The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple

Through their editorial work on the writings of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem forged an unlikely friendship.


In February 1966, the historian Gershom Scholem dashed off a few lines to alert his friend Theodor Adorno of his travel plans. “I’ll arrive Wednesday in Frankfurt, where I’ll touch down at the Park Hotel,” he wrote. “Please arrange with the Marxist heavens, just in case you don’t maintain diplomatic relations with the resident of the other heaven, for sunshine on March 16th. For myself I prefer to rely on the old angel.”

The collected correspondence between Scholem and Adorno, recently issued by the prestigious German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, doesn’t record the meteorological conditions for the middle of March 1966. Nor do we know whose deity might have proved more responsive. Men of extraordinary erudition and critical acumen, Scholem and Adorno could never truly overcome their philosophical and political differences, though in retrospect it’s clear that both men epitomized a shared style of Central European intelligence, fusing irony with utopian conviction, that emerged in the years before the midcentury catastrophe.

Born in 1897, Gershom (originally Gerhard) Scholem was raised in a well-acculturated German-Jewish family in Berlin. Early in life, he committed himself to the Zionist cause, and by 1923 he’d immigrated to Palestine, where he assumed a post at the newly established Hebrew University of Jerusalem and forged an entirely new field of historical inquiry into the esoteric and half-forgotten texts of the Kabbalah. Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund-Adorno was born in 1903 (the “Adorno” is from his mother’s Catholic Corsican side) and was raised in Frankfurt, where he divided his time between philosophy and music. Eventually, he would join intellectuals like Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Löwenthal to develop the subtle style of neo-Marxist social philosophy known as “critical theory.” The two wouldn’t meet in person until 1938, at the New York home of the socialist theologian Paul Tillich, who had once served as Adorno’s academic adviser.

The correspondents disagreed about many things. Scholem, despite his famously large ears, had no gift for music and couldn’t appreciate Adorno’s writings on musicology. He had even less patience for the Marxist orientation of the so-called Frankfurt School. Although Scholem’s older brother Werner had been a communist—he was killed at Buchenwald—Scholem himself tended to see historical materialism as a kind of counterreligion, offering the paradoxical belief that belief can play no independent role in the explanation of world history. But perhaps it was this difference in intellectual temperament that most drew Adorno and Scholem into an endless debate even while they remained on separate continents.

After the war, Adorno returned from his exile in the United States to a newly established professorship in Frankfurt, where he lectured at the Goethe University on social theory and philosophy, and even spoke occasionally on the radio on themes like “Education After Auschwitz,” becoming a gadfly against social conformity and helping to awaken the conscience of a new generation. Scholem remained faithful to the cause of a Jewish homeland and, through his early membership with Brit Shalom, helped promote the cause of Arab-Jewish binationalism. From our own perspective, and after nearly 50 years of occupation, the cause of Zionism that Scholem once admired has grown bellicose and deeply unfamiliar; it can be hard to recall a time when it inspired intellectuals of his caliber.

Even in Jerusalem, however, Scholem retained the habits of a European academic. From 1925 to 1965, he worked as professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University. Unlike Adorno, Scholem found the memory of the Holocaust so painful that for many years he refused all scholarly invitations from Germany. It was only in 1956, thanks to the delicate intercessions of Adorno and Horkheimer, that he agreed to speak at the university in Frankfurt.

Unlikely as their friendship may seem, Scholem and Adorno had one thing in common: They had both been friends of the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, though at first this connection did little to awaken warm feelings between the two. Scholem had known Benjamin since their Berlin days in the Youth Movement during World War I, and he feared that Adorno would lead his friend astray—from Judaism and toward Marxism. He also had little patience for the elaborations of Adorno’s dialectic. On reading Adorno’s early study of Kierkegaard, Scholem wrote to Benjamin that it “combines a sublime plagiarism of your thought with an uncommon chutzpah.”

