Commentary Magazine

On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, by Gershom Scholem

Berlin and Jerusalem

On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays.
by Gershom Scholem.
Edited by Werner J. Dannhauser. Schocken. 306 pp. $16.50.

It may seem odd that the Jewish love affair with Germany and German culture should, after all that has happened, still exert a strong influence over contemporary Jewish consciousness. But if we shut our eyes to this legacy of the German-Jewish involvement, the story of our time is left with a great hole in the middle—a sequence of events, stunning in its tragedy, that simply tears Jewish history apart, as the pages of an old calendar are torn off and discarded.

For many, perhaps, things are better left this way: the German episode is too horrible to return to, even in thought. There are some, though, who are prepared to explore the positive side of the German-Jewish involvement, not simply as a key to the past but as an enduring element in the effort of the Jew to come to terms with the modern world. Nothing in this approach is meant to soften the unspeakable tragedy, or to pretend that the Nazis were but an accident of history that might have been avoided. Rather, those who take this approach do so in an effort to identify the extraordinary power that Germany exercised over Jewish feeling, to examine the forms of Jewish thought that burgeoned under that influence, to see the fatal flaws but at the same time to show what was true, revolutionary, and lasting. The historical picture—a story of attraction, conflict, tension, and paradox—must be absorbed in appropriately dialectical terms.

A writer who seeks to project all this in meaningful fashion must have three essential qualities: he must be deeply German, deeply Jewish, and blessed with historical imagination. It is almost a ready-made description of Gershom Scholem, and in his new book this great scholar explores the German-Jewish involvement, as well as other issues arising out of the Jewish experience in modern times, with the towering authority he has already brought to his many works on Jewish mysticism.1

But whereas Scholem’s earlier books—Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, and most notably Sabbatai Sevi—are dazzling examples of scholarship applied objectively to the content of Jewish intellectual history, this new book, a collection of scattered pieces, brings us the man himself. The essays, all published previously (some in this magazine), and edited with skill and sensitivity by Werner J. Dannhauser, are diverse in range, but they are unified by their personal tone and by the preoccupation with the two broad themes—Germany and Kabbalah.

The first piece is a long interview in which Scholem talks freely of his youth, his first involvement with the study of Jewish mysticism, his friendship with other German-Jewish writers, his Zionist hopes (fulfilled and frustrated), and the abiding question that still baffles him—how Judaism as a religion can establish living values in a secularist age. In the essays which follow he takes up particular aspects of the German involvement, illustrating his approach with a critique of other writers of the same background as his own.

Scholem—a fourth-generation Berliner—was born in 1897 into a fully assimilated family. To his father and his father’s generation, German culture was the highest form of civilization. Although no “true” German ever set foot in the Scholem household, Gershom’s father remained convinced that he himself was a 100 per-cent German. For such a man to have explored his Jewish heritage in any serious way would have been to risk diluting his precious Germanism.

The problem for young Scholem was that in many ways he agreed with this formulation. For him, too, he says here, the German language “bestowed the gift of unforgettable experiences: it defined and gave expression to the landscape of our youth.” The appeal of Germany to German Jews was unique in its power, and there were good historical reasons for this. When emancipation began,

it was German culture the Jews first encountered in their road to the West. Moreover—and this is decisive—the encounter occurred precisely at the moment when that culture had reached one of its most fruitful turning points. It was the zenith of Germany’s bourgeois era. One can say that it was a happy hour when the newly awakened creativity of the Jews . . . impinged precisely on the zenith of a great creative period of the German people, a period producing an image of things German that, up to 1940, and among very broad classes of people, was to remain unshaken, even by many bitter and later most bitter experiences.

It was not simply that the Jews admired German culture in its own right. It seemed to them that it had been fashioned, almost by Providence, to meet their deepest feelings as Jews. Schiller was a “spokesman for pure humanity”—the interior message of the Jewish Bible. Goethe echoed the lyricism of the Psalms and the majesty of the Prophets. Responding to German culture with dazzling speed, the Jews did not merely adopt what lay before them but deepened it incalculably in every field of industry, science, and the arts. “A list of . . . astonishing Jewish talents and accomplishments [was] offered up to the Germans.” Symbolically, “almost all the most important critical interpretations of Goethe were written by Jews.”

With all this, the Jews remained ineradicably alien to the Germans. The “bourgeois” Jews (like Scholem’s father) were content to love without being loved in return; but to the younger generation of intellectuals, alienness posed a problem that they had somehow to tackle—with, of course, every tool of the German intellectual tradition that they could fashion to their purpose. Many—including one of Scholem’s brothers—fled into Marxist politics. To Scholem, this was just as misguided as his father’s pretense that they were really all Germans. “You’re deluding yourself,” Scholem recollects telling his brother, “the same way Papa is deluding himself. You are deluding yourself by imagining that you represent Germany’s exploited industrial workers. That’s a lie: you don’t represent a thing. You’re the son of a middle-class German Jew. That makes you furious, so you go off wandering into other fields. You don’t want to be what you are.”

What was Scholem himself? He saw with admirable clarity that it was morally debasing—and self-defeating—to water down Jewish feeling; it was an expression of self-surrender. But how did a modern Jew give that feeling a positive content? The binding factor in Jewish history had been religion, but now, except for a minority, traditional faith had become meaningless. The theological dogmas of Judaism, its formal institutions, and the complex net of religious law and argument added up to a system unacceptable to an enlightened man. Was there some other form of religious belief that expressed a revolt against the dead hand of rabbinism and yet was authentically Jewish?

This was the quest that led him to Kabbalah, a body of Jewish doctrine about which nothing at that time seemed to be known in a systematic way. Kabbalah was a set of mystical cosmic teachings, developed and elaborated upon over the centuries, that linked the ineffable magic in the letters of God’s Names to a philosophy of emanations and the ultimate restoration, through a purified mankind, of God’s primordial perfection. A secret lore, it seemed to contain some inner force which had led it to burgeon repeatedly in Jewish history. What lay behind it? To assess intellectually what the kabbalists had been after could be the work of a lifetime. One didn’t have to believe in these mysterious doctrines—how could one?—but approaching it as a historian, one could illuminate the workings of the kabbalistic mind, show the parallels to other mystical faiths, and thus pay tribute to a vitality that drew on sources beyond ordinary reason. “They know something we don’t know,” Scholem told himself; and this was to be the theme, repeated endlessly, of the magisterial historical works he went on to reproduce in sixty years of study and scholarship.

One sees at a glance that it was a development full of paradoxes. In rebellion against a dead formalism and hoping to spark the contemporary imagination, Scholem set about reconstructing the most intricate edifice imaginable of absolute doctrine, totally remote from the temper of the present age. From another angle, his project represented a proud and independent assertion of Jewishness in which everything most German in him was brought into play—the high standards of German scholarship, the central role of linguistic analysis, the use of Hegelian dialectic. Here, indeed, was a true bonus. To break away and yet continue fully to express his background was, for him, a resolution of the underlying German-Jewish problem. The proper relationship to Germany, he said, drawing on a phrase of Max Brod, had to be one of “distant love.” The concept was dialectical. “Distance is meant to prevent an all-too-coarse intimacy, but at the same time a desire to bridge the gap.”

There was a dialectical principle at work, too, behind his decision at an early age to move to the land of Israel and center his studies there. If religion was to have any meaning for a secular age, it had to break through the rationalist barrier and draw meaning from the idea of the Kabbalah that the universe itself, and not merely the individual man, had to return from “exile.” In the kabbalistic conception, the Kingdom of God is not just the realization of good on earth—“a state in which the good would be done by natural impulse”—but “the actualization of this reign in all the infinite spheres of creation.” Scholem sees “a vehement appeal” in this notion, and relates it to what he calls “secular messianism.” It is no accident for Scholem that modern philosophers who have expressed apocalyptic ideas are often Jewish in origin and from his own background. With formal religion abandoned, there had to be a new approach to the redemption of man:

This is the attitude behind the writings of the most important ideologists of revolutionary messianism, such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, whose acknowledged or unacknowledged ties to their Jewish heritage are evident.

If this broad philosophical—or theological—framework sounds daunting, and too German in flavor for some, one has to remember that Scholem is not himself a dogmatic ideologue but an expounder. Ideas appeal to him; he loves defining them with care, but instinct warns him that speculation run riot has dangers as well as joys. The warm humanity of his mind emerges en-chantingly in the essays included here on three outstanding writers of the 20th century—his friends Walter Benjamin, S.Y. Agnon, and Martin Buber2—each of whom struggled as he did with the German involvement but to different effect.

The factor common to these friends of Scholem was their resolve, as young men, to do something that would transform the sterile heritage of the past. For Walter Benjamin, who is recognized now, after an obscure life and tragic death, as a literary Marxist of genius, it was for some time an open question whether he would follow Scholem’s encouragement and give his attention to serious Jewish studies; but his absorption with European literary criticism proved too strong. The tribute to him in this book is an elegy of the deepest friendship, made all the more poignant by Scholem’s still keenly-felt disappointment and irritation at the Marxist “aberrations” in Benjamin’s thought.

S.Y. Agnon, the master of modern Hebrew fiction and Nobel Prize laureate, seems much closer to Russia and Israel than to Germany, but the twelve years he lived in that country (1912-24) were in fact formative, a period in which the young writer opened his mind to Western literature, absorbed but indestructibly alone in the midst of German culture. Scholem knew Agnon for fifty years, and with the guidance he offers in a loving essay, the reader can begin to come to terms with the tension that lies behind Agnon’s calm, almost noble style. This elegist of Russian Jewry, bound to that community with every fiber of his being, was torn between the acceptance and rejection of tradition in a way that was utterly familiar to someone of Scholem’s own, very different, background. Scholem sees him as the supreme expositor of “the Verlorenheit and alienation of the modern Jew who must—or fails to—come to terms with himself without the guiding lights of a tradition that has ceased to be meaningful.” If Agnon’s dilemma as a Jew, uprooted and left without faith, was universal in its implication, it is appropriate that Germany—arch-symbol of secularism to Russian Jews—should have been the generative focus of his vision.

