The ProsenPeople

Continuous Transformations

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism and when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

For all their radicalism, the Kabbalists had avoided being consigned by more traditional rabbis to the status of heretics because they continued to accept the Revelation at Sinai and to observe the letter of the law. Just as Scholem’s own resistance on these points prevented his living as an Orthodox Jew, he felt that it was impossible for anyone to become a true kabbalist without faith in the irrefutable, Divine origins of Torah. In the absence of that authority, people had become “religious anarchists,” Scholem declared.

However, because Scholem’s view of Judaism was dynamically metamorphic, he did not see the end of formal Kabbalah shutting off the energy that had enabled Jewish mysticism to play its crucial role in Jewish history. Instead, he suggested that this same catalytic power might now be channeled into new forms of Jewish self-expression. Kabbalah could be understood as a potent, mythological dramatization of the experience of Jewish exile. But Zionism sought to achieve the physical end of exile. In this sense, one might say that Zionism sought to accomplish on the ground what Kabbalah had tried to conceptualize on the cosmic plane. Thus Zionist action might be thought of as the next iteration of the Kabbalistic strain in Jewish history. If the career of the seventeenth-century false messiah (which Scholem saw as the last substantive interlude of formal Jewish mysticism) had helped catalyze Jewish emancipation in Europe, the Zionist pioneers would free the Jews from Europe. Once the Jews got to Jerusalem, the possibilities for Judaism as such to reveal new, as yet unimaginable, modes of creative expression would be actualized.

Almost as soon as Scholem arrived in Palestine in 1923, his initial, largely utopian vision of what Zionism might accomplish began to darken. Over the next decade, as worsening conditions in Europe brought increasing Jewish immigration to the land, and reactionary forces under the leadership of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party gained power in the political arena—contributing also to the ideology of the Labor Party program—Scholem’s Zionist idealism underwent an almost total eclipse. To his horror, Scholem saw the same kind of jingoistic, bourgeois society forming around him in Jerusalem that he’d fled Germany to escape. In the midst of intensifying friction with the Arabs, Scholem helped form a group that worked to promote a binational solution in Palestine. But by 1932 this idealistic collective, too, had collapsed. Scholem’s original utopian Zionism became largely masked in his official identity as an internationally renowned humanist scholar, even while it continued to energize that project in a manner that echoed some of his thinking about what occurred to Kabbalah itself in mainstream Jewish history. He continued to elaborate on Kabbalah, on German-Jewish relations, and on the meaning of Israel relative to the Diaspora in ambitious books and essays for the remainder of his career. Striving to identify the integral, distinguishing character of Judaism he concentrated more and more on its boundless, protean quality. “Judaism cannot be defined according to its essence, since it has no essence,” he declared in one late essay. Moreover, he added, if Judaism couldn’t be defined in any dogmatic way, one could “not assume that it possesses any a priori qualities that are intrinsic to it or might emerge in it; indeed, as an enduring and evolving historic force, Judaism undergoes continuous transformations.” In the future, he concluded, it would be “necessary to rethink Judaism in broader terms, and in much broader terms than those of halakhic Judaism… How will a Judaism that evolves in a society of Jews work without taking refuge in traditional forms of ritual or of theology? I am not a prophet, but I welcome the struggle… because it will call forth the productive powers—whatever they are—of Jews.”

For many years, both consciously and unconsciously, my own life followed a kind of shadow-arc of Scholem’s path into Kabbalah and Zionism. Coming of age in America in the 1970s and ‘80s, I balked at what I saw as the culture’s dominant consumerist materialism, which the bellicose nationalism and merciless free market capitalism of the Reagan years only aggravated. My father, who escaped Austria after the Anschluss, had largely abandoned his Judaism to assimilate to life in the United States, which had given him refuge. But my own experience of the American suburbs left me with a lingering sense of absence—historical and spiritual. After moving to New York City in my early twenties, I began attending synagogue, learning Hebrew and studying the canon of Jewish sacred literature in pursuit of a spiritual counterpoint to that materialist vacuum. This deepening exploration of traditional Judaism occurred in tandem with the first years of my marriage, when my wife and I were thinking about starting our own family and about the sacred responsibility of bringing children into this world. What would we tell our children about God, faith and the meaning of existence we wondered.

We spent a number of years exploring different synagogues and different branches of Judaism; but never found in ritual observance the kind of intense, spiritual engagement we longed for. Early on in this process, I discovered the work of Gershom Scholem, whose name I’d become familiar with through reading about Walter Benjamin. Scholem’s interpretation of Kabbalah supplied exactly the jolt of intellectual excitement and sense of imaginative fecundity that had been lacking from my experiences of formal Jewish practice. Kabbalah’s boldness as an audacious, sometimes sublime reading of Jewish sacred texts and history was inspiring to me as a writer, since Jewish mysticism made the magical power of language the active vehicle of God’s own creative principle.

