Peter A. Huff

Gershom Scholem and the “Secret Pathos” of Religion

The year 2023 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Gershom Scholem’s first book and his emigration to Palestine, the beginning of his career as a pivotal figure in Jewish intellectual history. The year also marks the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Eranos Conferences, to which Scholem contributed numerous papers and many important insights. Long associated with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Scholem worked during a crucial period in the evolution of academic religious studies, when a growing number of thinkers—including William James, Evelyn Underhill, Friedrich von Hügel, Rufus Jones, Martin Buber, Rudolf Otto, Hans Jonas, and C. G. Jung—endeavored to rediscover the neglected emotional and experiential dimensions of religion.

This paper emphasizes the distinctive achievement of Scholem in this quest and evaluates the impact of his scholarship on the study of religion as a whole. It traces the development of Scholem’s thought and influence from his commentary on the Kabbalist text Sefer ha-Bahir to his posthumously published essays on a broad range of messianic and esoteric themes. It concentrates especially on the landmark texts Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941) and Sabbatai Sevi (1957), now celebrated as classics in both the study of spirituality and the practice of spirituality. Scholem questioned deeply entrenched scholarly trends limiting religion to cognitive and moral expressions and exposed forces such as enthusiasm, ecstasy, charisma, paradox, melancholy, and nihilism as fundamental elements of the phenomenon of religion. Even religious doctrines, he contended, were not immune to pathos—approximating what Jung, early in his career, said about “ideas with a strong feeling-tone.” Relevant today for believer and unbeliever alike, Scholem’s legacy continues to shed light on the non-rational dimension at the heart of all world religions.


Peter A. Huff (Ph.D., Saint Louis University) is Director of the Center for Benedictine Values and Professor of Religious Studies at Benedictine University in Chicago. He has held the Besl Family Chair in Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University and the T. L. James Chair in Religious Studies at Centenary College of Louisiana. In 2007, he was Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. A Distinguished Fellow of the John A. Widtsoe Foundation and former board member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, he has also served in university ministry and psychiatric hospital chaplaincy.

Huff specializes in the history of modern and contemporary religious thought. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Atheism and Agnosticism: Exploring the Issues, Knowledge and Belief in America, and Tradition and Pluralism. He has contributed to several anthologies, including Martin Buber: Creaturely Life and Social Form, and his articles and reviews have appeared in various journals such as Interreligious Insight, and Journal of the American Academy of Religion. He has served as associate editor of International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society and Buddhist-Christian Studies.


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