Despite this initial chill, the mutual suspicion between the two men soon gave way to a shared concern for the fate of their friend. After the Nazi invasion of France, Scholem and Adorno exchanged details on Benjamin’s flight southward from Paris and eventually to Portbou, the town on the Spanish border where he committed suicide. The awful event is reported in a letter dated October 8, 1940, sent by Adorno (then in New York) to Scholem (in Jerusalem). It stands among the earliest letters in their correspondence. Whatever their ideological differences, the tragedy of Benjamin’s death would loom over their friendship for the next three decades, and the bond between them would be forged from the shared experience of mourning. As Asaf Angermann notes in his editor’s afterword, the publication of this volume closes the circuit of correspondence among three of the most esteemed European intellectuals of the 20th century. The letters between Scholem and Benjamin span the years 1932 to 1940; those between Benjamin and Adorno, 1928 to 1940. Those between Adorno and Scholem cover a full three decades, from 1939 to 1969, and are the most extensive of the three collections—a dialogue between survivors.

* * *

Adorno and Scholem immediately understood their unique burden as custodians of Benjamin’s legacy. His writings were scattered everywhere, in newspapers and archives across Europe, some in journals that, in the midst of the war, were extremely hard to find. Many of their exchanges concern the difficult business of assembling the dispersed essays and manuscripts in preparation for their publication after the war. Scholem and Adorno also undertook the no less formidable task of assembling Benjamin’s correspondence. This presented special challenges, because many of those who possessed copies of his letters had either been killed during the war or had dispersed to the furthest corners of the globe. Where was Benjamin’s estranged wife Dora? Where was their son Stefan? Who had survived and who had perished? Did the survivors have copies of this manuscript or that letter—and if so, on which continent could they be found? The details of this editorial work would preoccupy Adorno and Scholem throughout their three decades of correspondence, and in reading their exchanges one can only feel gratitude for the care they took in securing Benjamin’s work a posthumous readership.

The difficulty of the work was compounded by the unreliability of the international post, particularly in wartime but also during the uncertain years of postwar recovery. Some of their letters were perhaps lost or could take over a month to find their way from Palestine to Los Angeles, where Adorno and his wife spent much of the 1940s. With the war’s conclusion and Adorno’s return to Frankfurt, the project assumed a more regular rhythm. Adorno was especially keen to secure a contract with the esteemed publisher Peter Suhrkamp, the guardian angel of West Germany’s rising intelligentsia. Troubled in matters of finances, Suhrkamp briefly withdrew from the project, only to shift course and extend his full support—news that Adorno passed along to Scholem with great relief.

In their correspondence, the memory of Benjamin would persist like a mediating force between extremes. Even today, Benjamin’s intellectual legacy has become the subject of divergent interpretations. Among its most controversial features is an explosive combination of religious and revolutionary commitment. Blending the languages of messianism and historical materialism, early essays like “Critique of Violence” or the “Theological-Political Fragment” and late works like the famous “theses” on history remain poised in indecision as to which authority they mean to serve. Often it seems as though Benjamin wished to overcome the distinction itself as a mere artifact of bourgeois ideology, liberal or social-democratic. Some of Benjamin’s more credulous readers still embrace the combination, presumably because the prospect of a genuinely emancipatory revolution in the postindustrial West has come to seem so improbable that they can justify it only as an irrational faith. Scholem himself, however, found the combination not just unconvincing but also dangerous. Worried by his friend’s flirtations with Marxism, Scholem accused Benjamin of a “self-deception” that would end in catastrophe if Benjamin ever took the final step of joining the German Communist Party. “You would not be the last but perhaps the most incomprehensible victim of the confusion between religion and politics,” Scholem warned, “the true relationship of which you could have been expected to bring out more clearly than anyone else.”

Adorno, too, disliked the populist militancy of Benjamin’s Marxism, in which he detected the unsavory influence of Bertolt Brecht. Nor did he harbor any illusions about the authoritarian bureaucracies of the Soviet bloc. But he could not share Scholem’s dismissive attitude toward dialectical materialism. Schooled in the left-Hegelian tradition, Adorno had an intellectual temperament that welded together two principles that others saw as irreconcilable: an unapologetic devotion to high-modernist aesthetics and an uncompromising critique of capitalist society. His reputation in the canon of Western Marxism remains controversial. The horrors of the 20th century shattered Adorno’s confidence in the narratives of dialectical progress that had once inspired Hegel and Marx, leaving him to face the grim task of crafting a philosophy “after Auschwitz.”

