“Unhappy Dualism” or Simplicity: On Gershom Scholem’s Readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and Hasidim

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Duplicity and complexity were of great concern to Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. In her book on Rahel Varnhagen, Arendt takes aim at Jean-Jacques Rousseau as encouraging duplicity. She saw, in his work, a conflict between the private life and the public life. His confessions maintained this division and complexity. This came in the wake of religious decay:

With the loss of the priest and his judgment, the solitude of the would-be confessor had become boundless. The singularity of the person, the uniqueness of the individual character, stood out against a background of indefinite anonymity.   Everything was equally important and nothing forbidden. In complete isolation, shame was extinguished. The importance of emotions existed independently of possible consequences…In the course of such a ruthless confessional the individual is isolated not only from the events of public life, but also from the events of private life. (98)

Everything sinks into duplicity and what matters most are not the “facts” but the lies or the stories one tells about oneself (91).   One is defined by what is within, not without. This is how Varnhagen, according to Arendt, understood Rousseau.   Her life, to be sure, was complex. And this duplicity, for Arendt, was based on a kind of worldlessness that was forced upon German-Jews who wished to but could not – at the time – become recognized as moderns and equals with Germans.

But, to be sure, as her reflections on Rousseau indicate, this duplicity and complexity is a part of the modern condition.   Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “Fate and Character,” followed suit. He associates “complexity” with fate and myth and contrasts it to character, which he associates with freedom and comedy. Benjamin was not alone in his problems with complexity. Dostoevsky, a lover of complexity, pits character against fate in his novel, The Idiot and shows that Prince Myshkin, a simpleton, becomes “the idiot” of Russian society. This happens because he doesn’t know how to lie and hide what he thinks or feels like so many other characters in the novel.   And this makes him into an “idiot” who is, gradually, destroyed.

In an essay on the novel, Benjamin makes it clear that he saw the destruction of Prince Myshkin as the failure of the “youth movement.” He saw the “fate” of this simple character as horrific and self-destructive. He likened it to a volcano that self-implodes.   Nonetheless, Benjamin didn’t give up on comedy and character. In his “Fate and Character” essay, written two years after his essay on The Idiot, Benjamin speaks of comedy, simplicity, and character as a “beacon of hope.” Complexity and duplicity, for Benjamin as for Arendt, were a modern problem and, he believed, simplicity could be the answer.

We also find the contrast between simplicity and complexity/duplicity in Gershom Scholem’s readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and the Hasidim.   Scholem uses powerful language to describe the duplicity of living as a Marrano:

For generations the Marranos in the Iberian peninsula, the offspring of those Jews who, in their hundreds of thousands, went over to Christianity in the persecutions between 1391 and 1498, had been compelled to lead, as it were, a double life. The religion which they professed was not that in which they believed. This dualism could not but endanger, if it did not indeed destroy the unity of Jewish feeling and thinking. (309, Trends in Jewish Mysticism)

And this also touched the Marranos who, thereafter, returned to Judaism. Their Judaism, argues Schlolem, “retained something of this peculiar spiritual make-up”(309).   And when Sabbatai Zevi came on to the scene, he appealed to this complexity and what Scholem calls the “unhappy dualism of the Marranic mind”(310). The “idea of an apostate Messiah could be presented to them as the religious glorification of the very act which continued to torment their conscience.”

This internal torment, this “unhappy dualism,” is the cause of so much trouble.   It opened the door for “radical nihilism.”   Throughout a chapter entitled “Sabbatianism and Mystical Heresy,” Scholem points out, over and over again, the complexity of Sabbatianism. He focuses a primary cause of such complexity in the relationship of the followers to the “strange acts” of Sabbatai Zevi:

There was on the one hand the personality of the Messiah and its paradox, on the other hand the attitude and the individual experience of the believer. The point at which the moderate and the extreme Sabbatianism imparted was supplied by the question whether the acts of the Messiah serve as an example to the believer or not. The moderate thought not….His actions are not examples to be followed; on the contrary, it is of their nature to give offence. (314)

In contrast, “the radicals could not bear the thought of remaining content with passive belief in the paradox of the Messiah’s mission”(315). Rather, they thought of the “paradox as universal.” And “the consequences which flowed from these religious ideas were purely nihilistic, above all the conception of voluntary Marranism with the slogan: We must all descend into the realm of evil in order to vanquish it from within.”

Scholem calls the “disappearance of shame” an “awkward problem” which, for him shows duplicity and complexity at its height since, after all, shame is deeply connected to what he calls the “unity of Jewish feeling and belief.” Without morality and shame, Scholem suggests that Judaism goes from a simple religion to a complex and duplicitous religion. To be sure, we see this at its height in the Sabbatinian cult that formed around Jacob Frank. Scholem calls his “Book on the Words of the Lord” – which has “dark sayings” such as “the subversion of the Torah can become its own fulfillment” and “great is the sin committed for its own sake” – “perhaps the most remarkable ‘holy writ’ which has ever been produced.”   It is a book full of duplicity and complexity and this, Scholem argues, ultimately has its roots in the Marrano experience.

In contrast to all of this, Scholem, in the final chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, argues that the Hasidim “neutralized the messianic idea.” But what many people miss is that this neutralization had a lot to do with its emphasis on simplicity.   While the leaders of the Hasidic movement had charisma, much like Zevi and Frank, they were ultimately more interested in simplicity than in complexity and this had to do with their close bond with the “life of the community”:

And yet the Hasidim did not go the way of Sabbatianism. Its leaders were far too closely connected with the life of the community to succumb to the danger of sectarianism. Opportunities were not lacking. Yet these men whose utterances not infrequently throw light on the paradoxical nature of the mystical consciousness than anything before them – supreme paradox! – the advocates of the simple and untainted belief of the common man, and this simplicity was even glorified by them as the highest religious value. (346)

He associates this paradox with Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav whose mind has a “hyper-modern sensitiveness to problems” yet who “turned all his energy to the task of defending the simplest of all beliefs”(346).

To be sure, the turn from complexity to simplicity is a key moment in Scholem’s text. And it would be amiss not to see that, between Benjamin and Scholem and despite their love of paradox, they both had a deep interest in simplicity. And, as we can see above, Arendt also had a distaste for duplicity and complexity. She was more interested in brining the public and the private together than in affirming an exterior that was contrary to one’s interior.

What we find in this thread, I aver, is that there were all interested in how Jewishness and modernity give birth to and constantly renew the tension between complexity and simplicity.   And perhaps, as Benjamin once held, simplicity which is connected to, as Scholem might say, the “life of the community,” a “beacon of hope.”   Or, it could be, for someone who – like you and I – is immersed in a world inundated with duplicity, fatalism, and lies and lives a life of “unhappy dualism.”

Educating the Next Generation of Schlemiels

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“Think snow and see Boca” – Charles Bernstein

Today, the New York Times announced the publication of a new memoir in 2014 by the Jewish-American writer Gary Shteyngart.   Shteyngart is well known for his best selling novels The Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Story, all of which feature schlemiels as main characters.  The title of his new memoir is Little Failure.   Regarding his new book, Shteyngart writes:

I’ve finally written a book that isn’t a ribald satire and because it’s actually based on my life, contains almost no sex whatsoever. I’ve lived this troubled life so others don’t have to. Learn from my failure, please.

The last line of Shteyngart’s blurb is of great interest to me. It suggests that the fool is a teacher and has something to transmit to his readers.  This suggestion resonates with what I have been blogging.

In a recent blog on Walter Benjamin and Don Quixote, I paid close attention to the end of Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka where Benjamin foregrounds the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Since Panza followed Don Quixote around and, as a witness and student of the fool, learned from him, this relationship hits on the question of education.  In effect, Panza was learning from Quixote’s failure.

In a letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin notes that, for Kafka, the fool has wisdom and that the wisdom of the fool, rather than the wisdom of the philosopher, is “the only thing that can help.”  However, the question is “whether this can do humanity any good.”  This implies that the schlemiel is a teacher.  The only question for Benjamin concerns the value of such an education.

Shteyngart, in the final line of his blurb for the New York Times, suggests that he also has something to teach his readers.  He sarcastically notes that, like Christ, he has lived a troubled life “so others don’t have.”  All we have to do is “learn” from his failure.  The structure of this statement and its implication are the same as the structure that exists between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.   Moreover, Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and his appropriation of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote beckon the same questions: What can we learn from failure?   What kind of wisdom does a fool have to offer us?  Do we simply learn what not to do? Or do we learn something else?

To better understand this, I suggest that we take a look at one of Benjamin’s early reflections on education.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem dated September 1917, Benjamin responded to two lines from an essay Scholem had written on Jewish education: “All work whose goal is not to set an example is non-sense.” “If we wish to be serious:…then today, as always, the most profound way – as well as the only way – to influence the souls of future generations is: through example.”

In response to these lines, Benjamin emphatically states that “the concept of example (to say nothing of that of “influence”) should be excluded from the theory of education.”

Benjamin explains himself by pointing out that “the life of the educator does not function indirectly, by setting an example.”  What does this mean?  For Benjamin, what often happens is that “instruction” is separated from “education.”  He argues that “learning has evolved into teaching, in part gradually, but wholly from within.”  In other words, teaching is a part of a larger unfolding of tradition.

To be sure, Benjamin claims that the “concept of tradition” is more important than the “concept of the example.”  It is more important for a teacher to think of him or herself as a part of a tradition than to think of him or herself as a role model or as the illustration of an idea.

Benjamin sees tradition as the unification of learning and teaching: “I am convinced that tradition is the medium in which the person who is learning continually transforms himself into the person who is teaching, and this applies to the entire range of education.”

Assuming that there is a tradition of the fool (and that Don Quixote is a part of it), Benjamin would see Don Quixote as transmitting it to Sancho Panza.  And within this tradition, Panza would continually be transforming himself into Don Quixote (a fool).  But there is more.  Benjamin insists that “in the tradition everyone is an educator and everyone needs to be educated and everything is education.”  In other words, since Benjamin believes in tradition, he insists that all education be reconfigured within the context of tradition; otherwise, education will have no real basis and will become meaningless.

Knowledge, Benjamin avers, is not independent of tradition.  It can only be transmitted “for the person who has understood his knowledge as something that has been transmitted.”  In this sense, Benjamin believed that if one is to learn from a fool, one must live within the tradition of the fool.  To transmit the comic, one must be within the comic tradition.

Moreover, Benjamin believes that a person who situates himself within this tradition, as opposed to someone who rejects tradition (as in the case of modernity), “becomes free in an unprecedented way.”  In other words, freedom is not something that one is born with and it is not based on the rejection of tradition; rather, it is something that comes when a person submits him or herself to a tradition.

Benjamin likens tradition and the freedom it offers to the sea and a wave:

Theory is like a surging sea, but the only thing that matters to the wave (understood as a metaphor for the person) is to surrender itself to its motion in such a way that it crests and breaks.  This enormous freedom of the breaking wave is education in its actual sense: instruction – tradition becoming visible and free, tradition emerging precipitously like a wave from living substance.

After writing this, Benjamin acknowledges that the source of tradition is religion.  He acknowledges that, for this reason, it is “difficult to speak about education.”  How can there be a secular or modern notion of tradition?  Is this, by definition, impossible?  These are questions that were of great concern to Benjamin in many of his essays which look to gauge the effects of technology, media, and mass production on tradition.

Despite the threat of modernity to tradition, Benjamin insists that any form of education which looks to create future students (and this includes all modern forms of education) must find its roots in the religious notion of tradition: “our descendants come from the spirit of God (human beings); like waves, they rise up out of the movement of the spirit.”

Instruction, says Benjamin, is the “nexus of the free union of the old with the new generation.”   Instruction, in other words, must bring modernity into a relation with tradition instead of negating it.  For Benjamin, the “error” is to think that “our descendents are dependent on us in some fundamental way.”  Rather, the proper way of thinking of his or Scholem’s role in education is to think that it all depends “on God and on the language in which, for the sake of some kind of community with our children, we should immerse ourselves.”

