A Life in Letters, 1914-1982 Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Anthony David Skinner, a research fellow at the Franz Rosenzweig Center of the Hebrew University, has gracefully and creatively accomplished a difficult intellectual project in this edition of letters by and to Gershom Scholem. Scholem was a founding scholar in the field of Jewish mysticism and a key figure in twentieth century Zionism in Palestine/Israel. Skinner has choreographed a sequence of letters in which Scholem’s voice emerges in dialogue with his family and with many of the most famous European thinkers of his era. These letters, as a dialogic encounter, illuminate not only the key relationships in Scholem’s life and his central intellectual concerns, but also the day-to-day experience of German Jews as the catastrophe of the Holocaust unfolded across Europe, as well as day-to-day life in Zionist Palestine and, later, in the newly founded state of Israel.

Skinner composes an introductory section for each cluster of chronologically arranged letters, allowing readers unfamiliar with Scholem’s cultural and intellectual milieu to understand both the historical context and philosophical backdrop to the letters themselves. Especially striking in this collection is the conceptual continuity among the letters: Each long section pulls readers into a multivoiced conversation, with the letters linked by both specific ideas as well as a palpable sense of the broader personal and cultural crises facing European Jews in the early and mid-twentieth century. The letters personify both suffering and remarkable intellectual energy. Equally important, given that Scholem emigrated to Palestine in 1923, the collection immerses readers in key debates surrounding the Zionist movement in Palestine and Israel.

Gershom Scholem was born in 1897 into an assimilated family well established in the German middle class. The opening section of letters, entitled “A Jewish Zarathustra, 1914- 1918,” shows a young and intellectually precocious Scholem debating socialist politics and Zionism with his leftist brother Werner. He explores his initial attraction to the thought of existentialist philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1975), which is followed by his later rejection of Buber’s ideas under the influence of Scholem’s close friend, critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). In these letters, Scholem also discusses his early turn to a philosophy of language and history as the context for his academic study of Judaism. Skinner’s introduction examines Scholem’s “existentialist philology” as the philosophical context for Scholem’s lifelong study of Kabbala and Jewish mysticism. This is especially helpful in situating Scholem’s thought within the broader context of Jewish studies.

Skinner also emphasizes the formative influences of war on Scholem’s life and work. There are, for example, interesting parallels here with the influence of war on philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), whose classic of Jewish existentialist philosophy, The Star of Redemption(1921), was composed during World War I. A Life in Letters contains correspondence between Scholem and Rosenzweig; through his juxtaposition of letters, Skinner raises important questions about the formative influences of war (and of “chaos,” and “exile”) on Jewish thought more generally.

In part 2 of A Life in Letters, “Unlocking the Gates, 1919-1932,” the unfolding post-World War I economic and political collapse in Germany sets the stage for Scholem’s emigration to Palestine and his growing preoccupation with his own scholarly work, a preoccupation supported by his family and friends, but also clearly the source of some impatience in those of his correspondents left struggling with the impending rise of National Socialism in Germany.

There are many letters in this section between Scholem and his mother Betty, who remained in Berlin and reported developments there to her son in Palestine. These letters are haunting in retrospect: Betty Scholem’s seemingly casual observations regarding outbursts of anti-Semitism in postwar Germany and calm reports that social unrest is increasingly channeled into scapegoat tactics aimed at German Jews create an undercurrent of inevitable horror and grief. Betty Scholem’s letters at the end of this section contain the first specific references to Hitler. Skillful editing by Skinner allows the broader historical scale of the impending catastrophe to become apparent in personal letters between mother and son.

Also in this section, readers will find Scholem’s impatient assessment of the famous German translation of the Hebrew Bible produced in the early 1920’s by...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)