Ear­li­er this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Ger­shom Scholem dis­cov­ered Zion­ism. 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.

Not long after embrac­ing the embry­on­ic Zion­ist move­ment, Ger­shom Scholem dis­cov­ered the Zohar, often con­sid­ered the core text of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. Kab­bal­ah proved to be a kind of rev­e­la­tion for Scholem — one that grew in inten­si­ty as he went deep­er in his explo­ration of mys­ti­cal writ­ings. This rev­e­la­tion was twofold.

First, in Scholem’s esti­ma­tion, unlike the arbiters of main­stream Judaism, the authors of the great works of Kab­bal­ah had under­tak­en a pro­found, cre­ative engage­ment with the his­tor­i­cal tragedies of Jew­ish his­to­ry in exile. Kab­bal­ah, from his per­spec­tive, was, indeed, noth­ing less thana kind of mytho­log­i­cal key to under­stand­ing human mis­ery in gen­er­al, and the Jew­ish expul­sion from Jerusalem and then Spain in par­tic­u­lar. By cre­at­ing a pow­er­ful sym­bol­ic lan­guage that res­onat­ed with the strug­gles of ordi­nary men and women, the Kab­bal­ists gave mean­ing and pur­pose to the anguish of his­tor­i­cal trauma.

To make sense of the human predica­ment, Kab­bal­ah had dra­mat­i­cal­ly expand­ed the con­cept of evil, pro­ject­ing it beyond the human fail­ing of sin into the very struc­ture of the cos­mos. Aspects of God Him­self took on the char­ac­ter of evil when they were thrown out of bal­ance by events in the pri­mor­dial uni­verse that pre­dat­ed the cre­ation of human­i­ty. Not only did Kab­bal­ah pro­vide a kind of vision­ary expla­na­tion for why the exile had occurred and why Jew­ish suf­fer­ing per­sist­ed, the Kab­bal­ah inter­twined the roles of God and man so that human­i­ty was assigned a dynam­ic role in rec­ti­fy­ing what had gone awry in real­i­ty. Through prayer, rit­u­al and a home life con­duct­ed with the pro­found eth­i­cal atten­tion enjoined by Torah, man could now help God fix” cre­ation. The term pop­u­lar­ized in Kab­bal­ah, tikkun olam, mean­ing repair­ing or heal­ing the world, became short­hand for the cos­mic mis­sion humankind was charged with.

Sec­ond, along with its strict­ly intel­lec­tu­al con­tri­bu­tions, Scholem saw mys­ti­cism as a stage in the evo­lu­tion of Jew­ish self-con­scious­ness that made polit­i­cal action in the here and now appear pos­si­ble. From Scholem’s per­spec­tive, main­stream Judaism and nine­teenth cen­tu­ry his­to­ri­og­ra­phy alike were essen­tial­ly qui­es­cent projects, con­cerned with the con­ser­va­tion of the people’s age-old spir­i­tu­al lega­cy. What­ev­er rev­o­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ples might be enshrined in the idea of the Messiah’s advent, for all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es the Messiah’s arrival was per­ma­nent­ly on hold.

For sev­er­al hun­dred years after the birth of those schools of mys­ti­cal thought in ear­ly medieval France that Scholem des­ig­nat­ed as the first cen­ters of Kab­bal­ah prop­er, the Kab­bal­ists, no less than their non-mys­ti­cal brethren, lived qui­et lives of study, prayer and writ­ing. Their rad­i­cal­ism was a thought exper­i­ment, not an action. While they might have declared that their prayers were part of a titan­ic bat­tle to wrest the sparks of holi­ness away from the realm of evil and so trig­ger the start of a larg­er cos­mic rev­o­lu­tion that would also end the Jews’ exile, an out­sider observ­ing the kab­bal­ists in their famous six­teenth cen­tu­ry cen­ter of Safed would have found lit­tle dis­cernible dif­fer­ence between their behav­ior and that of oth­er Ortho­dox Jews.

But in the mid-sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, a mys­ti­cal false mes­si­ah by the name of Sab­batai Sevi arose in the Ottoman Empire and became a seis­mic phe­nom­e­non, gal­va­niz­ing Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tions across the Lev­ant and huge swaths of Europe. Entire Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in far-flung towns and vil­lages began the process of uproot­ing them­selves to fol­low Sevi and help actu­al­ize the prophe­cy he deliv­ered of restor­ing Jew­ish sov­er­eign­ty over the Holy Land and ush­er­ing in the era of salvation.

Scholem argued that the ideas of lib­er­a­tion fuel­ing Sab­batai Sevi’s move­ment, com­bined with the com­mu­nal effort to wrest phys­i­cal con­trol of Jew­ish fate by becom­ing active par­tic­i­pants in the mes­sian­ic rev­o­lu­tion, plant­ed the seeds for the Jews’ entry into moder­ni­ty. Although Sab­batai Sevi’s move­ment unrav­eled with his con­ver­sion to Islam under pres­sure from the Ottoman Sul­tan, it suc­ceed­ed in pro­pelling the dream of the Jews gain­ing agency over their own des­tiny from the the­o­ret­i­cal plane into the con­crete realm of his­to­ry. Scholem saw the lega­cy of Sab­batai Sevi embod­ied in cer­tain fig­ures from Jew­ish back­grounds who played impor­tant roles in the French Rev­o­lu­tion — a num­ber of whom were lit­er­al descen­dants of the Sab­bateans — as well as in the rise of the Reform move­ment, which had like­wise been part­ly con­ceived by influ­en­tial fig­ures in Sevi’s the­o­log­i­cal lineage.

Ulti­mate­ly, Scholem felt that in Kab­bal­ah he’d iden­ti­fied a neglect­ed, explo­sive ele­ment in Jew­ish the­ol­o­gy that could inspire new kinds of real-world ambi­tions for the Jew­ish peo­ple. As he wrote in one essay, There is such a thing as a trea­sure hunt with­in tra­di­tion, which cre­ates a liv­ing rela­tion­ship to which much of what is best in cur­rent Jew­ish self-aware­ness is indebted.”

Jew­ish his­to­ry retold in the light of Kab­bal­ah could poten­tial­ly empow­er Jews to act on their Judaism as a liv­ing principle.

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.