Walter Laqueur pays homage to the Israeli historian, Gershom Scholem

Historians in the News
tags: Walter Laqueur, Gershon Scholem



Among Israeli intellectuals of his generation, Gershom Scholem had by far the greatest impact both at home and abroad. At home, Geulah Cohen, the Joan of Arc of Lehi (the so-called Stern Gang), sat at his feet, but so, in the early years, had Berl Katznelson, the guru of the Labor Party, as had seemingly every other Israeli politician, writer, and scholar. By the time I was a regular guest at his home in the 1960s and 1970s, a visit to Scholem had become part of the program for visiting European and American intellectuals who came to Jerusalem for a week or two; there should have been signposts in Rehavia similar to those in other parts of the capital, guiding visitors to his book-lined home on 28 Abarbanel Street. (He would be pleased to know that streets are now named after him in Israel.)

It is not easy to explain the spread of Scholem’s fame. His field, the history of Kabbalah, was literally esoteric, and even if many intellectuals understood that the irrational had become inescapable in the 20th century, few had ever heard of the texts and figures Scholem worked on outside of the pages of his own books and essays, preeminently Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, let alone read them. Nonetheless, he had a deserved reputation not only as a genius who had almost single-handedly created an academic field, but also as someone who had profound things to say not just about Jewish history and Zionism, but also about philosophy, history, and politics. Moreover, given the nature of his expertise, along with his enormous self-confidence, he came to be thought of as a kind of magician. And though sometimes prickly, he liked company (and he liked to gossip), so the stream of distinguished visitors, invited visits abroad, and academic honors continued until his death in 1982.

In the decades since then, the study of Scholem himself has become almost its own academic subfield—just this year there were international conferences devoted to him in Jerusalem and at Indiana University. Part of this is due to his relationships with other extraordinary German-Jewish intellectuals of his generation, especially the philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin. Throughout their friendship (which Scholem chronicled in a moving memoir, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship), he fought an uphill battle to get Benjamin interested in Jewish culture and even to come to

Israel. Preoccupied with messy love affairs, Baudelaire, his relationship with Bertolt Brecht, and Marxist theory, Benjamin didn’t get much further than learning the Hebrew alphabet, nor did he realize that the world around him was on fire until it was too late. He committed suicide on the French-Spanish border while trying to escape from Nazi-occupied France in 1940.

In 1941, Scholem dedicated Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism to his memory. For several decades now, Benjamin has been at least as celebrated a figure as Scholem himself, but that we know of him at all is one of Scholem’s achievements. He shares that credit with two of Benjamin’s other friends, Hannah Arendt and one of the leaders of the Frankfurt school of critical theory, Theodor Adorno, both of whom collaborated with Scholem in championing Benjamin’s works to skeptical publishers. This becomes clear in the recently published correspondence between Scholem and Adorno, which nicely complements the more famous correspondence between Scholem and Arendt, published in full in Germany five years ago (reviewed in these pages by Steven E. Aschheim, “Between New York and Jerusalem,” Winter 2011). ...




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