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Stuck Between Berlin and Jerusalem

What kind of Zionist was Gershom Scholem?

Shaul Magid
March 10, 2015
Offenbach, Germany: Professor Gershon Scholem from the Hebrew University aids in the identification of rare Hebrew manuscripts.(Yad Vashem)
Offenbach, Germany: Professor Gershon Scholem from the Hebrew University aids in the identification of rare Hebrew manuscripts.(Yad Vashem)

The great scholar of Judaica and Kabbalah Gershom Scholem once wrote, “Sometimes one must learn how to read books against their declared intentions.” When I first came across this passage in graduate school I thought it captured the very essence of scholarship. Part of the skepticism that is endemic to the scholarly enterprise and differentiates it from more confessional approaches is to try to understand what texts mean at the very same time one does not take them at their word. Reading Noam Zadoff’s new book in Hebrew, From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back: Gershom Scholem Between Israel and Germany (Carmel Books, 2015) made me think one can, perhaps one should, apply Scholem’s quip about reading books to Scholem himself as this is precisely what From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back does. Besides telling the story of the illustrious and complicated life of Gershom Scholem, Zadoff’s book compels us to look more closely at that which ostensibly stood as the pillar of Scholem’s life: his Zionism.

There is little doubt that Gershom Scholem was a Zionist. He proclaimed it in adolescence and retained that identity throughout his life. But what kind of Zionist was he? And how did his Zionism change from a utopian Zionism in the 1920s to a more complicated Zionism as the state began to mature and then take on a new more problematic form after 1967. How are we to make sense of Scholem’s increasing interest in European intellectual life after the war? Were his frequent trips to Europe simply a way to escape the austerity of Israeli life, or does it suggest a more substantive shift in his intellectual orientation? And how would his identification as a Zionist apply in 2015?

I never knew Scholem, but, like many, I have a personal story nonetheless. I was a student at the kabbalistic yeshiva in Jerusalem Yeshivat Ha-Hayyim ve ha-Shalom from 1982 to 1984 under the tutelage of the renowned kabbalist Rav Mordecai Attia. I heard that Scholem had died on Feb. 21, 1982, and the funeral was to commence just as Rav Attia’s daily shiur in Lurianic Kabbalah was to begin promptly at 3 p.m. I thought about skipping class to attend Scholem’s funeral but, as I was then still very much in the Haredi world, even though I instinctively knew it was an important moment, I decided against it. But perhaps as an act of rebellion, or just curiosity, before class began I turned to Rav Attia and said, “Did you know Gershom Scholem died today?” He looked at me dead-pan and responded, “If you mention his name again you will have to leave the room.” Then he smiled widely through his long beard, opened his book, looked at me, and said “read.” We never spoke of it again. In retrospect, I think Scholem would have appreciated Rav Attia’s response.

Zadoff’s From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back is essentially the first biography of Gershom Scholem, arguably one of the most important Jewish figures in the 20th century. As others have written what might justifiably be called biographies, let me explain what I mean. Having created the academic sub-discipline of Jewish mysticism, Scholem was also a leading intellectual in Israel from the time of his immigration from Berlin to Palestine in 1923 until his death in 1982. While there have been numerous important studies on Scholem’s scholarship and thought in the United States, Israel, and Germany, no one has yet attempted a full-length biography of Scholem the man, that is, his life outside academe. Most previous studies, written by David Biale, Joseph Dan, Eliezer Schweid, Andreas Kilcher, Peter Schafer, and Gary Smith, among numerous others who wrote essays and chapters on Scholem, construct Scholem’s life from his immense scholarly oeuvre. While this is certainly important, and these studies remain valuable, Scholem was, in fact, more than a scholar. He was a bourgeois German-born member of the Third Aliyah to Palestine (1919-1923) who, like many of his Third Aliyah companions, experienced the devastation of hyper-nationalism in Germany during World War I, was swept up by Zionism as the solution to the “Jewish problem,” and was charmed by the charismatic persona of Martin Buber. Free of family obligations and financial responsibilities, Scholem immigrated to Palestine in 1923. While Scholem largely abandoned political activism quite early in his adult life in the wake of the Arab riots and then the Hebron massacre in 1929 (he returned later in life to write a few important essays on the subject), his identification as a Zionist remained extremely important to him. Yet Scholem’s Zionism was always laced with ambivalence and even discontent.

While Scholem was often quite defensive about Israel to a non-Jewish public, in the wake of the Six-Day War and the ensuing occupation perhaps he became more openly critical or perhaps openly ambivalent about the ideology that served as the backbone of his adult life. In a lecture he gave in Geneva in 1969 reminiscing about his past that was published in German in 1970 and later published in English in 1976 as “Israel and the Diaspora,” Scholem remarked, “It is certainly true that throughout my life I believed in the re-birth of the Jewish people through the Zionist movement, but within the framework of that belief—which nonetheless in oh so many an hour, threatened to dissolve because it struck me as deceptive—I belonged much more to the group of those who posed questions rather than to those who knew how to give answers.” Later in the same lecture we read, “Ever since its above-mentioned origins, however, this great achievement [Zionism] has contained built-in contradictions which are eminently significant precisely for the questions we are now posing and pondering, and which it would be completely impossible to pass over in silence.”


From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back provides a window into Scholem’s ambivalence, melancholy, disappointment, and even psychological discarding of what Zionism had wrought. Focusing on a detailed analysis of a very complex and extraordinary life, the book is also a window into the world of the German Jewish intelligentsia who emigrated from Germany to Palestine in the 1920s. There has been much scholarship about the more romantic Second Aliyah that built the physical and ideological infrastructure of the country with its socialist ethos, romantic connection to the land, and kibbutz work-ethic. And, of course, in the 1930s and 1940s world Jewry was understandably focused on Mandate Palestine as a necessary refuge for those Jews lucky enough to escape war-torn Europe. The Third Aliyah stood between these two periods. It was a fascinating time in that many who came, especially from Germany, did so not because they had to but because they wanted to and had very different expectations about where they were going and very different feelings for what they were leaving behind.

What Zadoff shows in his story of Scholem’s life is that many of these intellectuals (Scholem in particular) were never able, nor did they desire, to abandon their “Germanness” and continued to return, in thought and in person, to Germany, even after the Holocaust. And, as important, their ties to their prewar Germanness and its cosmopolitan and humane inclinations had deep implications in the work they produced. Even though Scholem is famous for his disparaging critique of the myth of the German-Jewish dialogue, his life exhibits a nonpolitical but intellectual and cultural dual-allegiance to Germany, something that was easily lost in the following generations of native-born Israelis. The Third Aliyah immigrants, at least those in Scholem’s circle of friends and colleagues, had no desire for such erasure, even as some may have claimed that they did, and they balked at having to make a choice between their origins and where they chose to make their home. Israeli scholar Avraham Shapira noted in an essay on Scholem that some time after his death Scholem’s wife Fania had to change the original gravestone to a more permanent one. On the new stone Fania added three Hebrew words under his name. “Ish Aliyah Shelishit” (“A Man of the Third Aliyah”).

As opposed to their Second Aliyah compatriots (1903-1914), David Ben-Gurion, Rabbi Abraham Kook, and Aaron David Gordon, three of its great exemplars, those Third Aliyah immigrants who came from middle-class families in Germany (the Russians who came in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution were a different breed) differed in at least two ways: First, they were largely not interested in agricultural work or physical labor; and second, many like Scholem retained strong connections to their countries of origin that did not easily dissipate in the harsh conditions of early 20th-century Palestine. Moreover, the utopianism that often charged these young Zionists often led to feelings of disappointment as the dream of a Jewish renaissance gave way to the tedious and often banality of statecraft. Many became disillusioned and left. Scholem stayed.

Zadoff shows that Scholem embodied the very dialectic he so cogently described in the texts he studied; his Zionism gave birth to its own critique and his choice to settle in Palestine/Israel included his repeated attempts to repatriate to Europe, surely not physically but emotionally, psychologically, and even to some extent, intellectually. His Zionism often seemed laced with disappointment and even melancholy. In a meeting with Rolf Tiedemann in Germany in 1981, in the wake of an incident between Menachem Begin and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Tiedemann asked Scholem about the solution to the Palestinian problem. Scholem responded, in Tiedemann’s words, “in a low voice full of fatigue,” “Today there is no longer any solution.” Scholem’s wife Fania similarly noted, albeit in a dialectical fashion, “In his final years he was very hopeless. I think he died of hopelessness. He said that now the only thing that remained was hope.”


