In Honor of the 2nd-Century’s Greatest Scholar of Kabbalah, an Essay by the 20th Century’s

April 30 2021

Today is the minor Jewish holiday of Lag ba-Omer, which marks the end of the period of mourning that follows Passover. In Israel it is celebrated with pilgrimages to the birthplace of Shimon bar Yoḥai, the 2nd-century sage credited with authoring the Zohar. According to legend, he composed this book, the primary text of Kabbalah, during the several years he spent hiding from the Romans in a cave—from which he emerged on this day. No scholar in modern times did more to make the Jewish mystical tradition respectable and understandable than Gershom Scholem (1897-1982). In this essay, published in Commentary in 1980, Scholem tells the story of how he came to devote his life to the study of Kabbalah:

My interest in the Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism—manifested itself early on, while I was still living in Germany, my native country. Perhaps it was because I was endowed with an affinity for this area from the “root of my soul,” as the Kabbalists would have put it, or perhaps it was my desire to understand the enigma of Jewish history that was involved—and the existence of the Jews over the millennia is an enigma, no matter what all the “explanations,” in such profuse supply, may have to say about it.

The great historian Heinrich Graetz, whose History of the Jews had entranced me as a young man, displayed the greatest aversion to everything connected with religious mysticism, as did almost all the founders of the school of German Jewish scholarship known as Wissenschaft des Judentums in the last century. Graetz calls the Zohar, the classic work of the Spanish Kabbalah, a book of lies, and employs a whole dictionary of invectives whenever he speaks of the Kabbalists. Yet it seemed improbable to me—I could not say why—that Kabbalists could have been such charlatans, buffoons, and masters of tomfoolery as he made them out to be. Something seemed to me to be hidden there, and it was this that attracted me. The lasting impression made on me by Martin Buber’s first two volumes on Ḥasidism—written in German and drenched in the romanticism and flowery metaphors of the Vienna School and the Jugendstil—must also have played a part in this attraction.

In any case, from 1915 on I timidly began reading literature about the Kabbalah, and later tried my hand at original texts of kabbalistic and ḥasidic literature. This was fraught with difficulties in Germany at that time, for though it was always possible to find Talmud scholars, there was no one to serve as a guide in this area. . . . So I had to try to familiarize myself with these sources on my own.

Between 1915 and 1918 I filled quite a few notebooks with excerpts, translations, and reflections on the Kabbalah, though they were still far from scholarly efforts or insights. But the fever had taken hold, and in the spring of 1919 I decided to shift the focus of my academic work from mathematics to Jewish studies and to begin a scholarly investigation of the Kabbalah, at least for a few years.

To be sure, the universities did not encourage Jewish studies in those days. Today, when there are hardly any Jews remaining in Germany, all the German universities are eager to establish chairs in Judaica. But in those days, when Germany had a lively Jewish population in great ferment, not a single university or provincial ministry would hear of Jewish studies. (What Heinrich Heine wrote is quite true: if there were only one Jew in the world, everyone would come running to have a look at him, but now that there are too many, people try to look away.) Nonetheless, I wanted to try and unlock these mysterious texts, written in peculiar symbols, and make them comprehensible—to myself and to others.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Commentary

More about: German Jewry, Gershom Scholem, Hasidism, Kabbalah, Lag ba'Omer, Martin Buber

 

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at 19FortyFive

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship