Commentary Magazine

The Achievement of Gershom Scholem

The cabalist from whom the creature took Its inspiration called the weird thing Golem—But all these matters are discussed by Scholem In a most learned passage in his book.

J. L. Borges, “The Golem”

I would believe only in a God who could dance.

Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

“The desire to destroy,” wrote Bakunin, “is also a creative desire,” and he managed to inflame—indeed, his ideas still inflame—tens of thousands of minds through his incandescent vision of “the whole of Europe, with St. Petersburg, Paris, and London, transformed into an enormous rubbish-heap.” A century before Bakunin, precisely the same ecstatic lust for destruction joined with the same messianic fervor had flared up in the teachings of an obscure Polish Jew named Jacob Frank, though Frank's initial field of reference was theological, not political: “Wherever Adam trod a city was built, but wherever I set foot all will be destroyed, for I came into this world only to destroy and to annihilate. But what I build, will last forever.” Bakunin's impact, of course, has been, quite literally, terrific: the Russian anarchist's doctrine has haunted the modern literary imagination and has provided political fanaticism an unfailing source, down to the Bomber Left of our own days, for the dream of redemption through a purifying rite of cataclysmic destruction. Frank, on the other hand, is not likely to have come to the attention of anyone but a serious student of Jewish history, yet this self-chosen messiah of an antinomian sect, both in his psychology and his program of action, offers us, no less than Bakunin, a disturbingly instructive instance of the paradoxes of modernity. Both show us modern man, deformed by his personal and cultural past, in the awful desperation and contradictions of his effort to smash the old molds at whatever cost and create a shining new order.

The juxtaposition of Bakunin and Frank may suggest something of the peculiarity of Gershom Scholem's enterprise as a historian. His work on Jewish mysticism, messianism, and sectarianism, spanning now half a century, constitutes, I should think, one of the major achievements of the historical imagination in our time. I would contend that it is of vital interest not only to anyone concerned with the history of religion but to anyone struggling to understand the underlying problematics of the modern predicament. Yet all along Scholem has been laboring in a forgotten vineyard choked with thorns, a field whose very existence was scarcely recognized before he began his researches in Germany after World War I. The figures he has illuminated—Frank, Sabbatai Zevi, Eleazar of Worms, Abraham Abulafia, Moses de Leon, Isaac Luria—are names virtually unknown outside the orbit of Hebrew culture, and many of the myriad texts he has edited, analyzed, used to reconstruct a vanished past, had been buried in oblivion even within that orbit. Yet Scholem has never exhibited the slightest trace of nervousness about “parochialism” in his chosen specialization. On the contrary, his books and articles are informed by a serene confidence that these are eminently worthy objects of study for anyone curious about man and his culture, and in fact one can think of few more impressive demonstrations that human experience has been more various and devious, more intriguingly complex, than our stubborn stereotypes of it.


Gershom Scholem was born in Berlin in 1897, the son of an assimilated bourgeois Jewish family. In his adolescence he became a convinced Zionist, began learning Hebrew, and for this egregious failure in his duties as a patriotic German was peremptorily banished from his father's house. He studied mathematics and physics, then Semitic philology, in Berlin, Jena, and Berne, completing a doctorate at the University of Munich in 1922. A year later he emigrated to Palestine, and from the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925 until his retirement in 1965 he lectured there on Jewish mysticism, creating a new department as he had virtually created a new field of study, over the years making a deep impact on generations of Israeli students while his reputation among historians of religion steadily grew through his publications in German and English and his frequent visits to American and European institutions of higher learning.

It is symptomatic of the neglect Jewish mysticism had suffered that the first two decades of Scholem's career had to be devoted chiefly to the editing and explication of the basic mystical texts and to compiling bibliographies for the field. His first substantial work of synthesis and historical overview is Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941),1 initially published in English (from a German manuscript version) and based on a series of lectures given in New York in 1938. This “first work,” however, is the mature fruit of twenty years of scholarship—an introductory survey that is, in fact, the definitive book on the subject, and gives every prospect of remaining so. Scholem's subsequent books have, then, necessarily been explorations in depth of subjects already covered in single packed chapters in Major Trends. In 1948 he published in Hebrew Reshit Ha-Kabbalah (“The Origins of the Kabbalah,” not available in English), a study of the mystical movement in Provence and Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries that led to the creation of the Zohar. In 1957, again in Hebrew, he published his major two-volume biography of the 17th-century pseudo-messiah of Smyrna, Sabbatai Zevi, with extensive consideration of the mass movement inspired by Sabbatai and of Sabbatianism's larger historical reverberations. American readers will soon have an opportunity to examine this work, the most sustained example of Scholem's formidable thoroughness as a historian, with the forthcoming publication in English of Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah.2 Both Major Trends and Sabbatai Sevi have become landmarks of modern Jewish scholarship, the one a comprehensive summary and synthesis, the other, at the opposite pole, a study in detail of a particular crucial phenomenon. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism3 (German original, 1960; English, 1965) offers a general description of the phenomenology of Jewish mysticism, explaining the psychological and institutional categories with which it works, the dynamics and tensions peculiar to it as well as those shared with other mystical systems. In 1960 there also appeared his technical study, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition.4 Finally, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (1971)5 is a generous selection of Scholem's major papers, chiefly from the late 50's and the 60's, again exploring the phenomenology of Jewish mysticism and of Jewish messianism, with particular attention given to Hasidism, to Sabbatianism and its exotic heirs, and to the problematics of tradition in all these currents of Jewish experience.


