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. Read More