Only a European Jew whose origins have been obfuscated can be so detached, and at the same time, so universal
By Yehoyada Amir | 21/10/2010
Natan Ofek's book "Kafka and Jewish Existence" is fundamentally a book by a Jewish philosopher who seeks to examine not only his favorite author, but also his own existence, and our existence as modern Jews. The book's discussion is based on the firm foundations of a solid and well-substantiated view, according to which Kafka – ironically through his detachment and alienation, faithfully represents modern Jewish existence. Ofek is convinced that reflection on the phenomenon to its fullest extreme will provide us with the key for understanding Jewish existence in all its manifestations
Natan Ofek, "Kafkaand Jewish Existence: Crisis, Rupture and Hope," Tzivonim, 2002, Jerusalem
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was one of the most important authors of the twentieth century, and one of its deepest and most powerful writers. During the years before, during and after the First World War, he wrote passionately and with an unprecedented directness about the modern human experience, the sense that an entire world of culture was collapsing, and that a threat was looming over the world: a threat yet formless, but whose paralyzing terror could already be felt. Kafka's point of departure was the increasingly blurred boundaries of the border between philosophy and literature. His aphorisms, as well as his novels and short stories, express in their language the literature of a world of philosophy that due to its nature could, apparently, not be expressed through other venues.
This universal message, appealing to every person and shocking to every reader, expresses experience, anxiety, and deepest faith and belief, and constitutes the basis of the Jewish dimension embodied in Kafka's personage and in his writing. It is the Judaism of a young man who lost his connection to tradition as it was handed down, and rebelled against its ludicrous appearance in the frenetic form of the surviving religious customs of his controlling father; it is the Judaism of a man who, despite all this – and to a great extent, because of all this – was Jewish at every level of his being.
Kafka's Judaism has been discussed extensively. Although in his stories and novels there are almost no Jewish topics or characters, his writings have often been interpreted as directly related to various motifs in Jewish tradition and its rich literature. It should be stated that such interpretation has oft revealed more than a negligible narrow-mindedness on the part of its authors, the need to bring a "lost son" back to his supposed home, and the tendency to separate between the universal and Jewish-particular layers in the author's works. This type of distinction is not helpful for understanding Kafka's human contribution; it is even less helpful for understanding his Judaism.
Detachedness from "Sacred Time"
The uniqueness of Natan Ofek's book is in the new and refreshing way in which he approaches the discussion and poses its questions. He, of course, does not ignore the Jewish themes as they appear in Kafka's diaries, letters and literary texts. He is sensitive, fair and thorough in his discussions of Kafka's relationship to his father, and even his letters to Felicia and Milena and long excerpts from his diaries, where the question of his relationship with Judaism arises directly and with utmost sincerity. And yet, the main thrust of the discussion is not these, but in the way in which the author's Jewish existence shapes his basic perceptions of his character, body, time, space, life and death. Ofek takes great care not to assert that Kafka had a Jewish "identity." In his view, all questions of identity are extremely difficult and problematic to anyone with modern sensibilities, not least of all the modern Jew who has lost his natural orientation within the space of Jewish existence that was his heritage in the past. Kafka represents this trend at its most intense, and presents it with the greatest clarity possible. "He is a Jew because there exists in him a Jewish dimension, and because only a European Jew whose origins were obfuscated can be so detached, and at the same time, so universal" (p. 71). But despite this, his human experience is shaped by his detached Jewish existence – his connection to which was blurred and almost completely erased – and by pursuit of the "dark entirety" of Judaism that could revert to being his heritage.
The main chapters of the book deal with the various aspects of Kafka's perception of time. Ofek disagrees with the claim that Kafka's writing is timeless. To the contrary, he emphasizes that the author's awareness of time is an expression of the significance of modern existence as detachment from absolute, pre-modern "sacred time." Kafka feels that he is totally cut off from the Jewish past and from any traditional sense of having a past, and that he must create his own past. This is the foundation for his intimacy with the literature of the absurd, and the source of the sense of crisis that he expresses time and again. And yet, the very awareness that he must create a past implies a paradoxical connection to the past of tradition, since creation of the past, while it is doubtful that it will succeed, is nothing but a reconstitution of something he has lost and without which his life is no life at all.
Ofek writes at length of the fact that Kafka is never prepared to lose his faith or his hope. He is simply unable to hold on to the traditional awareness of the direct connection between the transient and the eternal, and yet, he is also unprepared to cut himself off from it entirely. For Kafka, "Time is a labyrinth and art is an appeal to something that exists beyond the world and beyond the incessant flow of minutes, of Zeitgeists and of present circumstances. This belief [however] is not unequivocal and is mingled with hesitancy and with confusion" (p. 112). Therefore, it is not clear at all if in the story "A Message from the Emperor," the message that the Emperor seeks to send – the nature of which we know not – will ever reach its destination: "We know that there is a message on the way, that someone is expecting it and that the narrator states that the message will not arrive; we are faced with utter despair. But the very knowledge that a message has been sent, that there is a person bearing it, and another waiting for it, leaves room for hope. The story creates a reality that contradicts its manifest content… the story expresses the pained paradox of insecurity of faith" (p. 106).
A Modicum of Comfort
An additional topic discussed in the book is Kafka's perception of time, shaped by a potent consciousness of exile that determines his relationship to his body and his personality, the descriptions of landscape, and his treatment of the reality of his life. This consciousness of exile characterizes to a large extent modern man in general, but it is particularly powerful in circles of Jewish existence. In the reality of modernity, it is much more difficult to attribute an overarching metaphysical relationship to the exile and in so doing to contain and understand it, and find in it a modicum of comfort. It casts the Jew out into the space of exile that is all profane and meaningless. "Kafka describes Jewish existence in the modern period in a manner that no person did before him. In his way, he has even found a new basis for the view of exile as an overall human condition" (p. 153). This exile is expressed uniquely in Kafka's recurring treatment of the archetypal story of human exile, the banishment from the Garden of Eden. "Feelings of shame, fear, and flight that arise explicitly and inexplicitly in the Garden of Eden Story repeat themselves in Kafka's work. On many levels, the meaning is different from, but related to, the biblical meaning. The most general and the most private meet… the boundaries between the alien and the original, and between the Jewish and the human, are blurred, because Kafka gives, at the same time, both a very Jewish and very human expression to the feeling of strangeness that visits upon the anonymous, lonely citizen in the mass society of the new age" (p. 155).
Ofek demonstrates utmost literary sensitivity, and one reads the book with bated breath. He invites Kafka-lovers to revisit his writings, and those who have not yet been exposed to them to penetrate the depths of his treasure. He places his discussions of Kafka's writings in the broadest and deepest context: philosophical, sociological, literary and historical. And yet, fundamentally, his is the book of a Jewish philosopher seeking to explain not only his favorite author, but also his existence and our existence as modern Jews. The book's discussion is based on the firm foundations of a solid and well-substantiated view, according to which Kafka – ironically through his detachment and alienation, faithfully represents modern Jewish existence. For example, Ofek insists that we not "see assimilation as the false step of a group within the Jewish people, or an ethical weakness, but rather the only way out that the Jewish people had in the modern period. The phenomenon of assimilation applies, in the modern period, to all Jews – to those who continue to adhere to their religion and tradition, and those Jews who have grown distant from religion and tradition" (p. 130). Ofek well knows that in this process, there were various stages, but he is convinced that reflection on the phenomenon to its fullest extreme will provide us with the key for understanding Jewish existence in all its manifestations. In his view, the questions of the modern Jew should be examined only from the viewpoint of "existence" – not of "identity" of crisis, and never of continuity.
This position begs an ethical and historical discussion. There is no doubt that his historical conjectures bear a great deal of truth, and that his philosophical conjectures are fruitful and helpful. And at the same time, they raise a series of questions and doubts. Is it true that the personal and communal decision to adhere to tradition and create from it – even if the creation is new, modern and rebellious – has meaning in terms of the consolidation of the modern Jew's Jewish identity? Can one speak of Kafka's human-Jewish experience as representative of modern Jewish existence in general? Does such an assumption also apply, for example, to national philosophy and literature, or to the various shades of religious literature? Have the various streams of Judaism not created possibilities – if only partial – for Jewish identity and cultural and even religious continuity? Is the very appearance of a book by Kafka, in Israel and in Hebrew – Kafka, who struggled with the language and longed for Hebrew and Yiddish – enough to add a layer to this coping? What happens to the consciousness of exile in the eyes of a Jew who chooses to move to Israel and who knows that his feeling of "being at home" is the experience of an immigrant – new or veteran – of being a foreigner? And what form does this consciousness take in the eyes of someone born into a Jewish and Israeli reality, who is once again no longer a foreigner to concepts of place and land? Should it not be that something of the ethical power granted to the Jews by the consciousness of exile for so many generations should pulsate in the veins of one who lives in his land, and attenuate his consciousness as master of the place? Whatever one's outlook in terms of faith, culture and society of every reader, and whatever response one is likely to formulate, Ofek's book is a most important contribution to modern, and even postmodern Jewish existence for every individual. Since life without the completeness of faith and tradition is not just a lack; it might turn out to be first-order challenge of ethics and faith. "The emptiness fills ups with the power of the spiritual message, a power that may not have existed in the world during the period of complete faith. Art is a new way of reading individual and collective reality. While the many possibilities may make the Jew into a confused hybrid creation, it also makes him a highly powerful creature with a strong desire to understand existence as it was passed on to him" (p. 140-141).
Dr. Yehoyada Amir is a lecturer in modern Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Head of the Israeli Rabbinical Program at the Hebrew Union College (of the Reform Movement).