What, briefly, are the nature and scope of the mystical heritage that Scholem's pioneering work has brought to light? The nine chapters of Major Trends firmly delineate the field. I shall return later to Scholem's general definition of mysticism, but for the moment let me suggest that the common tendency of Kabbalism as he sees it is to work feverishly—and unwittingly—against the grain of classical Judaism while adhering passionately to the classical Jewish system of belief. That is, Judaism, as an institutionalized religion, establishes an abyss between man and God, while Jewish mysticism devises strategies for spanning the chasm; classical Judaism is anti-mythological, Kabbalistic theology “attempts to construct and to describe a world in which something of the mythical has again come to life, in terms of thoughts [those of Jewish tradition] which exclude the mythical element”; conversely, the biblical faith conceives of revelation as the direct utterance of a personal God, while Kabbalism is heavily influenced by gnostic conceptions of an impersonal divine reality of which God the Creator who addresses man is merely an intermediary manifestation. Many of these tendencies are common to other mysticisms, but the Kabbalists put a very special stress on the eschatalogical impulse implicit in much mystical thought, and they are distinctive in their central notion of language as a profound reflection of ultimate spiritual reality, in their concomitant devotion to exegesis as a mystical activity, in their extravagant claims for the authority of the very tradition they radically reshape, and in the special status of their teaching among mystical legacies as “a masculine doctrine, made for men and by men.”

The historical phenomenon of Jewish mysticism as Scholem traces it in Major Trends stretches from esoteric doctrine taught in Pharisaic circles in the days of the Second Temple down to the Hasidic movement that flourished in Eastern Europe during the later 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest recoverable phase is Merkabah (Divine Chariot or Throne) mysticism, a gnostic tradition rooted in Hellenistic thought. Its literary remains, scattered over most of the first millennium c. E., are peculiarly not speculative but descriptive—of the glittering reality imaged in the Divine Throne or the Divine Palaces (Hekhalot). Accordingly, the Merkabah mystics are pervasively conscious of God's otherness, even in mystical ecstasy; their vision fixed on the radiance of the Godhead, they exhibit little interest in man or in the moral dimension of spiritual life. The next major mystical movement, the Hasidism of 12th-and 13th-century Germany, in some ways moves to the opposite pole, being less concerned with the mysteries of the Godhead than with man's acts, and assuming a deeply pietistic, penitential, ascetic, and often thaumaturgic character.

The most brilliant development of Jewish mysticism comes with the emergence of the Kabbalah proper in southern France and in Spain around the year 1200. Scholem distinguishes two strands of Kabbalah, ecstatic and theosophical. The former, dominated by the figure of Abraham Abu-lafia (b. 1240), involves an elaborate system of meditation (especially on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet) and even breathing exercises which are reminiscent of yoga and which may ultimately derive from the same Indian source as yoga. It was the theosophical strand, however, which was to be the more influential, receiving its supreme expression in the Zohar, or Book of Splendor, composed, as Scholem has conclusively demonstrated, by a Spanish Jew named Moses de Leon toward the end of the 13th century. The intricacies of its doctrine of the Godhead defy brief summary,6 but the haunting imaginative power of Moses de Leon's literary mélange—“a mixture of theosophic theology, mythical cosmogony, and mystical psychology and anthropology”—proved to be of vital historical importance. Through this remarkable power, the book quickly attained immense popularity, indeed, became the only text after the Talmud to achieve the rough Jewish equivalent of canonical status. It was the basis for the last major theoretical development of Jewish mysticism, the Lurianic Kabbalah that arose in Safed in the early 16th century. Isaac Luria and his disciples placed a new central emphasis on cosmogony, conceived creation as a breaking of divine vessels, an emanation of divine light, sparks of divine essence entrammeled in husks of evil from which they must be redeemed. In short, the Lurianic doctrine elevated Exile to a powerfully dramatic principle of cosmic process; it represented a boldly original mystical theology that was also ideally suited to the propaganda of mass movements of spiritual revival. Like the Zohar itself, Lurianic teaching was taken up enthusiastically by most segments of the Jewish people, all over the Diaspora. Finally, Lurianism provided the ideological apparatus for two successive movements which shook the structure of traditional Jewish society—the mystical heresy of Sabbatianism that enveloped most of the Jewish world around the year 1666, and Hasidism, the popular mystical movement stirred by charismatic leaders that sprang up in Podolia and Volhynia nearly a century later and profoundly affected East European Jewry at the dawn of the modern period.


Now, Scholem's work is clearly of far more than antiquarian interest, but it is important first to recognize his enormous value as a sheer archaeologist of culture, digging tirelessly through vast moldering mounds of literary remains neglected for the most part by others. He has, ultimately, a definite interpretative view and a clear commitment to certain values, but his work cannot be faulted for tendentiousness because it is based on such painstaking research, always intent on determining the precise and particular facts no matter how much they may upset anyone's established views, including his own. His biography of Sabbatai Zevi is surely a model for the patient reconstruction of a life and a movement (three centuries distant) from all the available sources, and at the same time an instance of revisionist historiography at its most acute. Scholem has rare gifts for synthesis and generalization, as several of his more recent essays on Jewish messianism and tradition demonstrate,7 but his mind is equally remarkable for the way it adheres to the smallest particles of particular historical experience.

One sees this faculty operating on a small scale with dazzling effect in the essay on the history of the Star of David as a symbol, included in The Messianic Idea in Judaism.8 Scholem discards a series of old chestnuts, follows the forerunners and occasional occurrences of the device through some twenty-five-hundred years of iconography, necromancy, and occult symbolism, distinguishing its shifting and overlapping uses until its final adoption in 19th-century Germany as a “Jewish” symbol that could be for German citizens of the Mosaic persuasion completely analogous to the cross for Christians. The sifting of texts and facts concludes with a wryly pointed observation: “Just at the time of its greatest dissemination in the 19th century the Shield of David served as the empty symbol of a Judaism which itself was more and more falling into meaninglessness.” This sort of essay, one assumes, is a relatively easy spin-off project for a scholar like Scholem, but precisely because it seems so unlike labored scholarship I find the experience of reading it a little dizzying, for the mind that has made it is able to contain in lucid simultaneity such a welter of disparate, far-flung fragments of the lived past. Islamic amulets and Christian manuals of sorcery, alchemical handbooks from the early Middle Ages to the late Renaissance, Kabbalistic tracts from everywhere; the politics, ritual practices, art, and folkways of Christians and Jews in 13th-century Anagni, 15th-century Prague, 16th-century Budapest, 17th-century Vienna—all these give the impression of having been not merely surveyed but somehow securely possessed in all their concrete particularity. Reading such a historical essay, one is forced to revise one's limited notions of what knowledge can be.

To contain so many materials is a capacity of mind; to possess them is a quality of imagination, and it is this that makes a serious technical scholar like Scholem also a writer of compelling general interest. He writes always with respect for the integrity of his subjects, even those that previously have been considered marginal or “pathological,” and so he can enter into them empathetically at the same time as he views them analytically in historical context. One vivid case in point is his commentary on the hymns of the Hekhalot mystics in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism: “The immense solemnity of their style, the bombast of their magnificent phrases, reflect the fundamental paradox of these hymns: the climax of sublimity and solemnity to which the mystic can attain in his attempt to express the magnificence of his vision is also the ne plus ultra of vacuousness.” One might note that “paradox” is one of Scholem's favorite words, and few scholars have had such a deep understanding of how sickness and health, destruction and creation, nonsense and profundity, have intermingled in the same spiritual phenomena. “Vacuousness,” in context, is not so damning as it may sound here since it has a precise theosophic referent and hence a definite psychological function. In any case, Jews familiar from the liturgy with repetitious acrostic hymns like Ha-Aderet v'Ha-Emunah will be startled to learn that these poems were composed to serve a hallucinogenic function for their original users in the early centuries of the Christian era. Scholem makes this clear without resorting to clinical vocabulary, illuminating the experience he describes as if from within while analyzing it from without:

Almost all the hymns from the Hekhalot tracts . . . reveal a mechanism comparable to the motion of an enormous fly-wheel. In cyclical rhythm the hymns succeed each other, and within them the adjurations of God follow in a crescendo of glittering and majestic attributes, each stressing and reinforcing the sonorous power of the word. The monotony of their rhythm—almost all consist of verses of four words—and the progressively sonorous incantations induce in those who are praying a state of mind bordering on ecstasy.


