Zionism, Kabbala and critical thinking

Scholar George Prochnik delves deep into the life of philosopher Gershom Scholem.

GERSHOM SCHOLEM was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (photo credit: Courtesy)
GERSHOM SCHOLEM was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Once in a while you come across a book that is not only informative and enlightening, but spiritually uplifting. George Prochnik’s Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem is such a book. Prochnik is as fine a writer as he is a scholar.
The outlines of Scholem’s life are well known. Born into an assimilated family in Germany before World War I, he was “converted” to Zionism at an early age as much as a mode of youthful rebellion as an ideological commitment.
Part of his dedication to Zionism took the form of studying the Hebrew language and traditional classics. Very early on, the young scholar became enthralled with the Kabbala and its literature. As the author puts it in the first paragraph of his first chapter, “1915 radicalized everything.
“In one year, Gerhard Scholem sealed his passion for Zionism, discovered the Kabbala, got thrown out of high school, met Walter Benjamin, and tried to kiss his first crush. For a time, he also thought he was the Messiah.”
Despite Prochnik’s obvious mastery of his subject, he made some unusual choices. To my knowledge, even before Scholem changed his name from Gerhard to Gershom, there are few writers who refer to him as Gerhard. Prochnik not only refers to him in this way, but also refers to his father by his first name, Arthur.
In the same vein, he refers to Ahad Ha’am using only his last name – something nobody who knows Hebrew would do. The text also doesn’t identify when any photos were taken, rather only at the end of the book; a rather irritating arrangement.
Despite these minor defects, the book has many virtues, among them Prochnik’s fine eye for the telling detail.
Scholem’s relationship with Walter Benjamin has become one of the iconic philosophical-literary friendships of modern times. It was actually Prochnik’s interest in Benjamin that first led him to Scholem. The author, like Scholem, was captivated by Benjamin and his theories.
At times “Scholem identified so intensely with Benjamin it sounds as if he were trying to merge with or become him,” Prochnik writes. “But yet it was difficult for Scholem to embrace many of Benjamin’s idiosyncrasies. The stares. The silences. The stillness. The stylishness.
He alternated intense secretiveness with sudden confidential revelations.”
The two young friends were both committed to some form of socialism.
Scholem believed only anarchist socialism and Zionism together made sense for the redemption of the Jewish people. Benjamin, a sometime Zionist, had a strong attraction to communism.
Scholem’s brother was also a dedicated communist and eventually got into serious trouble under the Nazi regime.
Scholem is, of course, most well known for his research into the Kabbala. His understanding was intimate from the beginning.
“If you ask me,” he once wrote, “I say that the Kabbalists had a fundamental feeling that there is a mystery – a secret – in the world... A rather small group of people was able to create symbols that expressed their personal situation as a world situation.”
This work is most unusual because the author weaves his own narrative into Scholem’s life story. Thus he tells us of his efforts to find Scholem’s house in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. We are even treated to a photo of the outside of Scholem’s house on Abarbanel Street.
Prochnik, studying at the Hebrew University and teaching English, had all the problems of a young family with small children and the difficulties of making ends meet. Scholars almost never tell us about themselves and their relationship to their subject, but Prochnik does and his approach works .
Prochnik’s understanding of the Kabbala is insightful and helpful. The Kabbala does not reveal itself easily.
The key is a rather technical vocabulary which takes time to acquire until it becomes genuinely meaningful.
“God was literally and literarily the author of creation,” he writes. “He had constructed the world through particular configurations of letters, still legible in the Torah, which itself was nothing less than a ‘living organism animated by a secret life which streams and pulsates below the crust of its literal meaning.’” Zionist ideology was still in its adolescent stage of development at this point.
Scholem felt there were a number of requirements if it were to mature: “a stringent historical consciousness, misery over the condition in Europe, a sense of social responsibility regarding all of humanity, and general spiritual anguish.”
