Bernard McGinn — The Scholarship of Gershom Scholem

Dr. Bernard McGinn is a historian, scholar, and theologian at the University of Chicago. Senior producer Lily Percy spoke with him on the academic legacy of Scholem and his impact on modern scholarship of Kabbalah.

Lily Percy: So tell me, first of all when you first encountered Gershom Scholem’s work or even heard his name.

Dr. Bernard McGinn: Well, I suppose it must be about 40 years ago, I would say, back sometime in the 1960s or early ‘70s. I mean, I was very interested in Christian mysticism, and obviously the more you get interested in one mystical tradition, the more you think about other traditions. So, someone told me, you know, Gershom Scholem’s book on Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism was the essential book. And I read it. And indeed it was an amazing book, I think, and still is an amazing book. So I’ve been reading him for many years and I’m a scholar of Christian mysticism. I really don’t have a sufficient Hebrew and Aramaic and the like, but I keep a very strong interest in Jewish mysticism. And I’ve taught many courses with friends of mine in Jerusalem and here in the U.S., comparative courses on Jewish and Christian mysticism.

Ms. Percy: Hm. Did you find it difficult to read Scholem when you first read him? I’ve read a couple of different, uh, uh, you know, people saying that sometimes Scholem is a little bit difficult to kind of get through.

Dr. McGinn: Uh, well, I’m fundamentally an academic, so...

Ms. Percy: Yeah.

Dr. McGinn: ...I’m sort of used to some of these more difficult prose. I think I never found him a difficult author. I think some of the concepts he’s dealing with, obviously, are very intricate and not easy to understand. But he also has a remarkable clarity of style in dealing with the issues, like this so that — no, I don’t — I wouldn’t say I find him a difficult author. I can think of many people who are far more difficult to read about the same kind of material.

Ms. Percy: Yeah. So, you know, in preparing for this, I tried — I found it difficult to read Scholem, I will admit. But the book that you did the foreword to, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, that one actually was really — a lot of the ideas kind of sunk in a lot more.

Dr. McGinn: Well, like many authors, I mean Scholem wrote on different kinds of levels and I think some of those books of his essays are more accessible than Major Trends or the, say the very large book he did on the Jewish Mystical Messiah Sabbatai Sevi. I mean, that’s a very dense, you know, very dense study. So it depends on the level — the audience that he’s writing for and the level that he’s writing on.

Ms. Percy: Yeah. So...

Dr. McGinn: But I would think as you mentioned, if someone said, oh, I’d like to read a book of Scholem’s, I think, on the Kabbalah and its symbolism might be the book that I would first recommend, because I think it is more accessible.

Ms. Percy: Yeah. Yeah. So, something that you write in the foreword, I think it’s actually the first sentence, you start by saying that it may be surprising to students of Jewish mysticism to have one of the classics of his modern literature introduced by an outsider. And I have to say, when I looked up, you know, information on you, I was surprised that you were writing this foreword, as a Christian mystic scholar. Was it something, like, how did this happen? How did you come to write the foreword, and...

Dr. McGinn: Well, the editor of Schocken Books came to me sometime in the early 1990s, maybe about ’93 or ’94, I can’t remember exactly. And he approached me and said, oh, you know, we’re reissuing Scholem’s books in new editions, and we’d like you to write the preface. And I said, are you sure you want me? I mean, I’m interested in Jewish mysticism, I teach comparative courses. And he said, oh no, we think it would be a good idea to have someone who’s not, you know, directly in the world of Jewish mysticism, but who has an appreciation for Scholem and has read a lot of Scholem, to write the introduction. And I said, well, if that’s what you want, I’ll do it, because I have great admiration for Scholem, and I had written a little bit about him from time to time. And I knew that book very well. So, I decided I would go ahead and do it.

Ms. Percy: Yeah. And something you write about in the foreword is how there is a lot to be learned from what he wrote, that can go into Christian mysticism in studying Christian mysticism.

Dr. McGinn: Yes [audio issues]...problem here. Is that okay?

