What Gershom Scholem’s take on Jewish mysticism can teach us now.
In the wake of so much political turmoil, we’re hungry for books that diagnose our broken world: books that lay out a grand ethical program and claw back some hope for humanity. Online, I’ve noticed a loose reading list coalescing. We’ve called on Hannah Arendt, who cut into the heart of evil and found a weak organ of banality instead of an engine of diabolic creativity; Walter Benjamin and his “weak messianic power,” which inspired us with the latent energy of history’s failed revolutions; the totalitarian gloom of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale; the grim prescience of Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. Surely, the thinking goes, we could be saved if we find the proper pattern, fitting our dismal and uncertain present to the prescriptions of history.
In Gershom Scholem, the historian who popularized the study of Kabbalistic and Messianic movements in Judaism, I’ve found a refreshing vision of revolutionary change and justice, stimulating the utopian imagination beyond the traditional touchstones of leftist thought. Though he was a friend of Benjamin’s and, more distantly, of Arendt’s, Scholem is the least widely read of the three and arguably the least accessible. A scholar of esoteric Jewish experience who rarely divulged his personal religious and political philosophy, Scholem resists the immediate, quotable relevance enjoyed by his contemporaries. His work features ecstatic stories of men who believed they were the Messiah, and incoherent descriptions of God’s celestial chariot—of limited use to political dissidents, war victims, and alienated workers. When the jackboots of authoritarianism are kicking in doors, Scholem’s apocalyptic religiosity can seem cloying. Why should we need to hallucinate the end of days? It’s here.
But Scholem wrote from a similar vantage. An adolescent and budding anarchist in Germany during World War I, he found himself trapped between a zealous nationalism and a bourgeois Jewish community that did nothing to prevent the bloodshed. Even the supposedly revolutionary Zionist movement, which enchanted Scholem, proved to be a disappointment when Martin Buber, one of its most influential intellectuals, endorsed the war. Later, after Scholem had moved to Jerusalem on a spiritual quest to deepen his engagement with Jewish literature and tradition, still trying to salvage redemptive threads of the cultural Zionist project, he again encountered devastation. The idealized return to the holy land engulfed Palestine in violence, culminating in the 1929 riots that claimed hundreds of Jewish and Arab lives. “Zionism has triumphed itself to death,” Scholem wrote in a 1931 letter to Walter Benjamin. “Now it is no longer a matter of saving us … but of jumping into the abyss that yawns between victory and reality.” A decade later, he witnessed the unimaginable tragedy of World War II and the Holocaust, which took the life of his close friend, Walter Benjamin, murdered his brother Werner, and annihilated much of European Jewry.
Scholem reacted to these waves of devastation by turning to the study of mystical movements in Jewish history. Working in Jerusalem at the National Library and, eventually, as a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University, he revitalized interest in Kabbalah, an esoteric tradition within Judaism. Dating back to the Talmudic era and thoroughly multifarious, Kabbalah is a mystical complement to Jewish religious life, driven by linguistic and metaphysical speculation. Rather than relegate the ecstatic and obscure threads of Kabbalah to a para-religious curiosity, Scholem detailed the evolution of Judaism as one that braided its mainline and mystical elements. In perhaps the best introduction to Scholem’s thought, his “Religious Authority and Mysticism,” he writes, “All mysticism has two contradictory or complementary aspects: the one conservative, the other revolutionary.” In his story of Judaism, the conservative tenets of the religion are tempered, subverted, and reinvented by mystical influences: blind sages meditating on the divine qualities of Hebrew letters, secretive rabbis forging mammoth tomes of speculative philosophy, and charismatic cult leaders claiming that they were the messiah. For Scholem, the history of Jewish mysticism held tradition open to innovation. He imagined a politics and ethics vitalized by an anarchistic spirit.
Why should a religious historian have any particular relevance to us now? After all, though he was a prolific scholar and an avid letter writer, Scholem rarely articulated his own philosophies, and he composed no sustained works of social critique. In 1960, he wrote to a friend, “I have made myself into one of the figures who camouflages himself in famous paintings.” He recedes into the negative space between his tableaus of historic mystical experience. In this absence, though, he articulates a radical vision of knowledge and truth.
