Tuesday, May 6, 2014

An Historian at War: From Gershom Scholem's Experiences in 1948

Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was a colossal figure in the modern academic study of Judaism. Without Scholem it is unlikely that there would be a serious, disciplined study of Jewish mysticism/esotericism in general, and of Kabbalah in particular. His 1941 Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism is in my estimation quite likely the most widely quoted scholarly work on Jewish mysticism even today.[1] Aside from his scholarly achievements, Scholem also corresponded widely with various people, both famous and now-forgotten, such as Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Joseph Weiss.[2] Guy Stroumsa recently published Scholem's correspondence with Morton Smith (1915-1991), a brilliant yet controversial scholar of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity. His discovery of a work he termed the Secret Gospel of Mark resulted in accusations of forgery, which to this day have remained unresolved.[3]

On August 6, 1948, Scholem sent Smith a letter thanking him for the gift of a book, and filling him in on the recent events of the 1948 war.

How does an historian, someone used to studying history at a distance from old books and manuscripts, react when brought face-to-face with events of historical magnitude? Scholem appreciates a little bit of romance in his situation, mingled with the feeling that too much "history" is actually rather uncomfortable.

"The last months have been most eventful and we could go on and on talking about our experiences. It was a great time. Of course, no academic work could proceed orderly, but everybody has had his fill of excitement and work, building fortifications, standing up to shelling and sniping, it was all very much (a little too much, perhaps) “Historic”. I was some kind of  porter honoris causa with the Jewish H.Q. and have spent some time on Mount Zion when we took over the ‘Dormitio’ of  the Benedictines. The good patres had fled and we had to guard the place. You would not have recognized Jerusalem these days! The shelling (very much English-made) was disagreeable, distasteful and exceedingly noisy. Some fell around our house, but no damage was done. Nobody knows whether the whole thing is going to start anew, and both sides are preparing themselves. The optimism which greeted the second cease-fire has vanished."[4]

Scholem goes on to write that some of their mutual friends have died, but there is still some humour, as others, like a certain widow, now make for unlikely soldiers as they patrol the city with stenguns. Scholem ends his letter on a sober yet hopeful note that could stand in for the Jewish sector's experience of the Jerusalem siege as a whole.

"Everybody has become tall and meager and since the end of  the siege we are living on food parcels from every corner of  Israel. Everybody wanted to do something for us. To which we could not object reduced as we were in physical strength. Let us hope that the tribulations of  Israel are soon over. And that we meet again in peaceful employment."[5]

[1]The first chapter may be read here. http://www2.trincoll.edu/~kiener/RELG308_Scholem_MTJM_Lecture1.pdf


[3]Guy Stroumsa (ed.), Morton Smith and Gershom Scholem: Correspondence 1945-1982 (Brill, 2008). On Secret Mark see Scott G. Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005). http://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/press/Catalog/Excerpts/brown.shtml

[4]Stroumsa, Correspondence, 25-26.

[5]Ibid., 26.