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  • A View from Late Antiquity Onward
  • Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert

“The most uncanny and alluring thing is the fact that the most original products of Jewish thinking are, as it were, products of assimilation.”1 Thus admits, albeit reluctantly, Gershom Scholem, otherwise known perhaps as one of the most vociferous critics of Jewish cultural assimilation, in a letter written from Jerusalem to Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno in June 1939. Scholem writes in response to Adorno’s astonishment (Erstaunen) about the relationship of kabbalistic writings—seemingly one of the most Jewish of Jewish literatures, as it were, or as Scholem put it, “originellstes Produkt jüdischen Denkens”—to the Neoplatonic gnostic tradition. In response to Adorno, Scholem claims no less astonishment about such “paradoxical” or “dialectical connection”—in his words, a “secret” that he claims to have been trying to unlock in the preceding twenty years of his work.

One might be tempted to read Scholem’s statement, untypical for him,2 as a commentary on Gerson Cohen’s remarkable speech,3 “The Blessing [End Page 433] of Assimilation in Jewish History,” delivered to the graduating class of future Jewish educators at Hebrew Teachers’ College in Boston in 1966.4 Aside from the chronological and geopolitical disjuncture, one would of course have to ignore not only the reluctance with which Scholem makes this admission to Adorno5 but also Scholem’s disdain for any appreciation of what today we might refer to as cultural hybridity—especially in the case of the supposed German-Jewish symbiosis or “conversation,” and especially post–World War II, most famously in his open letter to a German editor,6 “Against the Myth of the German-Jewish Conversation” (Wider den Mythos vom deutsch-jüdischen Gespräch), published in 1962 and since then often reprinted.7

The contrast between Cohen’s programmatic speech and Scholem’s almost contemporaneous emphatic rejection8 could hardly be more pronounced. If we read the term “conversation” (Gespräch) in this debate as a variation of the way Cohen understands “assimilation,” the sentiment that Cohen expresses in his speech (“blessing of assimilation”) becomes all the more remarkable. Beyond merely diagnosing, as Scholem did reluctantly, the dynamic of what Cohen calls “assimilation” as one of cultural creativity at various times in Jewish cultural history, Cohen turns these [End Page 434] very dynamics into a cultural and, given the context of a speech to graduating Jewish educators, pedagogical program. In other words, Jewish intellectuals, theologians, philosophers, and whoever else produced what we recognize as Jewish culture over the last two millennia have never merely thought and wrote in an isolated cultural vacuum. Even someone like Scholem recognized this in some way. Yet Cohen does not merely chronicle assimilation, he preaches it—describing this dynamic as enabling the “flourishing” (p. 151) and “enrichment” (p. 155) of Jewish culture, rather than as a “threat” (p. 152) or “impediment” (p. 151)—and in so doing frames the cultural dynamic of what he calls “assimilation” as a deliberate cultural program, set, not insignificantly, before an audience of Jewish educators. As he puts it: “If one teaches at all, one must do so in relevant and therefore contemporary terms.”

If we are to appreciate the challenge of Cohen’s optimistic claim of the concept of assimilation, it is important to distinguish between two different aspects of the text: the question of how we understand the dynamic of the production of Jewish literature and culture historically on the one hand, and, on the other, how we translate that dynamic into a cultural (and pedagogical) program. These, in my mind, require different responses and force us to reconsider the utility of a single conceptual language of “assimilation.” As a scholar of one of the great cultural projects in Jewish history, namely, the (Babylonian) Talmud, I feel on somewhat more certain grounds with the former task than with the latter, but as a teacher of Jewish cultural history at an American university, I do engage the challenge raised by Cohen almost daily. So in what follows I will engage both aspects separately, before concluding with a response to David Myers’s ongoing and admirable effort to rehabilitate Gerson Cohen’s concept of “assimilation...


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