I was thinking of calling this post “Gershom Scholem, Jewish Mysticism, and the UFO.” But I don’t want to be accused of false advertising. The UFOlogical relevance of Gershom Scholem, and the domain of learning of which he was undisputed master, will become clear only gradually. I’ll need a couple more posts to unpack it.
He was born in Berlin in 1897, died in Jerusalem in 1982. He was the greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism of the past two centuries–perhaps the greatest ever. He belongs to what I think of as the second tier of the super-intellects of the human race. The first is reserved for those rare geniuses—Darwin, Freud and Einstein come to mind—who’ve transformed our understanding of our universe and ourselves, whose names are instantly recognizable and, often made into adjectives, have become part of the language. We talk about “Freudian slips.” Innumerable autos bear the emblem of a legged fish labeled “Darwin,” and we’re expected to know at once what this means and what it says about the driver’s religious opinions.
Scholem isn’t quite in that exalted company. But close to it. His understanding of the Jewish mystical tradition—something that, before Scholem, lots of people didn’t want to admit even existed—casts its shadow over everyone today with a serious interest in Kabbalah and other forms of Jewish mysticism. It’s not always a shadow you want to be in. You can disagree with Scholem, you can rebel against him—and let me tell you, this is a great deal easier to do since he’s dead and (maybe) can’t hit back. But it’s always him you’re rebelling against.
He’s sort of a like a restaurant whose dishes are often not to your taste. Some of them you send back, complaining. But you can’t stop going to that restaurant. It’s the only one in town.
Scholem cast Jewish mysticism in the framework of a 2000-year story, or maybe call it a drama. The first act opens with the “merkavah mystics” of antiquity, who undertook reputedly hazardous out-of-body journeys—“shamanic journeys,” the anthropologists would say—their goal the divine merkavah or “chariot” seen by the prophet Ezekiel. (Kind of like the modern UFO abductions, in more ways than one.) Then a few rather tame scenes involving a “pietist” sect in medieval Germany, before we get to the really good stuff: Kabbalah.
Here Scholem’s story divides itself into three episodes. First, the classical Kabbalah of the book called the Zohar, at the end of the 13th century. Then the Kabbalistic renaissance of the 16th century, in the town of Safed in the Holy Land, associated with the name of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Followed by the freakiest, most compelling segment of all, the one that should have brought the curtain down if Scholem hadn’t felt compelled to write a final chapter on the Hasidim of Eastern Europe. This is the fantastic story of Sabbatai Zevi, the “mystical Messiah” of the 17th century, whose surprise conversion to Islam pulled the Kabbalah headlong into the realms of heresy and blasphemy that (according to Scholem) were latent in it from the start.
Scholem set forth this drama in his dense yet compelling masterwork, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. I’m bewitched by its power. So are we all. Support it or call for revolution against it, it’s what sets our agendas. Will the 22nd century, or the 23rd, manage to step outside Scholem’s shadow, think outside his categories? Maybe. I’m not holding my breath. For the present–Scholem’s the one.
That’s Gershom Scholem the scholar. Who was Gershom Scholem the man?
I had a total of three contacts with him, two of them while he was still alive. The first was in the late autumn of 1974. I’d been in Israel for a little over a year. I had come to write my Ph.D. dissertation, gotten caught up in a Mideast war, and begun to acclimatize myself to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s distinctly Germanic academic culture. I met some of the most outstanding scholars of Judaism in the world. Always I hoped one of them would offer to introduce me to Scholem.
“Scholem really ought to meet you, hear about what you’re doing”—those were the words I dreamed of hearing. I never did. The Israeli scholars were kind, helpful, encouraging. Nobody offered to make the Introduction.
Finally someone did.
“Call him up!” said Professor T., a teacher of mine from the US. He was visiting Jerusalem; he’d spent the afternoon talking with Scholem, he told me, and they had a great time. “Tell him you’re my student!” I didn’t have to be asked twice.
That evening, after supper, I screwed up my courage. I dialed the telephone number Professor T. had given me. The great man answered. I introduced myself. “I’m a student of Professor T.; he suggested I get in touch with you …”
The line went dead.
I don’t say he hung up on me. I don’t know that for sure. Back in those days the telephone service in Israel was only intermittently reliable; there might have been some perfectly harmless explanation. But I didn’t have the chutzpah to call back. I spent a half-hour cursing professors who think of Mount Olympus as their natural habitat. Then I went on with my life.
It’s often occurred to me: maybe Scholem didn’t enjoy his conversation with Professor T. as much as Professor T. thought he did. I’ll never know. (Neither man is still alive.)
Fast-forward three years, to late 1977. By then I’d written my dissertation, gotten my degree. The dissertation was entitled Merkabah and Ma’aseh Merkabah According to Rabbinic Sources; it was about those mysterious travelers to Ezekiel’s “chariot,” and what the ancient rabbinic texts might have to say about their journeys. I made a couple dozen copies. I had them bound in sky-blue covers, as befitted a brand-new professor at the University of North Carolina.
(“If God is not a Tar Heel, why is the sky Carolina blue?”—old UNC saying.)
I sent one to Gershom Scholem. A few months later he responded.
His letter was in Hebrew, and three or four pages long. I probably still have it somewhere. He wrote with the most elaborate courtesy, referring to me in third person as “the gentleman,” thanking me for my wonderful gift. I was relieved. In my dissertation I’d questioned some of his views, and I wasn’t at all sure how he’d take it.
As the letter went on the courtesy turned bitter. Sarcastic. By the end it fairly dripped with venom. An unbridgeable gulf, an abyss–so Scholem declared–lay between my (false, perverted) views and his own. In the light of that gulf, he wrote, “I am at last able to understand what had long been a mystery to me, why the gentleman never saw fit even once to get in touch with me during the years we were in Jerusalem together.”
I wrote back, reminding him of the interrupted telephone call. I never heard from him again.
My third contact with Scholem was in 1989, seven years after his death. By then I was a tenured professor at UNC. I spent that summer in Israel, trying to stuff myself with as much Kabbalah and Sabbatian literature—that is, the writings of Sabbatai Zevi’s followers, which I’d set myself to translate into English—as I could possibly cram into my brain and my note cards. I camped out in what was by then called the “Gershom Scholem Library,” housed in the library of the Hebrew University (currently the “National Library of Israel”), consisting mostly of the late Scholem’s massive collection of books on Jewish mysticism, meticulously catalogued and made available to the public. A portrait of Scholem, face heavy with sadness, presided over his beloved books.
One day, taking a break from my reading, I browsed among the shelves and came upon–a copy of my dissertation. Carolina-blue binding and all.
How nice, I thought. How flattering, that the great scholar had my work in his library.
Then it dawned on me. This was the very same item I’d mailed him twelve years earlier. With trembling hand I pulled it from the shelf.
He’d read it—that was clear. It was filled with marginal notes, some in Hebrew, some in English. Most of them nasty.
I felt dizzy. I felt like a skeletal hand had shot forth from the grave and gripped me by the wrist. Pulled my face down to its moldering skull. Whispered in my ear with its fleshless lips, its spectral tongue: YOU IDIOT!!!
Finding my dissertation changed the way I thought about the Scholem Library. Still a magnificent resource–still a privilege to be able to do research in it. Yet there was a dimension of cruelty, of humiliation, that was downright horrific. The shelves were filled with offprints of articles written by Scholem’s students. Lovingly they’d presented them to the Master–you could read their effusive handwritten dedications, bursting with admiration and devotion. And in the margins: Scholem’s comments, critical, icy-cold. Now made public, for them to read.
For me to read. For a professor–or anybody–to visit from North Carolina or anywhere else, and find out exactly what their idol thought of them–which normally wasn’t much.
It felt like something out of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. The Primal Horde … the Father slain, then remorsefully worshiped, by his rebel sons … a shrine erected to his eternal greatness. Gershom Scholem, as avatar of the god of Knowledge, of Discovery, of Intellectual Mastery. Which are fine things indeed. But are they quite the same as wisdom?
“A person’s wisdom maketh the face to shine,” said King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 8:1). In that shining is the implication of kindness, tenderness, love. Not quite the pitiless brilliance of the super-intellect; and the hierarchies, the “tiers” of genius of which I earlier spoke, are irrelevant to it. Not necessarily inimical. But irrelevant.
“Wisdom, where shall it be found?” asks Job (28:12). The jury’s still out on that one.
by David Halperin
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