Gershom Scholem

[Gershom Scholem (1897-1982)]

Gershom Scholem,  from  On Jews and Judaism in Crisis – Selected Essays

“The poet Allen Ginsberg once visited me. A likeable fellow. Genuine. Strange, mad, but genuine. I took a strong liking to him.My wife and I had a very interesting conversation with him, and in her inimitable way she asked him. “Why don’t you come to live here?” (I never ask anyone this question. People know whether and when it is time to come; that’s basic. If people want to come then it’s possible to talk to them about it. But I don’t have it in me to tell anyone that he must come to Eretz Israel. But my wife is different). He looked at us and replied, “Me? Your great ideal is to build a new Bronx here. All my life I’ve been running away from the Bronx, and here I come to the Jewish State and find that the whole big ideal of the Zionists is to build a giant Bronx here. If I have to go back to the Bronx, I may as well stay in the original one”, We said to him, “What if you’re mistaken?”  But there is something to what he said…”

Gershon Scholem? – for those unfamiliar with him – George Prochnik.in his recently-published and eminently-readable, Stranger In A Strange Land – Searching For Gershon Scholem and Jerusalem ;

“Scholem, the German-born radical-humanist thinker who moved to Palestine after the First World War as an idealistic, if idiosyncratic, Zionist, is best known as the founder of the modern study of Kabbalah—a category of Jewish thought, prayer, and ritual practice that pursues ultimate truths about God’s nature, good, evil, and humanity’s role in the cosmos. As Scholem himself pointed out in the opening of one of his books, the Hebrew word “kabbalah” literally means “tradition,” and, in the sense that it composed “the tradition of things divine,” Kabbalah fed people’s hunger for a new and deeper understanding of conventional religious forms.”

“Certain Kabbalists”,  Prochnik goes on, ” indeed extended their speculations so far that they were accused of redefining Judaism’s purpose. With their work, Scholem wrote, “the Torah is transformed into a Corpus mysticum.” At times, he appears to suggest that the intense study of this covert history might function as its own form of worship.”

Allen was certainly highly sympathetic to this approach. In a 1984 interview with Michael Horovitz for the Jewish Chronicle, he speaks of his preference for “the bohemian mysticism of (a) Gershon Scholem, (or (a) Martin Buber or (an Isaac Bashevis) Singer..)”.  In 1995, in his “Face To Face” interview with Jeremy Isaacs, he speaks of Scholem as someone “whom I admired a great deal and read a lot of his work” (noting that he solicited Scholem in his research for the poem “Plutonian Ode”)

The two met, on Ginsberg’s recollection, on at least two occasions – “(I) visited him in Jerusalem in 1961, I think, and saw him again in Paris”, he tells Isaacs.

Prochnik fancifully evokes the latter event:

“..zingy Scholem, the senior cosmic magician, hunched alongside Allen Ginsberg in a Paris cafe, hand under his knee, popping chocolates while Ginsberg smokes hashish doing the bop Kabbalah to a lyric stream of Gnostic names, charting the spectrum between material and immaterial, the sensible to the noumenal , in a moveable Bronx feast of mischievous Jewish dreams”

Prochnik points out their mutual devotion, not just to mysticism but to the mystical humanism of Walt Whitman.  “Walt Whitman revealed in an utterly naturalistic world  what Kabbalists and other mystics revealed in their world”,  he quotes Scholem declaring – (and tells of a revealing encounter  with Harold Bloom – “He (Scholem) was haunted by Whitman” according to Bloom).

Prochnik describes a “Scholemian WALT (Hermetic.) Whitmanian quasi-Sefirotic Diagram”, (a kabbalistic diagram constructed by Scholem, assisted by Bloom)

“Scholem was trying to ascertain  whether Whitman in his own pantheistic mysticism might have arrived at conceptual paradigms parallel with the Kabbalists by “reading” the Scripture of the Cosmos – by exerting his “Androgyne Poetic Will” (sic) to display the symbolic dimension of Nature”,  he writes.

Gershom Scholem – On The Confrontation of Man With Himself and the Doctrine of the Astral Body – hear the voice of Scholem (from 1975 , lecturing on the Kabbalah) – here

and, again, from Prochnik:

“Scholem stayed on in Jerusalem, but he was too clear-eyed and repelled by sanctimony to deny the dangers of politically actualized Zionism. Only two years after arriving in Palestine, (he) wrote a friend back in Berlin. “No one should foster the illusion that wha happens here and will occur in the future….has the slightest thing in common, in substantia et essentia , with Zionism, in whose name your faithful servant is here….”

and again,

“After all, we have to realize that our interpretation of Zionism does no good if someday (and there is no mistaking the fact that the decisive hour has come), the face of Zionism, even that which is only turned inward, should prove to be that of a Medusa.”

Allen to Michael Horovitz; “I’m in a dilemma because the rigid Jehovaic tradition depends on a CIA in heaven which is the poison of civilization.Whereas my real Jewishness wasn’t in that God, but in the very strong cultural tradition – an international, left-wing, poetic tolerant anarchism and argumentism I love…”

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