Originally published in the Jewish Quarterly, 30.1-2 (109/10) (1982), pp. 17-19.
It was almost 30 years ago that I first met Gershom Scholem. I was at the time Minister of the New West End Synagogue where Scholem gave a lecture with the intriguing title, ‘The Historical Baal Shem Tov’.
Before Scholem’s scholarly analysis, attitudes towards the founder of the Hasidic movement veered between complete scepticism—Deinhard advanced the ridiculous proposition that this charismatic personality never existed—and an acceptance of the Shivhey ha-Besht (‘Praises of the Baal Shem Tov’, the legendary biography of the Baal Shem Tov) as more or less factual. A Hasidic master did say that anyone who believes that all the miracles really happened is a fool but he went on to say that anyone who believes they could not have happened is an epikoros. Scholem’s lecture showed the validity of a third approach, that of careful historical reconstruction, which garners the facts behind the legends through an inquiry into how legends about the saints grow and by reliance on contemporary eyewitness accounts, themselves tested for their reliability. In this way it was possible to obtain a closely approximate picture of what the Baal Shem Tov was really like. One of the eye-witnesses Scholem drew upon was Aryeh Laib, the Mochiach (‘Preacher’) of Pulonneye, an early disciple of the master. When called upon to give the vote of thanks, I said that it was appropriate for the ‘Mochiach’ of the New West End Synagogue to say something about the historical Gershom Scholem. Until we had heard him in the flesh it was hard to believe that there really existed a German Jew, belonging to an assimilated family, who discovered his Jewish roots and by his own efforts became equipped to enter the forbidden world of Jewish mysticism in order to create with his genius a new scholarly discipline. Legends about Scholem were rife. We now saw that they were all true.
To say that Scholem’s strength consisted of his ability to tread the middle way between the extremes of hostility and biased involvement in the study of Jewish mysticism, would be, however, a gross over-simplification. His great achievement depended rather on the application of the most painstaking historical and philological scholarship in the investigation of sources where such procedures had been held to be quite impossible and where, as for Graetz, the sources themselves belonged to a chapter in the history of Jewish thought best forgotten. Scholem was the objective scholar par excellence with no Jewish subject foreign to him. His famous and rather unfair critique of Jüdische Wissenschaft was that it did not live up to its name. It was not ‘scientific’ but time-serving, seeking to show that Judaism too was respectable. For the true scholar, Scholem held, even subjects that are less than respectable to the sober rationalist or the idealistic theologian, those which do not fit into any tidy scheme of Jewish apologetics, are also manifestations of the Jewish spirit and deserve the attentions of scholarship; which is why Scholem devoted so much time and effort to investigation of Shabbetai Zevi, the false Messiah, and his movement. The scholar, working as such (whatever his personal views, to which he is entitled) must never allow distaste for some figures of the past and admiration for others to blind him to what these men actually said and how they made an impact on their contemporaries.
Elaine Thayer, E. E. Cummings’ first wife, once said: ‘I don’t like people who wish to be understood’. How far the Kabbalists and the other Jewish mystics Scholem wrote about wished to be understood by the uninitiated is uncertain but if anyone has made them understood to moderns it is Scholem, who taught that the only way to understand was to let these strange men, with their own fascination, speak for themselves not read ideas into their texts and utterances which they could never have entertained. For understanding it is also very important to know who wrote what and when and why. In his ruthless pursuit for the truth about the Jewish past, Scholem was courageous enough to abandon his own theories over which he had worked long and tirelessly, as when he first rejected the view that the Zohar was composed by Moses de Leon at the end of the 13th century in Spain and then, after further submission to the evidence, came round to the view that he had been mistaken and that Moses de Leon was the author. This does not necessarily mean, I recall Scholem saying at a seminar he conducted on the Zohar, that Moses de Leon attempted to perpetrate a literary forgery. He may well have intended the work to be pseudepigraphic, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai in the Zohar having a similar role to Pilgrim in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
For all his regard for Buber and his acknowledged indebtedness to him, Scholem could not agree with Buber’s use, for the furtherance of his own ideas, of the Hasidic tales, in the telling of which Buber was such a master. For Scholem the one thing scholarship must never do is to use movements or trends in history, not even to further ideas that may have much value in themselves. Buber’s I and Thou, Scholem admitted, is capable of standing on its own as a powerful philosophy of human existence. What Buber was not entitled to do was to read Hasidism as saying the same thing when, as Scholem demonstrated, it was patently saying the exact opposite. Had Buber looked into the actual teachings of the Hasidim, instead of manipulating the Hasidic tales attractively to promote his own ideas, he would have found that the Hasidic masters were emphatically not stating that man, in his enjoyment of God’s world, meets God as he enjoys material things. True, asceticism is not the Hasidic norm (though Hasidic ascetics are certainly not unknown) but the reason for Hasidic opposition to asceticism is because worldly things contain ‘holy sparks’ to be redeemed. The physical universe is the arena in which man struggles to meet his God. The ultimate aim is not for man to have a dialogue with the Thou behind all things. It is rather the self-transcendence which the Hasidim speak of as biltul ha-yesh, ‘self-annihilation’; there could hardly be a more emphatic anti-Buberian ideal. The Hasidic aim is not for the I to meet the Thou but to be absorbed or lost in the Thou (Scholem perhaps goes too far in virtually denying that the Jewish mystics ever taught the complete unio mystica). In his scholarly work Scholem was not interested in the question of which of the two philosophies—Buber’s or that of the Hasidim—is the most adequate for the religious life. That was a question for philosophers or theologians not for scholars. The scholar has to be dedicated to his own task of examining objectively all the evidence. Scholem would have agreed entirely with the maxim of C. P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian (a newspaper, Scholem tells us in a short autobiographical sketch, his father used to read religiously day by day): ‘Facts are sacred. Comments are free’.
