Kafka Days of Awe (Yom Kippur)

According to Mishnah Yoma, the High Priest at the Temple would read, among other things, the Book of Job on the evening before Yom Kippur. It’s an odd choice, if only at first glance. In years previous I’ve read more obvious choices, ethical and/or penitential texts during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year I tried to read Kafka, even though I think that Law is much more forgiving, at least in the short term.

I wish I had gotten around to reading more Kafka. But I wanted to share this doozy from the end of “The Judgment.” In the story, the protagonist is waiting for his ailing father to die, when the father stands up suddenly on his death bed and condemns his son to death by drowning. His verdict at the end is rendered, “So now you know what else there was in the world besides yourself, till now you’ve known only about yourself!”

This sounds almost like Levinas, even pious in its call to think past the isolated self. Just as pious is the judgment when the Law turns again, this one inscribed upon the body of the Officer in “The Penal Colony.” It’s the call “to be just.”

I’m not sure what I think about this. It’s been years since I’ve read Kafka. I am no longer of the belief that the victims who suffer the judgment of the law are ever innocent in Kafka’s tales. That was Buber’s point in his late essay about Kafka in the book “Knowledge of Man.”  Re-reading years ago “The Trial” after reading Buber, I was pretty much persuaded that Josef K. is guilty as hell. But I’m also a little disappointed. What strikes me now is how off putting it is to find such conventional ethical pieties in stories Kafka, of all things.

That said, I still think Kafka this time of year is a pretty good turn. Relevant to all this is what Franz Rosenzweig wrote, that “the people who wrote the Bible to all appearances thought of God similarly to Kafka. I have never read a book that so reminded me of the Bible as his novel The Castle. Reading it is therefore also no pleasure.”

[The image, by the way, is a reconstruction of a work by Duchamp that I saw at “Ghosts in the Machine” at the New Museum.]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to Kafka Days of Awe (Yom Kippur)

  1. Nitzan says:

    Taubes calls him in a letter “a modern Rashi.”

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