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The Truth Seeker

The work of Gershom Scholem

Adam Kirsch
April 09, 2008

Early in 1917, as the Great War dragged into its third year and Germany suffered the food shortages of the so-called “rutabaga winter,” three young Jews struck up a friendship in Berlin. Zalman Rubashov, then twenty-seven years old, was born into a Hasidic family in Russia, but had come to Berlin before the war to train as a historian. His next-door neighbor at the Pension Struck was Gerhard Scholem, a native Berliner, who had recently been kicked out of his family’s home for his outspoken Zionism and anti-war views. (His father Arthur, an assimilated businessman who had the habit of using the Shabbat candles to light his cigar, informed Gerhard of his expulsion by registered letter, which was delivered as the family sat together at the dinner table.) Soon after finding refuge at the pension, Scholem met Shmuel Czaczkes, a native Galician who had lived in Palestine for several years before the war. Scholem’s first glimpse of the budding writer came in the library of Berlin’s Jewish Community Council, where he saw Czaczkes poring over the Hebrew card catalogue—looking, as he later explained, “for books that I have not read yet.”

Each of these young men knew that Berlin would not be their home forever. They had their sights set on Palestine, where in fact they all ended up after the war. Yet none of these friends could have imagined that their future lives would demonstrate so vividly the dreamlike course of Jewish history in the twentieth century. In 1917, there was no Jewish state and barely any modern Hebrew literature, and the history of Jewish mysticism was a closed book. Yet Zalman Rubashov, under his new name of Zalman Shazar, would become the third president of the State of Israel; Shmuel Czaczkes, writing in Hebrew as S.Y. Agnon, would win the Nobel Prize for his fiction; and

Gerhard Scholem, after changing his first name to the Hebrew “Gershom,” would become famous as one of the greatest scholars of the century, thanks to his pioneering studies of Jewish mysticism.

Ordinarily, the fame of a scholar could not hope to rival that of a leading statesman or a great artist. Yet today it is Scholem, who spent his entire adult life on the faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who remains the most influential and fascinating of these three figures. That is because scholarship, in Scholem’s hands, was something more than abstract theorizing or dry research. In books like Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism and Sabbatai Zevi: The Mystical Messiah, and in the essays he published in Hebrew, German, and English, Scholem resurrected a whole dimension of Jewish thought and history that had been lost in a secular, “enlightened” age.

Fighting against what he called the “censorship of the Jewish past,” Scholem demonstrated that the most questionable elements in Jewish mysticism—messianism, apocalypticism, antinomianism—could also be the most fruitful and creative. Even a traditionally execrated figure like Zevi, who in the seventeenth century managed to convince much of the Jewish world that he was the messiah, appeared to Scholem as the bearer of a crucial strain in Judaism, “the Messianic activism in which utopianism becomes the lever by which to establish the Messianic kingdom.” Scholem’s fascination with such subversive figures and ideas stemmed from his conviction that “the Jewish people as a whole was very much alive; it was more than some fixed structure, let alone something defined or definable by a theological formula.”

By this definition, everything produced by Jews is Judaism, including Scholem’s own scholarship. For more than a few nonobservant or nonbelieving Jews, reading Scholem offers a more authentic way of experiencing Judaism than going to synagogue. No wonder his influence can be seen everywhere in contemporary Jewish literature, to the point that golems and gematria have become standard props in Jewish American fiction.

Because Scholem’s writing, for all its objective rigor, feels so personally engaged, his life has always been a source of fascination. What enabled this product of a thoroughly assimilated German Jewish family to remake himself as a devoted Zionist? And what spiritual experiences lay behind his impassioned study of Jewish messianism? For there is clearly something more than detached analysis at work when Scholem defines the messianic urge as “transcendence breaking in upon history, an intrusion in which history itself perishes, transformed in its ruin because it is struck by a beam of light shining into it from an outside source.” Such poetic writing, in which it is never quite clear where metaphor ends and metaphysics begins, underlines Scholem’s deep intellectual affinity with the critic Walter Benjamin, his youthful mentor and his closest friend. Benjamin and Scholem each infused a secular genre of writing with obscurely religious passions. As a result, each of them seems to belong as much to the history of Judaism as to the history of literature.

Scholem told the story of his early life in his short memoir From Berlin to Jerusalem, and that of his relationship with Benjamin in Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. Yet these books, which shed so much light on Scholem’s intellectual development and his Zionist milieu, are at the same time unmistakably guarded. Written in a cool, concise style, deliberately antisentimental in their treatment of intimate relationships, Scholem’s memoirs are the products of a mind holding itself at a careful distance. Typically, when he writes about the way his father expelled him from the family, Scholem does not describe any feelings of anger, resentment, or betrayal. Instead, he dismisses the episode in one curt sentence: “There was a great uproar.”

That is why the publication of Scholem’s youthful diaries by Harvard University Press, under the apt title Lamentations of Youth, comes as such a revelation. These passionate, tumultuous, deeply moving journals document the most important phase of Scholem’s life—the years 1913 to 1919, as he grew from a fifteen-year-old boy into a twenty-one-year-old man. This was the period when Scholem first discovered the subjects and ideas that would consume his adult life; it is also when he first became acquainted with Benjamin, and established the cult of friendship that would last until his death. To look on as Scholem evolves his highly personal understanding of Judaism and Zionism is like watching a painter lay down the first tentative strokes of what will become a masterpiece.

Yet if that metaphor suggests a preternaturally confident young man, following a definite plan in life or thought, it is misleading. For the strongest impression left by Lamentations of Youth is of Scholem’s great confusion about the path he should follow, in life and in thought. His ultimate destination was never in doubt: By the time he started these journals, Scholem was already a committed Zionist, absolutely certain that his destiny lay in Palestine. This conviction came to him so early, and remained so unwavering, that it seems like a religious vocation. Already in November 1914, a month before his seventeenth birthday, we find Scholem issuing Zionist ultimatums to the world: “Give us the earth back, ye gods and men! You’ve taken it away from us long enough. We want our property back!”

The uncertainty lay, rather, in the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that lay between Scholem’s actual life and the authentically Jewish life he yearned for. Everything in his immediate environment was against him. He had virtually no Jewish education: The journals show him painstakingly teaching himself Hebrew, finding a rabbi to study the Talmud with, and finally combing libraries for books on Kabbalism. At home, of course, Scholem got no support for these efforts. On the contrary, his father looked on his Zionism as scarcely better than his brother Werner’s Communism. Writing to Gerhard in 1921, when his doctoral studies were already well advanced, Arthur Scholem sneered, “Three cheers for Hebraica and Jewish studies—but not as a career! Take my word for it: if you don’t change course you will experience a bitter shipwreck.”

Scholem returned this contempt with interest, and the journals are full of bitter attacks on his parents and relatives. “My parents’ way of life is unbearable,” he writes in 1918, “and there can be no return to living in their house.” We can hear in such passages a standard teenage rebellion, but with Scholem, this grew into something much more—a virtually ideological hatred of the German Jewish bourgeoisie and everything it stood for. “With irrevocable lucidity, truth, and clarity,” he writes at the age of eighteen, “I’ve gradually come to the realization that I don’t fit in with these people here, these German Jews. .&nbsp. . One mustn’t speak to the bourgeoisie about God. There shall be no peace with them, says the Lord.”

What made Scholem’s isolation even more extreme was that he was living in a Germany whose traditional chauvinism had just been sent into overdrive by the First World War. Scholem’s refusal to mention the war in these journals—his insistence that the cataclysm had nothing to do with his own life—is an indirect testament to its power. For most of the period documented in Lamentations of Youth, Scholem lived under the threat of conscription into the German army, where he would at least lose several years of study, and very possibly get killed. That was the fate of his close friend Edgar Blum, whose death in combat was a terrible blow to Scholem, not least because Blum was a fellow Zionist: “In him we had someone who carried around inside an inner formation of the strongest potential…I have no question in my mind that the source of his inner calm…was that he was a Zionist in the true sense of the word (to the extent that one can be in Zion before it’s built).”

The paradox hinted at in this entry—how to be a Zionist in a world where Zion remains, in the eyes of most people, a mere fantasy?—suggests the other, subtler challenge facing Scholem during wartime. All around him, German Jews were volunteering for army service as a way of proving their patriotism. To his profound disgust, even the Zionists succumbed to war fever: In 1915, the Judische Rundschau, a Zionist newspaper, declared, “We went off to war not in spite of being Jews, but because we were Zionists.” In such a climate, it took a rare kind of courage for Scholem to decide, as he put it, to “avoid suffering the fate of dying a hero’s death for the German fatherland.” When he was finally conscripted, in 1917, he decided to feign mental illness in order to win a discharge. It was an ordeal he hated to remember or write about: “I will not leave any written account of my time in the military,” he writes in his diary in August 1917. “This, the central test of my Zionism, has proven that Zion is stronger than violence.”

The psychological consequences of this episode were profound. At a time when almost every man his age was in the army, it was imperative for Scholem to prove, to himself and the world, that it was Zionism and not cowardice that led him to such apparently ignoble actions. This is one reason why, as the journals go on, Scholem’s conception of Zionism becomes ever more passionate and demanding, until it finally approaches the plane of mysticism. His Zionism was not just a political principle, and it was only incidentally related to the building of Palestine: “If I didn’t want to go to Zion,” he wrote, “I wouldn’t go to the land of Israel.” For Scholem, Zionism was a spiritual commitment to Jewish renewal, a totalizing ambition with decidedly messianic overtones: “because I know that Zion is the absolute truth. .&nbsp. . I measure all things against it. My credo is that Zion is the measure of all things.”

Lamentations of Youth is a record of what that credo cost Scholem. No one he knew could live up to the purity and intensity of his Zionism—“Only entirely pure people can develop this unity,” he wrote—and one by one he cast them out. His family was the first casualty, but even many of the friends he made through Jewish youth groups and Zionist organizations disappointed him: None of them loved Zion the way he did. By July 1919, near the end of the diaries, Scholem’s Zionism has become a monkish discipline, not a link to his fellow Jews but a wall shutting them out: “Thinking about it correctly, we Zionists live in a state of silent renunciation incapable of articulation… People become impure from living outside of this renunciation and not wanting to live within it. Our hearts are being ripped apart by our shameless epoch in which people throng around us, screaming out their mindless freedoms. We are victims, and a person is sadly misguided if he thinks he’s not.”

Yet if the Scholem of the diaries was a victim in many ways—lonely, painfully self-conscious, and afflicted with sexual neuroses of a kind scarcely imaginable in our more liberated age—he was also in training to be a victor. If he hadn’t passed through the emotional cauldron so vividly evoked in Lamentations of Youth, he could not have given Judaism and the Jews so much to sustain them through the ruptures of the twentieth century. “Jewish scholarship,” he writes in 1919, as though in prophecy of his own future career, “is in an especially paradoxical and indeed extremely enviable position. It is not that it invokes spirits that refuse to come. Quite the opposite: Jewish scholarship expends its full efforts at turning away the invoked spirits, just as it denies that they’re there. But the spirits come anyway. They are always there. Always. And they want to be redeemed through the work of insightful scholars.”

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.