The primary intellectual force in European Zionism at this time was, of course, Martin Buber. Scholem had experienced Buber rather early on through his many speeches and writings. There is, however, throughout Scholem’s life a strained condescending relationship to Buber, as Prochnik writes that Scholem “felt that what Buber wanted to replace exile with what was nebulous and indulgently personal.”
Defining the Kabbala, the author asserts, is like trying to sum up the Internet.
The God of Scholem’s Kabbala is a “profoundly disturbed God who must withdraw into Himself.”
Considering Scholem’s dedication to Zionism, it was inevitable that he would immigrate to the Holy Land. When he arrived in the early 1920s, the Hebrew University was in the process of formation and Scholem played a primary role in building up the institution, particularly the library. He agreed with Judah Magnes, the American Reform rabbi who headed the new institution, that the Zionists should “conquer the land through peaceful and cultural means.”
The university became Scholem’s lifelong home, where he acquired a new set of friends including S.Y. Agnon, Hugo Bergman and Ernst Simon.
Of course, friends are not always what they seem to be. It turned out, the author tells us, that Scholem’s wife, Escha, had an affair with Bergman, who was a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University. Scholem subsequently divorced her and married one of his students, Fanya Freud.
Scholem’s Zionism was never a statist Zionism. Some, including Scholem, saw Zionism and Judaism as Magnes did, “not here Judaism, there humanity, but rather a fusion of the two into a harmonious whole; an enriched, enlarged Judaism, an enriched enlarged humanity.”
Scholem was deeply committed to Brit Shalom, the group formed following the riots of 1929 that advocated absolute equality between Arabs and Jews as the solution to the “Arab problem.”
Scholem’s sense of his own importance is well known.
Prochnik points to a number of outstanding figures who were sometimes painfully aware of this trait. “I learned not to disagree with him,” remarked Harold Bloom, the famous literary scholar.
In Scholem’s company, “I was a listener,” noted Cynthia Ozick, the well-known essayist. Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, reported having a very positive experience with Scholem.
Drawing them together was perhaps their mutual admiration for the American poet Walt Whitman – a mentor and hero to Ginsberg. Scholem asserted that “Walt Whitman revealed in an utterly naturalistic world what Kabbalists and other mystics revealed in their world.”
Of Scholem’s many projects, his study of Shabtai Zvi – the false messiah of the 17th century – preoccupied him for many years. The story is well known: Zvi, originally from Smyrna, together with his erstwhile disciple, Nathan of Gaza, gathered a large following from all over the Jewish world.
Because his popularity threatened the stability of many Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire, the sultan offered the messianic pretender the choice of conversion or death. Zvi, along with many of his followers, chose the former.
But the story does not end there, because many of Shabtai Zvi’s followers went underground, some converting to Islam and others remaining Jewish but secretly following him in one way or another.
Prochnik details the appeal of sabbatianism, especially to descendants of the Marranos: “Scholem hypothesized that the extraordinary degree ‘of contradiction, of duplicity and duality’ that formed the Marrano religious sensibility had made this community singularly receptive to the Sabbatian movement.”
Scholem’s preoccupation with Shabtai Zvi gave him a strong sense of evil – not solely as a deficit of good, but as a positive force in history. Prochnik very skillfully weaves this insight into the evolution of Zionism and Israeli politics.
Evil is inevitable, Scholem understood, because of the realities of life. The complexities of Zionist history, he asserted, “created a situation full of despair, doubt and compromise.
But the reason for this failure was precisely because it takes place on Earth and not on the moon.”
Eventually the author and his family left Israel. The departure was complex and painful. At the end of the day, Scholem gives us a final judgment which is provocative and complex, as we have now come to expect. In his words: “There is something grand about living in hope, but at the same time there is something profoundly unreal about it.”
This work is enjoyable and provocative and will add substantially to the understanding of Scholem and his work.
The writer is the vice president of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood, and the author of The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan.