In the past two years, four new biographies of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), the pioneering historian of the Kabbalah, have appeared in English. Born to a middle-class German-Jewish family, Scholem rebelled against his assimilated upbringing, embraced Zionism, studied Judaism and Hebrew, and in 1923 left Europe for the Land of Israel. He went on to revolutionize the study of Jewish history through his extensive analyses of mystical texts. In his review of these books, Steven Aschheim considers their subject’s complex attitudes toward Zionism and his enduring appeal:
[A]though Scholem resembled fellow exiled Jewish intellectuals of his generation such as his [close friend] Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss, who have been similarly lionized (and were his real interlocutors), he was the only one of them who [actually settled in] Israel. Their commons suspicion of bourgeois conventions, their postliberal sensibility, their rejection of all orthodoxies, and their fascination with esotericism were (and continue to be) attractive to those convinced that conventional approaches to the modern predicament were (and are) not viable. All sought novel answers to what they regarded as the bankruptcy of 20th-century civilization and its ideological options.
Perhaps, too, Scholem’s fascination for contemporary audiences is linked to a certain affinity between his concentration on textuality, rupture, paradox, [and] the abyss and the doubts and ironies of our postmodern world. But, in contrast to the postmodernists, Scholem maintained his belief . . . in the possibility of redemption. “A remnant of theocratic hope,” he wrote, “accompanies that reentry into world history of the Jewish people that at the same time signifies its truly utopian return to its own history.” Yet this hope was always combined with a delicious subversiveness, as he remarked when he was nearly eighty: “I never have stopped believing that the element of destruction, with all the potential nihilism in it, has always been the basis of utopian hope.”