Between Zionism and Friendship: The Correspondence between Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss
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Between Zionism and Friendship:
The Correspondence between Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss


For a man as complex and full of conviction as Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), friendship could not have been easy. Aside from his groundbreaking scholarship, Scholem led an intensely active personal life that included a number of close (and often tortured) friendships that are documented in voluminous correspondence.1 In addition, he had close relationships with a small cadre of students.2 Readers of Scholem are most familiar with his friendship with Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), one that was—as Scholem later made clear in Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship—far from stable or consistent.

His relationships with other German-born Jews such as Theodor Adorno (1903–69) and George Lichtheim (1912–73) are also well known. Less known but even more complicated was Scholem's relationship with his Hungarian-born student Joseph Weiss (1918–69). Below I translate a small sample of letters between them as an epistolary window into their mutual dependence and struggles with one another. [End Page 427]

Weiss was born in Budapest, on August 10, 1918, an only child to a somewhat assimilated Jewish family.3 His father died when he was eighteen, leaving a vacuum in his life that might have been part of his complex attachment to Scholem, who was more than two decades his senior.4 After his secondary education, his interest in Jewish texts led him to rabbinical seminary, where he studied before enrolling in university in Budapest. Weiss arrived in Jerusalem in 1940 to study medieval Hebrew poetry and literature at the Hebrew University. There, he attended Scholem's Kabbalah seminars and quickly became his devoted student. Weiss's relationship with Scholem continued until his death by suicide in England on August 25, 1969. Since Weiss left Israel in 1950, most of their relationship existed through correspondence, which was conducted almost entirely in Hebrew.5

It is tragic that four of Scholem's closest interlocutors—Benjamin, Weiss, Lichtheim, and Peter Szondi (1929–71), a comparative literature professor born in Hungary who taught at the Free University in Berlin—all committed suicide. As someone who also fought periods of depression, Scholem never quite seemed to overcome this.6 He famously dedicated his 1941 lectures that became Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism to Benjamin, and his 1970 essay "The Neutralization of the Messianic Idea in Early Hasidism" was delivered in England as a memorial lecture for Joseph Weiss. It is also significant that part of Scholem's conflicts with numerous close friends such as Hannah Arendt revolved around Zionism and/or living in the Land of Israel. Scholem tried repeatedly to lure Benjamin from Europe to Mandate Palestine, especially after the rise of Nazism, and he later did so with Szondi as well.

Zionism also played a role in Scholem's complex relationship with [End Page 428] Weiss. Arguably the major break in that relationship, as we will see below, was Weiss's sudden departure from Israel to England in 1950 immediately after submitting a draft of his dissertation, "Dialectics and Faith of R. Nahman of Bratslav," to Scholem. Weiss and his first wife Miriam's departure from Israel in 1950 was against Scholem's expressed wishes.7 Scholem was childless and in numerous cases, here as with others such as Joseph Ben Shlomo, treated his students as his children. While Weiss's departure may have been related to his wife's medical condition, Scholem understood it in a broader context. Weiss's general ambivalence toward Zionism, expressed in numerous letters to friends such as Sara O. Heller Wilensky, was well known in some circles. Zionism was a central part of Scholem's life (although it was certainly a complicated Zionism) and the fact that both his intellectual mentor (Benjamin) and his "most gifted student" (Weiss) did not share that passion could not have been easy for him.8 As Noam Zadoff notes, Zionism for Scholem was not just a political choice but a moral one.9 In a letter from March 28, 1940, written to his fellow Hungarian native and future Israeli heroine Hanna Szenes—written before he had become Scholem's student...