Gershom Scholem, 30 Years On

By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thirty years after his death at age 84, Gershom Scholem casts a long shadow.  The field he created, the modern study of Jewish mysticism, has grown beyond him, yet his work remains the indispensable foundation. His writings continue to appear—most recently, his correspondence with his disciple Joseph Weiss.  Scholem mixed exacting textual research with rich historical and philosophical sweep, deep Zionism with liberal politics, secular Jewishness with the most esoteric beliefs and texts.  His high-voltage mix of dogged philology and psychological drama, drawn on a bigger historical and metaphysical canvas than almost any dramaturge could have imagined, still exerts a deep fascination.  

Several weeks ago, Hebrew University, in whose development he played a formative role, marked his 30th yahrzeit with several days of discussions of the man and his legacy.  The topics were as wide-ranging as he was, including magic in antiquity, early medieval mysticism, the Lurianic Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, Hasidism, and Zionist intellectual history, and the list could have been longer. Some of the most fascinating presentations concerned not Scholem's kabbalistic research as such but other facets of the man.

One of those facets, discussed by the great paleographer and historian of the Jewish book Malachi Beit-Arieh, was Scholem's book collecting, the stuff of legend. Arriving in Jerusalem in 1923 with 2,000 volumes, at his death, he left 20,000 to Hebrew University and Israel's National Library.  One of the National Library's first librarians, he traveled to Europe after World War II to retrieve the Jewish books that survived the Nazis and was among the first to grasp the need to create a microfilm library of the manuscripts holding the hidden treasures of Jewish history.

Then there was Scholem's Zionism.  The writer and kibbutz historian Asaf Inbari observed  that Scholem's enterprise negated the "negation of the Diaspora," classic Zionism's view that the New Jew could take what he needed from the Bible, leapfrog over 2,000 subsequent years of Jewish history, and land securely in the present.  Zionism would have to reckon with Judaism, Scholem thought, including its darker, even demonic dimensions, while the religious would have to deal with the myth, sensuality, and freedom deep within the tradition.  Precisely because Scholem was so schooled in the history of messianism, he feared its effects on politics—and knew that a blithe dismissal of the non-rational forces in human history was a dangerous delusion.

There was also Scholem's interest in literature.  Attendees at the yahrzeit enjoyed a screening of a little-seen interview of Scholem, by literary critic Dan Miron, focusing on Scholem's long friendship with writer S.Y. Agnon.  The novelist, Scholem said, paid dearly—by outwardly maintaining Orthodox practice—to enjoy freedom in his art, where he mordantly chronicled the tradition's demise and subverted its pieties for the sake of some deeper, almost inarticulable, perhaps hopeless religious truth.   

But it is for his scholarship that Scholem is remembered—as his early inspiration and later sparring partner, Martin Buber, put it, his practice of "scientific research as introduction to consciousness."  Scholem's intensive bibliographic mapping, meticulous editing and publication of texts from manuscript, and historical reconstruction of obscure but influential doctrines and movements, along with his broader synthetic works and interpretive essays, created a richly persuasive Jewish religious history, a powerful alternative to the received pictures from Orthodoxy, conventional Zionism, and German 19th-century Jewish studies. So dazzling was his scholarship that it took several decades to understand the partial nature of the picture he painted. 

In 1988, Moshe Idel's Kabbalah: New Perspectives inaugurated the first wave of post-Scholem scholarship.  Revising Scholem's picture of steady dialectical progression, Idel showed how clusters of concepts, held together in the loose harness of the tradition, came into higher or lower relief over time in response to changing circumstances and circulating ideas. He also foregrounded the experiential dimension downplayed by Scholem; and his yahrzeit lecture presented a more complicated picture of Scholem's own development by considering that angle, through his treatment of Idel's chief historical interlocutor—the 13th-century contemplative Abraham Abulafia, a contemporary of the Zohar circle.  Abulafia's prophetic mysticism, grounded in meditative techniques, stands in oblique relationship to the kabbalistic tradition as depicted by Scholem, concerned less with experiences than with ideas.  Early on, Idel said, Scholem engaged deeply with Abulafia's experiential mysticism—before moving toward echt historical scholarship, more decisively after the final death of enchantment in the Second World War.  Scholem erased the traces of his engagement with Abulafia in his English memoirs, allowing them to emerge only in the Hebrew edition he prepared shortly before his death.  Idel showed that Scholem's study of the Kabbalah, diverse and existential at the outset, grew more historically founded in an attempt to find coherence where history had left randomness and destruction.

The newest kabbalistic scholarship is further revising Scholem's, and even some of Idel's, views.  Jonathan Garb's Shamanic Trance in Modern Kabbalah explores inner territory that Scholem placed out of bounds.  In a sophisticated mix of textual scholarship and theoretical and comparative analysis, Garb illuminates swaths of seemingly inaccessible religious experiences through the much-used word "shamanism"—for Garb, "a term capturing diverse forms of transformative empowerment," where meditation leaves off and trance begins.  Tracing traditions of trance from canonical kabbalists like Hayyim Vital and Moshe Chaim Luzzatto to the Hasidic masters, he challenges Scholem's relegation of the experiential to secondary status. Scholem was fundamentally uninterested in halakhah, seeing Kabbalah as a hidden revolt against it; hence his fascination with Sabbatianism, in which he saw a precursor to Zionism.  Garb shows that while this relationship may have characterized medieval Kabbalah, for many Hasidim the trance's transformation of consciousness was part and parcel of their ritual and halakhic life, an attempt to suffuse the law with mystical experience.  Indeed, this investment of the mundane with transcendent significance—what philosopher Charles Taylor has called the "affirmation of ordinary life"—is a key marker of modernity.

Another new volume is by the brilliant young historian Jonatan Meir, who deftly uses the lives of books, pamphlets, journals, wall posters, and circulars to rewrite Jewish cultural history.  Having treated the Galician Haskalah's anti-Hasidic satires, Hillel Zeitlin's Polish neo-Hasidism, and Rav Kook, Meir has now unearthed the seething renaissance of Jerusalem kabbalists in the first half of the 20th century—when, Scholem wrote (with an almost audible sigh of relief), traditional Kabbalah had breathed its last.  Yet, Meir shows, those decades saw a surge of new yeshivot, publishing, and projects including expeditions to Tibet to seek the Ten Lost Tribes, as kabbalists were stirred, however idiosyncratically, by the Jewish national revival.  Scholem was not alone here; Meir notes that those who sought to draw on Kabbalah and Hasidism to shape a distinctly modern Jewish thought and identity—Buber, Zetilin, even Heschel—were precisely those who were most invested in traditional Kabbalah's passing from the scene, so that its freed energies could become part of the modern spiritual project.

Riffing on Terence's famous maxim, Scholem wrote, "Nothing Jewish is alien to me."  For him, Jewishness was part and parcel of humanness.  A lifelong Zionist and man of the Left, a keen critic of the excesses of nationalism and perils of messianism, the ability to combine a stubborn love for this people with a critical intelligence about its stranger chapters and darker temptations is one of his lasting gifts.


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