Kafka Judaism (Diaries)


In the Complete Stories, all those strange animals are Jews, the radiance is mystical, the traditions are Jewish.  But how can I convince you? Bound to each other and to decrepit traditions that continue to bind and to animate, they move around, barely, in a tight space from which there is no hope of escape. About the Yiddish theater, Kafka had very critical remarks while also adding, “The people remain, of course, and I hold fast to them.” (Diaries, p.167). If I cannot convince you about Kafka and Judaism, maybe the great Clement Greenberg can. Here’s a link to his superb interpretation of “The Great Wall of China.”

To put two and two together (Kafka + Judaism), you need to go to the Diaries. The Judaism that appears there looks like a curiosity cabinet, chock full of junk, fragmented into bits of Bible, Aggadah, history, Yiddish theater, which all hold together, a little dark and crystal-like.

It’s some kind of Judaism.

“If I closely examine what is my ultimate aim, it turns out that I am not really striving to be good and to fulfill the demands of a Supreme Judgment, but rather very much the contrary: I strive to know the whole human and animal community. To recognize their basic predilections, desires, moral ideals, to reduce these to simple riles and as quickly as possible trim my behavior to these rules in order that I may find favor in the whole world’s eyes; and, indeed…so much favor that in the end  I could openly perpetuate the iniquities within me without alienating the universal love in which I am held –the only sinner who won’t be roasted. To sum up, then, my sole concern is the human tribunal, which I wish to deceive, moreover, though which practicing any actual deception” ((Sept 29, 1917) (Diaries p.387)

Say what you want, but Kafka understood Judaism, “[t]he good, strong way in which Judaism separates things. There is room there for a person. One sees oneself better, one judges oneself better.” (Dec. 17, 1913) (Diaries, p. 249)

This animal-Judaism is neither friendly nor domestic. It’s all sharp edged, maybe a bit much so.

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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2 Responses to Kafka Judaism (Diaries)

  1. Eliyahu Avraham says:

    what do you think of my wonderful friend Jacob Neusner?

    • zjb says:

      I think Jacob Neusner’s a genius, one of the great scholars of religion in the 20th century without whom the study of Judaism would not be what it is today.

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