In Stranger in a Strange Land, an excellent new biography of Scholem, George Prochnik writes: “Through all the provocative ideas that glittered through his writing, there was one concept that cropped up repeatedly, as a kind of choral refrain, which I found galvanizing: Kabbalah preserved the frame of monotheism while shattering the idol of monolithic truth.” Kabbalah never questions the ultimate authority of God. Instead, it transforms what it means to know this authority, bracketing human understanding as always falling short. God’s word is absolute, but withdrawn; eternally valid but always open for reinterpretation.
“The absolute word is as such meaningless, but it is pregnant with meaning,” Scholem writes. The divine can never be translated into human description or codified into law. Truth is always postponed, and the religious individual must labor in the impossible task of its comprehension and communication. This exertion creates a deep religious life, invulnerable to the stultifying effects of mundane obedience. “But it is precisely the shapeless core of his experience which spurs the mystic to his understanding of his religious world and its values … Here all religious authority is destroyed in the name of authority: here we have the revolutionary aspect of mysticism in its purest form.”
The image of a pious individual exploring an unsayable truth, wandering toward a withdrawn God, animates Scholem’s body of work. Mysticism argues that our systems of rationality and knowledge are always incomplete. Here Scholem finds a revolutionary religious spirit that won’t harden into orthodoxy: a mystical character moored to tradition, but still plastic.
This balance of conservative and revolutionary impulses fascinated Scholem, even in his earliest work. In his 1918 piece “The Bolshevik Revolution,” a young Scholem worries that although the revolution will be “the only high-point of the history of the world war,” it is ultimately compromised. Motivated by discrete ideology rather than a supernal dictate to strive toward a postponed good, the revolution justifies its authority and violence with the rigid rules of worldly philosophy. It will congeal into injustice and orthodoxy—the revolution will swallow its revolutionary character. Scholem wrestles with this self-eradicating character of revolution for his entire career, finding in Jewish mysticism a strange remedy. As long as knowledge can only tilt at an eternal and inaccessible truth, the revolution is sustained, bathed in the restorative waters of a continually reinterpreted tradition. For Scholem, this constant revolution held together by tradition, is his anarchistic, mystical utopia.
Now, more than ever, this strange utopia is worth reflecting on. Public interest in leftist thought has been reinvigorated by the rise of brutal nationalism and the collapse of neoliberalism’s Potemkin civility. We would be wise to take notes from Scholem, who found himself in a similar point of historical inflection. If we want these new transformative currents to elude the snares that have trapped and divided the left for a century, we need new, vitalizing material. Though there’s no shortage of postwar authors who punched against leftist orthodoxy on social, philosophical, and economic grounds—C.L.R. James, Chantal Mouffe, and Alexis Shotwell, to name a few of the best—Scholem occupies a unique position. He criticized radical projects as not revolutionary enough from the unconventional perspective of religious anarchism. Rather than relitigate the well-worn conflicts of economism, historicism, Stalinism, or the other hobbyhorses of internecine sparring on the left, Scholem charted another path, bursting with imaginative and anarchic potential.
If you’re interested in reading more about Scholem, Prochnik’s Stranger is the best place to start—it elegantly tracks Prochnik’s experiences in modern Jerusalem against Scholem’s life. As for Scholem work itself, I’d recommend the aforementioned essay in his collection On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, “Religious Authority and Mysticism.” It’s filled with colorful anecdotes and summarizes many of his motifs: divine inaccessibility, mystical creativity, and a history of revolutionary moments in the development of Jewish thought. In one of its most memorable sections, Scholem sketches such a world with a Kabbalistic reading of Moses delivering the law:
Every word of the Torah has six hundred thousand ‘faces.’ That is, layers of meaning or entrances, one for each of the children of Israel who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Each face is turned toward only one of them; he alone can see it and decipher it. Each man has his own unique access to Revelation. Authority no longer resides in a single unmistakable ‘meaning’ of the divine communication, but in its infinite capacity for taking on new forms.
Here we hear echoes of a rear-guardism that doesn’t destroy all authority, but radically democratizes it. Rummaging around in Scholem’s universe, dense as it is with esoteric symbols and stories, is revitalizing even when it’s not easy. Don’t let that frustrate you. His insight was that we don’t have master the truth to be transformed by it.
Erik Hinton is a developer and journalist focusing on interactive news. He currently works at The Outline. His work has previously appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and VICE.
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