A Vision of Judaism

Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History.
by David Biale.
Harvard University Press. 279 pp. $15.00.

Many books could be written about the life and works of Gershom Scholem, who is perhaps the greatest Jewish scholar of the century, but David Biale’s book happens to be the first devoted to this extraordinary and important figure. Within his self-imposed limits, Biale has given us an excellent and deeply interesting study. He is not primarily concerned with Scholem’s vast contribution to scholarship; nor does he attempt a biography or psychological analysis of Scholem the man. Biale asks the question, “What does Scholem tell us about Judaism?” He traces Scholem’s elusive standpoint and his relation to other figures in the history of modern Jewish thought and scholarship, and establishes that Scholem does indeed have an individual philosophy of Judaism which he has followed with remarkable consistency and tenacity throughout his career. At the same time, Biale places Scholem firmly, and perhaps to some people disconcertingly, within another context as well—the context of German philosophical historiography.

Biale defines Scholem’s position as that of a “religious anarchist” (Scholem’s own term) and contrasts him, on the one hand, with such figures of the early scientific study of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums) as Moritz Steinschneider and Leopold Zunz, and, on the other hand, with rebels against that movement like Martin Buber and M.Y. Berdichevsky. The aim of the Wissenschaft movement in scholarship was to be objective by being all-inclusive; all phenomena of Jewish history were to be given equal weight in a presentation of the total Jewish Volksgeist. In practice, however, a certain defensiveness appeared. Only those aspects of Jewish history and thought that could be regarded as rational, and therefore presentable to the German bourgeoisie, were given importance; the whole mystical tradition was minimized and disparaged. Scholem opposed this from his standpoint as a radical Zionist, for whom Jews could never become Germans. While accepting the Wissenschaft aim of objectivity and all-inclusiveness, he stated the paradox that such objectivity could be achieved only through the unambiguous assertion of Jewish identity. As long as Jews compromised their identity, they were condemned to a shifty selectiveness.

But Scholem also opposed those Jewish thinkers who sought to build up a “counter-history” of Judaism, stressing only those elements which denied rationality and institutionalism. This too, for him, was selective and derivative, being an offshoot of German romanticism that ignored the balance and “dialectical” character of Jewish culture. Although he himself decided to specialize in the irrational side of the Jewish tradition, Scholem did not regard himself as engaged in unearthing the “true” Judaism (as did Buber and Berdichevsky), but as redressing a balance. Scholem in fact has a great respect for the Jewish rationalist and moralistic tradition, and is well aware of the grave dangers inherent in Jewish mysticism. These dangers erupted in the 17th-century Sabbatian movement, which Scholem (despite his insistence on its positive and creative aspects) still regards as a major disaster and a warning for the future.

Scholem’s sinuous line of argument, avoiding all simplified positions, may be illustrated from his famous researches on the Zohar, the central document of the Kabbalah. The 19th-century historian Heinrich Graetz had denounced the Zohar as a medieval forgery; its defenders accordingly considered it their task to prove its antiquity. Scholem, by contrast, after patient philological research, supported Graetz’s dating and definitively showed that the Zohar was composed by Moses de Leon in the 13th century. But he detached the question of dating from that of worth, analyzing sympathetically the psychology of pseudepigraphy and establishing the Zohar as a masterpiece, if a medieval one. Again, however, this did not lead him to deny the existence of a continuous tradition of Jewish mysticism, stretching back much earlier than the medieval period. As opposed to Buber, who pursued an ahistorical and often fanciful method (seeing mysticism as a series of disconnected moments achieving coherence in an eternal Now), Scholem showed that there was indeed a historical tradition without which the Zohar could not have been composed, and on which de Leon built his individual insights. Balancing Scholem’s demonstration of the late composition of the Zohar are his equally convincing demonstrations of the early composition of such kabbalistic tracts as the Sefer Yetzirah, which he dated as early as the Tannaitic age (1st and 2nd century C.E.).

Scholem thus arrives at a picture of two valid and interacting traditions within Judaism, each with a historical development that requires study. And he sees both traditions as sustaining each other. Without the controlling power of rationalism, the mystical tradition would collapse into psychosis and nihilism; without the dynamism and daring of mysticism, the rationalist tradition would petrify. Indeed, as David Biale points out, Scholem considers his work to be an effort to answer the question, “What is the source of the energy that has given Jewish rationalism its extraordinary and continued vitality?” He finds the answer in the mystical tradition, which has continually reinterpreted rationalist thought, both talmudic and philosophical, in a way consonant with deep irrational needs.