The Holocaust looms large in Scholem’s life as the event that both made his Zionism necessary and also the event that undermined his utopian hopes. Zadoff’s chapter on Scholem’s response to the Holocaust is to my knowledge the first sustained attempt to examine this event in the life of a man who wrote prolifically about almost every major event in Jewish intellectual history, and many contemporary events as well, and yet never wrote directly about the Holocaust. It is well-known that Scholem traveled around Europe after the war largely in search of discarded Jewish books and suffered months of depression as a result. Zadoff claims there is much more to say about the impact of the Holocaust on Scholem’s work that contributed to his later ambivalence about the future of Jewish civilization in Israel.

Some of this surfaces in one of Scholem’s more eloquent and also acerbic essays “Reflections on Modern Jewish Studies,” written in Hebrew in the fall of 1944. The essay presents a scathing critique of the early phases of Jewish Studies known as Wissenschaft des Judentums as an apologetic and largely uncreative attempt to present Judaism to the gentile world. One of my favorite lines from that essay has Scholem describing the fathers of modern Jewish Studies Leopold Zunz and Moritz Steinschneider, among others, as “giants in terms of their knowledge and pygmies in terms of their insight.” The failure of Wissenschaft for Scholem was that it was built as an apologetic rendering of Judaism that did not contribute to the cultivation of a renewed Jewish life after emancipation and intentionally marginalized those aspects of Judaism that did not fit their assimilatory project. This was contrasted with what he felt was the potential of a new kind of Jewish Studies in Mandate Palestine. “The purpose of the new Jewish Studies (Hokhmat Yisrael) in the generation of re-birth is to construct a new picture of the history of the Jews void of any apologetics toward the non-Jewish world.” This is certainly the general Zionist attitude of Scholem’s contemporaries such as Yizhak Baer and Yehezkel Kaufmann. For Scholem, this is where Zionism could truly be revolutionary.

But Scholem’s initial positive appraisal of the new Jewish Studies is dismantled in the essay itself. He viewed the rise of Revisionism and its militarism and the “Palestinio-centric” nature of Jewish Studies in the years before the state as a thorn in the side of his more expansive and complex Zionist vision. He wrote, “We came to rebel and found ourselves simply continuing.” What he meant, I think, is that Jewish Studies did not become unapologetic in Mandate Palestine but rather continued its apologetics in a different direction. Now it became Zionist apologetics. In this same period Ben Zion Dinur, a colleague of Scholem who later became the first education minister of the State of Israel, noted that all Jewish history was now “Zionist historiography.”

The year this essay was written is not inconsequential. Although the full story of the Holocaust had not yet been revealed, by 1944 Scholem, like many others, knew of the utter devastation of European Jewry. Zadoff argues that the pessimism that pervades this essay is not only about the past foibles of Jewish Studies in the 19th century but about what was happening in 1944. Zadoff writes, “The pessimism of this essay, the passivity and judgment in regards to the situation in which it was written, is the failure of Jewish Studies in the generation of re-birth to change or innovate anything from the generation that preceded it.” Reflecting on a letter Hugo Bergman wrote to Natan Rotenstreich in October 1944 about Scholem’s essay, Zadoff writes, “[Bergman] understood the essay as relating to the realm of the political and not only the historiography of Judaism and Zionism.” For reasons that still remained somewhat unclear, for Scholem the generation of re-birth, the generation that should have given Jews hope in the wake of utter devastation, had not given birth to anything new in terms of the study of Judaism. It had just changed the subject of the apologetic enterprise. In dialectical fashion, Scholem was, of course, both guilty and critical of that enterprise.

Scholem’s pessimism about the future of Zionism in light of the Holocaust, but even before, complicates previous studies on Scholem that argue that he remained unequivocally devoted to Zionism. Zadoff shows that while this may be true in a formal sense, like many among the German Jewish immigrants in the Third Aliyah, Scholem continued to maintain his Zionist commitments with deep ambivalence about the state that Zionism created. While Scholem continued to defend Israel and Zionism to the outside world, his own feelings, as indicated in his correspondence, along with many of his Third Aliyah colleagues, were far more complicated.