But it is Martin Buber—perhaps surprisingly—who emerges as offering the deepest tribute to the German involvement. To the young Scholem and his friends, Buber—an older man—had seemed the true prophet of a Judaism restored. Rejecting the stifling rabbinic background in which he had been nurtured, Buber expressed a truly Nietzschean resolve to create new values, leaping over the sterility of exile to the true spirituality of primordial biblical feeling. By reinterpreting history as self-perpetuating myth, he seemed to be rescuing Jewish life from a dead historicism. In collecting and publishing Hasidic tales of quiet mysterious power, he was revealing the insight that lies in simplicity, in paradox, in personal involvement. Erlebnis—the living experience—was the locus of truth. The here-and-now, however humdrum and fleeting, could come to express eternal significance.

As the years passed, however, the windiness in Buber’s approach became more pronounced, and it was probably this, more than anything else, that gradually made Scholem suspicious of what Buber was doing to resolve the Jewish problem they had all inherited. Scholem is impish with Buber, full of admiration for the power and originality of his mind, but gently satirical over the fact that, as time went on, the man whom the non-Jewish world came to regard as the apostle of a new Judaism “spoke a language that was more comprehensible to everybody else than to the Jews themselves.” On the proper interpretation of Hasidism the two were straight rivals. It annoyed Scholem that Buber refused to produce the sources for his Hasidic tales, and he took this as support for his contention that in turning his back on the kabbalist theology from which Hasidism sprang, Buber was being false to history.

The real trouble lay deeper. Buber was essentially a poet, though a cloudy one, in a high-flown style redolent of the German Geist. “German mysticism attracted him even before he sought and came to know Jewish mysticism,” Scholem says, with a certain impatience. “He wrote not as an observer but as one deeply affected.” And from the inside, rather than as an observer, Buber’s language had taken off into a realm beyond ordinary Jewish experience. For Scholem such an approach “could not bear the scrutiny of historical observation.” Yet in expressing his own growing sense of distance from Buber’s ideas, he saw the “considerable magic” they exuded, emerging from a depth of direct mystical feeling that was, perhaps, beyond his own grasp. He concedes, in tribute to their lifelong friendship, that “Buber’s capacity to grasp nuances of the inexpressible in words was extraordinary,” even though—he quickly adds—“it makes his writings well-nigh untranslatable.”



If, for Scholem, the trouble with Buber is that “he wrote not as an observer but as one deeply affected,” what, one is tempted to ask, is Scholem’s own relation to Kabbalah, the body of thought (and practice) he has devoted a lifetime to analyzing and explaining? An anecdote in this book is very much to the point. It seems that on his arrival in Jerusalem as a young man of twenty-two, Scholem sought out a community of kabbalists. He asked the leader—a man of about seventy—if he could be instructed. The man looked at Scholem for a long time, checked his forehead lines, and said: “I am prepared to teach you, but only on condition that you do not ask any questions.” Scholem thought about it, and then said, “I can’t.” The historian, always a questioner, was never going to become a true believer.

But if in this sense Scholem has remained outside Kabbalah, magic has surfaced nevertheless in the extraordinary impact his books have had on the Israeli reading public, especially the young. A generation overwhelmingly secular has found in his work a marvelous historical illumination—almost an annealment. In a quite unexpected way his work has enriched the Israeli present by bringing it into tune with the past. Scholem must feel this, and perhaps it serves to soften the sadness he expresses when he looks back, after his long identification with Israel, at the spiritual condition of the Jewish community there. That the tone of Israeli society is secular does not in itself disturb him; secularism is a phase that man has now to pass through. “The barbarism of the so-called new culture” would be tolerable if one could see some fructifying seed for the future. But “I see something today that I didn’t see fifty years ago: the threat of death, of oblivion. . . .”

This is Scholem at an uncharacteristically somber and apocalyptic moment. Scholem the historian, however, has shown repeatedly and emphatically that history works in unpredictable ways. In what may be an unconscious kabbalistic metaphor, he says at one point that we cannot explain to ourselves “what sparks functioned and susstained whatever remained alive” in the successive crises of Jewish history. In kabbalistic terms, the readers of Scholem’s books are collecting divine sparks from the klipot, or husks, in which God’s original perfection lies scattered, awaiting restoration through faith.


1 See the excellent study by Robert Alter, “The Achievement of Gershom Scholem,” in COMMENTARY, April 1973.

2 Two of the essays originally appeared in COMMENTARY: “Reflections on S.Y. Agnon” (December 1967) and “Martin Buber’s Hasidism” (October 1961).

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