prose continues to give his work its compelling quality.

Finally, Scholem’s own philosophical and metaphysical struggles cannot be divorced from his historical research. From his youth, he was obsessed with questions of language and silence. God, he thought, was hidden and inaccessible, his revelation wordless and, by itself, meaningless. Only the tradition, the sum-total of all responses to that revelation in human language, gave it meaning. Scholem found these same ideas in the Kabbalah, for whom the Infinite God was hidden and unknowable. He believed that Franz Kafka, the writer with whom he most identified, had described in a secular language the same mystical insight. Kafka, like the Kabbalists, walked a “fine line between religion and nihilism.”

And what of Scholem himself? Hardly a nihilist, he was nevertheless fascinated by those aspects of religion that threaten to destroy the world that gave them birth. Sabbatianism, that rebellion against rabbinic law, was a paradoxical product of the Kabbalah, a mystical movement that challenged the very religion out of which it grew and thus ushered in the modern world. For Scholem, such paradoxical and dialectical movements were necessary to propel history, but they were also extraordinarily dangerous since they could destroy everything in their wake. Small wonder that Scholem believed that Zionism drew its vital energies from the messianic tradition, but that it could only succeed if it neutralized those energies before they exploded it from within. And so it was that a scholar of an esoteric tradition came to warn his contemporaries that the tradition he studied could not be safely relegated to the past, since its nihilistic potential could still break forth in a secular world.

Featured image credit: Scholem Jewish mysticism archive in the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, photo by Haimlevy. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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