In his writings, Adorno’s emphasis shifted almost entirely from social transformation to social critique: The idea of revolution survives only as a conceptual counterweight to present despair. It is this stance, uncompromising in its stringency, that best explains his allegiance to the “negative,” his steadfast refusal to affirm the world as it is. The urgent task was not class struggle but the mind’s own efforts to resist its absorption into the social whole. Adorno continued to believe in the emancipatory promise of rational criticism, even as he entertained the paradox that reason had lost its critical force and had devolved into a mere instrument of domination. Even mass genocide, he believed, was not an exception to rationalized civilization but rather its culmination. Yet he never allowed himself to disregard the concrete fact of human suffering, even as he grappled with the most difficult questions of literature, art, or metaphysics. Whether he fastened his attention on symphonies by Mahler or lamented the debased offerings of the “culture industry,” his style of analysis remained dialectical, shuttling without resolution between negativity and glimpses, however compromised, of utopia.

* * *

Despite such differences, Adorno’s admiration for Scholem remains palpable throughout their correspondence. Respectful of and even a bit intimidated by Scholem’s erudition, Adorno never hesitated to send along his latest publication, inquiring discreetly in his next letter if Scholem had found time to read what he’d sent. Scholem’s opinion mattered a great deal to Adorno, though one cannot say with confidence that Adorno’s mattered quite as much to Scholem, whose excavations into the subterranean strata of Kabbalistic thought Adorno could only admire from afar, since he lacked the historical and philological knowledge to grasp their importance. Scholem, meanwhile, was a generous reader of Adorno’s work but unsparing in his criticism. The differences between them often revived their older dispute over the religious themes in Benjamin’s work. Upon receiving Adorno’s 1951 collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, Scholem expressed his gratitude and declared it “a remarkable document of negative theology”—a characterization that Adorno found unobjectionable—before adding wryly that it was “just as esoteric as the topic itself.”

In addition to being an accomplished musicologist, Adorno was a composer of some talent and a student of the Second Viennese School. In one letter, he urged Scholem to recognize the affinities between Schoenberg’s music and Jewish mysticism, though, Adorno averred, it “differs from synagogue music as much as Kafka differs from the rabbis.” In 1963, Adorno sent the latest volume of his musicological criticism, Quasi una Fantasia, which contained an essay he’d dedicated to Scholem, on Schoenberg’s unfinished, biblically themed opera Moses und Aron.

In a characteristic gesture of paradox, Adorno speculated that Schoenberg’s failure to complete the opera was revealing: In its very content, the opera was a meditation on its own impossibility. Moses, the tragic hero of Schoenberg’s libretto, is incapable of song; in defending the new religion of an unrepresentable God, he restricts himself to Sprechstimme (a spoken-voice style that Schoenberg had used before in Pierrot Lunaire), lest the sensuous beauty of the human voice transgress the laws of antisensuous monotheism. But Moses fails to inspire his people, and his brother Aron intervenes with signs and wonders. It is not just Moses who has failed, Adorno reasons, but Schoenberg himself: Though the composer imagines himself the new “Moses” of modern composition, he also relies on the very techniques of sensual representation that Moses condemns. Moses und Aron thus raised the question as to whether its unfinished quality was a virtue, even a necessity, and if religious art was at all viable in a profane world: “Is cultic music possible without a cult?” To Adorno, the answer was clear: The opera was no less a masterpiece in its failure but, much like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, it was a work alienated from its time, an example of what Adorno called “the a priori impossibility of sacred art today.”