As Professor Urbach said at Scholem’s funeral, Scholem, gifted though he was with extraordinary imaginative and intuitive power, steadfastly refused to countenance any theories based on imagination or intuition unless these could be supported by concrete evidence. I once wrote to Scholem saying very tentatively that I had some doubts about the authenticity of the famous letter of the Baal Shem Tov. (Dubnow calls the letter the ‘manifesto’ of the Hasidic movement, a description Scholem held was quite absurd). I thought the appearance of a letter, describing the Baal Shem Tov’s ascent of the soul during which he was assured by the Messiah, no less, that his teachings would spread abroad, at a time when Hasidism was on the defensive and badly needed divine reassurance, was too good to be true. Scholem replied rebuking me for engaging in hyper-criticism, as much a temptation in research as uncritical acceptance. He wrote in so many words that scholarship ought not to proceed by a feeling that such-and-such is the case but by meticulous attention to the evidence available in all its detail. Scholarly hypotheses, like hypotheses in the physical sciences, are valueless unless they can be tested.
It can be surmised that Scholem’s marked tendency to isolate Jewish mysticism from the study of mysticism in general as well as his aversion to any suggestion that psycho-analysis can tell us something about the workings of the mystic’s inner life were not due to an inherent parochialism and certainly not to ignorance (he was astonishingly abreast of current trends) but to his fierce scholarly integrity, which prevented him from entering into areas he could not explore with complete mastery of the terrain. It cannot be denied that this restriction he seems to have imposed on himself does, on occasion, vitiate his findings. Students of Scholem wishing to know, for example, how the ‘major trends of Jewish mysticism’ fit into the general history of mystical thought, are not infrequently disappointed by Scholem’s comparative indifference to the problem. I recall a discussion with Scholem. It was on the day of the funeral of Scholem’s favourite pupil, the distinguished scholar of Hasidism, J. G. Weiss. Weiss’s magnificent studies were in our minds and our thoughts naturally turned to the remarkable parallels, Weiss and others had noticed, between Hasidism in the 18th century and revivalist movements at the same time in the non-Jewish world. Scholem was furious at the attempts to explain these resemblances in terms of direct cultural influence. All he was prepared to say was that there is a mystery about the Zeitgeist which defies schematisation.
The inevitable question, was Scholem himself a mystic, is hard to answer. Scholem would undoubtedly have replied, if anyone had had the impertinence to inquire too closely into his personal life, something like: ‘Mind your own business’ or ‘You don’t have to be a Confucian to study Chinese metaphysics or a Buddhist to study Zen’. It is likely that his caginess in disclosing his own personal attitudes was because he felt this would compromise in some way the scholarly detachment with which he pursued his researches. In appearance and conduct he was as far removed as possible from the conventional picture of a mystic. He had neither beard nor shaggy hair. His eyes were penetrating but gave not the slightest hint that they had gazed into hidden psychic depths. He believed that the Kabbalists had important insights to convey but scorned the idea that a modern man could swallow the Kabbalah whole. He was not an observant Jew and fancied himself as something of a religious anarchist. A non-smoker (he preferred to reclaim the ‘holy sparks’ in chocolates rather than in tobacco) when asked about his standards of observance he would wryly note that he had never smoked on the Sabbath! He was not averse to poking fun at colleagues. He once told me how, when he began to study Kabbalah, he borrowed some books on mysticism from a well-known savant to discover that they had all been purloined from the British Museum. On another occasion he told of the Jewish bibliophile in whose library erotica were placed on the same shelves as Kabbalistic books. But mystic or not, Scholem was a deeply religious man, though one who never wore his religious heart on his sleeve. In a rare interview he gave a year or two ago, Scholem affirmed his belief in God, declaring that he could not fathom how there could be any grounding for ethical behaviour in an atheistic philosophy. A Zionist from his youth, his Zionist vision incorporated the biblical ideal of the Jews as ‘a kingdom of priests and an holy nation’. On more than one Yom Kippur he attended services at my synagogue. It was a frightening experience to have to preach on the great themes of the day with Gershom Scholem as a member of the congregation. Though he was always courteous, I could not help seeing that questing mind busy reflecting on the complexities of religious belief, on the way the mystics, whose thought he knew so profoundly, had to struggle for the truth and for whom that truth was so shot through with grand uncertainties that it must have seemed nonsensical to try to package it neatly for delivery in a 20 minute sermon.
In the same interview, Scholem told how, as a young man, he approached one of the Kabbalists of Bet El in Jerusalem to teach him the Kabbalah. The man first gazed long, as Kabbalists are supposed to do, at Scholem’s forehead to see if he had the right signs and he then accepted him on the condition that, whatever the provocation, he was not to ask any questions. Scholem said he would have to think it over and he later came to the conclusion that he could not accept such a condition. We are not told the end of the story but since Scholem did study the Kabbalah with him the old Kabbalist must have received the answer he really wanted to hear. The Zohar speaks of one aspect of the Godhead as Mi, ‘Who’, because one can only ask: ‘What is it?’ without expecting an answer. Scholem, in his magnum opus, calls this the apotheosis of the Jewish penchant of answering a question with a question. After a lifetime of writing, lecturing and research, during which he extended the frontiers of human knowledge, Scholem has now gone to the world of souls of which his mystics speak so elusively. We can imagine him there now asking penetrating questions of Cordovero, Luria and the other masters, refusing to accept any of their answers which fail to satisfy his probing spirit.