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The New Republic Online
Thursday, February 27th, 2003


 

Gershom Scholem: A Life in Letters, 1914-1982

by Gershom Scholem

The Magician

A review by Anthony Grafton

I.
When the Baal Shem Tov had to do something very hard, he went out into the woods, lit a fire, and said a prayer, and the task was done. In the next generation, when his disciple had to do a difficult thing, he also went out into the woods. He could no longer light the fire, but he said the prayer, and that was enough. The next disciple could no longer light the fire or say the prayer, but he could go into the woods, and the thing was done. But in the last generation, the rabbi sat down on his golden throne in his castle and said, "We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place; but we can tell the story of how it was done."

S.Y. Agnon told this tale of traditions, colorful and multi-layered as a Russian doll, to Gershom Scholem. The real subject of the story is the slow metamorphosis of rituals and beliefs. The Baal Shem Tov and his followers were Hasidic wonder-workers in two senses. Exemplary figures in the great East European renewal of Judaism, they were also shrewd men who earned their livings by selling amulets that protected against illness and injury. As the generations passed, the rituals that they used for protection in a world of dangers turned into something else: not weapons stored for use in an armory, but treasures displayed under glass in a museum. Words with which magi had torn Promethean fire from the skies turned over time into glowing stories that could be re-told, but not re-enacted. Yet meaning somehow still resided in the commemoration, as well as in the performance, of these rituals of power.

The tale reads like a parable of Scholem's life. By the time he died in 1982, Scholem had become one of the stringent masters of the austere world of humanistic learning. And he achieved this status by telling stories of a lost world of belief and ritual. The pre-eminent historian of the Jewish mystical tradition, Scholem started out, in Berlin and Munich around 1920, by studying the Kabbalah — an ancient mystical tradition that blossomed in the early medieval centuries and reached maturity with the Zohar, in the thirteenth century, and then continued to grow, its schools forming central axes of Jewish life and thought, through the early modern period and beyond. He collected rare books, collated manuscripts, and devoted a brilliant dissertation to an early Kabbalistic text called the Sefer ha-Bahir. Scholem restored the complex, mutilated text of this influential, much-commented book with a jeweler's attention to detail. The high arts of the German university at its early-twentieth-century acme were mathematics, physics, and philology, and the young Scholem — a gifted mathematician who became a peerless philologist — was clearly one of their dark masters, the deserving recipient of a degree summa cum laude from the Semitic philologists at Munich, whose ignorance of Hebrew and Aramaic aroused his scorn.

Few understood the young man's interests or felt much sympathy for him. In 1920, he reassured his parents that "the rumor has recently begun to circulate around Munich that, using black magic, I can create mice and elephants. For now, however, I can conjure up only flawless texts no one can top — and that with white magic, which is something completely permissible and free of sorcery!" Yet the rebellious son knew as early as the fall of 1919 what he hoped to do:

What will become of Gerhard Scholem?
First, he'll become Gershom Scholem.
Then he will (hopefully) become Dr. Phil.,
Then a Jewish philosopher,
Then an angel in Seventh Heaven.

The road that Scholem traveled to this clarity of purpose was short but rocky. A committed Zionist who loathed the moral compromises that he thought inevitable for Jews living in Germany, he rebelled — the word is far too mild, its currency too worn to express the ferocity of Scholem's revolt — as a Gymnasium student against his father's desire that he pursue a respectable career. He detested the nationalist wave of enthusiasm for World War I that seized even Martin Buber. Expelled from Gymnasium, he found a back way into the university, and avoided military service by shamming insanity. Like his fellow Zionists, he believed that only the Hebrew language and a new Jewish society could save Germany's Jews.