Scholem was grateful to Adorno for the dedication but doubtful about the essay’s argument. “Whether you can really deny the possibility of such music, I do not know,” he wrote. “For indeed it cannot be foreseen, where and in what form in our world the tradition of the sacred can find expression. That it is a priori impossible,” Scholem concluded, was something “I would not care to admit.” This dispute runs through their correspondence, with Adorno playing Moses (apodictic, uncompromising) to Scholem’s Aron (moderate, adaptive). In his reply, Adorno momentarily retracted his earlier verdict, admitting that his actual opinion is “more careful than came out in that text.” “An a priori No,” he wrote, lay far from his intentions. But “to me it would seem, and I would have thought you must tend to agree, that the only possibility for the rescue of sacred art, just as for its philosophical truth-content, would lie today in a ruthless migration into the profane.” For Adorno, it was inconceivable that religious values could survive, innocent and unblemished, in a disenchanted world. What Adorno had once called, in a letter to Benjamin, an “inverse theology” wouldn’t allow for any positive affirmation of religion lest its truth give way to ideological complacency. In an unredeemed world, one could glimpse the messianic light only in its photographic negative.

* * *

This paradoxical and rather oblique acknowledgment of religion’s critical promise allowed for moments of surprising agreement between the two men. In 1966, Adorno presented Scholem with a copy of Negative Dialectics, the newly published work he affectionately called his “fat child,” which contained the mature expression of his own philosophy. In response, Scholem confessed that he had nearly broken his head trying to read the book but would gamely offer an opinion. Never before, he said, had he encountered “a more chaste and guarded [verhaltene] defense of metaphysics.” He admired the attempt to wrest from Hegel’s dialectic a new species of “negative” criticism that did not lapse into “false affirmation.” But he couldn’t share Adorno’s continued faith in materialism, and he didn’t see how this materialism could be squared with the book’s closing appeal to metaphysics. He recognized that Adorno had abandoned the Marxist commitment to class struggle, but he still detected in Adorno’s work a materialist belief in the mediation of consciousness through social processes. To Scholem, this unshaken fragment of historical materialism played the role in Adorno’s philosophy of a deus ex machina. Adorno’s response betrays a startling readiness to surrender identifiably Marxist categories: “The salvation of metaphysics,” he wrote, “is in fact central to my intentions in Negative Dialectics.” But this didn’t preclude a commitment to materialism, which, Adorno insisted, was far from a worldview or a “fixed thing.” The path to materialism was “totally different from dogma” and did not prevent but actually guaranteed “an affinity with metaphysics, I might almost have said, theology.”

This counterintuitive suggestion—that materialism and theology might somehow converge—helps to explain why Adorno found a sympathetic reader in Scholem. In his studies of the Kabbalah, Scholem, too, joined the theological and secular categories in an unlikely union. It was the great conceit of his scholarship that messianism, the most volatile force in all of Jewish history, had never vanished but instead constantly reasserted itself in new and unfamiliar forms. Though it lay dormant in ancient visions of the divine chariot (or Merkabah), it gained increased theosophical definition in medieval writings like the Zohar; then, in the 16th-century texts of the Lurianic Kabbalah, it grew into a cosmic theory of redemption. Anarchic and unpredictable, it had inspired the 17th-century heresy of the false messiah, Sabbatai Sevi, and the 18th-century heretical movement of Jacob Frank, until the modernizing proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) and Jewish historical “science” (the Wissenschaft des Judentums) sought to suppress it once and for all.

But the assimilationists failed. The messianic impulse cloaked itself in secular garments only to burst out at pivotal moments of history, first in the antinomian violence of the French Revolution, and, much later, risked a political-theological explosion in secular Zionism itself. This was a boldly revisionist and rather romantic vision of the Jewish past; Scholem ignored the tradition of legal-rationalism that arguably lies at Judaism’s core. But it clearly held a philosophical and personal meaning for him that breached the rules of conventional historiography, as is evident in his “Ten Ahistorical Theses on the Kabbalah” (1958), in which he entertained the idea that his own historical research contributed to a hidden stream of “nihilistic messianism” coursing through Jewish history. In a confessional moment, he wrote to Adorno: “I am anything but an atheist.”

Alongside these bracing deliberations on philosophy and history, the correspondence also contains moments of humor. On December 22, 1963, Scholem sent Adorno news of an important discovery:

Dear Adorno,
As a Jewish Christmas-present, I can now, just in time, bestow upon you, as the result of my strenuous, protracted, and for the most part unsuccessful efforts, a truly authoritative recipe for the preparation of the world-renowned Jewish dish of Cholent [a thick stew, often made with beans, kept warm on the Sabbath]. I secured this through the mediation of a lady in the circles of the Israeli diplomatic service, who for her part inherited it from American-Jewish-Russian sources. I wish you bon appetit.

