Imaginary Homelands: Stefan Zweig, Gershom Scholem, and George Prochnik
|Gershom Scholem at twenty-seven|
|Stefan and Lotte Zweig on their deathbed|
In this regard his disposition could not have been more different from that of Scholem. While Zweig was ultimately powerless to defend himself against the forces that destroyed his glass world of the spirit, Scholem seems to have been born a rebel and a firebrand, a fighter by nature. It would seem that throughout his life, the only way he could conceive of anything whatsoever was in terms of dialectical struggle ruled by the paradoxical logic of coincidentia oppositorum. For Zweig, losing all hope could only mean that no hope was left – obviously. But Scholem’s logic worked differently: “In his final years he was very hopeless. He said that now the only thing that remained was hope,” his widow recalled (426). The paradoxicality of such a remark has Scholem written all over it.
Scholem emigrated “from Berlin to Jerusalem” in spite of (or rather, I suspect, because of!) his core conviction that Zion was a messianic dream that could not and in fact should not be realized in this world. As a scholar searching for the roots of authentic Judaism, he explored the broader world of Hellenistic “paganism” and its legacy: I think he was driven by an intuition that the secret of Jewish life could be found precisely in the culture of the idolaters. As a model “historian’s historian,” he insisted on strict philology and textual criticism but applied these methods precisely to the “non-historical” world of mythical symbolism that appeals to the imagination rather than to strict literalism. While Jerusalem was in a state of siege, and extreme violence was rampant, he sat down to write a famous essay (analyzed at length by Prochnik) exploring the notion of “redemption through sin.” Scholem’s life-long search was for the authentic secret at the heart of Jewish tradition, as an alternative to the Germany he rejected, and yet the hermeneutics that allowed him to discover Jewish secrets was grounded in German scholarship, German Idealism, German Romantic speculation. He never ceased emphasizing that der Liebe Gott lebt im Detail, so that only by focusing on the particular and the unique could one gain lasting insights and discover general or even universal truths - and yet, he knew that without such general perspectives and a search for the universal, one would never succeed in opening the closed shell of the particular in the first place, and would fail to discover its hidden contents. Scholem could be described as a Jewish representative of the interwar “conservative revolution” who tried to impact the future of Judaism not by rejecting past traditions but by preserving and reviving them. In short, Scholem was a modernist struggling (like all modernists) with modernity itself. He was a rationalist driven by the energy of the non-rational: “my secularism is not secular” (58-59).
Whereas Zweig’s despair ended up killing him, Scholem’s dialectical mindset seems to have enabled him to use it as a creative force, as he wrote in a letter to Hugo Berman in 1947: “I live in despair, and only from the position of despair can I be active” (Briefe I, 331). In an earlier discussion of Scholem, I concluded that, for him
|Leaflet "Song of Peace" with Rabin's blood on it|