Exploring Scholem’s work and maintaining a loose involvement with a synagogue in Brooklyn, my wife Anne and I felt more and more inspired by Judaism. But we were no more able than Scholem had been to accept the absolute authority of the Revelation at Sinai. Orthodox practice still seemed foreign and stultifying.

The question of how exactly we would take our Judaism to the next level began to haunt us. We wanted more from the religion in line with the dynamic principles Scholem elaborated from kabbalistic texts, but we knew we couldn’t actually become kabbalists, so where did that leave us?

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

Related Content:

When Gershom Scholem Discovered Kabbalah

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Not long after embracing the embryonic Zionist movement, Gershom Scholem discovered the Zohar, often considered the core text of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah proved to be a kind of revelation for Scholem—one that grew in intensity as he went deeper in his exploration of mystical writings. This revelation was twofold.

First, in Scholem’s estimation, unlike the arbiters of mainstream Judaism, the authors of the great works of Kabbalah had undertaken a profound, creative engagement with the historical tragedies of Jewish history in exile. Kabbalah, from his perspective, was, indeed, nothing less thana kind of mythological key to understanding human misery in general, and the Jewish expulsion from Jerusalem and then Spain in particular. By creating a powerful symbolic language that resonated with the struggles of ordinary men and women, the Kabbalists gave meaning and purpose to the anguish of historical trauma.

To make sense of the human predicament, Kabbalah had dramatically expanded the concept of evil, projecting it beyond the human failing of sin into the very structure of the cosmos. Aspects of God Himself took on the character of evil when they were thrown out of balance by events in the primordial universe that predated the creation of humanity. Not only did Kabbalah provide a kind of visionary explanation for why the exile had occurred and why Jewish suffering persisted, the Kabbalah intertwined the roles of God and man so that humanity was assigned a dynamic role in rectifying what had gone awry in reality. Through prayer, ritual and a home life conducted with the profound ethical attention enjoined by Torah, man could now help God “fix” creation. The term popularized in Kabbalah, tikkun olam, meaning repairing or healing the world, became shorthand for the cosmic mission humankind was charged with.

Second, along with its strictly intellectual contributions, Scholem saw mysticism as a stage in the evolution of Jewish self-consciousness that made political action in the here and now appear possible. From Scholem’s perspective, mainstream Judaism and nineteenth century historiography alike were essentially quiescent projects, concerned with the conservation of the people’s age-old spiritual legacy. Whatever revolutionary principles might be enshrined in the idea of the Messiah’s advent, for all practical purposes the Messiah’s arrival was permanently on hold.

For several hundred years after the birth of those schools of mystical thought in early medieval France that Scholem designated as the first centers of Kabbalah proper, the Kabbalists, no less than their non-mystical brethren, lived quiet lives of study, prayer and writing. Their radicalism was a thought experiment, not an action. While they might have declared that their prayers were part of a titanic battle to wrest the sparks of holiness away from the realm of evil and so trigger the start of a larger cosmic revolution that would also end the Jews’ exile, an outsider observing the kabbalists in their famous sixteenth century center of Safed would have found little discernible difference between their behavior and that of other Orthodox Jews.

But in the mid-seventeenth century, a mystical false messiah by the name of Sabbatai Sevi arose in the Ottoman Empire and became a seismic phenomenon, galvanizing Jewish congregations across the Levant and huge swaths of Europe. Entire Jewish communities in far-flung towns and villages began the process of uprooting themselves to follow Sevi and help actualize the prophecy he delivered of restoring Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land and ushering in the era of salvation.

Scholem argued that the ideas of liberation fueling Sabbatai Sevi’s movement, combined with the communal effort to wrest physical control of Jewish fate by becoming active participants in the messianic revolution, planted the seeds for the Jews’ entry into modernity. Although Sabbatai Sevi’s movement unraveled with his conversion to Islam under pressure from the Ottoman Sultan, it succeeded in propelling the dream of the Jews gaining agency over their own destiny from the theoretical plane into the concrete realm of history. Scholem saw the legacy of Sabbatai Sevi embodied in certain figures from Jewish backgrounds who played important roles in the French Revolution—a number of whom were literal descendants of the Sabbateans—as well as in the rise of the Reform movement, which had likewise been partly conceived by influential figures in Sevi’s theological lineage.

Ultimately, Scholem felt that in Kabbalah he’d identified a neglected, explosive element in Jewish theology that could inspire new kinds of real-world ambitions for the Jewish people. As he wrote in one essay, “There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to which much of what is best in current Jewish self-awareness is indebted.”

Jewish history retold in the light of Kabbalah could potentially empower Jews to act on their Judaism as a living principle.

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

Related Content: