Gershom Scholem - Theories and Scholarship

Theories and Scholarship

Scholem directly contrasted his historiographical approach on the study of Jewish mysticism with the approach of the 19th-century school of the Wissenschaft des Judentums ("Science of Judaism"), which sought to submit the study of Judaism to the discipline of subjects such as history, philology, and philosophy.

Jewish mysticism was seen as Judaism's weakest scholarly link. Scholem told the story of his early research when he was directed to a prominent rabbi who was an expert on Kabbalah. Seeing the rabbi's many books on the subject, Scholem asked about them, only to be told: "This trash? Why would I waste my time reading nonsense like this?" (Robinson 2000, p. 396)

The analysis of Judaism carried out by the Wissenschaft school was flawed in two ways, according to Scholem:

  • It studied Judaism as a dead object rather than as a living organism.
  • It did not consider the proper foundations of Judaism, the non-rational force that, in Scholem's view, made the religion a living thing.

In Scholem's opinion, the mythical and mystical components were at least as important as the rational ones, and he thought that they, rather than the minutiae of Halakha, were the truly living core of Judaism. In particular, he disagreed with what he considered to be Martin Buber's personalization of Kabbalistic concepts as well as what he argued was an inadequate approach to Jewish history, Hebrew language, and the land of Israel.

In the Weltanschauung of Scholem, the research of Jewish mysticism could not be separated from its historical context. Starting from something similar to the Gegengeschichte of Friedrich Nietzsche he ended up including less normative aspects of the Judaism in the public history.

Specifically, Scholem thought that Jewish history could be divided into three periods:

  • During the Biblical period, monotheism battles myth, without completely defeating it.
  • During the Talmudic period, some of the institutions—for example, the notion of the magical power of the accomplishment of the Sacraments—are removed in favour of the purer concept of the divine transcendence.
  • During the medieval period, the impossibility of reconciling the abstract concept of God of Greek philosophy with the personal God of the Bible, led Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, to try to eliminate the remaining myths and to modify the figure of the living God. After this time, mysticism, as an effort to find again the essence of the God of their fathers, became more widespread.

The notion of the three periods, with its interactions between rational and irrational elements in Judaism, led Scholem to put forward some controversial arguments. He thought that the 17th century messianic movement, known as Sabbatianism, was developed from the Lurianic Kabbalah. In order to neutralize Sabbatianism, Hasidism had emerged as a Hegelian synthesis. Many of those who joined the Hasidic movement, because they had seen in it an Orthodox congregation, considered it scandalous that their community should be associated with a heretical movement.

In the same way, Scholem produced the hypothesis that the source of the 13th century Kabbalah was a Jewish gnosticism that preceded Christian gnosticism.

The historiographical approach of Scholem also involved a linguistic theory. In contrast to Buber, Scholem believed in the power of the language to invoke supernatural phenomena. In contrast to Walter Benjamin, he put the Hebrew language in a privileged position with respect to other languages, as the only language capable of revealing the divine truth. Scholem considered the Kabbalists as interpreters of a pre-existent linguistic revelation.

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