The Paris Review

Six Hundred Thousand Faces

What Gershom Scholem’s take on Jewish mysticism can teach us now.

Gershom Scholem

In the wake of so much political turmoil, we’re hungry for books that diagnose our broken world: books that lay out a grand ethical program and claw back some hope for humanity. Online, I’ve noticed a loose reading list coalescing. We’ve called on Hannah Arendt, who cut into the heart of evil and found a weak organ of banality instead of an engine of diabolic creativity; Walter Benjamin and his “weak messianic power,” which inspired us with the latent energy of history’s failed revolutions; the totalitarian gloom of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale; the grim prescience of Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. Surely, the thinking goes, we could be saved if we find the proper pattern, fitting our dismal and uncertain present to the prescriptions of history.

In Gershom Scholem, the historian who popularized the study of Kabbalistic and Messianic movements in Judaism, I’ve found a

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