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Gershom Scholem

An Intellectual Biography

Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) was ostensibly a scholar of Jewish mysticism, yet he occupies a powerful role in today’s intellectual imagination, having influential contact with an extraordinary cast of thinkers, including Hans Jonas, Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Theodor Adorno. In this first biography of Scholem, Amir Engel shows how Scholem grew from a scholar of an esoteric discipline to a thinker wrestling with problems that reach to the very foundations of the modern human experience.
As Engel shows, in his search for the truth of Jewish mysticism Scholem molded the vast literature of Jewish mystical lore into a rich assortment of stories that unveiled new truths about the modern condition. Positioning Scholem’s work and life within early twentieth-century Germany, Palestine, and later the state of Israel, Engel intertwines Scholem’s biography with his historiographical work, which stretches back to the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492, through the lives of Rabbi Isaac Luria and Sabbatai Zevi, and up to Hasidism and the dawn of the Zionist movement. Through parallel narratives, Engel touches on a wide array of important topics including immigration, exile, Zionism, World War One, and the creation of the state of Israel, ultimately telling the story of the realizations—and failures—of a dream for a modern Jewish existence.


"This careful, convincing intellectual biography of philosopher/historian Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) occasions rethinking the relationship between Scholem’s scholarship on kabbalah and sabbatism and his personal journey as a Zionist. Scholem grew up in Germany and in the early 1920s emigrated to what was to become the State of Israel. Engel argues that Scholem’s 'unusually wide' and continuing prominence, unexpected for a scholar of an esoteric area of history, results from the profundity of his reflections on central questions of Jewish and European life in the 20th century. Engel critiques previous biographical treatments of Scholem that found in his work an assertion that kabbalah expressed a single metaphysical truth underlying all facets of Jewish history and philosophy. Engel contends that Scholem was more creative than that—that he wove into narratives 'the old and the new, the esoteric and the political, the personal and the social' and in so doing broadened the discussion. Thus, Scholem’s scholarship reflects his own life experience even as it reveals a community’s need to transform in the face of historical trauma. This engaging, important biography teaches one a great deal about 20th-century European and Jewish history. Highly recommended."


“Engel’s study of Gershom Scholem is rich in original insights, notably the role of Lurianic Kabbalah in Scholem’s politics and the evolution of his presentation of Sabbatianism. His book makes an important new contribution to the growing fascination with this historian of Jewish mysticism, who, as a seminal twentieth-century thinker, was much more than just an historian.”

David Biale, author of Gershom Scholem: Between Mysticism and Modernity

“Engel’s biography of the Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem confronts the reader with a double challenge. Against the most solid preconceptions of the humanities, as a contemporary intellectual and political environment, it patiently documents how philological rigor can turn into philosophical inspiration. But on this trajectory of erudition and thought, it shows that Scholem also crossed the border between a noncommittal affinity with Zionism and Zionism as a radically progressive lifeform and political option.”

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Stanford University

“Engel’s bold retelling of the remarkable life and career of Gershom Scholem is a model of intellectual biography at its most incisive. Skillfully tracing Scholem’s personal itinerary, not only from Berlin to Jerusalem, but also from a Zionism of romantic, anarchistic spiritualism to one of pragmatic, resigned statism, he allows us to appreciate the role historical trauma, both communal and personal, played in his transformation. Even more impressively, he uncovers the ways in which Scholem’s scholarly work on Jewish mysticism and Sabbateanism reflected his growing realization of the dangers of messianic politics in the modern world.”

Martin E. Jay, University of California, Berkeley

"Engel ultimately portrays the Scholem beloved by Prochnik, Ozick, Bloom, and others as a romanticized “image” separate from the “demystified figure of 'Scholem'."

The Hedgehog Review

"Engel has written a fascinating study of this nearly incomparable modern Jewish thinker. He has excavated the implicit, making explicit the lines of connection between Scholem’s life and his work.... As Scholem transcends the boundary between a scholar of Jewish history and a subject of Jewish history scholarship, Engel’s biography merits a place in the debate over the man and his thought."

H-Net Reviews

"Amir Engel claims to have 'demystified' his subject by seamlessly connecting, if not reducing, Scholem’s scholarship to his personal, political, and historical context; Engel regards this as his 'most substantial finding.'"

Jewish Review of Books

"In this probing and well-researched biography Engel presents Scholem as similarly one who early on was inspired by Zionism to overcome what he viewed as a two thousand year period of stagnation for ‘Jews in exile’, who emigrated to Palestine in 1923 when his vision was not accepted in Germany, but was similarly disappointed by what he found there."

Patrick Madigan | Heythrop Journal

"Engel portrays Scholem as a mythmaker and stresses the exuberance of his narrative invention in giving renewed voice to a dialogue between the exoteric and the esoteric."

Benjamin Balint | Jewish Quarterly

"Amir Engel, lecturer in the German Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has published a well-researched and inspiring study on Gershom Scholem: a key figure in Jewish cultural history of the twentieth century, who is regarded as the founder of a new academic discipline, that of Jewish mysticism."

Gabriele Guerra | Political Theology

"Character traits matter, in part because they circulate through a community. Reviews of books by intellectuals rarely mention them. Perhaps they should even lead with them. But how much weight should they be given?...
I would like to suggest, with some fear and trembling, that Scholem’s ideas can show a way out of this impasse. Amir Engel’s book, the best of this lot in my view, presents Scholem’s thought as beginning with a youthful enthusiasm and settling into a mature caution."

Martin Kavka | Tikkun

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. The Stories of Gershom Scholem
2. Writing the Myth of Exile: In Search of Political Rejuvenation, 1913–1918
3. Messianism as Symbol: The Lurianic School and the Emergence of a Mystical-Political Society
4. When a Dream Comes True: Zionist Politics in Palestine, 1923–1931
5. Against All Odds: Sabbatean Belief and the Sabbatean Movement
6. For the Love of Israel: The Turn from the Fringe to the Mainstream of Zionist Thinking
7. The Man and the Image


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