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Thursday, November 5, 2009


Gershom Scholem was the founder of the modern academic studies of Jewish Mysticism, Kabbalah. Born in Berlin in 1897, he studied philosophy and Hebrew at the University of Berlin. In 1923 he left for Palestine and became the head of the department of Hebrew and Judaica at the National Library. Subsequently he taught at the Hebrew University until his retirement in 1965. He died in 1982 in Jerusalem at the age of 85.
His writings on Jewish mysticism set the pattern for the study of Kabbalah from a critical and historical perspective. Among his most important books are, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, On Kabbalah and its Symbolism, Sabbatai Zevi; The Mystical Messiah; The Messianic Idea in Judaism. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once remarked, "All of us have students, schools, but only Gershom Scholem has created a whole academic discipline!"

When I was a rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, Dr. Scholem came to the College to do research on Kabbalah. He remained in residence just a short time, from March to May of 1966. In the 60’s Jewish mysticism was not an academic subject for which many of us would have signed up. Rationalism dominated the rabbinic curriculum. Consequently, I never had Dr. Scholem as a teacher but his room was adjacent to mine in the dormitory. Being a neighbor, I saw him often in the hall, library or the dining room. Once in a while, especially on a Saturday night, if I did not have something special to do, I would knock at his door, and ask him if he wanted to go out. He was by himself and not always socially busy. So, on a number of occasions we would hit a movie or get a cup of coffee at a local diner.

Dr. Scholem was a very formal individual, always wearing tie and jacket, even when we went to see a show. He was a stern man with a dry sense of humor. He spoke English well, though with a strong German accent. With me, he was friendly and cordial. I don’t remember what we talked about during our outings. But one thing is sure: I had no idea then that I was in the company of one of the most insightful scholars of our generation. It was only later on, when I started to read about Jewish mysticism that I realized how lucky I was to have spent quality time with Prof. Scholem. I wish I knew then what I know now, and could have asked him so many questions that still puzzle me about Kabbalah, but I will have to contend myself with a few wonderful memories I have of him. Well, c’est la vie!

Rifat Sonsino

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