Gerschom Scholem

Born: Berlin, Germany; December, 1897

Died: Jerusalem, Israel, February 20, 1982

Principal criticism:

Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, third ed., 1961

Jewish Mysticism in the Middle Ages, 1964

On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, 1965

Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition, 1965

The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, 1971

Kabbalah, 1974

On the Mystical Idea of the Godhead, 1976

On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, 1976.

Other literary forms and major works:

In addition to his historiographical works on Kabbalah, Jewish mystical and esoteric writings, Scholem produced other works, including editions, translations, and memoirs. The first publication of Scholem's work came in 1918, with his German translation of Yizkor - A Memorial Volume for Fallen Watchmen and Workers in Eretz Yisrael, though he chose not to attach his name to the volume. His dissertation project was an edition and translation of Sefer Ha-Bahir (Das Buch Bahir), which was published in 1923. His first two books were volumes 1 and 2 (1923, 1927) in the German series Sources and Studies in the History of Jewish Mysticism (Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte der judischen Mystik), edited by Robert Eisler. He made contributions to Martin Buber's journal Der Jude and Walter Benjamin's projected periodical Angelus Novus. Other works include: Bibliographia Kabbalistica and Alchemie und Kabbala (1927); Franz Rosenzweig and Kitve ha-yad ha-'ivriyim (1930); Einege Kabbalistische Handschriften (1932); Kontres 'alu le-Shalom (1937); The Dreams of Mordecai Ashkenazi (1938); The Beginnings of Kabbalah (1949); Shabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (1957), and more personal accounts.


Gershom Scholem was the founder of the scholarly study of Kabbalah. Within this field, his former students Joseph Dan and Isaiah Tishby have emerged as important figures, as has Moshe Idel. Harold Bloom has cited Scholem on Kabblah time and again. Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem maintained a long-standing friendship and mutually influenced each other most profoundly.


Gershom Scholem was born on December 5, 1897 in Berlin, Germany to Arthur Scholem and Betty Hirsch Scholem. His father, a printer, was assimilationist and reacted rather strongly against young Scholem's interest in Judaica, whereas his mother was more of an intermediary in family conflicts. Of the four Scholem sons, Gershom was the youngest and the only one with any lasting attachment to Judaism. He involved himself not only in Zionism but in orthodox Judaism as well. As a teenager, he began studying Hebrew and learning Talmud with an orthodox rabbi. Meanwhile, his Zionism led him to join the student group Jung Juda. His politics also included vehement opposition to fighting on the side of Germany in World War I. A letter to this effect was the cause of his expulsion from secondary school in 1915.

Scholem studied for cumulative exams on his own and managed to graduate. Soon thereafter, he attended the University of Berlin, studying Mathematics, Philosophy, and Hebrew. There he met both Martin Buber and Walter Benjamin. In 1917, Scholem befriended S. Y. Agnon, H. N. Bialik, Ahad Ha-Am, and Zalman Rubaschoff (later Zalman Shazar, the third president of Israel) while living in the Pension Struck, a boarding house whose residents were mainly Russian and East European Jews. Since his father sent him no money during this period, he earned a living primarily by translating Yiddish and Hebrew works into German.

Scholem served two months in the military at Jena. Once discharged, he continued his studies, this time at the University of Jena. In 1918 he travelled to Berne with Walter Benjamin and enrolled at the University of Berne. He continued to study Talmud and began to study Kabbalah seriously and to form his linguistic theory. While in Berne, he met his first wife, Elsa (Escha) Burchardt.

In 1919, Scholem decided to return to Germany in order to study at the University of Munich. He abandoned the major in Mathematics and the minor in Philosophy in favor of a doctorate in Semitics. Though he originally wanted to write a dissertation on the linguistic theory of Kabbalah, he eventually settled on a more modest project, translating and explicating the Sefer Ha-Bahir, one of the oldest and most difficult kabbalistic texts.

