The two major themes around which Scholem’s story revolve are the German question and the Jewish question. He lived in an age during which the two were closely linked; indeed, they would become even more closely and brutally linked in the two decades following the close of his book. Yet they are not really the same question.
The German question, as formulated at the time, dealt with the nature of the German Volk (people) and the nature of German patriotism. For Gerhard’s father, there was no question that he was a German citizen and that he should be totally loyal to the land of his birth. Gerhard’s two elder brothers presented variations on the same theme. The eldest, Reinhold, was so committed to Germany that he described himself as a “Deutsch-national”—a right-wing German nationalist— even after Adolf Hitler had come and gone. The second oldest, Erich, considered himself a liberal and a democrat. Like their mother, he was attracted to the literary and cultural manifestations of the German nation and desired an age in which politics would not be divisive. The third brother, Werner, who was only two years older than Gerhard, was a rebellious leftist. He toyed with Zionism but opted for Marxism, because he believed that it showed a broader approach to humanity. At one point Werner was a Reichstag (parliament) deputy for the German Communist Party. When the Nazis took over, he was arrested and was killed at Buchenwald. Gershom Scholem dedicated this book to him. Each of these three brothers, then, showed a different aspect of the question of what it meant to be a “good German.”
For Gerhard/Gershom, on the other hand, there was...
(The entire section is 681 words.)
Readers interested in plumbing the depths of the Jewish experience have turned to Scholem as “the master of mysticism,” to quote Arnaldo Momigliano. Others have dealt with questions of nationalism and religion, of politics and race, of economics and diplomacy, of ghettos and genocide. Studies of Zionism have emphasized the political side, including Shabtai Teveth’s Ben-Gurion: The Burning Ground (1987) or Jehuda Reinharz’s Chaim Weizmann (1985). Studies of Germany have looked at the pre-Nazi period through the lingering haze of the Holocaust, including Sarah Ann Gordon’s Hitler, Germany, and the “Jewish Question” (1984) or Steven Aschheim’s Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German Jewish Consciousness, 1800-1923 (1982). Reading the work of Scholem, on the other hand, is to see the German-speaking world through a new set of eyes. He did not flee to Palestine because of the impending cloud of Nazism. There were Nazis in Munich, to be sure, when he attended the university there. “The atmosphere in the city was unbearable,” he writes, but “I was little affected by this, for I had long since made my decision to leave Germany.”
For Gershom Scholem the voyage to Jerusalem was caused by attraction, not expulsion. He states that “the overwhelming majority of those who went to Eretz Yisrael from Germany in the early twenties were motivated by moral rather than by political considerations.” Though some of his recollections of the early days in Jerusalem might be colored by romantic memories, his approach to the time and the context gives the reader an uplifting view of what it was like to have been a pilgrim and pioneer in those days. In this context, his pursuit of the mystical Cabala begins to make sense. In that elusive body of work, he saw something of the essence of Judaism, something which was missing in the religious and political theories and practices of the most enthusiastic Jews of his day. The recognition by his peers that he may have been correct developed throughout his lifetime of scholarship and commentary.