Yet Scholem did not share the disgust that many Zionists felt for the superstitions and the practices of traditional Judaism. Whenever he could, he haunted the sad streets and the tiny study houses in the Jewish quarter in Berlin. The beaten-down neighborhoods that Joseph Roth's all-seeing eye recorded ("No street in the world is as sad.... Rubbish as an object of trade. Old newspapers. Torn stockings. Soles of shoes") were for Scholem a memory palace, one that glowed with the treasures of feeling and tradition that it protected. After 1923, when he finally moved from Berlin to Jerusalem, he settled down between the National Library, where he worked, and the walled Orthodox quarter, Mea Shearim. There he found dusty little bookshops piled with rare Kabbalistic texts, sold by the widows of the impoverished believers who had died in great numbers in Jerusalem during the hungry years of World War I. Scholem cultivated his bibliographical garden intensively, even issuing a list of the rare books that he had not yet managed to buy. He worked in the National Library to build up a manuscript collection, which he catalogued. When the authorities of the fledgling university decided to create an institute for Jewish studies despite the fact that they lacked the money to induce well-known scholars to leave the West for Palestine, Scholem found himself a professor — partly thanks to a letter from a specialist in the botanical knowledge of the rabbis who liked the two pages that Scholem had devoted to the sexuality of palm trees in Kabbalistic tradition.

The times did not favor a return to the lost sources of Jewish tradition. Already convinced that Jewish life in Germany had no future, Scholem watched in horror from afar as Hitler carried out every dire threat that he had made. One of his brothers, long an active Communist, died in a concentration camp, and the rest of his family found safety only very late, in Australia. An early member of Brit Shalom, the group founded by Judah Magnes, Buber, and others, Scholem lost faith in their pacifism — though he remained a liberal — after the Arab riots of 1929, which came very close to his house. Though he took an active part in building up the Hebrew University, its affairs rarely inspired him with enthusiasm. He denounced as morons not only his students, as all teachers do, but also many of his colleagues. His friendship with Walter Benjamin — who had inspired and provoked him in their youth, and with whom he continued to exchange letters that inspire awe with their profound analyses of texts, places, and traditions — entered a new and bitter key when Benjamin found himself unable to learn Hebrew and unwilling to join Scholem in the safety of Palestine. Scholem could only watch from a distance, desperately seeking information, as Benjamin, uprooted from false security in France, went like a sleepwalker to his death in Port Bou.

Despite the times, despite the losses, despite the horrors that he saw when he went back to Europe soon after the war ended to determine the fate of the great libraries of Jewish books, Scholem went about his work. He could not go out into the woods, or light the fires, or say the prayers, but he could see, with a new clarity, how Jews had always found meaning in their own traditions — even those that seemed foolish or meaningless to moderns. And he could tell the story — in Hebrew, in German, and eventually in English. Heinrich Graetz, the great nineteenth-century historian of the Jews, had rejected what he saw as the superstitious elements in Jewish tradition. Like other practitioners of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Judaism, he found himself caught in a basic contradiction. He set out to use the formal tools of German historical scholarship to show "how it had really been" — as Leopold von Ranke famously described the historian's goal. But he had little sympathy for elements of the Jewish tradition that did not fit the values of modern Bildung.

Following earlier critical scholars, Graetz studied the Zohar to expose it as a forgery — a text that purported to be the work of the ancient sage Simeon bar Yohai, but was actually composed in the thirteenth century. Scholem came to agree about the text's late date, though the conclusions that he and Isaiah Tishby reached about its origins rested on a new and far more precise analysis of the text's structure, language, and methods. About its historical meaning, however, he disagreed completely with Graetz and the others. The Zohar, he argued, was not a simple, deliberate fake, it was a pseudepigraphic work — the writing of someone who identified so completely with the ancient author in whose name he spoke that he felt no separation between himself and his exemplar. Even falsifications had real meaning when studied in the proper spirit.

