Book Review: Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah

Professor Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) of the Hebrew University – arguably the greatest Jewish scholar of the 20th century – considered himself an archeologist. No, not the kind of person who digs into the history-laden soil of Israel, but rather one who delves into the Jewish religious tradition that Scholem described as “a field strewn with ruins.”

Scholem described his life’s work as “…the modest but necessary task of clearing the ground of much scattered debris and laying bare the outlines of a great and significant chapter in the history of the Jewish religion.”

And what was the “great and significant chapter” Scholem discovered? It was the dazzling, dangerous, and demonic world of religious mysticism, especially the Kabbalah.

Jewish religious leaders of the past, he argued, had deliberately buried the rich treasure trove of anti-rationalist writings and mystical speculations that focused on messianism, restoring a shattered world (tikkun olam), and gaining an intimate relationship with God unencumbered by oppressive legal regimens.

In his biography of Scholem, Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah (Yale University Press, Jewish Lives Series), author David Biale, the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California-Davis, not only captures Scholem’s scholarship, but also his personal involvement in the major issues, conflicts, tragedies, and triumphs of Jewish life during the last century.

Scholem, the youngest of four brothers, was born into a highly assimilated German Jewish family in the same year Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress. He father was a successful printer who deliberately “went to work on Yom Kippur and made a point of not fasting.” The Scholem parents had a family Christmas tree; “a symbol of German culture” they explained to their children. 

The four sons represent a “remarkable snapshot” of pre-World War I German Jewry. The eldest, Reinhold, became a staunch German patriot. The more conventional Erich joined his father’s printing company. Werner became a leading left-wing politician and a Communist deputy in the Weimar Republic’s Reichstag during the 1920s and was later murdered by the Nazis.

Gerhard became a fervent Zionist at an early age. His Ph.D. studies in Germany contained Scholem’s translation of a twelfth-century work of early Kabbalah. In 1923, he left Berlin for Palestine, renounced the German Kultur of his youth, though in later years Scholem wrote academic articles in his native language. After making aliyah, he changed his first name to Gershom and moved to Jerusalem’s Rehavia section; his home until his death.

Biale succinctly describes Scholem’s active love life, which included two marriages but produced no children. At the heart of Biale’s biography, though, is how Scholem used his cantankerous personality, charisma, and superb scholarship to permanently transform the study of Judaism by breaking the monopoly that rationalists and Talmudists had employed for centuries to define and dominate Jewish religious thought and practice.  

Biale maintains that Scholem himself was not a mystic or a devotee of the Kabbalah. He was, however, attracted to two of the most famous false messiahs in Jewish history: Shabbatai Zvi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791). The former disappointed his many followers by converting to Islam, while the latter disillusioned his supporters when he became a Christian.

I found the most intriguing parts of the book Scholem’s complicated and ambivalent relationships with four well-known German-speaking Jewish intellectuals: Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Hannah Arendt, and Walter Benjamin. 

Scholem criticized Buber’s pioneering writings about Hasidism and Rosenzweig’s complex theology. Benjamin, his closest friend, disappointed Scholem by promising again and again to learn Hebrew and move to Jerusalem, but did neither. Benjamin committed suicide in Spain in 1940, a bitter personal loss for Scholem.

But it was Arendt, another longtime friend and a former Zionist official in Europe, who drew Scholem’s greatest private and public ire. The source of his fierce anger was Arendt’s series of writings in the 1960s about the Eichmann trial.  When Scholem read her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, he “exploded.” Arendt, writes Biale, “blasted David Ben-Gurion…for staging a show trial …and [she] portrayed Eichmann as ‘banal.’”

Scholem charged that Arendt “lacked ahavat yisrael [love of Israel]” and as having no “understanding of the relationship between the Jewish state and the Holocaust.” When she died in 1975, the Scholem-Arendt break remained unhealed.

A final and more personal note: My wife Marcia and I heard Gershom Scholem deliver one of his last public talks during the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1981 convention in Jerusalem. I, of course, knew then he was an intellectual giant, and now, in his excellent new book, David Biale has told us why.

Rabbi A. James Rudin is the former head of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs and author of seven books, most recentlyPillar of Fire: A Biography of Stephen S. Wise.