Jewish Studies Gershom Scholem
by
David Biale
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0008

Introduction

Gershom Scholem (b. 1897–d. 1982) is generally considered the most important Jewish historian of the 20th century, as well as one of the most important contributors to modern Jewish thought. Born in Berlin, he rebelled against his assimilated, bourgeois upbringing and became a Zionist while still a teenager, teaching himself Hebrew. An adamant opponent of World War I on Zionist grounds, he was ejected from the family home by his father. Although he started studying mathematics at university, he soon switched to the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), completing a PhD on the Sefer ha-Bahir, one of the earliest texts of medieval Kabbalah. Following completion of his PhD in 1923, Scholem moved to Palestine, where he became the Judaica librarian of the new Hebrew University and subsequently professor in the Institute for Jewish Studies. It was in that latter capacity that he trained a school of students. Although a handful of 19th-century scholars investigated the Kabbalah as a worthy historical subject, Scholem almost single-handedly turned the study of Kabbalah into a key discipline in the field of Jewish studies. He uncovered myriad new sources and suggested many innovative interpretations. Among his most striking findings were (1) proof that the greatest work of medieval Kabbalah, the Sefer ha-Zohar, was composed by a 13th-century Spanish Jew, Moses de Leon, rather than the 2nd-century rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (as held by Orthodox opinion); (2) an argument that the 16th-century Lurianic Kabbalah’s cosmic myth of exile in the wake of the expulsion from Spain in 1492 was a mystical response to that historical event; (3) a demonstration that the 17th-century Sabbatian messianic movement swept up virtually the entire Jewish world and thus constituted the most important worldwide phenomenon in premodern Jewish history; and (4) an argument that Sabbatianism represented the great watershed between the Middle Ages and modernity by undermining rabbinic authority from within. In addition to his major historiographical contributions, it has come to be recognized that Scholem was one of the towering Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, taking his place with such German Jewish philosophers as Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber. Scholem held that there is no “essence” of Judaism but rather a plurality of conflicting forces, from the rational to the irrational. He restored myth and mysticism to a central place in Judaism and thus overturned the predominantly rationalist philosophy of the study of Judaism from the 19th century. Scholem also constructed a powerful argument for Zionism as the return of the Jews to history, although he rejected the more nationalistic forms of Zionism such as Vladimir Jabotinsky’s revisionism.

Primary Sources

Produced during a career that spanned six decades, Scholem’s oeuvre comprised 579 published items as of 1977, including Catane 1977. Scholem 1954, a series of lectures later turned into a book, is his most important overview of the history of the Kabbalah. His other masterpiece was Scholem 1973, his biography of Sabbatai Sevi. His many essays have been collected in English in Scholem 1965, Scholem 1971, and Scholem 1997; in Hebrew in Scholem 1976a; and in German in Scholem 1963–1984. Scholem 1976b collects essays by Scholem related especially to other German Jewish thinkers.

  • Catane, Mochè, comp. Bibliography of the Writings of Gershom G. Scholem. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1977.

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    Published five years before Scholem’s death and therefore missing items from both those years and from his Nachlass. Particularly valuable for obscure writings from his early years.

  • Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. 3d ed. New York: Schocken, 1954.

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    Scholem’s lectures delivered at the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1938 cover a general definition of Jewish mysticism, hekhalot mysticism in the rabbinic period, Abraham Abulafia, two chapters on the authorship and content of the Sefer ha-Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, and Hasidism. Still the most important general work on Kabbalah.

  • Scholem, Gershom. Judaica. 4 vols. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1963–1984.

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    Many of Scholem’s most important philosophical and historiographical essays written originally in German.

  • Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Schocken, 1965.

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    A companion volume to Scholem 1976b, with essays on religious authority and mysticism, the meaning of Torah in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah and myth, and Kabbalistic ritual and the Golem.

  • Scholem, Gershom. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken, 1971.

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    In addition to the canonical title essay, contains Scholem’s pathbreaking study of Sabbatianism, “Redemption through Sin,” as well as other essays on Sabbatianism. Includes the philosophically important “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Ideas in Judaism” and two essays on Hasidism.

  • Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. Translated by R. J. Zvi Werblowsky. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

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    Scholem’s monumental biography of the 17th-century messiah and the movement that he led. The fruits of a whole career of scholarship.

  • Scholem, Gershom. Devarim be-go: Pirke morashah u-tehiya. 2 vols. Edited by Avraham Shapira. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1976a.

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    A collection of Scholem’s essays, many written originally in Hebrew and some translated from German.

  • Scholem, Gershom. On Jews and Judaism in Crisis. Edited by Werner Dannhauser. New York: Schocken, 1976b.

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    Essays on German-Jewish relations, Martin Buber, S. Y. Agnon, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt.

  • Scholem, Gershom. On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time, and Other Essays. Edited by Avraham Shapira. Translated by Jonathan Chipman. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1997.

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    Mostly ephemeral writings, but includes the first translation of Scholem’s frontal attack in 1944 on the 19th-century school of Jewish historians. Also includes reflections on how he came to study Kabbalah, as well as the title essay.

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