The Zohar and other classical Kabbalistic texts, moreover, represented something more than the work of individuals. They were a crossroads where Jewish traditions met. Long before the Kabbalists of Provence began their work, early Jewish mystics contemplated in terror the apocalyptic time that would succeed history, and meditated in awe on Ezekiel's description of the throne of the Creator on its chariot, or its merkabah. By the time the Talmud was being compiled, ma'aseh merkabah, "the work of the chariot," had become the object of ecstatic contemplation. Following an austere and challenging regimen of self-discipline and spiritual exercise, mystics had experienced an ascent to the heavens and the castles of God himself. These "subterranean traditions" of mystical practices and beliefs, Scholem argued, ran all the way back to the time of the early sects. A profound mysticism formed part of the millennial tradition of Judaism.

Yet the Kabbalah, as it took shape in the Middle Ages, represented something more than a simple revival of older practices. From the first, the anonymous authors of books such as the Sefer ha-Bahir and the Sefer Yetzirah used mystical and symbolic ideas to understand the Scriptures. These they decoded in what Scholem described as "Gnostic" fashion, finding profound meanings in non-semantic features of the biblical text, and contemplating language as the tool that had brought the universe itself into being. In the world of Kabbalah, mystical symbolism served as a key to the kingdoms of Scripture — a role that it had not played in earlier centuries. Theology and cosmology, mysticism and magic came together in an ever-changing dance. This imaginative use of tradition, in turn, became the model for Scholem's understanding of Judaism as a whole: a continual, active, ever-changing effort to find meanings in tradition, a religion that found in commentary one of its natural forms of expression.

If the medieval and Renaissance Kabbalah proved the deep vitality of scholarship and exegesis, the later false messiahs Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank had created another quarter of the sunken city that was the Jewish mystical tradition. These men, and many of their followers, believed that they could redeem the sufferings of the Jews and restore the kingdom of Israel. But they behaved in bizarre and blasphemous ways — most notoriously when Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam and Jacob Frank told his followers to adopt "the way of Esau" so as to enter the realm of antinomianism and follow Christian rituals in order to reveal the hidden God to the world. In a famous essay called "Redemption Through Sin," Scholem teased out the meanings that these men had read into their violations of the commandments. These transgressions became, in their eyes, the only way to prove their own messianic status and thus bring about the fundamental repair of a broken world. When they spoke the unspeakable name of God, read from printed texts of Torah rather than a scroll, and called women to participate in public ritual, they showed how an aggressive, almost nihilistic approach to law could also constitute a creative response to tradition. Even destruction had its creative side — as it had when the great Jewish scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the practitioners of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, turned the tools of critical reason on the core documents of their own tradition. Scholem railed against the tendentious old rationalist scholars Leopold Zunz and Moritz Steinschneider, yet he warmly appreciated the honed edge of critical reason that they applied to unsubstantiated beliefs and forged texts, and applied it himself without mercy to the theories of his colleagues and the responses of his critics.

Scholem's bold dive into the mare magnum of Jewish tradition thus revealed unsuspected treasures: castles and grottos of endless colorful coral reefs, inhabited by forgotten creatures rich in color and varied in shape; lost galleons laden with treasure; whole sunken cities. With fantastic energy and more fantastic precision, Scholem recorded everything that he found and published everything that he recorded. In a vast series of articles, lectures, and monographs — and in three great books — he made his new maps of tradition available to scholars and others throughout the Western world. The lost cities of the Kabbalah became scenes of life and activity once more.

For all Scholem's severity — the letters in which he cut friends such as Hannah Arendt and Jacob Taubes out of his life have the iron ring of Carthago delenda est — he also had the real scholar's ability to inspire the most gifted students. His stern facade imperfectly disguised his perpetual and almost wicked curiosity about what the young might be up to. He could be very rough with students and younger scholars when they deviated from his analysis of text or history, but he insisted that he did not mean to condemn them. No wonder, then, that Scholem was one of the few members of the Hebrew University's generation of giants who did not turn all his students into dwarves. For all their disagreements with their master and with one another, Josef Dan, Moshe Idel, Yehudah Liebes, Peter Schäfer, and a number of others who have carried on Scholem's subtle work of textual archaeology are themselves master humanistic scholars of a type that has never been common and is now painfully rare. Scholem's library, now housed in the National and University Library in Jerusalem, ranks with the world's great forcing houses of creative humanistic research. And the ripples of his work continue to spread — in scholarship on the Christian Renaissance, which his work revolutionized; in new forms of Jewish ritual, many of which he would scarcely have appreciated; even in fiction, since writers from Scholem's friend Agnon onward have found his personality and his discoveries endlessly fascinating.

