Gershom Scholem

Master of the Kabbalah

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David Biale
Jewish Lives
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his recent contribution to the series, David Biale, in Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah, has produced precisely what Yale’s Jewish Lives series was intended to produce: an accessible, digestible, yet still capacious, volume introducing an educated lay readership to a major figure of Jewish history. In a way, a reviewer of this book is stymied. The series is intended, primarily, towards a non-academic audience, and thus there are restrictions in length, density, bibliographic sources, and so forth. However, it is as a popular work that this volume is best judged, not against the shadow of the book the author most assuredly could have composed. Despite these restrictions, or perhaps due to them, Biale has managed to produce an informative, biographical account replete with newly translated primary sources from his subject’s diaries, balanced with original insights about Scholem, the man and his intellectual legacy.

This volume, perhaps, is unique. While the series has previously covered philosophical luminaries and persons of letters, this is the first entry in Jewish Lives devoted to an academic. Unlike other previous foci, giants of history, fathers of the Bible, Biale’s subject did not found a religion, foment a political revolution, or catalyze a paradigm shift in physics. The main thing that Scholem produced was scholarship—reams and reams of academic prose, stylistically alternating between Teutonic dryness and wild ventures of daring. Biale does an excellent job translating Scholem’s own paradigm shifts in scholarship from their technical and (literally) esoteric trappings into terms in which the historical and theoretical advances at play are made clear. However, Biale’s accomplishment in this book is not merely one of lay translation; he reframes Scholem, not merely as a researcher and a commentator of historical events and texts, but as an original thinker in his own right, whose ideas and interpretations spread far beyond the technical ken of his field.

The book is largely organized around the hallmarks of Scholem’s writerly output, with the back half structured by his major academic works, encapsulated in punchy paraphrases by the author. An analysis of his early life is drawn from copious journal entries from this period. Biale has presented excerpts of his diaristic writing to the English-reading public for the first time, which illuminate Scholem’s personality in vivid color, and a whole lot of moxie. From the outset, Scholem exempts himself as an original and passionate thinker and writer. His personal reflections are full of daring and original thinking (including messianic aspirations!), infused with bold philosophical commitments. If anything can be said to be Biale’s thesis, it is that Scholem, more than a historian, was a thinker in his own right, with his personal, philosophical commitments interwoven with his academic claims.

Indeed, early in his career, especially through his intense, intimate, and contentious relationship with his erstwhile mentor Martin Buber, Scholem came to a fundamental conclusion which would inform the balance of his scholarly life. While the elder scholar looked for authentic Judaism within ahistorical experience, Scholem was convinced that “the truth of Judaism lay in tradition” (109). While not traditional in terms of his observance, Scholem had a fundamental commitment to the literary corpus of Judaism, which manifested something fundamental and transcendent, in being worked out within history, arguing that only through engagement with its historical sources was an authentic renewal of Judaism possible. In his words, “[Revelation was] absolute, meaning bestowing that becomes explicable only through … tradition … Nothing in historical time requires concretization more than the ‘absolute concreteness’ of the word of revelation.” This is certainly a historiosophical claim, but it has distinct theological implications as well, regarding the interaction between transcendent, divine activity (revelation) and phenomenal existence (tradition).

A persistent through line thrumming within Scholem’s life and work is his love of and devotion to language, appearing in Scholem’s political activity, his academic work, and his personal philosophical commitments. Apparently, Scholem’s original dissertation aspiration was a study of language in Kabbalistic theory. He also regarded silence as the undergirding condition for articulation, even revelation. In his journal he wrote, “When I’m in [a state] of … enthusiasm, I write prose, when I’m unhappy, a poem, when angry, a letter, and when I’m in [a state] of my tikkun [perfection, wholeness], I am silent.” Scholem believed that freedom (and social life) was only possible through silence and solitude, and it was the purpose of community and society to provide the conditions to achieve this end.

However, this is not to say that Scholem was secreted in an ivory tower. Especially prominent in the early chapters of the book are detailed and colorful accounts of his youthful activity as a political activist and organizer. Like his future dear friend Walter Benjamin, as well as his brothers, who have also received some academic focus as of late, Scholem was an active participant in the German youth culture of the early 20th century. Scholem joined the Zionist youth movement Blau-Weiss, becoming a prominent and outspoken member.

As was typical of this atypical man, Scholem’s take on Zionism deviated early from the majoritarian position. While many were primarily committed to the nationalist movement for the sake of a future nation-state, Scholem saw Zionism, primarily, as a way to revivify Jewish culture. Later, as a fledgling professor at the new Hebrew University, Scholem would identify his understanding of Zionism as “a religious-mystical quest for a regeneration of Judaism … [versus] empirical Zionism … [a] distortion of an alleged ‘solution to the Jewish question … our own hubris blocked the path that leads to our own people’” (102). To Scholem, the locus of the “people” was not in a nation-state or particular political configuration, but rather in the event of its vital actualization. A strict focus on the former would actually preclude the latter.

My only complaint with this slim, cracking volume is that, at times, the author interjects a judgment for traits which, in today’s light, appear less than sympathetic. This is a major political question academics of the current moment must confront: how to grapple with offensive or difficult texts or persons. In so many ways, Biale, from the position of today, is able to manifest the admiration he so clearly feels for this giant of scholarship, but when that sympathetic relation breaks down, so does an empathetic approach within his writing. For example, Biale comes off as dismissive of Benjamin’s idiosyncrasies, as with his metaphorical use of gender in his earlier work. One would and should not expect a contemporary biographer to uncritically approach dated and/or offensive theoretical models, but empathy and sincere engagement, which Biale exhibits most excellently in the vast majority of the book, yield far richer results. Indeed, as with Scholem’s own fundamental commitment to the variegated, innately historical corpus of Judaica, only by delving into the thick and dark morass can the secret sparks be recovered. Similarly, Biale, by digging into the vast, dense corpus of writings this man of letters left behind has yielded a true treasure trove of wisdom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, the co-author of Hasidism: A New History, and a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award.


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