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.