II.
How, then, to tell Scholem's story, and tease out its meanings, for readers who do not know the worlds he inhabited — worlds almost as alien to the modern reader as the lost ones that Scholem explored? Anthony David Skinner has adopted a traditional, even old-fashioned solution to the problem of preserving a tradition. He has produced a biography in the form of an anthology of letters, with commentary. A knowledgeable and fluent writer, Skinner divides his subject's life into segments. His introductions to these segments show how well he understands Scholem's personal situations and intellectual enterprises. Skinner writes eloquently of what philology meant for Scholem. His translations are clear and generally accurate, and many of the letters that he has selected deal with matters of the highest interest.

Skinner's selections inform us about Scholem's early life in Berlin and allow us to follow his rebellion against his bourgeois family and his turn to Zionism. They also record, in detail, his encounters with two transforming powers: Walter Benjamin, with whom he carried on one of history's most complex, creative, and torturous friendships; and the Kabbalah, to which he devoted his lifetime of research. We watch Gerhard become Gershom. We marvel at Scholem's unwavering sense of vocation — the sense of mastery that enabled him to reject his parents' authority, and that of bourgeois culture and society, years before he had produced anything solid to show that he was more than an angry young man. Anyone interested in Scholem's contacts with American intellectual life, especially Jewish intellectual life, will learn a good deal here about his correspondence with writers, scholars, publishers, and rabbis.

For the work of a learned editor and a great university press, however, this volume is oddly unsatisfactory. It suffers, first of all, from a surprising number of technical flaws. Source indications are scarce. Skinner tells the reader when he has used an existing translation, but when he offers his own versions he does not tell the reader whether the Hebrew or German original can be found in Itta Shedletzky's edition of Scholem's correspondence, in the standard editions of his correspondence with other individuals, or only in the archives. He claims that he has "added brief footnotes wherever letters allude to obscure people, events, or literary texts" in order to guide readers unfamiliar with the submerged German-Jewish world that Scholem and his correspondents inhabited, but he shows no clear sense of what such readers are likely to know.

Thus Skinner finds it necessary to explain that Mea Shearim is "an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem," but not to identify the fashionable West Berlin streets that Scholem's mother Betty mentions in a letter; to identify Pesach as Passover, but not to translate the Latin phrase tertium comparationis. He notes that in the course of a magnificent denunciation of Ernst Bloch, Scholem misquoted the title of the work from which Bloch drew his "wretched misunderstanding of 'the name of God' — Kiddusch haschem," but he does not identify the article Bloch drew on (a discussion of Kabbalah that appeared in a 1913 collection of works by members of a Jewish society in Prague, Bar Kochba), or translate Kiddusch haschem ("sanctification of the name"), or explain the point at issue.

When Scholem asks his mother to provide as his New Year's gift in 1928- 1929 "the Strack-Billerbeck commentary to the New Testament, volume 3," Skinner adds not a word — as if all of his readers would immediately recognize that celebrated work of Christian Hebraist New Testament scholarship. And when Scholem writes home from Munich in July 1946 that "the whole Hebraica collection of the Municipal Library" in Frankfurt had burned in an air raid on March 16, 1944, but "the Judaica and Hebraica have been saved," Skinner does not help the reader bewildered by the apparent contradiction. (A document printed by Shedletzky shows that there were two collections; the Hebraica was destroyed, while the Judaica was saved.) Skinner's translations, though fluent and fairly idiomatic, are marred by the occurrence of anachronistic terms and phrases (like the "pantyhose" mentioned in a letter from Scholem's mother) and occasional awkward renderings (when Scholem reproaches Arendt for the scorn she manifests toward Zionists, "der seinerseits aus dem Monde stammt," Skinner makes him write of "a derision that itself stems from some otherworldly source," a phrase guaranteed to baffle any normal reader).

Flaws like these appear in any large-scale edition or translation. More problematic are the criteria that guided Skinner's choice of letters to translate. He draws heavily on Scholem's extraordinary correspondence with his mother. Skinner's book includes not only many of Scholem's letters home, but dozens of Betty's descriptions of the difficulties, and then the horrors, of life in Nazi Berlin. These vivid letters — and Scholem's sometimes distant-sounding replies — are gripping, full of human and historical interest. Yet they shed only a limited amount of light on Scholem himself, and virtually none on the scholarly and technical work that formed the central concern of his life.

Sometimes a worryingly sentimental and anachronistic vision of human life and character, one that sees passionate gestures and responses as the core of personality, seems to dictate Skinner's choices of material. In his preface, Skinner inaccurately notes that Scholem's letters contain few "important philosophical formulations. But they do express a great deal of emotion." On the whole, emotion rather than philosophy seems to be what interests this editor. Feelings are what he is looking for. Skinner includes two withering letters in which Scholem disowned his former student Jacob Taubes, but he barely explains the issues — as opposed to a personal incident — that separated the two men. Though he assumes that his reader does not know what Pesach is, Skinner does not explain who Taubes was or why Scholem tolerated this remarkable anarchic Jew less than he tolerated Jacob Frank, much less why the whole exchange deserves mention (and it certainly does) half a century later. Yet some of Scholem's other binding passions — notably his overwhelming, almost erotic desire for books — make surprisingly few appearances, perhaps because they seem less appealing now. In the end, the whole enterprise has something of the air of a talk show: Scholem live, slapping his former friends and embracing his mother and brother while the audience claps. Surely Scholem was the last man who would have wished to see his story told through sentiment and what he would have called Geschwätz.

Above all, the book suffers from the narrowness with which its tasks are defined. Scholem's story, after all, is only one of many: the stories of the exile scholars, almost all of them Jews, who grew up in Germany, Austria, France, and Italy during World War I and just after it. They carried out a translatio studii without precedent in Western history — one so effective that it lifted the humanities departments of a good many American and British universities, and the offerings of a number of learned presses, above the level of mediocrity for a generation. None of them is easy to tell, at least in modest space and in a modern idiom. The heroes of these stories were indeed wonder-working sages, men and women who performed miracles in their writings and in their classrooms.

The tales of these intellectual giants include dramatic metamorphoses, as writers somehow managed to change not only their addresses but also their languages, and emerged as great writers a second time, masters of a completely different idiom (Arnaldo Momigliano, on a monograph from Oxford on Greek history: "This is the most delightful book about Oxford since Zuleika Dobson"). They all involve intricate questions of discipleship. Around each sage there grew circles of students, large or small, mostly American but also Israeli, British, and French. They sat at their teachers' feet, won their love and provoked their fury, and sometimes proved that they could emulate their masters' massive learning and creative energy. Think of the extraordinary cohorts of Renaissance scholars formed by Paul Oskar Kristeller, the art historians trained by Erwin Panofsky, the architectural historians instructed by Richard Krautheimer and Rudolf Wittkower, the historians of the exact sciences taught by Otto Neugebauer — all parallels to the Kabbalistic scholars who studied with Scholem.

To tell these stories, we must find our way back into the labyrinthine sunken worlds of art and learning, music and literature, that their polymathic protagonists inhabited. Every one of them benefited from an education unimaginably more rigorous than ours, read the forgotten classics of literatures whose existence is hardly known to us, burned with rage at the pamphlets of forgotten radical sects — and then used the shining, drop-forged tools that they had mastered in Gymnasium and liceo and yeshiva to break every rule and to transgress every boundary. Their mental and moral qualities challenge comprehension now — as they often did in their own day. Gullivers in a variety of Lilliputs, the exiles discovered before they even left Europe that they had the right and the duty to embark on unconventional intellectual careers, in the teeth of family opposition, anti-Semitism, inflation, Fascism, Nazism. How did they know? How did they dare? And how will we convey whatever we can learn of their accomplishments intelligibly and attractively to readers to whom the traditions of Jewish and European learning are an unknown country?

