“Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah” by David Biale— Historian and Thinker

Biale, David. “Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah”, (Jewish Lives) Yale University, 2018.

Historian and Thinker

Amos Lassen

As part of their Jewish Lives Series, Yale has published a new biography of the seminal twentieth-century historian and thinker who pioneered the study of Jewish mysticism and deeply influenced the Zionist movement.

Writer David Biale approaches Scholem by attempting to understand him from within. Through diaries and letters, he enters the inner life and sees him not only as a thinker and writer but also as a man, a human being. At the same time, he looks at Scholem’s most important writings and integrates them into his life. Hence, we see the man as the extraordinary thinker that he was and as a person like us, passionate and paradoxical (in the same way that he described Judaism).

Growing up, Scholem’s name was frequently heard in our home and he was the topic of many discussions, some of which became quite heated. Scholem lived from 1897-1982 and was, in the opinion of many, perhaps the foremost Jewish intellectual of the twentieth century. The key word here is Jewish since his studies were about Jewish topics and although there were other philosophers writing at the time (for example, Hannah Arendt, a great thinker), they were not always concerned with Jewish issues. Scholem pioneered the study of Jewish mysticism as a legitimate academic discipline and he is obviously remembered for that as well as for overturning the rationalist bias of his predecessors and revealing a wonderful and extraordinary world of myth and Messianic thought.

Today, some thirty-five years after his death, his importance remains and he is still considered a giant of Jewish thought. Other historians were firmly convinced that Judaism was a religion of reason and they ignored myth and the idea of a Messiah and Scholem showed them wrong by restoring myth to the religion and giving it a radical new definition, one which contained contradictions and paradoxes and both the rational and irrational. He showed that Judaism was not dogmatic but was rather made up of whatever Jews thought or did even if demonic or foolish. Scholem broke away from the frame of academia and presented a new and revolutionary way to think about Judaism that is still used today and in the Jewish intellectual community his star shines brightly while others have faded with time.

With his memoir “From Berlin to Jerusalem” (1977), Scholem presents a powerful narrative of Jewish history with his embrace of Zionism and his rejection of his “bourgeois German Jewish roots”. He said that the Jews of Germany had lived an illusion of “German-Jewish dialogue” and only those who became Zionists could see through this. Looking at Scholem’s Zionism we see his critique of it even though it brought him to what was then Palestine in 1923. He completely defended the right of the Jews to build their own society while he criticized Zionism for not renewing Judaism. He was an intellectual, he was political and he was a cultural and perhaps because of these his thought has endured. Once in Palestine, he participated in the creation of the Hebrew University, and was a leading figure there for almost seventy years.

I personally find it fascinating that there is a great renewal of interest in both Scholem and Arendt but if you are not familiar what went down between the two then you certainly need to read this.

Contemporary Zionism is facing a deep moral and political crisis today and some of what Scholem had to say might seem to be from a different reality. He argued for an inclusive definition of Judaism and today we see a battle between secularism and Orthodoxy in the Jewish world. In this we find the relevance of Scholem.

David Biale takes us through Scholem’s political activism and cultural criticism, including his falling-out with Hannah Arendt over the Eichmann trial. We see that inner life in his most important writings. He lived through two world wars, the rise of Nazism, and the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. To say that I love this book is jut not enough.

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