Gershom Scholem, who died two years ago, produced such a far-reaching revolution in our understanding of Judaism that his work cannot yet be assessed in its entirety. As the foremost Jewish scholar of our age, the author of numerous pathbreaking books and essays (among the best-known in English being Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, and On Jews and Judaism in Crisis), he radically revised, and gave fresh life to, the entire field of Jewish studies. At the same time, the new insights which he brought to his reading of Jewish experience and ideology required, and have resulted in, a reorientation of all thoughtful Jews to their own tradition and to the implications of their religious history. A brilliantly panoptic mind, a true “master thinker,” Scholem represented a force in the intellectual life of our century, and not only in Jewish intellectual life, whose influence will be felt for a long time to come.
Born in 1897 into an assimilated German-Jewish family in Berlin, Scholem as a youngster showed talent in mathematics and philosophy and seemed destined for a conventional university career. He rebelled, however, against the bourgeois ambitions of his parents; similarly, he refused to adopt the Germanic values which inspired so many of his contemporaries. His brother, also a rebel, became a Communist, but the young Gerhard (as he was then called) became a Zionist, and planned to emigrate to Palestine. His Zionism changed the direction of his studies: he determined to master the cultural past of the Jewish people, and addressed himself with sober single-mindedness to the acquisition of Hebrew and Aramaic and to the study of the classical literature of the Bible and Talmud. He soon became fascinated by Jewish mysticism, a subject generally regarded in German-Jewish academic circles with contempt, as so much unintelligible and primitive gibberish, unworthy of scholarly investigation. In later life, Scholem often told the story of how as a young man he visited Philip Bloch, the only Jewish scholar in Germany who had a collection of kabbalistic books and manuscripts. After admiring the manuscripts, Scholem (then in his early twenties) said, “How nice, Herr Professor, that you’ve studied all this!” The venerable Bloch replied, “What! Am I supposed to read this rubbish, too?”
Scholem himself soon began collecting kabbalistic books, acquiring some very rare ones at dirt-cheap prices. But unlike Bloch, he read them all, and soon made himself into an expert on the subject of Jewish mysticism. He switched his university studies to Oriental languages, and eventually produced, as his doctoral thesis and his first scholarly effort, Das Buch Bahir (Berlin, 1923), a translation, with notes, of the mysterious book Bahir, the earliest extant kabbalistic work. Here began Scholem’s massive reconsideration of the whole of Jewish mystical literature, by which he eventually set it in historical order, overturning in the process the ideas both of Orthodox Jews and of the progressive scholars of Judaism loosely grouped in the academic movement known as Wissenschaft des Judentums (the “science of Judaism”).
Shortly after getting his doctorate, Scholem moved permanently to Palestine, against the wishes of his parents. Chance threw in his way the post of librarian of the newly founded Hebrew University. Four years later, in 1927, a vacancy occurred for a lecturer in Jewish mysticism, and when the university authorities applied to Germany for a recommendation, they were told that the best man for the job was under their noses—their librarian, Gershom Scholem. Thus Scholem entered upon his academic career. His father, who had wanted him to be a professor in a German university, could hardly have imagined the renown that his son would achieve as professor of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah at the Hebrew University. Having scorned the ladder of German academic success, and disbelieving entirely in the concept of “German-Jewish symbiosis” which had meant so much to the philosopher Hermann Cohen and others, Scholem was amply justified in his choice by the subsequent course of events.
Indeed, there is a link between Scholem’s revolt against the concept of “German-Jewish symbiosis” and his decision to embark on the study of Jewish mysticism. For this was a field of study which was as remote as possible from German academic ideas of the respectable. When he turned to this wild, strange subject, Scholem was making a claim to Jewish, as opposed to German, culture. In this respect, he was not alone; he was following the path of Martin Buber, who had asserted the contemporary relevance of one product of the mystical tradition, Hasidism, in the face of German-Jewish disdain for this uncouth movement of East European Jewry. He was also following the path of Micha Joseph Bin-Gorion (Berdyczewski), who founded the study of Jewish folklore. And in a way Scholem was tracing the same arc of development as the religious philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who on the point of conversion to Christianity was recalled to Judaism not by the decorous German-Jewish Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch but by attending a fervent Yom Kippur service in a prayer room of East European Jews, where, for the first time, he understood what Judaism was about.
Yet none of these men, Scholem included, quite severed himself from his German background. Even in their rebellion against German culture, they were influenced by German models. Buber, Bin-Gorion, and even Rosenzweig were doing for Judaism what Hamann and Herder had done for Germany—asserting a romantic attachment to folkish roots as opposed to the ideals of rationalist universalism. As for Scholem, in joining the Zionist youth movement, he was asserting his Jewish identity in a way partly parallel to that of the German youth movements of the time. In fact, despite his anti-Germanism, Scholem never lost his unmistakably Germanic stamp. He brought to the study of the Kabbalah, that most un-Germanic subject, standards and modes of scholarship that he learned in Germany. He promoted these standards over and against Buber’s subjective, romantic style of thought (which was itself integrally German). Thus the “German-Jewish symbiosis” which Scholem attacked so bitterly as a snare and as a delusion was in some ways, as his own work testifies, also a weapon and a support. But this, of course, only serves to make the tragic fate of German Jewry all the more poignant a spectacle.