Biale has given a correct account, I believe, of the way Scholem sees the interacting traditions. The question arises, however, as to how far Scholem’s conception, subtle as it is, is adequate to the full reality of Judaism. Biale points out that Scholem has a leaning toward Jungianism, having been influenced by Erich Neumann and the Eranos circle. It may be that both the strength and the weakness of Scholem’s position derive from the Jungian influence. Jung, in his individual psychology, saw the conscious and unconscious forces of the mind as “compensating” for each other: when rationality increases to the degree that it endangers the vitality of the psyche, a compensatory development of irrational myth takes place in the unconscious.

This somewhat mechanical conception is very similar (as Biale says) to Scholem’s idea of the relation between Talmudism and Kabbalah in Judaism. And for Scholem, the idea of a balance between the rationalism of the Talmud and the irrationalism of the Kabbalah is combined—as it is in Jung—with an awareness of possible disaster when “overcompensation” leads to an exaggerated swing to irrationality. Scholem thus sees mysticism as a kind of fuel powering the Jewish people, but always operating close to explosion point, so that a delicate balance must be achieved by use of the rationalist cooling system. This explains Scholem’s own cautious and suspicious attitude toward the messianic strands in Zionism.

Scholem’s model implies that the substratum of the Jewish religion, in its past and future development, is the Jewish national organism. He is, after all, a member of the Volksgeist school, though in a more comprehensive way than Buber or the other “romantics.” Scholem sees the Jewish spirit as an entity developing in time, with its own unique character and principles of growth, which can be grasped only by close historical and textual study, without subjective constructions or arbitrary selection. But it is outside Scholem’s frame of reference to see the Jewish people as a vehicle for a truth greater than and beyond their national existence. Judaism is merely the historically individual working-out of elements that exist in every culture. Hence in Scholem’s thought the rational and irrational forces remain balanced against each other without achieving any significant unity. The aim is equilibrium rather than truth: the machine is powered and cooled and achieves locomotion, but its destination does not matter. To ask what it is for is irrelevant, just as it would be irrelevant to ask what some species of animal is for. It is there in order to be. This is the real meaning of Scholem’s “anarchism.”

Yet the Jewish concept of unity goes beyond the system of checks and balances envisaged by Scholem to a real synthesis of opposites. Rationalism, in Judaism, is not simply a matter of restraint and inhibitions, but is itself a dynamic and revolutionary power (even a form of mysticism). At the same time, unconscious and mystical modes of apprehension are not beyond the reach of conscious configurations but are (especially over a long period of cultural time) affected by them; so that we would expect to find, and do find, a specifically Jewish mythology, as different from pagan mythology as the fantasy life of adults is from that of children. Scholem does, to be sure, outline the specific traits of Jewish mysticism, but he does so only in an external way; Buber, who disagreed with Scholem over the applicability to Judaism of a term like “gnosticism,” shows the keener insight here, despite Scholem’s general superiority in scholarship.



In exploring the specifically Jewish character of the Kabbalah, the psychoanalytical approach is relevant. Scholem, however, has avoided it, considering it reductive. There is, of course, a reductive kind of psychologism (for example, explaining Sabbatianism solely in terms of Sabbatai Zevi’s psycho-pathology). But there should be no objection, particularly from a kabbalist, to the study of mysticism in terms of normal psychology, for it is in the depths of human reality that the God of the Kabbalah is to be found, as man—i.e., the totality of male and female humanity—is made “in the image of God.” Scholem has given remarkably little attention, as it happens, to the sexual symbolism of the Kabbalah, which may turn out to be its most profound contribution to the perplexed modern world.

We should nevertheless be grateful to Scholem for his opposition to reductivism, especially in its Marxist and pseudo-Freudian forms. It is the realm of the spirit, after all, that is important for Scholem, and he refuses to explain away spiritual realities in terms of economic forces or psychological compulsions. He has also combated nobly another kind of reductivism, this one in the field of scholarly methodology: the indiscriminate collection of “facts” in the hope that some unifying theory may emerge. Scholem calls this “rubbish collecting.” He himself favors bold theorizing, checked by careful tests. At a time when Jewish studies in the universities are coming under the spell of a crude “inductivism” (riddled, of course, with unacknowledged hypotheses), the example of Gershom Scholem is most salutary. Biale’s intelligent and helpful book displays Scholem not as a dry-as-dust scholar, but as a thinker and even a poet whose vision of Judaism contains a split or “abyss” that is only precariously healed.

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