Sunday, January 10, 2016

Gershom Scholem: In Israel & Abroad

Book Review


Gershom Scholem [1897–1982]: in Offenbach, Germany, 1946, identifying Hebrew manuscripts stolen by the Nazis. Cynthia Ozick writes for The New Yorker (2002): “At the close of the war, he roamed Europe, rescuing the surviving remnants of Judaica libraries and transporting them to Palestine. Together with Theodor Adorno, he succeeded in preserving another endangered archive: Walter Benjamin’s papers, which he edited and guided into print. (Along the way, he was delighted to learn that Benjamin was a direct descendant of Heinrich Heine.)”
Photo Credit: Gershom Scholem Archive; The National Library of Israel


In a book review article in the Jewish Review of Books, Walter Laqueur writes about his personal relationship with Gershom Scholem as an introduction to the many books published on this Israeli intellectual, the first professor of Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University, who had a complex relationship both with Israel and with post-war Europe, and notably with the land of his birth, Germany.

Relationships are the key to unlocking this review, as they inevitably are in life. Not only relationships to the land or lands, but also, more important in some respects, among and between people, notably if they hold opposing or dissenting political views, which is often the case with intellectuals who give much thought to ideas. Laqueur would spend many Shabbat afternoons visiting Gershom and Fanya Scholem in their apartment in Jerusalem.

In “Remembering the Scholems” (Winter 2016), Laqueur writes:
Three other new books have recently appeared (all of them in German, though Noam Zadoff’s biography first appeared in Hebrew) that shed further light on Scholem’s life, personality, and family. Zadoff’s book is the first (almost) full-scale biography. Its title, Von Berlin nach Jerusalem und zurück (From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back), is of course a play on the title of Scholem’s own memoir of his youth, From Berlin to Jerusalem. But it also points to the thesis of the author, which is that late in life Scholem became disillusioned with Zionism and pessimistic about the future of Israel. It is this disillusionment, according to Zadoff, that explains Scholem’s late-life involvement with so many German thinkers and institutions, as well as why he spent so much of his time travelling abroad.
Zadoff has put his finger on a real biographical issue. After all, in 1964, Scholem had famously denied that there had ever been a “German-Jewish dialogue.” The idea of a true dialogue, or cultural symbiosis, had always been a chimera or, at best, a one-sided affair. The Jews had wanted to be Germans, but the Germans had never welcomed this aspiration. But if this remained Scholem’s position, why did he spend so much time back in Berlin, and other European capitals, not to speak of Jung’s Eranos Conferences in Switzerland? (Zadoff’s account of Scholem at Eranos is one of the highlights of the book.) Did he have a late-life change of heart and give up on his (admittedly idiosyncratic) brand of political Zionism for something more like a version of Ahad Ha-Am’s cultural Zionism?
In the late 1960s, when I was working on my history of Zionism, I asked George Lichtheim, a close mutual friend (and the translator of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism), to arrange an interview with Scholem. I was curious about how he had come to make aliyah in September 1923 when very few others came to Palestine from Central Europe. The historian S.D. Goitein, his future colleague at The Hebrew University, came from Germany at that time, but I doubt whether there were more than a dozen others—despite the ruinous hyperinflation of the time. His answer after a few seconds of deliberation was “I wanted to put an end to the wretched traditional Jewish passion for constant travel!” But, he said, “Look how I failed—they travel now more than ever.”
Scholem’s more serious answer was that he went to Jerusalem as a young man because he was convinced that Eretz Yisrael offered a chance—the only chance—for a revival of Judaism and a rebirth of the Jewish people. A conversation ensued that lasted off and on for more than a decade. I was a permanent visiting professor at Tel Aviv at the time, but we usually spent our weekends with our daughter in Jerusalem and would regularly visit Gershom and Fanya—even she addressed him as “Scholem”—on Shabbat afternoons.
While Shabbat afternoon conversations today are likely different than they were then, often focusing on the sense of insecurity that Israelis feel today, the general questions might still be the same. Hidden in the language of nationalism, patriotism and Zionism is whether the Jews in Israel have achieved the kind of inclusive self-determination that the early pioneers and visionaries had hoped, or even as Scholem himself had thought possible as a young idealist in pre-state British Mandatory Palestine [1917–1948]. Without question, Israel continues to have serious political problems, which impair its image abroad, often unfairly. At the same time, Israel has a number of domestic socio-economic problems that it has yet to effectively address, including poverty and widening income inequalities.

Perhaps Scholem’s despair was that he had already envisioned the future, and it was not what he foresaw decades before. By many accounts, Scholem was a complex man full of questions, a man physically living in Israel, but having a temperament formed in Germany, a man full of imagination and romanticism.  Much of his writing was dedicated to placing mysticism, the non-rational, as a foundational element in Jewish thought.

It is no surprise, then, that in 1957 he published an account of Sabbatai Sevi, a kabbalist rabbi of seventeenth-century Turkey, who declared himself the Messiah.), Messianic fervor of some sort or another continues to have a strong presence in Israel, whose adherents see Israel as insufficiently religious, insufficiently Jewish, insufficiently Torah observant. This influences the politics, but not sufficiently enough for those who hold religious views, notably the hyper-religious, the extremists who speak with a loud voice. They might be marginal, but they are determined.

Did Israel become European? Did the Europeans become Israeli? Or did it produce a hybrid of two cultures? As much as he wished to negate one, Scholem himself was of two minds, a man of European mien living in a land of the Levant. This dichotomy could not be destroyed. It was not to be; today, decades later with more history to its credit, this is not so, as Israel moves further away from such dualistic ideas part of its early and formative beginnings. It is today very much a nation of the Middle East, conforming to the geography and politics of where it resides. Dreams are often just that, turning to disappointment.

This is neither negating nor diminishing the many successes of the Zionist Project. There is much to applaud in so many areas of economic, scientific and technological achievement, despite the odds against it. Israel is nothing short of a miracle. Even so, it is important to raise the idea of whether the current state, being what it is, has become what intellectuals like Gershom Scholem had envisioned while taking tea and discussing ideas of the mind in his apartment on 28 Abarbanel Street in the Jerusalem district of Rehavia. It is true, that it is often the case, as people get older, they look back and assess the record of what they have achieved and accomplished, and whether this is indeed all “good.”

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