G. Scholem

On January 22, 1964, Adorno wrote the following in response:

Dear Scholem,
Please accept my heartfelt, but, alas, belated thanks for your letter of 22 December and the Jewish Christmas present. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to try it out, because my doctor, who is theologically uneducated, has slapped me with a diet which proscribes precisely this kind of delicacy. We can only hope that this taboo, which has indeed a venerable pre-history—one finds it already in Empedocles—will some day burst out of its mystical trappings into Enlightenment.

Most readers, I suspect, will not be familiar with “the venerable pre-history” of this dietary restriction. Happily, Asaf Angermann has annotated the correspondence with such care that he does not fail to explain even this detail. It alludes to a warning by the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles: “Ah, you wretches, utter wretches! Keep your hands off the beans!”

* * *

Adorno and Scholem had the good humor to see through the pretensions of scholarly life. Yet even this exchange bears further scrutiny. The reference to a “Jewish Christmas-present” permits Scholem a playful rejoinder to a passage from Adorno’s 1955 essay on Benjamin, in which Adorno observed that the reader of Benjamin’s work was “bound to feel like the child who catches a glimpse of the lighted Christmas tree through a crack in the closed door.” Scholem, though well acquainted with Christmas trees from his own Berlin childhood, may have resented Adorno’s readiness to adopt a simile that robbed Benjamin’s work of its distinctively Jewish character. Adorno responded in kind: His allusion to Empedocles, citing Hellenism over Hebraism, suggests a reluctance to join Scholem in a homely ritual of Jewish cuisine.

The truth is that Adorno always bristled at communalism. Half-Jewish and half-Catholic by birth, he understood the poisonous consequences of anti-Semitic prejudice; but for that very reason, he couldn’t attach himself to any tribe narrower in circumference than all of humanity, and he extended his moral sympathies to nonhuman animals as well. Like so many refugee intellectuals of his generation who had personally experienced the sting of anti-Semitism, he sided instinctively with the State of Israel against its perceived enemies. In a letter written during the 1956 Suez crisis, he conveyed to Scholem his hopes for Israel’s safety. But it is perhaps no accident that he always found himself too tasked with academic responsibilities in Germany to accept Scholem’s invitations to Jerusalem. Whatever its historical longevity or political utility, ethnonationalism was for Adorno a surrender to the instincts of the horde, not a future ideal.

Scholem’s enduring passion for Zion distinguishes him from Adorno, who is celebrated by many today as the ideal cosmopolite, though others might say that his exacting aesthetic sensibility marks him as the consummate European provincial. Such differences in politics and artistic preference, however, did little to diminish their friendship, which glowed with increasing warmth as the years went by. They never made the transition from the Sie of formal German address to the more intimate du, but they confided to one another about family, gossiped about rivals, and served together as keepers of Benjamin’s flame. The publication of the Adorno-Scholem edition of Benjamin’s writings drew criticism from the far left and from East German Marxists, who accused the editors of intentionally obscuring the late author’s radicalism. Unusually sensitive to such attacks, Adorno wrote resentful letters to Scholem, asking for guidance about how they might respond. Scholem most often counseled restraint.

Such controversies show Adorno at his worst. In one letter, he refers to Hannah Arendt as an “old washer-woman.” (Arendt said no less terrible things about him.) In the late 1960s, Adorno found himself increasingly menaced by student radicals who viewed their aging professors as representatives of a hidebound tradition. He even feared that one revolutionary group was plotting to break into the Benjamin archive and abscond with his papers. To Adorno, these were signs not of revolution but of regression, a return to mythic violence. On April 29, 1969, he wrote to Scholem in despair, reporting on the most recent disruption: During his lecture just a few days earlier, three female students had bared their breasts, and he had fled the hall. In a moment of anguish, the philosopher described the scene to Scholem as Tohuwabohu—Hebrew for primordial chaos.

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