Ms. Percy: Oh, we can pause.

Dr. McGinn: Yeah. I think we’re ready to go now. One of the things that’s characteristic of the study of mysticism, I think over the last generation, has been a necessity for comparative study. That is that you really only know — you know your tradition, but you get to know it better when you begin to study it comparatively. So, it’s in the discussion that I’ve had with scholars of Jewish mysticism and to a lesser degree, with scholars of Islamic mysticism. I’ve learned things about the Christian mystical tradition that I would never would have seen unless I began to look at them, you know, through the eyes of others. And through these kinds of experiences of teaching together, lecturing together, et cetera. And my impression from my friends who work in the world of Jewish mysticism is that it’s the same with them. Any of them are very knowledgeable about Christian mysticism, and when we teach these kind of joint courses on overlapping themes, it’s really very creative on all sides.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, Scholem himself was. I mean, he studied Christian mysticism. Right?

Dr. McGinn: He did. And, you know, I’ve seen Scholem’s library in the Hebrew University, in their Institute for Advanced Studies, and it’s really remarkable how many books on Christian mysticism he had in that library. And although he only touched on Christian mysticism in a few of his essays, I think he had quite an extensive knowledge of Christian mystical traditions.

Ms. Percy: So you just said, you know, how much you learned about Christian mysticism from Scholem’s work. Can you give me some examples of how reading him and studying his work helped you understand your own work?

Dr. McGinn: Well, Scholem was one of the first scholars to insist on, if you will, the hermeneutical character of mysticism, that we don’t have access to the experience of people who lived 1,000 years ago. What we have are the texts that they’ve left to us. Text, like the Zohar, and, you know, the great classic of Jewish mysticism or texts like Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the song of Psalms in Christian mysticism. And obviously when we study these texts then, we’re engaged with languages that are very complicated. Languages from long ago, and it’s an important hermeneutical exercise in the interpretation of texts and texts based upon unique ways of using language, which is always characteristic of mysticism. And Scholem was one of the first to insist on the fact that mystical texts demanded particular kind of interpretation, particular styles of hermeneutics. And the contrast of this is that many earlier students of mysticism came at it from a more philosophical direction, emphasized well, what is mystical experience? I think Scholem, and I certainly agree with him very strongly on this, says we have to start not with experience, but we have to start with the text that we have, which may give us some kind of access to a kind of experience. So that would be one of Scholem’s great lessons, I think, for the general study of mysticism.

Ms. Percy: And you mentioned how there were things that, you know, you wouldn’t have been illuminated for you, you wouldn’t have understood, you know, and you didn’t cite Scholem specifically, you said studying, you know, other religion — religious mysticism.

Dr. McGinn: Yes.

Ms. Percy: But when you — is there something with Scholem in particular that you can cite? That maybe he illuminated for you about Christian mysticism?

Dr. McGinn: Well, I think Scholem pointed to this, and others have studied it as well. And Scholem saw Gnosticism of the early centuries of the common era, as a very strong matrix for the development of Jewish mysticism. And one of the things that, many years ago when I began studying other traditions, one of the things that puzzled me was that in Judaism and in Islam and Sufism, much of mysticism is what we would call esoteric knowledge, special knowledge for a select few hidden in among a circle of the adept. Where as in Christianity, esoteric knowledge is generally considered dangerous, or frowned upon, and the more esoteric or secret a group tends to become, the more they make it a difficulty.

And I asked myself, well, why is it so different in Jewish mysticism, Islamic mysticism, as contrasted with Christianity. And the answer that emerged for me, historically, was Gnosticism. Because great struggle in early Christianity, second and third centuries of the common era, in the Christian context was between gnostic and non-gnostic groups. And eventually the gnostic group lost out in what we call the major tradition, the great church tradition, the Orthodox tradition won, so that gnostic esotericism in a certain sense explains why later Christian mysticism frowns on esoteric traditions, whereas Judaism and Islam didn’t go through that gnostic crisis generally welcomes esoteric knowledge.

