2020 Annual Assessment

The Talmud represents traditional Jewish religious culture. However, Jewish life today is neither very traditional nor very religious. One of the most important and original voices analyzing this trend was Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Interest in Scholem was renewed this year with the translation of David Biale’s biography into Hebrew, Gershom Scholem, Magnes Press, Jerusalem 2020. (The English version, Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah was first published in the Jewish Lives series by Yale University Press in 2018.) The biography received extensive reviews in both Haaretz and in Makor Rishon, that is, on both sides of the political-religious spectrum.

Biale, while acknowledging Scholem’s mastery of philological and minute historical analysis, places the emphasis on Scholem’s vision of Jewish history and his Zionist ideology. Scholem, of course, was not only a professor of Jewish mysticism but the founder of the entire academic discipline, as it were, ex nihilo. This project was connected with Scholem’s vision of a Jewish “counter-history.”

Through numerous and influential books and articles, Scholem wove a narrative which placed the roots of Jewish modernity in the esoteric Kabbalistic lore and writings of medieval Spain. The Kabbalistic myth of the exile of the Shekhina (God’s indwelling presence in the world) amid the forces of darkness pointed to the fact that one could recover and redeem the sacred aspects of the profane and even of evil. This idea, which was given extensive expression in the Zohar, was developed over the course of hundreds of years. It was especially developed in the Kabbalah of R. Yitzchak Luria (16th century) who described the recovery and repair of the “holy sparks” of the Shekhina as the process of redemption. According to Scholem, this idea finally exploded in the Sabbatean movement after the apostasy of Shabbtai Zevi (“the false Messiah”) in 1666. Shabbtai Zevi and especially his followers and successors, notably Jacob Frank (1726-1791, Poland) elaborated an antinomian theology which claimed that violation of the Halacha was more holy and on a higher spiritual plane than observing it, and that this violation would achieve the Redemption.

Scholem’s most daring and controversial claim was that this mystical emancipation from the Halacha was one of the groundworks of the Jewish Enlightenment and modern secular Judaism. According to Scholem’s “counter-history,” authentic traditional Judaism does not only consist of the Talmud and Halacha but also of the Kabbalistic alternative, a few significant branches of which negated the Halacha. As a corollary, he argued that Jewish modernity was not only a result of external Western forces, but also an indigenous development from within authentic Jewish tradition. Scholem’s hope was that Zionism and the State of Israel would cultivate this internally based non-Halachic Jewish culture.

In addition to Scholem’s biography, an important Polish novel, The Books of Jacob by the Nobel Prize laureate Olga Tokarczuk, newly translated into Hebrew, also explores the Frankist Movement in 18th century Poland and Central Europe. Employing a panoramic vista that includes Frankists, their rabbinic opponents, the Catholic Church, and Polish nobility, it explores Frankist claims and aspirations to emancipation and its ties to the emerging Polish and Jewish modernity. As the reviews in both left-wing and right-wing newspapers indicate, Scholem (and his areas of research and scholarship – Messianism, Kabbalah, and Sabbatianism) remains relevant to Israeli culture and politics on several levels.

First, during a time of intense debates concerning the teaching of Jewish culture and tradition in the general public schools and charges of forced “religionization” (hadata) of children from secular families, Scholem’s vision of an authentic and indigenous non-Halachic Jewish culture raises interesting possibilities. Indeed, Kabbalah holds a significant place within the Jewish renewal movement.

Secondly, Scholem’s notion of “counter-history” raises the question of the “real” forces moving Jewish history. As Israel debates the issue of annexation of parts of the West Bank (the Greater Land of Israel), it is worth recalling that the ideology that played an important role in the original settlement effort – R. Abraham Isaac Kook’s religious philosophy – is an interpretation of R. Isaac Luria’s Kabbalistic Messianism. In fact, one could argue, along with Scholem, that the ideological debate dividing Israel today is, at bottom, a debate about the nature of Luria’s vision of the messianic process and the redemption. The left-wing Zionists are the heirs of the Sabbatians who participated, according to Scholem, in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, while the Right-wing Zionists are their Orthodox, but no less messianic opponents.

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