Benjamin’s musings prompt an important question for the schlemiel theory: What is the tradition of the schlemiel and who transmitted this tradition to Benjamin?  Who was Benjamin’s Sancho Panza?  Was it Kafka?

Benjamin suggests this in his letters to Scholem and in his essay on Kafka.  Taking Benjamin to his word, we can say that by immersing himself in the tradition of the fool, Benjamin was, as he says, continuously transforming himself into a fool.  Moreover, Benjamin was also looking to transmit that tradition to his future readers.  Kafka’s work, as an extension of such a tradition, gave Benjamin freedom. It enabled him to break forward like a wave.

This insight, unfortunately, has not been ventured by anyone in Benjamin studies.  Benjamin didn’t spell it out.  Rather, like any good student of tradition, one must learn it out from the teachers hints and actions.  For me, the hints can be found in Benjamin’s obsession with the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, a relationship that also fascinated Kafka.  Moreover, we can see Benjamin’s submission to the comic tradition in his last letters to Gershom Scholem.

Can we say the same for Gary Shteyngart?  Should we take him, as Sancho Panza took Don Quixote, as a teacher?  The irony of this tradition is not simply that it is, as Arendt might say, “hidden.”  Rather the greater irony is the fact that the tradition of the fool is a modern tradition that, according to Milan Kundera (in a chapter of The Art of the Novel entitled “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”) starts with Cervantes.  It starts with the decay of one tradition and the beginning of another, modern comic tradition.  According to Kundera, the teaching of this tradition is the teaching of contingency or what I, in my last two posts, would call “empirical consciousness.”

And like any tradition, we learn most from what the teacher does. We can learn more from the teacher’s gestures and actions that we can from his or her content.  What I look to do, in my readings of Benjamin, is to pay close attention to the gestures that he has left in his work on Kafka.  For Benjamin, one must pay attention to Kafka’s gestures.  For they convey something “pre-historic.”

The comic tradition is pre-historic in the sense that it transmits powerlessness to its adherents.  All those who learn from failure will eventually fail.  Schlemiel education opens the door for that which, in the Jewish tradition, is to come.  By learning from the schlemiel’s failure, we prepare for the arrival of what is to come.  In this sense, Shteyngart’s memoir, his “little failure” is preparatory.  But it belongs to a larger tradition.  Our acute awareness of failure, our becoming failures, literally falls within this tradition.  So, if we were to see Shteyngart’s memoir (or any of his schlemiels) as an “example” of “what is possible,” we would lose what Benjamin would consider the crux of education: tradition.

But, wait, what does it mean that we are educated with the schlemiel tradition?  Is this some kind of joke?  Was Sancho Panza the greatest fool of all for taking a fool as his teacher?  Did he intentionally distract himself?  If so, Immanuel Kant would say that while Quixote was “absent-minded,” Panza was “debilitated.”  However, if we take Benjamin seriously, we would have to say that Panza looked to go from being debilitated to becoming absent-minded. To be sure, for Benjamin “tradition is the medium in which the person who is learning continually transforms himself into the person who is teaching, and this applies to the entire range of education.” This kind of transformation, for Kant, would be one of worst sins one could commit against Enlightenment.  It is, literally, going backwards – toward the distracted and absent-minded innocence of childhood.

In contrast to this regression, the Jewish tradition has made room for the fool.  I have already touched on this in my blog entry on the “Schlemiel as Prophet.”   And I will return to it again in the near future since Benjamin, without a doubt, saw something prophetic in Don Quixote’s transmission of foolish tradition to Sancho Panza and, as a matter of course, Benjamin situated himself within that tradition.  This tradition is at once Jewish (particular) and not (general).  The only question we need to ask is whether or how someone like Gary Shteygart or a blog like Schlemiel Theory is passing the tradition of the fool or the schlemiel on.  For, regardless of the decay of this or that tradition in the modern world, comic failure is something that will still be transmitted from generation to generation….