In 1922, Scholem emigrated to Israel and soon became head of the Department of Hebrew and Judaica at the National Library. By this time, Scholem had already established a substantial library of his own, picking up books on Kabbalah from second-hand dealers. In 1933, he was appointed the first Professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1936, he married Fania Freud. He served as Vice President of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (1946-50), a visting Professor at the Jewish Institute of Religion, and Vice President (1962)and President (1968) of the Israel National Academy of Science, all the while publishing numerous works on Kabbalah. He became Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University in 1965 but continued to write. He died on February 20, 1982.

Theory and Criticism:

As founder of the discipline, Scholem has served as a major force in shaping secular, scholarly thought on Kabbalah. Before his work, Jewish mysticism was studied only by a very few within the religious community and with respect to its spiritual significance rather than to its history.

Scholem stands in complex relation to his predecessors and his contemporaries. In particular, his historiography opposes that of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the nineteenth century "Science of Judaism" movement. The approach of this movement to the history of Judaism posed two major problems for Scholem. One was that it sought to study Judaism as a fixed, dead object, rather than as a vital, organic being. Equally, the major figures of the movement seemed to ignore the "basement" of Judaism -- the irratonal forces which Scholem saw as vivifying the religion. For Scholem, the mythical and the mystical elements were just as important to Judaism as the rational and the legal.

However, Scholem was not willing to follow the path of figures who embraced Jewish mysticism but not its history. Most notably, Scholem sharply disagreed with Martin Buber's personalization of kabbalistic concepts and rejection of their connection to the Jewish people, language, and homeland.

In Scholem's view, Jewish mysticism needed to be studied within the context of the history of Judaism. Thus, he formed his own version of "counter-history." Molding this Nietzschean concept to his own exigencies, Scholem made a place for the less normative side of Judaism within the public history of the faith. While the impetus to legitimize the irrational may have actually come from Buber and others, the method chosen by Scholem was clearly scientific and historical, like that of the Wissenschaft. However, also worthy of note is the staunch Zionism that informed Scholem's professional endeavors in the field of historiography as well as his personal opinions. His counter-historical view of Kabbalah as intimately related to normative Judaism involved the notion of tradition as an important link between the Jews of the past and the Jews of the present.

Specifically, Scholem conceived of Jewish history as consisting of roughly three stages. During the biblical period, monotheism struggled against myth but never fully overcame it. In the Talmudic period, part of the "institutional" stage, notions of magical power in fulfillment of the commandments were suppressed in order to keep pure the concept of divine transcendence. In the Middle Ages, when faced with the abstract God of Greek philosophy irreconcilable with the personally involved God of the Bible, Jewish thinkers like Maimonides went so far in their attempt to exile from Judaism the remnants of myth that they ended up significantly altering the God of biblical Judaism. So, beginning also in the Middle Ages, mysticism developed, as David Biale says, in "the attempt to recapture God's 'living reality.'"

Scholem's notions of these stages and of the interplay of the irrational and the rational within Judaism led him to formulate some controversial theses. In Scholem's opinion, medieval Lurianic Kabbalah contributed to the development of the sixteenth century messianic movement Sabbatianism, the neutralization of which Scholem saw as, in turn, playing a major role in the evolution of Hasidism. Many who had thought of Hasidism as normative did not appreciate the suggestion that this form of orthodoxy was tied closely to a heretical movement. Similarly, Scholem proposed the existence of a Jewish Gnosticism pre-dating Christian Gnosticism and contributing to thirteenth century Kabbalah.

The historiographical approach employed by Scholem also involved linguistic theory. While writing on the philosophy of language in Kabbalah, Scholem also revealed his own views on language. Unlike Martin Buber, he believed in teh capacity of language to convey spiritual or mystical reality. In contrast to Walter Benjamin, he placed Hebrew in a privileged role for its ability to adumbrate divine truth. Scholem depicted the kabbalists as cultivating already extant linguistic revelation through interpretation and de-emphasized efforts of some mystics to search for new revelatory experiences. Likewise, he saw the role of the modern scholar, especially the historian, as that of interpreter. For Scholem, commentary and language were the keys to truth.


Biale, David. Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, second ed., 1982.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Gershom Scholem, 1987.

Scholem, Gershom. From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth. Trans. Harry Zohn, 1980.

Sharon Naveh