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The Case of Kafka
By: Naftali Loewenthal

It was a first year class at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. A rather eminent professor was giving the first lecture in the course on Modern Jewish History. He looked at the dozen or so students, some fresh from high school, some mature students with degrees in other fields. There was an uncertainty: did they know enough to begin studying Jewish history? Did they know anything? He began to mention books, people, events. Some of the students seemed to be with him, nodding vigorously. Others were less certain. Then the name of Franz Kafka came up. The professor looked around the class, almost aggressively; "I assume you have all heard of Kafka." No-one dissented; perhaps no-one dared to dissent. For the professor concerned, it was a simple matter; who could not have heard of Kafka?

This incident took place in the Sixties. Today one would not be so ready to assume that every Jewish college student has heard of Kafka. Even less would one expect the influence of Kafka's writings to dominate their thinking and their perception of the world. But there remains a considerable sector of society who can say with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi elect of Britain, in a recent perceptive article: "there was a time, as an undergraduate, when I read every word of Kafka with the shock of recognition, as if I were reading my own autobiography."1 Franz Kafka, who died in 1924 at the age of 41, succeeded--unwittingly--in creating a generation of would-be followers. Many people who today have a crucial influence in society, especially in the Jewish world, explored his writings and to some extent absorbed his world view at the time when they were forming their own definitions of reality.

From Kafka's point of view, Judaism was an important dimension of his relationship with his father, and even had the unrealized potential to bond father and son together.

But what was Kafka saying? What are the implications of his life and work for the world? Is his message heard?

It could indeed be a Kafka fragment. (A large proportion of Kafka's published writings are in the form of fragments of stories, a brief description of a scene or of a situation). The great writer, famous worldwide, is totally misunderstood by his public. He declares one thing, the public hears something quite different. He is cited as an authority supporting the very activities he most decries. The more his books are published and republished, the more that adulatory critical literature is written about him, the more that films are made of his work (excuse the mild anachronism) the less his message is heard.

This is the situation of Franz Kafka. His life and his work have a message for our time which is but rarely comprehended. This might not matter very much were it not for the fact that the issues about which Kafka is most misunderstood directly concern the relationship of the Jew to Judaism and to society, to the ideals of marriage and of bearing children, and perhaps above all, to the ultimate question of the relationship of the individual and G-d.

The Wrong Message

Let us try to present the conventional way in which Kafka's input was internalized by many of his readers. Based on his books, and common knowledge of his life, what picture of reality did they construct?

The first word is loneliness: haunting loneliness. Kafka's leading characters are usually either actually alone or deeply lonely even though surrounded by family. Gregor Samsa of Metamorphosis, one of his most famous stories, is the paradigm of this loneliness: although living in the family apartment, together with his parents, sister and others, Gregor Samsa has changed into a beetle. For those around him he is a figure of horror. There is no communication, and no apparent way of resolving the problem. In the end, he dies. Other Kafka characters, such as Joseph K. in The Trial or K. in The Castle, are lonely in their struggle. In some cases the only company is itself intolerable to the point of madness, as in the case of "Blumfeld, an elderly bachelor." This pathetic figure becomes persecuted by two bouncing ping-pong balls which enter his apartment and follow him around wherever he goes.

The loneliness in the texts is supplemented by Kafka's perception of his own loneliness in real life, even though in many ways he inhabited the fairly cohesive society of thoroughly Jewish, middle class Prague, and in fact had a number of close friends. Kafka never married, a point which clearly bothered his family (and to which we will return).

The key to his feeling of loneliness was his special condition of consciousness, beset by tension and angst. His friend Max Brod wrote of his "drive towards perfection, purity, truth" and stated that Kafka was incapable of saying anything banal. The effect of this was on the one hand the tremendous respect he was accorded in his own lifetime by some of the people who knew him, and on the other his own feelings of total inadequacy, falseness and remoteness. In his Diaries he describes himself, having attended a gathering of a number of his friends and like-minded people, as "feeling like a clothes-rack pushed into the middle of the room."

Kafka explains how the "few flimsy gestures" of Jewish practice performed by his father actually had great meaning for him. But how could "souvenirs" transmit anything of meaning to the next generation? This is Kafka's complaint, or excuse.

Kafka's harshly critical self-view and profound hopelessness were expressed in his writing: the man who is on trial, but can find no way to plead in his defense, nor even to find out the nature of the crime of which he is accused: the man who vainly struggles to enter the Castle, in order to take up a position as a land-surveyor, but is prevented from doing so by an apparently endless bureaucracy. Some readers interpreted these works as parables about political totalitarianism (like Orwell's Animal Farm) but for the most part they were seen as comment on the situation of the individual and the general bleakness of the human condition. They have the power of dreams, intense terrifying dreams, and for Kafka the artist, the literary virtuoso, the dream replaced reality. Indeed, descriptions of Kafka's responses to daily activities indicate that to a considerable extent he saw reality as a dream.

The result in terms of Kafka's personal life was that he never got married, as mentioned above. The most casual reader can perceive that there was much anguish for him in this situation. Despite this fact, his non-marriage helped Kafka become the archetype of the Steppenwolf, the person who stands outside conventional society and its values. Thus in a recent article by a professor of English at Sussex University, the case of Kafka is cited as support for the liberal critique of the reality of marriage.2

On a more profound and sensitive level, for many of his readers, Kafka expressed the triumph of being uprooted, the man of truth who makes no compromises with a false world, a world in which there is no answer to the accusation and where the Castle gates are closed. This very quest for truth resulted also in his letter to Max Brod in which Kafka, dying of consumption, asked that all his unpublished manuscripts should be destroyed. These included his famous novels The Trial, The Castle and America, as well as a large number of stories and fragments. Brod did not follow this instruction, and thereby ensured that Kafka became known. But the fact of the request is seen as a further expression of Kafka's ultimately negative statement about the world, about life, and about Man's relationship with G-d.

It seems almost unnecessary to add that the Kafka ideal, seen from this normative but in my view false perspective, while intensely Jewish, has no dealings with Judaism as such. Kafka was famous as a Jew, and for most of his readers his being Jewish was an integral part of his loneliness and perhaps too of his hopelessness, especially as understood in the years leading up to and following the Holocaust. But although Kafka's Jewishness is in the foreground, Judaism itself in such forms as Shabbat and Kashrut, or even just in terms of Jewish marriage, is altogether out of the picture.

Kafka's Context

My claim is that we have been looking at the wrong picture. Have you ever rejected a photograph of yourself, thinking "it's not me"? True, you were there, and this is how the camera caught you: but it's still not you. Too much has been left out, important details are blurred and covered over. I think Kafka himself would reject the description above. It does not define the dominant issues in Kafka's life, as he saw them. Nor does it express the significance of Kafka's experience for the Jew looking back from the vantage point of the 1990's.

But Kafka's problem is not his alone. If we postulate an extraordinary spiritual sensitivity in his heart, then his problem is precisely the problem of existence as a whole.

First, let us consider the general context in which Kafka lived. A century before his birth the Rabbi of Prague was the famous Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, known as the Noda biYehuda. Prague had an important Yeshiva, and Jewish life was strong. In addition there were also many small Jewish settlements in the Bohemian countryside. But in 1782, there began a forceful onslaught on the religious and cultural life of the Jewish community, with the so-called "Decree of Toleration" passed by the Emperor Franz-Joseph II. This forbade the use of Hebrew or Yiddish in public records and business transactions, and encouraged the Jews to set up German-language elementary schools with state approved teachers and curricula. Simultaneously, non-Jewish schools and universities were opened to the Jews. In 1786 a law was passed forbidding young Jews to marry unless they had attended a German-language school. The following year, the adoption of German personal and family names was made mandatory.

These and other measures weakened Judaism in Bohemia, but did not destroy it completely. The Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement in nineteenth century Prague was mild, traditionalist, and respectful of halachah, when compared with the more radical parent movement in Berlin. During the entire 19th century and into the 20th, Bohemia formed a midway point between the traditionalism of Eastern Europe and the relentless assimilation of the West. This is a key issue when considering Kafka's position, because his consciousness as a Jew and as a writer was dominated by a sense of confrontation between Western assimilation and Jewish tradition. His personal struggle, as a man, concerned this conflict. His writing expresses both his yearning and his sense of paralysis, his inability to take the crucial step towards the Judaism for which he craved.

In Kafka's family, as in those of his friends, there were fond memories of traditional Jewish life. His great grandfather, who had lived in a small country community, was a pietist, perhaps a Chasid. Kafka writes of him that he had a long white beard, and a large library of Jewish books. Every day he would bathe ritually in the river; in the winter he would break a hole in the ice (Biography p. 4). Such a practice in the mid-19th century was characteristic of the Chasidim. However, the generation of Kafka's parents had made the move from the country to the town. In sophisticated Prague their Jewish practice decreased.

Frantisek Langer, a contemporary of Kafka, vividly describes this process in terms of his own family. When a child he would watch his father putting on Tefillin; he would read the Hebrew prayers, but could not understand them. As the years passed, Frantisek's father gradually stopped putting on Tefillin. Kashrut too would have been forgotten in their home, except that they had a very pious Christian maid, who insisted on maintaining the religious standards of the family (Nine Gates, p. ix). We will return shortly to the Langers, because Frantisek's younger brother Jiri, who became a baal teshuvah (in the modern sense of the word) and for a time lived with the Belzer Chasidim, played an important role in Kafka's Jewish development.

The issues about which Kafka is most misunderstood directly concern the relationship of the Jew to Judaism and to society, to the ideals of marriage and of bearing children, and above all, to the relationship of the individual and G-d.

The fact that authentic Judaism was not far away, neither in time nor geographically, was of great importance for Franz Kafka. This fact might escape notice if one focuses only on Kafka's stories and the fragments of literary works; in these there is almost no mention of Judaism as such. However, his Diaries and other writings present a different view. Take for example his Letter to his Father.

Letter to his Father

A key issue in Kafka's life was his relationship with his father. In 1919, five years before his death, he wrote his father a letter of about 45 typed pages beginning with the words "You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you." In fact this letter was never delivered. It is intriguing to discover that from Kafka's point of view, Judaism was an important dimension of his relationship with his father, and even had the unrealized potential to bond father and son together.