It is important to note that the Zionism of many of these German-Jewish Third Aliyah immigrants was fully formed before the Holocaust and before the establishment of the state in 1948. It was often a utopian Zionism formed in the Diaspora as a solution to the “Jewish problem” that plagued emancipated Jews. Many were not statists per se, for example Scholem and Bergman were early members of Brit Shalom which was openly binationalist. (Scholem resigned from Brit Shalom after Arab riots and the 1929 Hebron massacre and largely exited political activism.) Many did not support the establishment of a nation-state as the quintessence of their Zionist ideology even as many did finally supported it. Most preferred the Zionism of Ahad ha-Am to that of Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau, and even David Ben-Gurion, to say nothing of Zeev Jabotinsky whose vision arguably dominates Zionist discourse today. Many, like Scholem, were cultural Zionists and hoped Israel would become a beacon of intellectual and spiritual creativity founded on Hebraism and the analysis and adaptation of Jewish texts to the modern world. Instead, even early on and certainly as time went on, particularly after 1967, what they found was a different kind of society that became wed to a growing hypernationalism that many of these intellectuals viewed as dangerous precisely because many had experienced the dangers of such nationalism in Germany during WWI. It is for this reason, perhaps, Scholem called the emerging settlement movement, which troubled him greatly, as a new kind of Sabbateanism.


In the waning decades of his life Scholem’s attention increasingly turned to Europe, especially Germany, accepting numerous awards, delivering lectures, and engaging with its scholars. Zadoff exhibits how Scholem became a strange kind of hero among the German intelligentsia. For many he represented a Germany before it was irrecoverably changed by the Nazi period. He spoke with a Berliner accent that few remembered, a German that was unaffected by Nazism and preceded Weimar—a relic of a Germany that many Germans could be proud of.

Instead of being repelled by such attention in a country that only decades before sought to annihilate his people, Scholem seemed to relish the attention and accepted lecture invitations and awards that enabled him to often return to the land he abandoned as a young adult. One can see his continued interest in Europe in the ongoing correspondence he had with his student Joseph Weiss who left Israel in 1952 for England. These letters were recently published in a volume edited by Zadoff. In this sense, Zadoff’s book argues that the portrait of Scholem that was the subject of previous studies does not consider the extent to which his attachment to his German past, and his Berlin youth, remained with him throughout his long career. It is in this sense that Zadoff’s depiction of Scholem reads him “against his own intentions.”

One of the more curious illustrations of this thesis is the oddity of Scholem’s publication of his memoir, From Berlin to Jerusalem, which he wrote in German and published in Germany in 1977. Written toward the end of his life, the memoir ends with his immigration to Palestine in 1923 and his appointment to the Hebrew University in 1925. When asked in letters if another volume was in the making, Scholem responded that he doubted it. Scholem’s self-fashioning articulated in the book’s title From Berlin to Jerusalem suggests a unidirectional trajectory of one who has found his true home in the Holy Land. Yet the book, and the title of Zadoff’s book From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back, seems to defy that uni-directionality. In fact, Scholem’s notion of place and home was much more dialectical, much more complex, than he acknowledges. Firstly, the memoir was written in German and not Hebrew when Hebrew was already the lingua franca in Israel. By 1977 most Israelis, and certainly the generation born in Israel, were no longer able to read German. In fact, most Jews in the Diaspora were unable to read German. Second, it was published in Germany and not in Israel. We can assume, then, that the memoir, the only one Scholem wrote, was written for a German gentile audience, telling them a story of one of their own who chose to make his home elsewhere but still thought it was significant to write his story for them.

Post-state Zionism could never match the utopian Zionism of Gershom Scholem’s youth

Scholem’s choice to publish in languages other than Hebrew was not limited to his memoir. In fact, Scholem’s 1957 book Sabbatei Zevi: The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676 was the last monograph he published in Hebrew. Every book after that was written either in German or in English (he continued to publish scholarly essays in Hebrew as well as other languages and collections of previous essays appeared in Hebrew). His book of the story of his friendship with Walter Benjamin was written in German in 1975 and not translated into Hebrew until 1987. One could certainly posit that Scholem felt that these other languages held the possibility of a wider audience, and this would be true (although by that stage in his career any book he wrote in Hebrew would likely be translated), but it may also be true that his voluntary abandonment of the Hebraism that so permeated the Zionism of his youth speaks to something more than pragmatics.

