Gershom Scholem Biography


The twentieth century scholar and historian Gershom Scholem (SHOH-luhm) singlehandedly brought Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, into serious consideration and radically altered the way mysticism is viewed in the course of Jewish history. Born Gerhard Scholem to an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, Scholem early rejected both Jewish assimilation and German nationalism in his search for a Jewish identity. At the age of fourteen he became a Zionist, which for him was a starting point, a place where both secular and orthodox Jews could find common ground in their identification as Jews. His thinking was not so much based on a political concern for the creation of a national homeland as it was a repudiation of the values of his parents as Germans and as members of the middle class.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 left Scholem further estranged from family and society. He opposed the war, although most German Zionists and Jewish leaders embraced the nation’s war effort. Ashamed of his son’s antipatriotism, Scholem’s father in early 1917 expelled him from home without financial support. The young man avoided military service by feigning a psychotic condition and spent the following year in Switzerland. In 1919 he returned to Germany to pursue a doctorate and eventually turned to the study of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah was purposely left untouched as a formal academic pursuit by Jewish historiography as it was defined by the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment of the nineteenth century. The Haskalah directed and shaped the course of Jewish thought and thus the intellectual environment of Scholem’s youth. The movement established a new “science of Judaism” that provided a “rationalist” approach to historiography and highlighted the influence of the legalistic and rational elements of the Talmudic tradition. Mysticism, unpalatable in an age of reason, was...

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Alter, Robert. Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. A critical analysis of Scholem’s (and Kafka’s and Benjamin’s) response to modernity.

Aschheim, Steven E. Scholem, Arendt, Klemperer: Intimate Chronicles in Turbulent Times. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Studies Scholem’s work as well as that of Hannah Arendt and Victor Klemperer. Includes bibliographic references and index.

Biale, David. Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Discusses Scholem and his work as an attempt to rewrite Jewish history.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Gershom Scholem. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of critical essays on Scholem’s work.

Dan, Joseph. Gershom Scholem and the Mystical Dimension of Jewish History. New York: New York University Press, 1987. Provides an excellent overview of Scholem’s scholarship.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul, ed. Gershom Scholem: The Man and His Work. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. A collection of essays that explores the impact of Scholem’s work and evaluates its significance.