So, that tremendous difference was one of the things that struck me very strongly. But I wouldn’t have — I don’t think I would have seen that, or at least not seen it as strongly, had I not been confronted with the fact that so much Jewish mysticism is esoteric mysticism. And Scholem himself, who stressed the influence of Gnosticism on later Jewish mystical traditions. Which is somewhat controversial today, I know. But scholars of Jewish mysticism will be the people to solve that question.

Ms. Percy: Yeah. So, you know, before reading about Scholem, I have to admit that I had a very different view of Kabbalah. And I guess I wonder how Scholem shaped your own view of it.

Dr. McGinn: Well, Scholem essentially, of course, invented the modern study of Jewish mysticism. It’s not that there weren’t other important scholars at the same time. I studied at Brandeis University and one of the great contemporaries of Scholem, a man named Alexander Altmann, taught at Brandeis after having fled from Europe in the 30s and 40s. And he was certainly a great scholar of Jewish thought, and also of Jewish mysticism. But I think that most people would say that it was Scholem who really revived the study of — of Kabbalah and other forms of Jewish mysticism, as central to the Jewish tradition. Not just kind of marginal craziness, which is what a lot of the more traditional Jewish scholars of Talmud and of Jewish philosophy, et cetera, had really — that’s what they thought of Jewish mysticism, especially Kabbalah a century ago. I mean, Scholem said, no, this is a very significant part of the history of the Jewish people. And it needs to — it needs serious study, and he was among the first to give it serious study, and really the leader among those who turned to the study of the Jewish mysticism.

Ms. Percy: Yeah. I mean I grew up thinking that it was also — it was on the margin. I didn’t realize that it was so central to Judaism.

Dr. McGinn: Yes. And I think that’s true of many traditions. I mean, I’m a Christian scholar myself and you know, 50 years ago, there was very little serious study of the Christian mystics who were considered, you know, unusual characters, rare birds, not central to the tradition. That’s changed dramatically over the past 50 or 60 years. And people have come to recognize more and more that mysticism is an essential part, mysticism and spirituality (inaudible) is essential to the Christian religion, not just some kind of marginal phenomena or kind of icing on the cake.

Ms. Percy: Yeah. You know, in making Scholem accessible not only to — just to our audience, but I wonder what you think — I don’t want to simplify it and say what his greatest contribution was, but what we can, today, and present day, take from his work. I don’t know if you can maybe give like give up examples.

Dr. McGinn: Well, I would say what I take from Scholem’s work is a very serious and deep scholarly mind, opening up a whole new area of study that had been mostly neglected. The area of Jewish mysticism. And today, I think anyone who is studying the Jewish tradition is going to immediately recognize that they not only have to study certain classic texts, the Hebrew Bible, and the Talmud, and the various other kinds of things, but they need to know Jewish mysticism. And that’s certainly true in Judaism. But I think it goes along with the comparative development in other traditions, in Christianity, in Islam, and elsewhere, that mysticism is a central religious phenomenon. And this is a broad culturally accepted, uh, phenomenon, I think, today. It’s not just a matter of academic elites. I mean, the classics of western spirituality, for example, we’ve published 127 volumes over the past 30 years or more. And these volumes are very widely read, very widely taught in a — in a variety of circumstances, academic circumstance and non-academic.

Ms. Percy: Now, you write at the end of your foreword something I really love, which is that mysticism is more than just a potential threat to institutional religion. It is also the source of much of its ongoing vitality and perhaps even the wellspring from which new waters of life can flow in the desert of the modern age. And you were saying that Scholem demonstrated this.

Dr. McGinn: I think so, yes.

Ms. Percy: Can you explain a little bit about how he did that?

Dr. McGinn: Well, he did it in an unusual way, of course, because he did it by the most serious kind of scholarly work. And he had to do much of this work from the ground up. Many of these texts had not been edited, they had not been studied, et cetera. So, I think Scholem is a prime example of very serious scholarship that creates a whole new area of study and that gradually filters outward to a wider public, sometimes through his own works that are written in a more accessible style. But more often through the influence he had upon other scholars, influence he had upon other literary figures. I mean, Scholem was a major literary figure in his own right, as well.

Ms. Percy: I wonder if you can say a little bit about, um, you know, some of the things that — we spoke with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who talked a little bit more about the philosophical aspects of Kabbalah and Scholem’s work. And I wonder if you can say what Christianity can learn from — from not only his scholarly work, but also those kinds of philosophies that he brought.

Dr. McGinn: Well, I think, for me, it’s — it’s the kind of academic dedication to the most serious philological scholarship that Scholem himself thought of himself — often described himself as a philologist. And that means more than just someone who was interested in words. It’s the old German sense. After all, Scholem was raised in Germany and that German scholarship shaped much of his life. Philology is a very broad science of the study of texts, the study and interpretation of text and languages. And Scholem insisted that, um, we needed to start on that basic philological level. And I think that’s true today in the study of any of these important phenomenon that have looked to be more moribund for years but that have been revived in the last — in the last decades. I mean, many of the texts on Christian mysticism that I — that I work on were forgotten for centuries, and disregarded. But to make them available, there has to be a lot of very serious scholarly work done in editing, translating, commenting, et cetera. And then they become a kind of food for the spiritual nourishment of, uh, of communities.

Ms. Percy: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about Scholem that you’d like to share, um…

Dr. McGinn: Uh, no, I mean, I’ve read a number of Scholem’s letters, his brief kind of autobiography, and I just find his career a very, very fascinating one. His dedication to Zionism, which is quite clear, but then his equal dedication to the most serious kind of scholarship, and of course, his friendship with a great number of very important 20th century thinkers and literary people like Walter Benjamin, and others. You’ve probably talked to some of the scholars who study the relationships that Scholem had to some of the great thinkers of the first half of the 20th century.

Ms. Percy: Did you ever get to meet him, by the way?

Dr. McGinn: No, I did not, which is too bad. I first went to Jerusalem to the Institute of Advanced Study at Hebrew University in 1988-89, and of course, he had a died a few years before. So, I would have enjoyed meeting him very much, and talking with him about issues on mysticism. I have talked, of course, to a number of the — my contemporaries and younger scholars in Jewish mysticism, and have had the privilege of teaching with a number of them, and that’s been, as I said before, one of the great experiences for me to make these friendships, but also intellectual experience to learn from others, both about their tradition and their views of my own tradition.

Ms. Percy: Can you give — you mentioned some specific letters that you’ve read of Scholem. Can you — do you remember which letters you read?

Dr. McGinn: I read some of his letters to Walter Benjamin. Those are the ones that stick most in my mind. I know, of course, he wrote a very large group of letters. I think the only complete edition is still in German, but there are several, you know, there are several selections in English. And I remember reading the letters to Benjamin, which I thought were quite interesting.

Ms. Percy: What was so interesting about them for you?

Dr. McGinn: Well, you see a close friendship between two, uh, two intellectual giants, kind of feeding off each other. And of course, both these men had a tremendous admiration for Franz Kafka. And also they had very different approaches. They disagreed on some things, but you can see two minds stimulating each other, which I found, you know, quite remarkable.

Ms. Percy: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me, uh, Professor McGinn. I really appreciate it. I don’t know if there’s anything else you’d like to say.

Dr. McGinn: No, glad to do it. Yeah, what — when will your — when will the program be aired or you’ll let — you’ll me know?

Ms. Percy: I will — I will let you know, yeah. I believe it is going to be in two weeks, if I remember correctly the date that it’ll be broadcast on the radio, and then of course then it’s also on our website and our podcast, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities, if you miss it on your local station. But I will send you a heads-up that week, just to let you know.

Dr. McGinn: Okay, that’s very kind of you.

Ms. Percy: No, thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Dr. McGinn: All right. All the best.

Ms. Percy: Okay, bye.

Dr. McGinn: Yep, bye-bye.

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is a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. His many books include God Was In This Place & I, i Did Not Know, Kabbalah: A Love Story and I’m God, You’re Not.