Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka. A nineteenth-century rebbe. A twentieth-century literary master. Two Jewish souls. When I hear the voice of one, I can’t help but hear the other. Kafka is thoroughly secular and Rabbi Nachman is deeply religious. Kafka is a master of irony and Rabbi Nachman is a master of faith. Yet I feel a secret conversation between them and want to know how this can be.
I ﬁnd a clue in something the scholar Gershom Scholem once said. To understand kabbalah in our time, ﬁrst we would have to read Franz Kafka.
Now this is puzzling, considering what we know of Kafka’s life. If Kafka is a kabbalist, he’s the ﬁrst with no deep working knowledge of Hebrew and no actual Jewish religious practice. But Gershom Scholem’s words carry weight. He was the foremost academic authority on Jewish mysticism in modern times.
Perhaps in a certain sly way, Scholem meant to change not our evaluation of Kafka, but what we mean by kabbalah in our time. The puzzle of Kafka the kabbalist makes more sense when you read him alongside Rabbi Nachman. A descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman is the one great rebbe of the past who speaks most powerfully to our own skepticism and doubt. He is an acknowledged master of kabbalah.
The comparison grows more intriguing because in the last four years of his life Rabbi Nachman also became a master of ﬁction. He told a series of fantastic tales that brought something very new into Jewish literature. So here we have Kafka the teller of original tales and Rabbi Nachman the original teller of tales, Kafka the kabbalist and Rabbi Nachman the kabbalist.
As I engaged with the lives and writings of these two masters, the journey asked more of me than an intellectual puzzle. Kabbalah challenges us to read with more depth. It asks: What if all of our reading is secretly a sacred journey in which learning to read deeper deepens the reader?
The Zohar, the great medieval masterwork of kabbalah, proposes this mystical theory of reading. To the kabbalist, reading takes us through four levels of depth. At the deepest level, one arrives at a contemplation of an otherwise entirely hidden God.
Rabbi Nachman’s tales take us on this journey in reading. If Professor Scholem was correct, so do Kafka’s ﬁctions. Below the plain meaning, one ﬁnds allusion to Jewish texts, original interpretations or midrash, and new portraits of God.
There’s another way to read their ﬁctions—as autobiography of the soul.
Too often, Franz Kafka’s work is read as simple autobiography, but I read in his ﬁction the struggle of a Jewish soul with modernity. Rabbi Nachman is always the secret hero of his tales, though in no simple sense. The soul he believes himself to be has had many lives and is so unaccountable, so distant from our ordinary conceptions, that it is exceedingly difﬁcult to portray him. No one ever did, in the sense that we have no drawing, no portrait, no likeness. Usually he’s represented by an empty chair. So trying to see him in any sense is difﬁcult.
That’s true for Kafka as well, though for a very different reason. Rabbi Nachman left us no face, and Franz Kafka left us too many. Sometimes it seems there are as many Franz Kafkas as there are readers. Finding real portraits of these men—their soul portraits—requires a journey deep into their writing.
Their stories reveal the struggles of an intensely lived life, in which every moment and every gesture aches with meaning. This is how they lived and how they wrote, as if living out an intense story, or a deep dream.
As for outward circumstances, Rabbi Nachman lived a hundred years before Franz Kafka, and a thousand kilometers to the east. I see two men reaching for each other across space and time. But they don’t quite touch. That near miss intrigues me.
Rabbi Nachman was a Hasidic rebbe concerned for the spiritual fate of the secular Jew, and Kafka a secular Jew who nourished himself with the tales of Hasidic rebbes. They lived on either end of the haskalah,* the historic shift in Jewish life from religion to secularism, the Jewish Enlightenment. Rabbi Nachman feared the haskalah would bury the Jewish soul alive; Kafka lived the last third of his life seeking to uncover his.
One goal of the haskalah was full political emancipation for Jews. Rabbi Nachman witnessed the incipient Jewish secularism that came in the wake of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe. Kafka lived at the bleak end of the process when the high hopes of Jewish assimilation collapsed in the face of persistent hatred. Each man explored, in his own way, three elemental conﬁgurations of modern Jewish identity: religion, secularism, and Zionism.
Rabbi Nachman was a religious Jew responsive to the challenge of Jewish secularism; Kafka, a thoroughly secular Jew who loved the paradoxical parables of Hasidism. Rabbi Nachman journeyed to the land of Israel, and Kafka dreamed of journeying there to the end of his days. Their stories and their lives reﬂect deeply on one another.
Each was physically thin and each cycled psychologically from low to high, from extreme self-doubt to outrageous ecstasy. Each had a quarrel with fathers. Both starved themselves of food and distanced themselves from the pleasures of sex. Both died of tuberculosis, tragically young.
And each, at the very end, asked a close friend to burn his books.
This book will follow the journeys of Rabbi Nachman and Kafka. It is also a journey of my own.
In the Prague Summer Program over the past ten years, I created a course on Kafka and the kabbalah. My classroom at Charles University overlooked the crowded Prague Jewish cemetery, and I lived in the Jewish quarter two blocks from where Kafka was born. Like many tourists, I spent hours on the cobblestone streets of Prague following Kafka’s peregrinations, for he lived all over the popular Old Town Square and beyond. In today’s Prague his face is ubiquitous, on posters, on T-shirts, on sugar packets, and in tourist shops. I bought many odd Kafka souvenirs, including a certain coffee mug that will play a part in what follows.
Rabbi Nachman’s face is much harder to see. To come closer to this ﬁery soul, I made a pilgrimage in 2008 to Ukraine with the tens of thousands of Jews who visit his grave in Uman each Rosh Hashanah. On the way I also visited Kamenetz, my eponymous hometown, which was the destination of a signally important journey for Rabbi Nachman. So my journeys became part of the story as well.
When I saw the narrow bridge leading to the fortress of Kamenetz, I remembered the setting for my favorite tale of Rabbi Nachman’s, “The Humble King.” The plot closely tracks Kafka’s great unﬁnished novel, The Trial. In both stories, the hero confronts a legal system that seems entirely corrupt. Both stories make a midrash on the book of Job; both stories ask the deepest religious questions—about the seeming absence of divine justice.
Other tales ask to be read together. Kafka’s breakthrough story “The Judgment” and Rabbi Nachman’s “The Rabbi’s Son” both explore the anguished rupture between a father and a son. In other works, both men remake the same Jewish parable of the king’s messenger to explore the problem of the sophisticate who yearns for simple faith. Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and Nachman’s “The Turkey Prince” both speak to the modern meaning of the old doctrine of transmigration of souls.
Is it possible that Rabbi Nachman somehow inﬂuenced Franz Kafka? We know Kafka read Martin Buber’s German rendition of the tales. Perhaps some literary detective could follow this trail. But my experience in reading felt more uncanny. Often I found that a Franz Kafka story asked a question that a Rabbi Nachman tale answered.
Since kabbalah presents an expansive theory of the universe far beyond time and space, mere literary inﬂuence feels too pedestrian. A more intriguing proposition is that Franz Kafka actually inﬂuenced Rabbi Nachman. This is, in a very exact sense, preposterous. But as there are many journeys in this book, one might think of it as another tale told along the way.