Ger­shom Scholem: From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back

Noam Zad­off

  • Review
By – November 19, 2018

I will present myself … as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a Berlin­er, and as a schol­ar of Kab­bal­ah,” wrote Ger­shom Scholem, accept­ing an invi­ta­tion to lec­ture in 1981. Today, some forty years lat­er, Scholem remains a sig­nif­i­cant force in Jew­ish thought, with four biogra­phies in Eng­lish pub­lished since 2017 – two of the most recent being Ger­shom Scholem by David Biale and From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back by Noam Zadoff.

Scholem found­ed the mod­ern aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­pline of kab­bal­ah and Jew­ish mys­ti­cism, sub­jects that had not been con­sid­ered wor­thy of study before his ground­break­ing work. Through his teach­ing at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, his lec­tures (in three lan­guages), and exten­sive writ­ings, Scholem demon­strat­ed that these eso­teric texts were a vital part of Judaism and its his­to­ry, cast­ing light on what many deemed the dark and irra­tional side of the reli­gion. Embrac­ing these myth­ic and demon­ic ele­ments, to use Scholem’s phrase, broke open the con­fines of Judaism, broad­en­ing its scope and restor­ing an imme­di­a­cy that the ratio­nal­i­ty and laws of con­tem­po­rary Judaism had sapped.

David Biale, Emanuel Ringel­blum Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, draws exten­sive­ly on Scholem’s let­ters and diaries to reveal his per­son­al life. Ger­hard Arthur Scholem was born into a sec­u­lar Ger­man Jew­ish fam­i­ly in 1897. After his bar mitz­vah in a Reform syn­a­gogue, he prac­ticed Ortho­doxy for a while, turn­ing his back on his family’s assim­i­lat­ed life. As a teenag­er and young man, Scholem was almost fero­cious­ly engaged in Jew­ish activ­i­ty — he learned both clas­sic and mod­ern Hebrew, mas­tered a broad range of Jew­ish texts, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in Ger­man-Jew­ish youth groups that looked to cul­tur­al Zion­ism to revive Jew­ish life. He start­ed sign­ing some of his let­ters Ger­shom.” Dur­ing this peri­od, he also came under the influ­ence of Mar­tin Buber and began his friend­ship with S. Y. Agnon and oth­er lead­ing Jew­ish thinkers. Soon, he start­ed read­ing about Jew­ish mys­ti­cism; for his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion, he trans­lat­ed and anno­tat­ed an obscure twelfth-cen­tu­ry kab­bal­is­tic work. These years of youth­ful study, activism, and tumult — Scholem had a con­tentious side, often dis­agree­ing with his youth group fel­lows and open­ly crit­i­ciz­ing Buber — laid the foun­da­tion for his career. Soon after arriv­ing in Pales­tine in 1923, Scholem began work­ing at what is now called the Nation­al Library of Israel and, upon the open­ing of Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, won an appoint­ment at its Insti­tute of Jew­ish Stud­ies. For the next forty years that posi­tion was his base for research and teaching.

Zad­off, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies and His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Indi­ana, begins his intel­lec­tu­al biog­ra­phy in 1923, the year Scholem made aliyah. Zadoff’s sub­ti­tle plays on the title of Scholem’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy From Berlin to Jerusalem (1980); the pull of these two cities ani­mates Zadoff’s biography.

After World War II, Scholem was assigned to a mis­sion to exam­ine and sal­vage Jew­ish books and man­u­scripts stolen dur­ing the war. Because most of the orig­i­nal own­ers of the mate­ri­als had died, the mis­sion aimed to relo­cate the books and man­u­scripts in what is now the Nation­al Library of Israel. The trip had a great impact on Scholem; it brought him face to face with the Holo­caust. The dev­as­ta­tion ulti­mate­ly thrust him into depres­sion. But he also met the psy­chol­o­gist Carl Gus­tav Jung, who was sus­pect­ed of Nazi sym­pa­thies, and in this and his sub­se­quent rela­tion­ships with Ger­mans and the Ger­man gov­ern­ment, Scholem often based his deci­sions on par­tic­i­pa­tion on their affil­i­a­tion with Nazism. Leo Baeck, the promi­nent Ger­man rab­bi and sur­vivor of There­sien­stadt, assured Scholem of Jung’s remorse, and thus began Scholem’s long asso­ci­a­tion with Era­nos, an annu­al schol­ar­ly dis­cus­sion group in which Jung played an impor­tant part. He resumed schol­ar­ly writ­ing in Ger­man and devel­oped active rela­tion­ships with Ger­man schol­ars and insti­tu­tions with the thought, pos­si­bly, of estab­lish­ing a dia­logue between Ger­mans and Jews. Zad­off sug­gests that under­ly­ing his post­war rela­tions and trips to Europe was the sig­nif­i­cant hold that Europe and Ger­many con­tin­ued to have on Scholem’s consciousness.

Zion­ism had been part of Scholem’s life since ado­les­cence, but his Zion­ism was spir­i­tu­al, not part of a nation­al or polit­i­cal move­ment. The con­cept of a Jew­ish state under­mined Scholem’s vision of Jew­ish revival based on cul­tur­al and his­toric val­ues, just as ver­nac­u­lar Hebrew betrayed the his­toric and reli­gious force of the lan­guage. How­ev­er, through let­ters from his moth­er in Ger­many, Scholem was high­ly aware of the sit­u­a­tion there, and in the ear­ly 1930s worked to bring schol­ars and friends, includ­ing Buber, to Pales­tine – despite his aver­sion to con­sid­er­ing Zion­ism a refuge.

These biogra­phies sup­ple­ment one anoth­er. Acces­si­ble and tight­ly writ­ten, Biale’s account of Scholem’s ear­ly life pro­vides per­son­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal back­ground that Zadoff’s biog­ra­phy does not cov­er; Biale presents a rich­er pic­ture of Scholem’s rela­tions with fam­i­ly and friends as well as his emo­tion­al and intel­lec­tu­al life. Zad­off gives a fuller depic­tion of Scholem’s pro­fes­sion­al life and his con­tro­ver­sial exchanges with promi­nent Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als, notably Han­nah Arendt, but also many oth­ers; his book is espe­cial­ly strong on Scholem’s life-chang­ing post­war mis­sion to Ger­many. And each biog­ra­ph­er views Scholem from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. The last chap­ter of Biale’s biog­ra­phy is titled The Sage of Jerusalem” and notes that Scholem, despite his reser­va­tions about the state of Israel, became a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al there, con­sult­ed on almost any sub­ject touch­ing the coun­try. The last sec­tion of Zadoff’s book is called Nos­tal­gia” and ends with the chap­ter Berlin Again,” which recounts Scholem’s recog­ni­tion of and fre­quent vis­its to Ger­many. Biale’s book, a vol­ume in the Jew­ish Lives series, is beau­ti­ful­ly indexed, mak­ing it easy to find mate­r­i­al on any sub­ject in the vol­ume; Zadoff’s has the advan­tage of a scat­ter­ing of illus­tra­tions, but the index is con­fined to names, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to locate spe­cif­ic top­ics. Read­ers will prof­it from either or both of these biographies.

Addi­tion­al Titles Fea­tured in Review

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions