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’s essays, poet­ry, and fic­tion have appeared in numer­ous jour­nals. He has taught Eng­lish and Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem, is edi­tor-at-large for Cab­i­net mag­a­zine, and is the author of In Pur­suit of Silence: Lis­ten­ing for Mean­ing in a World of Noise and Put­nam Camp. He lives in New York City.