The study of Jewish mysticism would have offered a tremendous challenge to any ambitious scholar, but it took a Scholem to realize the true possibilities. For he sensed from the start that these materials were not just a heap of rubble, requiring a job of scholarly tidying-up. He saw that they constituted an intellectual system of great power which had played a highly important role in the history of Judaism and had indeed contributed to its continuing vitality. The system was not of the rational or philosophical type, but was the product of the mythological imagination, which Scholem regarded as an essential element in religion and in community life alike. Not that he succumbed to the temptation of regarding Jewish mysticism as the only “true” or authentic Judaism. Rather, he adopted a model of balance, or dialectical tension, in which mysticism formed one of the opposing poles, with rationalism forming the other. (Here Scholem differed from both Buber and Bin-Gorion, who were content to be dislocated from the central movement or balance of Judaism and to identify themselves with dissident or peripheral trends, thus developing a “counterhistory” of Judaism.)
But the first task, to which Scholem addressed himself with Germanic thoroughness, was simply to collect the scattered materials of Jewish mysticism, many of which had never been published in printed form. Scholem’s early bibliographical works listed the various manuscripts and books and thus made an ordered study and assessment possible. The next task was to bring some method to the dating of these materials and thus to gain an idea of the history and development of mystical theories and notions. This required, above all, accurate philology, i.e., mastery of the language of the documents. Scholem’s philological expertise, acquired through unbelievably hard work on the part of one not brought up in Hebrew or Aramaic studies, enabled him to provide convincing solutions to the main puzzles of the documents, and to dispose of the amateurish hypotheses about dating that had hitherto reigned in the field. Thus Scholem was able to work out how Jewish mysticism changed over the course of time. This had never been previously understood. Before Scholem’s investigations, Jewish mysticism had been regarded as a seamless whole, both by its devotees and by its opponents—its devotees considering it too holy to be divided into historical periods, its opponents considering it undifferentiated nonsense.
The materials of Jewish mysticism, as Scholem demonstrated, belong in the main to two different periods. In the earlier period, mystical thought centered on the Merkavah (“Throne” or “Chariot”) of God. This Merkavah mysticism was to be found in the so-called Hekhalot tracts, deriving from Palestine, which describe how mystics (identified as talmudic figures like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael) journeyed through the seven heavens, surviving dangers from fearsome angels, to reach the Throne of God where they achieved a vision of the Deity. Such astral journeys, it appears, took place in a trance, induced by fasting and prayers.
The later mysticism is that which is called “Kabbalah,” and it underwent its classical development in Spain in the 13th century. This kind of mysticism is much more elaborate than the earlier Merkavah mysticism. It contains a complicated system of theosophy by which the nature of God and His mode of creation are explained through the concept of the ten Sefirot, or emanations, mediating between God and the world. Rather than trance-experience, Kabbalah comprises a kind of mystical philosophy, demanding study and contemplation. The chief literary work of Kabbalah is the Zohar, and on it is based the subsequent history of Jewish mysticism. The Zohar inspired new developments, notably the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria (16th-century Palestine), the messianic movement of Sabbatianism (17th century), and the hasidic movement beginning in the 18th century. Indeed, so enormous was the impact of the Zohar that it was in time accepted by Jews as a divinely inspired work, equal (at least) in status to the Mishnah and Midrash, and surpassed only by the Bible, to which it gave the esoteric key.
Scholem’s work on the documents of early Jewish mysticism, or Merkavah mysticism, led eventually to his dating their basic content much earlier than had previously been thought. The beginnings of Jewish mysticism were moved back from the early Middle Ages to the first centuries of the Christian era, thereby confirming the sparse indications in the Talmud of mystical activity within rabbinic circles. This did not mean, however, a reinstatement of the traditional Orthodox view that Jewish mysticism derives from primeval, even antediluvian, times. Unlike the kabbalists themselves, Scholem did not regard the biblical prophets, for example, as mystics. In his view, mysticism was a phenomenon that succeeded the dying away of biblical prophecy, and represented an attempt to bridge the resultant gap between man and God.
Scholem’s work on the later Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, and its main literary expression, the Zohar, resulted not in a confirmation of early origins but, on the contrary, in a demonstration of its medieval character.
Written in Aramaic, once a Jewish vernacular but in the Middle Ages far less well-known than Hebrew and therefore more impressive, the Zohar claims as its author a famous sage of the mishnaic period, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. He in turn is represented as having learned his secret wisdom from previous sages stretching in an unbroken chain back to Adam; hence this mystical knowledge is given the name “Kabbalah,” meaning “tradition.” Scholem offered a comprehensive and convincing proof that almost in its entirety the Zohar was written by a 13th-century author, Moses de Leon, and as an original composition rather than a compilation of previously existing materials. The full proof is one of the most brilliant arguments in the history of literary criticism; it is lucidly summarized in the fifth lecture in Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941).
To be sure, there had always been those, ranging from the ultra-Orthodox Jacob Emden to the Enlightenment historian Heinrich Graetz, who had denounced the Zohar as a forgery (and Graetz had argued that the forger was Moses de Leon). Yet against this, there was the sheer heterogeneity of the Zohar, which is more like a whole literature than a single book, comprising not only a commentary on the Torah, but a number of separate treatises, written in apparently different styles, with titles such as “The Book of Concealment” and “The Secret of Secrets.” Many scholars had come to the conclusion that the Zohar was partly medieval, but that it also contained a nucleus of genuinely ancient material. This plausible hypothesis was the one with which Scholem began his investigations, for it seemed inherently unlikely that one person could have produced such a massive literature on his own. Nevertheless, he finally concluded that this was indeed the case, apart from three components which he declared to be even later than the main body of the Zohar, being a rather weak imitation of it by another hand.