III.
These questions have become more pressing in the last decade and more, as the last survivors of this generation have died and their biographies have begun to appear. But they are hardly new. I have been pondering them, in some sense, ever since I came, as an undergraduate, to the University of Chicago. Students there regularly had the opportunity to see and hear famous emigres such as Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Hans Morgenthau, all of whom taught at the university. Others, such as Peter Gay and Arnaldo Momigliano, came as guest speakers (Momigliano later joined the faculty). But we also learned directly from others, unknown to fame but marked by the same historical experience — such as Christian Mackauer, the extraordinary teacher whose legendary course on the history of Western civilization came as a revelation to me, as it did to so many others. In our age of politically correct gentility, when we call our students by their first names and fear to challenge their beliefs and their tastes, it is hard to convey what an inspiration it could be when a brusque man who called you "Mr. Smith" or "Miss Jones" slapped you down without hesitation or mercy for misinterpreting a line of Homer or Plato. Even then, it seemed hard to connect these individuals and their experiences with the university world we lived in — and in those days the giants still walked among us.

It is never enough, moreover, to tell a single story. These thinkers grew up in the same period, responded to the same texts, and provoked and engaged with one another. Seen in this perspective, Scholem's life is not only an epic of individual achievement, but one chapter in the history of a generation. His letters — if selected and interpreted in a very different way than in Skinner's book — could make this point clearly. Scholem and his generation still saw letters as a moral and literary enterprise of deep seriousness. They offered one another readings of ancient and modern texts, mordant commentaries on cities and peoples, sharp responses to new ideas. Benjamin compiled an anthology of letters by "Real Germans" (Deutsche Menschen) as a principled response to Nazism. Scholem used letters — or at least the literary form of the letter — to read Arendt the riot act about her failure to appreciate the dialectics of real-world politics in the 1940s and to show the proper love of the Jewish people in the 1960s.

Many of Scholem's letters amounted to partial autobiographies, each of which complemented (and complicated) the others. Including these could have enriched Skinner's account immeasurably. Scholem found the rough path he followed to mastery of the mystical tradition endlessly fascinating, and he wrote of it often to friends, older and younger. As early as 1937, in a beautiful letter to Zalman Schocken, first published by David Biale, he explained that he had not come to the Kabbalah by accident. The writings of a Catholic of the Romantic period, Franz Josef Molitor, had given him "an address where the secret life of Judaism, which I had pondered over in my meditations, seemed once to have dwelt." Molitor saw the Kabbalah as the ancient core of Judaism, a tradition that went back to Adam himself. This view was unhistorical, of course, and the Kabbalistic tradition on which it rested itself had false elements. Still, Molitor had helped Scholem to find his way past the rational philosophy of Maimonides to "something of substance" that lurked in the Kabbalah.

And as Momigliano pointed out long ago, Molitor was far from the only Romantic writer whose ways of talking and thinking about language pervaded Scholem's writings and helped to frame his vision of Jewish tradition. Texts by Hamann and Herder that lay entirely outside the world of Jewish scholarship — texts that any educated German could have read, and many did — played a central role in inducing the young and preternaturally resolute Scholem to give up mathematics and don "the sheep's skin of the philologist." Christians, as Scholem knew, normally see Jews as the followers of Esau and themselves as the followers of Jacob. In this case, however, Christian thinkers helped the Jew to claim his frightening and alien intellectual birthright. An obsolete brand of Christian philology, one that stressed continuity and tradition above all else, provided the keys to kingdoms that the modern philology of the Wissenschaft des Judentums had never unlocked.

