Two Great Thinkers, Hounded from Germany as Jews, and Their Very Different Paths

May 31, 2022 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

Gershom Scholem’s vast scholarship, especially his magisterial works on Jewish mysticism and messianism, still plays a foundational role in the field of Jewish studies. And even if he is read less than he once was, Scholem’s friend Theodor Adorno—whose synthesis of Hegel, Marx, and Freud helped to shape the New Left—has etched an enduring mark on the academy and beyond. Their correspondence, stretching from 1939 to Adorno’s death in 1969, has recently been translated into English and published in full. In his review, Adam Kirsch reflects on their similarities and differences, and on their mutual friendship with Walter Benjamin—a thinker who, unlike them, didn’t survive exile from Germany. (Free registration required.)

Born around the turn of the century into assimilated, bourgeois German Jewish families, they were radicalized by modern literature, World War I, and the rise of fascism and Communism. But they responded to an age of crisis in very different ways, particularly when it came to the Jewishness that determined the course of their lives.

Scholem’s and Adorno’s contrasting attitudes can be seen in their very names. Gerhard Scholem was born in Berlin in 1897 and became a Zionist as a teenager; in 1923 he moved to Palestine and adopted a Hebrew name, Gershom. Scholem’s letters to Adorno are often signed Gerhard—it must have felt natural when he was writing in German—but when Adorno invited him to lecture in Frankfurt, Scholem noted, “A friendly reminder: it is important to me that, in all official correspondence and announcements, I am referred to only by my legal name, Gershom Scholem . . . and not by the German Gerhard.” The name declared Scholem’s rejection of Germanness, and he wanted his postwar German audience to be aware of it.

Adorno, on the other hand, changed his name to minimize its Jewishness. He was born in Frankfurt in 1903 as Theodor Wiesengrund, the son of a German Jewish father who had converted to Protestantism, and his first letter to Scholem is signed “Teddie Wiesengrund.” But as an adult he began to use the name of his mother’s Italian Catholic family, and his signature in the letters soon changes to “Theodor W. Adorno.” After the war he was one of the few Jewish exiles to return to Germany, spending his last twenty years as the influential leader of the Frankfurt School of critical theory at the University of Frankfurt.

This difference was also reflected in Scholem’s and Adorno’s intellectual paths. Scholem, whose Zionism was always more spiritual and cultural than political, learned Hebrew and pioneered the academic study of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. In his writings on antinomian mystics and false messiahs, like the 17th-century heretic Sabbetai Tsvi, he redrew the conventional map of Jewish history, emphasizing the irrational, transgressive forces that came to the fore in moments of catastrophe and renewal—like the one Scholem himself was living through.

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