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?