What then are we to think of the Zohar, if it is proved to be a medieval work masquerading as an ancient one? Scholem’s reaction was quite different from that of the indignant Graetz. He pointed out that what is called “pseudepigraphic” literature has played a great part in the history of religions; many books of the Bible and Apocrypha belong to this category. The device of putting one’s ideas into the mouth of some great figure of the past is not just a deceitful way of attracting attention, but a method of self-annihilation by which the writer opens himself to thoughts beyond his normal capabilities.
Having solved the question of the authorship and date of the Zohar, and having detached this question from the issue of moral blame (for forgery) with which it had been entangled, Scholem was able to look at the Zohar as the classical expression of Spanish-Jewish mysticism in its period. Yet far from relegating the Kabbalah to one particular historical age, as its denigrators wished to do, he showed that it was a stage in a continually developing movement of thought, one with both a past and a future.
It was, finally, Jewish mysticism in its full historical development that engaged Scholem’s synthesizing intellect. He wished to ascertain the factors that unified the isolated Merkavah mystics of the early talmudic period with the Zohar, with the complicated theosophic scheme of Lurianic Kabbalah, with the trauma of Sabbatian messianism, and with the charismatic communal leaders of the hasidic movement of the 18th century. In doing so he aimed to show how Jewish mysticism changed from an esoteric by-path on the fringes of the Jewish community to an active communal force capable of influencing the course of Jewish history. This very large project necessitated a scholarly stance very different from the usual specialization in one historical period; it required, in fact, an investigation ranging over eighteen centuries.
Scholem saw in all forms of Jewish mysticism a paradox of rebellion and conservatism. On the one hand, mystics are rebels against the staidness of normative Judaism, with its orderly this-world orientation and its concept of a transcendent God; against this, the mystic tries to create bridges between the lower and the upper worlds. On the other hand, Jewish mystics have been concerned not to abandon Judaism but to revitalize it: to put new meaning into traditional prescriptions, prayers, and practices, and thus to defend them against the encroachments of skepticism. Scholem sees this double aim as setting up a tension that has both threatened the disintegration of Judaism and, at the same time, has enabled Judaism to surmount the dangers of petrification. Only by walking this tightrope has Judaism retained sufficient adventurousness to avoid fossilization. Only by risking disaster has it avoided the greater disaster of grinding to a halt.
Scholem was hardly blind to the dangers of mysticism, or unsympathetic to the arguments against it made at various times by Jewish religious authorities. Although the rabbis of the Talmud did not outlaw mysticism—on the contrary, they greatly respected it—they nevertheless limited it as an activity to a carefully circumscribed elite. And they constantly warned against its perils: the mystic, aiming to ascend to regions far above the humdrum, mundane world, could end with a contempt for ordinary everyday living that amounted to heresy. A famous cautionary story in the Talmud tells of four rabbis who entered the “garden” (pardes) of mystical experience; only one of them, Rabbi Akiva, emerged unharmed.
Mysticism in the talmudic period was involved, in a way not yet fully understood, with the doctrine known as Gnosticism, and adherence to this doctrine, the rabbis understood, could lead to complete alienation from Judaism. For there was a tendency to explain the split between the mundane and the spiritual by postulating a split in the universe itself; at its most extreme, this led to a doctrine of Two Powers, the lower of which was the creator of this unsatisfactory earth, while the higher power could be approached only by purging oneself of the dross of the corporeal.
This dualism was Gnosticism proper. Jewish mystics, believing in One God who created the earth, did their utmost to avoid it. Yet their very undertaking made Gnosticism an ever-present danger. Scholem, indeed, was inclined to see the origin of Gnosticism itself in an internal revolt against the “anti-mythological stance” of the Jewish religion, an attempt to put back into the concept of God the color, movement, and narrative interest that had been drained from it by the shift from polytheism to monotheism.
It is certainly true that the Bible has nothing to say about the biography of God or the geography of His dwelling place, while Merkavah literature, with its elaborate angelology and its descriptions of the seven heavens leading to the Throne room of God, does something to supply the need for mythological content. In the subsequent development of Jewish mysticism, the mythologizing urge was given ever more imaginative play, and, as an inevitable consequence, the tendency to dualism increased. In the Kabbalah, God’s biography and geography receive fantastic elaboration. God is even provided with a wife, and, eventually, with a cosmic love story, spanning the centuries of past and future, with tragic episodes and a happy ending. The early mystics had voyaged through space to reach the Throne of God; the later mystics voyage through God Himself (they call this the “upper Merkavah”). Geography and biography merge: the seven heavens become transformed into seven regions of God Himself, with further regions to explore beyond.
A strong impetus to the Kabbalah, Scholem argued, was given by the coldness of the categories of Jewish medieval philosophy, in which the anthropomorphisms of the Bible and Talmud were allegorized and rationalized into philosophical abstractions taken from the Aristotelian system. Maimonides’ doctrine of the attributes of God can still be discerned under the kabbalistic system of the Sefirot, but changed and personalized as if in a dream. The attributes awaken to life and form themselves into strange patterns and relations, some of them sexual. They combine into organic forms—sometimes that of a man, sometimes that of a tree. Instead of philosophizing the anthropomorphisms of Bible, Talmud, and Midrash into abstract categories, the Kabbalah makes them even more concrete, but on a cosmic scale. If the Bible speaks of the “hand” of God, this to the kabbalists is not just a metaphor for His influence on events, but a real hand, so real that all human hands are unreal in comparison, since they achieve what reality they have only by partaking of the reality of God’s hand. The Kabbalah thus rebels against the gulf between the spiritual and the material—a gulf created by the very effort of philosophy to generalize and conceptualize.
Rationalism separates, while mysticism denies separation and seeks to demonstrate that the universe forms a continuum. Thus the Kabbalah opposes not only the rationalism of philosophy, but also that of the Talmud, which separates man from God by regarding the commandments of the Torah as applying to the human situation only, and not as a means of affecting the inner essence of God. The commandments in their talmudic elaboration tend to assume the aspect of a mere set of rules, many of them arbitrary, for the patterning of individual and communal behavior. The mystic rebels against this limited role, and reasserts the link between the visible and invisible worlds: the commandments become prescriptions for affecting the life of God and for promoting reconciliations among the various parts of the cosmos. The Kabbalah asserts always that what we experience on earth is what God experiences on high. Our suffering is an adumbration of the cosmic suffering of God. The whole cosmos is yearning to achieve healing and wholeness, and the commandments performed on earth by men have a vital role in bringing about this longed-for denouement.
Yet if all this gives a new urgency and importance to the performance of the commandments, it also sets the stage for their abolition, when they have completed their cosmic task. The very idealization by which the Kabbalah elevates the commandments to mystical or magical status sows the seeds of antinomianism, or the abrogation of Law.
It is in just this way that the Kabbalah had an extraordinary and revolutionary impact on Jewish ideas of the messianic age. The early mysticism of talmudic times, the Merkavah mysticism, had no messianic significance at all, because it was confined to a very small circle of initiates who were interested in obtaining a personal vision of God on His Throne. When, however, after many centuries, Jewish mysticism surfaced again, first in Germany and then in Spain from the 11th century onward, it had acquired characteristics which were eventually bound to produce an overt messianism of fateful import for future Jewish history.
Spanish Kabbalah contained a theory of history: an account of how the world had been created, what had gone wrong with it, and how it might be put right. In effect, it was a huge magical system by which the initiate might expect to produce effects on a cosmic scale, including the overcoming of the evil powers retarding the coming of the messiah. This new system placed enormous potential power in the hands of the mystic. The magical use of the commandments and prayers at the hands of some great soul (confident or deluded enough to believe that he knew exactly how to turn the key) might cause reconciliations and recombinations in the worlds above that would result in a tikkun, or “mending,” and this beneficent readjustment of the cosmos would have, as its inevitable corollary on earth, the coming of the messianic age. The mystic did not have to wait patiently for the coming of the messiah, as the rabbis had enjoined; he could do something to make it happen.
These practical potentialities would only be realized on the political stage, however, when the Kabbalah had developed sufficient prestige to foster a mass movement. In the Spanish Kabbalah, this was far from being the case, and mystics were still small in numbers and uninfluential. But the expulsion from Spain in 1492 gave a tremendous shock to the whole Jewish people, and it was in the wake of that shattering event that a new great surge in kabbalistic thought and activity took place, this time in Palestine in the 16th century in the town of Safed. It centered on the extraordinary personality of Isaac Luria, known as the Ari. Here the kabbalistic belief in the correspondence of the human and the divine led to the daring doctrine that the disaster of exile and expulsion was not just part of Jewish history but part of the biography of God. In order to create the world, God had had to exile part of Himself from Himself; and this creative withdrawal (tzimtzum) or exile was what was being reenacted on earth by Israel. This gave a positive function to the exile that both comforted and stimulated hope; and new attention was given to the stages of tikkun. The personality of Luria, together with the charisma of his gifted circle of followers, leading a holy life in Palestine, captured the interest and devotion of almost the whole Jewish world.
Kabbalistic ideas, for the first time, now became the norm in Jewish rabbinical teaching everywhere, and prayer books were altered to conform with Lurianic notions of the mystical efficacy of prayer and the role of the commandments in uniting the split in the upper worlds and reconciling God with His exiled consort, the Shekhinah. Mysticism, from being a solitary activity reserved for the very few in talmudic times, regarded as too dangerous for general knowledge, had become part of the education of every learned Jew.
At the same time, dualistic tendencies already apparent in the Zohar received new emphasis in the Lurianic Kabbalah (which was put into writing by Luria’s disciples, Luria himself being mostly, like Socrates, a fount of oral, not written, wisdom). The evil against which the mystic pitted himself was not psychological, as in talmudic Judaism, but cosmic, forming (though this was unspoken) a part of the constitution of God Himself. The whole of cosmic history became the story of God purging Himself of evil.
A fascination with the demonic, absent from the classical Judaism of the Bible and Talmud, thus became increasingly a feature of kabbalistic thinking and practice. Judaism now developed a doctrine of Original Sin which stemmed from a period even earlier than the sin of Adam—from the time of the cosmic disaster known as “the breaking of the vessels,” a concept invented by Luria.
Our knowledge of this historical development of Jewish mysticism is due, in major part, to the work of Scholem. This work, as I have mentioned, offended many people—the Orthodox because of his late dating of the Zohar, and the heirs of the Enlightenment because of his demonstration of the importance of the role of mysticism in Judaism. Scholem’s next step, however, was even more unpalatable. He resuscitated the unsavory incident of the pseudo-messiah Sabbatai Sevi, which most people thought best forgotten, and showed that it was of central importance in Jewish history, arising logically and inevitably out of the Kabbalah.
Sabbatai Sevi (1626-76) was a strange and tortured personality who came from a milieu saturated with the concepts of the Lurianic Kabbalah. He alternated between moods of deep depression and moods of manic exaltation, when he thought himself the messiah and exuded a self-confidence that carried all before it. In his moods of exaltation he would commit in public “strange acts” involving the breach of important Jewish laws (for example, he would eat forbidden fat). To these acts, shocking to his audience, he attached a mystical significance; but in his ordinary moods he adhered strictly to all rabbinical and biblical laws.
On his own, Sabbatai Sevi would not have gained widespread adherence. He was dismissed by most people as unbalanced, and he himself believed in his messianic mission only by fits and starts—and even when he believed in it, he was more concerned to provide impressive charismatic exhibitions than to build a movement or engage in the necessities of propaganda. It was only when Nathan of Gaza, a man of great gifts and industry who was widely respected as a scholar and kabbalist, became converted to a belief in Sabbatai that a messianic movement of historical importance became possible. It was Nathan who provided the link with the Lurianic Kabbalah and with the whole previous history of Jewish mysticism, and who brought all the energy of this centuries-old aspect of Jewish religious experience to the exploitation of the compelling contradictions of Sabbatai’s character. At the same time, Nathan, accepted as the prophet who by tradition would accompany the messiah, was able to mobilize non-kabbalistic messianic expectations as well. By the time the movement acquired mass support, it had become a mixture of talmudic, folkloristic, and kabbalistic elements capable of appealing to a wide spectrum of the Jewish people.
Gershom Scholem’s great work, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (Hebrew, 1957; English translation, 1973) is the apex of his achievement, combining as it does detailed, patient scholarship with his characteristic originality, cutting through the confusions of all previous writers on the subject and leading to new formulations of wide significance for the history of religion. The work is, however, disconcerting in many ways. The Sabbatian movement ended in utter bathos. The messiah-figure who had aroused such hopes throughout the Jewish world, when given the choice of death or conversion to Islam, accepted conversion. This ignoble collapse, for the vast majority of Jews, meant the end of the movement, and it then became of great concern to conceal the extent to which Sabbatai had received both official and mass support. Part of Scholem’s work consisted in exposing the extent of this cover-up, and here he aroused the anger of other scholars who felt he had gone too far.
Even more controversial was Scholem’s assessment of the antinomian aspect of the Sabbatian movement. He showed how the Sabbatian movement had put forward doctrines usually regarded as the antithesis of Judaism, and yet these doctrines were not repudiated by the learned and pious scholars who flocked to Sabbatai’s banner. For example, Sabbatai claimed divine status by signing his letters “Shaddai,” one of the biblical names of God. (He also made great play of the fact that the name Sabbatai Sevi and “Shaddai” were equivalent in the system of numerology known as gematria.) One would have thought that, as far as pious Jews were concerned, this would have spelled an end to his claims; and indeed some Jewish leaders were horrified by this blasphemy and withdrew their support. But what is surprising is how many Jewish leaders took this claim to divinity in their stride.
One could argue that the development of the Kabbalah, especially in its Lurianic form, had prepared the way for this by according the messiah a cosmic status that he did not have in talmudic Judaism, and also by dividing the Godhead into so many layers or departments that it was possible to identify the messiah with one of these aspects without deifying him completely. Nevertheless, the fact is that the very thing that had been held to make Christianity idolatrous was now accepted without protest by a large portion of the Jewish people and their leaders. On the basis of this, Gershom Scholem came to the startling conclusion that there is no fixed definition of Judaism; Judaism is simply everything that it has been historically, and must therefore include a doctrine of the deification of the messiah, at least as one of its possible manifestations.
The Sabbatian movement proved similar to Christianity in another important respect: its abrogation of the Torah and declaration of the advent of a new law. This aspect was not fully developed in the lifetime of Sabbatai Sevi himself; yet he did introduce many innovations of a liturgical character, incorporated new festivals, and by his own performance of “strange acts” signalized that there could be mystical power in the breaking of the law as well as in its observance. This clear tendency to antinomianism was, however, again accepted by the majority as within their understanding of the character and function of a messiah.
After the apostasy and death of Sabbatai Sevi, these antinomian tendencies were intensified by those who remained faithful to his memory. The whole Torah was regarded as abrogated, or at most as in force only until the expected return of the messiah. Many Sabbatians regarded Sabbatai’s apostasy as itself an act of mystical significance, the last of his “strange acts,” and decided to follow his example. They formed the Donmeh sect, continuing to believe in Sabbatai secretly while outwardly behaving as Muslims—a weird regression to the condition of the Marranos under Christianity. Finally, the Sabbatian sect known as the Frankists turned antinomianism into a regime of sexual license and deliberate ceremonial breaches of Jewish law. Their “sanctification” of sin, together with their gnostic theology, made them the the spiritual heirs of such gnostic libertine sects of the ancient world as the Carpocratians.
Scholem wrote with a certain sympathy even about the wildest excesses of Sabbatian antinomianism, with its doctrine of salvation through sin. For he saw this development as a logical and understandable outcome of the anarchic forces within the Kabbalah—forces which were invoked for the defense of Judaism against rationalism but which contained their own destructiveness. Moreover, he characteristically considered Sabbatianism a creative as well as a destructive force. By breaking the mold of the Law, it released new energies and new religious and political possibilities. Scholem pointed out the part taken by Sabbatians, or ex-Sabbatians, in the French Revolution; and also what he claimed was a strong Sabbatian influence in the growth of the Reform movement in Judaism—a movement usually regarded as rationalist in the extreme, far removed from mystical fantasies. According to Scholem, the genesis of new ways of thought is more catastrophic and agonized than later beneficiaries suppose; the Enlightenment itself owed more to kabbalistic and neoplatonic occultism than to sober common sense. When one looks at the maelstrom of ideas underlying the discoveries of Kepler and Newton, one is forced to agree.
Indeed, the rise of modern science, as Alexander Altmann and others have pointed out, owes much to the Kabbalah. Normative Judaism, preoccupied with morality and the duties of family and community life, kept its gaze on this world and dismissed cosmological speculation with the talmudic injunction against asking “what is above, what is beneath, what was before, and what will be hereafter.” The Kabbalah, turning its gaze from earth to heaven, produced a daring cosmological scheme of soaring range, precursor of the vast schemes of modern astronomy and atomic physics. Even more important, the Kabbalah was concerned with hidden forces in the universe, and with the possibility of harnessing and manipulating them; this has been the key concept of modern science and the secret of its power. So it was paradoxically the irrationalism of mysticism, rather than the rationalism of Talmudism, that turned out to have more in common with the ultra-rationalism of science.
Scholem’s work on the paradoxically creative power of antinomianism aroused opposition from many quarters. He was accused of glorifying antinomianism, and also of exaggerating its part in the fundamental thought of the Kabbalah. Here there was considerable misunderstanding. Scholem called himself a “religious anarchist,” but he did not mean by this that he sided with the antinomians. He meant that he did not believe that there was a norm or orthodoxy in Judaism in comparison with which all other trends were to be condemned as heresies or as inauthentic. Any trend that made use of Jewish concepts and that did not seek to turn people away from Judaism (as, for example, Christianity did) was part of the whirlpool that formed the historical reality of Judaism, showing its vitality by the ceaseless opposition, conflict, and ebb and flow of ideas. The later forms of Sabbatianism, by their utter rejection of Orthodoxy, made the same error of one-sidedness as did the rigid Orthodox who sought to repudiate the vivifying concepts of Jewish mysticism. The health of Judaism lay in the interplay of opposites, and thus in the acceptance of the whole of Jewish tradition, not just part of it.
The later history of the Kabbalah was seen by Scholem as an attempt to recover from the destructiveness unleashed by Sabbatianism. The hasidic movement of the 18th century retained the Lurianic and Sabbatian concept of a kabbalism-for-the-masses rather than for a circle of mystical initiates, but the dangerous, antinomian genies released by this concept were put back into the bottle. The Law was reasserted, and new effort was put into the “joy of the commandment.” To this end, Scholem argued, it was essential to play down, or “neutralize,” the messianic aspect of Kabbalism. In Hasidism, the messianic fervor and sense of renewal that Sabbatianism had created were internalized, and divorced from overt political action. The tzaddik, or communal leader, became a kind of interim messiah, presiding over his Hasidim in a timeless little enclave in which it was “always Sabbath.” The feeling of near-worship of Sabbatai Sevi was transferred to the tzaddik in his particular circle, but without the universal reference that could lead to actual deification. Hasidism, therefore, was a kind of watered-down Sabbatianism, owing its tone to the previous, now-discredited movement.
This was a characterization that gave great offense to present-day Hasidim, who hotly denied any historical or theoretical link with Sabbatianism. And Scholem also “offended” against the conception of Hasidism made popular by Martin Buber as a mysticism that glorified everyday life. Scholem sharply criticized this as an idealization which ignored the gnostic influence filtered through the Lurianic and Sabbatian movements. Hasidism, he wrote, did not actually glorify everyday life but considered it to be sunk in the power of evil (the “husks” or kelipot, left over from the “breaking of the vessels”); it was the duty of the Hasid to redeem all everyday things from these demonic influences. In Scholem’s view, Buber lacked a historical sense and was unaware of the continuous tradition of Jewish mysticism, which he preferred to regard as a series of unconnected outbreaks of invaluable mystical insight.
Scholem’s conflict with Buber1 was not merely a matter of the scholar correcting the romantic. Scholem too was a romantic, although of a different kind—a kind for whom accurate historical scholarship provided the necessary fuel. This leads to the interesting question of Scholem’s own beliefs. Should we think of him merely as the historian of Jewish mysticism, recording its vicissitudes with academic detachment, or was he himself more deeply involved? There is certainly no question of Kabbalism in the traditional sense, which could only rest on a fundamentalist belief in the Zohar as an ancient work. Scholem never disguised his judgment that the Kabbalah represents a way of thinking that is now thoroughly outdated. Nevertheless, he held that it should be studied not merely as a dead historical phenomenon but as an ingredient in our own intellectual and spiritual lives.
That ingredient is not so much philosophical as mythical. Whereas normative Judaism struggles to be anti-mythological, setting a space between God and man, the Kabbalah (and its antecedent, Merkavah mysticism) seeks a place for myth. In the consequent conflict between myth and anti-myth lies the vitality of Judaism. Scholem did not regard myth (or mysticism) as a single universal phenomenon, as Aldous Huxley did in speaking of the “Perennial Philosophy.” Each manifestation of myth is specific to a particular culture and is saturated with the historical experience of that culture. Jewish myth and mysticism, despite many details borrowed from outside, form a specifically Jewish phenomenon.
Scholem owed a considerable intellectual debt here to the ideas of Jung, which he encountered in the circle of Erich Neumann, the founder of the journal Eranos—though, characteristically, Scholem was never a full member of this circle, but participated in its gatherings only as an interested onlooker.2 Jung believed that the individual psyche contained two poles, rationality and myth, which always sought equilibirium: an excess of rationality would lead inevitably to a compensating swing to mythical thinking. This is the pattern that Scholem applied to the collective Jewish psyche.
