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.