The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

The Eternal Exile

Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem

George Prochnik

New York, NY: Other Press, 2017.

Gershom Scholem: An Intellectual Biography

Amir Engel

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Nathan Goldman

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

The boy who would become Gershom Scholem—modernity’s foremost scholar of Jewish mysticism—was born not Gershom, but Gerhard. When he emigrated from Berlin to Palestine in 1923, at the age of twenty-five, he traded the German name his parents had chosen for a Hebrew name of more ancient origin, the one Moses and Zipporah gave their firstborn son. In Exodus, Moses explains that the name means “a sojourner there.” The King James translation of Moses’s explanation will be familiar to many. “He called his name Gershom,” it is written in Exodus 2:22, “for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.”

These words serve as the title of George Prochnik’s Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem. Not quite a biography, the book intertwines Scholem’s life with Prochnik’s own to become a chronicle of two men of the Jewish diaspora, separated by decades but both longing for some other kind of Jewish life. When Prochnik moved with his then-wife from New York City to Jerusalem at nearly the same age as Scholem, he brought along a copy of Scholem’s On Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. “With respect to my decision to relocate to Israel,” Prochnik writes,

Scholem’s work effectively substituted for the Bible—which I did not carry along.… I was one of those for whom Scholem loomed as a kind of prophet. I found in his work if not faith, yet something closer to revelation than anything I could discover in normative Judaism.

The register of Prochnik’s regard for Scholem is not unusual. The novelist Cynthia Ozick declared that Scholem “touched on the very ground of human imagination,” and critic Harold Bloom observed that for many Jewish intellectuals of the late twentieth century he was “far more than a historian, far more even than a theologian.” Scholem was regarded, Bloom said, as “not less than a prophet.”

This soaring acclaim is where Amir Engel begins his book. “Scholem,” Engel writes at the outset of Gershom Scholem: An Intellectual Biography, “is still an enigma today.… He never claimed to be anything more than a historian of Jewish mysticism, yet he clearly was. Why then did Scholem become so much more than a historian of the Kabbalah and an expert on obscure Jewish texts?” While Prochnik’s project only deepens his sense of wonder at Scholem as a spiritual guide, Engel ultimately portrays the Scholem beloved by Prochnik, Ozick, Bloom, and others as a romanticized “image” separate from the “demystified figure of Scholem.” Engel hopes to demythologize Scholem, while Prochnik is happy to mythologize him even further.

Gerhard Scholem became Gershom Scholem in part out of a desire to shed his German name, and thereby his father, whom Scholem perceived as a self-loathing bourgeois sellout. Once, for instance, Scholem’s father lit his cigar on a Shabbat candle in what his son would call a “deliberate mockery of the ritual.” Scholem wanted to be his father’s opposite—to be, in Engel’s words, “a Jew in the fullest and most authentic sense.” What Scholem desired for himself he desired, too, for the Jewish people as a whole. “He felt,” Engel writes, “that somehow Judaism needed to be renewed, rethought, and rediscovered.”

But what did it mean to be fully and authentically Jewish? And what did it mean to renew, rethink, and rediscover Judaism? The teenage Scholem had a deep and steady spiritual yearning, but he had a hard time finding a corresponding movement. At the age of sixteen, he abandoned the liberal Judaism in which he had been bar mitzvahed for a brief dalliance with an Orthodox youth movement. He wanted the rigor of religious observance, but strict adherence to Halacha, Jewish religious law, did not give him what he sought.

Eventually, inspired by Martin Buber, Scholem found his spiritual home in the Zionist youth movement. What struck the young Scholem was not so much the case for emigration as the promise of a renewed Judaism separate from the impure influence of everything European. In the last lines of the same diary entry in which he described his break with the Orthodox movement, Scholem wrote, “Full sail ahead toward Martin Buber.”

But even in this promise of total commitment, he began to sow the seeds of his own unwillingness to fall in line. In the sentence that follows, he wrote, “I’ve also become a socialist.” These twin commitments caused Scholem much trouble socially—and would ultimately lead to his break from Buber when the latter endorsed Germany’s prosecution of the first World War—but for Scholem, the Zionist and socialist belief systems were essentially linked. He began to develop his own idiosyncratic Zionism, which owed much to the language and spirit of socialism: “Our guiding principle is revolution, revolution everywhere! We don’t want reform or reeducation but revolution or renewal. We seek to absorb the revolution into our innermost soul.”