Scholem, however, did not invoke particular psychoanalytic concepts, such as Jung’s archetypes, or Freud’s Oedipus complex, to explain Jewish mysticism; he considered such an approach reductivist. The phenomena of Jewish mysticism are for the most part communal rather than individual; to interpret them as the outcome of psychological conflicts on the individual level would be like trying to explain art in terms of atomic physics. Like the sociologist Emile Durkheim, Scholem regarded the world of communal life as more than just the aggregate of the individual lives of which it is made up.
And here, on the issue of the individual versus the community, we touch on the relationship between Scholem the scholar and Scholem the Zionist. It is in this relationship, I believe, that the real bond between Scholem and Jewish mysticism is to be found. For there was something mystical in Scholem’s philosophy of Zionism.
Scholem thought of the Jewish historical entity as forming an organism with its own life and principles of development. His quarrel with the Wissenschaft des Judentums was that it treated Judaism as a corpse to be dissected. The selectivity of Wissenschaft scholars in choosing for study only those aspects of Judaism which could bear scrutiny by the respectable German bourgeoisie was, in Scholem’s eyes, motivated by the desire not so much to “bring Judaism up to date” as to abide by the pious maxim, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Moritz Steinschneider, one of the major luminaries of the Wissenschaft school, actually said openly that his task was to give the remains of Judaism a decent burial. Scholem reacted against this notion with all the force of his being.
Not only did his scholarship differ from that of the Wissenschaft, but his Zionism too differed from the Zionism of those who repudiated the history of the Diaspora and thought of themselves as making an entirely new start. He regarded Zionism as something both new and very old: as a new expression of the ancient energies of the Jewish national organism, and as further proof of the ability of that organism to perpetuate itself by fresh responses to the challenges of history. Zionism itself, moreover, was an assertion, made by the Jewish national organism, of the same kind that had been made unequivocally by the Kabbalah when it claimed an eternal, even divine, status for the Jewish nation (by identifying it with the Sefirah called Malkhut and with the Shekhinah). Further, Scholem saw the Kabbalah as the historical precursor of Zionism—in a way that could not be predicated of normative, non-mystical Judaism. For the Kabbalah had not waited passively for the exile to end in God’s good time, but had grappled agonizingly with the fact of exile, had given it metaphysical status, and had prepared a technique and a timetable for ending it and breaking through to a new mode of national being. This, in the Sabbatian movement, had led to disaster, but the breaking of the orthodox mold thus achieved had prepared the way for political Zionism.
For Scholem, as we have seen, this was the pattern of progress: creativeness was attained only through destruction and disaster, in which, however, the traditional was not repudiated but transformed. It is thus not surprising (at least in retrospect) that the young Scholem, inspired with Zionist feeling, should have reached out for a form of Judaism which he instinctively knew to have in it the seeds of destruction and creation, the movement of life and new birth, despite its outward appearance of uncouthness and even weirdness. It was by no means the choice of an academic, looking for a “subject” in which he could make his mark, but rather a spiritual choice and commitment.
Scholem had a vision of the wholeness of Jewish experience, and it was this vision, especially as it affected his deep attachment to Zionism, which acted as the motivation of his stupendous effort of scholarship. But it is necessary to distinguish sharply between this vision of wholeness and the relativism which has often been advocated in other branches of modern Jewish scholarship. Scholem attacked the idea of a “normative” Judaism in the sense of a dominant strain or direction of thought against which all other tendencies were deemed insignificant. But he did not seek to negate all unity or discernible pattern in Jewish history, or to divide off succeeding ages or generations in such a way as to deny their continuity one with the next. Least of all did he try to explain succeeding movements solely in terms of the social, economic, or sociological substrata prevailing at the time. His main aim was to display the dialectical character of Jewish culture: the presence within it of a perennial conflict between the forces of conservation and the forces of change, or between reason and instinct, or between orthodox theology and mythology (all ways of putting the same thing). In place of a single tradition, he postulated two traditions, each with its history and continuity—a tradition of orthodoxy and a tradition of dissent, or, in Freudian terms, a tradition of the ego and a tradition of the id. These were in continual conflict, but the conflict itself was another tradition.
It is only at this point that one may suggest certain limitations in Scholem’s approach. For him, talmudic Judaism is the domain of the ego, while mysticism is the domain of the id. But is this quite correct? Talmudic Judaism, after all, has its own dialectic, of halakhah (law) and aggadah (lore). How does this opposition relate to the dialectic of Talmudism and Kabbalism?
The aggadah is the mythology of the Talmud, the embodiment of its abstract ideas in stories, picturesque, impossible, and wild. Only part of this aggadah, however—indeed, a very small part—is mystical in character. Whereas the Kabbalah, as it developed in the Middle Ages, regarded itself as the heir of the aggadah and made it even more wild by giving it an entirely mystical meaning, the aggadah of the Talmud is developed in the service of non-mystical ideas. The Talmud’s is a kind of humanistic mythology that gives a background of dream and instinctual passion to ideas that are essentially rational: an example is the extraordinary story of the journey through time made by Moses to attend a lecture given by Rabbi Akiva, which he is unable to understand. (This little myth validates the concept of change and progress in the Oral Law.) But besides little humanistic myths, there are the big myths too, which are based on the Bible: the myth of the expulsion from Eden and of the Exodus from Egypt.