Many of Scholem's other letters could serve a similar purpose — could fill in, one area at a time, vital segments of the mental world that he shared with his German (and European) contemporaries, and that have become unknown country to most modern readers. In September 1939 — a month when Scholem certainly penned no word that he did not consider deeply serious — he wrote at length to the Zionist leader Berl Katznelson to protest an article that had just appeared in the Jerusalem paper Davar. The author, Moshe Ungerfeld, had sharply attacked Karl Kraus — whom he called, in his title, "a tragic figure." The great Viennese writer and critic, Ungerfeld argued, had systematically worked through the writings of German Jews — "except, naturally, for Heine" — to prove that they regularly sinned against the "spirit" of the German language. Ungerfeld denounced both the Viennese anti-Semite and the self-hating Zionists who still admired him.

Scholem pointed out at length that Heine was "the author Kraus hated most. His essay against Heine is almost his most famous piece of writing." He made this point to discredit not Kraus but Ungerfeld — who, he insisted, had picked up not just the wrong end of the stick, but the wrong stick entirely. Ungerfeld had evidently never taken the trouble to read Kraus. By contrast, Scholem wrote, "I know all the volumes of [Kraus's periodical] Die Fackel (The Torch), and Kraus's books, and I know what is written in them." No contradiction at all was involved, whatever Ungerfeld thought, when Scholem and other Zionists admitted how much Kraus meant to them and quoted him in their own writing. Kraus, after all, had taught Scholem a vital lesson: "he fought with all his strength against the plague of articles that has infected literature and the press. [By reading Kraus] I began to understand that this battle is necessary, even if — as this article of Ungerfeld's proves — we have no chance of winning it."

The Scholem who issued verdicts that admitted no appeal against all those who expressed themselves imprecisely, who misused language, or who wrote from ignorance — that Scholem was not only his own creation. He was also, like so many of his Jewish and non-Jewish contemporaries, a constant reader and disciple of the German language's greatest critic of trite language, imprecise statement, and ideology masked as fact. Scholem knew his Kraus as young American Jews of the same period knew their Mencken — to compare small things with great — and his whole approach to writing and to critical reading was shaped by this experience.

Another letter, also untouched by Skinner, affords a deeper kind of enlightenment. In 1971 Scholem wrote to Ernst Gombrich, then the director of the Warburg Institute in London, to thank him for his intellectual biography of Aby Warburg, the Institute's founder. Warburg — like Scholem himself — had set out to find a new way to the meanings of tradition. As Scholem rejected the decorum of cultivated German Jews, Warburg rejected the decorum of German classical scholarship. He insisted that the ancient Greeks had created many images that were not white, or simple, or stately. In images of dancing women and the death of Orpheus, Warburg found an antiquity that moved, hot and quick, in rituals and dances. In the web of strange beliefs and practices, Mesopotamian and Greek, that made up ancient astrology, Warburg recovered an antiquity that was not ethnically pure and Aryan, and that used the tools of science to substantiate the most primitive of beliefs about the connection between the universe and the individual. And in his library in the decorous Hamburg suburb of Eppendorf, he created a unique research tool designed to lead the scholar not just to facts, but to the remains of passion and suffering that might still be encoded, symbolically, in a way of recording a gesture or a dance.

Like Scholem, in other words, Warburg held that the road to lost symbolic truths lay through philology. Like Scholem, he practiced a philology of a peculiar kind, one based on his own passions as a collector (both men wrote their responses to the texts that they pondered into the margins of their books), and one that often found keys to ancient ritual and belief in what others would have dismissed as sources too late to depend on. A modern image by Mantegna or Dürer, Warburg held, might unlock ancient mysteries unknown to the philologists in the classical seminars.