Scholem's endowments as a historian can hardly be in question, but that is not to say that he has not had his detractors in the world of Jewish scholarship, who have generally acknowledged his gifts while arguing that he has used them for dubious, if not nefarious, ends. It is the general orientation of his enterprise that has laid him open to attack, and that needs some setting in perspective. Modern academic historiography was invented as a serious discipline in early 19th-century Germany, and modern Jewish historical scholarship developed very soon thereafter in the same cultural sphere, using the same intellectual tools. There was, however, an important ideological disparity between the two scholarly movements, as Scholem pointed out in a 1959 lecture at the Leo Baeck Institute on the Wissenschaft des Judentums, or Science of Judaism. The early generations of German historians, inspired by the ideals of German Romanticism, were nationalists, and what they sought was an “active comprehension of the organism of their own history in the sense of a positive, nationally oriented perspective and future.” The proponents of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, on the other hand, were at bottom cosmopolitan in outlook, perhaps, indeed, the most dogged heirs of the already fading cosmopolitan vision of the Enlightenment. Though their subject was the national experience of one people, their standpoint was as men of a larger European culture in which an experience so fiercely particular, so redolent of other times and places, could only be an anachronism; and so they often tended to study Judaism as the dead remains of a completed past, not as a living body pregnant with the future. Gerson D. Cohen has recently proposed that Scholem be viewed as a neo-Romantic historian,9 and in fact the brief notation I have quoted on the Romantic quest for an organism of national history and a perspective on a national future could well be taken as the thumbnail program of Scholem's own enterprise. If, however, that enterprise can in one aspect be described as Romantic, it is a hard-headed, shrewdly skeptical Romanticism, and a Romanticism, as we shall see, steeped in the bitter juices of modern experience, impelled by the concerns of a characteristically modern imagination.

The founders of Jewish historical scholarship, I would add, were motivated not only by the ideology of an intellectual movement but at least as much by the vulnerable sensibility of a new social class. Only a generation or two beyond the ghetto, in an era when assimilation was a beckoning horizon, they sought to confirm in their study of Judaism the values of propriety, prudence, practical reasonableness, and rational faith on which their newly acquired German Bürgerlichkeit rested. When Scholem observes that “their bias represents a form of censorship of the Jewish past,” thinking chiefly of a post-Enlightenment ideological bias, one could also note that this bias is equally composed of a bourgeois recoil from all that might offend a sense of decency in “good” society. Thus, the Wissenschaft scholars developed a peculiar notion of what came to be known as normative Judaism. What was central to Jewish experience tended to be thought of as legalistic, rationalist, prudential, this-worldly, and fundamentally conservative; spiritual phenomena sharply diverging from this general norm had to be viewed as suspect aberrations. In this manner, Jewish mysticism, Jewish enthusiastic and antinomian movements, the profound involvement of Jews through the ages in magic and the occult, all were studied grudgingly as manifestations of the sickly medieval spirit that temporarily beclouded the clarity of Jewish devotion to eternal verities and rational ideals.10

Scholem's work, then, might helpfully be viewed as a sustained act of social rebellion, somewhat like the rebellion of the Nietzschean movement of early 20th-century Hebrew poets and writers to which it is closely allied.11 One might almost say that he has uncovered for moderns the heritage of a historical Jewish counter-culture, except for the fact that, as his investigations have proven, it was very often the dominant culture. In any case, he has managed to rescue from the murk of the past a rich body of vitally Jewish experience that challenges many of the comfortable values of German middle-class respectability in which the Science of Judaism developed and in which he himself grew up. His writing, in other words, has been not only a decisive revocation of that censorship of the Jewish past which he mentions but also a deftly wielded weapon, for all its heavy apparatus of scholarly footnotes, used to é pater les bourgeois.

Although Scholem's influence in the world of Jewish scholarship has been enormous, the inertia of established views he has had to overcome has also been considerable. The fact that he is not merely fencing with 19th-century ghosts in his historical revisionism was recently made strikingly clear in a review-essay of The Messianic Idea by Jacob Agus in Judaism (Summer 1972). Agus is a man of serious Jewish knowledge, a prolific writer on theological matters, and, preeminently, a figure of the American rabbinical establishment—which, as it turns out, is in some matters not so unlike the old German-Jewish bourgeois establishment as one would like to think. Agus has, to be sure, the highest praise for the scope and intelligence of Scholem's undertaking, but the ease with which in the very act of praise he closes his mind to the major conclusions of Scholem's researches is quite breathtaking. Thus, Scholem's studies of Sabbatai Zevi, both in the two-volume biography and in a series of scholarly articles early and late, have forcefully demonstrated that, contrary to 19th-century views, the Sabbatian messianic movement of the 1660's had immense reverberations, at its peak enveloping most of the Jewish people in all the far reaches of the Diaspora, and continuing as a highly ramified and active underground for nearly a century and a half. Scholem in effect sets Sabbatianism at the beginning of modern Jewish history, as the first concretely realized historical moment when the whole Jewish people experienced its own incipient emergence from the ghetto world into a radically transformed existence. A world thrown so violently askew would for many never resume its old balance. Though the exact role of Sabbatianism as a causal factor in the various movements that followed it is still open to debate, Scholem has unearthed a current of Sabbatianism (there were good reasons why the participants themselves should have kept it hidden) running through the rabbinical leadership for a century after the, death of the apostate messiah, feeding into Hasidism, the Hebrew Enlightenment, the Reform movement, even the French Revolution.

With all this, Agus, after reading, we can assume, Scholem's thousand pages of carefully documented argument, can still blandly assert—revealingly, in a “word of caution” to the reader unversed in Jewish sources—that “one must see the Sabbatian eruption in perspective, as a marginal aberration.” It is true, he concedes, that the movement briefly swept the whole people and that the energies of its aftermath were not quickly spent, “But the intellectual leaders of the people, in spite of their anguished situation, quickly regained their equilibrium.” No evidence at all is offered for this flat assertion. Apparently, it is sufficient simply to see things “in perspective,” and a rabbi's commitment to reasonable faith is taken to be a self-validating measure of what really happened in Jewish history.