If Scholem had a positive vision, however, he seemed unable to articulate it beyond abstract, passionate declarations. He was clear about what this vision was not; he raged against Theodor Herzl’s nationalist Zionism: “We as Jews know enough about the abominable idol state…we Jews are not a state-Volk.” Prochnik and Engel can’t quite articulate a positive vision either. Prochnik sums up Scholem’s Zionism in four elements: “a stringent historical consciousness, a sense of social responsibility regarding all humanity, misery over the condition of Europe, and general spiritual anguish.” Engel reads it “as a pure negation of living in exile”—that is, a negation of a negation.

Scholem never found a simple way of articulating his idea of Zion. What he found instead was the Kabbalah, a heterogeneous body of Jewish mystical practices and beliefs, to which he devoted his professional life. Until Scholem’s groundbreaking work, the Kabbalah was not considered a proper object of serious scholarly study, in part because scholars, seeking the advancement of the rights of Jews, sought to portray Judaism as a rational religion, much as Christianity was understood. But mainstream European Jewry’s rejection of the Kabbalah was exactly what interested Scholem.

The resemblance of the Kabbalah as portrayed in Scholem’s work to its actual historical content is a complex subject beyond the purview of both Prochnik and Engel, neither of whom are scholars of Jewish mysticism. But both writers subscribe to the increasingly popular reading of Scholem’s scholarship as a creative project. Engel writes that he sees Scholem “not as an explorer but as a poet.” This is not to say that Scholem was fundamentally a fabricator—though Prochnik notes instances in which he clearly was—but that he shaped what he found; his philology was guided by a philosophy. His scholarly interest in recovering the history of Jewish mysticism was inseparable from his political desire to rejuvenate the Jewish people in the present. Scholem wrote about the Kabbalah as a distinctively Jewish resource for cultural renewal. His spiritual yearning brought him to Palestine, where he became a librarian in the Hebrew department of the National Library and, through his writing and political activity, worked to realize his vision of Zionism.

When Scholem renamed himself Gershom, he meant to mark the end of an exile. “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” says Moses when he names his son; the tense is perfect, the estrangement complete. But Prochnik posits another possible reading: “Gershom can also mean ‘Stranger is his name.’” Taken this way, the name suggests an inalienable alienation—a destiny of eternal exile. This could well have been Scholem’s inheritance. In Palestine, he found himself in a minority working toward a binational Jewish-Arab state. When Zionism became exactly what he detested and feared—a nationalist movement that cooperated with and then took over the British imperial structure, disregarding Palestinians’ own national aspirations—he initially despaired. But he did not leave Palestine, and when, in 1948, the state of Israel came into being, he stood proudly behind it, and did so for the rest of his life. Scholem, who had escaped the assimilationism he hated in his father, succumbed to assimilationism of another kind.

But this radical who aged into a moderate left behind a mature body of work that is, in its own strange way, radical. The young Scholem struggled with the tension between his impulses toward radicalism and orthodoxy. In his life, the contradiction proved impossible to sustain. But in his work, that generative tension lives on. In “Religious Authority and Mysticism,” the first essay in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism—the book Prochnik brought with him to Israel—Scholem writes, “All mysticism has two contradictory or complementary aspects: the one conservative, the other revolutionary.” Kabbalah is Hebrew for “tradition,” but Scholem prized these teachings’ experimental dynamism. The Kabbalah was, in Prochnik’s words, “a rich Jewish tradition of the subversion of Jewish tradition.”

Near the end of his book, Prochnik asks, provocatively,

What might we discover from going back into…kabbalistic works to mine them for insights into the contemporary predicament, when the Jews are not in exile but are instead maintaining the exile of another people?… To be revived as a morally legitimate enterprise, Zionism must be reconceived. But wasn’t Scholem always telling us that this absolute freedom to reinvent its nature was the definition of the Jewish historical project?

Here Prochnik proposes, in the spirit of Scholem’s work, a radicalism that Scholem abandoned in his own life. Scholem succeeded in the monumental task of thinking an ancient tradition anew. He recovered and thought with texts in which many had seen no serious significance, and in the process brilliantly complicated the Jewish people’s sense of itself. Prochnik and Engel not only shed light on Scholem’s life; they also help us to think with him. Perhaps we might even accept Prochnik’s invitation to think beyond Scholem’s ultimate acceptance of the version of Zionism that won out—a chauvinistic ideology that is used to justify the suffering and disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people—toward a new interpretation of Jewish flourishing. To betray Scholem in this way would be to honor him as well.

Nathan Goldman is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism and an editor for Full Stop.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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