Scholem accepted Gombrich's view — soon to be contested by Edgar Wind, another brilliant émigré — that Warburg had suffered from a pathological inability to complete his major projects. When Gombrich refused to describe in detail Warburg's years of madness at the end of World War I, Scholem wrote sympathetically about the arduous thought that must have gone into this decision. But he also noted that in choosing discretion, Gombrich had omitted "an important dimension" of his subject. For Warburg's fascination with symbols had gone far beyond the level of the rational and the logical. "I will never forget," Scholem wrote, "the impression that the uncanny, complex system of color-coding, which marked the transitions between the different disciplines and their connections in the Hamburg library, made on me when I first saw the library in 1927."

Theoretically, the colored bands that appeared on the spines of Warburg's books represented a classification system, designed to show which category, such as "festivals" or "historiography," a book belonged to, and what "good neighbors" a reader would find near it. "But that was merely a pretext," Scholem recalled to Gombrich. "There was a great deal more behind it." Warburg's library — like Scholem's real and imagined libraries of Jewish tradition — was yet another memory palace, yet another system of reefs and shipwrecks illuminated by symbols that glowed deep in the grottos that contained them. Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing, who served as Warburg's assistants in Hamburg and became the executors of his intellectual legacy in London, treated him as a meticulous, sober art historian. They did justice to one side of him. But they, and Gombrich, failed to understand the tormented historian of culture, tortured by the conflicts between his conscious and his unconscious attitudes toward astrology. To see Warburg whole, to understand what symbols really meant to him, it might be necessary to open the closed dossiers from his years in the sanatarium at Kreuzlingen.

In this case as elsewhere, Scholem showed his openness to the creative powers of madness and destruction. Scholem felt something like an elective affinity when he visited Warburg's library and heard the man himself speak. He hoped that the library would go to Jerusalem rather than London when Hamburg became untenable, and later, when he visited London, he made it another intellectual home. Bibliography as a science of the spirit; the dialectics of tradition and history, of antiquity and modernity; the functions of the symbol and the meanings of commentary; extreme philology as the scholar's one central task: these were the ideals that inspired Warburg when he recast the history of the Western tradition, and they were the same ideals that Scholem followed when he recast the history of the Jewish tradition. Warburg spent his life hunting the Ariadne thread that could lead him through the labyrinths of tradition. His massive investment in books and images and his meticulous studies in the transmission of images and texts all form part of the larger context in which Scholem's own enterprise took shape — a German-Jewish voyage of discovery into lost realms of symbolism and forgotten structures.

Warburg and his library do not account, of course, for the extraordinary and supremely Jewish phenomenon of Scholem. Neither does Kraus. But a portrait of Scholem should find room for them. It might even find room for other contemporaries of Scholem who spent their lives on similar enterprises. Paul Oskar Kristeller, for example: like Scholem tall and severe, like Scholem a deft and passionate bibliographer, like Scholem one who found in unsuspected places — such as the Neoplatonic commentators on Plato, little respected by the classicists of his generation — the tools that could restore meaning to tradition. And Erwin Panofsky. And non-Jews such as Ernst Robert Curtius. The editors of the Bollingen series of translations, who brought out works by many of these scholars, including Scholem, showed a proper sense of their close connections. A life in letters that emphasized these connections would make clear to "general readers," as well as to scholars, that Scholem never dwelled in the hortus conclusus of modern "Judaic" studies (he disliked the term).

Yet even a life configured as a study in scholarship will not capture all of Scholem's mysteries. The old tale of the Baal Shem Tov — as Moshe Idel once pointed out to me — is a tale of gains as well as losses. Each of its protagonists was a magus — a holy man and a healer. Each of them carried out these tasks more efficiently than his predecessors. For each of them achieved the same results while expending less effort. And the final figure in the tale — the rabbi-historian who sits on his golden throne and recalls how these things were done — may well be the most powerful of all. As Agnon put it: "The story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three." The tale-teller is not just the melancholy memory artist, soaking in the lukewarm bath of tradition, but a magician in his own right, [one] who conjures up the lost meanings of forgotten tasks and symbols. Gershom Scholem needs to be understood in this sense, too — as tradition's willful, brilliant conjurer, who performed an elusive and absolutely vital magic of his own.


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