Gershom Scholem

views updated Jun 27 2018

Gershom Scholem

The Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was a noted authority on Jewish mysticism. He examined the origins and influence of the Cabalist movement.

Born in Berlin, Germany, on December 5, 1897, Gershom Scholem was educated at Berlin, Jena, Bern, and Munich universities. In 1923 he emigrated to Palestine, which became his permanent residence. In 1925 he became professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University, a post he retained until 1965. He was dean of the university from 1941 to 1943. In 1946 he was assigned the task of salvaging Jewish cultural treasures in the aftermath of World War II. He was a visiting professor and lecturer at many American universities, including Brown University (1956-1957).

Scholem's scholarly achievements were enormous in the field of Jewish mysticism. No other contemporary writer and, indeed, no former student of this field equaled him in breadth of knowledge, depth of perception, and power of synthesis. His publications were numerous, and they included Das Buch Bahir (1923); Bibliografia Kabbalistica (1927); Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism (1946); The Beginnings of Kabbalism (1949); Sabbatai Zvi and the Sabbataian Movement (2 vols., 1957); Jewish Gnosticism and Talmudic Tradition (1960); Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik (1960); Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit (1962); Judaica (1963); On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (1965); Walter Benjamin (1965); The Messianic Idea in Judaism (1971); Kabbalah (1974); and On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (1976).

Before Scholem's time academic study of Jewish mysticism was not well developed. Scholem set out to master the manuscriptal tradition and thus to provide himself with an indispensable and superb instrument for analyzing the origin, the nature, and the history of Jewish mysticism. His work emphasized the Cabalist movement, since this was the only genuine form of mysticism developed by Judaism. Scholem examined the 12th-century rise of Cabalism in Provence, France. He concentrated on the Book of Bahir, the oldest Cabalist text known in the 12th century, and the Cabalist works composed in Provence during the 12th century. His analysis of the Bahir led him back to the early Jewish Gnosticism of the Middle East. He showed that even in the early Middle Ages and in strictly rabbanate circles, Gnostic doctrines and ideas flourished. This was probably because of the proximity of Syrian Gnostic and Mandaean sects. Sometime around the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century, this Gnostic tradition met with a very vibrant Neoplatonism in southern France. A century later a fresh school of Cabalist mysticism sprang up in Spain around the town of Gerona in Catalonia.

Scholem established relationships between the Kathari movement, the teaching of John Scotus Erigena, and these traditions, besides elucidating the lines and teaching of many renowned Cabalists. He also demonstrated the influence of Cabalism on the Haskalah and Hasidic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries and noted its impact on the Zionist movement. From 1968-1974, Scholem was president of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities. He died in Jerusalem on February 20, 1982.

Further Reading

Scholem wrote his autobiography, From Berlin to Jerusalem in 1978. His work was often cited in Alexander Altmann, Studies in Religious Philosophy and Mysticism (1969). □