Scholarly Lives in Letters

September 1, 2017
Shaul Magid

The proliferation of epistolary activity in the modern West began in earnest in the 18th century with the marked rise in literacy in Europe and the Americas. The Post Office, invented in 1860, and the typewriter, invented in 1860 and marketed in the 1870s, increased the exchange of personal letters among lovers, friends, family, and colleagues. Letter writing increased even more when paper became more affordable and then began to decrease with the ubiquity of the telephone in the 20th century. 

Letters, especially among the literati, were more than a conveyance of greeting and news; they were often the vehicle for early stages of ideas and theories that later matured and appeared in published works. One example among many is Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” which began as a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem. Letters like his often served to illustrate the complex nature of intellectual friendships and relationships, mixing the personal with the ideological, the relational with the intellectual.

My essay, included in a forum in the current issue of JQR, explores the complex relationship between teacher and student, Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss, whose Hebrew correspondence was recently collected and published by Noam Zadoff. This was indeed a complex and, in many ways, a tragic relationship with deep psychological resonances on both sides. It was, finally, an epistolary relationship of the highest intellectual and personal order, one that ended abruptly with Weiss’s suicide in the summer of 1969. In these letters, one feels the push and pull of love and resentment, jealousy and respect, disappointment and regret. They portray how Scholem’s Zionism was used as a weapon against his student’s deep ambivalence about Israel, how Scholem could not quite overcome his need for ideological fidelity even from a devoted disciple to whom Scholem referred after his death as “his most talented student.” One sees stylistic differences as well: Scholem’s somewhat stilted and competent but not quite fluid Hebrew juxtaposed with Weiss’s beautiful and eloquent prose, peppered with midrashic wordplays and kabbalistic allusions, presented a disparity that Scholem certainly noticed.

Mining epistolary relationships for new perspectives on a thinker’s life and ideas is a quasi-voyeuristic enterprise. I say “quasi,” because these letters were meticulously archived by Scholem, certainly for posterity. And yet, as we read them carefully, we still feel like we are looking through a keyhole, spying on a series of intimate moments between two literary giants, sometimes at their best and often at their worst.

This essay was itself born from an epistolary moment. Elliott Horowitz z”l asked me via email, today’s epistolary substitute, to contribute to this forum, and when I suggested the Scholem-Weiss correspondence, we had a robust exchange on the topic and on various drafts of my essay and translations. Elliott’s work on early modern Jewish history in Europe was filled with data collected from letters and other sources not necessarily meant for public consumption. Part of the beauty of his work was his ability to discover and then analyze obscure documents that exposed the complex nature of Jews’ reactions and responses to the world around them. He understood that sometimes the most significant moments of human creativity happen in the realm of relational privacy. It is thus an honor for me to present my understanding of an epistolary moment, itself born from an epistolary moment, one that I hold dear, between Elliott and me.

Read Elliott Horowitz's forum introduction here.

About the Author

Shaul Magid

Shaul Magid

Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is also a clawhammer banjo player and a student of Ken Perlman, one of the great living banjo virtuosos and musicologists of old-time banjo as well as the musical partner of Al Jabour who was, until his death a few years ago, the curator of American folk music at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

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