"...It would have been thinkable that we might both have found each other in Judaism or that we even might have begun from there in harmony, But what sort of Judaism was it that I got from you?" (Letter to His Father, Shocken bilingual paperback, 1953, henceforth LF, p.75).

Kafka goes on to describe the guilt he felt as a child when he did not carry out the few points of Jewish observance, such as going to the synagogue occasionally, or fasting on Yom Kippur, which his father demanded. But when he got older his view changed.

"Later, as a young man, I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me for not making an effort (for the sake of piety at least, as you put it) to cling to a similar, insignificant scrap. It was indeed, so far as I could see, a mere nothing, a joke--not even a joke. Four days a year you went to the synagogue, where you were, to say the least, closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously. Patiently you went through the prayers as a formality [but] sometimes amazed me by being able to show me in the prayer book the passage which was being said at the moment" (LF, p.77).

Together with boredom, the fear of being called up to the Torah ("that was something I dreaded for years"), and a bar mitzvah described as a mere feat of memorizing, "nothing but some ridiculous passing of an examination," this is how Kafka depicts his early experience of the synagogue. Obviously his criticism of his father is the lack of depth, of authenticity and of meaning. He is also critical of the pathetically residual level of Jewish observance in their home.

"That's how it was in the synagogue; at home it was, if possible, even poorer, being confined to the first seder, which more and more developed into a farce, with fits of hysterical laughter, admittedly under the influence of the growing children. (Why did you have to give way to that influence? Because you had brought it about.) This was the religious material that was handed on to me, to which may be added at most the outstretched hand pointing to 'the sons of the millionaire Fuchs' who attended the synagogue with their father on the high holy days" (LF p. 79).

In our own time, when thousands of Jews from assimilated backgrounds have made the step of rediscovering their spiritual origin, there are probably many who harbor very similar accusations about the kind of Jewish example they were given. But in this letter to his father Kafka shows great understanding of the process of assimilation in which his parents were caught. He describes the effect on his father's life of, firstly, the transition from the countryside to the town, and then of military service. He explains skillfully how the "few flimsy gestures" of Jewish practice performed by his father actually had great meaning for him, his father, because like souvenirs they carried with them all the power of the religious life in the countryside which his father had known as a youth. But how could anyone expect these "souvenirs" to transmit anything of meaning to the next generation? This is Kafka's complaint, or excuse.

"Had your Judaism been stronger, your example would have been more compelling too; this goes without saying and is, again, by no means a reproach, but only a refutation of your reproaches" (LF p. 83).

These passages show that their author did have an awareness of what genuine Judaism should be, an awareness and knowledge which he acquired as an adult, and against which he could measure his upbringing. Indeed, Kafka alludes to his later movement towards Judaism in this very letter. Again, this development is described in terms of his relationship with his father. He writes that his father had "in advance an aversion to every one of my activities." The fact that this also applied to his beginning to take an interest in Jewish matters was particularly upsetting.

". . . One could have expected that in this case you would make a little exception. It was after all Judaism of your Judaism that was here stirring, and with it also the possibility to enter into a new relationship between us. But . . . through my intervention Judaism became abhorrent to you, Jewish writings unreadable; they 'nauseated' you" (LF p. 85).

Perhaps correctly, Kafka analyzes this response as due to a wish to hide the weakness of the Judaism with which Kafka senior had brought up his children. If he welcomed the new interest shown by his son, he would be admitting that there had been something lacking in that which he himself had provided.

If we were discussing someone living in the 1970s or '80s, we would probably not have to look far in order to find the beginning of the attempted turn towards authentic Judaism evidenced by these passages. An experience such as putting on Tefillin at the Western Wall, or in a Mitzvah Tank in Manhattan, reading an article, seeing a leaflet. But these gateways did not exist in the world of Franz Kafka. The trends in the first quarter of the twentieth century were emphatically away from Judaism and Jewish life. We therefore have to ask how Kafka's adult interest in Judaism began. Was it from books? From people? From his own personal investigation of life? Perhaps all three?

Yiddish Theatre

Kafka's innate yet suppressed interest in traditional Judaism first began to be expressed in 1910. In May that year he went with his friend Max Brod to the Cafe Savoy where they watched the performance of a Polish-Jewish theatre group from Lemberg. The Yiddish theatre of that epoch might well be viewed as an example of traditional Jewish society giving way before the pressures of the Haskalah; yet for Kafka (and many others) it functioned as a window on another world. Kafka met the Polish-Jewish actor Isak Lowy, and was fascinated by him. According to Brod, Kafka took him back home with him (to the intense annoyance of his father) and "made this passionate person tell him all about his life, his surroundings and his development, and gained deep insight into the customs and spiritual crises of the Polish-Russian-Jews" (Biography, p. 111). Later Kafka tried to write a biography of Lowy, and survey of the Yiddish theatre, based on their many conversations.

Kafka's Diaries, from 1911 onwards, devote much space to this Yiddish theatre group, and to the plays they performed. He describes in detail a play (by Lateiner) about a meshumad, a Jew who has let himself be baptized. In one scene two traditional Jews wearing caftans come to his home, collecting money. They are shocked when they see no mezuzot on the doors. Kafka writes that during the play, hearing some of the songs and the phrase "Yiddishe kinderlach" brought him close to tears (6 October, 1911).

Now Kafka began to read about Jewish history, and eagerly studied a history of Yiddish literature published in Paris in 1911. His enthusiasm for Yiddish led him to organize an evening of recitations by Isak Lowy in the banquet hall of the Prague Jewish council chamber. Kafka organized the entire event, and was quite proud of its success. He introduced Lowy with the words: "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you how very much more Yiddish you understand than you think you do" (Biography, p. 113).

The significance of this turn towards Yiddish and Polish-Russian Jewish life should not be underestimated. The Haskalah began in Germany with the attempt (unfortunately successful) to replace Yiddish with "pure," grammatical German. By the beginning of the 20th century Yiddish was not spoken in Prague. Further, as outlined above, the continuing process of modernization was also one of Westernization, The Jew of Kafka's Prague looked West, not East, for his edification and his ideals. The Yiddish plays of the Cafe Savoy represented a reversal of this trend. But would this new direction lead to authentic Judaism?

Kafka and his friend Max Brod, an incipient Zionist, were gaining a sense of Jewish identity from their contact with the Yiddish theatre. It was another friend, Jiri Langer, who brought Kafka to the next stage of his Jewish education: contact with Chasidism, and with the concept of teshuvah.

An Early Baal Teshuvah

Detailed information about the spiritual journey of Jiri Langer is provided by his brother Frantisek, a well known Czech playwright and politician, in his foreword to the book of Chasidic stories which Jiri later wrote, Nine Gates. Jiri is almost the first known modern European baal teshuvah, a person who, brought up in a more or less assimilated, Western home, in which Judaism had been reduced to a variety of Protestantism, made the step of "return" to his spiritual origin, and even attempted to enter the world of Chasidism. (Others of this time are described in Klapholtz's Return.)

Jiri Langer was born in Prague in 1894 into the thoroughly Westernized family described above; they kept kashrut only at the insistence of their pious non-Jewish maid. But young Jiri soon showed an unusual interest in religion and spirituality. At fifteen years old his discussions on this subject with his older brother Frantisek, who was to be a writer, led him not to Judaism but to the works of a somewhat mystical Czech poet recommended by his brother. Jiri read all the works of this poet, but was clearly not satisfied. A new step came when, together with another Jewish friend, he learnt Hebrew and began to study Jewish writings. There did exist in Prague at that time a small circle of traditionally orthodox Jews, who were generally ignored by the far more numerous fully Westernized Jews of the city. Presumably they helped Jiri in his first steps towards Jewish life. They taught him, lent him books, and told him about the mitzvot of the Torah.

At the age of seventeen, Jiri Langer began applying this new knowledge in a serious way within the context of his home, much to the consternation of his family. His older brother, then a medical student, is shocked to report that Jiri gave up all the normal pleasures of a young man: friends, sport, and even the Czech Philharmonic concerts. Jiri withdrew to his room, where he sat with his hat on his head studying the large folios of the Talmud. In order to devote himself more thoroughly to his Jewish studies he took the unprecedented step of leaving school. Every day Jiri's father would give him a little sermon entreating him to think of the practical side of life, of his future, and urging him to return to school.

At one point an incident took place which slightly reassured the Langer family. While Jiri and his father were walking in the street they were suddenly approached by one of the traditional Jews of Prague. This person was very wealthy and highly respected, and was the head of the Chevra Kaddisha (Burial Society), a title which still meant something. He congratulated Jiri's father on having such a wonderful son, and assured him that Jiri would one day be an eminent scholar (Nine Gates, p, xiv). Perhaps this was the first instance in our century of the mediation which so often has to take place when a young person turns towards a more consistent form of Judaism and thereby has to face parental criticism.

While this incident had a stabilizing effect, Jiri's quest for authentic Judaism was not yet complete. At the age of 19, he set off on a journey, telling no one but his sister, To her he confided that he was going travelling in Galicia; why, he did not say.

For the Jews of Prague in 1913, Galicia and its impoverished Chasidic communities represented the Middle Ages. Jiri, looking for Yiddishkeit rather than just Judaism, discovered the town of Belz in Eastern Galicia. At this time Belz had a population of 3,000, half of whom were Jews. At the center, spiritually, was the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, grandson of R. Sholom of Belz, founder of the Belzer dynasty. Jiri found lodging with the Belz Chasidim, and it was from this townlet that he at last sent his anxious family a postcard, asking them not to worry. In Belz, Jiri Langer entered the daily life of the Chasidim, studying Talmud (albeit generally alone), going to the mikveh every morning before prayer, trying to observe the Shabbat punctiliously. He was hampered by not knowing Yiddish, in fact, he had never heard it spoken before, but gradually he made progress. The whole community buzzed with talk of the youth who came all the way from Prague. He met the Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov, who welcomed him, and spoke to him kindly about Prague, where the Maharal is buried--the ancestor of R. Yissachar Dov (Nine Gates, p.6).

At the same time an immense conflict was going on in the heart of Jiri Langer. Together with the reality of Judaism that he was experiencing, and the warmth of life in a small Chasidic town of 80 years ago, he was undergoing a major culture shock. Jiri was fascinated by the fact that the Rebbe would not look at women, although they were allowed to present the Rebbe with a kvitel. Filled with curiosity, the Prague youth once had the opportunity to peep through a keyhole and watch R. Yissachar Dov speaking to his own wife. Jiri was disturbed to see that the Rebbe turned his face away from her too, as if she were a strange woman (Nine Gates, p. 11). The conflict finally came to a head. Jiri writes, in his introduction to his book Nine Gates;

"I can endure it no longer. This life of isolation from the rest of the world is intolerable. I feel disgusted with this puritanism, this ignorance, this backwardness and dirt. I escape. I travel back to my parents in Prague. But not for long. I must perforce return to my Chasidim" (p. 12).

Jiri's brief return to Prague is documented by Frantisek, who describes in detail the absolute horror with which he was greeted by his family. Frantisek writes:

"I understood what had filled [my father] with dread as soon as I saw my brother . . . He stood before me in a frayed black overcoat, clipped like a caftan . . . His whole face and chin were covered with a red beard, and side curls in front of his ears hung in ringlets down to his shoulders. My brother had not come back from Belz to home and civilization; he had brought Belz with him" (Nine Gates, p. xv).

Now Jiri's behavior can be seen, for the most part, as part of a pattern familiar enough in our own time. He refused to eat in the Prague kosher restaurants; they were no longer kosher enough. He ritually washed his hands before meals, and prepared his own food at home, consisting largely of bread and onions. He did not shake hands with women and in fact whenever he spoke with one he turned his back on her. His family could, more or less, put up with all this. But they were filled with alarm and embarrassment at the effect he had on others outside the house. For three generations, the Jews of Prague had done their best to look like everyone around them. The sudden appearance of a young man dressed like a Polish Jew in the streets of a respectable Prague suburb was highly disturbing. At the request of the family, the "modern" Rabbi of the district tried to speak reason with Jiri. But Jiri refused to talk to him, regarding him as an atheist . . . (Nine Gates, p. xvii).

In fact, Jiri did find a way to accommodate his family somewhat, probably at the advice of wise members of the small traditional community in Prague. But soon, having had a vision of R. Yissachar Dov, he was off to Belz again. This time he was accompanied by another young Jew from Prague named Gavriel. (This might be Otto Muneles, who later went through a spiritual crisis during the war and wrote a historical work about Prague Jewry.) Jiri settled in the little town, more or less accepted as "serious" by the Chasidim. When war broke out in 1914, after what he regarded as a miraculous discharge from military service, he rejoined the Rebbe and moved together with his entourage to Hungary. Later he traveled to Prague, as did a number of other Chasidim, during the upheaval of war. When R. Yissachar Dov, due to illness, visited Marienbad, Jiri Langer was among the Chasidim who accompanied him.

After the war Jiri finally left the Belz community and returned to European life. He wrote several articles and a book attempting to examine Jewish mysticism from a Freudian perspective, and became a teacher at the Jewish College in Prague. He traveled to Paris and to Palestine, and eventually, helped by Frantisek, he published in Czech his book of Chasidic stories, Nine Gates, which appeared in 1937. He also wrote religious poems in Hebrew. During the Second World War he managed to escape to the Land of Israel, and he passed away in Tel Aviv in 1943. Although he did not continue to be a follower of Belz--the death of R. Yissachar Dov in 1926 was a crucial turning point for him--according to Frantisek he was always a fully observant orthodox Jew. In a truly remarkable way, he had made the pioneering journey from modern Western assimilation to something very close to authentic Jewish life.

Kafka and Judaism

All of this intense experience was passed on to Langer's older friend, Franz Kafka. They met during the war years, and spent much time together. Max Brod was also part of the circle. A glimpse of their relationship is seen from an entry in Kafka's Diary. Brod wanted Langer to read one of his books, which recently had been published. But Langer refused to waste any time that could be used for Torah study, and therefore could not read the book. However, there was one possibility; to read it on the evening before December 25th, when Chasidim have the custom not to learn Torah. But this hope too was disappointed, for in 1916, the year in question, that evening was on a Friday night, when Langer refused to read anything secular! Yet there still remained a chance: the equivalent festival in the Russian calendar, which would fall thirteen days later . . . (Diary, 25 December 1916).

From Langer, Kafka gained a enthusiasm for Hebrew. Without telling Max Brod, he began studying this language. Brod later records his surprise at this activity of Kafka, which was kept secret from him for a considerable time (Biography, p. 163). Further, as the person responsible for dealing with Kafka's manuscripts after the latter's death in 1924, Brod makes an extraordinary statement: "Of the papers he left behind, the papers filled with Hebrew exercises are not much fewer than those covered with literary works in German" (Biography, p.197).

Were these only "exercises"? Perhaps we will never know. But Brod's occasional descriptions of Kafka's Hebrew studies are intriguing, In his own diary Brod notes, in July 1918, that Kafka prefers the country to the town; "Here he studies Hebrew and gardening. The positive things in his life. Wants to keep these quite pure--they are the 'country things'. Would like to withdraw from everything else" (Biography, p. 168).

Jiri Langer told Kafka stories about the Chasidim; some occur in the Diaries (see entry for 6 Oct. 1915). He also tried to get him to visit them. For a time Max Brod was also enthusiastic about this. In September of 1915 a Chasidic Rebbe, a relative of the Belzer Rebbe, visited Prague and stayed in the Zhiskov suburb. Kafka records that he and Langer, together with Max Brod, went to see him. This was at the time of the Third Meal on the Sabbath. They held back from coming too close. But the Rebbe said: "You're Jews too, aren't you?" Kafka's comment is striking: "A nature as strongly paternal as possible makes a Rabbi." At the same time, Kafka was aware of the immense distance dividing this Polish Jew from his own Western upbringing. Thus he notes that the Rebbe he saw in Zhiskov "reached into the food with his fingers." But this did not prevent him from also observing that "when his hand rested on the table for a moment you saw only the whiteness of his skin, a whiteness such as you remembered having seen before only in your childhood imaginings--when one's parents too were pure" (Diary, 14 Sept. 1915).

On the way home from this encounter, discussing it with Brod, Kafka rejected the experience: "If you look at it properly, it was just as if we had been among a tribe of African savages. Sheerest superstition." Brod notes that this was not meant to be insulting, but it certainly was a sober rejection. (Biography, p. 153).

Despite this, during the following summer Kafka took the opportunity to deepen his acquaintance with the world of Chasidism. This time, together with Jiri Langer, he met the Belzer Rebbe himself, who was then staying in Marienbad. Kafka sent Brod a long letter describing the experience; it is objective and amused. For example, while waiting outside the Hotel National for the Rebbe to appear, it: began raining. Langer expected the rain to stop when the Rebbe came out; he told Kafka about an incident he had witnessed, in which the rain suddenly stopped for the Rebbe. But this time, notes Kafka, it did not stop. Instead it rained more heavily.

Despite this objectivity, Kafka let himself be involved in the activities of the Chasidim. Thus the letter continues with a description of Kafka, Langer and another Chasid running earnestly to various springs of Marienbad in order to get water for the Rebbe. By that time in the evening the Rudolf Spring was closed, so they ran to the Ambriose Spring. But this too was closed. They returned to the hotel, and there follows a description of the Rebbe surrounded by his followers; how despite the press of the crowd, they part and regroup, in order to make room for him to walk. Kafka depicts him as a mixture of eastern royalty, father and teacher. "The sight of his back, the sight of his hand, which was on his hip, the sight' of the movement of that broad back--all this gives a feeling of trust" (Briefe, p. 144).

Another letter by Kafka, written at the same time to the philosopher Felix Weltsch, is brief but highly expressive:

"Yes, Langer is here, for now this is in general a kind of centre-point of the Jewish world, since the Belzer Rebbe is here. I have already been twice in his entourage for the evening walk. He alone is worth the journey from Karlsbad to Marienbad" (Briefe, p. 146).

At this time Kafka was going through a crucial inner struggle about whether or not to get married (to "F."). His diaries indicate too that while in Marienbad he was reading the Bible, which became part of his struggle: "Isaac denies his wife before Abimelech, as Abraham earlier had denied his wife" (Diary, 14 July 1916). There are grounds for suggesting that for Kafka, the central problem of his life, marriage, was intimately connected with the question of his relationship with Judaism. The passages we have quoted suggest that he saw Chasidism as a deep expression of purity. Yet somehow, as in one of his own stories, Kafka could not walk through the gateway. Perhaps at that point the Chasidic world itself was not yet sufficiently accessible for a thoroughly Westernized Jew. Langer had been able to make the journey, at least to a great extent. But Kafka was unable to follow. Ultimately, it was for this reason that he never married.


Kafka's intense yearning for marriage is expressed in the Letter to his Father. Although at the time that this letter was written Kafka was trying to devote his life to his artistry as a writer, the fact that he could record the following words betrays what in fact was his greatest problem.

"Marrying, founding a family, accepting all the children that come, supporting them in this insecure world and perhaps even guiding them a little, is, I am convinced, the utmost a human being can succeed in doing at all. That so many seem to succeed in this is no evidence to the contrary . . ." (Letter to his Father, p. 99).

It is interesting how closely this coincides with the traditional Jewish view of life; with the help of G-d, marriage and children are the top priority, after which all ambition and quest for success have to take second place.

The overt reasons why Kafka did not marry the young lady he refers to as "F.", whether because of dedication to his writing or his lack of money or, later, his illness-- these, I suggest, are secondary. The main reason was something much more profound, relating to the special predicament of the Jew in the Western world.

In December 1917 Kafka made the final break with F., an event which was to some extent cushioned by frequent discussions with Max Brod. His statement to Brod about the impossibility of his marriage is highly revealing:

"What I have to do, I can only do alone. Become clear about the ultimate things. The Western Jew is not clear about them, and therefore has no right to marry. There are no marriages for them. Unless he is the kind that is not interested in such things--businessmen for example" (Biography, p. 166).

If one is concerned at all about ultimate things, the unresolved question of one's Jewishness in the Western world stands in the way of marriage, the ultimate fulfilment. Put conversely, through the resolution of one's Jewishness one is able to marry.

Kafka could not resolve his Jewishness. Today after the dramatic opening of the portals of Judaism by the Torah leaders of our time, there is a path which someone like Kafka. might strive to follow. This path has many challenges, and may sometimes seem circuitous and paradoxical. This is no surprise; after all, the first Jew had to face the challenge of the Akeda. Nonetheless, the road is there, clearly demarcated, whether in terms of the Code of Law, subtle Torah study, practical charity or the inner discoveries of contemplative prayer. The fact that a Jew today can now discover this direction of teshuvah is the result of great dedication and self-sacrifice on the part of those Sages who determined to make it accessible over the past seventy years. There is a mystical dimension to this process, which is why it is centered on the Chasidic movement; it is no simple matter to open the gateways of repentance and change the direction of history.

In 1917 despite the example of Jiri Langer, Kafka could not move forward along this path which today has been followed by thousands. Instead his grand and tragic attempt was to try to resolve the paradox of life through his writing, which he termed "a form of prayer." This functioned as his own, personal mystical religion. It enabled him to live on and granted him a lonely ecstasy, however unsatisfactory this might have been (as is indicated by the ending of his story In the Penal Colony in which fearful, self-inflicted torture fails to provide the hoped for spiritual release). Clearly too his art did not give him access to marriage and children, Jewish marriage, which to him signified the only true freedom.

The morning after he made the statement quoted above, that a Western Jew cannot marry, Kafka said a final goodbye to F. Then he came to Brod's office and wept; it was the only time Brod ever saw him cry. He was weeping not only about marriage to F., but about any possibility of marriage (Biography, p. 166-7).

There was, however, one more attempt. This is particularly poignant, because with this Kafka came so close not only to marriage but to a form of Judaism. This was towards the end of his life, when he met Dora Diamant. Predictably, she was the daughter of an orthodox and highly respected Polish-Jewish family; her father was a Chasid. Dora had traveled on the route of the Haskalah, "escaping" from the shtetl to Breslau and Berlin. Eventually, aged 19 or 20, she met Kafka--who was trying to travel in the opposite direction. At one of their first meetings, Dora, who had a high level of Jewish education, read a chapter from Isaiah to Kafka in the original Hebrew. From then on she became his companion, caring for him until his death two years later.

Kafka wrote a letter to her father, asking for her hand in marriage. In this letter he explained that although he was not a practicing Jew in her father's sense, he was nevertheless "a repentant one, seeking 'to return'" and therefore he hoped that he might be accepted into the family of such a pious man. According to Brod, Dora's father set off with this letter to the Gerer Rebbe to ask what to do. The Rebbe read the letter and answered: "No." Shortly afterwards Kafka died (Biography, p. 208).

Form of Prayer

The theme of marriage, often referred to in the Diaries, is also found occasionally in Kafka's literary works. According to Brod, the prose piece entitled Eleven Sons is to be understood as expressing the yearning for marriage and children. The piece presents the author as a father who gives a list of his eleven offspring, sensitively and wisely discussing their respective qualities. It is noteworthy too that his earlier story Metamorphosis, describing Gregor Samsa's transformation into a beetle, ends, after the eventual death of the beetle, with a note of hope. Now that the beetle is gone, the Samsa parents can concentrate on finding a husband for their daughter, Gregor's sister...Of course, the issue is not "just" marriage. Kafka once told Brod, "with suppressed sobs," that his idea was "to be a father, and talk quietly with one's son. But then one may not have a little toy hammer in place of a heart" (Biography p. 140). The image of the toy hammer expresses the force of Kafka's angst and incommunicable yearning which held him back from marriage and ordinary life. Again, through his writing, which he called "a form of prayer," he attempted to assuage his immense, unspeakable problem.

But Kafka's problem is not his alone. If we postulate an extraordinary spiritual sensitivity in his heart, then his problem is precisely the problem of existence as a whole, the problem of man in relation to the Infinite. The Jewish terminology for this problem, this dislocation, is "Exile." There is the exile of the Jewish people from their land, the consequent general Exile of existence from G-d, and the complementary inner Exile of the individual.

In Chasidic teachings the state of Exile is sometimes described in terms to which, one feels, Kafka would have responded. Take the following passage, from Shaarei Orah by Rabbi Dov Ber, the Mitteler Rebbe (1773-1827):

"When G-d is exalted, remote in His Essence, height beyond height--then the world is not His place at all . . . and all the devolution of worlds has no significance. Then even when the Seventy Princes [of the seventy nations] are in utter disunity, and the Shechinah and the Jews are in Exile . . . and even when pagans dance in His Sanctuary, when they burnt the Temple . . . all this does not have any significance at all and is not any kind of flaw in His glory. Like a spider and spider-web in the palace of a king; even if it makes a big web on the floor of the royal palace certainly none of the king's servants will take any notice at all . . . The spider could easily be caught in the hand and thrown out, yet nonetheless it crawls around the royal palace and lives among the beams or on the floor, and even sometimes walks on the couch of the king. He does not feel any lack of glory in this, nor any pain, because of its total insignificance . . . This is as the Sages said; 'the might of G-d is that pagans dance in His Sanctuary and He is silent' (Yoma 69b) . . . This itself is a proof of the immensity of His might" (Shaarei Orah, p.96).

Although Kafka heard many Chasidic stories from Jiri Langer, he did not have access to teachings of the kind just quoted. Unlike most other Chasidic groups, Chabad sought to communicate the esoteric teachings which constitute the hidden essence of Chasidut. The Braslav school also made a comparable endeavor. In both cases, this means not the depiction of a spirituality that transcends and flees from the world, but the revelation of certain key aspects of the cosmic struggle at the heart of the process that leads from Exile to Redemption. As the person explores the Chasidic teaching, he or she discovers with a shock of recognition that the drama of the Divine is their own personal drama as well. Chabad, in particular, also provides clear guidance as to how to respond to that struggle.

Instead of the terrifying paralysis described by Kafka, "feeling like a clothes rack pushed into the middle of the room," the person discovers how to act; within their own inner world, following a path of Torah study, mitzvot, contemplation and prayer, and also in their homes and in society as a whole. In particular the intimate reality of marriage, children and community, for which Kafka longed, is presented as the path for both personal and universal freedom.

There have been a number of attempts to draw parallels between Kafka's writings and Jewish texts such as the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav or a genre of Chasidic stories in which Heavenly Judgement is a central theme. In such studies scholars often point out the lack of resolution of the problem in Kafka's works when compared with these Jewish texts. Thus Professor Karl Grozinger shows that in Kafka's The Trial, the lawyers whom "K." tries to get to intercede on his behalf have no effect at all, while in the "Heavenly Court" genre of Chasidic stories the intercessors are generally successful. Grozinger rightly points to Kafka's situation as an assimilated, Westernized Jew as the reason for this crucial difference.2

The message of Kafka's writing and his life is that for the Jew the resolution of ultimate problems is through authentic Judaism. For Kafka, writing was a form of prayer, and perhaps a form of mysticism (see Biography, p.94). But as such, tragically, it was unsuccessful. I believe this is why Kafka left instructions that his unpublished works (including The Trial and The Castle) should be destroyed. As a spiritual guide, his writings do not work. They show the lonely anguish of exile without opening the door to redemption. For that one needs not Kafka's stories but the practical teachings of the Code of Law and the spiritual guidance of Tanya.

This, indeed, is Kafka's true message to us. Lonely personal mysticism has deeply compelling qualities but ultimately does not work. The path into the "Castle" is that trodden by Abraham, Moses and Rabbi Akiva. Following that path, it is true, we each have our own struggle, which might be of terrifying proportions. But we have been given powerful keys to help us; Torah teachings and Commands. Sometimes even then, it might seem, we are faced with a door we cannot open. Because we are guilty, because we have transgressed (horribly) or for some other reason. According to Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, we still have the ultimate resource; an axe, which can break through every door. As he explained it, this means the power of Chasidism. This aspect of the world which Kafka almost entered is expressed in concepts such as "Joy breaks through the barrier" and emphasis on the theme of kabbalaht ol malchut shamayim, "Acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven." In practice this means not worrying, just going straight ahead and carrying out the practical (and often supremely simple) Commandment. Rabbi Dov Ber's axe also suggests the incredible transformative power of Chasidic teachings, which reach into the limiting, paralyzing "Western" dimension of consciousness and reveal the sparks of holiness waiting to be redeemed.

As Rabbi Shneur Zalman puts it, each person has to discover their own path in the Torah. But the gates are open and there is an invitation to walk through, relinquishing the hostile-like ego which keeps us stranded, immobile and helpless. The Torah and its commands open up a path which leads through the open "door of the Law" and into the "Castle." With the help of G-d the Western Jew can then transcend all limitations and get married, itself a step of confident trust in the Infinite. Hopefully, blessed by G-d, this union will bring into the world a host of children, like the eleven of Kafka's story, the Yiddishe kinderlach for whom he yearned.

  1. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' critique and defense of his Reith Lectures, London Jewish Chronicle
  2. "Chasidic Motifs in the Work of Franz Kafka," in Ter Herkenning, 16 (1988), p. 112. Bibliography Max Brod, Franz Kafka, A Biography, N.Y. 1963 Karl Grozinger et al. Kafka und das Judentum, Frankfurt a. M. 1987 Hillel J. Kieval, "The Modernization of Jewish Life in Prague," in J. Katz (ed.), Toward Modernity, N.Y. 1987. Jiri Langer, Nine Gates, London 1961 Marthe Robert, Franz Kafka's Loneliness London, 1982 Ritchie Roberts, Kafka: Judaism, Politics and Literature New York, 1985
  3. Naftali Loewenthal writes for Wellsprings. He is the author of Communicating the Infinite, published by Chicago University Press, and a lecturer on Chasidism in Jews College, London, UK.

Source: Reprinted from Wellsprings, a journal of Jewish thought