Another chapter in Scholem’s life that is worthy of note in Zadoff’s depiction of his relationship with Hannah Arendt. Most people know of that relationship through an exchange of letters between them after the publication of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem where Scholem accused Arendt of lacking “ahavat yisrael” (a love of the Jewish people). In fact, as Zadoff notes, the exchange around Arendt’s “Zionism Reconsidered” published in Commentary Magazine in 1944 where Arendt offers a scathing critique of statist Zionism and argues that its statecraft was undermining the ethical foundations of the Zionist project is much more significant and substantive. It is true that Scholem broke off ties with Arendt after Eichmann in Jerusalem mostly because of Arendt’s not-so-subtle claim of the complicity of certain Jewish leaders with the Nazis, a sad episode that later historical documentation proved largely to be true. In any event, the more interesting disagreement between Scholem and Arendt was around her “Zionism Reconsidered” essay. Here we see a battle of two Jewish intellectual giants regarding the existence of Jews and Judaism after the Holocaust. Zadoff calls their relationship “a dialectic between closeness and distance,” that eventually collapsed after the Eichmann trial. Zadoff shows that Scholem argued, against Arendt, that “Zionism and Erez Yisrael” was a necessary political solution after the Holocaust that even included, as Scholem wrote in a letter to Arendt in 1946, “buying Jews from the Gestapo.”

Yet on matters of Zionist statecraft, for example, regarding David Ben-Gurion’s policies, Scholem and Arendt were often quite close, and Scholem’s respect for her was apparent not only in his letters to her but in the way he referred to her in letters to others. In dealing with the Nazis, Scholem was far more pragmatic than Arendt who remained principled even if it meant potentially, and temporarily, passing up opportunities that Scholem reluctantly endorsed. Although Zadfoff does not make this claim, one wonders if this earlier disagreement between Scholem and Arendt on the extent to which Jews should engage with the Nazis may have informed Scholem’s break with Arendt in regard to Jewish leaders who were complicit with the Nazis in the hope that such complicity would save Jewish lives. In any case, what Zadoff shows in his examination of Scholem and Arendt’s views on matters of Jewish existence in light of her “Zionism Reconsidered” essay, is the extent to which he considered her an important interlocutor in matters related to Zionism. If we only look at this relationship backward, beginning with its final rupture after Eichmann in Jerusalem, we easily miss the more important and subtle dimensions of their mutual respect and also certain similarities in their respective criticisms of Zionism.

The German Jewish intellectuals of Scholem’s era served as a bridge between the 19th-century architects of the Science of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums) and the 20th-century Hokhmat Yisrael all combined with a renewed sense of hope through Jewish nationalism (Zionism) that then became a reality with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The physical dislocation from a cosmopolitan Germany to what was an almost premodern Palestine that had no solid cultural foundation was not easy for figures like Scholem. The home he abandoned—and continued to imagine—soon went up in the flames with the Holocaust yet even then he could not let it go because, in some sense, his adopted home (Israel) could never match the Berlin of the naughts, teens, and early ’20s of the 20th century (real or imagined) and post-state Zionism could never match the utopian Zionism of his youth. And so he seemed caught in a fascinating bind of his own making. Rather than succumbing to the melancholy of a kind of psychological homelessness (while living where he always dreamed of living), Scholem wrote groundbreaking studies in Kabbalah and Judaica and became one of the most important Jewish figures of the 20th century.

Zadoff certainly makes a strong claim regarding what I am calling Scholem’s “persistence of Germanness,” but the literature itself makes this a plausible reading in my view. An iconic figure and a beacon of modern Jewish scholarship, Scholem also became a cipher for many who learned from him. He was created and re-created in the image of those who sat at his feet or crafted their intellectual lives through his work. That he was a Zionist there can be little doubt although today the term has arguably lost much of what it meant in Scholem’s own time. He was equally critical of the secularization of Hebrew, of rising militarism, of maximalist religion, of messianism, socialism, and of vapid secularism. Perhaps Franz Kafka, someone Scholem greatly admired, hit precisely the right chord when he wrote, “I despise Zionism. And I despise anti-Zionism.”


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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible The Talmud and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.