His father was a printer. He studied Hebrew and Talmud with an Orthodox rabbi. Scholem met Walter Benjamin in Munich in , when the former was seventeen years old and the latter was twenty-three. They began a lifelong friendship that ended when Benjamin committed suicide in in the wake of Nazi persecution. In Scholem enrolled at the Frederick William University in Berlin today, Humboldt University , where he studied mathematics, philosophy, and Hebrew. In Berlin, Scholem befriended Leo Strauss and corresponded with him throughout his life.
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One way to explain the human significance of Kabbalah is by analogy: Kabbalah is to language as number theory is to mathematics. It probes the hidden structures and relations among the basic components of language just as number theory does with the primitive components of mathematics. Like numbers, the components of language, words and grammar, are always already established in a context when we encounter them.
The context of language can be virtually any narrative so long as it is taken seriously by the community in which it is recounted! The immediate context of Kabbalah is the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bible, and the source of a significant amount of Muslim scripture.
It therefore has a claim to be the most seriously regarded narrative on the planet. Kabbalah treats the Torah as a story, a story with divine import, but nonetheless a story. The vocabulary, and narrative trajectory, indeed each letter of this story, are taken as in need of interpretation in order to approach even a limited comprehension of the meaning of the whole.
Kabbalah, therefore, however else it may function religiously, serves as a fundamental method of inquiry and a philosophy of the language which is required to mediate all other inquiry. The objective of Kabbalah is expressed in theological terms: "To preserve the purity of the concept of God without loss of His living reality He goes on to make this point explicitly, "At the heart of the Kabbalah, we have the myth of the one God as a conjunction of all the primordial powers of being and a myth of the torah as an infinite symbol, in which all images and all names point to a process in which God communicates Himself.
According to Scholem, who is the undisputed master-commentator on the Kabbalah in the 20th century, there are three cabalistic principles of the Torah. He discusses these at some length in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism: 1. The Principle of the Torah as an Organism: each component of the Torah, no matter how apparently trivial is of crucial importance because it contains within it the entire Torah. The Principle of the Infinite Meaning of the Divine Word: the positive aspect of what is typically termed negative theology, that is, that all statements touching on the divine as ultimate reality are incomplete.
Each of these principles is intriguing in its own right. Together they constitute a highly sophisticated mode of thinking, an epistemology of language itself. In other words, the Torah as language not religious practice. Language is the essential tool of human community and human imagination. But language exists outside the control of any individual. We are born into a language which is entirely independent of the members of of the community who speak it and yet language lives or dies with that community.
Language is all-present but also all-absent. It constitutes our thoughts but has no substance in itself. It is eerily divine in the manner in which it dominates our lives even if we become inured to its effects. We cannot resist language. We can only submit to it. The Divine Name, HaShem, is consequently the ultimate symbol of language. Modern Semiotics has shown that there can be no identifiable initial point of language or the speakers of language in evolutionary history.
Just as the evolutionary transition of species cannot ever be identified in a single individual, so the point at which symbols begin to be interpreted could never be established in human history. Language in other words is eternal. As the matter is expressed in modern linguistic theory: Semiotics has no beginning. There is nothing before language. Like the universe, we may hypothesise it had a beginning but this can only be conjecture.
Language appears to pre-exist the users of language. But it is so powerful that we dare not consider it directly. Like the sun, language is too energetic to observe. We are forced to discuss it obliquely through the stories that are told within it. The Principle of the Torah as an Organism Modern systems theory makes the distinction between a mere collection of objects and a system.
A system is more than the sum of its parts. Its functionality as a whole cannot be deduced from its parts. It has what are typically called emergent properties. Some rather sophisticated systems demonstrate purpose, that is, they can adapt to changing environmental circumstances in order to continue pursuing an objective.
An automobile is such a system. But an automobile cannot function as a toaster. Still more sophisticated systems are able to behave not just purposely but with purposefulness. That is, they are able to choose among and change objectives based on experience. Purposefulness means that a system can adapt not just its tactics but its objectives. If it is conscious, it can want different things depending upon its experiences.
Purposefulness is a difficult state to maintain. Because purposefulness, demanding relentless self-awareness, takes effort. It easily deteriorates into an established purpose, becoming myopic and routinised as something in particular is done particularly well, and comfortably so. Modern corporate organisations can be characterised as purposeful systems. They frequently demonstrate semiotic entropy as habit, meaningless language and conventional responses to novel situations.
Such loss of purposefulness is the most common cause of corporate failure. The only way that any system can maintain purposefulness is through a particular relationship within itself. This may appear as a contradiction but it is an everyday event. The modern corporation for example works, when it does, in precisely this way. Corporate officers, when they are empowered and act in the name of the corporation, are the corporation. As a collective they are the carriers of purposefulness. If they are constrained, purpose is fixed and the corporate entity withers.
Language itself is a type of corporate institution. All of language both contains and is contained within each of those who use it.
Language in this respect is the ultimate system of purposefulness. It adapts continuously to its environment, and through the initiatives of its users, who also contained within it, language continuously explores new purposes. It is the mutual containment of language and members of the language community that Kabbalah models this fundamental existential condition.
There is an almost Leibnitzian insistence that each interpreter of the Torah will have a unique understanding of its meaning, a meaning of peculiar import to themselves but also of indirect significance to all others. Anything which restricts this manifestation is inhibiting creation. As there is no beginning to interpretation within language, there is no determinate end.
Interpretation proliferates interpretations. All interpretations are possible but none are definitive. There is an ideal which in theory incorporates all previous interpretations but the content of this ideal is unknown.
This third principle therefore is complementary to and essential for the operation of the second principle. It is the mechanism through which language users influence the language system as a whole. By telling stories, language users modify the relations among both words and other users.
They create new meanings which provoke new purposes. In sum, Kabbalah is an exercise in reconciliation and of disconcertion. The first because it attempts to bridge the differences in expressed belief, not just among Jews but also among all those inquiring about the significance of life.
The second because it relativises all language that touches on the divine, that is, on ultimate purpose. We cannot escape it. We can only observe ourselves in it with a certain degree of awe.
On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism