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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.