In Yiddish literature, schlemiels are usually harmless. The dreams that these Jewish fools live by spur them to be absent-minded. And, though they do collide with reality from time to time, these absent-minded dreams don’t harm it. Rather, reality often harms the schlemiel.
The term Luftmensch, which means a person who “lives on air,” on dreams, is often associated with the schlemiel. With her big ideas about how s/he is going to make a living, the schlemiel lives on air. They often fail to realize their dreams in reality, but this doesn’t stop them from dreaming again. Regardless, these types of schlemiels are characterized by their dreams and their failures.
But what happens when a schlemiel’s dreams collide with reality and force reality to conform to these dreams?
In an essay entitled “Toward an Understanding of a Messianic Idea,” Gershom Scholem argues that those who “press for the End” are bound to fail.
His wording is striking as it contrasts the “man of faith” to the Kabbalistic “activist.” To understand his contrast, I’d like to suggest a distinction that is based on a standard understanding of the schlemiel.
In many of his stories, the Hasidic Rabbi, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, considers the man of faith to be simpleton and a schlemiel. In his simple faith, he waits and prays for redemption. He doesn’t push for the end. His foolishness is a matter of perspective. For the person who relies on his intellect and deeds to get him through life, the “man of faith” is a schlemiel. But, for the reader of these Hasidic tales, it’s the other way around. The real fool is the man who relies on his intellect and will power.
Gershom Scholem tells us that, for the “man of faith,” there is an “essential lack of relation between human history and the redemption.” But, Scholem argues, this attitude was “again and again in danger of being overrun by the apocalyptic certainty that the End had begun and all that was still required was the call to ingathering.”
This “call,” so to speak, is read by Scholem as a call to action. He calls it “messianic activism.”
“Even and again the revolutionary opinion that this attitude deserves to be overrun breaks through in the Messianic actions of individuals or entire movements.”
This “enticement to action…is inherent in this projection of the best in man upon his future.”
It would seem that this utopian and revolutionary action is contrary to the schlemiel. But Scholem notes that “the enticement to Messianic action” is an “enticement that is bound to fail because no one is capable of such action.”
Scholem goes so far as to say that such action is so impossible “it must be done by magic, and it must fail for just this reason.”
To be sure, even though the Messianic activist has little interest in the schlemiel (that is, the man of faith), Scholem characterizes him, to be sure, as a luftmensch who will always fail “because no one is capable of such action.”
In other words, Scholem sees all secular humanists with utopian aspirations as schlemiels. He sees their Utopian Kabbalist precursors, some who resorted to magic, also as schlemiels.
The actions of these dreamers, he notes, are dangerous. Once they fail, they can lead to nihilism on a large scale.
What can we learn about the schlemiel from Scholem’s characterizations of “messianic activism”? If the schlemiel’s actions remain within the shtetl or within the space of fiction, they are harmless, but if they enter history, then the schlemiel’s actions are dangerous.
Even though Scholem never uses the word schlemiel to characterize the “messianic activist,” it should be clear, based on what we have said, that he would.
Entering history with a utopian dream, thinking that one can redeem it through their actions, will, for Scholem, always lead to failure.
The action, Scholem says, is impossible. Nonetheless, it has been done not just by Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah who Scholem has written on extensively, it has also been done by political utopians (whether on the left of right such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and many many others whose messianic activism has, as Scholem might say, torn a hole in reality).
Scholem sees the origin of Modernity in this Messianic kind of activism, but this doesn’t mean he looks upon it in a positive way. From his rhetoric, we can surmise that he might agree that there are schlemiels that dream of the messianic age and don’t do anything to bring it (the “men of faith” – schlemiel’s who don’t act) and there are schlemiel who act on their Messianic dreams and aspirations.
As we saw above, there is, for the man of faith, an “essential lack of relation between human history and redemption.” While for the Messianic activist, there is.
And, lest we not forget, Scholem is speaking about Jews entering history. He understood this movement to be dangerous as it was saturated with the aspirations of utopian schlemiel activists.
One wonders if Scholem would call the Israelis who took Israel in 1948 schlemiels. For on that day, they entered history and did, what he would think, is impossible. But, as we see now, things are far from redeemed. And, unfortunately, some damage has been done. And nihilism is on the horizon.
This is wholly ironic because, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi argues in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination, which we mentioned in our blog on Purim (https://schlemielintheory.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/here-in-america-everyday-is-purim/), Israeli’s have had little to no interest in the schlemiel. “Israel is Real, “says Ezrahi; its not a dream (like America). Nonetheless, the act that brought it into reality was utopian; it was the act of a schlemiel.
It was impossible. Nonetheless, this should give us a lot to think about. In America, in Europe, and around the world the “messianic activism” of at least one variety of schlemiel lives on. And if we were to follow Scholem, we would see the danger that looms around their actions is the danger of nihilism.
Perhaps Scholem wanted to fare somewhere in the middle. Somewhere between one schlemiel and another; for, as the main character Stephen Daedelus says in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”
Perhaps history is the dream, and all of the messianic activists on the stage of history are really schlemiels? But, unlike Stephen Daedelus, the schlemiel usually doesn’t know she is dreaming. And if you don’t know you’re dreaming, how can you awake from your dreams?
Ask the Great Dictator: