Gershom Scholem's acerbic wit was on full display in the notes he scribbled on works written by a particular Theosophist author…
Elias Gewurz (1875-1947), a Jewish Theosophist author, who wrote about Kabbalah, has until this point, not merited an entry in Wikipedia. Rather his biography is recorded here, on the “Theosophy Wiki” website. According to the site, Gewurz was born in Krakow and educated in Vienna. He later moved to the Canary Islands and during World War I immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Los Angeles. Gewurz lived at first in the “Krotona Colony” of the American Theosophical Society, which was located in Hollywood. He moved around a bit in California, and eventually settled in Ventura, where he died, apparently a bachelor.
Gewurz was quite active in the “Theosophical Society” and a number of his published works made their way to Gershom Scholem’s personal library, which can be found today in the Gershom Scholem Reading Room the National Library of Israel.
These works include The Diary of a Child of Sorrow (composed in Las Palmas, Grand Canary) and The Cosmic Wisdom – As Embodied in the Qabalah and in the Symbolical Hebrew Alphabet (both London 1914, the latter co-authored by L. A. Bosman and published as part of the “Esoteric Studies” series of The Dharma Press), as well as The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah: Volume 1: The Transmutation of Passion into Power (Chicago 1918).
The follow-up volume to The Hidden Treasures, The Mysteries of the Qabalah, was “written down by seven pupils of E. G.” (“Yogi Publication Society – Masonic Temple”, Chicago 1922).
The first volume, based upon lectures given at the “Krotona Lodge” and the “Krotona Institute” of the Theosophical Society in 1915, includes a brief introduction into the nature of the Kabbalah.
Needless to say, Scholem was unconvinced by the dating of Rabbi Moses de Leon to the 12th (as opposed to the 13th) century and noted that with a “?” in the margin.
In it we learn that the tract was composed by “one of the seven”, to whom Gewurz had pointed out the path, that he himself had trodden with “bleeding feet”. We also learn that this was to have been part of a much larger work on the Hebrew language that apparently was never completed.
But it was his 1924 volume Beautiful Thoughts of the Ancient Hebrews, published in New York by the mainstream Bloch Publishing Company: The Jewish Book Concern, that was to draw the ire of Gershom Scholem.
The work was published with an introduction by California Reform Rabbi Martin A. Meyer, a colorful figure, whose mysterious demise aroused much speculation at the time. Some of his remarks regarding Kabbalah are worth noting:
The truth is that Scholem had previously commented on the 1914 Diary of a Child of Sorrow volume, referring to Gewurz’s early work as one of “Pseudo-Kabbalah”.
He also noted that Gewurz’s family hailed from the Polish town of Dembitz and that he was a “theosophist”. The Dembitz connection was also noted in Scholem’s copy of Sefer Dembitz (a memorial volume, Tel-Aviv 1960), where information of Gewurz’s somewhat illustrious ancestors was preserved.
In his copy of Beautiful Thoughts, Scholem shared some of his own not-so-beautiful thoughts regarding our author and his work.
Scholem’s comments in English and in Hebrew are quite different. In the English, perhaps addressed more to the Bloch Publication Company than to the author himself, Scholem informs us that; “[Gewurz is] remarkable by boldness of invention and falsification of nearly all the quotations contained herein! And nobody has taken pains to examine his ‘sources’ and the swindle is going on!” As we shall see, some of Scholem’s terms here (“swindle” and “invention”) made their way into his marginalia as well.
Scholem’s Hebrew notes are of a biographical nature and inform us that;
“The author’s name was Eliyahu ben Alter ben Daniel ben Henich, a son of a prominent family in Dembitz. And I heard from Mr. Daniel Leibel [the author of Sefer Dembitz] the author who knew him as a youth, that around 1899 he travelled to England and it was rumored that he converted, and this is apparently an error. Rather he become a Theosophist, and see now in Sefer Dembitz…”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not Gewurz was actually from Dembitz, as claimed here, or from Krakow, as purported on the “Theosophy Wiki”, we learn from Sefer Dembitz that Gewurz’s ancestors included Chief Rabbis and rabbinic judges, as well as wealthy community leaders, until “the Rabbinate was conquered by the Hasidim of Ropshitz”.
Returning to Scholem’s critical comments on Beautiful Thoughts, they are interspersed throughout the volume, and continue the theme of Guwerz’s falsification and/or invention of sources. A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this point:
Scholem was, however, significantly more charitable (or more sarcastic?) towards the book in his brief review in Kiryat Sefer (1:4, 1925), describing it as “a slim anthology of Kabbalah. The sources are a bit strange and much…is not that of ancient Jewish thought, but rather of the author himself, and that is also good. Perhaps the author could inform us, which ancient Jewish book he was referring to under the title of ‘The Golden Gate’, for we have not heard of this book and blessed is the one who knows.” This is the book that Scholem had described in the margins as having “never existed”.
Lastly, returning to the rumors alleging that Gewurz had converted to Christianity in England that Scholem had discounted since “he became a Theosophist”, one could ask if the two categories are in fact mutually exclusive or if he could have either progressed from Christianity to Theosophy, or if he had in fact become a Christian Theosophist who retained an interest in his native Judaism, including Kabbalah, as well.
In his work The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah, in a fascinating chapter intitled “The Feminine Elements in Man and Their Redeeming Power”, Gewurz, seemingly ahead of his time, argues for the need for men to take on more feminine qualities and to balance their “masculine strength” with “feminine beauty”, even though they are “in reality one and the same thing”. He ends the chapter waxing eloquently about the figure of Jesus, whom he claims “was of a feminine nature. He only wore the body of a man, but His soul was womanly”. Leaving the gender issue aside, it is hard to imagine anyone other than a committed Christian lavishing such praise upon Jesus. Nonetheless, his call to the reader, that “we may grow juster and fairer and purer, more kind and more true, more silent and more humble”, is still relevant, more than one hundred years after his words were written.