Gershom Scholem

David Biale

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Gershom Scholem


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.

Article.  4826 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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