Such myths give subliminal support to the values that are articulated more explicitly in the halakhic portions of talmudic Judaism, and these, I would argue, are the values of adulthood. Mystical myths, by contrast, are a flight to infancy, or even as far back as the womb, since they are all concerned to break down the separations set up by individuality and personal relations. Such a flight is not ruled out by the Talmud. Indeed, it is conceded as one of the possibilities of the psyche, albeit one that can lead to knowledge of so basic a kind that it threatens the whole psychic structure, and must therefore be kept within strr incorrectly attributed to the Hasidim: the “normal mysticism” (this term is actually a coinage of Max Kadushin) which achieves closeness to God not by prying into His internal constitution or seeking incorporation into His mysteries, but by going about His business in the affairs of everyday life.
The question, then, is whether the Kabbalah should be regarded not as the unconscious mind of Judaism, but rather as its psychosis. To ask this question is not to return to a pre-Scholem attitude of amnesia and repression, by which the whole tradition is dismissed as if it had never existed. The Kabbalah’s space-flight through the geography of God is a descent into the abyss of the human mind and a daring exploration of the origins of creativeness. Nevertheless, to elevate the Kabbalah into a constitutive pole of the dialectic of Judaism may be to accord it too high a status. In order to endow it with this status, Scholem had to exaggerate the indigenousness of the Kabbalah and to play down (though he did not entirely ignore) the derivation of many of its elements from outside sources, such as Neoplatonism, Albigensianism, and indeed Christianity in general. The origins of Christianity itself, Scholem hints (though he never fully argues), can be understood in the light of the career of Sabbatai Sevi. The parallel between Sabbatai Sevi and Jesus, however, is very imperfect (the parallel between Nathan of Gaza and Paul is much stronger). The similarities can best be explained not by postulating a parallel evolution out of the dialectic of Judaism but rather by the direct influence of Christianity on Judaism.
Scholem’s distaste for the idea of a “normative Judaism” and his reaction against German selectivity can lead to an unwillingness to acknowledge outside influence, and therefore to a reluctance to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic. Even Scholem had to admit to reservations concerning the superstitiousness and demon-haunted dualism of Polish Hasidism; here he was almost forced to the point of admitting that some forms of Jewish existence could be inauthentic. But to admit this even in one case is to concede a point of principle: that there is an essence of Judaism in the light of which various Jewish manifestations (for example, Sabbatai Sevi’s assumption of divine status) can be judged, and if necessary, condemned. Such an essence is not “normative” in the institutional sense; we may be led by it to condemn aspects of orthodox as well as unorthodox Judaism. But acknowledging it does allow us to retain the possibility of characterizing Judaism as a doctrine or attitude toward life in general, and hence to recognize the universalist implications that reside within the organic national entity that is Judaism. For if there is one thing that has always been characteristic of Judaism, it has been the refusal to identify God entirely with the Jewish people, or to sink into any kind of nationalist idolatry.
Scholem’s Nietzschian view of creativity-through-destructiveness certainly has biblical support, in the apocalyptic picture of the “day of the Lord” when great catastrophes will be the prelude to a new dimension of life. Scholem pointed out that this apocalyptic view of the messianic age has alternated in Judaism with a more gradualist view, typified by the rationalist Maimonides, that the messianic age will be continuous with life as we know it and will not necessarily involve cosmic catastrophe. The controversy is strangely similar to that between revolutionary Marxists and gradualist socialists. The apocalyptic view is associated with a deep consciousness of crisis, while the rationalist view is associated with optimism about the possibility of human control of the processes of history.
Scholem may not be correct in identifying the gradualist view with strict adherence to the status quo, or in crediting catastrophism with the creative role. It is by no means clear that the talmudic vision of ordered, peaceful progress is less potent for change than the crisis theology of the Kabbalah—even though, in times of actual crisis, the Kabbalah does seem more relevant. We may well take a view typical of talmudic exegesis—that the catastrophic picture of the messianic age is what will happen if humanity deserves no better, while the rationalist picture is what could happen in the admittedly unlikely event that humanity achieves control of its destiny.
For after all, the catastrophic view of the Last Days, associated as it is with the idea of a radical change in the human soul, is in effect a cry of despair over human nature as it is, a prediction, or hope, that God will eventually admit the failure of His human experiment and substitute something more viable. This is a view into which Judaism has often lapsed. But its more durable, and characteristic, view, as projected in the basic myth of the Exodus, is not so deeply pessimistic. Scholem himself, in his political standpoints within the Zionist movement, always stood for control, reason, and optimism, and not for the vertigo of fanatical, magical messianism. Though he did not assign to rationalism the chief creative role in Jewish history, his intellectual practice was that of a rationalist Jew.
These reservations, however, cannot affect Scholem’s magnificent achievement of historical reconstruction. After his work, we can no longer think of the history of Judaism as one of outer tribulations but inner calm. The Jewish psyche has been swept by storms of conflict and passion that have brought it almost to the breaking point, while at the same time acquainting it with the heights of human experience. The healing processes of sanity have intervened not only to redirect but also to conceal. Scholem has told the truth fearlessly, and has thus helped us toward a kind of sanity that incorporates within itself the insights made possible only through an understanding of madness.
1 See Scholem's article, “Martin Buber's Hasidism,” COMMENTARY, October 1961, followed by Buber's article answering Scholem, “Interpreting Hasidism,” September 1963 and Scholem's reply, Letters from Readers, February 1964.
2 See David Biale's book, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History (1979), and my review of it in COMMENTARY, November 1979.