Gershom Scholem

5 Dec 1897
21 Feb 1982
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Gerhard Scholem who, after his immigration from Germany to Palestine, changed his name to Gershom Scholem (December 5, 1897 – February 21, 1982), was a German-born Israeli philosopher and historian. He is widely regarded as the founder of the modern, academic study of Kabbalah, becoming the first Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His close friends included Walter Benjamin and Leo Strauss, and selected letters from his correspondence with those philosophers have been published.

Scholem is best known for his collection of lectures, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941) and for his biography Sabbatai Zevi, the Mystical Messiah (1973). His collected speeches and essays, published as On Kabbalah and its Symbolism (1965), helped to spread knowledge of Jewish mysticism among non-Jews.

Gerhard Scholem was born in Berlin to Arthur Scholem and Betty Hirsch Scholem. His interest in Judaica was strongly opposed by his father, a printer, but, thanks to his mother’s intervention, he was allowed to study Hebrew and the Talmud with an Orthodox rabbi.

Gerhard Scholem met Walter Benjamin in Munich in 1915, when the former was seventeen years old and the latter was twenty-three. They began a lifelong friendship that ended only with Benjamin’s suicide, committed while fleeing Nazi persecution in 1940.

In 1915 Scholem enrolled at the Humboldt University of Berlin, where he studied mathematics, philosophy, and Hebrew, and where he came into contact with Martin Buber, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, and Zalman Shazar.

In Berlin, Scholem first befriended and became an admirer of Leo Strauss (their correspondence would continue throughout his life). He subsequently studied mathematical logic at the University of Jena under Gottlob Frege. He was in Bern in 1918 with Benjamin when he met Elsa (Escha) Burchhard, who became his first wife.

Scholem returned to Germany in 1919, where he received a degree in semitic languages at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich. Less notable in his academic career was his establishment of the fictive University of Muri with Benjamin.

Scholem wrote his doctoral thesis on the oldest known kabbalistic text, Sefer ha-Bahir. Drawn to Zionism, and influenced by Buber, he emigrated in 1923 to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he devoted his time to studying Jewish mysticism and became a librarian, and eventually head of the Department of Hebrew and Judaica at the National Library.

He later became a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Scholem taught the Kabbalah and mysticism from a scientific point of view and became the first professor of Jewish mysticism at the university in 1933, working in this post until his retirement in 1965, when he became an emeritus professor. In 1936, he married his second wife, Fania Freud.

Scholem’s brother Werner was a member of the ultra-left “Fischer-Maslow Group” and the youngest ever member of the Reichstag, representing the Communist Party (KPD) in the German parliament. He was expelled from the party and later murdered by the Nazis during the Third Reich. Gershom Scholem, unlike his brother, was vehemently opposed to both Communism and Marxism.

Scholem died in Jerusalem, where he is buried next to his wife in Sanhedria. Jürgen Habermas delivered the eulogy.

In the aftermath of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Scholem sharply criticised Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and decried her lack of “ahavath Yisrael” (solidarity with the Jewish people). Arendt responded that she never loved any collective group, and that she doesn’t love the Jewish People but was only part of them. Due to this bitter fight, which was exchanged in various articles, Scholem broke off ties with Arendt and refused to forgive her.

Scholem wrote to Hans Paeschke that he “knew Hannah Arendt when she was a socialist or half-communist and…when she was a Zionist. I am astounded by her ability to pronounce upon movements in which she was once so deeply engaged, in terms of a distance measured in light years and from such sovereign heights.”

Various other Israeli and Jewish academics also broke off ties with Arendt, claiming that her lack of solidarity with the Jewish People in their time of need was appalling, along with her victimization of various Nazis. Pre-Eichmann trial, Scholem also opposed Arendt’s interpretation (in letters and the introduction to Illuminations) of Walter Benjamin as a Marxist thinker who predated the New Left. For Scholem, Benjamin had been an essentially religious thinker, whose turn to Marxism had been merely an unfortunate, but inessential and superficial, expedient.

Various stories and essays of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges were inspired or influenced by Scholem’s books. He has also influenced ideas of Umberto Eco, Jacques Derrida, Harold Bloom, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, and George Steiner.

American author Michael Chabon cites Scholem’s essay, The Idea of the Golem, as having assisted him in conceiving the Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

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