Friday, May 01, 2015

New Hebrew biography of Scholem

MASTER OF MYSTICISM: Finally, this author puts the great Gershom Scholem in context. A new Hebrew biography of is the first to place the philosopher-historian’s remarkable breadth in a historical light, while offering a coherent understanding of his professional and political development. (Nitzan Lebovic, Haaretz). “From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back: Gershom Scholem Between Israel and Germany,” by Noam Zadoff (in Hebrew), Carmel Books, 119 shekels.

The biography focuses less on Scholem’s personal life – it ignores, for example, the story of his wife’s affair – but develops a coherent understanding of his professional and political development. For Zadoff, Scholem’s story leads “From Berlin to Jerusalem,” as Scholem titled his own autobiographical account of his life and of his friendship with Walter Benjamin, but also along a path that led back to Berlin (hence the title of the book). His story leads from his political commitment, during the 1920s, to Brit Shalom – the first peace organization in the Middle East, which called for a binational state in Palestine – to his commitment to the search for lost Jewish libraries after the Holocaust. The biography also explores his friendships and rivalries with well-known intellectuals, and devotes much attention to Scholem’s involvement with the Eranos Circle in Switzerland, which brought him together with a small group of thinkers who were interested in similar topics. They included C.G. Jung, Karl Kerényi, Mircea Eliade, as well as Scholem’s colleague Martin Buber, and his protégé Yosef Weiss (Zadoff edited the correspondence between Scholem and Weiss, in Hebrew).

The narrative, even beyond the biographical details, is shaped by the history and rhetoric of spiritual Zionism and the hope for the revival of an ancient and secret language; Scholem extended his understanding of kabbala to Hebrew as a whole.

Zadoff follows Scholem through his endeavors to institutionalize his philosophy of language and history of kabbala. Scholem did both as a leading scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where his influence and reputation grew exponentially following his appointment, but nevertheless failed to cross the intellectual-political Rubicon and win adherents among the political elite. Being unable to cross that threshold, and watching helplessly the rise of messianic forms of Zionist nationalism, convinced Scholem that his intellectual path should turn back to Europe.
And this conclusion is intriguing:
Undoubtedly, Scholem’s powerful impact and intellectual contributions will continue to occupy us, even haunt us. This exceptionally tall man with protruding ears called himself “a metaphysical clown,” and prepared his own legacy by planting hints and secrets in his own texts, thereby promising a wealthy suggestive world to his followers “[or at least ] those of them who have a sixth bibliographical sense which is a must for the keepers of secrets.” After all, he admitted to Weiss (in a letter written March 31, 1960), [“I have] planted signs like one of the figures hiding in the well-known paintings.”
What is that about?