As a historian, Scholem is a modernist in much the same sense that Conrad, Kafka, Mann, and Faulkner are modernists. Like these imaginative writers, his insights are often deeply troubling, and it is the business of an establishment figure like Agus to blunt or deflect such an argument wherever it is most probing. But it may be helpful to consider in detail how Scholem is a modernist both in his choice of subject and in the qualities of imagination he brings to bear on it. What, to begin with, is the peculiar appeal of mysticism to a writer whose work begins in the very peak years of European literary modernism, whose mature life has witnessed two world wars, the Holocaust, and the bloody rebirth after two millennia of a Jewish commonwealth? Mysticism, Scholem states at the outset of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, approvingly quoting Rufus Jones, “is religion in its most acute, intense, and living stage.” Clearly, acuteness, intensity, and vitality have been among the great desiderata of the modern spirit in its quest for personal authenticity against what has often seemed the dead and empty formalism of the cultural heritage. The specific meaning of these three qualities as they are associated with mysticism is worth pursuing. I think that implicit in all of Scholem's work is an assumption that mysticism is, finally, the most authentic variety of religious experience because it is the most daring, aspiring to a naked directness of confrontation with divinity, seeking to break through the intervening barriers of institutionalization and received tradition.

Along with the definition of Rufus Jones, Scholem cites Aquinas's characterization of mysticism as cognitio dei experimentalis, the experiential knowledge of God. Elsewhere, in his masterful essay on revelation and tradition, he emphasizes the mediated nature for rabbinic Judaism of every experience after the initial revelation. As a result, exegesis becomes the characteristically Jewish means to knowledge and perhaps even the characteristically Jewish mode of religious experience. What the Kabbalists, with their letter-and-word mysticism, sought was to get back through exegesis to a species of revelation, to work or contemplate their way through the mediating words of the sacred text to the unmediated Word out of whose infinite declensions and permutations all language and all being come into existence. The Kabbalah is fundamentally a linguistic mysticism, at least in method, and this is surely part of its fascination for Scholem, who shares with his friend Walter Benjamin an abiding interest in the paradoxical ways language, as civilization's endlessly refined and conventionalized instrument, can put man in touch with the potent wellsprings of ultimacy that underlie and antedate all civilization.

Scholem is, of course, equally concerned with how mysticism fits into, or obtrudes from, particular historical contexts, and in this regard his generalization on the relation between mysticism and history in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism throws a good deal of light on his interest in the subject as a modern: “Mysticism as a historical phenomenon is a product of crises.” His inquiries have shown how Jewish mysticism responded to the most terrible historical traumas with apocalyptic systems that renewed the hope of redemption and sustained the life of tradition. To cite the major instance of recent centuries: the Kabbalah, crystallized in late 13th-century Spain, provided the vocabulary of spiritual explanation for the banishment of 1492, was then articulated as a general doctrine of cosmic redemption by the Lurianic school in 16th-century Palestine, and in its subsequent dissemination decisively shaped minds and offered the ideological tools for the great messianic upheaval of the 17th century. It will be apparent even from this hasty sketch that Scholem conceives mysticism not only as the product of historical crisis but as an active force generating further crisis. The Lurianic doctrine of cosmic exile, developed among the refugees from Spain in the decades after the expulsion, did not encourage the exiles to accommodate themselves to their harsh circumstances. On the contrary, “The emotions aroused by these sufferings were not soothed and tranquilized, but stimulated and whipped up.”

Though he is not merely a historian of ideas, Scholem writes with a profound respect for the autonomy of the spiritual realm in historical experience, and though he exercises a fine awareness of contexts, he emphatically rejects the “modern naivetè” of sociological or psychological determinism, with its roots in the simplistic positivism of 19th-century science. Thus, the actual social composition of the Sabbatian movement makes it quite impossible to reduce it to a rebellion of disadvantaged classes; the movement's special appeal to the most prosperous and legally liberated centers of 17th-century Jewry preclude explaining it simply as a response to the persecutions of the period; and even Sabbatai Zevi's manic-depressive psychosis, discussed at great length, does not diminish the power and complexity of the theology built around his personality. “If there was one general factor underlying the patent unity of the Sabbatian movement everywhere, then this factor was essentially religious and as such obeyed its own autonomous laws.”


