The story runs that, soon after the Holocaust, a man entered a ruined synagogue in Poland and saw a huddled figure sobbing inconsolably in a corner. He went and asked what the matter was. The sobs continued unabated. The man said, ‘Terrible things have happened, but you must still have faith in God.’ The figure mumbled, ‘I am God,’ and sobbed on.
Kabbalah, the metaphysical verbal jazz of eastern European Jewry, affected to have ancient origins but its source lay, most probably, in the speculations of the 13th-century Sephardic pundit Moses de León. Like African-American music, it transformed despair, both human and divine, into a set of sublime, sometimes skittish riffs. As George Prochnik puts it, mundane writers make a habit of the ‘removal of the pointedly irrational and of demonic enthusiasms from Jewish history’. While Prochnik doesn’t share kabbalah’s recklessness, he found himself transported by its allure from America to Jerusalem, home of Gershom Scholem, one of the principal 20th-century authorities on kabbalah.
Prochnik’s title, Stranger in a Strange Land, is a manifest tribute to Robert A Heinlein’s 1961 sci-fi novel of the same name about a man born on Mars who comes to earth at an early age and is never quite at home here. Scholem went to Palestine in his early