George Prochnik is the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, a 2014 National Jewish Book Award winner. With the release of his new biography 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.
Before the Armistice — before his own 21st birthday — Gershom Scholem had decided that Jewish history in Europe was finished. At least in so far as Jews aspired to any vibrant, purposeful existence as Jews (outside of Orthodox ghettos), the Jewish people were done in the Diaspora. Partly this was due to antisemitism, which Scholem didn’t see as physically dangerous, but which meant that Jews would always, ultimately, be held in contempt by the European community, excluded from the ranks of fellowship, and denied integral value.
More enraging to him than German treatment of Jews, however, was the way the Jews themselves had responded to their classification as undesirable aliens. Instead of seeking justice for themselves, they’d sought to erase their distinctive identity. As he would later write, the Jews “struggled for emancipation — and this is the tragedy that moves us so much today — not for the sake of their rights as a people, but for the sake of assimilating themselves to the peoples among whom they lived.” Indeed, in their effort to assimilate, the Jews had made themselves into caricatures of the very demographics that repudiated them. They had thrown away their birthright as children of the Prophets to become respectable burghers in a cruel, crude, materialistic society bent on destroying human individuality as such.
In revolt against everything around him, beginning with his own family home, the adolescent Scholem became an arch-pacifist and a socialist-anarchist. Then he discovered Zionism.
Zionism as a concept was still in formation when Scholem first joined a branch of its youth movement in Berlin. If not quite a tabula rasa, the cause was yet porous and elastic enough that he could project onto it the values and ideals that most stirred his spirit. Scholem’s youthful Zionism was not a state-building project, but an effort to renew and radicalize Judaism as such. He saw Zionism as opposed in its essence both to the slaughter of the war and the shopkeeper mentality that had so degraded German Jews. In his eyes, it was a humanistic endeavor aimed at returning the Jews’ spiritual life to history by reestablishing their ethical world-mission as “a kingdom of priests.”
Scholem himself longed to emigrate to Palestine not to form a state on the Continental model, then, but to leave that whole failed world of nation building behind and reinvigorate the people through a new kind of social experiment in the Levant. He never got very far in articulating what exactly this Zionist settlement should look like. But he strongly opposed private ownership of land in Palestine, while advocating for a loosely socialist economic system that supported the larger objective of high cultural and scientific achievement. Scholem appeared to impute a kind of magical power to the mere fact of Jewish society being reconstituted on the soil of the original homeland — away from Europe. The land itself would work wonders on the Jews’ spirits because of its historical resonance. Present-day Palestine, and Jerusalem in particular, afforded prospects as open and undefined as early Zionism itself.
In pursuing his lofty, if blurry, agenda, Scholem had no intention of usurping either political sovereignty or property from the Arabs already living in the land. But the very notion of a nonpossessive, cultural Zionism also reflected the way the land existed in Scholem’s imagination far more vividly as an idea than as a rocky tract of the real world. To the extent that he thought about the Arabs at all, Scholem assumed that since both the Jews and the Arabs were Oriental peoples, eventually they would become partners in the enterprise of turning Palestine into a crucible for the creation a new humanist society, uncontaminated by Europe’s soul-crushing materialism. He subscribed to the position articulated by his close friend and intellectual muse Walter Benjamin, who’d once written that the Great War revealed how the European powers found the purpose of all technology in turning a profit and mastering nature. As a result, technology had betrayed humanity and turned Mother Earth into a bloodbath. In his Zionist euphoria, Scholem changed his name from Gerhard to Gershom. Gershom means, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the name that Moses gives to his son after his first flight from Egypt for, Moses says, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Germany was Scholem’s Egypt.
Gershom Scholem’s rejection of German culture and embrace of his Jewish identity was accompanied by a rigorous effort to educate himself in the canon of Jewish sacred literature. While still in his first youth, he acquired fluency in Hebrew and devoted himself to the study of Talmud and Scriptures, through both solitary studies and the tutelage of Orthodox rabbis. For a brief time, he flirted with becoming Orthodox himself. But Scholem could not believe in the literal transmission of the Torah at Sinai, and so felt unbound by the authority of the Law. Moreover, he viewed the orthodox community as static, whereas he himself sought to be part of a dynamic, historical dialectic. But what alternative to strict ritual observance was there for someone seeking spiritual authenticity within Judaism?
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.
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