What is it about mysticism that makes it the most appropriate religious response to historical crisis? To begin with, as Scholem points out in a variety of ways, there is a constant tension in mysticism, precisely because it is a cognitio dei experimentalis, between imperative personal experience and the religion of fixed norms outside the experiencing self. When a historical crisis occurs, the contradictions within the body of tradition are made manifest, and the new discoveries of a daring self avid for intensities come into the foreground of theological explanation, helping to reconcile the promises of tradition with the sharp disappointments of history. Mysticism, to invoke another of Scholem's favorite words, is by its very nature dialectical, continuously mediating between the absoluteness of the self and the inviolability of tradition, and as such it is ideally suited to coping with a historical reality that vacillates between opposite poles, violently overturning preconceptions and expectations. The Sabbatians after the apostasy of their messiah constitute an extreme case in which “all reality became dialectically unreal and contradictory,” but such radical confusions have in one way or another challenged most mystical movements, just as again and again they seem to have engulfed historical experience in our own century.

The fitting response to this kind of traumatic and contradictory historical reality was a religion of extremes, and here again Scholem's explorations of Jewish mysticism jibe with a deep-seated conviction of modernism, that the truth is to be sought in extremes, the historical Judaism revealed in his work being distinctly a Judaism for the readers of Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Rimbaud. Looking back over Scholem's oeuvre, one sees a crowd of sharp visual images that forever unsettle one's complacent assumptions about what Jews may have done or been: the early Hasidic ascetics of 13th-century Germany, plunging themselves into snow and ice, exposing their bodies in summer to ants and bees; the Jewish women and children of Safed, Aleppo, Smyrna, writhing in prophetic paroxysms, reciting verses in automatic speech, flung to the ground in a self-induced hypnotic trance at the advent of Sabbatai Zevi; the bizarre psychosexuality of Sabbatai himself, who devised weirdly erotic rites, such as a marriage ceremony between himself and the Torah, while his first two flesh-and-blood marriages were unconsummated and the third was to a woman whose promiscuity was notorious in the Jewish world from Amsterdam to Cairo; the orgiastic cult of the Frankists in Poland, or of their Turkish counterpart, the crypto-Jewish Dönmeh sect, which celebrated a spring festival of ritual fornication unwittingly drawing on the old worship of the Magna Mater indigenous to Asia Minor.


Scholem treats all this with the utmost seriousness, fitting it into a large imaginative perspective of interpretation. Here, there is a third key term, in addition to “paradox” and “dialectic,” which he invokes again and again. If the two already mentioned terms describe both historical process and the nature of deity, the third term, “abyss,” does that and more, representing in an image a kind of ultimate principle of ontology in Scholem's vision of the world. Thus, Jewish mysticism in general attempts “to make visible that abyss in which the symbolic nature of all that exists reveals itself.” Sabbatianism and its sundry offshoots are repeatedly described as opening an abyss at the very heart of Judaism. The implicit logic of messianism itself, once it becomes a real operative force in history, is to thrust toward a hitherto sealed abyss of chaotic possibilities: “Every acute and radical messianism that is taken seriously tears open an abyss in which by inner necessity antinomian tendencies and libertine moral conceptions gain strength.” Franz Rosenzweig, as the most probing of modern Jewish theologians, is said to have “ripped open the abyss in which the substance of Judaism lies hidden.” (True knowledge for Scholem often turns out to be forbidden knowledge.) The apocalyptic element in Rosenzweig's thought “provided a recognition of the catastrophic potential of all historical order in an unredeemed world.” Even the legend of the Thirty-Six Hidden Just Men is characterized, perhaps a bit gratuitously, as being sustained by a “some-what anarchic morality” because it confronts us with the idea that “we can never fathom” the nature of our neighbors. The mystic, Scholem tells us at the beginning of On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, wants to encounter “Life” (the quotation marks are his); but this primordial Life, ceaselessly engendering and annihilating form, “is the anarchic promiscuity of all living things. Into this bubbling cauldron, this continuum of destruction, the mystic plunges.”

Scholem generally avoids psychoanalytic vocabulary—because, I think, it might seem clinically reductive in its application to phenomena that above all need rescuing from the contempt of the learned—but it is hard to escape the parallel between his notion of an abyss upon which the lid of civilization sits precariously and Freud's view of culture in Civilization and Its Discontents. In any case, the abyss for Scholem seems to be not just the function of pent-up psychological forces but also the substantive nature of reality outside the human psyche, and here a more apposite source for his vision could well be the Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche's notion of a Dionysian truth in excess, of contradiction at the heart of nature; his guiding concept of a dangerous dialectical tension between the Apollonian love of form and order and the Dionysian impulse to orgiastic release, to fusion with the inhuman chaotic potency that underlies existing things—all these have their parallels in Scholem. Even Nietzsche's contempt for the self-deceiving optimism of Socratic culture (essentially, 19th-century German academic culture) with its anti-mystical bias has its analogue in Scholem's rebellion, less visionary, more grounded in an exacting intellectual discipline than Nietzsche's, against the bias and tacit censorship of the Wissenschaft des Judentums. Finally, that abyss of formlessness from which culture arises implies the necessity of myth for Nietzsche: only through myth can man remain in touch with the realm of the irrational that is the matrix of reality and also give it an imaged order, a sequence of dramatic actions, which can be grasped by a finite human consciousness. “Without myth,” Nietzsche asserts, “every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity: only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement.”

Now, myth has always been a problematic phenomenon for Judaism. One might well say, as the late Yehezkel Kaufmann repeatedly argued, that the whole tendency of biblical monotheism was to conduct a systematic purge of myth, leaving only a few vestigial literary allusions whose original meanings were no longer even understood. The need for myth, however, might be driven underground but could not be entirely extinguished. Scholem quite candidly describes the Kabbalah in the opening chapter of Major Trends as a “revival of myth” from the innermost recesses of historical Judaism, and it is clear that he shares the modern fascination with myth that begins signally in The Birth of Tragedy and flowers in some of the major imaginative works of the earlier 20th century. His exemplary exposition of the theosophic doctrine of the Zohar excites the imagination as it does largely because he perceives so surely the resurgence of old mythological images in the new mystical lore, male and female gods coupling in cosmic exultation, confirming the unity of the world and the eternal meaning of transient human life through the power of their divine sexuality.

Scholem, let me stress, is a student of mysticism, not a mystagogue, and he has none of that peculiar nostalgia for primal mud that has characterized many latter-day myth-mongers. He lucidly recognizes that the Celestial Bridegroom and the Celestial Bride of the Zohar are only a step and a half away from the pagan excesses of the Dönmeh sect adoring a mother goddess in orgies. For all his interest in antinomian extremes, Scholem is committed to civilized restraints and to the values and ordered achievements that can be realized within those restraints. Nevertheless, his entire study of Jewish mysticism implicitly argues that a spiritual tradition entirely cut off from myth is cut off from living connection with ultimate reality and so doomed to wither.


I hope the foregoing will suggest something of the range of implication in the qualities of acuteness and intensity that Scholem associates with mysticism. The third of Rufus Jones's intertwined categories, vitality (“religion in its most . . . living stage”), calls for further commentary because it bears a rather special relationship to Scholem's Zionist commitment. He is perfectly open about the nature of that commitment in the brief Foreword to The Messianic Idea. The essays are addressed, he tells us, not to dilettantes but to people with a passionate interest in Judaism and its past; moreover, “This book is written by a man who believes Judaism to be a living phenomenon which . . . has not yet exhausted its possibilities” and whose future forms one cannot presume to predict.

Scholem's primary period of research is precisely the era of Jewish history considered in many older views to be a period of decadence after the peak achievements of the Bible, the Talmud, the Spanish philosophers and poets. In this era, running from the later Middle Ages to the threshold of modernity, he discovers a mysticism richly developing until it becomes the dominant force in the Jewish people, manifesting great spiritual boldness, intellectual subtlety, and an unflagging sense of national vigor in the most dire historical circumstances. At the core of the Kabbalah, especially as it received its definitive formulation in the school of Isaac Luria, “lay a great image of rebirth,” and what is especially remarkable about this image of rebirth is that it remained strongly particularist in its Jewishness while at the same time achieving an embracing universalism of outlook, erecting a splendid cosmogony out of the historical experience of the Jews. “Kabbalistic myth had ‘meaning,’ because it sprang from a fully conscious relation to a reality which, experienced symbolically even in its horror, was able to project mighty symbols of Jewish life as an extreme case of human life pure and simple.”

This understanding of the Kabbalah offers a new perspective on the rise of modern Jewish nationalism. Zionism may be seen not as an act of historical desperation, the implicit admission of what Georges Friedmann has called “the end of the Jewish people,” but, on the contrary, the last of the great visions of rebirth that began driving the Jews toward new horizons some six centuries before Herzl, a movement not only stimulated from without but animated from within by a deep source of national vitality. (It might be noted that the organic conception of national history mentioned by Scholem in connection with the German Romantics is in fact his own implicit view of Jewish history.) In the model of the Lurianic Kabbalah, moreover, one glimpses the possibility that the reborn Jewish state may somehow amplify its nationalism with the universalist vision of Jewish tradition and not subside into being a Bulgaria of the Middle East. These historical precedents of national renascence are all the more convincing because they are not presented tendentiously: Scholem is careful not to interpret the messianic or mystical movements as “proto-Zionist” in any simplistic sense; he in fact argues at length that Hasidism through its stress on the goal of ecstatic communion (d'vekut) aimed at a “neutralization” of messianism after the great Sabbatian outburst; and in his studies of the antinomian movements he is sharply conscious of the fact that the other face of the coin of redemption is destruction.

