Scholem (Shalom), Gershom Gerhard

views updated


SCHOLEM (Shalom), GERSHOM GERHARD (1898–1982), the most important scholar of Jewish mysticism and a towering figure in Jewish intellectual life. Born to an assimilated family in Berlin, he was attracted in his youth to Judaism and Zionism and studied major Hebrew Jewish texts and Kabbalah by himself. After completing a Ph.D. thesis in 1923 on Sefer ha-Bahir, he arrived in Israel, and taught at the Hebrew University, becoming the first professor to devote all his studies and teaching to the topic of Jewish mysticism. His achievement in surveying all the major stages and writings belonging to this topic is staggering. In the difficult times of the 1920s and 1930s, he traveled to all the major European libraries and systematically studied all the available manuscripts. In 1939 he delivered a series of lectures in New York, which became the first comprehensive analysis of the historical and phenomenological aspects of the entire range of Jewish mysticism: Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, which is also his most influential and widely read book. One of the chapters of this book, dealing with the Heikhalot literature, was complemented by a collection of studies printed in New York, under the title Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and the Talmudic Tradition.

Building upon his perusal of manuscripts, he published from the mid-1920s a series of articles in Hebrew in which he identified many anonymous manuscripts, and from 1948, a series of analyses about the beginning of Kabbalah. In its most elaborated form, it appeared in English posthumously as Origins of the Kabbalah, translated by A. Arkush and edited by R.Z.J. Werblowsky (1987).

Alongside those studies he identified, published, and analyzed in detail the main documents pertinent to Shabbateanism, and in 1957, he published in Hebrew the most important synthesis of the historical and religious aspects of the Shabbatean movement in the lifetime of *Shabbetai Ẓevi. Sixteen years later, Princeton University Press produced an enlarged English version of this book, Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah, translated by R.J.Z. Werblowsky.

From 1948, Scholem was a permanent participant in the Eranos encounters in Ascona, Switzerland, where he lectured and interacted with the major scholars of religion of his generation, such as Carl G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin. The lectures he delivered there in German were printed in the volumes of Eranos Jahrbuch and collected in two German volumes, translated into English by R. Manheim as On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (1969) and On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead (1991), and into Hebrew by Joseph ben Shlomo as Pirkei Yesod be-Havanat ha-Kabbalah u-Semaleha (1976). These studies represent the most important articulations of Scholem's phenomenology of Kabbalah, treating seminal matters in Jewish mysticism. In 1972 he formulated his last summary of his understanding of Kabbalah in the various entries he contributed to Encyclopedia Judaica, which were collected in the volume Kabbalah (1974).

The main themes that represent his thought are the emergence of Kabbalah in Europe in mid-12th century as the result of a synthesis between Gnostic and Neoplatonic elements; the rise of messianic interest among the kabbalists after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain; the reaction to the trauma of the expulsion in the theories of the Safed kabbalists, especially the Lurianic one; the spread of this type of messianic Kabbalah among wider audiences, which prepared the way for the emergence of the Shabbatean movement, and last but not least, the assumption that the wide influence of the Shabbatean movement had an impact on the emergence of three main religious developments since the 18th century: Ḥasidism, Enlightenment, and Reform. Scholem was especially interested in Messianism and dedicated much of his energy to writing seminal studies about the "messianic idea" in Judaism in all its forms: see especially The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York, 1972). A leitmotif in his writing is the importance of antinomian, paradoxical, and dialectical forms of thought in Kabbalah on the one hand, and the absence of mystical union in Jewish mysticism, on the other.

His deep involvement in the intellectual life in Israel and in the Jewish world generated numerous articles, most of which have been collected in three Hebrew volumes edited by Abraham Shapira, and in some English ones.

Scholem established a school of scholars in Jerusalem which he described as historical-critical, and directed a series of doctoral theses by renowned scholars such as Isaiah Tishby, Efraim Gottlieb, Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, Meir Benayahu, Joseph ben Shlomo, Amos Perlmutter, Yehuda Liebes, and Amos Goldreich. His impact on a long line of Israeli and American scholars and intellectuals was tremendous. Among them we may enumerate Zalman Shazar, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Baer, Nathan Rotenstreich, Chaim Wirszubski, and R.J.Z. Werblowsky; and in America, Harold Bloom, Robert Alter, and Cynthia Ozick.

Scholem was widely recognized as the leading scholar in Judaica in the 20th century and was accorded numerous prizes and honorary titles, among them the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize, and the Rothschild Prize, and served as the head of the Israeli Academy of Science and Humanities.

He wrote an autobiography, From Berlin to Jerusalem, and corresponded with many persons, including Walter Benjamin. Several monographs have been dedicated to his life and thought: e.g., David Biale, Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah and Counter-History (Cambridge, ma, 1979), and Joseph Dan, Gershom Scholem and the Mystical Dimension of Jewish History (New York-London, 1988).

His rich library is indubitably the best one in the field of Jewish mysticism, and it became part of the Jewish National and University Library, serving as a major resource for studies in the field. A catalogue raisonné of his library has been printed in two volumes, edited by Joseph Dan and Esther Liebes, The Library of Gershom Scholem on Jewish Mysticism (Jerusalem, 1999).

[Moshe Idel (2nd ed.)]

About this article

Scholem (Shalom), Gershom Gerhard

Updated About content Print Article


Scholem (Shalom), Gershom Gerhard