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Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka

Written by Rodger KamenetzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Rodger Kamenetz

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On Sale: October 19, 2010
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37933-7
Published by : Schocken Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Part of the Jewish Encounter series

Rodger Kamenetz, acclaimed author of The Jew in the Lotus, has long been fascinated by the mystical tales of the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. And for many years he has taught a course in Prague on Franz Kafka. The more he thought about their lives and writings, the more aware he became of unexpected connections between them. Kafka was a secular artist fascinated by Jewish mysticism, and Rabbi Nachman was a religious mystic who used storytelling to reach out to secular Jews. Both men died close to age forty of tuberculosis. Both invented new forms of storytelling that explore the search for meaning in an illogical, unjust world. Both gained prominence with the posthumous publication of their writing. And both left strict instructions at the end of their lives that their unpublished books be burnt.
 
Kamenetz takes his ideas on the road, traveling to Kafka’s birthplace in Prague and participating in the pilgrimage to Uman, the burial site of Rabbi Nachman visited by thousands of Jews every Jewish new year. He discusses the hallucinatory intensity of their visions and offers a rich analysis of Nachman’s and Kafka’s major works, revealing uncanny similarities in the inner lives of these two troubled and beloved figures, whose creative and religious struggles have much to teach us about the significant role played by the imagination in the Jewish spiritual experience.

Excerpt

INTRODUCTION 
 
Parallel Lives
 
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. 

Rodger Kamenetz

About Rodger Kamenetz

Rodger Kamenetz - Burnt Books

Photo © Owen Murphy

Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus and The History of Last Night’s Dream, and of seven other books of poetry and prose. A winner of the National Jewish Book Award, he recently retired as LSU Distinguished Professor at Louisiana State University and was founding director of its Jewish Studies Program. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, the novelist Moira Crone, and works as a dream therapist.

Praise

Praise

Praise for Burnt Books

“The lives, works, and achievements of Franz Kafka of Prague and the far-less-well-known nineteenth-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would seem at first glance to have nothing in common. It is only the first of the many virtues of this engrossing and wonderful book by Rodger Kamenetz, a highly experienced and masterful writer on Jewish mysticism, that the truly eerie parallels between their lives, drives, and visions become clear.”
The Washington Times  

“Kamenetz’s dramatic and revelatory double portrait is built on a solid foundation of elegantly explicated Jewish thought and deepened by  the story of his journey to Ukraine to visit Rabbi Nachman’s grate. Here is a whole new slant on Kafka, a unique and affecting portrait of a creative holy man, and a radiant inquiry in celebration of how both sacred texts and great literature are open to ‘infinite interpretation.’ ”
—Booklist

“Two yearning souls face each other and touch in this remarkable encounter, both deeply imagined and fastidiously researched. And when, forever questing, Rodger Kamenetz adds his own journey to the mix, what he gives us is so fascinating I read it hungrily.  Kamenetz makes a case for the kinship of these brother storytellers that is more than irresistible:  it feels inevitable.”
—Rosellen Brown, author of Civil Wars

Praise for The Jew in the Lotus

"A book for anyone who feels the narrowness of a wholly secular life or who wonders about the fate of esoteric spiritual traditions in a world that seems bent on destroying or vulgarzing them. It is a narrative about an extraordinary moment in history, of course, but it is also the chronicle of Rodger Kamenetz's discovery of what he says is a more nourishing Judaism."
The New York Times Book Review

"Splendidly written from beginning to end, this is a book that might and should be read for the simple pleasure of watching an honest intellect confront its own image . . . A book that should be read and discussed by those interested in the marvelous complexity and resilience of the human soul."
—New Orleans Times-Picayune

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