Gershom Scholem & the Study of Mysticism

The academic study of Jewish mysticism was established by a single, ground-breaking scholar.

In the middle of the 19th century, German Jews with a rationalist cast of mind founded what they called the “Wissenschaft des Judentums/Science of Judaism,” an attempt to submit Judaism to the rigors of such academic disciplines as philology, history, and literary criticism.

Part of the Haskalah and closely allied with the nascent Reform movement, the Wissenschaft thinkers were engaged in spirited apologetics, arguing for the long and proud history of their people. One of the elements of that history of which they were less than proud was Jewish mysticism. Historians like Leopold Zunz and key founding members of the Reform movement like Abraham Geiger and the Conservative movement’s Zecharias Frankel were dismissive of Kabbalah and its forebears and openly contemptuous of Hasidism, which embarrassed them with what they felt was its boisterousness, credulity, and superstition. This was the state of things when a young graduate student named Gershom Scholem decided to write a thesis on Jewish mysticism.

Scholem (1897-1982) tells a story about his early research that sums up the position of mysticism in Judaic studies in Weimar Germany. He was directed to a prominent rabbi who was considered an expert on Kabbalah. Scholem visited the rabbi in his home, saw the many books, and asked the rabbi about them. He replied, “This trash? Why would I waste my time reading nonsense like this?”

That conversation, Scholem always said, made him realize that this was a neglected field in which a dedicated scholar could make a mark. He explained his interest in Jewish mysticism to Herbert Weiner, “I’ve done my research in this history of the Kabbalah simply because I loved Judaism and wanted to show that mysticism was a legitimate part of this Judaism. Not some strange flower, but an indigenous growth.”

Scholem was a staunch Zionist, and would emigrate to Palestine in the 1920s. The growing tide of Zionist feeling of the period was, he has written, a partial spur to the revival of interest in Kabbalah among scholars who saw mysticism as one more aspect of Jewish expression, another facet of Jewish nationhood. In fact, the major center for the study of Jewish mysticism in this period was founded in 1925 at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Perhaps a more significant turning point in the growth of interest in Jewish mysticism, though, was the series of lectures that Scholem gave at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City in 1938, subsequently collected and published as Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, a brilliant and remarkably comprehensive introduction to the history and ideas of the Jewish mystics.

The success of Scholem’s project–almost single-handedly reviving interest in mysticism as a subject for study–reclaimed an important part of the Jewish religious heritage. In a 1972 essay on Kabbalah for the Encyclopedia Judaica, Scholem observed that the academic study of Jewish mysticism was still in its comparative infancy.

In the more than 30 years since, it has emerged as a formidable branch of Judaic studies and produced some of the most significant works in Jewish historiography of the second half of the 20th century, and it may be truly said that the scholars who have done this work are the sons and daughters of Scholem.

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