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On the Possibility of and Justification for a Philosophical Interpretation of Kabbalah: The Scholem-Gordin Correspondence

  • Ori Werdiger EMAIL logo
From the journal Naharaim


This article introduces and discusses a short correspondence that took place in November 1931 between Gershom Scholem and Jacob Gordin. Gordin was a Russian-Jewish philosopher of religion, an expert on Hermann Cohen, and a founding figure of the postwar Paris School of Jewish Thought. The initial motivation for the correspondence was Scholem’s wish to produce a critical edition of the 17th century kabbalistic work, Shaar Hashamayim by Abraham Cohen Herrera, for which he asked for Gordin’s help. A close reading of Gordin’s response to Scholem and Scholem’s belated response to Gordin highlight the respective views of these thinkers regarding the relationship between kabbalah and Western philosophy in the modern era, and in German idealism in particular. The article is followed by a translation of the correspondence.

Corresponding author: Ori Werdiger, Divinity School, University of Chicago, 1025 E 58th Street, 60637Chicago, IL, USA, E-mail:


Correspondence Between Gershom Scholem and Jacob Gordin, November 6th and 23rd, 1931

Jerusalem, 6 November 1931[48]

Dear Dr. Gordin

I permit myself to address you, as the author of the article “Herrera” in the Encyclopedia Judaica. In the past year I have made the book Shaar Hashamayim of Herrera the subject of my seminar at the University. At the seminar, we established the necessity to edit, on the basis of the original, the overall incomprehensible translated text. One of my students has the intention, if possible, to undertake this task. From your article I gather that manuscripts of the Spanish originals are found not only in the Etz Chayim seminar, but also in the “Royal Library in Holland.” I am not sure whether this manuscript is of the “Shaar Hashamayim” or rather of the second work. I would be grateful for your kind information, and especially for an indication of the exact location of the mentioned manuscripts. I will try to get photographs or transcripts of the originals.

I remain,

With the highest regards,

Sincerely yours,

[Gershom scholem]

23 November, 1931.

Dr. J. Gordin,

Kurfürstenstr. 126,

Berlin W62.

Dear Dr. Scholem,

It would be my pleasure to provide you with the little service you requested. As I was preparing the entry on Herrera, the apparent deficiency of the previous bio-bibliographic information prompted me to venture out of my more systematic philosophical research area. I succeeded – it seems to me – for the [encyclopedia] Judaica research, not to limit myself to the available biographical material on Herrera found in the “Les source inédites de l`histoire de Maroc … etc.” I learned of the existence of a Spanish manuscript of “Shaar Haschamayim” which I mentioned, from the “Catalogue de vente de la succession de feu M.D. Henriquez de Castro” (Amsterdam 1889). Since this book might not be presently accessible to you, I am copying the entry herewith:

(P. 54) N. 510. Herrera (Abr. Cohen de), Puerto del Cielo, y lus para entrar en la Capacidad y ynteligencia de la Cabala. Ms. de 168 ff. sur grand papier in fol. I vol. parch. dos et plats à petits fers. dent. ext. tr. dor. fermoir en cuivre. Le frontispice, les en-têtes, culs de lampe, planches et rubriques dans lequelles se trouvent en miniature des paysages, figures d’hommes et de femmes, des arabesques, des chateaux, etc. dessinés à la plume, au crayon et bistrés sont un chef-d’ouvres d’art et de vive imagination. Il n’y a pas une seule feuille sans illustration, de sort que le texte important d’une belle écriture, la riche reliure et les dessins en font un exemplaire unique.

Jacob Gordin.

This manuscript was acquired by the Royal Library in s’ Gravenhag (for 75 fl.), according to the “Report on the state of the Royal library in 1889” (s’ Gravenhag, 1900), S. 17, N. 15, see also – another manuscript of “Schaar Hashamajim” in Kayserling, Bibl. Española-portugueza-judica, S. 52.

An edition of the original seems to me to be necessary due to the not insignificant role that Herrera played in the formation of 18th century philosophy. And if a systematic-philosophical interpretation of certain kabbalistic doctrines is possible in the first place and justifiable and meaningful for “us” (in the “present”), then Herrera should not be neglected either. I would like to remind you that in his “Logos” period (“Wissenschaftslehre” 1801, 1804, etc.), Fichte elaborates a fundamental dialectical correlation between the “principium” and the “primum principium” (esp. Stockholm Fragment, published by Xavier Leon, Fichte et son temps). These are (coincidentally) the same terms with which the Latin translation of Herrera represents the corresponding Hebrew conceptions. This may not say much, but on the other hand, Wachter’s writing, as well as other historical works I mentioned, were most likely known to Fichte (Atheism dispute, etc.).

I wish you, to whom the study of kabbalistic literature owes so much, that you may realize your planned study as soon as possible. I hope that you will send me your forthcoming publications on this subject, just as much as I would be most grateful, in general, if you were to send me off-prints of your work that you can spare.

I remain,

With the highest respect,

Sincerely yours,

Jacob Gordin.

Published Online: 2020-12-01
Published in Print: 2020-12-16

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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