The dialectical play, however, between redemption and destruction is intimately associated with the vitality Scholem attributes to the Kabbalah. Seeing in the regnant rabbinic tradition during this period an acquiescence in the passivity and abjectness of Exile, an increasingly arid—perhaps one might say, bourgeois—religion estranged from the sources of living religious experience, he writes out of the ultimate conviction that rebellion was a historical necessity, though he knows that the aftermath of any rebellion may be chaos. This is one reason why he is so deeply fascinated by the Sabbatian movement, for the Sabbatians destroyed the world of rabbinic Judaism from within while remaining thoroughly Jewish in their consciousness. They were, as Scholem puts it in his classic essay, “Redemption through Sin,”12 “revolutionaries who regarded themselves as loyal Jews while at the same time completely overturning the traditional religious categories of Judaism.” There is surely a good deal of enthusiastic empathy with the Sabbatian rebellion in Scholem's studies of it—one is struck, for example, by his vivid description of a contemporary portrait of Jacob Sasportas, the arch-opponent of the Sabbatians, showing “the face of a Jewish Grand Inquisitor,” dour, stern, harsh, irascible, arrogant. One should add, however, that this imaginative identification with the rebels does not dim Scholem's perception of the pathological elements among them, the reign of terror (the phrase is his) they imposed during the months of their total ascendancy, and the ultimate futility of their rebellion.


In any case, what emerges from the multifarious mystical matters discussed by Scholem is a powerful sense of the protean nature of Jewish experience. Where we might have been inclined to view the various modern ideologies of Jewish survival as a splintering of classical Jewish unity, a fateful breaking away from the grand continuity of the Jewish past, Scholem shows us a historical Judaism itself fissured with sharp divisions and marked by the most extreme variety. Halfway through the first volume of Sabbatai Sevi, he makes explicit this large implication of his work: “There is no way of telling a priori what beliefs are possible or impossible within the framework of Judaism. . . . The ‘Jewishness’ in the religiosity of any particular period is not measured by dogmatic criteria that are unrelated to actual historical circumstances, but solely by what sincere Jews do, in fact, believe, or—at least—consider to be legitimate possibilities.” This will obviously not sit well with contemporary Jewish dogmatists, spokesmen for the various rabbinical, communal, and Zionist establishments or for ideologized notions of the Jew as enlightened internationalist, but the mass of historical evidence Scholem marshals to support his assertion is formidable. His stress on the vital Jewish consciousness of the pseudo-messianic movements has been attacked as a spurious partisan attempt to validate secular Zionism in terms of Jewish history, but the real point about Scholem's work is that it is post-ideological. Though he is personally committed to the Zionist renascence, what his researches actually do is to open the doors of the mind to a genuine Jewish pluralism, grounded in the spectacular plurality of Jewish historical experience.

Scholem has the kind of ironic intelligence that delights in contradictions, that can hold the multiple attributes of the subjects it scrutinizes in clear simultaneous view, and that is even capable on occasion of a certain teasing archness, for all its scholarly gravity. (The whimsical tone of Borges's poetic allusion to Scholem is not really inappropriate.) As a result, his account of the Jewish past can accommodate the full power of its most seemingly alien manifestations while seeing in overview the distinct limitations of their historical field of operation. Similarly, he can affirm the revolutionary significance in Jewish history of the Zionist fulfillment with an acute awareness of its looming ambiguities. This rare amplitude of perception is beautifully evidenced in the lead essay of The Messianic Idea in Judaism. I would like to conclude by quoting an extended passage from this essay because it illustrates so finely Scholem's incisive critical perspective on the very past whose pulsating life stirs his imagination, and shows how his involvement in the past is intellectually linked with a deep concern for the complexities of history unfolding in the present. Celebrations of the noble impulse of Jewish messianism past and present are the great cliché of modern Jewish intellectuals, no matter how distant they may be from any connection with historical Judaism. Scholem, who knows the messianic phenomenon and has appreciated its distinctive power from the most intimate familiarity with all its manifestations, is able to penetrate beyond the banalities of the apologists to the profound historical contradictions at the root of the messianic idea.

The magnitude of the messianic idea corresponds to the endless powerlessness in Jewish history during all the centuries of exile, when it was unprepared to come forward onto the plane of world history. There's something preliminary, something provisional about Jewish history, hence its inability to give of itself entirely. For the messianic idea is not only consolation and hope. Every attempt to realize it tears open the abysses [again, the key phrase] which lead each of its manifestations ad absurdum. There is something grand about living in hope, but at the same time there is something profoundly unreal about it. . . . Thus in Judaism the messianic idea has compelled a life lived in deferment, in which nothing can be done definitively, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished. One may say, perhaps, the messianic idea is the real anti-existentialist idea. Precisely understood, there is nothing concrete which can be accomplished by the unredeemed. . . . The blazing landscape of redemption (as if it were a point of focus) has concentrated in itself the historical outlook of Judaism. Little wonder that overtones of messianism have accompanied the modern Jewish readiness for irrevocable action in the concrete realm, when it set out on the utopian return to Zion. It is a readiness which no longer allows itself to be fed on hopes. Born out of the horror and destruction that was Jewish history in our generation, it is bound to history itself and not to meta-history; it has not given itself up totally to messianism. Whether or not Jewish history will be able to endure this entry into the concrete realm without perishing in the crisis of the messianic claim which has virtually been conjured up—that is the question which out of his great and dangerous past the Jew of this age poses to his present and to his future.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.