KABALLAH’S MOD­ERN PROPHET A new bi­og­ra­phy ex­plores Ger­shom Sc­holem’s mys­ti­cism.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY RANDY ROSEN­THAL Randy Rosen­thal is co-found­ing ed­i­tor of the lit­er­ary jour­nals the Cof­fin Fac­tory and Tweed’s Mag­a­zine of Lit­er­a­ture & Art. He stud­ies reli­gion and lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Divin­ity School.

Be­fore Ger­shom Sc­holem pub­lished “Ma­jor Trends in Jewish Mys­ti­cism” in 1941, Kab­balah had been ei­ther ig­nored or for­got­ten by 20th-cen­tury Jews. The ortho­dox and the sec­u­lar alike were un­com­fort­able with Kab­balah’s gnos­tic mythol­ogy, em­bar­rassed by its strange books teem­ing with demons, magic and sex. The less known about it the bet­ter. But Sc­holem thought dif­fer­ently. To him, Kab­balah was the vi­brant lost soul of a reli­gion that moder­nity had made stale. For many, Sc­holem’s writ­ings be­came Ju­daism. That is, his com­men­tary on scrip­ture has be­come in­cor­po­rated into the canon of Jewish mys­ti­cism. In her re­view of “Ma­jor Trends,” Sc­holem’s friend turned ad­ver­sary Han­nah Arendt wrote that his work changed “the whole pic­ture of Jewish his­tory.” Harold Bloom con­sid­ered Sc­holem “not less than a prophet,” declar­ing that for many con­tem­po­rary Jewish in­tel­lec­tu­als, “the Kab­balah of Ger­shom Sc­holem is now more nor­ma­tive than nor­ma­tive Ju­daism it­self.” And yet many peo­ple haven’t heard of him. Ge­orge Prochnik aims to change this with his book “Stranger in a Strange Land: Search­ing for Ger­shom Sc­holem and Jerusalem.”

Prochnik is the au­thor of sev­eral books, most re­cently “The Im­pos­si­ble Ex­ile: Ste­fan Zweig at the End of the World,” which won the Na­tional Jewish Book Award in 2014. In “Stranger in a Strange Land,” he again mixes bi­og­ra­phy and mem­oir, dig­ging deep into Sc­holem’s life and work while telling the story of his own re­la­tion­ship with Ju­daism and Jerusalem, the adopted city of both au­thor and sub­ject.

It was Sc­holem’s books that per­suaded Prochnik to fully con­vert to Ju­daism — his mother wasn’t Jewish — and move to Is­rael with his new wife when he was in his mid-20s. Prochnik had dis­cov­ered Sc­holem through the es­says of Wal­ter Ben­jamin, and much of “Stranger in a Strange Land” deals with the in­tense friend­ship be­tween Sc­holem and Ben­jamin. Both were born into af­flu­ent, sec­u­lar Jewish Ger­man fam­i­lies in fin de sié­cle Ber­lin and par­tic­i­pated in the city’s Jewish Youth Move­ment, where de­bates raged about so­cial­ism, an­ar­chism, Zion­ism, cu­bism and the re­jec­tion of bour­geois as­sim­i­la­tion.

Ben­jamin came to iden­tify more and more as Marx­ist, yet Sc­holem steered away from pol­i­tics and learned He­brew so he could study an­cient Jewish texts in their orig­i­nal lan­guage. At age 19 he wrote: “To­rah is not a law, just as Ju­daism is not a reli­gion. To­rah is the trans­mis­sion of God and divine things.” Soon after World War I, Sc­holem moved to Jerusalem and took up res­i­dence in what is now West Jerusalem’s ortho­dox neigh­bor­hood of Re­havia. There he changed his name from Ger­hard to Ger­shom, the name Moses gave his first son after es­cap­ing from Egypt.

In Jerusalem, Sc­holem im­mersed him­self in Jewish lit­er­a­ture. He even­tu­ally col­lected so many vol­umes that Bloom later said he’d never seen any­thing like it — “shelves ran along the ceil­ings as well as the walls,” he re­called. As Sc­holem buried him­self in He­brew schol­ar­ship, fas­cism over­whelmed Europe and the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion cre­ated havoc in Pales­tine. As Jewish refugees flooded the Holy Land, Zion­ism mu­tated from a ro­man­tic ideal to a ne­ces­sity of sur­vival.

Liv­ing amid the bru­tal ri­ots that broke out be­tween Arabs and Jews in Au­gust 1929 and con­tin­ued to erupt through­out the 1930s, Sc­holem, who by then was an es­teemed pro­fes­sor at He­brew Univer­sity, re­fused to put his schol­arly knowl­edge at the ser­vice of the Zion­ist po­lit­i­cal mis­sion, even though he was an early and com­mit­ted Zion­ist. For such am­biva­lence, he was at­tacked in the press. And just as his work strad­dled the line be­tween phi­los­o­phy and his­tory, his books ul­ti­mately be­came pop­u­lar after the war for be­ing both schol­arly and lit­er­ary, his tone as play­ful as it is meta­phys­i­cal. Be­sides Ben­jamin, his big­gest in­flu­ence was Kafka.

Sc­holem, who died in 1982, called Jewish mys­ti­cism the “Open Se­same of reli­gion,” and Pronch­nik, too, uses a col­or­ful style. He writes that as teenagers, Ben­jamin and Sc­holem “traded rad­i­cal mag­a­zines the way peo­ple now ex­change playlists” and that the mys­tic’s jour­ney is “a mul­ti­player quest game. In­stead of Dun­geons and Dragons, Palaces and Demons.” Kab­balah is pretty ab­struse, and Prochnik deftly con­denses Sc­holem’s Jewish mythol­ogy.

But it’s the way Prochnik weaves mem­oir through this in­tel­lec­tual bi­og­ra­phy that shows how thor­oughly the au­thor’s own life has twined with Sc­holem’s ideas. Just as a mys­tic as­cends from one palace to the next in Kab­balah cos­mol­ogy, Sc­holem’s life and work have led Prochnik from phase to phase of his own.


Ul­tra Ortho­dox Jews pray at the tomb of Rabbi Isaac Ben Solomon Luria, founder of the prac­ti­cal Kab­balah, in the an­cient ceme­tery of Safed, Is­rael, a city as­so­ci­ated with Jewish mys­ti­cism, in 2007.

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND Search­ing for Ger­shom Sc­holem and Jerusalem By Ge­orge Prochnik. Other. 522 pp. $27.95

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