Authors: Gershom Scholem

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German-born Israeli scholar

Identity: Jewish

Author Works


Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 1941, revised 1946

Shabbatai Tsevi veha-tenu’ah, 1957 (Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676, 1973)

Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik, 1960 (On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, 1965)

Ursprung und Anfänge der Kabbala, 1962 (Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987)

Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit, 1962 (On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah, 1991)

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

Kabbalah, 1974

Walter Benjamin, 1975 (Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, 1981)

On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, 1976

Von Berlin nach Jerusalem, 1977 (From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth, 1980)

Briefe, 1994-2000 (3 volumes; letters)

A Life in Letters, 1914-1982, 2002 (Anthony David Skinner, editor)

Edited Text:

Zohar, the Book of Splendor: Basic Readings from the Kabbalah, 1949


The twentieth century scholar and historian Gershom Scholem (SHOH-luhm) singlehandedly brought Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, into serious consideration and radically altered the way mysticism is viewed in the course of Jewish history. Born Gerhard Scholem to an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, Scholem early rejected both Jewish assimilation and German nationalism in his search for a Jewish identity. At the age of fourteen he became a Zionist, which for him was a starting point, a place where both secular and orthodox Jews could find common ground in their identification as Jews. His thinking was not so much based on a political concern for the creation of a national homeland as it was a repudiation of the values of his parents as Germans and as members of the middle class.{$I[AN]9810001606}{$I[A]Scholem, Gershom}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Scholem, Gershom}{$I[geo]ISRAEL;Scholem, Gershom}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Scholem, Gershom}{$I[tim]1897;Scholem, Gershom}

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 left Scholem further estranged from family and society. He opposed the war, although most German Zionists and Jewish leaders embraced the nation’s war effort. Ashamed of his son’s antipatriotism, Scholem’s father in early 1917 expelled him from home without financial support. The young man avoided military service by feigning a psychotic condition and spent the following year in Switzerland. In 1919 he returned to Germany to pursue a doctorate and eventually turned to the study of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah was purposely left untouched as a formal academic pursuit by Jewish historiography as it was defined by the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment of the nineteenth century. The Haskalah directed and shaped the course of Jewish thought and thus the intellectual environment of Scholem’s youth. The movement established a new “science of Judaism” that provided a “rationalist” approach to historiography and highlighted the influence of the legalistic and rational elements of the Talmudic tradition. Mysticism, unpalatable in an age of reason, was vehemently discounted as superstition and an anomaly of Judaism. Scholem eventually soundly rejected this view and placed Kabbalah in its proper context in Jewish history.

In 1923 Scholem severed his ties with Germany completely and emigrated to Jerusalem. There he adopted the name Gershom from the book of Exodus, which means “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” Although Scholem’s interest in Kabbalah was rooted in personal experience, his historical approach was scholarly and even-handed. Between 1921 and 1936 he combed the libraries of Europe for Kabbalistic texts to catalog and analyze. In 1933 Scholem was named professor of mysticism at the Hebrew University.

One of Scholem’s earliest achievements was dating and establishing the true source of the most important Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, which was thought by believers to be the work of Simeon bar Yohai, a first century rabbi in Palestine. Through a philological analysis Scholem found the flawed Aramaic of the Zohar out of place in the context of bar Yohai’s time and, in fact, to be the result of a single author, Moses de Leon, a medieval Spanish Kabbalist.

Another early achievement was his examination of the Shabbatian movement. Proclaimed the Messiah in 1665, Shabbatai Zevi as proof of validity committed a variety of bizarre acts in violation of Jewish law, culminating with his conversion to Islam. A mass conversion followed, though adherents secretly continued to believe in him; accepting his apostasy, others chose to remain within Judaism. In 1937 Scholem published an article, “Redemption Through Sin,” which made sense of the catastrophic event in its Kabbalistic context.

In 1938 Scholem traveled to New York to give a series of lectures that later became his first important book, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Published in 1941, this work left a permanent mark on Jewish historiography and removed Kabbalah from its marginal status. During the next three decades Scholem built upon his initial theses and expanded into other areas. In 1957 his landmark Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah appeared, a comprehensive examination of the impact of the Shabbatian movement. Scholem argues that the movement was pivotal and distinctly marks the end of medieval Jewish history and the beginning of the modern period. In later works he examined the origins of Kabbalah and the rich meaning of its symbolism and myth. His entries for the Encyclopedia Judaica, demonstrating the credibility of mysticism as an element of Judaism, are collected in a single volume under the title Kabbalah.

Scholem published more than forty volumes and seven hundred articles, and in establishing a new discipline he demonstrated that Kabbalah was a creative and vital part of Judaism. His life was highlighted by friendships with such prominent figures as Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, and S. Y. Agnon. By the time of his death, he had received a number of awards in recognition of his contributions to the study of Jewish culture and history.

BibliographyAlter, Robert. Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. A critical analysis of Scholem’s (and Kafka’s and Benjamin’s) response to modernity.Aschheim, Steven E. Scholem, Arendt, Klemperer: Intimate Chronicles in Turbulent Times. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Studies Scholem’s work as well as that of Hannah Arendt and Victor Klemperer. Includes bibliographic references and index.Biale, David. Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Discusses Scholem and his work as an attempt to rewrite Jewish history.Bloom, Harold, ed. Gershom Scholem. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of critical essays on Scholem’s work.Dan, Joseph. Gershom Scholem and the Mystical Dimension of Jewish History. New York: New York University Press, 1987. Provides an excellent overview of Scholem’s scholarship.Mendes-Flohr, Paul, ed. Gershom Scholem: The Man and His Work. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. A collection of essays that explores the impact of Scholem’s work and evaluates its significance.
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