Walter Benjamin, the Kabbalah, and Secularism

By Kam Shapiro

Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), Spring 2011

Where do we look in this world for signs of the next? What do they tell us of what is to come, and of our part in our own transformation? These were acute questions in the chaotic interwar period during which the German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin came of age, when modern confidence in human rationality and faith in historical progress had been shattered by mass culture, global economic crises, and world war. In the course of an unfolding political and personal catastrophe--ending with his likely choice of suicide as an alternative to capture by the Gestapo--Benjamin sought redemptive potentials among the ruins of modernity. In formulating what he once called a "weak messianism," he drew on both Marxism and Jewish theology, especially the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, with which he became familiar through his friend Gershom Scholem. His peculiar blend of materialist and theological criticism, along with his famously hermetic style, have puzzled many readers and licensed diverse interpretations. Benjamin's appeal to messianism has been identified alternately with the triumph of the proletariat and the restoration of divine language. It has also illustrated certain affinities, however, between secular and theological visions, including especially their potential for mutual entanglement.

Topic: Theology, Kabbalah, Philosophy, History, Mysticism, Secularism

Name of Publication: AJS Perspectives: The Magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies

Editor: Bunzl, Matti , Havrelock, Rachel

Volume/Issue: Spring 2011

Page Number(s): 16-17

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Genre: Article

Coverage: Germany

Language: English

Copyright Holder: Publisher

Copyright Information: Download for personal use, freely distribute link

Bibliographic Information:
Shapiro, Kam. Walter Benjamin, the Kabbalah, and Secularism. AJS Perspectives: The Magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies. Association for Jewish Studies (AJS). Spring 2011: 16-17.


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